STONE: A Femme’s Journey

Jess St. Louis
Jun 8, 2018 · 11 min read

The day after the spring equinox, I woke up to find it snowing. I live in the South, in the mid-size city Greensboro, North Carolina; and snow at this time of year is a little bit of a surprise. Not that the weather doesn’t dance between seasons. It does, moving a little faster than you’d like it to, making you struggle to keep up. Just three days earlier, it was a gorgeously sunny and warm day, with temperature in the high 60’s, warm enough to wear a bright blue sleeveless button up and a skirt.

I thought to myself, that spring is acting like a stone queer, giving us peeks of their warmth and brightness but isn’t quite ready to let us fully in yet. spring weather has brought us some flowers to tide us over, asking us to patiently await their arrival.

The metaphor came easy. Stone isn’t just a way to describe the weather, it’s also been a word I’ve used to describe myself recently. Most often, we think of it as an adjective added to butch, but it isn’t an experience just tied to masculinity. I first heard the term stone when I read Stone Butch Blues and other collections of butch and femme literature, mostly in relationship to butch identity, but coming up in some femme narratives too. I know that there’s other definitions or ways of understanding stone-ness in relationship to femme identity, such as a stone femme being someone who dates stone butches, who don’t touch their partners. But I think of stone as its own thing, as the queer experience of finding ways to protect ourselves — by hardening, disconnecting, leaning away from some form of intimacy, etc. — from further trauma and harm. To keep ourselves safer. To remember that we can this little bit more of control over who and when and how people can have access to our body — and to me, personally, even if cuts me off from ways of relating to others that I long for.

I’ve written before about what it’s meant to love and struggle with butch/femme as a trans woman, why I have deep reverence and gratitude for that legacy and a hope that it continues to have a bolder and expansive future. But part of my gratitude for butch/femme literature is for the ways that some if it describes the experience of being stone, even if it’s in a butch context that I can’t fully relate to. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues was transformative for me to read for many reasons, but there’s a passage in it that stands out that I return to time and time again:

“Jaqueline patted my thigh and flashed me a sweet smile. The other femmes — male and female — looked at me differently. As the world beat the stuffing out of us, they tried in every way to protect and nurture our tenderness…Strong to my enemies, tender to those I loved and respected. That’s what I wanted to be.

…“It’s selfish of us girls, I guess. We want you to be strong enough to survive the shit you take. We love how strong you are. But butches get the shit kicked out of their hearts too. And I guess we just sometimes wish there was a way to protect your hearts and keep you all tender for us, you know?”

Each time I read this passage, my heart breaks and sings at the same time. Despite the fact that it’s from a butch perspective, it feels familiar to me. This discussion of stone, trauma, and queerness hits deep and resonates; I see Jaqueline’s honesty and protection and nurturance of tenderness in the ways I’ve experienced support and love from other femmes. All of it keeps me returning to a question that this passage raises: how do we put the work in to be tender and open and loving in the face of a world that continues to kick the shit out of our hearts day in and day out?

I still don’t know the full answer to that question. But I think part of the answer lies in becoming our fullest, most whole selves; the selves that foreshadow us living in the world that we live, love, fight, and long for.

Touch.

It’s known as one of the five senses, a way to know the world. But like the world itself, touch isn’t uniformly good or bad. It can bring joy, aliveness, and deeper connection with our bodies; and as too many of us know, touch can come with harm, violence, fear, and lead us to disassociate and disconnect from our bodies.

For me, touch is something I have a complicated relationship with, something that I crave and shrink away from. It’s not that I haven’t known good touch, safe touch. I have and will feel it again.

I’ve known touch that didn’t seek to hurt me and yet the harm still happened. And between the multiple failures: the failure of my ex-partner to pause / stop and ask, the way that ableism creates the conditions in which deaf people and hearing people don’t have many means to communicate, the way that patriarchy and heteronormativity works on the bodies of male-assigned-at-birth and transfeminine bodies — and my own shame for not speaking up and not stopping the sexual interaction, that all of these interpersonal and systemic conditions set up the conditions for the harm to occur, caused me to distrust my own body and desires and ability to keep myself safe.

As the recent #MeToo movement spread, I was left with feeling heartbroken for my loved ones, many of whom were naming their own survivorship and experiences in long-form Facebook posts or the two-word hashtag — and rage. Rage towards a world with patriarchy, ableism, cissexism, and rape culture. Rage towards all the ways the lack of infrastructure and education leaves some of us falling through the cracks, that facilitate the possibility of future harm — like the ways in which trans and queer folks and queer trans folks don’t get adequate sex education for our bodies or our lives. I didn’t know how queer and lesbian identified trans women could have sex in ways that were affirming, until I met other trans women, had supportive partners, read zines and books — including queer trans erotica (as well as queer porn that reflected our lives) that specifically talked about our lives and stories.

We live in an unsafe world and aren’t always taught how to protect ourselves and keep ourselves and each other safe. Not that it was or is ever our fault that we were or are unsafe. Fear, shame, trauma, distrust collide and harden together into stone; because if no one touches you, it’s safer, right?

“For those of us who have had to cross treacherous terrain in order to find and claim our desires, this valuable force remains a razor-sharp reminder, deep within our hearts, of who we really are — and of everything we truly can be. We have been shaped, deformed, and liberated by the forbidden sexuality that we have dared to claim, regardless of the cost.”

Stone.

I don’t think I ever intentionally became stone, ever explicitly thought to myself: I’m not going to let other people touch me. It happened over time.

When I was younger, before I came into myself and let other people know my shifting and emerging gender as a queer trans woman, I was really confused about sex. I knew I felt desire for other women — and often noticed it was queer women — but as a male-assigned-at-birth person, I assumed that made me straight — despite the fact that straight sex seemed so utterly unappealing to me. I remember the one time things started to get below the belt, with a partner reaching towards what I now call my clit. I remember stopping that pretty quickly, much to my own confusion. All I knew is that I was both too in my head and generally out of my body, felt uncomfortable, and wasn’t turned on. It didn’t make sense — I was attracted to this new lover, I was attracted to women…why did it make me feel so damn weird? Looking back on it, I can name the feelings like disassociation and gender dysphoria. Looking back, I can name the truths: trans woman, lesbian.

And there’s more in my past, stories about shame and sexuality, privacy and not great boundaries in my household growing up. Those experiences have lodged themselves into my body’s memory — generating feeling unsafe and uncomfortable while knowing that the people responsible never meant or intended their actions to be harmful. There are other ones too: stories of emotional abuse, of caretaking and codependency and working to protect other people from that emotional harm, but rarely being protected in the moments it was happening to me. Those moments helped the stone crystallize slowly and take root in memory.

And it’s not like I didn’t or don’t like touch or sex. It always felt like this thing I craved yet also knew could be unsafe, could be triggering, could be dysphoria inducing. What ended up feeling safest was to almost never let partners get me off, and pretty much never by themselves — I always had to have control one way or another my hands or my toys or something — but loving the feeling of getting my partners off when I could. I used to call myself a service bottom, and while there’s some truth to it, the truer word would be stone. It’s not servicing really that I practice, it’s hardening and keeping people out. It’s a belief that the line between what I crave and what could hurt me is too thin — that this trans woman, lesbian, and deaf body is always going to be unsafe/uncertain/unknown how to navigate — but I can work really hard to be a safe person who can help my partner get what they want.

This is what is, what feels possible, at the moment. What could be is a whole other story, a story I tell myself about bold political imagination and honoring the desire that drives our movements, but never about sex in my own life. And slowly, ever so slowly, sex was put on to the shelf and stone became a part of my life without noticing it at first.

“I had grown up into an impenetrable woman, an utterly untouchable stone femme, just like my mother. I had become a girl, then a woman, in shadow. A femme who could not bear the weight of her own heart — a heart sunk as stone, silt cradled at the bottom of a lake…And when I started to want more for myself, when that lake became too murky, I wrestled with the big lie that had become the bedrock of my gender, my desire, my whole self: I am unbreakable. I am not broken.

— Anna Camilleri (emphasis in original), ‘Cut from the Same Stone’, Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity p. 23.

Longing.

About a year after my last relationship ended, I started the process of hormone replacement therapy. I had moved to Atlanta, back to my childhood home, because I couldn’t find a job in Greensboro, NC and my dysphoria had gotten so bad that I needed to prioritize starting hormones. By dysphoria being so bad, I mean that the suicidal ideation had gotten louder than I was comfortable with, and I wanted to stay. Coming into my trans womanhood and my queerness in my early twenties finally gave me the space to imagine getting old. I could imagine myself being a mom and grandmother, sitting on a rocking chair a porch. It changed the game.

I knew that hormones would shift my libido & how I engaged with my body sexually, and they did, but then everything got confused in the days, weeks, months after my little brother killed himself. In the midst of grieving, desire floated away, and I wondered whether it ever would come back.

It did and didn’t. I kept on with my commitment to political work, work that was deeply grounded in desires & longing for a world where everyone is safe, treated with dignity, for a world without cages and prisons, and slowly but surely I felt desire come back with a soft aliveness. Being a student of somatics taught me that my commitment to my own transformation and how I want to show up in the world was also about desire and longing. Therapy taught me that I put sex and romantic relationships on the shelf for safety — that it wasn’t just happenstance.

I look in the mirror: this body is different than it used to be. It is fatter, my face a little rounder, my boobs that grew, my clit shrunk, nerve endings have moved and shifted in unexpected ways. I might have touched all parts of my body, but rarely do I take the time to look at it. I take a breath and realize there are whole sections of my body that have not been touched by another person in years, that the body I ached for I’ve hidden away. I take the word stone, let the word roll around in my mouth, and find that it fits my soft flesh, covered in stretch marks and tattoos. I think to myself if someone wanted to touch my body, would I let them in? A hard ‘no’ bubbles up quick and fast, feeling my bones harden over tight muscles and skin. When I breathe out, the exhale brings with it a quiet longing and prayer: But I wish I would. I am hungry and waiting.

There’s the politics of desire, the ways sexual capital operates, too that plays a role in all of this. Being a fat trans woman who’s a dyke and who’s a femme at that, can be difficult on the dating spectrum sometimes. There’s the transmisogyny and cissexism to navigate, the fatphobia and masculine-centrism in queer communities to wrangle with, the ways ableism and white supremacy slides alongside everything. It leaves some of us feeling undateable or undesirable. It’s left me feeling that way. It leaves me wondering if queer trans girls like me get to get loved or fucked or wanted and wrangling with my internalized cissexism. But in the end, no one owes anyone any sort of sexual attention or desire.

I get frustrated with other queers and myself for all the ways that sexual and romantic capital operates, but its bigger than us — its the pervasiveness of the way patriarchal and ableist racial capitalism sets up the conditions of our lives. And in response, we have to practice our resistance again and again to beat it back, slowly but fiercely, everywhere we go.

But slowly, ever so slowly, I feel a longing for touch feel more present and alive. I look at myself in the mirror again, thought about the last few years of exploring my body, being the stone to my femme; finding joy and pleasure in places that were cold or hiding, waiting for touch. I think to myself: there is so much goodness here. Just let it in. You don’t have to melt the stone. Just let it open.

“I have lived in the cold land of shame. Now that you are here, after so many years, you hold me in your hands. Under your fingers my skin warms out of a numbed sleep where I kept myself safe. My flesh begins to ache and I come back to myself, like the melt at spring thaw, snow heat rushing down through rivers, to whirl dynamos until the mouths of dams spit electricity.”

– Minnie Bruce Pratt, ‘Thaw’, s/he p.142–3

A Life We Braid: on femme/butch legacies, politics, herstories, and futures

A Life We Braid is a trans-affirming online conversation on femme/butch legacies, politics, herstories, and futures, seeking to re-engage with foundational femme/butch stories and understandings by younger generations asking: what called us here & how do we dwell in it now?

Jess St. Louis

Written by

thoughts from a southern queer trans woman and femme. opinions are my own.

A Life We Braid: on femme/butch legacies, politics, herstories, and futures

A Life We Braid is a trans-affirming online conversation on femme/butch legacies, politics, herstories, and futures, seeking to re-engage with foundational femme/butch stories and understandings by younger generations asking: what called us here & how do we dwell in it now?