shucking corn on the porch, vegan meats, & walmart acrylics: on being a midwestern femme in los angeles

i am shivering on this greyhound, my fingers finding homes on the grimy seats under my thighs to try to keep warm. minnesota is cold everywhere: in houses, in cars, in restaurants, on public transit. it occurs to me that i have not felt cold, truly cold, in two years. an elderly woman sits next to me, the sacred generational bond of women who sit next to one another. she has a tattoo of a black and white spotted cow on her arm. a baby is screaming on the bus, and she looks at me and dips her head, acknowledging, “unhappy.” i wonder what she would think if she knew i am gay. i don’t think she’d say it aloud, but i wonder if the word dyke would cross her mind. i wonder if she’d get up and move seats, my physical being a mold spore. strangers do not read me as gay, they just think i look like someone who lives in los angeles, even in los angeles. people ask me about my boyfriend all the time — at doctors offices, at work, in small talk before the plane takes off and in elevators. what follows is the momentary consideration of wondering whether i should out myself and risk compromising the interaction, or if i should pretend and say yes, i have a boyfriend. he is strong and loves me well. i don’t want people to feel tricked, with my dressing as what they’d think is a straight girl. on the flip side, i don’t want to have to make them feel better about their assumption that i am straight, and i don’t want to listen to their apologies, or hear about their gay friend or cousin. it is, also, exhausting hiding in plain sight. the entirety of me is not ever seen.

in july, i was asked if i think that butch-femme relationships just recycle heteronormative structures. my response was immediate: i do not think that in any way, queer people can be cishet in the way we move in the world. my femme body is just as queer as anyone else’s, and it never has been that of a cishet woman’s. i never thought i was straight, even for one moment, but even if i had, i would’ve been a queer femme even then. i have never loved a man, even when i thought i did, and the way i love butches is nothing like the way i’d imagine i might love a man. i love the expansiveness of butch bodies and the way they do not ever have to be one thing. i love watching butches do their thing and doing whatever i can to support them. i love defining butch as whatever they want to be defined as, and nothing else — not strong or steady or anything else if they don’t want to be. i love fat butches, butches of color, butches who do not build things and butches who love other butches. i love the legacy of butch-femme relationships, and i long to be a part of it. butches are not men (unless they want to be) and nothing about them replicates men, and i have never been femme because of my proximity or juxtaposition to butch lovers or friends. to say that straight women are feminine and therefore queer femmes want to be straight women, and straight men are masculine and therefore queer butches want to be straight men, is bananas to me. nothing coule be further from the truth. (and that’s without going into the whole bioessentialist women = feminine and men = masculine thing.)

i stopped shaving my body and wearing a bra sophomore year of college, but i still invest in acrylic nails and eyelash extensions and expensive skincare. if i did shave or wear a bra, as i do very occasionally, i am just as queer as i was when i did not, and if i never painted my nails, wore makeup, or washed my face, i’d be just as femme. i sprinkled glitter in my hair for a year in college, because i could. i love pink silks and vegan meats and heat styling and malls. i have also climbed barefoot onto the cliffs above the mississippi and built a secret fire with gas station wood. i’ve seen the milky way more times than i can count. i love sitting shotgun in someone’s truck and i love going home smelling like cigarette smoke, full of food from a neighborhood potluck. i don’t mind being sweaty and dirty and i went three months last year without washing my hair, my homemade deodorant the only clean thing i put on the secret parts of my body. i’m a dirty high femme and i would not have it any other way. 

i know with what to adorn the walls of a lake cabin, i know how to spell lefse and lutefisk, and i know that the bathrooms at kwik trip will not require a passcode. i have had sex in a car in a parking lot of one of those wisconsin sex toy stores that are open until three in the morning with cheez-its from a gas station the only thing to eat after. i know the rules of fishing in the early morning, and then i want to go to target in the afternoon. i fit in, but i don’t. i grew up in a town that did not have a high school. it is why, when everything feels too overwhelming now, i drive to san bernardino. i love that an antique mall and cheap black coffee know how to heal in ways the city just doesn’t.

today, as sylvia and i walked along the eastern edge of the mississippi, a man in a fishing boat waved at us from the middle of the river. at a rest stop yesterday, an elderly couple smiled at me as i walked past them on the sidewalk. it is the language of the midwest (and probably lots of other places): we acknowledge one another, even if we do not understand each other. our lives are so different, and in the same token, they are so alike. this is the good part about hiding in plain sight, too: i don’t have to wonder what they think of gay people all the time. i can just smile at them, and i don’t have to wonder. 

i have so much shared blood with midwesterners, midwestern queers especially. and even more so, poor midwestern queers. we have these unspoken glances, smiles, stares. we grew up eating corn and wheat, drinking cow’s milk, thrifted things feeling good enough. we could not afford new back-to-school clothes or the decorative girl folders, and free school lunch wasn’t bad. 

growing up poor and queer felt public. even if they didn’t, everyone must have known the ways we counted pennies and called grandma for help with the mortgage payment. when i was in middle school, the district wanted to redraw the elementary school lines to more evenly space out demographics, and the school geographically closer to me didn’t want kids like me going there. the parents were interviewed for the newspaper and said it in coded language that made me feel like a bug. i didn’t necessarily know it then, but being poor feels visible, unable to be hidden, as does queerness. it’s a stain that everyone must see, even if i am not ready to share it. 

growing up poor and queer and femme felt even more public and embarrassing: it felt like everyone knew that my aeropostale and abercrombie shirts were from goodwill, or borrowed from another’s closet. everyone must have known my juicy couture perfume was the target knock-off version, not the designer brand from the makeup counter at the mall like the other girls. i got my hair highlighted at fantastic sam’s once a year with the coupon that came in the mail. i had acne and free lunch and i liked girls, and every part of me felt disgustingly impossible to hide. maybe this is why i felt less like a girl than the other girls, but i don’t want to equate femininity with wealth or girlhood with beauty, so maybe this is just something i’ll have to chew on.

in my adulthood, i have such love in my platonic friendships and i am so fulfilled by the glorious, thoughtful, intentional people that pepper my life. i would say that, largely because of the people in my chosen family, my baseline approach to life is cheerful, open, adventurous, spontaneous — unless i am feeling overstimulated or fatigued, which can really dysregulate me. i need to have had good sleep, to have been fed. but in general, i think that things will work out for the better. i believe that people are good on the inside. and the majority of people in my life are the same: we love to believe that things are good and wonderful and life is just splendid as it is. we can just sit on the porch and it is enough. sometimes i get away from this natural state of being, as is easy to do in the big city, but i return when i sip red wine and wear a pink lace slip from the silverlake flea market that was far too expensive. 

and in romantic love, i want it to be slow and careful and deep. i want to shuck corn on the porch and laugh until late into the night, my eyelash extensions and gel acrylics from walmart and platform sandals just as queer as anything. i want to be loved reliably and steadily and thoughtfully by one person, who thinks i am the prettiest one in the room. i want our life to be ours, just ours, and also shared with everyone that we love; someone who teaches my impatient heart to sit on the porch longer. i love big and fierce and i never want to fall asleep wondering i’m giving them enough freedom. i want my love to be enough for them, and never too much. 

i have learned a lot from other small-town butches and femmes and queers, or from those who come from even smaller towns — other people who grew up just as poor and as queer as me. it is slow and quiet and there is so much love and value there. we made do with what we had, and it was so hard, but it was okay. i’ve learned a lot about unequivocal support and goodness in everyone, something the big city and leftist politics might not preach. when i hear big-city californians scoff at the politics of places like the midwest or the south, i want to scream that if you have not been there, you do not know the beauty of the way we do community, the way we just keep living and breathing and loving. there are so many good things about being from a small place, and people from places like los angeles will not ever understand. 

i am a small-town femme living a big life in a big city loving in big ways. i don’t ever wanna make myself small for anyone. i don’t ever wanna apologize for my skincare routine and thoughtful, ritualistic way i pick out my clothing most mornings, for the expensive cocktails i want to drink, for the way i feel more at peace next to a standing body of water than the ocean, for pointing out angel numbers on license plates and addresses, for the life i lived before moving that was just as good as it is now. the sweetest loves i have known have been from so many places, none better than the other. i don’t want to hear about how places like the one i’m from couldn’t hold all of me, because the big city doesn’t, either. there are so many parts of me that los angeles just will not see, and there are just as many parts that minnesota will not, either. i am a girl stuck between lots of places and identities, and it’s always felt that way. 

being a midwestern femme in los angeles has me wondering if there is a place for me anywhere, with my braids and thrifted clothing and bottom-shelf champagne and dairy in the fridge, half of my friends vegan and gluten-free and the other half butchering animals in their backyard. i wonder if anyone will ever see all of me, which comes with the myriad of people i love who love me too. i have to believe that there are people like this. i have to believe there are people who want to look at designer things and go home to drink a cheap beer on our porch. i want to eat dinner we prepared together and play music we wrote together. i want my life to continue to be filled with platonic loves and a big romantic love. i cannot do this life alone, and i would never want to. i will continue to be a shining femme, a bright girl, finding laughter and joy in small things, because it is all i have known. i will continue to be a minnesotan femme in los angeles, because i have to. i have to.

by Tess Mueske

queer lesbian femme from minnesota, currently located in los angeles. musician, poet, professional matchmaker, postpartum doula, international solo traveler. same sun, moon, & rising as britney spears.