Ask Your BFFs: Monogamy, Femme Invisibility, and Butch Protective Energy

Wow, people. We asked for questions for the first ever Ask Your BFFs (Butch-Femme Friends), and man, did you ever deliver. Thanks for having so many problems! (I keed.) Without further ado, here are this week’s Qs and As:

I have a rhetorical (cough cough right) question for you.

How is it that all the couples I know are monogamous, but all the people I date are poly (as a lifestyle). How’d all the monogamous people find each other?

Bren: Ah, the whole poly queers vs. monogamists (or, as Maddie calls them, “mate-for-life lobsters”) issue. I’m monogamous myself, but I believe that anyone can find love on the great equalizer known as THE INTERNET. While some people still think online dating is weird and creepy (I call these people “old”), every lez I know has met at least one, if not all, their past and present GFs on a dating site. The awesome thing about online dating (besides the fact that you can do it on the couch, in your PJs, with your cat) is that you can be super-duper clear about what you want in a partner (i.e. sense of humor, loyalty, love of old movies) and don’t want in a partner (i.e. other people besides you). So if you’re into monogamy, you can be like, “Yo, no disrespect to my poly peeps, but there are only two seats on this ride.” And if you’re into polyamory, you can be like, “Yo, no disrespect to my mate-for-life lobsters, but I like to spread the love.” If your potential matches are literate, they’ll know what you’re looking for and if it matches up with their style before they even send that first awkward “hey u look kool wanna chat” message.

The most important thing is to be VERY CLEAR about how you roll right from the get go, so as to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings or adding another bar/café/thrift store to your list of “avoid-because-ex-goes-there” places (don’t pretend you don’t have one). There’s nothing worse than being really into someone and then hearing on the third date, “Is it ok if I bring my other girlfriend along to Dyke Night next Friday?”

Maddie: I think Bren’s advice is sound, but I also want to point out: you know a lot of monogamous couples because monogamous people tend to couple up. You date a lot of poly people because poly people… tend to date. If you’re on the younger side, this phenomenon will be further compounded by two truths: you belong to a generation that’s becoming used to polyamorous as an ID so more people are coming out about it, and you belong to a cohort of fun-lovin’ youth who might not be poly for life but aren’t into commitment at the moment.

Granted: it’s tough to keep running into people who don’t meet basic compatibility requirements. And the exclusivity/non-exclusivity thing can be especially tricky, because it’s so easy to rationalize yourself into a compromise that screws you in the long-term. But you just gotta train yourself to toss back the ones that aren’t what you’re looking for. There are more people out there than you think; don’t waste your time on some Hottie McOMG who doesn’t want what you want. How’d all the monogamous people find each other, you ask? By keepin’ it moving when they ran into the poly people.

How do butches tell femmes are queer? Are we really that invisible? I mean, I have dyke hair now obvs, but I don’t think it makes me look any queerer…just wondering.

Maddie: I am so with you on the dykey haircut. That is a definite asset, and I’m glad you’re on it. But you’re right, it neither begins nor ends there (especially when all them hipster straight girls are running around jacking our hairstyle swag. AHEM). Here are some key weapons in a femme’s arsenal:

1. THE INTERNET. Nope, Bren and I do not get any kickbacks from internet dating sites. It’s just a legitimately helpful tool. More specifically to your concern, the internet is this magical place where it is 100% acceptable to declare, before anything else, HI I AM A LESBIAN! That doesn’t happen in a lot of other places, so take advantage!

2. DYKE BARS. I am just so fucking in love with any space where you are gay until proven straight. It’s such a relief. Just go, meet your community, hang out, be presumed – BEFORE A WORD IS SPOKEN – to be a muff-diver, feel awesome. And by patronizing queer-female-oriented spaces, you are helping your own community survive. There is just nothing wrong with that equation.

BUT, in the event, of course, that you’re underage or live in a town without a dyke bar ( 😦 x10000000 ) or would really like to just BE SEEN by fellow queers, out in the world, not just on Friday nights in a tiny closed room, we’re gonna have to move on to the big guns:

3. YOUR EYEBALLS. USE THEM. The femme glare: worth a bazillion haircuts. Don’t be shy. Seriously. Stare away. DO IT. Dykes have a much higher tolerance for gaze-withstanding than the average person. We’re used to it. It’s seriously how we find our own, how we affirm our existence. And, I mean, even if you stumble across one of the 0.005% of easily-visually-identified lesbians so unused to the EYE-DAGGERS-OF-LOVE approach that she hasn’t learned to flash a devious, flattered, conspiratorial grin in response, and instead gets shy and awkward… so what? What’s the worst case scenario? I will describe to you the worst-case scenario: she blushes, maybe looks down and scuffs her feet, and then she does that backwards hair-ruffle thing and you melt and squee and are suffused with tingles and BAM, there, you just got your money’s worth right there. Win-win-win-win. Actually, the worst-case scenario is she’s totally oblivious and somehow doesn’t even notice that she’s walking right through trillion-watt laser beams, and then you pout a little and feel invisible/sad, and THEN you look around to see if anyone noticed the eyes you were giving that girl, and if someone did, go on, train the laser beams on her instead; she’s probably a ‘mo, too.

Oh, but, important note: don’t forget to smile along with the fervent gazing. It IS possible to stare creepily. I’ve heard.

There is one last all-important thing in your arsenal, but it takes some time and effort.

4. THIS FEMME JE NE SAIS QUOI THAT YOU ACTUALLY MAYBE ARE STILL CULTIVATING. Once upon a time, like not even a year ago, I was complaining to my wise femme mentor-type about never being spotted – specifically, about the time I was at the dyke bar and NOBODY TALKED TO ME except for both (BOTH!) awkward, old-as-my-dad men who were inexplicably floating around in there. She said, very wisely, that I would figure out how to radiate queerness, and visibly. Unmistakably. One day. She said I would figure it out and it would be fabulous. And guess what! I really think I’ve proven her right. It’s maybe not automatic or genetically encoded, and I don’t think it’s something that can necessarily be taught, but it’s real and it happens with time and you will totally get there. I can feel your dubiousness pulsating through the screen – trust me, though! Give it time, time ideally spent hanging out with your people and fully developing your queer identity, and the telepathy will follow.

Bren: I’m going to second what Maddie suggested and say EYE CONTACT. If you see one of us out and about, look at us in that way that only femmes can look. You will instinctually know how to do this, as it is in your femme DNA. (Ivan E. Coyote put it so eloquently: “Please don’t stop looking at me the way you do.”) If we smile at you, smile back. Or smile first. Actually, yes, smile first – we like boldness. We also like to be flirted with, even if we pretend to be embarrassed or aloof. And, really, is there a better way to spend your morning commute than making some butch on the subway blush? I didn’t think so.

Keep in mind, however, that the burden of butch-femme connection does not fall solely on your ladylike shoulders. No, it’s also up to us butches to learn how to spot a femme. You might feel invisible (and if you do, I’m very sorry to hear that), but know this: you are not invisible. Queerness cannot be disguised by even the most straight-looking of outfits/hair/makeup/whatever. There’s a very unique spark behind the eyes of every femme – made up of equal parts rebellion, courage, and mischief – that is born from years of being a gender ninja, deftly slipping behind hetero lines and working to make the world a safer place for big clumping Obvious Queers like me. We butches see that spark and we see you, and damn, you look good.

From Christine Smith, creator of the awesome webcomics The Princess and Eve’s Apple:

My question is about femmes ‘leaning on’ butches for their protective energy.

My situation is as a 6’2″ trans woman and a femme. I currently have no local butch friends in my life, whether male or female, cis or trans, gay or straight. I’m married to another femme whom I love, but is bad at confrontation, and am a caregiver for a developmentally disabled man. There’s a lot of demand on me to be protective, but nobody to supply that energy to me. Consequently, I have a permanent hard shell around me. I find this stifles my self-expression. I trend to dress androgynously in order to stay under the radar of those who threaten me when I am more noticeable, and live my life outside my home very defensively, which leaves my back taut and achey most of the time.

I remember when a friend… Cis, straight, masculine,.and male… Lived out here, I felt I had a little more freedom hanging out with him, because I knew if someone messed with me, he wouldn’t let it pass but would confront them right back. He had that masculine protectiveness. I miss that.

I worry, though, that in missing that and hoping to find similar friends, I am somehow being anti-feminist, being too reliant on a masculine-type-person. At the same time, the reality of my life is that I DON’T have that and need to be able to express myself as a femme, don’t know how to get an ounce more energy to protect myself, when I’m giving so much energy to protecting the people in my life. Is it wrong to want some of that back? Am I a bad femme? Is it at least understandable to tone things down? And having no protective energy from a friend to lend me strength and being tense and exhausted most of the time, but navigating public spaces, where do I find the energy to be true to my femme needs of self-expression?

Bren: The first thing that needs to be said here is: There is no such thing as a ‘bad femme.’ You can only be you, and you are femme, and it’s impossible to be bad at being yourself (who else could be a better you? No one).

If you’re looking for butch friends/connections in your area, and can afford a trip to Oakland (I am poor and cannot), I would suggest attending the Butch Voices conference. I hear it’s amazing and a smörgåsbord of masculine-of-center people from all over the place, so chances are good you’ll meet people from your area.

I don’t think your problem is really a lack of butch friends, however, but a lack of what you call butch “protective energy,” which in reality is not a butch thing at all. Let me tell you a secret, one that may get my Bulldagger Card revoked – we butches are not always steadfast pillars of strength. In fact, we often feel weak, helpless, and burdened, too. You see, many butches (like me) get much of – if not all of – their strength FROM FEMMES. You’re the truly strong ones. You’re the ones who march beside us into restrooms when we’re too nervous to go in alone. You’re the ones who stand up to the asshole salespeople who give us a hard time when we try to buy a mens’ suit. You’re the ones who squeeze our hands when drunken frat boys on the street hurl insults at us. You’re the ones who let us cry in your arms when the weight of the world is too much and you’re the ones who promise not to tell a soul about it. What I’m trying to say is, you already possess all the strength and protective energy you think you need to get from a butch. Femmes are like the windmills of this kind of natural energy; you create it at every turn, whether you know it or not.

You are what you think you need and what you think you’re missing. You go out everyday into a world that tells you that you’re wrong, that your identity and your love and your existence are invalid, and you kick ass. You create. You inspire. You LIVE. If that isn’t strength, then I sure as hell don’t know what is.

The people who threaten you and try to stifle you, they’re just afraid of this strength, a strength that they don’t possess. They’re cowards. Don’t waste your time on cowards. Don’t listen to the words of cowards. Don’t alter your life for cowards. In the end, it’s warriors like you that the world will remember. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Maddie: So, you ask a few direct questions that I can answer right away: no, it is not wrong to want some of that protective energy back; no, you are most definitely not a bad femme; yes, wanting to tone things down is entirely understandable. The question after that, though – where to find the energy to be everyone’s source of strength and still maintain your identity – that one’s tough.

I agree with Bren that even the most femme-identified among us has the same capacity for strength and protectiveness, but that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable to stay in that persona day in and day out, and it really doesn’t mean that we can just take care of ourselves with no help from others.

For queer folks, the world at large is not always a safe space. It just isn’t. We don’t only create close-knit communities to find partners or to congregate with like-minded individuals, but also to heal the damage that the rest of the world does to us, to pool our strength, to finally, finally feel vulnerable without feeling endangered. The issue is not that you lack the capacity to be strong and protective – sounds like you disprove that, on the daily – the issue is that you need spaces and relationships to replenish your reserves.

Is therapy an option in your life? If there is an LGBT health services center in your area, they may offer sliding-scale group therapy – an opportunity to get mutual support and healing from people who could both have an understanding of your experience as well as a variety of different backgrounds and strengths of their own to complement yours.

Additionally, is there any way you can address this within your marriage? You say your wife is “bad at confrontation,” but can you come up with some specific, maybe smaller ways she can give you more backup out in the world, or help you dress your daily wounds back at home? Even if she does not have a lot of the butch-brand protection to give, she might be able to ease some of your burden if you communicate your need to be taken care of or stood up for some of the time.

And if those options are not available or not enough – there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that you are missing a certain kind of energy in your life, and going out looking specifically for local friendships that can provide it. We populate our lives with other people to gain, among other things, balance. It doesn’t mean you are failing or disparaging femmes, it just means that you crave a diverse community.


20 thoughts on “Ask Your BFFs: Monogamy, Femme Invisibility, and Butch Protective Energy

  1. And to the femme who feels invisible, sometimes “passing” provides privilege, and sometimes it is JUST THE WORST. And the friggin hipsters taking our haircuts/style…grumble grumble grumble.

    I wish that there was a store (online is fine) that had two departments: butch and femme. And you can only shop there if you are a gay lady, and all the nice stylists dress you up so you look exactly the way you feel and we all just KNOW from looking that we’re on the same team, even if the outfit itself doesn’t scream QUEERMO!

    • In answer to your question: not sure how long ago that was, but good money is on “doing stupid stuff and being totally unqualified to give decent advice.” At least in my own case 😉

      And in response to your comment: awww, thanks, you.

  2. This is a great post! It resonated with me, and I look forward to these ask your bff columns in the future. The part about staring/gazing is important to me because I want the person to feel appreciated and not objectified.

  3. “I agree with Bren that even the most femme-identified among us has the same capacity for strength and protectiveness, but that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable to stay in that persona day in and day out, and it really doesn’t mean that we can just take care of ourselves with no help from others.”

    Maddie, you hit straight to the point of it with this, and it almost made me cry (good cry!) that you got it so well. Yes, it’s absolutely about recharging the batteries. It’s about finding space to set that persona aside. It doesn’t have to be butch energy (although I personally find myself very open to butch energy), but it’s about having an ally and not having to be strong and protective all the time.

    As for therapy, that’s a big part of my life, so yes, working on it.

    Both of you, thank you for your inspiring and thought-provoking responses to my questions!

    • Thank you for providing us with such a great, thought-provoking question! We’re happy to have helped. 🙂 If you find yourself pondering anything else, don’t hesitate sending it our way; we hope to make this feature as regular as possible.

    • It means a whole lot to hear that the advice hit home. Seconding Bren’s thanks for a challenging question, and wishing you the very best in finding what you need. Many, many thanks for reading and engaging.

  4. @6’2″ trans woman and a femme: we’d love to have you come out to BUTCH Voices if you can.
    @Bren: thanks for recommending the conference – I’m sorry that you won’t make it. You know we have scholarships and financial aid available if cost is the only barrier for you please check it out >>
    @ Maddie: well said

    @Bren and Maddie >> great post, and really thoughtful feedback. I really appreciate your perspectives. Much Love, Krys

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