Brooklyn Worship Series: No Femmes Allowed?
Set It Off premiered when I was in eighth grade. There was a cast of four dynamic Black women friends. More interesting than Stony, T.T. Frankie, or even the infamous, gender-bending Cleo, was a fifth woman to this starting team. Ursula. Cleo’s girlfriend. Reading on, take a moment to remember a few things about Ursula. She had a short haircut, didn’t speak the entire film, and no one invited her to the bank robberies.
Growing up, I figured that women who dressed like men were automatically dykes. Whether they were loud and lewd or kind and matronly, the message was: Watch out for them. They might try and turn you out.
The femme-presenting women they dated, on the other hand, were just “dyking.” Whether they were bossy and bad or sweet and demure, the message was: Pray for them. They must be insecure. Or their boyfriend beat them up. The fact that they were only “dyking” suggested that somehow they could stop whenever they wanted.
As the 12-year-old girl who stared at the girls on the cheerleading team as opposed to, um, cheering, I couldn’t decode the difference.
Ten years later, I only wore dresses for special occasions because I wanted to be clear, I wasn’t just “dyking.” I was gay. When I came out to my cousin, her only response was, “You’re the boy one, ain’t you?”
Um… no… not really.
But would life be a little easier if I was?
Now remember Ursula, Cleo’s girlfriend. She had short hair. She had no voice. And despite being a woman in the neighborhood, she was not one of the girls. Remember that car scene? Cleo got ‘her baby some nice things.’ Why couldn’t Ursula get some for herself? Instead she got dolled up with nothing else to do but sit and watch her… woman… murdered on the news.
To be gay, it’s assumed that you have to lose a bit of the woman you were raised with. That somehow the Barbies must be discarded and the long hair must be cut. Femininity is erased. You must lose a bit of that girl because you “chose” to be a lesbian.
And if you don’t, your sexuality is routinely questioned and trivialized. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been approached by dudes and been told that I haven’t had the right man yet or that I was “too pretty” to be gay.
Collectives and other efforts like Bklyn Boihood, Brown Boi Project and Stud Magazine are clear in their mission of empowering masculine of center women of color. The idea of masculinity and femininity, however, are based on established cultural norms. Bklyn Boihood’s mission states their commitment to providing “visibility and empowerment to masculine-presenting queer and trans people of color.”
And that empowerment is certainly needed. If we look at the media produced in the past ten years, the mainstream artists, radio hosts, and magazine covers do not present any masculine of center women. But there are no femme of center women represented either. (The innumerable references to “lesbians” in hip-hop culture where the hyper-sexualized femme also has a man do not count.)
So why advocate for masculine of center women when femmes of color are just as invisible, their sexuality simultaneously observed and discounted? And why also imitate the same notion of exclusion and patriarchy we’ve been handed? (Am I the only one who has a problem with Stud Magazine’s “Femme of the Month?”)
I recognize the need for changing and challenging the conversation around what it means to be a woman and a woman who does not wear dresses. But at the end of the day, are we all that different? Don’t we have some things in common? And isn’t that commonality more important than our panties or boxers? What are we as a united front going to do to stop the daily attacks against our wellness?
- Jade Foster
Jade Foster is a Brooklyn-based writer. She reads some of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower everyday. Seriously. Follow Jade on Twitter @CereusArts.