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The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader

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Gay & Lesbian Studies, Homosexuality, Women's Studies

502 pages, Paperback

First published June 1, 1992

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About the author

Joan Nestle

22 books76 followers
Joan Nestle writes and edits essays, erotic fiction, poetry, and short stories. She is an activist, and among many actions has co-founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives to preserve records of lesbian lives and communities and currently coordinates the Women in Black protests against Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.

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5 stars
541 (45%)
4 stars
381 (32%)
3 stars
209 (17%)
2 stars
35 (2%)
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20 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews
Profile Image for Sunny.
648 reviews3,318 followers
January 17, 2023
this book is an IV drip of life for me I have never felt more seen uplifted euphoric full of lesbian pride knowledge history and culture than while and after reading this like THE DESIRE LITERALLY PERSISTS......!
Profile Image for Ariel ✨.
131 reviews75 followers
May 11, 2017
I've been looking for stories like these for a long time. I'm glad I finally found the time to read them.

I would love for there to be an ebook version someday so this text could reach a wider audience. Here are some quotes that jumped out at me:

"After I left home my brother found out that I hung out in the Starlet Lounge and he and his friends used to come and taunt us. There was nothing that could be done about that, because that’s what the bars were, that’s where they made their money—with the tourists coming to look at the queers. We were only a small part of the population of the bar actually—we were the sideshow. No wonder we all did drugs and stuff. I didn’t acknowledge to myself that I was part of a sideshow and that I was on display, but that was exactly what it was."
- Doris Lunden, 117

"Many of today's feminist see us as ahistorical, as if we are stuck in a time and never change, as if we are a bad fifties thing. But I am always learning more about this way of loving. I have changed in the last twenty years. Now I want to incorporate into my femmeness my new layers of experience. I want to be the best of our desire without apologizing for it, and I want us to know our own history. Butch and femme can change and grow."
- Joan Nestle, 265

"Being a butch has been the most troublesome and delicious experience of my life. Being butch—like being a woman, a lesbian, having a soul—is not something I can dismiss. I believe butches are born, not made. Since this is my birthright, I choose to glory in it. When I comb my hair back and strut out my front door, being butch is my hallelujah."
- Jeanne Cordova, 272

“The main justification for invalidating butch-femme is that it's an imitation of heterosexual roles and, therefore, not a genuine lesbian model. One is tempted to react by saying, "So what?" but the charge encompasses more than betrayal of an assumed fixed and "true" lesbian culture. Implicit in the accusation is the denial of cultural agency to lesbians, of the ability to shape and reshape symbols into new meanings of identification. Plagiarism, as the adage goes, is basic to all culture."
- Lyndall MacCowan, 321

"My life has taught me that touch is never to be taken for granted, that a woman reaching for my breasts or parting my legs is never a common thing, that her fingers finding me and her tongue taking me are not mysterious acts to be hidden away, but all of it, the embraces, the holdings on, the moans, the words of want, are acts of sunlight."
- Joan Nestle, 486
Profile Image for rie.
132 reviews20 followers
May 30, 2022
very fun and educational read minus the stories with obvious bisexual women considering this is a book about yknow…lesbians but I think this book is required reading anyway. Love you lesbians xx
Profile Image for Jonah.
134 reviews14 followers
July 19, 2022
Some contributions are definitely better than others, but this was a delightful lesbian book, I love lesbians <3
Profile Image for bird.
103 reviews21 followers
April 28, 2022
weird to rate this but that's my legal job. v glad i finally read this, a real gamechanger that goes sharply downhill once we hit around 1980 and it's just joan's friends writing horny poems, nothing against horny poems
Profile Image for Jessica.
144 reviews14 followers
July 25, 2011
On a major Joan Nestle kick. Even though The Persistent Desire gets referenced all the time in newer books, I couldn't find it in any bookstore and had to special order. Well worth the postage, and a great one to read aloud. The book feels like a conversation held under a big warm tent that could only have been pitched by a great humanist editor like Nestle. Her busy mending and minding of these stories is evident in the way it's knitted all together, beautifully patterned by Nestle web-spinning. You can still see the individual threads distinct, filament wrapped round filament; the bumps and carcasses are woven into the whole as opposed to dried out by editorializing about "problematics." I felt so human, and so aware of others' humanity, while reading this book.
Profile Image for Bethany.
606 reviews55 followers
July 3, 2017
I've never felt any affinity with a butch or femme label, but (to my surprise) I loved this. There is a great variety of talented voices captured here in a variety of prose and poetry, fiction and not.

I recently read a lesbian history book, and reading an overview of all the lesbian cultures that sprang up throughout the years made me tired. For the most part, the cultures came off as exhausting and restrictive. But this book shed a different light on Butch/Femme culture and hearing about different people's experiences and feelings about the topic was enlightening. (The Lesbian Feminists of the 70s however? Still exhausting, in my opinion. Especially according to this book.)
Profile Image for Aradia V.
44 reviews16 followers
February 2, 2008
Very good history of the butch/femme dynamic...obviously a bit out of date for current dynamics..but we should all know the stories of those who came before us.
Profile Image for Kate.
79 reviews11 followers
December 15, 2022
This book is such a lesbian essential (certainly, a butch/femme essential) and I’m so glad I’ve now read it in its entirety. It has been incredibly comforting to dip in and out of over the last year and a half, diving into my history every now and then when I needed to be reminded of our resilience and courage. I was moved to tears many times, from pride, anger, and just from the power of feeling seen as the femme I am. I love our community and our culture and our history ♥️

(A real highlight in this anthology for me was Gayle Rubin’s ‘Of catamites and kings: Reflections on butch, gender, and boundaries’. The nuance, sensitivity, and empathy displayed in that essay is something I really think we as the modern day lesbian community, and LGBT+ community as a whole, could really benefit from putting into practice more often.)
Profile Image for Rebecca.
53 reviews4 followers
February 26, 2023
five stars for provoking political discussion and dialogue foundational during its time with an ongoing relevancy today (considering 1992 publication date.) advanced-level intersectionalism (again for its time!!) for including the voices of BIPOC and trans activists and authors.

i enjoyed the timeline-like structure of the chapters including theory and analysis, poetry and prose, short stories and memoirs written by a range of lesbian authors outlining 200 years of lesbian history. however, i wish the timeline was more explicit; it was often difficult to pinpoint an era if not stated.

very mixed bag composition and woven content; alternating between academic political feminist history to literary lesbian fiction to erotic poetry though all concentrating on the topic of butch and femme identities.
my favourite pieces were:
dancing with dennie (myrna elana, poem),
photograph (myrna elana, poem),
lullaby for a butch (melinda goodman, poem),
billie (laurie hoskin, poem),
butchy femme (mykel johnson, philosophical memoir centring around gender expression),
sex, lies and penetration: butch finally fesses up (jan brown, critique on sex and sexuality from a butch sex worker),
the dance of masks (barbara smith, butch musings on feeling yourself lol this just made me realize how much i need to read more literature from the butch perspective, this was sexy),
a letter from the phillipines (marivic r. desquitado, letter, political)
an academic affair : the politics of butch-femme pleasures (joan parkin & amanda prosser, co-written romantic memoir structured like scenes from a play of both authors meeting each other in a university classroom, very cute)
i also enjoyed the refreshing all dressed up, but no place to go? style wars and the new lesbianism for its takes on a more recent popularization of lesbian styles and methods of signaling in new wave fashion, although this was written in the 90s and some references were lost on me. i could personally speak on a new "grey-area" that exists in which lesbian styles and fashion has been adopted by the average cishet woman causing a lack of visibility (literally i have been called straight-passing like please my eyebrows are bleached, i buzzed parts of my hair, i am dressed in men's clothing like let's be real).
i personally had a distaste for some of the more erotic poetry (while i did enjoy the sexual critique and theory, re: sex, lies, and penetration) but that is entirely preference-based, it was beautiful and definitely resonates with other readers.
also included an excerpt of stone butch blues, goes without saying, but loved it and love leslie feinberg.

it's hard for me to find an affinity with either butch or femme labels for myself, i went into reading this almost searching for a long-awaited answer. both can feel concrete and definite, and while i appreciate the societal value they hold and the rich history of both labels, expression feels trivial and fluid to me so neither term resonates fully. though i find today's butch is looked down upon and misused as we opt out for "masc", and femme is a loose and open term synonymous with any remotely feminine lesbian (if visible at all), and often, both identities are pitted against each other in online discourse (the femme4femme fetishization, lack of butch representation). i understand both identities are not a catch-all, but a proposed butch-femme scale is also often rejected as they are, again, a definite way of identification. i wanted to use this book as a tool to further pragmatic research into butch-femme labels, propped up by its histories and theory, as well as explore my own identity and likeness to the labels. am i butch or femme? where is my place in the lesbian community measured by these terms?

i did not exit with an answer LOL... i think ive come to the realization (once again) they are coalescent labels for the lesbians they are finite to. i am a mixed-race non-binary lesbian. of course i cannot connect to either one label entirely, my identity makeup is complex. i find, in today's world, style and expression has become very fluid that calling yourself either masculine or feminine entirely is a shorthanded way of labelling. i am so masculine when i am at the airport or in love. i am so feminine when someone puts sza on. i am so masculine to the straight girl. i am so feminine twirling my hair kicking my feet when i see a butch with short hair. i am so dykey to my mom. i am neither masculine nor feminine with my dyke friends. i just am idk

this novel included a study conducted by a womens and gender studies professor who, concentrated on lesbian history, asked their students to describe their feelings on both the butch and femme label after placing themselves in either one. the class of 1977 easily placed themselves on either side of the hall, then detailed how they fit (ex: "i work with my hands, i cut my hair short and wear slacks, i prefer to lead and have a preference for feminine women, therefore, i am a butch"). however, the class of 1988, a decade later, felt butch and femme to be non-feminist and non-lesbian, refused to place themselves (ex: "i wear a blend of men's and women's clothing, i wear makeup but keep my hair short" .. later this will be known as the chapstick futch LOL), rejected them as normative roles among their friends and social circles and even deemed them exclusionary, restrictive and borderlining heterosexuality (i do not agree with this final note). i think the study moreso emphasizes the movement of expression within a decade rather than deeming powerful traditional lesbian labels as trite. to reject butch and femme and conflate the labels as a mimicry to the binary male and female roles is to not take lesbianism seriously. to exclude or phase out butch and femme is to dishonour lesbianism.

there existed another lesbian separatism between the "old gays" that came out in 1969, pre-stonewall riots, and the political lesbians, who came out after 1969 and had a different understanding of the political meaning of love for women. (even now i note a similar modern discordance, for example, the terfs that reject nonbinary and trans lesbians as we open our landscape of language within points of identification, and the millennial vs gen-z lesbians, did you take the am i gay quiz on buzzfeed or uquiz). rejecting butch and femme does not remove yourself from an identification continuum. instead, the butch and femme label has become as specific to me as myself identifynig as a south asian lesbian, a biracial lesbian, a non-binary lesbian. neither butch or femme is a complete fitting description to my experiences, but they are to some, while i can find (or create) other terms that do frame them as well. i will always see value in butch-femme, i will always be in love with its history.

i think the one major critique i have is the lack of butch4butch or the mainstream narrative of a butch will always pursue a femme. for that i could relate more to the gay man than i do the cisgender lesbian. sorry. leslie feinberg was so real for representing the societal rejection of butch4butch couples in stone butch blues.

anyway why fuck up good sex with analysis?
Profile Image for Abigail.
134 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2017
Some of my favorite pieces from this [for my reference]

Gayle Rubin "Of Calamities and Kings: Reflections on butch, gender, and boundaries"

Pat Califa "Diagnostic Tests"'

Bonni Barringer "When Butches Cry"

"Recollecting History, Renaming Lives: Femme Stigma and the Feminist 70s and 80s"

Rita Laporte "The Butch Femme Question"

Barbara Smith "The Dance of Masks"
Profile Image for Sassafras Lowrey.
Author 26 books176 followers
July 4, 2014
MUST READ! without a doubt my favorite Butch/Femme book - a beautiful and powerful anthology that has held up to the test of time, core to a Butch/Femme literary cannon
Profile Image for Kay.
86 reviews
January 2, 2023
I'm beginning to mark books as "read" if I've read all that I currently intend to read and am ready to write about them, and this falls into that category. I probably read up through page 250 or so--about halfway.

I probably stopped reading this in Spring 2022, and was off and on for a while before that. I liked it enough to lend it to Av when she was asking for recs about butch and femme.

I have a feeling there are more essays in here that I would enjoy, and I wouldn't mind picking it up again later, but I got enough of what I was looking for: people talking about what they love and value about butch/femme culture, from the sex of it to the feeling of comfort in an identity. It's particularly interesting because of its time and place. It very much feels written "in defense of butch-femme" in a moment where this was often dismissed as old-fashioned, sad, pre-stonewall "role playing."

This book, along with Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, made it impossible for me to fully appreciate the new A League of Their Own, alert to its many historical imperfections and smoothings.

Anyway, I learned a lot about my people from this book and got to roll around in their lives, and that was very nice. Joan Nestle really is an interesting person.

Av's reaction to this book was interesting because 1) she pointed out to me how extremely white it is 2) she reacted so strongly against the way that the femme is defined in contrast to the butch, particularly by Joan Nestle. I don't disagree with either of these, but somehow I didn't really mind the second one. I think it's because I read it as an interesting depiction of how some people live, rather than a prescription for how I must live, and because my current environment is extremely outside of the butch-femme paradigm. I am probably the furthest from the femme role in a relationship (or flirtation, etc) that I have been since high school, and it's not because I'm playing the butch--it's because L and I are in the "androgynous twins" school of lesbian relationship. I think I did feel like more a femme in contrast to S, or K, and I wore more dresses, too.

This was cast into sharper relief when a young lesbian I met in a Las Vegas bar asked to see picture of my girlfriend, and I showed her L, and she said "aww, cute! masc 4 masc!" and I had an odd identity slippage where I realized people were seeing me differently from how I see myself. But it was kind of exhilarating, too, and I think if anything that comment has pushed me further into androgyny and the oxford shirt of it all. I think aging also has something to do with it, and no longer looking as girlish as I did when I was ten years younger and thirty pounds lighter. Dresses just don't appeal to me as often, now, except when I want to be VERY comfortable--only the sack dress and the muumuu are calling my name. Dresses, and body-conscious dresses, look lovely on the old and on the fat, too--but somehow femme just isn't what my aging is carrying me towards, at the moment.

I think it's probably about becoming people's boss, too.Pants and button up shirts feel much more "neutral" and confident than beautiful dresses that expose the body, or are covered in thrills and frills and attract attention. The business casual outfit conveys the message "listen to me, don't look at my body." Avery Trufelman's Articles of Interest podcast got me realizing that this isn't just a gay thing--the Ivy/preppy uniform has a long history of being gender-neutral, too, and it really is WHICH button up shirts you wear, and which pants, and which shoes, and which haircut, and which undergarments, that make the button up shirt look butch or femme. We need another episode on gays, Avery Trufelman!

Anyway, in this respect I do find a book of writing about the value and power of femme to be needed, because the neutral and powerful status that we (the world; the queer community; lesbians) afford to masculinity is working within me at this very moment! Perhaps I'll be back to this one sooner than I think.
8 reviews
December 21, 2022
set to currently reading because i am always, always, always reading this. a tome of great importance. a powerful, physical object and vivid - living - text. butches and femmes...take a trip to the archives. ze'll meet you there. i've cried holding this book. i think i've fallen asleep holding it - which usually isn't a nice thing to say about a book, but you can see its significance here. the persistent desire is like a sweet, fatty heart of butch femme resilience, pleasure, pensiveness, and...duh....persistence and desire. must, must, must read. and if you're lucky enough to get a physical copy* - snag it and hang on to it for DEAR LIFE.

*again...not the only option...
Profile Image for Shaneen.
59 reviews
July 10, 2021
Admittedly, before reading this book I harbored many questions in the vein of 1970s feminists in terms of butch-femme roles. Are they they regressive, patriarchal? This collection challenged my understanding of how gender and sexuality interact. I believe them to be more linked and also more individual than I did before. Reading this book has also given me a deeper understanding of the value of diversity within minoritized communities. A valuable resource.
Profile Image for Gabriel H..
150 reviews1 follower
September 15, 2021
Phenomenal; an incredible multiplicity of voices, thoughtfully organized. Still feels very urgent and necessary nearly 30 years after its publication. My main complaint is the lack of inclusion of out transfem authors; though discussions of transfeminity are definitely present in the book, they remain entirely marginal.
Profile Image for Coepi.
62 reviews4 followers
August 15, 2020
As an anthology, this was naturally a mixed bag - some very good bits and some quite dire. Overall though, I think it is both enjoyable and important reading. My favourite was Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on butch, gender, and boundaries by Gayle Rubin.
Profile Image for Addie.
42 reviews
August 11, 2022
Slow moving at the beginning but it picks up! Took me over a year to read. So well worth it. Really affirming and sex positive. I love reading things that reinforce my loving outlook on the world and this definitely did that! Pretty diverse too!! Or more so than stone butch blues I think
3 reviews
August 28, 2022
It's quite interesting if you want to learn about butch/femme bar culture from the 40s-60s in America. There are a couple of essays from women abroad as well. After the 1960s era, the essays get less interesting though, and it's around this time that there starts to be multiple essays of women who talk about how they had previously been in love with men (I seem to recall one who said she was still in love with her husband), and I don't think essays by obvious bisexual women have any business in a book supposed to be about lesbians. The writing quality varied between authors as well, although that's to be expected. Overall a decent read for those with an interest in lesbian history.
Profile Image for meg a..
9 reviews1 follower
January 9, 2023
if there were required reading for lesbianism, i would put this on the top 10 list. joan nestle put together a masterful collection of poems, stories, interviews, and more, that really dive deep into the inner workings of the butch-femme subculture of its time. it is brutal at times, but it showcases the reality these people were living in. it will stay on my shelf always.
Profile Image for m_miriam.
423 reviews
December 25, 2007
This book really synthesized and solidified my identity as a fem. I loved the historical perspective on queer culture. It's really affirming of the roles that queers have taken over the years that are not generally celbrated. Bless Joan Nestle!
3 reviews
November 18, 2012
I place a high value on knowing where your community started and how far it has come, so this is a pretty important book for me. You should approach it as a history book, though, not a present day "reader" on butch/femme things, because it is a fairly dated perspective.
10 reviews7 followers
February 13, 2008
oh joan, how could i have ever found femme without you? one of my favorite covers too.
Profile Image for Catherine.
21 reviews3 followers
February 13, 2012
Absolutely awesome
I am not someone who reads books a second time but I've read this one at least three times.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews

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