The rowdy, queer contributors to Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (Arsenal Pulp Press) address the immediate, often loaded, topic of butch-femme from every angle, confirming once again just how central this label-and-experience is to queer history. This thick volume is so personal and comprehensive that it feels a bit like my most recent lesbian camping trip where butches, femmes, and the otherwise queerly-gendered made fires together, grilled up fine-grade tofu, and then spent hours bonding over our spontaneously-assembled archive of queer experience.
With this same spirit of generosity, Persistence excels in the extreme sport of queer truth-telling, thanks to its ambitious editors Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman. The book feels fresh and radical throughout, despite somewhat awkwardly presenting itself as this generation’s update to Joan Nestle’s classic The Persistent Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader (1992). In her touching foreword, Nestle admits to initially feeling at odds with a project that at first glance seems merely to replicate a feminist analytic that was, as she writes, “born out of its own time’s struggles over erotic territories and gender certainties.” I likewise prefer my butch-femme with excessive specificity—not to mention flannel and fishnets—but time and time again Persistence delivers the real goods of queer living: fearlessness, self-awareness, and, well, persistence.
Coyote and Sharman pack their House of Persistence with some big names while admirably insisting that everyone should have a fist in defining, exploring, debunking, and glorifying butch-femme. Amber Dawn’s piece “To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005” is as expected—a stunning big bang on the ways that class and love intertwine. In “Butch-Femme as Spiritual Practice,” Thea Hillman writes against the grain in rethinking butch-femme dynamics, beginning her essay with the delicious line, “If you know me at all, you know I hate butch-femme.” Prince Jei and Misster Raju Rage interview one another in a refreshing conversation about race, art, trauma, and their multi-gendered selves.
The book itself is lively, beginning with Eliza Lim’s exquisite cover art. Inside, we get a fair share of earnest queer things: lots of feelings about butch tits, schmaltzy coming-out stories that we all secretly love, moments of shameless self-indulgence that morph into selfless revelation, and a straight up graph labeled “A Post-trans Butch Continuum” in activist Jeanne Córdova’s “The New Politics of Butch.” It’s also delightful to see Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s viral, all-caps “FEMME SHARK MANIFESTO!” included.
At times I wonder if we get enough of the darkness: questions about sexism and masculinist ideologies, internalized b-f shame, or the harsh judgment butches and femmes are always fighting from within the community. But in the end Coyote and Sharman have heroically captured the breathtaking landscape of a cherished sex/gender cultural history. I’m left with the sense that it’s now our job to throw this well-worn rucksack of required reading over our shoulders and carry on, always honoring the old, always dreaming the new.