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!

13 thoughts on “An NYC Herstory Lesson

  1. Thank you so much for going on this adventure and taking me with you! I had no idea the term stud was at old as the 30’s–I wonder how old it really is? I wonder who might know more on this?
    Welcome home & looking forward to reading more!

  2. I so look forward to reading more. I find history so fascinating, though it’s not something I’ve ever found easy to integrate into my memory files. I’m starting to think that this might be because I’ve never learned much about the history of “my people”, as none of the groups I identify with or hold dear have ever been in the public high school variety of history books.

    I’ve been working on seeking out histories that matter more to me. Love the post! Thanks for sharing your trip with us!

    • You’re welcome, and I agree – we so rarely see our queer histories reflected in mainstream texts. That’s why I’m thankful that places like the Herstory Archives exist to ensure that our stories are told to the next generations.

  3. Thanks for the info’s and tidbits. I can’t wait to tell my GF, a woc who prefers stud to butch, just how old that name is! And the photo!!! OMG! I’m in love! Wattup butch on the left! lols. Thanks for bringin the info back!

    • Crazy, huh? It makes me wonder what else I don’t know (spoiler: a lot). You’re welcome, and I’m glad you love that photo as much as I do!

  4. Loved the photo and your report of your NYC trip and visit to the Archives. I’m jealous. I’ve wanted to go there for years. You know, if you are serious about glbt/queer history, there’s no place like home to start. I’m pretty sure Boston has/had a glbt/queer History Project, got started in the 1980’s? Maybe 1990’s? I don’t know if it’s still going strong or not, but if it is, I’ll betcha they need volunteers. I’ve never seen a non-profit that didn’t.

  5. Pingback: Gender Identity: Denied | Buzz Cuts and Bustiers

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