Femme Visibility with Cyreé Jarelle Johnson

Leticia Contreras, CLPP's Communications Assistant, interviews Cyreé about hir RRASC internship with Women With a Vision, femme visibility, the struggle of living in an ableist world, and what being a political black, high femme, lesbian means to hir. 

Leticia: Okay, so why don’t you just start with telling me a little bit about yourself.

Cyreé: Okay, I can do that. Um…whew, I am a high femme, Jersey ex-patriot, with a chronic illness that is also a disability, and a whole lot of dykey spunk. I’m a writer and I’m also a Development Associate for Roots and River Productions – an artistic home for queer artists of color, or mostly black queer artists, in the New York and Philadelphia areas and I write for the blog, the black, lesbian blog elixher.com.

Leticia: Wonderful, you got a lot of really great things under your belt. So, in 2008 you were a part of the RRASC program with Women With a Vision. I’d like to hear a little bit more about your experience there and how it helped shape your work and your interests.

Cyreé:  I will say that the RRASC program definitely changed what I thought were my options for a career.  I came from a really, really, small town and no one had – or at least no one in my immediate circle, had similar interests to me so I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do or how my college path was going to unfold. I didn’t have a lot of faith in it so I did a RRASC interview and I had applied for all of these other organizations – Women With a Vision I don’t even remember being listed – or maybe I overlooked it. But when I got picked they were looking for a specific kind of student and I felt so affirmed that that kind of student was me. Also, to have the opportunity to do such an extremely well paid internship with an organization that I probably wouldn’t have been able to work with otherwise.

I think that my internship with Women With a Vision really solidified my desire to continue working with black lesbians, both in a collective community building sort of way – more informal but also in context of non-formal education and the context of writing and just building a larger black and brown lesbian community and not feeling that ashamed of the way that those boundaries look and the needs that are unique to that particular identity.

Also, I had never worked for any place that had such a comprehensive leadership team. It continues to be inspiring to see how well they work together and how much their work came from a place of love and I feel like that is something I could not ever forget about working with Women With a Vision.

Leticia: What was some of the specific work you did while you were working with WWAV?

Cyreé: Mostly I did administrative work for an outdoor sex worker outreach project. So, we stuffed a lot of condoms packets and I also learned the importance of just general harm reduction. Women With a Vision is a harm reduction organization that I feel like is so effective --  in the sense that they were helping people come into Women With a Vision, it wasn’t just that Women With a Vision went out, so that was something that we saw a lot of.

I made a pamphlet called Safer Sex for Outdoor Sex Workers. So, I created a pamphlet in sexual health education kind of work which is a lot of what I did at Hampshire and something that I did with CLPP. Also, I think that one of the projects that really assisted in changing my life and where I saw my life direction going was we did a workshop called Strapping and Packing and it was for lesbians, queer people, and trans people who primarily have sex with dildos. Frankly, dildo users are at the top of my list of things I am. Also, sexual education for populations that I feel are really important to reach: queer women who have sex with women, queer people who have sex in ways that are not binary. Definitely coming from a background where doctors just flat out didn’t answer my questions about how to have safe sex – it was okay for me to just get an STI and just fucking die or whatever. You think because I am a lesbian I have no risk for an STI and then they wouldn’t test me for some. It was really important and the room was full of people who wanted to receive that information. So there, I knew there was a need cause I knew that there was a personal need in my life, but it was the first time I really saw queers and dykes and all sorts of people just being like, "yeah, we want sex education and who’s going to give it to us?" Who’s going to fill these needs in our community and I think that Women With a Vision does that really well.

It also gave me a chance to work in a very small team with another lesbians or how to make that happen. So, I think it really honed my ability to collaborate cause it was just me and one other person and I feel like it was really healing for that relationship – that working relationship to be so like syncopated and evenly driven and being guided by this strong leadership team of people who are obviously excellent role models for any group of – anyone.

Leticia: Yeah. We have a lot of love for Women With a Vision – I actually  - yesterday I was talking to Sean King who identifies as a black trans man and he did his RRASC at Women With a Vision over the Summer and decided to stay and work with them throughout the fall.  I thought it was just really exciting to talk to both of y'all!

Cyreé: That is excellent.

Leticia: So, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because you are a really fierce femme leader in my life and I really admire a lot of the work that you do!  I was looking through your blog, femmedreamboat.tumblr.com, and you posted a article around how femme privilege does not exist so I wanted to hear a little bit more about what does being femme mean to you and why is it such an important part of your identity.

Cyreé: Well first of all, thanks, friend! That means a ton, a ton, a ton to me, um I – I okay, so I’m just gonna start at the beginning of femme privilege does not exist. I’m a femme, I was raised by a high femme who was caught in a number of bad situations but is still standing, like only a real high femme can.  I think of high femme as a historical term that is primarily relational. A lot of high femmes would say that they often partner with more masculine-centered people and a more modern high femme might just mean like highly femme, very femme, shiny femme, whatever. It means what you think it means, but I root my high femmeness in both of those concepts and am constantly challenging what I think about what it means to be a high femme who’s attraction goes a lot of different ways, you know, but still is primarily rooted in, or is historically rooted in solidarity -- as I believe femme and butch and other masculine centered people have been for a long time. I take that very seriously. So, that’s one of the reasons I identify as a high femme.

The thing about high femmes is – cause high femmes are great - they're at a really close proximity and have been my entire life. I just really appreciate living in that kind of energy. In 2008, I was diagnosed with lupus. I’ve had lupus since I was 14 and actually before I was diagnosed I was a lot sicker -- I was very, very sick. It informed a lot of important life experiences for me and has shaped some of the most basic understandings of my body. I think of feminists in general as a product of failed womenhood. So, as a black person and certainly as a crippled and sick person, who grew up working class, and even with access to college is still fricken working class. Nothing has changed drastically about my class and that has a lot to do with being a sick and disabled person. I don’t have access to the same amount of jobs, I don’t have access to working the same way that my able bodied peers do and I just believe that America and the world is actively able bodied supremacist – or inactively - to borrow a term from the awesome femme who’s work I’ve been reading, Eddie Ndopu. Eddie is a crip femme male of color who has been writing about these issues in a way that I feel is just so cohesive and awesome.

But, I think that especially in the context of the college that I went to where I was diagnosed... I think about the fact all the time that I most likely would be dead right now had I not on a fluke decide to go to college in Massachusetts, which I didn’t even want to do and that ended up being isolating from other black people in a way that I have to consistently question. But, I was diagnosed in 2008 with systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. At that time I was just extremely ill and also having to use a cane to walk around a campus that’s on a hill that no one shovels or plows, living in a disability mod (on campus apartment) where people are constantly looking at you through the lens of their own narrow minded, able-bodied idea of what it means to be disabled.

I think that that, although I’ve always understood that I’m not a women – not even per se, I feel no attachment to a category that has systemically denied black people where you’re never feminine enough unless you’re super duper light skinned and you look these certain ways and you’re only barely acceptable as a sexual object. I don’t feel like womanhood holds a lot of possibilities for me in the same way that femme does um also – I’m sorry that this is so long but –

Leticia: Oh no, not at all.

Cyreé: It’s that kind of question, right?  I definitely identify as a cyborg feminist, which to me means that my feminism is made up of a lot of different parts and they form an amalgam and a new thing and I think of that new thing as feminist. I feel that feminism for me gives me infinite possibilities on how to be feminine in a way that constantly challenges the necessity of an a-political consumerist relationship to femininity. I don’t think that femininity has to be -- but it is also recognizing the fact that patriarchy is real  and mysogyny is real and there is masculine privilege everywhere and male privilege everywhere and that it influences the queer community.

One of the things I find most interesting in life and that I’m most passionate about is thinking of, rediscovering, and widely distributing the idea of black, dyke, queer, lesbian sort of history. I think that it’s so, so, so, so important that we understand our history. Femme is a gender category that has been around for so long and only exists in a queer context but it’s not respected as such.  I think that people’s misconceptions about femme are just that we’re exactly like straight people, that we’re exactly like women, and that we’re all women. That if you’re feminine at all you have to be all of these following things on a check list, you have to want all of these following things on the check list, and you have to look like all of these things.

I feel like as a black person and as a black femme I’m constantly being judged through the lens of white racism and being found inadequate and through the lens of able bodied supremacy and being found once again inadequate in the ways that I decide to be feminine and in the ways that I can embody femininity. I feel like for me femmeness is just like "fuck you", you know? Like okay, so I’m not a woman so now what do I do? That’s not even important to me anymore.

Leticia: Yeah. I think you hit on this a little bit, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I heard that you feel that through your identity as a sick, crippled, or disabled person you feel more closely aligned with the identity of femme vs woman. Can you tell me more about how having a femme identity embraces your disabled identity more so than woman may embrace your disabled identity?

Cyreé: No, you understood correctly, you totally understood correctly. I don’t think that femmeness necessarily precludes womaness and more than one gender precludes any other gender, you know? I’m not saying that every femme has to be just a femme and not a woman and not butch and not all of the myriad of other things you can be, I’m saying that for me I don’t feel like womanhood was a product with a lot of possibilities for somebody, for instance [with one of my jobs] I feel like that’s one of the areas where I’m most often made to recognize and realize that I’m not feminine in the same ways that straight women are and I don’t have the same access to it.

I think that especially white femme and also traditional femme of color  has a lot to do with certain things that are finely ablest. So, the concept that femmes do things or femmes needs hours and hours to get ready and they do it by themselves with no attendants cause you know it’s a private personal thing and they put on their high heels and then they date masculine center people and then go on about their day, right? So, I feel like that is already working its way into ablism and misogyny and is couching all of these ideas of what femme is and what femininity needs be.

For me, as a black person, womanhood will always be seen through the lens of black people being enslaved and never having access to the word woman. I have no desire to suddenly be a woman when it was only offered to white women. What’s so special about being a woman when we all know that’s a category constructed out of some relationship to manness? If there is one thing I can say that my identity is, it is not developed in relationship to manness. I think that from the unique experiences in my past having not grown up with a lot of dudes -- although my sexuality and sexual orientation goes a lot of different ways and my gender goes a lot of different ways -- the reason that I still cling to a lesbian identity is because it’s one that says my identity did not form in relationship to manness and I still respect that. I still love that connection cause I think that of course my feminism is inextricably tied to being a femme lesbian, a political femme lesbian and understanding that of course lesbianism has always been an identity that’s been complex.

Lesbianism has never looked like white lesbians have said lesbianism looks. You know, like with clear-cut and no kids and all of these different sorts of ways we know that with black lesbians, lesbians of color living together with children are one of the most common queer couples of all. So, obviously we need a politic that will accommodate us. Again, I feel like femme is a gender that is historically rooted in the identity I come from in a way that woman is not. For me, that makes womanhood a little less, not so much necessary. Lesbianism has a lot to do with a love of people who have been marginalized by patriarchy and I think that that’s what being a political lesbian means to me -- feminist is rooted in that concept of identity. It is so historical and old and important and necessary and undervalued, just like femininity everywhere and that’s why it’s important for me to identify as femme.

 

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