Femme mentoring

I hate the (misogynistic) stereotype that femmes are vicious and catty to each other, that we can’t be friends because we are too busy scamming on each other’s butches.

I’ve met tacky femmes who do tacky shit like hit on your date, I’ve met tacky butches who hit on their buddy’s date, I’ve met tacky femmes who hit on butches while out with a butch, and I’ve certainly encountered enough tacky butches who think it’s smart to hit on me while they are out with a grrl. Tackiness knowns no gender presentation or id.

I was pondering femme networks as I reread an essay in Bergman’s “Butch is a Noun” where ze described the process of “Passing it On” and butch mentoring. And my initial reaction was one of envy and sadness at what I first though was an utter lack of parallel relationships in the femme community. But then, upon further examination I realized that it doesn’t look the same as Butch schoolin’ but I have experienced Femme mentoring on both ends.

When I first came fully into Femme (ooh that sounds fun doesn’t it?) I was part of a community in NYC that was very strongly butch-femme. And while I give a lot of credit for my ah-ha! moment to my first butch lover, once I realized it was something that was mine and not just something that depended on this incredibly hot butch I started the process of truly owning this identity that encompassed so much that I had always been and done and never had language for before.

Some older femmes in the community gave me pointers, usually in the shape of small comments about how to keep our butches in line. That sounds squicky but the context in which they were delivered and the way in which these graceful femmes imparted their wisdom made it clear that it was a dance, that they were showing me their steps so that I could incorporate them into my own instinctual sway.

And then there was a femme who I saw as competition (yes the same one who wore the hot shirts). And in a way she was. We were both interested in the same butch who flirted with us both and probably bedded us both. But I quickly realized that I wasn’t threatened by her because she was gorgeous, which she was, but so was I; I was threatened because she had something I didn’t and I wanted it. She had this air about her, this energy that demanded to be worshiped, she was a high femme and she condescended to teach this fledgling femme, 10 years her junior a few of her own tricks. We had a tenuous friendship, causal, cautious, not entirely devoid of competition, and not yet at that place where competition is part of the game fierce femmes play with each other where we compete with the knowledge that we are equally fabulous and that the butch being admired is lucky to have our attention. I wasn’t there yet. She taught me how to honor my natural instincts to elicit adoration and worshipful attention. She taught me how to work my charms and how to be unafraid of using my sexuality as a playground. She taught me most by example, by letting me sit in her presence, arrogant shit that I was, yet respectful of my elder and fellow goddess.

A lot of what goes on with butch mentoring as I know it, some of which I learned first hand having gone from a shortlived butch (adjective) phase, but most of which I get second hand from friends, a lot of it has to do with presentation, with fitting into gender identity, and of course some of it is about grrls. Things I’ve known to be workshop topics are the delicate issue of chest gear, whether it be binding or finding the prefect sportsbra; there’s packing: how to find the perfect equipment, how to strap, how to go out packing, how to use said equipment in the bedroom (like the euphemistic approach?), underwear is also a topic of discussion I know of. There’s the issues of dealing with the pressure of being butch in a society where that marks you as other and as potential threat. There’s the difficult territory of gender identity. And there are brotherhood codes that are taught, often subtly. Some of the old fashioned old school points of etiquette are also shared.

As femmes, we don’t need as much schooling in these areas. Having been socialized to be feminine, we’ve already learned how to do our hair and makeup, learned about mani pedis and other grrly rituals. Some of us went through one of the schools of feminism that teach us that femininity of this sort caters to the patriarchy and that to empower ourselves we must eschew lipstick. So, some of us have to go through recovery for that. But that process of owning and queering femme presentation is, in my experience and observation, a largely individual one. We share hair and makeup tips after getting to the point where we own it. So, a lot of femme mentoring has to do with the Care and Handling of Magical Creatures — ie butches. A lot of it has to do with sisterhood and power. A lot of it has to do with building allies in invisibility. A lot of it has to do with the cohesion of an identity that is so superficially similar to conventional heteronormative femininity and yet so radically different.

I got a crisis call from a friend over a year ago (has it been that long, really?) who having been heterosexual had discovered her queerness and been involved with a woman. She called me for femme advice. She needed mentoring and identified me as the femme for the job. Of course I was honored and was happy to go take her out and teach her how to flirt, teach her some of the steps in the dance that would allow her to take it on and freestyle on her own. And a lot of what I shared with her was by example, the intangibles of being femme that words don’t adequately capture, until you’ve sat and seen a regal high femme work a room.

There’s also the schooling of baby butches by femmes. While it’s a different dynamic entirely, I think it’s also a fun way to initiate baby butches into the dance. A few months ago I was out at a bar with my date. I had been their earlier before he got there hanging out with a friend from out of town who thought it was awesome that I saw “my butches” in shifts with my date arriving shortly after she left. This cute lil butch had been paying attention and happened to be sitting at the table with some guys I was talking shit with. So she ended up participating in my interactions with my date. Suddenly my well seasoned butch date and I were schooling this butch, taking her under our wing for a bit and encouraging her, giving her advice and affirmation. We both gave insight on how to approach the grrl she’d been crushing on, the grrl that made her palms sweaty and her heart race… the butch perspective and the femme advice blending together in the dance we know and love.

Then another young butch wanted to express interest in me. My date, being a great dancer, graciously established that I was with him but that she could approach me regardless, that I was a friendly sort. I so thoroughly admired his suave, confident and respectful move. That was definitely a swoon moment. Young butch #2 also came under our combined tutelage. Fashion, kicking game, confidence, we covered it all. And it was fun to observe the different approaches we had to teaching the dance.

Going back to my initial reaction of envy over butch networks, I think more concretely what I am struggling with is how to create those networks in the absence of strong butch-femme queer community. I have not found my space as a queer femme here, and that can be lonely. And I know it’s lonely for butches as well. I’m trying to find that, I’m trying to foster it and create it, but in the meantime nostalgia sometimes leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.



  1. kimmy Said:

    lmao! “Tackiness knowns no gender presentation or id.” Love it and so true.

  2. thealeticia Said:

    LOL thanks!

  3. ulla Said:

    excellent post

  4. thealeticia Said:

    Thank you 🙂

  5. whatilike Said:

    This is just what I needed to read today! I’d heard some not so nice comments about feminine people and how they are “messy” and such crap. I love this post. I’ve seen hints of “butch guidance”, but I’m glad you pointed out the ways in which femmes guide each other too.

    thanks again

  6. maggie Said:

    I identify with that feeling of sadness – my butch gf, I feel, often gets to have these moments of connection with older butches because they recognize each other so easily. Once again it comes down to who much we are seen or not seen. Thanks for the uplifting stories.

  7. BarbaraRyan Said:

    Thanks for the excellent article!

    I understand the loneliness – where I live there is no Butch/Femme community. It’s mostly androgynous here. Which does nothing for me. The last time I went out a bar with a local Lez group, I was made fun of for wearing a denim skirt, heels, make-up, and nice shirt. The only one who didn’t was my butch friend. She loved it.

    My other friend is, who is also a Femme, was mentoring me a bit, but now were about an hour apart. So, I only get to see her once in a while.

    I get sad and frustrated. And some days, I swear I am the only Femme in South Jersey. 😦

  8. highfemme Said:

    Terrific post, thank you. It’s only been a few years since I started identifying as femme — and even less time since I began identifying as high femme — and I long for mentoring and a greater sense of community. It’s my hope that these online meeting spots can provide some of the support and sharing we’re hoping for, even if we live far apart.

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