Femmepire Records: Jewelle Gomez on Adornment and the Point of Feminism
Femmepire Records is an interview series on femme identity. Click here for the elevator pitch and first interview.
Here's Jewelle Gomez, the dynamo femme activist, poet, playwright, and author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, The Gilda Stories. Her adaptation of the book for the stage Bones and Ash: a Gilda Story, was performed by the Urban Bush Women company in 13 U.S. cities. Find her at her website linked above and on Twitter @VampyreVamp.
In a few words, define femme.
I see femme as someone who is interested in living a life of adornment and affectation. It's not a role but an identity, as in something embedded inside that manifests externally in many different ways.
If you don't have a definition, what do you think of Google's: "A lesbian or a male homosexual who takes a traditionally feminine sexual role."
I think that Google's definition is totally ridiculous. Anyone -- male, female, queer, or non-queer -- can be a femme. And people are more complex than a role. See Cheryl Clarke's brilliant poem, "Of Althea and Flaxie" to get a picture of how individuals can exhibit what have been traditionally known as feminine qualities at the same time, but not only those qualities.
Do you identify as femme? Why?
I do identify as femme. When I met Joan Nestle in the 1980s in New York City and read her work I came to understand that it was possible to be a feminist and still appreciate social adornment. Culturally that is important to me. The point of feminism is not to be forced into feeling you have to fulfill someone else's expectations of your appearance and behavior. I have my own idea about how I present and behave and work not to be totally "worked over" by media and social demands. But as a woman of color I have an advantage because we have never fit easily into the bogus images that are created for women.
Regardless of your previous answer, do other people identify you as femme? How do you feel about that?
Others definitely do identify me as a femme.
Do you feel like you have to try harder to be read or seen as queer? If so, how do you deal with that?
In the general world, on the street, femmes are less immediately identifiable as lesbians but I like to think of femmes as the guerrilla fighters. We can launch the surprise attacks. And it is sometimes great to surprise folks who're making assumptions; I think it can be a good teaching moment. At this point in my life I don't worry about being identified in general. Since I do a lot of public speaking and have been for the past 30 years, pretty much everyone I'd care about knows I'm a lesbian.
How does your gender affect your sexuality, if at all?
How my sexuality is affected by my gender is a complex question and would take far too much time. I would also want to think about how being raised Catholic (I'm free now), being raised poor; being raised mostly by independent women, etc. all affected who I am. I think they all interact to shape sexual desire. Being a female is not a monolithic experience.
Do you feel constricted in who you date/sleep with because of your appearance?
I've been in a relationship for 20 years so haven't had to think about that for a while! But I don't think I ever felt constricted or limited. Attraction is so much sociology and chemicals you kind of go with it.
If you could make up your own category to describe your appearance/gender presentation, it would be: ____ and why?I'm fairly satisfied with being a lesbian feminist elder. It gives a clear enough sense of how I think of myself.
What prompts you to present the way you do? Is it something you consciously think about?
When I "think" about my presentational self at all, I think about my grandmother who was quite glamorous all of her life. I actually have her vanity set and am reminded of how she'd sit at that mirror when she'd dress up to go out and I think she's inside me somewhere.
Lesbian representations on TV/movies are almost always femme. Do you feel like this contributes negatively (or at all) to your life/gender presentation/identity?
I find it infuriating that media representation of lesbians is almost always femme. It shows how uncomfortable the world is dealing with lesbians. Butches have always been the lightning rods and if the culture ever allows equal representation of butches we'd know we've come closer to equality.
What are some resources/websites/books/movies you look to for inspiration about femmeness/queerness?
Joan Nestle, as I mentioned has written about femme identity. A friend, Dulce Garcia, did a film about femmes, With Conviction, in which I and two others are interviewed, that I think is good. Also the anthology Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender, edited by Sally R. Munt, which I also contributed to.