Bridging the LGBT Generation Gap: Respect Your Elders, Young Queers

Age is a strange thing in the queer community. We measure our lives by two numbers: the standard Number of Years Lived As a Sentient Human, and Number of Years Lived Out. By these standards, one could be 45-years-old and still be considered a babygay if that closet door has only recently been flung open. I’ve been on this planet 27 years now, but only eight of those have been spent as an out lesbian. So I guess I’m roughly a second-grader by queer standards, which is cool, because second grade was good times. I recall making some rather thought-provoking postmodern popsicle-sticks-and-Elmer’s-glue art that year. Needless to say, I’m often perceived as a babybutch by my elder queers (despite how obscenely old I feel when I realize that today’s college students were born in the 1990s – an entire decade that I remember). That’s also cool, because I love chatting with older LGBT folk, even if they are fighting the urge to pat me on the head and send me off to my 8:00 bedtime.

As I you might have gleamed from some of my previous posts, I’m fascinated by queer history herstory, specifically butch-femme, specifically during and pre-Stonewall. Maybe it comes from reading books like Stone Butch Blues and The Persistent Desire. Or maybe it comes from an idealization of the old dyke bar days: a time of loving in smokey underground dives and running from the Boys in Blue that sounds very exciting and romantic to a spoiled 21st century queer like me, but was probably actually terrifying.

Whatever the reasoning, I’m always on the lookout for new media on LGBT history, which is how I came to watch the documentary Gen Silent. Set in my own little city of Boston (which I didn’t realize until I started watching and was stoked to see all my hangouts), Gen Silent focuses its lens on the plight of LGBT elders. We meet a cast of diverse, lovable people who are struggling with some very serious problems – from a 60-something gay man overwhelmed by guilt after placing his older, ailing partner in a nursing home to a late-middle-aged trans woman dealing with both family rejection and lung cancer. As the film explains, far more LGBT seniors are living alone than their heterosexual peers. There’s a number of factors at play here:

  • LGBT seniors are less likely to have grown children to care for them.
  • LGBT seniors are more likely to be estranged from their families.
  • LGBT seniors are less likely to seek needed medical attention, due to a fear of homo/transphobic healthcare providers.
  • LGBT seniors living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities often face a “re-closeting” – that is, being forced to hide their sexuality or trans status in the presence of staff or other seniors who are hostile towards queer people. (Only about 30% of Americans 65 and older support gay marriage, according to most polls.)

Since you really need to watch this fantastic film for yourself, I won’t give too much else away. I will say, however, that it broke my damn heart into roughly a bajillion pieces. Knowing that all these brave and proud people – who survived the McCarthy-era witch hunts, who stayed strong in the face of police brutality, who smashed bottles and threw fists to kickstart the Gay Liberation Movement -were being forgotten was more than I could handle. It made sad, then it made me angry, and then it made me determined.

My new mantra for 2012 is “See Something, Do Something.” Sort of like those subway safety PSAs, except less about backpack bombs and more about community building. I feel like I’ve spent too much time simply being upset about injustice and not enough actually doing something to combat it. So when I started to enter my Queer Hulk raging-on-Twitter mode, I told myself, “No, Bren. Less e-smashing, more direct action.” After using the Google Machine to find out more about the aid organizations featured in Gen Silent, I emailed the coordinator of Out to Brunch, a monthly meal and social program for LBT elder women that’s co-sponsored by the LGBT Aging Project, and asked what I could do to help.

Fast forward to this past Saturday, when I spent most of my day setting tables, putting up Valentine’s Day decorations, and serving food at the Roslindale House community center. In between all that, I got to hang out with some seriously awesome queer folk – both young volunteers like me and the older women who were our guests of honor (some of whom were even in Gen Silent). You guys, it was a total blast.

I have absolutely no idea where the stereotype of the sweet, innocent, and demure little old lady came from. Have you ever met an elderly woman who was actually like that? I mean, my 96-year-old great aunt has a mouth on her that could make a drunken sailor blush. And it drives me nuts when people talk to seniors as if they’re giant, white-haired toddlers. Look, these are full-grown adults who have been living, loving, fucking, dancing, drinking, and raising hell longer than I – or my parents, for that matter – have even been breathing. So it was very refreshing to be with volunteers who didn’t talk down to the seniors, and with seniors who had no problem making dirty jokes in front of a fresh-faced zygote of a dyke like me. I’ve never heard so many Valentine’s Day-inspired “I have a heart-on” jokes in my life.

The highlight of my day was meeting an old-school butch. She strolled right up to me and introduced herself as Frances (“sometimes Clark”), and we had an excellent conversation about butch names, haircuts, the pressure to transition, and the pre-Stonewall days (“You kids have it so lucky today; back then, you would get arrested for not wearing at least three pieces of women’s clothing”). During the meal, I watched her joke and flirt shamelessly with nearby femmes. Man, I want to be just like Frances when I grow up. Nice to know that butch swagger is forever.

I knew before the day was half over that Out to Brunch is going to be a regular event for me. It’s an honor to be able to spend time with such a fun, feisty, and downright inspiring group of women, and I can’t wait ’til next month. Maybe Clark will teach me some of her moves – if I can keep up.


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!

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.

On Internalized Homophobia in the Assimilation Movement, Or, Sorry I Look So Gay

Sorry for the post shortage this week! This whole adult job and responsibilities thing I got going on really cramps my not-for-profit-but-for-fun blogging style sometimes. But today is Friday (fun fun fun fun) (sorry) and I can’t wait to dive back into this AWESOME book called Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. In case you haven’t heard of it (in which case, you’re welcome, ‘cuz I just changed your life with a few taps of my keyboard), Persistence is a collection of short stories and essays by butches and femmes from all walks of life, edited by famous queerfolk Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman. There’s an incredible variety of experiences and identities chronicled on these pages; whether you’re a stone leather MTF femme in a wheelchair or a pregnant rural bottom butch of color, you’re bound to find something relatable.

I sure did. Victoria A. Brownsworth’s essay No Butches, No Femmes: The Mainstreaming of Queer Sexuality hit me like a ton of rainbow-colored bricks. It’s all about the movement towards a kind of homo assimilation into mainstream culture, the “we also enjoy having a house in the ‘burbs and 2.3 kids and a golden retriever named Buddy and being so normal” shout-out to Middle America that big name marriage equality groups like the HRC have total boners for. I call this “bullshit;” Victoria explains it much more eloquently:

Assimiliation neuters queers by demanding a narrow, heterosexually normative paradigm that insists on a strict gender-based orientation. This disallows the range of sexual expression in gender attributes that we once considered essential facets of who we were/are as lesbians and gay men. In short, assimilation forces us to pass as straight, even when we are out queers, by denying us the full range of our queer gender expression. To be truly assimilated, we must mimic straight women and men, which means we cannot include, for example, butch lesbians and gay male queens in post-assimilationist culture, because there are no comparable persons in straight society.

I’d like to thank Victoria for ensuring me that I am not, in fact, single-handedly destroying the modern gay rights movement by parading my scary butch self around in public, in plain sight of nice clean-cut man-woman couples and pearl-clutching grandmas and The Children (why won’t anyone think of them??); quite the opposite, actually. Whenever we decide to “tone down the gay” or “not flaunt our sexuality” or be “straight-acting” or whatever loaded language you’d like to use, we are shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. We are acknowledging a poisonous, internalized homophobia that says: “We’re just like you, straight society. We deserve rights, because we are just like straight people and straight people are normal. We’re not a bunch of drag queens and diesel dykes; those people don’t represent us because they don’t look like straight people and straight people are normal.”

While I understand the need to show Hetero World that we are not dangerous sex monsters coming to steal their kids and eat their puppies, pushing out anyone who doesn’t look like Joe and Suzie Straight-Normal (of the Connecticut Straight-Normals) is not the way to advance our community. This marginalizing of the least-mainstream among us is especially disturbing, because it was those same sex and gender outlaws who were at Stonewall, kicking open the door of the gay rights movement with their motorcycle boots and stiletto heels. As Victoria writes:

The demand for equal rights and integration into mainstream society often leads – or forces – minority groups to pattern themselves on the majority, disengaging from the very things that make them who they are as a separate and distinct group.

When I was in college, I knew some other gays who wanted more than anything to not be read as gay. This wasn’t necessarily a survival method – though, for some, it very well may have been – but more of a turning up of the nose at anything considered “stereotypical.” This included, but was not limited to, drag shows, Pride marches, gay bars, gay movies/TV/music/books, and variant gender expressions. It was as if, by disavowing all things too gay, they would become some evolved breed of Homo for the New Millennium, one who could slip unnoticed in and out of society, never causing any waves or upsetting any sensibilities. I’ve personally been mocked by straight-actors among us for looking, well, so damn gay. For proudly rocking the Docs and the flannel and the ties. For being “obsessed” with queer news and events. For not blending into mainstream society and not caring to try. For not being one of those “hot” lesbians that you see on TV, that are indistinguishable from straight women, save for the ladies in their beds. For being an unapologetic butch dyke.

I’ll leave you with some questions from Victoria, questions that I would also like the answers to:

Has queer culture moved too far in the opposite direction from the butch/femme dynamic of the years immediately pre- and post-Stonewall? Is it our own community now that disallows the male-centric butch because she fits a stereotype that assimilationists want straight society to either forget or ignore – the bull dyke, the bull dagger butch who doesn’t turn straight men on and doesn’t have the potential to be heterosexual?

Searching for My Butch Mentor, Or, Being a Total Creeper

You guys, I’m having all kinds of feelings right now. Feelings about history and community and heritage. I got all Public Broadcast-y the other day and watched the new American Experience documentary Stonewall Uprising (thanks, free PBS streaming video). It tells the story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots – otherwise known as the Birth of the Gay Rights Movement and Also Pride Month (Gay Christmas) – through pictures, video, newspaper clippings, and interviews with real, still-alive Stonewall veterans. Oh, and it has a bunch of clips from old PSAs about The Evil Homosexual Menace to laugh at/be horrified by. It’s basically really friggin’ awesome and you should watch it.

After watching Stonewall Uprising, I got to thinking (as I sometimes do when there are no good Millionaire Matchmaker reruns on) about how damn lucky I am. I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, what with all the gay marriage bans and bullying and conservative idiots screaming on TV about our Agenda, but right now is the best time ever to be gay in America. The fact that I can kiss my girlfriend in public and go to a dyke club and wear mens’ clothing and NOT GET ARRESTED makes right now a million times better than any time before – or even right after – Stonewall.

Whenever I see an older lesbian, especially an older butch, I always have this overwhelming urge to run up to her and be like: “WHAT WAS IT LIKE AND HOW DID YOU SURVIVE AND WOULD YOU LIKE TO COME TO MY APARTMENT FOR DINNER; I CAN COOK MAC ‘N CHEESE?” (Note: I have yet to actually do this. Yet.) For example, I was in the grocery store a couple of weekends ago and crossed paths with a late middle-aged butch-femme couple. I immediately forgot about whatever foodstuffs I was planning to purchase and stared at them. Just stared, like a total Grade A creeper. I wanted them to look at me so badly, to see me as a fellow queer and a butch and, maybe, as family. But they didn’t. The femme glanced in my direction, but didn’t see me – or at least didn’t acknowledge that she did – and the butch didn’t look at all. They left the store soon after and I just half-heartedly poked at some loaves of bread for a while before leaving. I felt weirdly and acutely rejected by the entire interaction (or lack thereof). If they, the wise elders of the tribe, didn’t immediately recognize me as one of their own, did this mean I was somehow lacking?

All this has made me realize that I, age the tender age of 26-and-a-half, need a butch mentor. A diesel dyke Big Sister. A lesbian sensei, if you will. A part of me longs for the bar culture that you read about in books like Stone Butch Blues, where the old butches would take a newly-hatched babybutch under their world-weary wings and teach her everything they knew about being butch, dating femmes, and surviving the hetero world. Nobody ever taught me how to be butch. There was no one around to ask the thousands of questions I had about clothes and swagger and cologne and clubs and sex and coming out and being out and living. I still have a lot of questions.

I wish there had been a butch mentor around to help me buy my first tie (which was ugly), or deal with my first breakup (which was uglier). I wish there were a butch mentor here now, to tell me if I’m being a whiny little jerk as I write this.

Maybe I’m living in the wrong place (which is doubtful, as Boston is über gay), but I see almost zero interaction between young homos and the Stonewall era generation. Maybe the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts has sent all the older dykes off to the suburbs to raise their 2.3 children and their golden retrievers. Maybe they have no interest in singing karaoke with a bunch of drunken 20-somethings (but we’re fun!) in a tiny club on a Thursday night. Or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.

Beyond my own selfish intentions, I think this lack of interaction is something we should all be concerned about. I wonder how many babygays today even know what Stonewall was, and why it’s so important to our collective queer history? The thought that these memories, these flashpoints in the Gay Rights Movement, are not being passed onto the next generation is sort of frightening to me. If we don’t know where we’ve been, how will we know where to go next?