This is the latest in my Best Sex Writing 2008 contributor interview series. Jen Cross’s essay “Surface Tensions” was originally published in the anthology Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity edited by Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore and published by Seal Press. There were many Best Sex Writing 2008 contenders in that anthology, and also thought-provoking pieces on race, gender, sexual orientation, and more. I encourage you to check it out; you can read more about it here.
Jen Cross is a smut writer and writing workshop facilitator, and is a co-collaborator in the dyke erotica collective, Dirty Ink. Her writing has appeared in a plethora of anthologies, including, most recently, Nobody Passes, Best Women’s Erotica 2007, Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z 2, as well as on CleanSheets.com. She’s featured at a number of San Francisco open mics, participated in the smutty part of LitQuake 2006’s LitCrawl, and, because she cannot get enough words, also co-facilitates (with Carol Queen!) a monthly Erotic Reading Circle. As a queer incest survivor, Jen writes to release, transform, and create space for as much unspoken erotic as possible. For more information, visit www.writingourselveswhole.org.
Your essay, “Surface Tensions,” is a very personal, intense one. How long did you work on it and how much revising did you go through?
In some ways, I began working on this piece as soon as I realized I might actually be a “girl,” that the butchness I’d struggled so hard to wear for those 10 years had been just a cover, that the femininity I’d ridiculed and run from was still mine to reckon with. The essay that appears in Nobody Passes, however, received a great deal of kind and truly loving attention from the editor, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, who is able to look at a piece of writing and hold the writer’s vision and voice even as she helps to pull forward a clearer and better articulation and writing. She asked questions that helped me clarify the thing, and made gorgeous suggestions for revisions. I was so honored to work with her, and would love to be as attentive an editor someday.
Were you ever uncertain as to whether to disclose all the information that you did?
The only piece of information in that essay that was difficult for me to reveal is right in the beginning: the sentence about the vague physical similarity between the man my mother married and my butch lover. And yet, it’s true. All the rest is material that I’d put out in my writing or readings, personal and/or public conversations, and so on, for a year or more. I’d wanted to be quite frank and vulnerable in this essay, because I know I’m not the only dyke who’s dealt with this shit, and I wanted others to feel less alone — actually, I wanted to feel less alone. There are so many silences and silencings when it comes to trauma — “don’t talk about it” — and then there’s the revisionist history-making we do about identity: “Whoever you are now is who you have always been” — that just isn’t true.
You talk at the beginning about gender and butch/femme, and say that dressing in men’s clothes and passing made you “delighted.” You write, “I thought I’d accomplished something, had successfully passed as the kind of dyke I so longed to be and thought I was supposed to be.” Why do you think butch/masculine was the only way you thought you could be, and be read, as a dyke, and how has this changed, both culturally, and for you?
Such a great question. The mainstream cultural image/stereotype of lesbian was, when I was growing up, and is, still, I think, the butch, or the masculine(-acting and appearing) woman — the woman who defies gender norms. We’ve so conflated gender nonconformity and queerneess that the little girl who’s a tomboy is the one we peg as a dyke, and not the little girl in dresses playing with dolls, even if she’s making Barbie and Skipper play out some pretty naughty games, right? So that was the sense I had of lesbian (in as much as I had any) growing up — add to that the privileging of masculinity in a sexist, patriarchal culture and a 70s-Sesame Street upbringing that taught me “girls can be just as good as boys!” and, at 20, I was pretty clear that butch queer was the most subversive kind of woman to be and the best, most genuine, real-est kind of dyke to be.
I also thought that butches were pretty fucking hot — and I wanted to be the hot kind of dyke. Who wants to be the “feminine invert,” so pathetically portrayed in those early dyke potboilers and the sexology texts?
Coming out to San Francisco helped change things up for me, and maybe even back East, once I met (and/or recognized) some self-identified femme dykes who weren’t girly because they were interested in passing for straight, but because it turned them on, made them feel stronger and more queer, got them the sex they were interested in. I began, very slowly, to look at my own internalized sexism and the way I had (and sometimes still do) devalued femininity as weaker than and less than. I’ve been privileged to have dear friends who are femmes, who put up with my shit about/against “girls,” who corrected me so gently that sometimes I didn’t even recognize that I was being schooled, and who made a way back to femmeness possible for me. So, while I think that, overall, the butch is still the visible lesbian to the majority of the straight world, as I have begun to develop my femmedar, I have also realized that femmes can be recognizable queers. And, as maybe is quite clear from the essay itself, that particular visibility is a big deal to me.
Is there more space for nuance when it comes to gender roles within the queer community now than theer was when you first came out, or do you think that once you’ve become associated with either butch or femme, people tend to want to continue to see you that way?
I came out in ’92, in the middle of New Hampshire, into a collegiate environment; I didn’t come out into the bars or into working clss community, where butch-femme has strong roots. So my sense of these identities was formulated primarily through reading, as opposed to through community! There was no butch or femme, at least among the folks I consorted with — there was, rather, “out” and “closeted,” I think. And the folks who were “out” were the ones who exhibited more gender nonconormity — be that in physical manner, academic pursuit, athleticism (of course), dress, hairstyle, or, for women, even things like outspokenness. However, most of the women who came out (who I knew, anywyay) went through a period of “masculinization” — cutting hair short, for example. That was the way we were “seen” by our peers.
I have a hard time comparing the community I’m in now to the one I came out into — because the latter was both so isolated and (thus?) so fluid and mixed, gender-wise. I think that my sense, though, is that today there’s more space for nuance around gender, and more space for self-definition. And I think there are some folks who believe that once you choose a “role,” you gotta stick with it. You’re committed. If you move around, if you’re percieved as “kiki,” you’re suspect. And then there are other folks I know who think that the people who pick only one “role” are rigid and old-fashioned: the people as S. Bear Bergman might say, who use butch and femme as nouns, versus the folks who use them as adjectives — and I don’t think that’s changed or *will* change. Those strata in our communities will continue to wrangle with each other.
Your essay mostly focuses on your experience as a sexual abuse survivor. You say that “victims of sexual abuse learn to pass as something–perfectionists, inherently damaged persons, or both. Both draw the attention away from the abuse. Like leeching.” And then go on to talk about wanting to own and be out about being a survivor and be seen as such. What caused this shift in you? Generally, do you think that the wanting to draw attention away from the abuse is so as not to have to relive it, or due to feelings of shame around it, or something else entirely?
This is such a big question! I don’t know if there was a shift regarding wanting to be seen — I *always* wanted to be seen, especially by someone (say, when I was in high school) who could make a difference, make the abuse stop. I wanted someone to see through the facade I had to create at my stepfather’s explicit instruction: “don’t tell your mother” isn’t just about not speaking the words; it’s also about not drawing any untoward attention, about not acting like anything is wrong. So when I finally gathered the strength to risk separating from my family in order to get away from his control, I didn’t want to hide about anything. I wanted to be seen in all the ways he’d required hiding — wanted to be not a good girl, not a polite middle class midwestern girl…
“Wanting to draw attention away from the abuse” — I think while I was living it, it was so he wouldn’t kill me, you know — as much as i wanted someone to make it stop, I also believed that if someone found out and couldn’t stop it, didn’t take enough action but let him know that they knew because of something *I’d* done, if I wasn’t taken away, he’d kill me. So yes, that line is about what happened for me while I was still being victimized, learning to pass in order to protect myself from further trauma — yes out of shame, out of fear. There are all the cultural expectations that accrue to the identity of “incest survivor” that we also have to wrangle with, actively, if we don’t wish to be blindly led by them, as with any identity…
You write near the end, “I am resigned to being read as more normal than I really am.” Can you elaborate on this statement? Are here ever times when this is a relief for you?
It’s not a relief for me. I hate feeling hidden, like I’m passing. I continue to feel loss around not being recognized as queer “family” by other dykes, now that my surface gender appears to be more congruent with my apparent sex. I still miss that visibility. I was never bashed as a butch, so I didn’t have the relief of just getting to walk down the street without being harassed. I deal with more harassment now because I appear to be a straight woman, from straight men. It would be a relief to have a break from that again.
That line was, I think, an attempt to let go of the need to be recognized by other queers, just anywhere out in the world; the desire, and my frustration at its not being met, over and over, strangles me and takes up too much of my attention. I do have to practice this letting go, have to repeatedly re-resign.
“Surface Tensions” was published in an anthology called Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, edited by Mattilda, a.ka. Matt Bernstein Sycamore. How do you see the issues you address connecting to the overall theme of the book? Do you feel like you’re talking more about rejecting the “norms” of the lesbian community, especially in terms of butch/femme, versus rejecting the norms of the straight world?
Yep, I do. I think the aim of the book originally was to call attention to the ways in which we’re all passing, all the time, the ways in which every community — even and especially those “alternative” or non-mainstream or non-conformist communities — have their rules and norms and guidelines for appearance and behavior and language and so on. So, in this essay, I was absolutely wrangling with my perception of community expectations within various queer women’s and communities and, of course, also those internalized expectations that had gotten established in my own head!
What kinds of reactions have you gotten to the essay?
When I have read from the piece, reactions are positive — sometimes even grateful that some of the issues are being articulated, you know?
Someone at a reading asked me about disclosing all the info about sexual abuse; maybe s/he wanted also to write so explicitly; I think s/he also asked how my family felt about it. I have been processing/dealing with my experiences for 15 years or so, and writing’s been how I process best — I have been writing parts of this essay for many years. I am not in a place right now (for better or for worse) that my family’s potential reactions to something I’m writing stifle much of what I want to say; similarly, I still feel like kind of a newcomer and/or an outsider in/to the femme-butch community/-ies — so I also don’t feel constrained by what folks in these communities might struggle with or dislike in the piece.
Reading the piece now, how do you feel about it?
Of course, there’s more I’d like to say about every fragment — I think the piece could expand out into a book that way, though!
What are you working on now?
Trying to make rent — isn’t that always the case? 🙂 I have a couple of collections I’m shopping around (Bedrock: stone smut and Viscosity: incested erotics), and weekly erotic and survivors’ writing workshops which will meeting begin again next week (www.writingourselveswhole.org). I’m preparing for a femme porn tour in the spring (Body Heat — for more information, check out