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Last August, award-winning filmmaker Pratibha Parmar delivered a keynote address at FEMME Conference 2012: Pulling the Pieces Together, in Baltimore, Maryland. We are thrilled to offer here the text of her previously unpublished talk. As part of our forum on the Academy Awards–that quintessential culture machine that more often than not reproduces sameness–it feels vital to us to offer non-dominant, non-normative perspectives on identity, politics, culture, and art. In Pratibha Parmar’s words, “Given the state of our world, I don’t think any of us have the luxury of not being activists. And I know that each one of us can make a difference if we have the will to do so.”–TFW Collective
By Pratibha Parmar
I absolutely love the title of this conference – Pulling The Pieces Together. It is timely for us to talk about the diverse ways in which many of us continue to pull together the pieces of our lives, our politics, our identities, and our dreams. We do this often against the ghastly odds that are thrust daily into our faces. It is an important time to also talk about how we pull together and grow our diverse femme movement so that we can continue to flourish in exciting, expansive ways that are inclusive and truly global.
Every day, I read and witness how many of us who fall outside the white, hetero-normative, sexist, homophobic, ableist, racist culture pull the multiple pieces of our lives together with Olympian efforts so that we can remain sane in the face of insane hatred and disregard.
Despite constant attempts to make us homeless and jobless, to deny us education, to make us sick with GM food and poisonous air and polluted water, everyday I read and witness how many of us pull our creative, activist selves together in the most imaginative and tender and compassionate of ways.
But there is much that still divides our communities.
Yet now more than ever, we need to be pulling together…
But taking on these challenges has to be a collective effort. And we can only be effective in any collective actions if we feel safe. Safety is essential for our daily survival. Safe spaces allow us to flourish, celebrate, and work together to make a difference. But recently, I have not felt entirely safe.
I can no longer assume that I will be safe within our loosely constituted queer communities. Why don’t I feel safe? I don’t feel safe because I am a femme.
Coming to my femme identity has been a long and sometimes painful journey.
I grew up in a fairly traditional immigrant Indian family where my mother nurtured my long hair lovingly from a very young age. I remember sitting between the folds of her beautifully patterned sari while she oiled my hair. It is one of my most treasured childhood memories.
It was not until I was older that I understood that having long black shiny hair was a sign of acceptable femininity within my culture– a femininity that made me a valued commodity with ‘good’ prospects for marriage, a femininity which was passive, demure, and controlled. It took until my early twenties to gather up my courage and cut my hair very short – a sacrilegious act.
And while it was an act of liberation, it also caused me immense sadness and loss. I was murdering the woman that I was supposed to be and it was a painful rupture, an agonizing rite of passage into an unknown future. This happened around the time that I came to feminism. And it was this encounter with feminism that led me to cut my hair, in a violent act of renunciation.
1980s second-wave feminism gave me a language to claim my agency as a self-defining woman. It helped me to understand capitalist/sexist/patriarchal power dynamics. It was also a feminism that devalued femininity because of its association with repressive heterosexual sex roles.
My long painted nails and red lipstick were seen to be false ‘consciousness,’ a frivolous and unnecessary accessory, something that I was doing to please men.
Yes, we, all of us, are well aware of the multi-million dollar cosmetic industry which imposes its tyranny of what constitutes a beautiful woman on young girls and women psyches.
But while this immersion in feminism helped me to deconstruct oppressive, harmful corporate femininity, I never felt quite myself. I always felt something was missing. Especially as a woman of color with a very different culture and history, I felt like an outsider.
Nor did the feminism I had embraced account for what gave me pleasure and what made me feel desirable nor who I desired. There was also no acknowledgment of my specific cultural or racial or class context except in the most patronizing of ways.
The disapproval of my outward signs of femininity was so evident that literally overnight I stopped my love affair with red lipstick and painted nails, with lacey, frilly tops. Instead, I donned the proverbial dungarees and Doc Marten boots. I tried to become androgynous in order to fit in with what was seemingly acceptable to white, middle-class feminists while my own reality as a lesbian of color was buried deep. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly successful at performing a soft butch androgyny. On me it was bland and boring. Androgyny and butch was what I desired, not what I wanted to be.
Leap forward to many significant years later.
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon of hanging out with a group of South Asian lesbian friends watching Bollywood movies and eating samosas. Someone puts red lipstick on my lips, saying how much my lips were made for it. I looked at myself in the mirror and in that moment I am ecstatically flown back into my femme self. I suddenly recognized myself. With pride and without shame. I could hear my inner femme breath a deep sigh of relief.
In coming to my queer femme identity, I felt an immense sense of coming home to myself. No, it wasn’t just the superficial red color on my lips. It was about feeling safe to play with my gender expression in ways that gave me pleasure. It was about being able to name my femme identity without excluding my queer and feminist selves. And it was also about understanding that my femininity could be transgressive and have the power to subvert oppressive patriarchal dynamics and undermine traditional gender expectations.
Femme is a wide-open umbrella embracing endless incarnations of gender expression and identity. And over the years I have seen the incredible ways in which femme is a radical expression of our queerness. But that one orgasmic moment of empowering realization was built on a journey of many years.
From the day we landed in the UK as refugees we experienced racism daily. As a child of immigrant parents I grew up knowing what racism was. My politicization began early and fast. It had to. It was crucial to my survival.
I have been part of many different movements for social justice as a feminist and as an anti-racist queer activist. It has not always been easy to cross social and political borders into unwelcoming and/or hostile terrains. Often, I felt pulled in opposing and different directions. I felt fragmented.
The turning point for me came with the arrival and presence of mentors in my life. As a femme-feminist, I learned how to love and cherish the whole of me from my encounters with significant women writers and activists – namely Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Alice Walker.
These women helped shape my feminist consciousness as a lesbian woman of color. They gave me strength and enabled me to pull together the many conflicting, confused pieces of myself. I met them through their words before I met them in person.
I have been fortunate to meet and engage in memorable conversations with each one of these feminist godmothers. Their writings, and the examples of their lives, inspired and empowered my thinking and affirmed my emotional landscape at difficult critical times in my political formation. They reached deeply and profoundly into me. And their legacies remain alive in me, as they do in so many others.
I hope that sharing with you what I learned from them will in turn extend their reach to all of you.
What they had to say in the 1970s and 1980s is as important today as it was then.
Because all of their words and lives were and are…
What they say about the importance and need for community is hugely relevant to all of us involved in femme, feminist, queer activism today.
One woman who knew about creating profound change was the visionary poet, essayist, novelist, and lesbian warrior Audre Lorde. Audre knew how to pull the different pieces of herself together in a way that was truly powerful and visionary.
It was as a result of my work at Sheba, a women of color led feminist publishing collective, that I first met Audre. She was a crucial part of a movement of women of color who changed the meaning of feminism and helped us to make it our own. Audre’s very body carried the battles of women of color inside her.
Audre continually named herself – Black, lesbian, mother, female, cancer survivor, poet. She showed us that by naming ourselves we were not fragmenting our communities but instead enlarging them.
She said: “When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining”.
Audre gave many of us the confidence to dream ourselves into self-defined identities. She inhabited her lesbianism as a natural state of being with much joy and laughter, and this in turn moved and inspired me in owning my own sexuality – despite the threat of isolation from my family, my culture, my community.
From Audre we learn that to name ourselves is to empower ourselves.
From Audre we learn that the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. That we have to find our own tools to free ourselves, and she showed us how “infinitely complex any movement for liberation must be.”
Audre pulled her multiple identities together with pride by celebrating and owning herself as a whole person, an integrated person. Audre threw light on a different kind of “community,” understanding that if we don’t have a valued relationship with ourselves, we won’t have meaningful relationships with others. Audre was not afraid to “name and accept differences.” She showed us that understanding, accepting, and embracing difference and using it to change the world was the only way forward.
In a crisis-ridden world that continues to re-create itself through the lens of pale, hetero-sexist males, we need to shift the dominant paradigm by working with each other as femmes across our differences, mindful of what each of us can do to shift the axis of privilege we may inhabit.
And this is why this conference is important.
I think Audre would have been excited by this conference. Just like I am. When I looked at the conference schedule, I was blown away to see the incredible ways in which we as a femme community are at the forefront of using our identities to explore art, poetry, radical performance, and above all how we are not afraid of having difficult dialogues that lead us towards clarity and strength: Towards building a nurturing, supportive, more inclusive movement.
Poets are shamans who have inspired my activism. Crafting seemingly simple lines of resistance, they give nuanced and critical responses to the intersections of race, class, sex/gender, sexuality, and cultures.
Sometimes all we can feel is rage. Too often many of us suppress our rage and feel helpless and overwhelmed with what we see happening around us. I think we need to bring rage back into our political discourse and into our practice.
How do we as femmes use rage as a creative force for change, to empower ourselves and others? June Jordan, a people’s poet/activist, can teach us plenty about rage and its power to propel change. She took as her starting point her personal experience of being a black, bi-sexual woman in a society that looked on women of color with indifference, if not with outright hostility.
I am honored to have been her friend for the last twelve years of her life. June was a self-avowed anarchist activist whose poems and essays were deeply personal yet always global, sharply political yet full of love and tenderness.
From June we can also learn much about self love and self respect.
“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am a woman of color, that I am a lesbian, it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect. “
Self Love and Self Respect must be the two key cornerstones for all of us who fall beautifully outside of the tyranny of the so called ‘norm.’
“A Poem About My Rights” by June Jordan is one of the most powerful poems I have ever heard. Using her personal experience of being raped, June wrote a mesmerizing anthem for self-defense.
June insisted that survivors of sexual violence must resist the temptation to internalize the blame for the violent act; instead, they must put it squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Seeing and hearing June Jordan is crucial to appreciating and understanding the power of her life-changing, life-enhancing poetry.
So I am thrilled to bring the gift of June’s voice. [Here, Pratibha Parmar screened her four-minute video of June Jordan performing “A Poem About My Rights.”)
The footage of June performing the poem was shot when I made a documentary film with her and Angela Davis called “A Place of Rage” back in the early 1990s. I think there is much here for us to learn from June Jordan’s rage that rings through her pain and sears our minds and emotions. Her insistence on the equal status of all oppressions forces us to make the necessary links between our own specific subjective experiences to questions of power, freedom, justice, and responsibility.
It also makes me think about safety, our physical and emotional safety as femmes. If we are to be effective activists and change agents, we need to feel safe especially inside our loosely formed queer communities.
Lately, I have been deeply disturbed.
I am disturbed by my own as well as other femme’s increasingly negative experiences in queer spaces. I am disturbed at the privileging of masculinities and the marginalizing of femmes.
I am disturbed to see an emergence of hierarchy of who is more queer than who, who is more deviant and outside of the ‘norm’ and therefore more radical or subversive.
And I am deeply disturbed by misogyny. Yes, we all know about the rampant hetero-sexist misogyny that continues to impact our lives and the lives of women the world over.
As much as I continue to be enraged by this pervasive, never-ending misogyny, I am actually far more disturbed by strains of misogyny that are creeping into our queer communities, a misogyny that is insidious, unquestioning, and degrading of femmes.
Hetero-patriarchy sees femininity as subordinate and subservient. We know that because when we are out there in the streets, we are constantly negotiating our safety. Sometimes ‘passing’ as straight we come under the scrutiny and harassment of hetero males. And so we consciously engage in challenging heterosexist assumptions by queering our femme in many combative and imaginative ways.
All of us who have travelled great distances to be here with each other know what it is to vehemently confound and challenge patriarchal expectations of femmes, often at a danger to our selves.
After all, we are queer femme/resistance fighters and categorically not femme-traitors.
Femininity continues to be devalued and not just in hetero normative culture, but it seems increasingly in some parts of queer culture, too.
Recently I read a tweet from someone who identifies as a stud. The tweet was about going out to see a movie. “Am going to see this movie but my date won’t know it’s a date until my hand is inside her panties”
Where is the line here between consent and coercion? Maybe it was written in jest or an act of macho posturing, but to some of us this sudden intrusion into a woman’s body without her consent reads as pre-planned rape.
And it made me think about how our safety as femmes is precarious.
And it gave me a wake up call because we seem to be teetering on a tightrope of sexist disrespect and increasing femme-phobia.
This random tweet is not an isolated incident.
An article in New York magazine a few years back talked to young women who identified as bois, bois who talked about femmes in the most derogatory, demeaning of ways:
“A girl in a newsboy cap and a white t-shirt with rolled-up sleeves is leaning
against the back wall at Meow Mix and telling her friend, “Some femme . . . just
some femme. I met her at a party three weeks ago, but now she’s like e-mailing
me and I’m just like, chill out, bitch!” ……
She thrusts her forearm in front of her face as if she’s rapping as she says,
“Some of these chicks, it’s like you top them once and then they’re all up in
It’s like, did I get you off? Yes. Am I your new best friend? No.
You know what I’m saying, bro?”
Her friend nods and keeps her eyes on the blonde go-go dancer in tiny white shorts undulating on a tabletop. “Bois like us,” she says, “we’ve got to stick together.”
And then there are bois who date femmes exclusively and follow a locker-room code of ethics referenced by the phrase “bros before hoes” or “bros before bitches.”
These bois think that masculine-identified women like themselves are in a different, higher category than the feminine women they have sex with. Kelly, a boi in her late twenties, sent an e-mail to a fellow boi, about a femme they both know from the scene, that read: “I hope she’s not a big deal, that you’re just riding her or whatever. Do you want me to keep an eye on her? Bros up, bitches down.”
I want to know who is out there challenging these bois? Seriously…reading these kinds of accounts of femme-phobia and femme hatred obliterates feminist histories of resistance.
As femmes, let’s not remain silent about femme-phobia and violence towards femmes whether in word or deed.
I pride myself on being fierce, as I know many of you do. The name of my film company is Kali Films. Kali is the ultimate fierce femme goddess.
I also pride myself on being an outlaw and an outsider. For me, being a proud out queer femme is as deviant an identity as any other non-conforming gender identity.
I do not expect or accept the treatment by some in the queer community that femmes need to be tamed and controlled.
I am disturbed by what I see as a virtual absence of femme-feminist awareness in discussions around masculine of center identities.
Is there a fetishization of some forms of masculinity within the queer community?
Is there a privileging of masculinity in queer spaces?
Why is it that femmes are seen to be less radical than butch or masculine of center women?
I am aware that people all along the gender nonconforming spectrum and some gender identified minority are constantly humiliated and circumscribed by the oppressive binary structure that doesn’t recognize anything other than “male” “female.”
I am also aware that some gender identified minority people, because their presentation to the world falls outside this male/female binary, often face discrimination, bigotry, and disgust from the cis gender population.
I am well aware that many people come from histories of neglect, invisibility, and confusion.
So what I am saying here doesn’t come from a place of femme arrogance or ignorance.
Over the course of my activist life, I have witnessed the transformative politics of gender and seen positive shifts in how we think about gender and how we express our gender identities and our sexuality.
And many of us have ensured that these transformative politics of gender have not remained Anglo-centric or white. That at the heart of all these debates and practices, there is cultural and racial specificity.
The time has come for us to ensure that femme phobia too takes center stage in these discussions.
As femmes we may well ask ourselves: why should it matter to us how masculinity is embraced and/or lived out by those who define themselves as masculine of center?
To me, the different ways in which masculinity is played out within queer communities is crucially important to our safety as queer femmes. It is also important for healthy and equal relationships across the gender variant communities.
To this end I welcomed a self-reflective blog by Kortney Ryan Ziegler, a black transman. Titled “How My Past as a Black Woman informs my black male feminist perspective today.” He starts off by saying:
“I am new to the experience of male privilege and its consequence of authority, as well as the disprivilege of race that marks my black male body as innately suspect. It is the delicate balance between power and criminal that has allowed me to see the machinations of misogyny in an entirely different light. ……it is my lived experience as a black female that has shaped the ways in which I embrace and practice black feminism. (as a transman)”
I like the honest ways in which he talks about his attempts to embrace his masculinity without harmful behavior towards women. It is voices like his that give hope for possibilities of dialogue.
It is not always easy to have dialogues about sensitive and emotive issues. But there is a need for queer masculinities and femininities to work together to end sexism and femme-phobia. I know that if we are to have a chance at a future, which allows us to be truly who we are without fear, without recriminations, without justifications—and with joy and hope—then it is absolutely necessary to have honest dialogues.
And the way to do all of this is to explore our own tools and create networks of advice and mutual support. Let’s give each other the strength and collective support to challenge and call out incidents of femme-phobia. Lets create a femme hotline and online forums to keep our connections alive outside of this incredible conference.
Together, we can make sure that our movement is not just a scene or a club but a vibrant space from where we organize and agitate as well as love and play.
My femme feminism is rooted in my activism. Given the state of our world, I don’t think any of us have the luxury of not being activists. And I know that each one of us can make a difference if we have the will to do so. “Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet” as Alice Walker says.
While preparing this keynote, I heard June Jordan’s voice speaking to me. June always asked us to consider how the identities we give ourselves propel us to challenge the injustices, the violence, the hatred, the poverty we witness everyday. Heeding her voice, let’s continue to do what we can as queer femmes to threaten not only the white hetero normative, corporate industrial complex, but also challenge what is happening within our own communities. Let’s not collude in attempts to make us passive, compliant femmes or remain silent when we are disrespected or violated.
Our femme identities can allow for a diversity of passions and impulses. That’s the only way we can grow, build, nurture, and align the many fragments of our communities.
Together, we can make femme an activist space, a space from which femme becomes a style of politics. How we as femmes “do politics” is intimately connected with our visions for a just and humane world.
Femmes together, each and every one of us, are the best hope we have.
Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar has an exemplary track record for her passionate commitment to making films with integrity and illuminating untold stories with visual flair and imagination. Her award-winning work has been widely exhibited at international film festivals and broadcast globally. Pratibha’s dedication in bringing complex subjects into mainstream media has helped change the contours of popular discourse on race, feminism, sexuality and creativity.
Pratibha’s credits include A Place of Rage, a documentary film on African-American women and the civil rights movement featuring Angela Davis and June Jordan. The film received international critical acclaim and was named Best Historical Documentary at the National Black Programming Consortium in the U.S. In 1993 Pratibha released her most challenging film Warrior Marks, which documented female genital mutilation at a time when the subject was taboo globally. This award-winning documentary was made in collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker. Parmar and Walker collaborated on the book Warrior Marks – Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, which documented the making of the film (Jonathan Cape UK, Harcourt Brace US). Nina’s Heavenly Delights, Pratibha’s multi-award winning narrative feature film, a lesbian curry romance was released theatrically in the UK and US in 2006-7 and nominated for a GLAAD Award.
Author and editor of several books, Pratibha was awarded The Visionary Award for her body of work from the One in Ten Film Festival in October 2007 and is a past winner of the Frameline Film Festival Life Time Achievement Award. In 2012, she was No 28 in the Top 100 Pink List compiled by The Independent paper in the U.K.
Pratibha’s latest, just completed film, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is having an exclusive world premier in London at the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of International Women’s Day celebrations. The film will tour the US later this year. Please visit the film’s website and facebok page for updates.