BI, FEMME, AND BEYOND

Angela Martinez Dy

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ABSTRACT: The pieces that follow are prosaic and poetic reflections on the author’s experiences as a queer femme of colour, and address some of her most significant insights, joys, and heartaches therein. In “Bi, Femme, and Beyond” she explores her earliest memories of being queer, challenges around coming out in a traditional and religious family context, and the finding of queer POC community through art and activism. In “Mapache” she identifies and celebrates a distinct queer femme of colour lineage, historicising and honouring the legacy of those whose lives serve to decolonise and liberate sexuality and self-expression. 

My desire to please began with my mother. Beautiful and glamorous, with her wavy auburn hair and long, tapered fingernails, always neatly dressed and made up, I inherited from her my understanding of what it means to be feminine: sexy and strong, simultaneously. She, in turn, inherited it from her mother, an elegant, well-built mestiza woman who bore twelve children and never left the house without lipstick and her trademark doe-eyed winged eyeliner. Her preferred style included matching her dress to her shoes and earrings, which she had customised with the same fabric. I often watched my grandmother at her dressing table, engaging in her morning and evening rituals. The women in my mother’s lineage taught me that dressing with intention, making oneself up and caring for your body in a way that pleases you were powerful acts that had meaning, where beauty and strength coexisted. This is where the femme in me begins.

In my earliest sexual fantasies I am naked onstage, dancing for a crowd of ogling, appreciative men. Since my dad was never around, I wanted the attention of men. But men were not the objects of my attention. When I was eight, I saw a comic strip that had a cartoon drawing of a woman on a stage unzipping the back of her gown. I knew it was naughty and I found it inviting. I had a habit of cutting out comics that I liked, so my mom did not find it unusual when I went for the scissors and snipped a square out of the Sunday paper. She did, however, sternly question me when she found the drawing on the counter in the bathroom. I had left it there by accident after bringing it in with me to the shower, where I used the massaging showerhead to give myself my first orgasms.

My first girl crushes trod a blurry line between wanting a woman, and wanting to be her. My favourite film was Dirty Dancing, because it starred not one but two of the first crushes I remember: Patrick Swayze as the strong but sensual dance instructor Johnny, and Cynthia Rhodes as the gorgeous and talented ex-Rockette, Penny, who turned heads and stopped hearts when she entered a room. I both admired and desired her. Since I spoke to no one of my feelings, there was no one who told me that my interest was wrong. My family assumed I watched it over and over because I liked the dancing.

I am a recent transplant to Britain, from a family with a long history of migration. My parents and grandparents were all born in the Philippines. My mother’s side is Spanish-Filipino, strictly Catholic, and my dad’s is Chinese. My parents moved to the Northwest corner of the United States, to an unassuming city called Seattle, Washington before it became home to Starbucks, Microsoft, and grunge. I was raised in a small suburb just north of the city. I attended Catholic school and had little interaction with out, queer people as I was growing up—unless you count my butch Chinese aunt Jennifer, who my mom swears went gay after being rejected by the man in whom she was interested (I never really believed this).

Seattle grew up and became a yuppie-hippie paradise, attracting lefty people of all kinds. I grew up and became a poet. I was welcomed into the heart of a Filipino poetry collective where I learned about performing and grassroots organising. I surrounded myself with artists and, eventually, a radical queer brown adopted family. All outcasts or castaways in some form or another, we found each other through art, activism, and community. My good friend Katrina and I made music together, and our first song was about the process of self-love. Our second song was about being bi; we called it “Bi D Way.”

I had one relationship with a girl when I was eighteen. It lasted three months. She was slightly younger than me and I broke it off because she needed more than I could give her. From there I quickly went back to serial hetero-monogamy in practice, coupled with blatant lesbianism in the majority of my fantasy life, although there were some nights when I wanted nothing more than one of each at the same time. This is where I now live. I love my boyfriend and I am open with him about my attraction to women. A picture of Frida Kahlo sits like a saint on my altar. I read Henry and June by Anaïs Nin and bell hooks’ memoirs with an intensity that only another person who knows what it means to have loved men and women at once could feel. I dream of having a big, blended family: multiple loving adults in fulfilling relationships mutually parenting many wanted children. I do not think this dream is realistic, but I have not yet given up hope yet.

I have come out to my mother three times, each one more difficult than the last. Because I am femme and bisexual, dating men, she is able to pretend that this errant part of me has gone away. Or, as she said when I first told her at eighteen, that it was “just a phase.” We were in the café of her favourite department store. I had a steaming bowl of clam chowder. I remember gathering my courage and trusting that her love for me was unconditional, that she would accept me for who I was. I told her as directly as I could: “I have something to tell you. I think I’m bi.” She looked at me and took it in; the soup before me cooled. “It’s normal, honey,” she managed. “We have always had an appreciation for beautiful women in our family. It’s just a phase. You’ll get over it in time.” Words likely said more for her benefit than mine.

The second time was eight years later. We were together in the car, she in the driver’s seat, I on the passenger side. She was again glossing over my sexuality, discussing marriage or children or something to that effect. I took the opportunity to remind her, as coolly as I could, that I am not heterosexual. “I’m bi, Mom, remember? That hasn’t changed.” Enter the silent treatment. Either she did not know what to say or, more likely, did not want to say what she was thinking, as is her habit when angry. This is a habit I picked up from her, one which I am still working to break. Frustrated with my inability to speak openly, a memory unexpectedly rose into my consciousness: my aunt’s husband in the Philippines, molesting me during my holidays every other summer since I was thirteen. In a jagged breath it escaped: “I’ve had bad experiences with men, things you don’t know about.” I tell her what he did. To protect me, my memory suppressed this truth for years. I first blamed it on myself and pushed it from my mind, until the truth-seeking practice of poetry brought it to the surface. That it spilled from my lips in that moment, now as much as ever, surprised me, and shocked her. She was silent for a moment, taken aback—and then proceeded to attribute my queerness to the abuse. I do not remember the precise words she used because of how much it hurt to hear them. I protested this incorrect association to no avail. She had made up her mind. She did not speak of these subjects to me again, but told three of her four sisters what I have told her—all of them, except the one who is married to him. The most religious of my aunts called me to say that she, too, was once sexually harassed, and ask me if there was anything I may have done to provoke it. I hung up on her and sobbed.

The third time was last year. I saw an ad online for the biannual femme conference in Baltimore, on the East Coast of the United States, and was excited. I arranged a trip to visit family in New Jersey around the conference. Just as I was gearing up to go, my mom pressured me to tell her what the nature of the conference was. I revealed as little as possible but she went online to confirm what I said. My answers, it seem, did not match up. I hate the closet and am tired of trying to hide, so I finally said: “It is a conference for queer people who identify as femme.” She found the website and forbade me from attending. To guarantee my compliance, she organized a family road trip to Canada for the same weekend. I was heartbroken. But I chose to reflect on the idea from Eastern philosophy, and Western psychotherapy, that you cannot control others’ emotions or actions—you can only control yourself and your responses. And so, for the sake of peace, I decided not to fight. I asked my boyfriend to help me make a video of me sharing my poem about being femme, which had been accepted for the conference. I posted it online and sent the link to the organizers. I dreamt it would go viral; it got about 500 views. When the day of the road trip came, I wore a t-shirt with my friend Katrina’s logo, and applied the thickest, blackest eyeliner I could.

I am tired of coming out to my mother; I am simply tired of coming out, period. But I love her; I do not resent her. I understand that she is a product of her history. Her old-world immigrant Catholic sensibilities will never be compatible with my queer sexuality. And because I am femme and bi and mostly date men she does not have to confront my sexuality in a way that the mother of a lesbian who is butch or trans or genderqueer might. Yet, I sometimes think: is it possible that I have never brought a woman home precisely because I am the dutiful, peace-loving second generation daughter of a strong-willed woman who lives in denial of my same-sex desire?

Freedom is a funny thing. I am free to do as I choose but I must acknowledge that my choices may have consequences I am not prepared to accept. If I love women romantically and openly, something between my mother and I will be forever lost—her words, not mine. Still, a lifetime of poetry has taught me the primacy of honesty, the human imperative to be truthful with oneself. To live in denial is one of the worst forms of self-inflicted violence there is. The truth of my story is this: I am fully femme and unashamedly bi, beyond the closet, and never going back.

Mapache

from the Nahuatl mapachitli (racoon): the one who holds everything in its hands

I wear the word femme
on a glittery purple plaque
on a chain round my neck
like a sideshow      a queering
of identity loud as a disco
to those who know
how to boogie.

femme speaks gender identity
as an act, a performance
circustry and acrobatics as artificial
as the melt of pancake makeup
under hot stage lights
and if it’s an act
not a biological fact
then any kind of body
can be femme.

since femininity was connected
with whiteness and class
women were frail, slim and
slight little things who always
needed looking after

while feminine men
are anathema
when machismo
is the norm.

a queer femme of colour
is far from this. we carry
our own burdens
and some of yours too
with our pedicured toes
eyelids full of glitter
the shards of every broken promise
we’ve ever heard.

we put on lipstick in the morning
smack our lips twice and smile at ourselves
in the mirror. sometimes
it’s the only smile we’ll see
all day. so we cherish our reflections
like we have learned to love
the rest of our bodies, the line
between them and hate still so fragile.

we’re not new at this.
our Wet n Wild years
at the drugstore are decades
in the distance………now we both listen
and speak………we will look you in the eye
when we make a point

(there are so many points
to be made).

my wing-tipped eyeliner doesn’t mean
you can take me for granted.

queer women of colour gender warriors
are actors………picking out our own wardrobes
writing aloud our own lines,
days filled with improvisational theatre
nights with meditation, chanting and incense

your performance………a manifestation
of the most authentic self-expression
you can conjure

our saints hooks, Lorde, Hughes, Kahlo
Butler, Baldwin, and Jordan
………………every drag queen ever
strutted a stage in a corset and slinky red dress

we rarely go unnoticed
never settle for any less than fabulous
believe that life is up for grabs
and that even in heels and a push up bra
you won’t be a pushover.

you’ll choose your partners………and your pregnancies
one or many or none at all.
because your sexuality is yours
and yours alone

you have begun the process
of decolonization.
tell them “I don’t have time for your bullshit,
I’m occupied”

and you return to crafting
the exquisite feminist script
of your existence on the skin
of your body………on the tips
of your fingers………and the walls
of your airing-out closet.

we’re so in touch with ourselves
you could call it
self-pleasure.

I wear mascara
but I don’t wear a mask.
don a miniskirt…….while I do
some mental math
and show skin
while going in
on the right wing.

ask me anything
I’ll choose if I answer

I assert agency
in the midst of structure
chipping away at the cornerstones
because I’m not afraid
of your questions.

the closet is full.
this is for all my gender warriors
who live outside of it, ………giving the weary
some room to rest.

we are not new at this.
our femme
is the lingering energy
of every grown woman
who’s ever been called an old maid
because she stopped pinning
her hair up in the morning
when she saw her priorities
changing

bold
transgressive
and unexpected

by rejecting limitations
we grasp galaxies

and like the brightest graffiti
in the most dangerous places

you just can’t tear your eyes ………away.

 

 

Dr. Angela “El Dia” Martinez Dy is a poet, educator, community organiser, and hip-hop femmecee. An original member of isangmahal arts kollective, seminal to the millennial Asian American performance poetry movement, she co-founded Youth Speaks Seattle and helped it to become the area’s leading youth arts education organisation. She is a Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and the co-creator of Sisters of Resistance (www.sistersofresistance.org) and @FeminismTips on Twitter, popular digital channels for radical queer feminist of colour content. With her roots in Seattle, feet in the United Kingdom, and her heart in Manila, Angela is continually developing collaborative projects with an international network. Find her online: www.eldiadia.com / Twitter: @eldiadia/ IG:@diaindeed.

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