There’s been recent conversation about in/visibility as it relates to queer femme communities, and, acknowledging that it can be a crucial, informing personal experience, I want to talk about why I don’t like to use that framework specifically for group conversations, or for my own analysis of intersections or systems. I say this with hella love for femmes of all makes and models in my communities and beyond, and with an eye towards the upcoming Femme Conference, where I’m really hoping many of our conversations can go far beyond ones about in/visibility.
In fact, about six months ago, a group of us in NYC got together to produce a queer femme day-long event called Beyond Visibility. It was magical as well as stressful — we knew there are many points of celebration and power as well as pain and heartache that come with aspects of femme-ininity for folks across gender, sexuality, race, class, and more. We really wanted to bring folks together across identity lines to talk about what we’re organizing, creating, healing from, and how we’re living out our blessed existences.
Like I said, the theme of the entire event, and so of the core discussion, was Beyond Visibility. We wanted to get at the intersections of our lives, the places where we really live and issues that affect us along side identity. We as organizers felt that conversations focused on “femme in/visibility” often ignore class, pretend that race “doesn’t count,” treat gender as a footnote, and skip over dis/ability. What’s left?
In/visibility as a framework privileges normative assumptions about seeing, which many queer lives have fought for decades for liberation from. I believe that somewhere in our common understanding that femme is partially about artifice or appearance–our many forms of beauty and visual fuckery used as nefarious signals to one another–that the ways in which status quo culture privileges certain kinds of visual representations [err ya know, looks] have translated into making seeing femme more important than it really needs to be and creates a weird bullshit “feminine standard”. We wanted to look beyond this framework at our many real, full, whole lives.
Because Femmes are a heterogeneous group [there's like a million "kinds" of femmes], any true seeing involves looking beyond normativity. And ya know what? This Looking Beyond? This radical attempt to make complications important? That’s called QUEER. Radical acts of looking also involve not guessing about what we can’t see AND not dismissing what is already visible by hyping invisibility. I’ll go into more in a bit.
Beyond Visibility was about intersections: class/labor, race and ethnicity, size, ability, gender, issues/activist concerns, talents [skill share, poetry, performance art!], and more. Our goals included facilitating connections, coalitions, and conversations and taking a community temperature on what people are concerned with and working on.
I co-led the discussion part of the day, something that was relatively new for me. I’ve facilitated many a meeting, but this was different. Over 100 people gathered in the room to hear each other, share, and connect. This was big and I felt a large duty to the folks gathered to make a really safe/r, welcoming, and open space.
When we opened up the fishbowl conversation, the first person to make a comment, a white person, brought up her feelings of invisibility, her sense of not being seen. While she spoke to what we knew is common sentiment, the fact that this comment was the opposite of what we’d gathered to discuss put heaviness in my heart for what would be possible in that short conversation time we had. Being unseen as queer was for this cisgendered person a travesty, and the point that was quickly and eloquently brought up was that being “unseen” was experienced a site of safety for some transgendered femmes. Being seen for who you are? Important. Being safe? fucking priceless. Already, visibility failed as a common denominator.
Later in the event, someone else, a person of color, brought up her sense that there were not any working-class femmes in the room, a flip side of seeing and visibility: not seeing people who were there. I understand and respect the sentiment: that this femme wanted to know — to see — that working class and poor people were in the room. But, including myself, there were absolutely these folks there. The problem? Class is an invisible marker: whatever one guesses that “the poor” look like is not only totalizing and reductionary, but inaccurate in a post-capitalist society where we have wide access to mass-produced “fancy things” via thrift stores, handmedowns, and the repurposing and creativity that poverty creates.
As a femme artist friend, Bevin Brandlandingham points out, for her, growing up working class meant finding creative ways to use limited resources, especially around clothes and visual markers, to not only look “nice” but look fancy. And another artist friend, Heather Acs, calls a version of this framework trashy/fancy — how working-class folks like herself leverage the ability to wear any fucking thing they want, because they’ve practiced visual articulation without being able to buy into it. In one kind of femme world, what looks like class-passing is actually a version of peacocking for each other and taking care of ourselves. Making visibility a crux of femme identity-building means that class remains unimportant and hidden and all the amazing things we do to look all the various ways we want to look become subsumed to a confusing, competitive, sexist, and capitalist standard of beauty.
I’ve gone over this event many times in my mind: what was I supposed to say/do as a facilitator in these moments, to make space for these peoples’ experiences while holding the larger overall space intact? I believe I failed at the latter, which is perhaps the larger charge in a room like that one. How do facilitators take off their hats and join conversations with grace? And, what about the conversations that didn’t happen at all but perhaps should have?
My limited understanding is that many of the femmes of color at the event wanted to see more femmes of color, and these too are different visibilities: race and ethnicity are often [not always] hyper visible, and to infer that an experience of racialization is part of an invisible packaging is to erase a part of someone’s identity. As a white person, I can not speak for or eloquently about this experience. What I do know is that when white femmes talk about invisibility, it can ignore the explicit visibility of race which femmes of color experience as part of their whole identity, and I’d like to challenge my white femme siblings to really think about this before they say “femmes are invisible” or “that was invisibilizing” — for which femmes? which parts of those femmes?
Lastly, dis/ability is also complicated in terms of visibility: some disabilities [fibro, allergies, scent sensitivities...] are invisible, and some [bodies you might not see everyday...] are highly visible. Even within this one designator, visibility can’t account for a critical range of folks. Seeking visibility-focused lenses can hide invisible disabilities and is not necessarily welcome for highly-visible ones.
Yet, in/visibility is a commonly- used experience that people draw personal narratives from, and I understand that it matters and it can feel huge. There are hard times that I have felt invisible in queer communities. I grew up poor–which is different from working class–and although I went to college, I stayed poor for a long time. It’s systemic, don’t you know.* I felt awkward, unequipped, “too messy.” I didn’t, and sometimes still don’t, know where or how I fit. In my mid-20s I started doing a job that gave me unprecedented access to $. Stacks of $20s I paid rent with and took my first plane ride [to the 2006 Femme Conference, no less] with. I had easy access to that job because of cis and white privileges, and took and kept that criminalized job because of class. Simple as that.
While I was doing that job regularly, I’d go to gay bars and see babes in short fun gay hair with wild tattoos and their queer visibility and their many dates and think: not if I want to work. Class, access, invisibility. So while i sit here today fancy-looking on my ill-begotten laptop, I think about how class is invisible easily, and how even though I ache to “see” class and labor, to see my poor and working class femme siblings, to see fellow sex workers, I know this is invisibilized and I can’t find them by looking for visibility.
Because I’m femme–and more complicated than ‘femme’–one-lens visibility reduces me to how I look: cis, white, small, housed. I know that “visibility” erases parts of me, and so I don’t want to use it for myself or for other femmes when trying to connect across our differences. I ache to find ways to respect the needs for safety and economic survival that certain lenses of visibility gives to those who pass within it, even while I work to pull the world that privileges these frameworks apart. And, I ache to dismantle the importance of invisibility as a conversation for those to whom it does not apply because that conversation itself is invisibilizing [so meta.] This framework is a sideshow made up of mirrors, some of which reflect and some of which don’t. It’s not a useful home for our complicated, giant, many identities.
After all of this: my 20′s, this event, every conference I’ve attended and conversation I’ve had, I think this: visibility fails us as a standard to understand one another with. It fails complexity, inclusion, and intersectionality. It fails trans* femmes, poor/working class folks, sex workers, people of color, dis/abled people. FAIL. There is no totalizing Visibility, and we need to stop seeking the panopticon: the looker in our head is policing our variant and vibrant beauties. We can do WAY better than in/visibility.
So, what do we talk about instead and how do we frame it? This week, while participating in some community queer/trans/all-bodies yoga, Bikini Kill’s White Boys came on. “I’m so sorry if I alienated some of you / your whole fucking culture alienates me”** and in my encalmed state it occurred to me that alienated from is a more precise frame to use than invisibilized or invisibility. Number one, it puts the power and agency back in the speaker for their personal experience: I feel alienated. That sucks, and that’s yours to do things with. Invisibility is something we believe someone has done TO us, and therefore we feel disempowered [and…alienated, among other things].
And for what to talk about: oh, I don’t know — environmental racism, feminist ally work, racial justice, fracking, immigration, the prison-industrial complex, neoliberalism: each of these things relates to Femme because there are femmes who it affects.
As the super wise Andrea Smith suggested at the recent This Is How We Do It conference, I want to take part in making a revolution so amazing that people can’t HELP but join; a new world that has space for each of to be seen — and to be more than seen: to be engaged, present, healing, and curious. The eloquent femme ally Jenna Peters-Golden said to me recently, “Community and knowing we aren’t alone saves our lives, keeps us going and feeds us. But isn’t there more?” As we move into thinking about what we want to discuss with one another at conferences and in person, I really urge each of us to think: what can I bring that is a part of my world; Where am I existing, and what matters there? Rather than conversations about spaces where we believe we are not invited — let’s talk about Where We Are. Our homes, hearts, bodies, and communities. I am many kinds of being affected by many worlds and you are too. Let’s start there.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Oh, The Things We’ll Talk About: Building Intersectional Femme Analysis. Subscribe here if ya like.
*If I were not poor, I’d live in Canada right now because I would have been able to afford to emigrate when I married my first wife. I’d have art grants and maybe a PhD. But no, I was poor and that bootstrapping myth is bullshit: the point of capitalism is that there is not enough for everyone.
**and the wise Lizxnn Disaster leading the class commented, “This is a great song for yoga: focus your anger, focus your energy so we can take down patriarchy.” She is amazing.