Before I came out, I attributed most of my love for women to feminism. While I strove to emulate strong, independent women, I found that I had a hard time balancing my social and political beliefs with my attraction to traditional displays of masculinity and chivalry in romantic settings. I spent years fantasizing about a mixture of the two: women, as I knew them, and traditional masculinity. The first time I met a dapper butch lesbian, I think I blushed for days. I later realized that my love for women wasn’t simply tied to sisterhood and empowerment, but that I am a very, very gay queer femme intersectional feminist. However, even after coming out, I still struggled with the alignment of my politics with my dating life and I found myself wondering, “Are queer feminism and romantic chivalry mutually exclusive?”
Chivalry, or at least the romantic idea of chivalry that people would have you believe, never really existed.
The idea of chivalry is rooted in the medieval code of honor for knights, which dictated how they were supposed to interact with the world, and specifically, women of a certain class or “ladies”. Everyone has heard the stories about heroic knights who were loyal, courageous, honorable and generous towards ladies who needed rescuing. But, before you take off on a quixotic adventure in search of your own personal Dulcinea, it’s important to remember that these stories were fiction. The reality is that knights were brutal, misogynistic warriors and that women were property traded for political and monetary gain. If a woman wasn’t lucky enough to be born a “lady”, but was instead a peasant like the majority of the population, the rules of chivalry didn’t apply from knights or anyone else.
As European society evolved out of the Middle Ages and colonialism dug its ugly claws into the world, women were still treated like the property of men from a legal and societal perspective. At the same time, the idea of romantic chivalry and delicate femininity continued to spread, but only for a specific class of woman – wealthy and white. These women were seen as property worthy of love and protection while other women weren’t afforded the same level of hyper-misogynistic so-called respect.
Dating, as we know it, didn’t develop until pretty recently when women went to work outside of the home following the industrial revolution and began having real monetary power of their own. Money shifted power dynamics, allowed for independence which was previously impossible and eventually meant that women could do “wild” things like own their own property or decide not to get married at all. Add in the sexual revolutions of the 1920s and 60s and it brings us to where we are today – with a culture of hook ups and hang outs and cries that chivalry is dead.
Despite the very real and problematic history and implications of traditional masculinity surrounding the concept of chivalry, I’m still a big fan. I’ll say it – I’m a femme lesbian who likes chivalry. Big. Queer. Romantic. Chivalry. Dyke on dyke chivalry.
When it comes to dating, I’m considered to be pretty traditional. “You’re an old soul,” my friends like to tell me. I don’t have any dating apps on my phone – not the fire one or the bumblebee or the one about breakfast foods. I shake my ass at dance parties, but don’t hook up with strangers. While I respect and support poly and open relationships, my natural inclination, whether in a relationship or even dating around, tends to be monogamous. I get hit on fairly often, but I’m slow to say yes to dates and have little patience for the gray zone.
I’m a romantic and enjoy taking things slow. I like to be wooed, courted even. I’m into flowers and deep conversations, candlelight, and slow jazz. The sexiest thing someone can do besides genuinely listening to me and sharing weird, nerdy things about themselves is to pick me up at my door for a date. To me, grand romantic gestures aren’t some cliché from terrible Rom-Coms, but a vastly underutilized form of expression.
When I do make the decision to be physically intimate with someone, I’m the kind of lover that makes Beyonce’s “Partition” seem like the Barney song. Know what I mean? You know what I mean.
It should be noted that I don’t think my brand of romance is better than anyone else’s. I’m not making a judgement call. This is just what works for me.
Before you roll your eyes and start playing Barry White (actually, go on and play Barry White, I like him too), I find that I still have a hard time reconciling my own beautiful strength and feminism with my enjoyment of assuming traditionally feminine gender roles in queer relationships.
I sometimes wonder if it makes me a bad queer, sex positive, politically progressive woman to prefer being pursued. As a feminine presenting person am I giving up my own agency when I choose to interact in relationships that in many ways mirror hetero-normative gender roles? I usually wind up blaming Katharine Hepburn.
I’ve dated widely across the queer gender and energy spectrum – the sweet and gentle transman, the dominant butch/stud, the definition-defying andro genderqueer cutie, the powerhouse ag-femme, the funny high femme who owned more lipstick than I did; and have given and received acts of chivalry in many forms. Despite my questions, I’ve realized that liking chivalry isn’t the issue. Gender presentation isn’t the issue. Who doesn’t want to interact with sexy people who are loyal, courageous, honorable, and generous?
The issue comes when acts of chivalry in the queer community are conflated with gender presentation and power dynamics. When queers attempt to subjugate others, or to override agency by implying that physical expressions of femininity or masculinity are somehow tied to an expectation of action or inaction of submission or domination, they do a disservice to what it means to be queer, to the beauty of self-determination.
When given and received in ways that center around consent and empowerment, acts of chivalry and even those that mirror traditional gender norms are perfectly fine (and sometimes pretty fun). When I, as a femme, allow a masculine of center person to hold my door for me, I am consenting to that act. If I didn’t want them to hold the door, I could open my own or stand and wait for them to go through. Sometimes, I do assert my independence just to remind us both that my action or inaction is an active choice, not one that is determined by or somehow tied to my expression of femininity. The same is to be said for the masculine of center folks who choose to perform acts of chivalry when dating feminine presenting people; it’s an active choice, an act of consensual giving, not a prerequisite of a certain type of gender presentation.
I am femme. I am not a damsel in distress. But, if I like you, I might just let you sweep me off my feet. Or, who knows, I might woo you.