Emotional Labour of the Femme

My favourite photograph of us isn’t one that garnered tons of notes on Tumblr, or one from our first vacation to Nova Scotia. My favourite photograph of us is one I took myself. I’m seated on the toilet lid, wrapped up in a fluffy purple towel aiming the camera at my feet. She’s kneeling there in jeans and sports bra, tweezers poised above my feet, red blood running down and around my pink toenails. I had smashed a glass jar of homemade body wash in the shower and my feet were spiked with tiny shards of glass. She had just come home from work and found me bleeding and spooked by the sight of blood, but still kind of laughing at my lack of foresight.

broken glassIt’s not a particularly flattering photo or even a well composed one. That’s not why I love it. I love it so much because it is so us. It’s so me, and it’s so her, and it’s so us. It’s so butch/femme. I look at that photo and I think about the emotional labour of being femme, and the physical labour of being butch, and how both are steeped in offerings of genuine care.

It’s easy to see how I was cared for in that relationship. My ex butch girlfriend cooked all my meals, did most of our laundry, cleaned the entire house, picked shards of glass out of my feet, filled my bike tires, and bloodied someone’s nose who groped my friend in a bar. We equally shared the task of outfit consultation and over the course of our relationship we shifted the majority of the financial burden based on who was most gainfully employed at the time, but I fronted most of the deposits and my name was on all the leases. I filled the role of provider even more when my insurance could cover trips to the dentist or prescriptions. I would cover for her when her Crohn’s was flaring, validate and try to assuage her anxiety, talk her through triggering trips home or news stories, confront our friends when they tried to make a joke out of her gender, and be her sounding board for those hard questions about gender identity.

At the time we were just living. But as I reflect now I can see that the roles we occupied in that relationship disrupted gendered expectations. The tasks that often fell to my partner, the labour associated with running a home and a family, are often assumed to be feminine roles, even innate instincts in women, so it is ironic and subversive to my eye that my butch partner not only performed these tasks but enjoyed them. Butches aren’t supposed to make apple crisp! Right? She also enjoyed painting her fingernails bright colours and would explicitly challenge those who voiced confusion over her seemingly conflicting style.

While my butch partner tended to our home I was engrossed in the intellectual pursuit of graduate school, again turning expectations on their head. Femmes aren’t supposed to be smart, they’re supposed to be hot! Right? The other tasks that fell to me demanded a degree of stoic dependability that opposed the emotional or even hysterical image of feminized folks. In fact, my partner would tease me about how I never cried — I must have no feelings! After that relationship ended, the tears started flowing with surprising regularity. My emotional life was not absent, it was occupied. I realized that the way I cared for my partner was to lend her my emotional capacity and hold things for her that she could not, or perform the tasks that overwhelmed her. I didn’t always succeed; she often told me I didn’t take accountability when I should and was quick to freeze her out. That I had lost the ability to cry should have been a signal that I was taking my “job” too far, going too hard.

As I burned out from that relationship I realized I had to take care of myself. The emotional labour of the femme is not inexhaustible. How I choose to care for myself is letting someone else care for me. This brings me to another favourite photograph. Taken on Photobooth on my Macbook, the partner I’m with now and I are seated on my bed. I’m wearing a shit-eating grin and I’m nestled in between his legs. With a concentrated expression across his face, his hand is blurry as he runs the hairbrush through my hair. I remember this day. I was brushing my own hair but mocked whining about how difficult it was. He shot me a look and asked “Do you want me to brush your hair?” I nodded with the smile already starting and he said, “Sit down, princess.”

Though his queer masculinity isn’t butch, the way I want and ask to be cared for is, like me, still femme. The way I can and do reciprocate care is, like me, still femme. I know this every time he says, “Thanks for listening,” or the time he told me he’s been more confident in how he looks since we started dating. I know this every time he cooks me dinner, or fixes my shower head. I know this every time I look at my favourite photographs and see my femme style and femme self care frozen in time.

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