By Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
AFO Content Writer
“Women and marginalized people are taught, implicitly and explicitly, that part of being who we are is the paradoxical duty to at once understand and care for everyone else’s feelings and desires while not having a right to our own.”
- Kai Cheng Thom, “8 Lessons That Show How Emotional Labor Defines Women’s Lives”
“But I would like to advance the radical notion that providing care is work. By work, I mean it’s just that: work. I would like to state for the record that we are building and maintaining movements when we’re texting to make sure someone is ok, talk on the phone for hours, talk shit on the couch, drop off a little care. Those things are not a sideline or an afterthought to our movements. They are our movements.”
- Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered by disabled, femme of color, working class/poor genius)”
How do we best show care to one another?
How do we acknowledge the histories of inadequate care marginalized people have struggled with for centuries?
How do we care for ourselves?
And, at the heart of my current concerns, how do we show care in our intimate relationships, familial, friendly, romantic, and otherwise?
If you are someone who knows me in my personal life, you will know I think a lot about care and the work it entails. I often find myself being a support person to people going through difficult situations. Whether I think positively of the person or not, I frequently end up listening to their problems, holding space for their emotions, and helping them process their possible next steps.
This means that in addition to thinking about care generally, I spend a lot of time these days wondering what work emotional labor entails, despite having apparently provided emotional labor to several people throughout my life. A cursory glance at articles on the topic describe emotional labor as the feminist notion that women and those labeled by society as feminine “are socialized to provide a vast array of emotional services for other people (usually men), most often without acknowledgement or pay,”as well as the expectation that women do all of this for the sake of friendships and relationships while men do not.
Now, as enjoyable as I am sure it would be to write about men being incompetent in relationships and oblivious to how much work their partners do for them, that is not the focus of this piece. Rather, what I find myself concerned with is how this dynamic plays out in women-loving-women relationships, in particular with femme/butch partnerships. How do we collectively discuss emotional labor when the neglectful partner is not easily identified as a heterosexual man? What does it mean when the neglectful partner is a butch with a form of masculinity that should not be treated as equivalent to that of a heterosexual man? How do conversations move forward in that context?
For full disclosure, I write this from the perspective of a non-binary transgender femme and woman with a non-binary butch partner. Across the many years we have been together, I have felt nothing but warmth and love from them. I cannot think of a time where I did not feel our relationship was an intentional bond we committed ourselves to work on, figuring out a balance in supporting one another. In my experience, my femmeness has felt loved, treasured, and praised by my sweet butch.
However, this has not been the case with several femme and butch relationships. In fact, the common experience reported by many femmes has, more often than not, been a dire and dehumanizing one. Whether it comes from femme organizers noting how femmeness and femininity are consistently seen as less radical and only good for doing underappreciated care labor, dating circles with rape culture-like mindsets treating potential femme partners as sexual currency, or people relegating femmeness to a position of “excess and shallowness and stupidity,” reports on femme well-being consistently come back with unpleasant results.
These narratives do not only emerge from accounts given by femmes themselves. In multiple queer spaces, butches have expressed concern over the ways in which bonding between butches can involve misogynistic scorekeeping of sexual conquests of femmes in ways that mirror the traditional patriarchal abuse women face in heterosexual relationships. Masculinity becomes a code for indicating one’s power over women and butches perpetuate this dynamic when they act as though femmes are merely evidence of one’s sexual prowess rather than equal partners.
In attempting to navigate their own relationship to gender and gender presentation, many butches also turn the work of processing their emotions into labor which femmes take on as caretakers. Whether or not this process involves dealing with the misogyny butches have faced in their own life, equal room for depth of processing is often not afforded to femme partners. Even in matters as intimate as the care work concerned with feeding one’s own family unit, many lesbian and gay households (a category which some femme and butch partnerships fall under) do not divvy up the labor evenly. The work of caring about one’s family’s domestic needs often falls to the more feminine or femme partner while the illusion of equal input is maintained by both partners at the expense of the feminine partner. In short, time and time again we hear of femmes experiencing emotional inequity.
And yet, I also find myself thinking about life experiences that stand in contrast to this dynamic. I think back to my own darling butch partner, and to all of the occasions when butch friends have been there for me. I also recall the times self-identified femmes have manipulated and abused those in my community. There are femmes who are absolutely terrible at providing emotional labor and holding space for others. This unfamiliarity with emotional labor doesn’t invalidate their femmeness, but it does provide a strong reminder that there is no single, simple equation relating femmeness to feelings.
So, how exactly do we move forward from here? How do we validate these accounts of abuse and slanted care labor dynamics without essentializing that same abuse as a mere characteristic of any masculinity butches look for in their gender identity? How do we acknowledge femme care labor without allowing for femme abuse to slip by unnoticed as well?
In other words, how can our collective care be complex and humanizing for all of us?
Perhaps it is fitting that, in thinking over these questions, I turn to the brilliance of femmes and butches (some of whom I am blessed to call my friends) for answers to move these conversations forward. This work by femme writers on emotional labor, reminds me of one important insight: emotional labor, despite the many discussions about it, is not inherently exploitative. Despite the strain and legitimate work caring for others can involve, such work is not inherently negative.
On the contrary, emotional labor is at the heart of what we do when in relationship with one another. Not only for femmes in relationship with butches or women in relationship with men but rather for all of us involved in the messy social structures in which we interact. Whether it’s dealing with racism, ableism, transmisogyny, classism, sexism, or more, the labor of caring for one another is always there. Caring for one another sustains us, connects us, and keeps us going when we feel most hurt by the world. In short, emotional labor is nothing less than the “invisible glue” which holds our “communities, movements, and selves together.”
And so, in many ways what we are talking about in trying to create better, more complex relationships between femmes and butches is acknowledging the work we must do together in relationships to humanize one another. A work which, despite all the amazing time and effort consistently done by femmes (whether by choice or not), is not inherent to femmeness and not part of the labor which butches have to extract from femmes to cement their butchness. It is, instead, something much more akin to a skill set which all parties involved in the relationship must develop over time rather than treat as inherent to any one gender identity/presentation.
It is the fuel which allows relationships to thrive overall, with complexity and room for give and take that equitable, loving relationships should have. In committing ourselves to this care work, we give each other space to thrive and acknowledge the depth of character which normative assumptions of butch and femme identity can obscure. Without this shared commitment, emotional labor risks being oversimplified, reducing the complex work of care, and by extension relationships, into processes of emotional transaction. It risks turning butch and femme relationships from mutually generative places of support empowered by care work into bonds of emotional debt, tense connections held together only by strands of emotional obligation. And that, I can assure you, will do none of us any good.
I am grateful for how emotional labor has come into the discourse of everyday relationships. I am even more grateful to see that such feminized labor has received more and more validation, particularly as it relates to femme and butch relationships with women-loving-women/queer women relationships. However, this unfortunate tendency in the discourse to position femmes as only pitiable recipients of emotional labor responsibilities does a disservice to the magic of femme labor and the complexity of butch experience. We need a richer concept of emotional labor that not only acknowledges femme/feminized labor but also provides more dimensions to femme (and butch) humanity.
We need a concept that has room for those tender-hearted butches who couldn’t hurt a fly and don’t need to act tough and brave to be as butch as the next person.
We need a concept with room for those femmes who don’t have a clue how to be emotional yet still have the deepest love for their butch partners.
We need a concept with room for non-binary butches trying their hardest to find a new masculinity outside the restrictions of toxic, patriarchal norms.
We need a concept that has room for transgressive femininities that won’t be relegated to a supposedly privileged status of femininity simply because a transfemme wants to be seen as who she/they/zie is.
But, most of all, we need a concept of emotional labor that just lets us acknowledge the care we give to one another matters. It is complicated, fickle, and sometimes a back and forth but that that is okay.
Care, and the emotional labor it entails, need not be a monoculture but instead multifaceted, a rich, ongoing responsive ecosystem by which we all make room for our traumas, our limitations, our strengths, and our spaces to grow and unlearn structural conditioning together. An ecosystem where we can all commit to the work which relationships entail, for better and for worse.
For those of us experienced in the labor of care, and those of us perhaps in need of more time to learn how to care better
For men and for women.
For butches and for femmes.
For Queers and gender radicals alike.
For all of us involved in work of care that a better world requires.
*This entire piece would not have been possible without conversations with and labor from dear friends and my partner. I use this space to directly acknowledge the many insights and ideas which several butch, femme, and gender radical people in my life have given me and prompted me to write this piece with the care and caution that I did.