The following post is, without contest, the most difficult thing I’ve written thus far on Buzz Cuts and Bustiers. Besides the fact that it inexplicably took me four days to complete this, I’m not even sure now – after rewrite after rewrite after rewrite – that I’m satisfied with the result. Maybe I should just appreciate the meta-ness of struggling to express my struggles with expressing myself. A failure to communicate within a failure to communicate. I did love Inception, after all. Keeping that in mind, I hope you can excuse these weird, rambling thoughts that are the product of a weird, rambling couple of weeks. I promise my next post will be more a legitimate post and less a sleep-deprived stream of consciousness.
Lately, I don’t seem to know how to talk about myself. Well, I mean, not completely – I’m kinda talking about myself right now – but in a more existential way. What is my gender identity? What does that encompass? Is it female, butch, masculine female, masculine-of-center, gender nonconforming, or all of the above? What is butch to me? How do I see butch in other people? Do I have the right to even look for or somehow determine butch in other people? Why do I feel comfortable using female pronouns, but bristle at being called “lady” or being regarded as “one of the girls?” How can I explain that though I am female and ID as female and not as a trans person, I don’t feel like “cis” is a completely accurate word for me? How do I say, “Please interact with me the way you would interact with a man, even though I am a woman” without sounding like a misogynistic prick? How can I express the gender dysmorphia I experience when I see the outline of my breasts under a freshly ironed button-up, but that those same breasts are welcome in bedroom situations? How can I say all this without offending women, without offending lesbians, without offending trans people, without offending myself? Lately, I can’t. Just can’t. And it’s wearing me down.
In the course of describing this ongoing dilemma to my GF, I came to an interesting realization. During the many times throughout my journey of queer self-discovery when I’ve struggled to express myself – or specifically, myself as a product of my butchness – the femmes in my life have been the ones who required of me the least amount of explanation. As a whole, they have always seemed to “get it” very quickly, or at least, to be able to make sense of my existential whining and frustrations. Since then, I’ve been trying to focus on positive, reliable truths like this – things I can explain, and therefore, find comforting. Patches of calm waters in an otherwise tempestuous sea.
Please note that this is not some transparent attempt to flatter or otherwise woo my femme readers (unless, of course, it’s working), nor is it meant to be a universal representation of butch-femme communication; it’s simply a factual observation of my experiences. Whether these femmes have all been experts in the field of Butch Studies (or Studying Butches), or whether they could just empathize with the importance I place on my self-applied label and physical presentation of gender identity, I can’t be sure. But it’s always been my belief that, in so many wonderful ways, butches and femmes are two sides of the same Gender Presentation and Identity Commemorative Collector’s Coin. To put it another way: if you take the overly simplistic gender expression scale and bend it into a perfect circle, those two opposite ends are bound to connect.
Besides leaning on the perfumed shoulder of a sympathetic femme, my other favorite Cheap Alternatives To Professional Therapy For Dealing With My Gender Issues include writing (shocker), Tweeting (‘nother shocker), buying things I don’t need (but are still cheaper than therapy), and re-reading my favorite poems. As utterly cliché as it may sound, poetry has been an emotional refuge for me since my teen years, back in those days when the first gleamings of queerness were flashing across my consciousness and I was scared shitless. Back then it was mostly T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sylvia Plath – a cheerful trio! – but recently, it’s been Allen Ginsberg. Specifically, my refuge is Ginsberg’s iconic and controversial “Howl.” It would break the hearts of my college journalism professors if they knew how deeply I just buried this lede, but “Howl” is really at the heart of what I want to wax poetic (heh) about today.
Ginsberg wasn’t just one of the founders of the Beat Generation and, in my professional opinion (translation: based on my college minor in English Literature), one of the greatest American poets – he was also a fellow queer person. He had the unfortunate disadvantage of coming of age – and coming out – in 1950s America, a time and place where homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. After being committed to a psychiatric facility (which he nicknames “Rockland” in his poetry), Ginsberg escaped a lobotomy and won his freedom by promising the doctors that he would be a good and proper heterosexual. Historical records, however, show no evidence that he pinky-swore to it, so I think we can all forgive his failure to uphold that promise.
Like so many of us who travel somewhere outside of the dotted lines of society, Ginsberg’s experiences — and the words he used to bring them to life — were subjected to mainstream America’s hair-trigger censorship attempts. When “Howl” was published in 1956, it set off a firestorm of controversy, starting with the arrest of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges and culminating in the 1957 trial that helped make Ginsberg and his Beat buddies into household names. The debate focused around the often rough language of the poem and the frank, somewhat graphic depictions of sexuality of both the hetero and homo variety.
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may
After a parade of critics, scholars, and writers were trotted out to either defend or deny the poem’s literary merits, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl” had enough “redeeming social importance” to make up for all the curse words, drug references, and gay stuff it contained. If we can ignore for a moment the absolute weirdness of a serious legal ruling on something as profoundly interpretive and abstract as poetry, then we can celebrate this as a win for queers, outsiders, and lovers of what Ginsberg wryly called “sentimental bullshit” everywhere.
The redeemingly socially important imagery in “Howl” is a mixture of deeply personal experiences, such as the mental illness and eventual death of Ginsberg’s mother,
Holy my mother in the insane asylum!
inside jokes, like that one time when Ginsberg’s friend and fellow “Rockland” resident Carl Solomon (to whom “Howl” is dedicated) pulled a hilarious prank,
who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism
and more universal social commentary on the tortures, discoveries, loves, lives, and deaths of a generation of artists, thinkers, and rebels – commentary that in many ways echoes the experiences of generations to follow, including my own. I don’t think I’m the first queer person to see my own voice reverberating through the many Howls released in this text, and I certainly hope I’m not the last.
who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time
Sometimes the Howl that I feel rising from my core is one of joy and freedom, a celebration of victories both small and astronomical, both personal and political, of noting a point gained in the endless game of strategy and luck we call the Gay Rights Movement.
where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free
Other times, it’s a Howl of sexual ownership and liberation, of anticipation building to crescendo and blood coursing through veins like hot metal, or of the sudden acute awareness of my body or her body or your body or all the fine, queer bodies in this world. Admittedly, this is my favorite Howl.
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness
With increasing frequency, the Howl is teeming with defiance, of wounds licked and teeth bared and muscles tensed for attack. It’s almost a dare, or a declaration to powers unnamed that yes, I am still alive, we are still alive – despite their best efforts – and ready to fight off whatever barrage of insults or injuries or injustices or cherry-picked Bible passages may be hurled our way.
who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication
But most often, if I’m being really truthful here, the Howl is one of pain, of anguish, or of raw, useless, impotent anger. It’s a guttural, animalistic release of human emotion too twisted, too jagged to ever take the form of intelligent speech – or poetry.
I’m with you in Rockland
where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of actual pingpong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse
I’m with you in Rockland
where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void
The thing about “Howl” and Howls and the expelling of bottled-up, hyper-intense emotion is this: you feel so much better afterwards. Or at least I do, but I bet you would, too, if you gave it a chance. Because while language can sometimes be a stumbling block in the way of adequately conveying personal identity, it can also be deeply therapeutic. Take it from me: when you finally find the right words, sound, and syntax – whether by your own creation or the work of a like-minded soul – to paint that clear picture of who you are in this world, the relief that follows is unreal. It’s a calm that whispers, “This is me. People recognize me. I’m safe. I’m home.”
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night