On Being an Indoor Femme

When we got the stay home order, my acrylic nails hadn’t been filled for over two weeks. The layer of shellac had already inched up far enough to reveal the half moons rising above my cuticles. And by then it was too late. There would be no nail fills for the foreseeable future. 

I looked down at my teal, coffin-shaped, acrylic tips in dismay. Our days together were numbered. 

They started to become unmanageably long. I lost the first one by jamming it in the door. (The right index is always the first to go.) As the fakes grew halfway up my nail bed I had no choice: I cut them off to avoid further injury. My partner slipped a string of dental floss underneath each sawed-off acrylic layer and slid it back and forth until the false top popped off like a dandelion head. 

I held up my hands and examined my newly stumpy fingers. Declawed, like an indoor cat. 

We declaw because a cat’s desire to scratch is trumped by the human desire for an orderly interior, a room so pristine that it betrays no sign of its inhabitants: no marks on the leather chair, no pilling on the tweed sofa. The declawed cat becomes another ornament for the perfect still life, a soft, purring pillow in the fantasy of a human who has its shit together. Plus, as long as you keep the cat inside it doesn’t need its claws, right? Who’s it going to fight, anyway? 

A declawed cat: just another docile body. 

As I spend my twentieth week indoors, I wonder if a domesticated femme will turn docile.

Some of us do seem to be getting softer — and by that I guess I mean more feminine. Genderqueer author Ivan E. Coyote tweeted about growing out their bangs. My non-femme editor at the gay paper tweeted about doing face masks and wearing her hair up, even to meetings. Have we just coded the private sphere as “feminine” for so long that it’s the only place our femininity can unfold?

Scholars have worried for years about what would happen to queers when we were made to cede public space. Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant wrote about this in the late 1990s, from the context of NYC Mayor Rudolph Giulani’s rezoning laws. The bylaws that displaced so-called “adult businesses” worked to reify “the family” as a heteronormative fantasy, they said, by ushering queer sex out of public view. The famed Christopher Street would no longer be a cruising zone, or a commons on which the queer and curious could gather and connect. No, queer sex would be once again pushed into dangerous shadows — or into the virtual public of phone and internet sex. 

More than twenty years later, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems our entire lives take place in cyberspace (see above, my compulsive hanging out on Twitter). But the internet has already been my queer roadmap for years. 

I learned about femme on Tumblr (R.I.P.). When I first moved to Toronto I would gasp and grab my partner’s arm as we walked down the street, certain that was Clementine Morrigan skating by — you know, Clementine from Tumblr. I couldn’t believe it. We were living in the simulation. 

Within my first few years in this city, all the remaining dyke bars closed down — often before I could ever wriggle my way inside to stand nervously apart from the crush of hot queers so I could feel like I was part of something. 

For my generation, it seems that queer space is not so much an actual place as it is a layer of ephemera that descends on the city in monthly instalments, rotating between west- and east-end venues. And we still need the internet to trace it. But more often than not, my sense of queer community comes directly from the internet, itself a gathering place of sorts. First it was Tumblr, then Instagram, and now apparently you can catch me fav-ing the queers’ hair updates on Twitter. But this isn’t exactly the type of queer life that reading all five of Michelle Tea’s memoirs prepared me for. I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the kind of femme community that seemed to crystallize in the Gay (Nineteen-)Nineties, one that I can only read about. (Amber Dawn really got my number when she wrote “We wrote the books that queerlings now read in college.”)

Femme was different, it seems, in the 1990s: more public, less soft. The hard femme reigned. One of my femme mentors has told me that then femmes would never wear pumps to the function: it was boots or bust. She also told me they used to all hang out all the time. If by “hang out” you mean “send memes back and forth until someone falls asleep” then, you know, same.

Our femme has gotten softer since the 1990s. We can wear pumps, although these days I’m mostly just wearing bunny slippers, and I wrote my damn dissertation on the soft femme takeover of Instagram. Online, we wear pastels without irony (sorry, Duggan & McHugh [1996]), we cry, we post about our feelings, our therapists. We affirm the shit out of each other because we know we need it. We were already raising plants, now quarantine’s even got us baking bread. Is it because we’ve been pushed inside, and online, like Warner and Berlant feared? Is femme, like the rest of the world, becoming privatized?

The internet was only invented halfway through the 1990s, and before that queerness was fundamentally about a relationship to the public. The Stonewall riot and the gay liberation movement emphasized the need for gays and lesbians to “come out of the closet,” meaning: Publicly declare your sexual orientation! This movement understood taking up public space and creating queer spectacles as a political imperative. It gave us Pride — which is, woefully, becoming privatized, too.  

Historian John D’Emilio says that gay identity and community only exists because capitalism, and waged labour specifically, created the conditions in which it could thrive. The shift to individualized waged labour meant a couple of things: 1) the family was no longer a unit of production, but a rather an affective unit, or the place where we experience intimacy, pleasure, happiness/general warm and fuzzy stuff; 2) your private life, in the family and the home, became differentiated from your public life, at work; and 3) people moved to urban centres and queers developed ways to find each other (read: boned down everywhere like the YMCA, women-only barracks, and bathhouses). Of course, there was always queer sex (or “unnatural attractions” and “lewdness,” if you’re *not* nasty), but these shifts meant that you could organize a private life around intimacy and eroticism, and thus have a gay identity at all. Without a relationship to the public, are we still queer? I mean, if a femme breaks a nail and no one hears her (me) scream, is she still a femme? 

Before Stonewall, camp was the dominant queer mode of being. We understand camp as a wacky, ironic, and referential sensibility, but before Stonewall it was also the coded language of queerness that let those in *the know* know that yes, you were. After Stonewall, queer scholars say, the irony of camp that traded on double entendres was equated with secrecy and shame. That style of queerness was discarded and the preference for the out and proud gay was born. So it makes sense that the queers that cut their teeth after Stonewall worry about losing public space, worry about the queerlings going soft, protected by their hashtags. Amber Dawn writes:

“Quiet, you whippersnappers. You were born in the eighties
and I must school you. Our foremamas and papas
Didn’t have the luxury of safe assembly, much less
Facebook. Think Stonewall had a hashtag?”

They’re worried about the political efficacy of staying indoors, in shadows, and, yes, In-stagram.

In some ways, it’s been previous generations of queers that gave us the luxurious gift of softness. It’s something like how avoidant attachment styles are said to develop in hostile environments, and secure ones in peaceful environments. Thank you for creating this peaceful(er/ish) environment.

We can’t have the same queer experiences or political strategies as our foremamas and papas because the conditions aren’t the same. The bars are closed, so we’re online. There’s a global pandemic, so we’re inside. Our relationship to public space is changing. Maybe we are losing our identities. We’re definitely losing our claws. 

But a public, confrontational type of queer politics isn’t necessarily the only way to go. D’Emilio wrote, “Although lesbians and gay men won significant victories in the 1970s and opened up some safe social space in which to exist, we can hardly claim to have dealt a fatal blow to heterosexism and homophobia.” D’Emilio is critical of what he calls an “overreliance” on coming out that developed through mythologizing a queer history full of silence, invisibility and isolation. This isn’t true! he says, and proceeds to tell us about all the queer activity enabled by waged labour from the nineteenth century right up to Stonewall. So, queerness can exist without its public face — it may just go by a different name. It may change entirely.

What the human learns too late is that declawing is much more than just a trim. It involves chopping off the tips of toe bones. A declawed cat is a fundamentally different animal. And, it turns out, not so docile; unable to scratch, a declawed cat is prone to bite. 

Published by Andi Schwartz

Let's give 'em something to blog about.

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