An NYC Herstory Lesson

Vintage butch-femme couples

© Lesbian Herstory Archives, from the Buddy Kent Collection

 
Breathe easy, dear readers, for the Prodigal Butch has returned from her journey to the exotic City of New York. Despite nearly being thwarted several times by the NYC somehow-even-less-intuitive-than-Boston subway system, I managed to make it to all the queer spots I listed in my last post.
 
My first stop – and the crown jewel of my gaycation – was the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. Tucked into a row of brownstones, the Archives are easy to miss unless you’re on the lookout for rainbow flags everywhere you go (I am). Ringing the bell, I felt a bit like I was trying to gain entry into an underground lesbian speakeasy. What I found when I walked inside, however, was even cooler (although, after almost ending up in Queens – thanks for nothing, Google Maps – I could have used a drink).
 
Picture the coziest little apartment you can think of. Now, fill it with thousands of lesbian books, documents, pictures, videos, and other mementos. You kinda want to move in, don’t you? I know I did. When I explained that I was looking for anything related to butch-femme culture, the friendly staff knew exactly where to start – thankfully, as I was pretty overwhelmed at this point, like a Golden Ticket finder wandering into Willy Wonka’s factory.
 
The first thing I learned is that I seriously need to update my book list. One of the co-founders of the Archives, Joan Nestle, is also a Lambda Award-winning author of several butch-femme themed books. The Persistent Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader is one of her most well-known works; I’ve only recently been able to secure a copy (had to go the Amazon route – sorry, actual book stores) and I’m going to crack it open as soon as I’m done writing this post. I read excerpts from some of her other books at the Archives, including A Fragile Union and A Restricted Country. Another intriguing book that I came upon is Lily Burana’s Dagger: On Butch Women. There’s still plenty of time to make your summer reading list, so you know what to do.
 
The Archives had many folders filed under “Butch-Femme” and I had a field day going through them all. These included articles from old newspapers and magazines (anybody remember/miss On Our Backs?), letters addressed to the Archives, research proposals (including one from Judith Halberstam for her now-classic Female Masculinity), and dozens of documents from the Butch-Femme Society of New York. I checked with the archivist and yes, this society still exists, and yes, I’m insanely jealous of NYC for having its very own butch-femme social club. The lack of such a space in my home city of Boston has plagued me for some time now; I’m actually considering contacting the organizers of the Butch-Femme Society of New York and asking for pointers on how to start a similar club in Boston. I can’t make any promises, since I’m much more the low-key writer and much less the take-charge community organizer type, but I’ll definitely look into it. There were also documents from the NYC Butch Support Group and the Femme Support Group, which sound a bit like AA, but I imagine would be a lot more fun.
 
Even though all these books and documents were incredible to read through, what I was most interested in were photographs from the pre-Stonewall days. These are tricky things to find, since not many have survived and the ones that have are often not labeled or not available to the public. I discovered something interesting in one private album I looked through that depicted African-American lesbian life in the 1930s. The handwritten notes under some photos used “stud” to refer to MOC dykes of color – a term that I had always thought was much more modern. Hooray for learning stuff!
 
The Archives has thousands of individual photos and albums from various donors, but most of these are not for publication purposes. The people who these items once belonged to wanted their histories stored in a safe place – saved from being lost to time or discarded by those who don’t think queer history is worth preserving. However, this doesn’t mean they wanted their private lives printed and distributed by every 20-something up-and-coming blogger who stumbles across them. I totally get that. Still, I was hoping to have at least one photo to share with you all, so I was stoked to discover that some of these photos have been digitized and, with permission, could be used under certain circumstances. Luckily enough, my favorite photo was among these. Allow me to direct your attention to the top of this page.
 
This image, depicting two butch-femme couples from the 1940s, is from the Buddy Kent Collection (read more about Buddy and ’40s drag society here). You know how sometimes the people in old black and white photos look more like statues or portraits than real, flesh-and-blood humans? Well, this isn’t the case here. I fell in love with this picture the minute I saw it. It was as if I was looking at the faces of family that I never knew I had. Maybe that’s cheesy or overly sentimental, but I don’t care. I feel like these are people I could have been friends with. I mean, check out that butch on the left. What a bashful grin and a dapper bow tie! And her femme – a total knockout in that dark lipstick! And the couple on the right, pressed together like it’s the most natural thing in the world, the butch’s arm slung casually around the femme’s shoulder. I wish I could have been there, at that moment, with those people, and felt the love in that room. There was no information on the back of this photo – no names, date, or location – so I guess I’ll never know who they actually were or if they’re even still alive today. Even so, I somehow still feel like I met them all and man, were they a lot of fun.
 
My time at the Archives was sadly limited. If I lived in New York, I’d happily sit there every week, immersed in the stories of my clan’s past. I already can’t wait until I can make it back to that brownstone again. Until then, well, I have a lot of reading to do.
 
Coming up: I visit Stonewall and my first full-time lesbian bar!
 
 
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Don’t Know Much About Herstory – Yet

Welp, here we are, neck-deep in the dog days of summer. Besides scarfing down frozen treats, complaining about the heat index, and trying to decide between khaki cargo shorts or plaid shorts, my favorite summer activity is traveling.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be hopping on the early morning $5 Megabus (Lifestyles of the Underpaid and Not-Yet-Famous) from Boston to NYC. In true obsessive blogger fashion, I’ll be spending my time there researching stuff to write about. You see how much I love my readers? Even my time off is all about making you happy. I’m just a giver, is all. I just care too much.

I currently have three spots on my Big New York City (*insert Jay-Z and/or Frank Sinatra lyrics here*) Adventure checklist:

1.) The Lesbian Herstory Archives – This place has the largest collection anywhere of materials by and about lesbians. I contacted the very helpful staff ahead of time and let them know I’m coming (they probably need some time to vacuum the red carpet before they roll it out for me) and I want to see all they have about butch-femme culture. I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking for yet. I’d love to find some pictures of or personal accounts written by butches and femmes, especially from the pre-Stonewall days. Which brings me to:

2.) The Stonewall Inn – The Stonewall is pretty much the LGBT version of Mecca; every queer who can should visit it at least once in hir lifetime. This is the cradle of the gay rights movement. All the battles that we present-day queers fight started here with a bunch of brave and seriously over-this-shit gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans folk, drag queens and kings, butches, femmes, and other rainbow-colored rebels. I also hear they make a pretty strong drink. Speaking of booze:

3.) Ginger’s Bar – What manner of witchcraft is this? A FULL-TIME LESBIAN BAR?! And I thought that those were extinct, like the dodo bird or Circuit City. I don’t know why other majorly queer U.S. cities (*cough*Boston*cough*) don’t have one of these! I shall purchase a refreshment or two to help save this endangered species.

So that’s my list thus far. Now I turn to you, dear readers, for your suggestions and requests. Where do you think I should visit on my Magical Butch-Femme Herstory Tour of the Big Apple/the City that Never Sleeps/Other Cliché Nickname for New York? Let me know in the comments and I will do my utmost to fulfill your wishes! Even if it means visiting more bars or maybe someplace where I can buy a cool T-shirt, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I do it all for you.

Ask Your BFFs: Fixer-Uppers, Defining Butchness, and Keeping It Old School

Why are women attracted to other women who don’t have their shit together?

Bren: I couldn’t have asked it better or more eloquently than that, dear reader. I have to say that I think this is a universal human problem and not so much an exclusively lesbian problem. However, lesbians are to drama as cats are to catnip (we get high by rubbing it all over our faces), so we probably fall into this trap more often than your average Joe/Jane Heteroschmo.

Back to the question at hand: Why indeed do we get so gaga (the crazy, not the Lady) over people whose lives are basically flaming train wrecks speeding towards the edge of Failed Adulthood Gorge? Because we’re fixers, my friend. We dykes just love fixing things – that’s why our wedding/civil union/commitment ceremony registries are at Home Depot. And you know what’s really hard to fix? A person! I mean, an immature emotionally unstable Child-Woman is just such a challenge, right?

I think the allure here is the notion that you and only you alone can turn this hot mess into a functional human being, as if the power of your love is enough to inspire some magic Beast-into-Prince(ss) Disney transformation. The thought process goes like this: Sure, she’s never worked a day in her life, but she’ll get a 9-5 for me. Sure, she’s cheated on her other 65 girlfriends, but she’ll be loyal to me. Sure, she likes to get wasted on a Tuesday night and get into bar room brawls, but she won’t do that if I ask her not to. You get the idea.

I’m going to propose something radical here. How about we, dykes and non-dykes alike, agree to start dating people who – get ready for it – already have their lives in working order? Instead of thinking, “I can make this person awesome if I date her,” we start thinking, “This person is awesome, and that’s why I want to date her.” Relationships shouldn’t be about giving your partner a makeover, and we all need to be the masters of our own destinies (that’s a fancy way of saying, “Only we can make our lives not suck”). If the person you’re crushing on doesn’t have her proverbial shit together now, take a step back and give her the chance to improve her life without your charity. If nothing changes, well, there are plenty of other gay fish in the sea.

Maddie: HOO BOY. Well, first off, I’m just gonna put this out there: if we limited ourselves to only dating people who had their shit fully together, we’d cut out a pretty good chunk of the eligible lesbian dating population. I mean, there’s that. While I most certainly advocate charting a nice, firm, bold line in between what you can healthily manage with a SO and what is going to make it too hard for you to navigate your own shit, let’s recognize that we’re all works in progress and that “having one’s shit together” is a pretty subjective designation. And a process more than a destination. Also, I’ve been the shit-not-together person in relationships and agonized over it, only to find out after an overdue breakup that…it wasn’t me, it was the relationship, and no sooner had we parted ways that my shit began to magically coalesce into something much more closely resembling a state of togetherness. I’m not trying to say that the only worthwhile relationship is the effortless one, but I think there’s something to looking for the people in whose presence our stable, functional selves just kind of naturally come out to play.

And now I’m gonna put all that conciliatory business to one side, and talk about the kind of person that you are very possibly talking about: the kind of person who approaches relationships as a victim. It’s a tactic. So. Those of us who were socialized as women were socialized to make the most of our weakness and vulnerability. And sometimes that’s the only way we know how to get things from other people: play the Hot Mess card. And the kicker is…it works. Because being needed is so effing alluring. Because messiness is relatable. Because it is really easy to mistake someone dropping an armload of exploding baggage on your doorstep for some kind of intimacy. And you know why else? Because it can be exhausting to always feel like the mess in the relationship, and it might feel a whole lot easier and safer to be the (comparatively) stable one for a while.

My radical suggestion towards a solution is this: start by loving, valuing, respecting, and trusting ourselves. If we don’t see ourselves as card-carrying members of Club Hot Mess we’re just not gonna feel the same pull. We’re also gonna recognize that we are perfectly capable of sustaining relationships with other stable, healthy, functional people.

This approach won’t solve that annoying piece of the equation, that sometimes the people we want to go for us are gonna go for someone on #teamhotmess instead. That sucks, but eventually they’ll learn. Or you could link them to this wise, wise column here, of course, and speed up the process.

What defines someone as being butch? Can I always expect a butch to open doors for me?

Bren: There are two things that define someone as a butch: Hirself and hir actions. If a person says, “I identify as butch,” well, then that person is butch. It’s really as simple as that. I don’t believe in the policing of identities; even if someone has butt-length long hair, a French manicure, and 6-inch stiletto heels, that person is still free to say “I’m a butch.” They might not look like my flavor of butch, but nobody has crowned me King of the Butches (yet), so who am I to say “you’re doing it wrong; my way is the right way”?

As cheesy as it may sound, butch is something in one’s heart. It’s a way of seeing and existing in this world that is deeply personal, and isn’t dependent on the presence of a pocketknife or biker boots. It’s a masculinity that isn’t misogynistic, a bravado that isn’t regressive. Of course there are physical traits that are shared by many butches – short hair, masculine attire, an affinity for showing up on Tumblr holding cute things – but none of these are required for entry into Butch Club. (First rule of Butch Club: bring brownies.)

That said, I do think there is a correct way to “act butch.” This has nothing to do with fixing truck engines, chopping down trees, bench pressing 200 lbs., or other stuff that I can’t do. It has to do with being a gentleman. It’s knowing how to be good to people – not just femmes, but everyone. It’s being an upstanding citizen, volunteering to help someone in need, and taking care of the ones you love. It’s all the good in masculinity and none of the bad.

This is a good segue into your second question, the answer to which is yes. Any butch worth hir weight in leather wrist cuffs understands the significance of holding doors. It’s a very simple but oh-so-gallant gesture that shows 1.) that the butch is being respectful and 2.) that the butch values chivalry. This is of the utmost importance. Butch 101-level stuff, really. Someone recently pointed out to me a bumper sticker that said, “Chivalry isn’t dead – she’s a butch!” Allow me to give that a ‘hell yeah.’ HELL YEAH. Thank you.

Maddie: Alright, it’s not for me to step on anyone’s dapper, spit-shined-boot-clad butch toesies, but I have to disagree here with Point #2: No, you cannot always expect a butch person to open doors for you. Maybe that butch recently dated me, and knows that if I get to the door first, there’s no way in hell I’m gonna step to the side, give an expectant look, and wait for her open it for me. I’m gonna open it, and politely provide her the chance to walk through first, which she is free to accept or reject. Perhaps she learned that if we’re walking to her car and we reach the passenger side first, I’ll smile sweetly and thank her for opening the car door for me, but if she walks the whole way around the car to my side NO MATTER WHAT to open the door for me EVERY SINGLE TIME she’ll start getting a “BUTCH, PLEASE; I GOT THIS” look. And I understand, I do, that for the chivalry-minded set, it’s not about viewing one’s partner as incapable, it’s about doing something nice for her – but there’s a point where it becomes uncomfortable for me, and I would posit that a butch is very much worth her ID if she understands that some of us butch-daters have, you know, Feelings about the assumption that chivalry will always be well-received. The corollary here, though: if you want a butch partner who will permanently fill the door-opening role, they certainly exist. It just doesn’t automatically follow from the title.

And about that title, “butch:” that’s what it is. A title, a label, an identification, an identity. It’s not a simple descriptor. Thus, I will wholeheartedly second Bren’s answer to Part One of your question: a butch person defines a butch person as butch. That’s it. Period. Now, are there latent butches who haven’t come around to that identification yet? Ask anyone currently IDing as butch and you’ll hear that yes, this is a common experience. But it’s still not anyone else’s call to make.

Do ‘old school butches’ exist close to my generation (under 30)? If so, where do I find one?

Bren: Yup, they do. I’m right here. Next question?

Oh, wait, you mean you want to date one? Hmm, well that’s an entirely different matter (I’m not on the market; sorry, ladies). I guess the first thing to do here is to clarify what “old school butch” means. To me, it means “chivalrous, protective, and knows how to treat a femme like a lady.” Think of all the olden tales of gallant knights riding into battle to defend the honor of a fair maiden; now replace “knights” with “butches,” “riding into battle” with “hopping on the subway,” and “to defend the honor of a fair maiden” with “to go shovel a femme’s car out of three feet of snow at 11:00 at night.” That’s what kickin’ it old school is all about.

I’m going to make a bit of a detour here. I don’t think there’s really a shortage of masculine-of-center queers in our generation; what I do see are fewer young queers who self-ID as butch. This is a trend that I’ve been fretting over and trying to figure out for a while now. What is it about the word “butch” that makes it unappealing to new genergaytions? Do people think “butch” is synonymous with “middle-aged white woman with a crew cut and an L.L. Bean flannel?” Is the term too dated, or perhaps, too racially-loaded? Can queer POC relate to “butch?”

To me, “butch” is a word that is full of history and pride. It stands for those who bravely left the house in a men’s suit when it was the law to wear at least three pieces of women’s clothing. It stands for those who kicked ass at Stonewall. It stands for those who lived and loved in smoky underground bars long before Ellen was a household name. But I get to approach “butch” with the privilege of my light skin; I need to remember that. For others, this word may never have spoken to them and their experiences. New words like “stud,” “dom,” “boi,” and “AG” have been added to our lexicon since the summer of 1969; for many non-Caucasian queers, these are the words that fit. Blogger LishOus recently wrote about growing up as an MOC POC and how “butch” was viewed in her community; it’s a great read, and I certainly learned something from it.

Ok, so that was less of a detour and more of a summer vacation. Sorry! I just have so many Feelings sometimes. I’m going to offer my standard dating advice, which is helpful for finding butches – old school, new school, middle school (don’t look for that one unless you want to meet Chris Hansen) – or dykes in general. Check out profiles for all the tell-tale signs of chivalry (see the previous question), then schedule a date with a promising fella. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if this person “gets it.” Does she pay for your drink? Does she hold the door for you? Does she walk you to your car? Take notes and then, take her arm. You’re golden.

Maddie: Yep, they exist. Unfortunately, my butch homing technology is still in the earliest stages of development, and I can’t track any available ones for you. Here’s the thing: large gay populations tend to form when lots of gay people migrate to the same area. Sure, gays come from everywhere in the world, but sizable, identifiable, critical-mass communities of gay people depend on migration. It’s my theory that this creates that much more self-selecting and locally unique populations: certain types tend to dominate in certain areas. Maybe you truly don’t live in an especially butch-dense area. It happens.

If you do live in a fairly big, urban place, though, I recommend browsing different scenes. Those tend to be self-selecting, too. Where I live there are a few different bars and monthly parties: the crunchy hipster queers have one or two, the yuppie-preppy gays have one, the more old-school lesbians have their haunt, the glitz-glammy femme4femme types have theirs. These are crude generalizations, but just like with straight bars and parties and neighborhoods, birds of a feather do tend to flock.

And here’s another thing to keep in mind: butchiness can present in some surprising ways. Masculine-of-center people (cis and trans men as well as masculine dykes) are reshaping and questioning the parameters of masculinity in ways that my feminist self considers very productive. I’d encourage open-mindedness before concluding that a person isn’t masculine enough, butch enough, old-school enough – there are a lot of different ways to “do” masculinity. See if someone surprises you when you get to know hir.

Behold the Power of Butchdar

Citizens, the truth has been kept from you for too long. The time has come for me to reveal to you some information that may very well change the way you view the world and our place in it. You might want to sit down (though, really, who reads blogs standing up?). Here it is:

I, your Friendly Neighborhood Butch, have a superpower. I possess the power of Butchdar.

What exactly is Butchdar, you ask? Well, it may not be as flashy as teleportation or super strength or laser eyes, but it’s still pretty damn impressive. I have the ability to always sense when there is another butch nearby. It doesn’t matter where I am, as butchdar is not restricted by the paltry laws of time and space. I can find butches on the street, on the subway, in the mall, in a movie theatre, at a sporting event (this one may be cheating), in Home Depot (this one is definitely cheating), wherever. Maybe it’s advanced peripheral vision, or maybe it’s some sort of natural butch scent (Old Spice Swagger, probably); I don’t know. Whatever the cause, my GF is constantly in awe of my ability to say, within 10 seconds of entering a room, “Did you see that other butch over there?” or, even more exciting, “Did you see that other butch-femme couple over there?” And by “in awe of,” I mean she says, “No, and stop staring.”

This seems to happen most often while we’re grocery shopping. Every Stop & Shop and Trader Joe’s I walk into seems to have a dyke hiding behind every cantaloupe, frozen clam, and taco shell.* Supermarkets are also where I see the most butch-femme couples. This makes perfect sense, because we love domestic shit and there’s nothing more domestic than wandering the aisles together, poking at bread and checking milk expiration dates and saying boring adult things like, “This is a great deal on Charmin Ultra” or “Oh, honey, soup is buy-one-get-one; let’s stock up for the winter.”

The other day, the GF and I were being typical boring grocery-buying adults. We didn’t even make it into the store before I said, “There’s another butch-femme couple here.” I had spotted them from across the parking lot. Or, rather, I had spotted the butch – who was clad in the appropriate T-shirt and baggy plaid shorts butch summer uniform – and then her femme. This is how it always works. I could locate another butch while blindfolded, stuffed in a trunk, and submerged in molasses; femmes, however, have to be directly in front of me before I notice them and then immediately proceed to stare at the floor like an embarrassed 13-year-old. For a butch who is only attracted to femmes, this is a serious evolutionary flaw.

The GF didn’t see them until I literally pointed them out, because she was there to buy food, not to stalk other dykes. As the gay fates would have it, we kept running into them again and again throughout the course of our trip. At one point, the butch locked eyes with me and stared hard as we were passing each other; her femme didn’t even glance in our direction, much like my GF didn’t glance in theirs.

When they were (I think) out of hearing range, I said to my GF, “Did you see? The other butch just stared right at me, like she was sizing me up!”

“Yup,” my GF said, “She was checking out what you’ve got.”

I was confused. “What I’ve got? Well, I mean, my plaid shorts are way nicer than hers…”

“No, I mean what you’ve got,” she explained, pointing at herself.

“Oooh.” Then it clicked. That hard stare wasn’t meant as an I-see-you-there-being-butch bit of camaraderie; it was a I’m-seeing-how-hard-you-are-and-if-I’m-harder-assessment. Then I realized that, in all honesty, I probably was giving her the same stare, whether I meant to or not. As much as I try to maintain a pseudo-intellectual liberal feminist worldview, I sometimes slip into a more, shall we say, primitive state. A chest-puffing, muscle-flexing, don’t-look-at-my-femme machismo that springs up in certain scenarios where I feel in some way threatened. (It should be noted that this reaction only seems to occur around butches that are roughly the same age as I am; when there are older butches around, I get positively giddy with excitement.)

I’m the first one to admit how stupid this is. Besides being pointless and a little immature (like most of my hobbies), it’s counterproductive to basically everything I want to see happen in the queer community. I want to create connections between masculine-of-center queers, feminine-of-center queers, and everyone in between. I want us all to share our stories, to offer our advice, and to support each other. This can’t happen while we’re engaging in Alpha butch my-strap-is-bigger-than-yours contests.

Next time my Butchdar lights up, I’m going to practice my friendly head nod on my butch brother. Maybe I’ll even smile. Crazier things have happened.

*These are all foods that resemble female private parts. I make funny jokes.

The ButchFemmeinist: Passing and Visibility Edition

Bren: Hey Maddie! Wanna hear about a funny thing that happened to me the other day?
Maddie: ONLY IF IT WAS ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Sorry, kidding! Go.
Bren: Heh! It was actually at Dunkies (what us cool New Englanders call Dunkin Donuts). I was in line, but it was a slightly unorganized line and it wasn’t clear who was next. The lady behind me said to the cashier, “He was next.” I was standing there for like a full minute before I realized she meant me!
Maddie: MISTAKEN GENDER IDENTITY! What did you do, Bren?
Bren: Um, well, I ordered my frozen hot chocolate, paid for it, and left.
Maddie: Are there feelings involved? Were there feelings involved?
Bren: Well, I mean, it’s not exactly uncommon for me to be mistaken for a dude. I get “Sir’ed” with some frequency.
Maddie: Well, do you ever correct people?
Bren: You know Maddie, I don’t, for a couple of reasons:
1.) I don’t want to them to freak out and
2.) I don’t mind it. Oddly enough, I actually kinda like it.
Like butch comedian Lea Delaria once said, “It’s OK; I’m going for that look.”
Maddie: Right, I get that.
Are there any instances where you find you resent being seen that way, or is it generally preferable?
Bren: I mean, being read as a guy isn’t my goal. I’m not trying to pass. But if I do pass, I don’t mind it.
Except for the small margin of times when I feel like passing is dangerous, in the sense that, if I’m “found out” there could be issues.
Maddie: …That people might perceive you as deliberately duping them, instead of being your own authentic self that they are too binary-oriented to read correctly? Is that what you mean?
Bren: Right, and when people feel “duped,” as you say, they might get angry/violent.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I don’t mind it a little too much. Sometimes I get real pleasure out of passing, which is a bit odd, no? I’m not trans, so why should being read as male make me happy?
Maddie: Well, I don’t know. Is there a reason it shouldn’t?
Bren: Maybe I want that male privilege, just a little.
Which I shouldn’t, because it’s wrong. The existence of male privilege, that is.
Maddie: Well, I think it’s pretty common to present oneself in such a way that is more or less authentic but also maximizes privilege/advantage/power in a given situation.
It’s hard to distinguish presenting as your “best self” from evily exploiting unfair systems of privilege, when you really start poking at it.
Bren: This is very true.
Maddie: And let’s also remember this:
The great majority of people out there don’t have the same nuanced understanding of gender variation (or ambiguity, or complexity) that we especially gender-minded queers do…so if the only boxes available to be ticked in their minds are 1.) normative female and 2.) normative male, normative male might not be exactly you – but it might be the closest of the available options.
Bren: You know, I think you’re right on the money there.
But I can’t help feeling some guilt when I get a taste of privilege that I disagree with, which is why I feel super guilty about my interest in exploring binding and packing.
Maddie: Tell me about this interest and related guilt!
Bren: Delighted to! Well, let’s start with binding.
Here’s some truth: I fucking hate my boobs. Hate, hate, hate. They’re annoying and always in the way and make it hard to buy shirts I like. And on top of that, they’re so decidedly… feminine.
Maddie: Well, based on our cultural conflation of bodily characteristics and gender identity… yes.
Bren: I want them to not be so…boobilicious. I want them to not be noticed, you know? Not to go away entirely, because they’re nice in certain (sexy) situations, but letting an intimate partner see them and letting the world see them are two very different matters.
So, I’d like them to be less noticable. Binding is a way to achieve this. Problem is, my boobs are big and binding hurts. The best I seem to get to is a tight sports bra, which also kinda hurts. My boobs are annoying as well as wimpy.
Maddie: Now, now. We’ve already gendered body parts here; let’s try to avoid personifying them as well!
Bren: Hmph.
Well, anyway, there’s that.
Now, as for packing, I just think it would be hot, honestly. Also, if you’ve ever read butch-femme porn (and I hope you have/can recommend some good stuff), the butch is almost always packing. Just walking around town, going to clubs, all whilst packing.
This seems pretty normalized, right? So why can’t I figure out how to do this without looking like I have a permanent raging hard-on? And, more importantly, why do I want to?
Maddie: Well, let’s not assume that because a thing is featured in porn/erotic fiction it is actually a statistically normal thing.
I bet the femmes never have trouble achieving orgasm, either, you know?
Bren: Not that I can recall… But there are plenty of real-life butch writers out there that discuss packing/do pack.
But, really, does it make sense? Isn’t that just a form of trying to pass?
Maddie: Can I ask, are you interested in hard-packing for the purposes of being able to have strap-on sex at whatever spontaneous moment arrives, or are you also (or instead) interested in soft-packing for the purposes of just quietly feeling more masculine throughout the day?
Bren: The former, methinks. It’s all about function.
Maddie: Then I don’t see that as being related to passing, if that’s what worries you.
 Bren: Ok, good to know. What about binding?
Maddie: I mean, what about it concerns you as far as passing goes?
And as for binding, I know it’s not all totally equivalent, but we all do things to make our bodies look more like the aesthetic we identify with.
Bren: I just feel like, somehow, if I “accidentally” pass then it’s ok, but if I actually do things to alter my body and then pass, it’s trying too hard to get that privilege.
Maddie: I’ve been known to wear high-waisted pencil skirts that are, you know, maybe a pretty far cry from the most comfortable thing in my wardrobe, because I really like having the appearance of an hourglass figure.
Bren: Do you feel there’s privilege in that aesthetic?
Maddie: Definitely!
Bren: Ok, well, how about other kinds of passing? Do you feel like you pass in different ways? Maybe passing as straight?
Maddie: One note on that: again, it’s hard to draw a distinct line between maximizing how good you feel about the you you’re presenting to the world in an empowered, positive way – and exploiting your own privilege in a messed-up way.
But the fact of the matter is, you can fight systems of oppression from within.
Bren: True…
Maddie: For example, I have body size privilege. I may not come near most cultural ideals of body size – and I am no stranger to body image issues – but I fall within the range of what has been normalized, and am treated differently than others for that reason. That doesn’t mean I can’t be a vocal, proactive ally in fat positivity.
If I were doing myself harm in order to be the size I am, I would probably have to tackle that first.
Bren: Most def.
Maddie: But just choosing a lifestyle that is mentally and physically positive for me and dressing in a way that I like doesn’t have to mean I am oppressing others.
Bren: I guess the important thing is to be wary of whatever privilege you have and use your powers for good, not evil.
Maddie: Words to live by!
Bren: So what about this whole business we always hear about, how femmes are accused of passing as heteros?
Maddie: Well. Honestly? I take that as a given, at least on your average workday.
Just like most people don’t have a nuanced-enough understanding of gender to get your actual gender location, I just assume most people out there aren’t looking for clues that I’m gay. They’re not suspicious. For most, a person is straight until proven otherwise. THEY’RE NOT GOING TO NOTICE THE FINGERNAILS, BREN. THEY’RE JUST NOT.
Bren: BUT THE FINGERNAILS ARE SO IMPORTANT.
Maddie: YES – for those of us who actually go around looking for the clues.
And let me tell you, I hate it when I walk by my own people unnoticed.
Bren: That happens often?
Maddie: This is probably why I’ve been known to maybe overdo it on the dyke indicators on my own time, when I’m not trying to comply with any downtown suit-set dress codes and I just wanna feel plugged into my own community.
Have I walked around in a ‘hawk, hoodie, beater, frayed denim mini, combat boots and bandana neckerchief? Yes. Yes I have. And probably will this weekend.
Bren: MAJOR DYKE OVERLOAD.
Maddie: And I guess that’s the way I’ve found to most comfortably out myself – it’s easier for me to be confrontational in my appearance than to have to figure out ways to slip references to my dykehood into every conversation.
Bren: Let me ask you this: Do you ever feel guilty for not outing yourself in a given situation? Do you think there’s privilege in that?
Maddie: There is SO MUCH FRIGGING PRIVILEGE IN IT and yes, I do feel guilty.
At the same time, I try to remember that part of the disadvantage experienced by queer people is the attitude that we are being deceitful if we don’t disclose immediately, and being oversharers if we do – and adjust my expectations accordingly.
If I don’t know someone well enough to know any characteristics of the people they ‘ship up with and/or bang, then it’s okay for me to not share that information with them.
But if I DO have a relationship such that that information is on the table, I’m not oversharing or being inappropriate if I reciprocate.
Bren: That seems very reasonable to me.
Maddie: What I maybe can’t rationally reconcile, though, is my nonchalance about people not knowing my personal business with my UTTER DELIGHT at the visibility that comes with an unmistakable-even-for-oblivious-straight-folk marker like walking around holding a girl’s hand
Bren: So I imagine that having a GF makes you feel very giddy and very SEEN.
Maddie: I mean, it’s hard to completely separate the gushy-mushy I LIKE YOUR CUTE FACE giddy feelings from the O HAI WORLD I AM DYKE RAWERHRHHG giddy feelings, but I sure do like them both.
Bren: Understandable.
Here’s an interesting way to combine our different experiences with passing: What if you’re with a dyke who passes for a dude? Do you magically become a straight couple?
Maddie: I AM NOT SURE BUT MAYBE AND TO BE HONEST IT KIND OF SCARES ME.
Bren: Because I’ve passed as male while with my GF and those people probably thought we were some nice straight couple instead of two norm-smashing dykes.
Why does it scare you? I found it a bit funny.
Maddie: No, it is a bit funny. You know, in that Trojan Horse SURPRISE! NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT! sort of deliciously subversive way.
But for context:
My first girlfriend wasn’t at all butch. She was maybe a bit gayer-looking than me in that quirky, thrift-store hipster dyke kinda way, and I loved that I was automatically more visible by being around her. But nobody was gonna mistake her for a dude.
My second girlfriend, though, was way way way further over on that gender-presentation spectrum. Butch in a kind of faggy, fey way – yes. But easily mistaken for male.
So, when we first started going out, I was happy to have that holding-hands-in-public kind of visibility again… until the point when it struck me that, oh, wait, she might actually be making me look even MORE straight, and I got a little panicked.
I think it was the unwilling aspect of it. When I dress up in work attire, I know what image I’m putting out there, and I’m somewhat in control over it.
When I dyke-overload out, I’m still controlling the image I project.
When I very deliberately, very knowingly play up the gender-divide dynamic between myself and a butch partner, it’s a playful kind of costuming that I totally enjoy.
Bren: That butch-femme gender-divide dynamic is pretty much the best thing ever.
Maddie: But when it happens without my expectation or awareness or intention, it can be startling and uncomfortable.
Bren: Also a bit maddening, I imagine, to be gaying it up so hard and yet still being read as straight.
Maddie: I mean, THAT’s the part that’s funniest to me, that you can get so damn gay you come all the way back around to “straight” again.
But maybe it’s similar to what you were talking about way at the beginning of the convo, with this feeling that maybe we’re unintentionally in disguise.
Bren: That last line might be the most emo thing to be posted on this site to date.
Maddie: IS THAT A CHALLENGE? I CAN TOP IT, I PROMISE.
Bren: I need to go hit up Hot Topic after work and find myself a Cure album and a pleather trenchcoat.
Maddie: I’ll bring the eyeliner. I’ve got plenty in the “dark and smudgy” category.
Bren: Very Avril Lavigne. I like it (or, I liked it when I was 17).
Maddie: You may be the first person to have compared me to Avril Lavigne and lived to tell the tale. Just saying.
Bren: Hey, she was hot back in the day! Rocking those ties and ribbed tanks and Converse. Totally dykey.
Maddie: True. I guess I just felt superior knowing that my JNCOs were bigger than her JNCOs.
Bren: SIZE DOESN’T MATTER.
Well, on that note, I’d like to offer my closing remarks.
Privilege is power. Powers should be used for good, not evil.
Maddie: Agreed.
Well, and to recap what most every homo knows or is soon to find out, passing can be a privilege and visibility can be a privilege.
Bren: Which is fucked up and makes me sad inside, but is true.
Maddie: Don’t be sad! It just means we’ve all got challenges and advantages to work with at any given moment.
Let me also reiterate this point, though: we shouldn’t forget that “passing” vs. “visibility” is a question of the beholder, too.
Sometimes your authentic self is going to be misread by someone without the proper background/goggles, and it’s not because you’re in disguise.
Bren: I’m now humming the Transformers theme, only as “Homos in Disguise.”
Maddie: By the same token, it’s pretty valuable to learn how to send signals to work against that misinterpretation. But there’s ultimately only so much you can do to control how others read you, and you can’t be accountable for their ignorance.
Bren: Basically, we’re awesome just the way we are, and they can all go suck an egg.
Maddie: YOU DO YOU, HONEY.
Bren: Or, to put it nicely, we should be true to ourselves and then learn how to deal with/make good out of the privilege (or lack thereof) that comes with being authentic.
Maddie: Hear, hear, queer!
Bren: With that, I’d like to thank you all for reading another here-queer-and-not-going-anywhere edition of the ButchFemmeinist. Now go do you!
Maddie: GET IT, GAYBIES! See you next time.