Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme

Title: PERSISTENCE: All Ways Butch And Femme
Edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press, Canada, 2011
ISBN: 9781551523972
Rating: 4-Stars

This thick collection of essays and manifestoes, with some poems, short fiction and brief autobiographies mixed in, is a current report on the diversity of queer gender identities in the twenty-first century. Its title is similar to that of an earlier book, The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, originally published in 1992. Joan Nestle, a legendary femme writer who remembers the early Gay Rights movement, edited the first anthology. As she says in the foreword to the current book:

When Ivan and Zena told me of their soon-to-be-published collection, which you now hold in your hands, I did not react well.

As she explains, the title seemed too close to that of her own book. However, Nestle eventually calmed down. She came to believe that the current book, like the earlier one, represents a certain zeitgeist:

The voices of another generation, of other cultural positions, new possibilities of gender discourse, and erotic adventuring are presented here, and these extend in complex ways the passionate and embattled conversation of the now out-of-print Persistent Desire.

The cover image of the current paperback says it all: a drawing of an androgynous-looking brown person of unclear ethnicity seems to be looking into a mirror as s/he applies lipstick (fuschia, slightly darker than the pink background) to her/his full lips. This person is either contemplating her (?) own image or that of the viewer. The artist, Elisha Lim, has said with lines and colour what the other contributors say in many words.


All the pieces in this book are worth reading, but some more so than others. Besides Joan Nestle, lesbians of the ‘Old Guard’ (who were “out” in the era of the Stonewall Riots of 1969) are represented by Jewelle Gomez, Victoria Brownworth and Jeanne Cordova. These voices from a time when butch and femme identities seemed mandatory in most gay/lesbian bars all lament the attempt of the lesbian-feminism of the 1970s/80s to simply erase “sex roles” as relics of patriarchal thinking. They also comment on the “mainstreaming” of the LGBT community in our time, and the effect this has had on gender identity.

In A Butch Roadmap, editor Ivan E. Coyote writes movingly of her/his sense of being exiled by the Pride Committee of Winnipeg, when they tried to make Pride Week “family friendly” by banning “extremists,” including drag queens and butch women.
Among the younger contributors, there are quite a few Canadians. This is probably not surprising for a publication from a Canadian press, but it seems unusual for the topic. Zoe Whittall (award-winning novelist who writes about 20-somethings in Toronto) brilliantly contrasts an older (more closeted) butch writer with a younger (more comfortable with Facebook) femme writer on a book tour in a short story, A Patch of Bright Flowers. The argument between the two writers serves as foreplay, and they agree not to write about what will happen between them after the hotel-room door closes in the last paragraph.

Another award-winning Toronto writer, Nairne Holtz, writes sensibly about being the femme in a long-term relationship with a lover who is sometimes mistaken for a man. In her essay, Slide Rules, she says: “What makes one person butch and another femme in a couple is hard to pin down yet easy to recognize.”
A third award-winning Canadian novelist, Amber Dawn, writes movingly about being both femme and a sex worker in To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005: An Open Letter about Selling Sex, Selling Out, and Soldiering on.

Jeanne Cordova includes a graph named A Post-Trans Butch Continuum after referring to Karl Marx’s comment that technology defines the direction of social change. In her youth, even the most masculine of female-born people could not have defined themselves as transmen because transitioning from female to male via hormones and surgery just wasn’t possible then.

Some of the contributors seem so gender-fluid (including Elaine Miller, who coins the term “futch” for someone who is femme and butch by turns or simultaneously) that the exact meaning of “femme” or “butch” in their conceptual worlds seems unclear, as is their difference from 1970s lesbian-feminists who advocated androgyny for all. Perhaps the difference between old-style androgyny and new-style genderqueerness has to do with acceptance of those whose conception of a “lesbian lifestyle” is different from one’s own.

The FEMME SHARK MANIFESTO! (in capital letters) by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a rousing call-to-arms and a definition of fierce, queer femininity: “FEMME SHARKS WILL RECLAIM THE POWER AND DIGNITY OF FEMALENESS BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. WE’RE GIRLS BLOWN UP, TURNED INSIDE OUT, AND REMIXED.” This piece is notably anti-racist as well as anti-misogynist.

Space does not allow me to do justice to this book. It needs to be read aloud, discussed and debated. It will not be the last word on gender identity in lesbian space, but it seems unlikely to be become outdated any time soon. It covers a very large territory, both geographically and philosophically.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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  • [...] Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman was reviewed at Kissed By Venus. [...]

    22, December 2011

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