Location: Eugene, OR
Who are you, and what do you do, in your own words?
I’m a publishing generalist, I guess. I’ve run a couple of small publishing companies and done all the kinds of work that entails – writing, editing, design, production, marketing, bookkeeping, you name it. These days, most of my time is spent as Editorial Director for Greenery Press, the publishing company I founded in 1992 and sold in 2010, and as a freelance author, editor and consultant.
What does girl fag mean to you? Do you think it’s strictly a sexual orientation, or does it encompass gender identity as well? Is it one piece of your sexual orientation, or is it the only way you identify?
[Read an excerpt from Janet's memoir Girlfag: A Life Told in Sex and Musicals on Ms. Behaved here.] I think “girlfag” can be either a sexual orientation, a gender identity, or both. In my case, it definitely has characteristics of both – I’m more than a little gender-dysphoric (if I were a couple of decades younger I think I’d have probably transitioned [to male], but by the time I became aware of the possibility it seemed a little late in the game), but my sexual attractions are primarily toward queer men and secondarily toward queer women. It’s certainly not my only sexual orientation: I also identify as bisexual or pansexual – I prefer the latter term, but I’m willing to bow to common usage in order to be better understood – as BDSM, and as polyamorous.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve experienced in identifying this way?
The fact that it’s still not at all well understood. I can remember telling someone that I felt like a gay man in the body of a woman back when I was eighteen or nineteen – and now, nearly 40 years later, there’s still not much understanding of the concept. The different but related phenomenon of the “fag hag” is a source of confusion for many – my sense of it is that many fag hags are actually girlfags but don’t have the terminology to explain themselves. There’s also a lot of hostility toward girlfags and guydykes, especially the latter, based on many queer folks’ negative experience with opposite-sex people who are rude or obtrusive in asking for what they want: unless you’ve actually met some guydykes (who tend, in my experience, to be rather gentle and retiring fellows), it’s hard to understand the difference between them and the straight guy who swaggers around going “Well, *ah* lahk to eat pussy, I guess *ah* must be a lez-bee-yun.” (I tell the story in Girlfag of an early encounter in which I was overly aggressive toward a gay friend who clearly wasn’t interested. I’ve learned a lot since then.)
You are perhaps best known for your work on the polyamory bible “The Ethical Slut” as well as many books on BD/SM and spiritual sex. Why did you decide to focus your memoir around your girl fag orientation rather than other, perhaps better-known aspects of your sexuality?
I really don’t have anything more to say about BDSM or polyamory. “Radical Ecstasy,” Dossie’s and my book about kinky spirituality or spiritual kinkiness or whatever, is my highest and hardest-won knowledge about BDSM; the second edition of “Ethical Slut” is the best stuff I know about polyamory. I don’t want to be one of those writers who goes on revisiting slice after slice of their original subject, with no new insights, in order to stay in print – once I’ve communicated the best knowledge I have, I want to move on to the next thing.
Also, I see gender and orientation as the cutting edge of what’s happening in our culture – the tension between the political (sexual orientation as monolithic and inborn) and the personal (sexual attraction as mercurial and often on a different vector from community and identity) is playing out in some fascinating ways, and I wanted to add my voice to that discourse.
I have found that editors at feminist and LGBT oriented publishing houses are resistant to book proposals related to of girl fags and guy dykes, they worry it’s too controversial or obscure. You created the “Beyond Binary” imprint to publish this book, was this due to experiencing similar resistance?
Yup. The gay presses aren’t interested because it calls the whole subject of sexual orientation (with its implications of gender essentialism) into question, and the straight presses aren’t interested because they think the audience is too small. Eventually it got to where I was sending the book to editors who were newer and less experienced than I am, and that just seemed silly to me, so I self-published.
As someone who has worked in publishing for many years, what is your take on the current shift towards self-publishing and e-publishing?
The same, in many ways, as my take on the universalization of BDSM. When anybody can do something, it becomes trivial – people cease to understand the risks involved or the hard work in becoming good at it. I look at the earliest books Greenery published and wince – they need editing, they are horribly designed, and I made huge mistakes in things like audience definition. I still make a lot of mistakes, but I try not to make the same mistake twice, so I’d like to think that I’m making fewer of them and they’re less dire.
The flip side is that the growth of self-publishing is allowing fringe voices to find an audience. It’s taking the micropublishing phenomenon that made presses like Greenery viable – the common belief in big publishing for many years was that there weren’t enough alt-sex people in the US to make it worth while publishing books on such topics, although they’ve since learned better – and extending it out even further. So if you know a lot about, say, making blackberry wine, and the big publishers turn you down because they don’t think enough people are interested in the topic to justify their investment, you have a way to prove them wrong. And that’s huge.
Your memoir is perhaps the first book written that focuses exclusively on girlfags, although the concept is touched on briefly in other works. What types of discussion of girl fags would you like to see more of in future?
More memoirs. I’ve been noticing that there’s a big difference between gender-dysphoric girlfags like me, and what I think of as “femme girlfags” – the ones who are kind of female drag queens. I don’t understand that concept very well (although my coauthor Dossie is arguably one of them), and I’d love to see a book by such a person. I also think there needs to be a lot more attention given to cross-orientation relationships – I’ve been working on a book proposal on that topic myself, although so far there have been no takers. And a lot more criticism of the “born this way” model of sexual orientation, which seems to have little or no scientific basis but is politically convenient – but I don’t have the qualifications to write that.
Musical theater is often associated with gay male culture, and it plays a big role in your book. What is your current favorite musical and why?
I’ve been listening a lot lately to “Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” because I think David Yazbek’s lyrics are so ingenious. (His “Lovesick” deals with the same topic as a song I wrote and then discarded in Girlfag, and does it about three hundred times better.) My all-time favorite is Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” – the way that man manages to pack information, emotion and never-before-noticed connections into a simple lyric is nothing short of phenomenal. The two musicals most relevant to my girlfaggery, though, are “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Cabaret,” which kind of bracket the book as well as a whole phase of my adulthood.
Why do you think the concept of girl fags and guy dykes is so difficult for people to grasp? Do you think it will ever have the same recognition as other, better-understood queer identities?
These identities rebel against both gay dogma (“only a male can be a fag, only a female can be a dyke”) and heterosexuality (one of my working definitions of a girlfag is “a woman who loves men but dislikes heterosexuality”), as well as against gender essentialism (a concept which is dissolving slightly around the edges but is so firmly entrenched that it’s going to be a long, long haul to get it taken entirely apart). As for future recognition – I’m inclined to think that what will happen first is that the idea of “gay” as a personal identity will gradually go away; we’ll go back to the way it was before the late nineteenth century, when instead of defining who you *were*, you talked about who you liked to have sex with. Before that can happen, we will of course need to get to the point where discrimination on the basis of what kind of sex you like to have is ancient history – the gay identity is essential to the political strength needed to secure full equality. But once that task is accomplished, my suspicion is that the whole idea of “sexual orientation” as a personal identity – including girlfag and guydyke – will gradually disappear.
You have written about the backlash you’ve received from some people around using the term “girl fag.” What do you think this is about, and do you feel the acceptability of this term has changed or evolved over the years? How do you feel about emerging concepts like “queer heterosexuality” that are similar to girl fags and guy dykes?
There has been a fair amount of blowback about “girlfag” as a term, as you know. It’s not monolithic: some people object to the word “fag,” calling it hate speech; others object to it as appropriative; still others object to the fact that we “fetishize gay male sexuality.”
I’m going to start with the “appropriative” one because I truly don’t understand it. *All* speech, and all art, is appropriative. Words do not get created out of thin air; they get adapted from a word in another language, or a word that has a metaphorical similarity to the thing being described. We all learned about the path from Old German to Old English to Modern English in school, right? – that’s appropriation. What *is* true, and unfortunate, is that very often a word or phrase used as “in-crowd” code by an oppressed minority gets picked up by the majority and loses its status as a badge of in-crowd acceptance, but I don’t think that’s something that any of us can fight – a word as unexceptional as “cool” as a term of approval originated in the black jazz scene and was eventually picked up by the mainstream. It’s simply the way language happens.
As for “hate speech,” the idea of treating a word as inherently damaging is exactly the same logic as outlawing flag burning – as though the symbol for a thing were the thing itself. I understand that many gay men have heard the word “fag” immediately before receiving a fist in the stomach, and for that reason I don’t use it about anybody but myself without prior permission. But we all know that “fag” and “dyke” and “nigger” and all the rest of them can be used tenderly and affectionately, or joshingly, or with anger and hatred, or as a joke (Dan Savage’s column was called “Hey Faggot” for many years), or in any other way possible: they are entirely context-dependent. I don’t have enough of a sample size to know for sure, but my best guess is that the objections to “girlfag” as hate speech come mostly from older and non-urban gay populations, because “fag” is used fairly casually in most of the younger urban populations I know.
(A side note: I am of the generation of second-wave feminists that considered “girl” as demeaning and belittling when used about an adult woman, yet I have not heard a single objection to the “girl” half of the word.)
As for fetishizing gay male sexuality: well, yeah, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? As long as we don’t let our attractions lead us into behaving badly (not hearing a courteous “no,” insisting on inclusion in men’s space, etc.), I don’t see the problem. Anybody who fetishizes, say, plump middle-aged soft-butch sex writers is more than welcome to their private lusts, as long as they behave themselves in public.
Also, I should point out that I didn’t coin these terms; they have been in use since the 1980s, and are well established. I think that if I were trying to coin a word for “us,” I’d have tried to think of something different, just to avoid pissing off potential allies – but I have no idea what that word would have been. (Carol Queen talks a bit about this difficulty in her foreword to Girlfag.) Perhaps “mollies,” after the recent discovery that females of the Atlantic molly fish prefer male fish that they have seen courting other male fish.
What are you looking forward to in 2013? Do you have any other projects, tours, classes, etc. planned?
2013 is the year in which I figure out what to write about next. While I do intend to make it to the East Coast pretty soon to do some readings and classes, my main goal for this year is to focus on some of my other interests: I want to find a publisher for the cross-orientation relationships book and begin doing some more interviews for it, and I want to do some writing about my other interests – dogs, food, aging, etc. While I fully expect that sex will find its way into all of these – I’ve been fully immersed into the “advanced sexuality” world for more than 20 years now, and it has become my paradigm and my social life – I don’t have anything much left to say about it as a topic in and of itself.