The Femme Connection
For their second conference, the Sydney Femme Guild – a queer, feminist collective of femmes – has assembled a diverse program of events and speakers which will discuss, explore and connect participants with the femme experience. Bernie Burke reports.
What could you expect from Unpacking Femme this year, the Femme Guild’s second conference, you ask? If extraordinary international speakers are what you’re thinking, you’d be correct. But if you thought it would cost a bomb, it won’t. For opening night, it’s a tenner (or a fiver if you’re a member).
But the biggest point the Sydney Femme Guild’s Stella Topaz wants to make is that “we’re really trying to open the femme conference to anyone who has a point of connection”. That is, we’re all welcome.
A ‘connection’ might simply be an interest in the group. Whether you identify as femme or not, maybe your partner or friend does. But what if you’re trans, for example? Perhaps you want to find out if the Femme Guild is something you’d enjoy being part of actively, socially or politically?
“An interest and a positive connection with femme in some way – that’s really the only criteria,” Stella tells SX. She says member interests drive the group, hence their diverse back catalogue of gatherings and events that have included film nights, parties, picnics, yum cha, Mardi Gras marches and, of course, their inaugural conference in 2010.
The Femme Guild started five years ago as a friendly group, with the simple aim of uniting femmes who felt disconnected alongside more established identities in the queer community. They quickly realised they had a valid place as an activist group too, not just because femme identity is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight fashion aesthetic – but also because there were similar groups around the world adding to the political discussion on the topic.
They were keen to make contact with some of these academics, so Stella and her colleagues made a ‘wish list’ of women from other countries they’d like to have at the conference, hoping to get one. They were thrilled when they got two.
First up is the awe-inspiring Amber Hollibaugh from the US. Hollibaugh is an activist, artist, author and film producer who is a co-director of Queers for Economic Justice, New York. Apart from having worked in prominent posts at several other organisations in the US linked with AIDS and human rights, she’s also currently on the editorial board of the Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Her presentation will be a thought-provoking discussion on race, class, gender and sexuality.
The specific issue of race, however, will get premium treatment this year too.
“Leah is hoping to run a workshop specifically for people of colour, femmes of colour, and Indigenous women,” says Stella of another keynote speaker, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashina. The Canadian-Sri Lankan is a young rising star with several published titles and literary awards already under her belt. Piepzna-Samarashina also performs a one-woman show, which has toured internationally.
That’s already plenty to get excited about, without even touching on what we have to offer here at home.
“Sometimes having international speakers can help you to recognise that you’re part of the world stage,” says Stella. “What we do here is also really relevant. We can forget that in Australia, because we’re so geographically isolated.”
Enter Kath Duncan, another keynote speaker, who is a prodigious local talent. Duncan may be familiar to many, having been a face of queerness and disability for many years at conferences, festivals and events, in addition to her work as an artist and journalist in Melbourne print, radio and television media.
While these incredible women are highlights of the conference, slide show stories, practical workshops ranging from bike maintenance to caring for your sewing machine, a tango class, and a sex worker panel discussion are just some of the assorted treats the hardworking volunteers have drummed up. There will also be individuals sharing personal journeys, and presentations from familiar local favourites such as Fat Femme and Scarlet Alliance. There’ll even be a couple of display stalls for something more relaxed than the structured events.
Unpacking Femme has an illustrious line-up this year, with something to whet every appetite.
“At the last conference we had really good attendance, good discussion and a great vibe. People who put the time in to come along take something out – it’s an exchange,” says Stella. “Don’t just sit on the sidelines!”
[Image] The Sydney Femme Guild. Photo: C. Moore Hardy
Sydney Femme Guild Conference: Unpacking Femme, Friday, February 8 and Saturday, February 9, University of Technology, Sydney, 733 Harris Street, Sydney. Tickets and information: femmeguild.com