Femmepire Records: Celeste Chan on Unapologetic, Riotous Femmedom
Femmepire Records is a series of interviews on femme identity. Click here for the elevator pitch and first interview.
Celeste Chan is co-founder of Queer Rebels, a local production company focused on queer of color artistic histories. For those of you who’ll be in New York on Nov. 14, Queer Rebels is presenting “Exploding Lineage,” a program of queer of color experimental films at the 25th MIX NYC Fest.
In a few words, define femme.
Do you identify as femme? Why?
I do, but it took me a while to embrace it. Coming out as a teen in Seattle, the first queers that I saw were white. They sported crew cuts, Dr. Martens, and flannels. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me and I assumed I had to butch it up to be gay. So yeah, I did the requisite short spiky haircut. Riot Grrrl transformed me during college. It showed me that I could be feminine and tough and make people take me seriously. Today, I draw inspiration from the Bay Area’s strong butch-femme community, and the rich history of butch-femme culture rooted in working class/communities of color that came before (1920s-50s).
Regardless of your previous answer, do other people identify you as femme? How do you feel about that?
Yes and no. Sometimes I’m read right away as femme and queer. Usually that happens when I’m with my partner, TuffNStuff: Drag King of the Blues. It’s really validating to be seen. More frequently, both straight and queer people misread me. I had a conversation with someone who said, “Straight people are welcome too,” and then leaned forward to touch my hand. I’ve also been approached with: “Do you know what the Dyke March is?” and “Are you in the right bar?” I’ve been out since I was 16. While there’s privilege in passing, it is a double-edged sword.
Do you feel like you have to try harder to be read or seen as queer? If so, how do you deal with that?
Oh yes! I do fly under the gaydar. I do end up coming out over and over again. My partner doesn’t have to, but faces homophobic freakiness for being butch. Really, I want something better for all of us. I want us all to be respected and recognized. I throw my support toward queer art and activism — and try to lead a life that is unapologetically, riotously gay. We need to do this all together — to push for a broader, more diverse understanding of the queer community.
How does your gender affect your sexuality, if at all?
I love the butch-femme dynamic. Or perhaps I should say femme-butch/masculine queer. It’s about playing with power and desire. I feel safer, able to relax into my femininity when I’m with my partner. It’s a very queer desire to be told I must be straight, but choose butch women (and other genderbenders) instead.
What prompts you to present the way you do? Is it something you consciously think about?
Most days you can find me rocking a dress, long hair, glasses, and engineer boots. It’s kind of a tough femme look. I get a lot of harassment, so have to be ready to kick ass in the streets. In a perfect world, I’d be as femme as I wanna be — high heels, makeup, the whole nine yards. I adore vintage glamour, ultra brights, and mod or other quirky pieces. It’s dressing up for me, and it feels fabulous!
Lesbian representations on TV/movies are almost always femme. Do you feel like this contributes negatively (or at all) to your life/gender presentation/identity?
I don’t own a TV and I don’t trust Hollywood. Their representation consists of The L word and Katy Perry. “I kissed a girl” feeds into sexist titillation. It’s not a true representation of our community. Mainstream media erases butch/trans/gender variant folks. This is why cultural production stemming from queer, women, and people of color is just so vital. We have a history of being rendered invisible. This cuts so deeply.
I want more for our entire queer and trans and feminist communities. To paraphrase Jack Halberstam, the wound of being excluded from structures can be a gift. It pushes us to create. Cultural activism changes what we think is possible. This is why I co-founded Queer Rebels with KB Boyce — to create community art and representation. We’re preparing for Queer Rebels CD release/benefit party on December 9 at El Rio. Please see queerrebels.com for more info about this and other events.
What are some resources/websites/books/movies you look to for inspiration about femmeness/queerness?
I’m glad you asked! There are so many great resources! I’ve organized with Femme Collective for the biennial Femme conference. There’s Queer Women of Color Media Arts Program — they provide free training and a fabulous, free festival. I do adore local artists such as Jewelle Gomez, Tina D’Elia, La Chica Boom, Mangos with Chili, Nomy Lamm, The Visibility Project, and many more whose names escape me at the moment. And naturally, I heart all of the Queer Rebels artists.
I also highly recommend books by Dorothy Allison, Chrystos, Joan Nestle, and some of the classics: The Persistent Desire; Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold; Femme: Feminists, Lesbians and Bad Girls; and The Femme’s Guide to the Universe.
My other femme inspirations include Tura Satana, Poly Styrene, Eartha Kitt, and Kathleen Hanna. And of course, there’s Anna May Wong. She became the first Asian-American star, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act and a system that favored actors in yellowface for lead roles. She never married, and was rumored to have had an affair with Marlene Dietrich.
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