In those early 1990’s, my fabulous Mary Janes with their chunky heels went with burnt-out velvet tops and a super-black, ice-skating-skirt-shaped number (also velvet; are you kidding me right now?!) and oh yes, stockings with the seams up the back. (What a PAIN to put on, but so worth it. So definitely worth it.)
Despite “her” power, somewhere along the way, I lost track of her.
I lost track of the fierce hard femme whose identity had sustained me through pain and heartbreak and fear and the worst, most debilitating jealousy I have ever experienced before or since. I lost track of her, but that’s okay. No regrets.
She, that outrageous femme, did a fabulous job, long nails on her left hand and short on her right—the better to seduce you with, my dear. But I lost her and the holy-crap-this-is-some-pure-stuff-pure-power-no-chaser that she gave me.
Things changed, I grew, the river moved its banks again. I didn’t like the way that parents moved their children away from me when they saw me. I didn’t like the way my power “scared the horses,” as my lover said.
I wrapped myself in the Motherpeace Tarot deck. I wrapped myself in Earth Mother imagery and the sense of myself as related to the Divine Feminine in my wanting a child, in my fat-strong self, and everything became…
What did it become?
I don’t know, really.
It was something blurry.
Something taking some of this and some of that…something composting, turning and turning, complicated and living and dying and decaying, and coming to life again.
I started going camping a lot and my hiking boots came back.
I started drumming around fires a lot and my companions were cis men with something to prove.
But then some things converged… Some beautiful, blessed, and confusing. Someone asked me to “make yourself useful and call West” at a ceremony, as though I knew what that was.
Nevertheless, I shook in those hiking boots and stood in the West quadrant of a sacred Circle and I called on the Element of Water. I felt tendrils of that power that had come through me in those years before. Just tendrils, just reflections, maybe, even, just a bit, here and there.
Then I met a group of Radical Faeries—those who were based in the District of Columbia, and particularly, a subset of the DC Faeries who came camping at the interfaith, pagan campground that had become my spiritual home. They taught me about queerifying gender, bending the rules until they shattered, and the importance of diamond dust. (That’s small-grain glitter, for those not in the know.)
And as I became a more and more confident priestess, I started wearing long and flowing dresses in the Center of the Circle. I started wearing Irish dresses – cinched bodices with open skirts over chemises. I covered my body in what I thought of as “ritual attire,” for special occasions. I didn’t wonder what it was or what it meant or how comfortable and powerful I felt in those clothes, how much my self-expression was coming forward more and more and what that meant about my inside and outside matching.
Until Aphrodite, that is.
Until Aphrodite called me and called loudly.
What do I mean?
I weighed more than 300 pounds at this point and nearly 5’10”. (My weight, weight-stigma, and my own internalized fat-hatred are all relevant here.) I was not a nubile young thing. And yet this guy who was making a big, gorgeous, bacchanal of a ceremony…a ceremony based on Greek mythology…a ceremony at the center of a week of ceremony… well, he had a question for me.
“I’d like you to be Aphrodite in the ceremony,” he said,
“Me?!” I replied. “Are you sure?” I listed the names of thin, sexy fire dancers. I asked him about the women I saw all around me who were more woman-ly (and certainly sexier) than I thought I ever could be.
And he said, “Oh no, it’s you. You’ll be great. I insist.”
I agreed. With fear and trembling I agreed that in three months or so, I would take up the mantle of Aphrodite in a ceremony where others would also be Aspecting—taking up and taking in the essence—other Olympian deities.
I researched Aphrodite of the Golden Sandals. I read up on Aphrodite of the Sea Foam. I labored over the idea of Her birth, her emergence from the ocean (and the way the sea-faring Phoenicians brought Her to Greece). I spent time learning about bright and elevated Aphrodite Urania as well as Aphrodite of the people—Aphrodite Pandemos. I researched and read and learned and spent time in prayer and study.
And then the day of the ceremony came.
The day came and I received the gift of two hours alone to get ready. All alone, just me and Aphrodite. Just me and my fierce prayers that I would do everything I could to bring Her shining spirit with me into that Circle on the hill.
I put my feet into sandals.
I crossed my body with platinum-gold lame and tied it with gold braid under my breasts.
I took some of that same gold braid and I cinched the fabric tight over my shoulders.
I looked into the mirror.
I looked and looked and looked.
And then I did my makeup.
I softly drew around my eyes with aquamarine pencil, a gentle cat’s-eye at the edge.
Soft pink lipstick. Thick and luscious mascara.
And the last creative touch: tiny glittering crystal beads through my black hair, beads I hoped would evoke flecks of the sea foam from which She came, lush, born into the fullness of her blinding sexuality.
Finally, I prayed one more time that Aphrodite Pandemos would inspire me, give me some spark, some understanding, some expression of Her reality to share with whatever happened in the Stone Circle on the hill.
And when I walked up into the crowd that had gathered for ritual, it became clear that She had done all those things I asked.
The crowd parted and people stared. A dear friend, Aspecting Hera, tall and regal and crowned, immediately began an argument about who was more powerful, the mere granddaughter of Asherah or the Queen of Olympus. Aphrodite took it up with her (the Fall of Troy, anyone?) in high spirits and before the ceremony had even begun, the Olympians were in their usual cranky, competitive, creative humor with one another.
I won’t go into all the details of that ceremony; they aren’t the important part.
What is important is that when the leader of the ritual invited “those who are called to embody the power of feminine sexuality” to gather around Aphrodite, I found myself in the center of a circle of a hundred people. Femmes. Cis women in hiking boots and gauzy ritual gowns, jeans and t-shirts too. And a genderqueer friend smiling from ear to ear, stepping up, wrapped in veils.
And then all of us were caught up in the drums and began to dance. Not dancing just for the eyes of cis men, but dancing with and for and because of one another. And Aphrodite blessing me, shining in the sun in Her mirror-bright dress at the center of it all. Listening to the drums, taking their music into me, taking Her into me and dancing.
Months later, a woman I did not know told me that when she dreamt of the Goddess, it was Aphrodite in me she saw. I reminded her that it was not I she saw, but a moment in time, an Aspect, a piece of the Divine that borrowed a vessel for one ritual on one day. Still, what this woman said has obviously stayed with me.
The Divine has many guises, and this story is only one tiny piece of the One and Many, Male, Female, All, and None.
But for me, this is a story of the Divine giving me back to myself, just as Derek Walcott says in his poem, “Love after Love.” He writes, “You will love again the stranger who was your self,” and that is what Aphrodite gave me that day.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
There is some part of what I experienced that day with Aphrodite that has never left me. Though I am much bigger than I was then. Though I am fifteen years older than I was then. Though I am “a nice married lady” compared to the life I lived then.
Though all these things are true, what Aphrodite gave me back was the power of femme, and in my case, the power of queer femme identity.
For me, and I would never attempt to speak for someone else on this point, for me Aphrodite gave me what would become my mature gender identity.
It is love, you know? The development of my gender identity is all about love. And so many kinds of love.
It is the unconditional positive regard of the Earth Mama stereo/archetype that I know some people will always experience in me. It is the raw sexuality of Pandemos that desires and is desired and knows what it is to feel Whitman’s “urge and urge.” It is the elevated, Divine love of Urania. And it is most of all, it is my love for myself.
I claim the identity of sovereign femme. No longer the hard, fierce femme of my early twenties. But also not the tender, asexual embrace that came after. Not the soft butch I tried to be to fit in where I thought I had to go. None of these.
What has remained (what Aphrodite left behind?) is a ferocious commitment to queer femme identity for myself and for others. Whether we are trans, cis, genderqueer, non-binary, or some other expression, femme should be available to us when it is our authentic expression. Any authentic gender expression should be available to us.
Whether it comes with heels (not anymore for me) or fuchsia lipstick (nearly every day) or shaving my legs (nope) or playing with glitter, makeup, and Boxycharm subscriptions (oh my, yes) it’s all one, big ball of me. It’s all queer. It’s all sovereign. It’s all expressive. It’s all about the inside matching the outside.
It’s all just one femme’s journey.
It’s my story.