Latina butch/femme literatures and cultural productions are essential components of the lesbian, gender, queer, and ethnic literary canons of the late 20th century. While butch/femme—a term that references particular lesbian sexual cultures and queer female gender practices—emerged within working-class and lesbian-of-color communities roughly in the 1940s, Latina lesbians in the 1980s and 1990s began to use the anthology form to pronounce boldly how their lesbian sexualities, erotic desires, and alternative gender expressions mutually informed their racial, ethnic, and class-based identities. While anthologies created the space to engage butch/femme and its racialized class meanings of butch/femme, the growth in women of color feminist theories further catalyzed writers to contextualize their earlier provisional embrace of Latina butch/femme, which feminist, lesbian, and ethnic nationalist ideologues variously derided. Still, while Latina lesbian cultural production and literary output increased, engagements with butch/femme were veiled, with some accounts paralleling the larger social unease with what many believed enforced the reproduction of oppressive heterosexual dynamics. While photographic images indelibly document the ubiquity of butch/femme lived practice, the literary archive of explicitly imagined and referenced Latina butch/femme is limited, and its overall force lies in its suggestive discursive qualities and a late 20th century iconic set of authors with which it is associated. Key writers of the period tended to meditate extensively on Latina butch gender and sexuality concerns, while it was not until the turn of the 21st century that the Latina femme garnered the same in-depth critical treatment. The decoupling of butch/femme also enables an expansion of discrete critical and creative femme and butch offerings, while writers settle into unequivocally evoking the erotic grammars of butch/femme gender and sexuality in forms of poetry, novel, and film.
Stacy I. Macías
Inspired by women’s emotional and sexual desires, lesbian poetics offers a passionate and lyrical tradition of prose, poetry, experimental literatures, and critical analysis that both celebrate women’s relationships to women and consider the patriarchal, heteronormative pressures that have silenced lesbian art and expression in dominant cultures. As an aesthetics addressed to women by women, lesbian poetics combines art and politics as an aesthetic practice that expresses fervor, devotion, passion, resentment, and a sense of pushing back against oppressive institutions. Emerging during the second wave of feminist activism in the 1960s and 1970s, the work of such writers as Rita Mae Brown, Monique Wittig, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Nicole Brossard, Judy Grahn, Dionne Brand, Olga Broumas and others linked a specifically lesbian aesthetics of cultural critique simultaneously to the investments of the women’s movement and to a more overt declaration of the presence and power of lesbian desire. Inheriting a tradition of modernist lesbian expression from such writers as Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, and Violette Leduc, the lesbian writers from the latter part of the twentieth century more openly celebrated a specifically lesbian set of aesthetic and cultural concerns, extolling lesbian existence and developing modes of narrative, poetics, and criticism that combined lyricism, a consciousness of struggle, and an expansion of the possibilities of literary forms as a means for proclaiming lesbian intensity and liberation. Ever mindful of both the women’s community and the pleasures of broad connection, lesbian poetics avoided iterating the limiting binaries that sustained heteronormative ways of thinking, offering instead multiplicity, diversity, and a variety of new ways of thinking and expressing the ardent, erotic, and communal relations among women.
Heteronormativity is the dominant belief in Western and Westernized societies prescribing heterosexual sex and romance as “natural.” Its more recent same-sex equivalent, homonormativity, expands upon heteronormativity by championing domestic consumerism, middle-class respectability, and reproductive futurism as practices and values for same-sex households to observe in their quest for political inclusion. Together, heteronormativity and homonormativity figure largely in the rights-based claims of marginalized communities on the nation-state for citizenship. Such an assimilationist ethos proves popular in the political arena because gender and sexuality remain central to the racialization of marginalized communities as “other.” To undo stereotypes that cast marginalized communities as unassimilable and, thus, unfit for the privileges of democracy, those same communities proceed to invalidate dominant scripts casting their gender and sexuality as dangerous, deviant, and diseased. The mainstream US immigrant rights movement, for instance, has capitalized on the ideology of the nuclear family to make compelling claims for immigration reform centered around family reunification. This approach depicts idealized immigrant families (read: worthy) through sanitized images of strict hardworking fathers, self-sacrificing mothers, and productive sons and daughters. However, such liberal approaches to rights and citizenship risk shoring up the very same technologies of normative power that pathologize gender non-normativity and sexual deviance. First, the ideology of the nuclear family—in both its heterosexual and homosexual guises—neglects the abundance of familial experiences that do not adhere to hard and fast notions of traditional gender roles. Second, when heteronormativity and homonormativity shape the organizing logics of rights-based mobilizations, a danger coalesces in reinforcing the partition between “deserving” and “underserving” subjects. Third, the ideology of the nuclear family conceals the involvement of the nation-state in establishing those conditions of precarity it is then petitioned to rectify. In spite of the legibility that heteronormativity and homonormativity ascribe onto marginalized communities, some social justice movements have divested from the nuclear family model. By jettisoning gender and sexual normativity as prerequisites for personhood, these grassroots efforts, including the UndocuQueer movement, have made intelligible a once unfathomable position: “deviant,”—that is, non-normative—but valuable, nonetheless. In short, heteronormative and homonormative rubrics of social value may prove beneficial in extending rights and citizenship to some, but these rubrics cannot sustenance broad structural change.
Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz
Chicana lesbian literary critics and authors Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Catrióna Rueda Esquibel established that Chicana and Latina lesbian and queer writings trace back to the conquest of the Americas, be it through the Chicana lesbian feminists’ rewriting of La Malinche (Malintzin Tenepal) or by the reimagining of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje) as a lesbian. Nevertheless, contemporary Latina lesbian literature in the United States has concentrated primarily on the writings by and about Latina queer women since the early 1980s. These queer Latina letters highlight the impact that women like Sor Juana and Malinche had on the reconfigurations of Latina queer and ethnic identities. To ascertain their empowerment, these Latina writers and artists drew from their personal histories and creativity as activists and survivors in patriarchal and heteronormative societies while maintaining their ethnic, cultural, sexual, and political connections across states, countries, and continents as third world feminists of color. In particular, much of the field of Chicana and Latina feminisms, which emphasize the intersections of race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, begins in 1981 with the publication of the foundational text This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Similarly, in 1987, with the publication of Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, Juanita Ramos initiated the transnational connections between lesbians of Latin American descent living in the United States. Carla Trujillo, influenced by Compañeras and Bridge, published Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About in 1991, offering the first collection of writings and visual art by Chicana queers. Ever pushing the boundaries, the anthologies by Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa’s Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression (2003) and the forthcoming Jota (2020), edited by T. Jackie Cuevas, Anel Flores, Candance López, and Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz, express assertive titles as both offer unapologetic reclamations of controversial labels for queer Latina/Latinx identities through literary criticism, creative writings, and art. These four anthologies present much of the work by authors and performance artists who have published or will publish their individual monographs, novels, texts, graphic novels, short story collections, and plays. In 2015, the journal Sinister Wisdom dedicated an entire issue to “Out Latina Lesbians” that convened over fifty writers and visual artists in the United States. Given their liminality within their respective milieus (primarily, but not exclusively) as women, gender non-conforming individuals, queers, often from working class backgrounds, and with an ethnic or cultural connection to indigeneity, Chicana and Latina lesbians and queers established their own literary and artistic canons. Their rebellious acts have challenged Eurocentric and heteronormative spaces, as individuals and collectives often assume multiple roles as teachers, writers, artists, literary critics, editors, and, in some instances, owners of their own presses.
Vivian L. Huang
Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.
Liliana C. González
To think about queerness in Latina/o/x literature necessarily entails a consideration of how queerness is regarded within Latina/o/x cultural expressions. But within popular Latino/a/x queer expressions, it would be difficult not to invoke the image of Mexican singer/ and composer Juan Gabriel and his unabashed gestures and sensuality. Juan Gabriel became a symbol of Latino/a queer subjectivity by “being” and “being seen” as “queer” but never explicitly “coming out” in the US mainstream sense. His unwillingness to conform to masculine gendered expectations within Mexican ranchera music and his reluctance to accept globalized gay modalities in many respects continues to embody the Latina/o racialized sexual experience in the United States. “Queerness” herein refers to a position of being queer in defiance of social norms within a given sociopolitical context rather than articulating a fixed state with a single understanding of what it means to be queer. As an expression with political impetus, queer has the capacity to mobilize resistance against sexual and gender norms, and is as much a political identity as it is a way to read society. The “ness” in “queerness” enables queer’s ability to modify conventional analysis and enhance readings of social relations as difference but, more important, as relations of power. That is, queerness as a relational mode of analysis unfolds the disruption of hierarchical binaries such as man/woman, masculine/feminine, and homosexual/heterosexual. The emergence of Chicana lesbian theory in the 1980s and queer of color critique in literary and cultural studies signaled a significant shift in thinking queer within Latina/o/x culture and thinking race, ethnicity, and class as integral to queer analysis, which had been previously overlooked by queer scholarship. As such, queerness has come to be understood as a critical lens that is capable of reading antagonizing associations not only against what is deemed as the sexual norm but precisely the way in which sexuality interacts with racialized, gendered, and class-based discourses. As a corpus, Latina/o literature reflects a range of topics that grapple with what it means to be a US Latina/o and to hold an ambiguous place in American racial and cultural politics and an often nostalgic yet contentious relationship with Latin America. Queerness, specifically in relation to Latina/o literature, is to imagine and create between and beyond these rigid delineations of gay and lesbian identity but at the same time breaking with assumptions of US Latina/o/x experience as exclusively heteronormative. In this sense, queerness within Latina/o/x literature imparts an unequivocal motion of being, thinking, and feeling against the grain of both Latina/o patriarchal literary traditions and the white US literary canon.
Butchlalis de Panochtitlan are a queer Chicana-Latina theater and multimedia performance group active as an ensemble from 2002 to 2010. Formed in Los Angeles, they have performed in a range of venues and events throughout California and nationally. They premiered their major stage works at the important queer cultural arts center Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, California. Their irreverent name, a play on Tenochtitlan, the pre-Columbian name for modern day Mexico City, and panocha, creative Spanglish slang for female genitalia, translates to “the butch stars of pussy land.” True to their name, BdP render brown butch-centered worlds in their works that map the City of Los Angeles through the queer life in its neighborhoods, barrios, nightclubs, and re-imagined spaces of radical possibility. Although they are no longer active as a group and few primary documents exist, their impact is traceable well beyond these limits and local contexts. This article presents an overview of the work and impact of Butchlalis de Panochtitlan with attention to key themes in their body of work including home, belonging, queer family, gentrification, butch-femme relations, and brown butch socialities and aesthetics. This article draws from primary and secondary sources, digital recordings, visual images, online sources, ephemera, reviews, and published interviews.