Reviewed by Sigal Samuel
“Are you attracted to women more feminine than you? Then you’re butch. Are you attracted to women more masculine than you? Then you’re femme. Simple, except when it’s not.” These words, from Nairne Holtz’s essay in Persistence, get at the heart of the anthology’s mandate: to explore the two most popular lesbian identities – the “masculine” butch and the “feminine” femme – while resisting easy dichotomies and reductive stereotypes.
Like the predecessor for which it was named – Joan Nestle’s 1992 landmark anthology, The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader – this book is diverse in many ways. It includes work by some of Canada’s most celebrated queer writers (Zoe Whittall, Amber Dawn, and Ivan Coyote come to mind) alongside less well-known voices from a variety of race and class backgrounds. Consisting mostly of essays, the book also features manifestos, interviews, poetry, fiction, and open letters to long-gone lovers. The tone ranges from academic to anecdotal, from heart-bendingly vulnerable to playfully rhetorical, ensuring that the anthology will charm professors, activists, and general readers alike.
The book grapples with some extremely tricky questions: How does being disabled, or trans, or pregnant, or Jewish, impact one’s relationship to being butch? How does being lower-class, or an academic, or a former sex worker, or a woman of colour, impact one’s relationship to being femme? How are the butch and femme identities of today different from their 1960’s counterparts? Is the dichotomous view of lesbian sexuality still relevant, or should it be relegated to the annals of history? Perhaps most challengingly, does embracing a butch/femme identity reinforce the gender binary that decades of feminism have worked so hard to erase?
While some of the memoirs in this anthology shy away from tackling such difficult questions, an intellectual heavy-hitter like Elaine Miller’s “Futch” is a great example of the determination, on the part of many queer women, to complicate the butch-femme binary. In her essay, Miller explains that a futch is a queer woman “who possesses or displays qualities and social identifiers of both butch and femme.” Rather than try to stuff her complex self into a single box, the author alternates between her favourite pair of shit-kicking boots and her best push-up bra, depending on whether she wants to reap the thrill of being butch or femme that day. She acknowledges the paradox inherent in “upholding the butch-femme dynamic while deconstructing it” and in “refuting the idea that gender matters while metaphorically stitching oneself a hyper-gendered skin,” yet insists that by remixing sexualized gender archetypes, we can “queer the hell out of the ancient pull between masculine and feminine.”
Persistence deals especially well with the phenomenon of femme invisibility, whereby a femme’s conventionally feminine appearance causes her to be misread as straight by both queer and straight society. Zena Sharman’s “Looking Straight at You” and Elizabeth Marston’s “Rogue Femininity” offer an excellent reappraisal of this oft-bemoaned experience. They suggest that invisibility isn’t necessarily bad; in fact, used mindfully, it’s a powerful political tool. Since a femme can pass as straight, she has access to privileged spaces that a butch may have difficulty entering. Once a femme has gained access to the women’s washroom or the fourteenth-flour boardroom, she can strategically choose to out herself, and literally or metaphorically hold the door open for her queer compatriots. A femme’s invisibility, Sharman and Marston remind us, is precisely what makes her “a hidden weapon” in the fight against homophobia.
This anthology’s strength – like the strength of the lives it chronicles – lies in its complexity and polyphony, in the range of perspectives it represents. Required reading for anyone interested in women’s and gender studies (profs, put it on your syllabi, stat!), it will be an indispensable resource for the queer community and its allies, and for anyone who has ever been curious about the meaning of the words “butch” and “femme.”