Butches, Lies, and Feminism¹
from “The Persistent Desire: a Femme-Butch Reader”, Joan Nestle, editor
Alyson Publications, 1992
First they came for the Communists,
But I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Communist.
Next they came for the Jews.
But I said nothing because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
But I remained silent because I was a Protestant.
Finally they came for me,
But by that time there was not one left to speak.
Martin Niemoeller (Germany, 1944)
Someday they’ll come for the butches. Who will speak for us?
Passion keeps me alive. When I cease to live audaciously – that day I’ll die. Being a butch has been the most troublesome and most delicious experience of my life. Being a butch – like being a woman, a lesbian, having a soul – is not something that I can dismiss. I believe butches are born, not made. Since this is my birthright, I choose to glory in it. When I comb my hair back and strut out my front door, being butch is my hallelujah.
As a butch I’ve walked a hundred alleys, seen a thousand stares. The question in those eyes is always the same: “Are you a man or a woman?” I’ve come to know that the hate I thought I saw in those stares is really fear. The cold, cruel eyebrows are really pleading, “What are you, if you are not male or female? I cannot know you as neither; I cannot understand you. I hate you because I don’t know you.”
Being a coconut butch (brown on the outside, white on the inside) from an upper-middle-class family; I was spared most of the direct hits my pals took on the blue-collar streets of East Los Angeles. In the late sixties, I worked in the prison system, where butches were vigorously strip searched by male guards. Out on the streets, I would have many close calls and one hear hit.
On the outskirts of feminism in ’72, I stopped at a traffic signal next to a dyke bar in North Hollywood. The car in back of me repeatedly bumped my fender. Furious, I jumped out of my car, marched back, and leaned my flattop into the driver’s window demanding, “You blind, drunk, or just stupid, Mister? How about staying off my fender?”
His beer-glazed eyes registered me. “Fuck you, bull dyke!” He jabbed a fist in my face.
“Don’t you just wish…” I laughed.
Just then the light turned green and I rushed back to my car. Sweeping around the corner and into the parking lot of Joanie Presents, I parked. As I walked toward the bar, I gulped. Archie Bunker had followed me. He was coming at me with a crowbar.
The goddess was with me that night. The man thundered past me and smashed his crowbar into my car’s rear window.
He was in a rage because this bull dyke was neither male nor female. I’d eclipsed his gender boundaries.
Society demands that gender define existence. Humankind is agenderphobic. No one wants to answer the question “What is a butch” because few languages in the world have words that define those who stand between the genders.
“To role or not to role?” has never been the question. This twenty-year lesbian debate is moot. There have always been butches and femmes. Sappho was a femme top.
Feminists don’t want to define butch because any true definition of butch must include recognizing yang energy as positive. For two decades, all male energy has been damned as destructive, invasive – wrong. I believe yang energy is also implementive, manifestive, and, yes, necessary.
To me a butch is a recombinant mixture of yin and yang energy. Like recombinant DNA, a butch is an elusive, ever–resynthesizing energy field, a lesbian laser that knits the universes of male and female. Some have said that feminist butch is an oxymoron. I say it’s a paradox. A feminist butch is a dyke who has survived the Cuisinart blades of feminist rhetoric. To survive being butch you have to have been born with an ornery spirit.
The second of twelve children, I was four when my mother, Joan Francis McGuinness, passed by the back porch and saw me sitting on the grass, talking to myself. As she tells her favorite story, “Jeanne was holding one foot in her hand and she said, ‘The devil tells me take off my shoes. My mommy tells me not to take off my shoes. But I’m going to take them off anyway.”
My parents failed to appreciate my ornery spirit, but I was always thankful that neither of them was slouch potatoes. My mother bore life long labor under Catholicism, her driven husband, and more than her share of the title “vice president” of every business my father dumped on her. My bootstrap West Point father made Catholicism look like a democracy. A medical discharge aborted his military career but did not save my siblings and me from having to rise from our bunk beds each morning to his reveille, “Sunrise in the swamps. Up and at ‘em!” I was born with my mother’s flair – “Dare to do it differently” – and my father’s arrogance – “You can be anything in the world!”
Except a lesbian, except a butch.
A playground dyke, I ignored my older sister, who floated rose petals down the storm drains and held court over “Miss America” pageants. I preferred romping through “Bamboo Land” building forts with my baby brother, Bill. He and I gathered the neighborhood boys in the ‘burbs of Orange Grove fifties California and galloped away the years of childhood playing Lone Ranger, hardball, and King of the Mountain. I was Bill’s Arthur, he my Lancelot, as we conquered West Covina.
The day I became a girl, my life was over.
“This is the stupidest thing I ever saw.” I flung the bra out my bedroom window and screamed at my mother. “You can’t expect me to wear that. It’s meant for a horse.”
Several years earlier, my mother had chased me through the streets demanding that I put on a shirt. It was sad enough not to be able to cavort topless in the summer’s heat like Bill, but now, this bra outrage! I’d heard my sister and my girlfriends talking about “the day I’d get to wear a bra.” They’d made it sound as if donning the new garment signaled a wondrous rite of passage. Clearly, I’d misunderstood. At first I thought my mother had simply brought me the wrong thing. When my mind finally accepted that this was a bra, I felt crazy. There was nothing wonderful about this harness. Were my sister and my girlfriends wrong, or was I wrong?
I wasn’t cut out to be a girl. This might sound contradictory, since I was obviously cast with two breasts and accessories for the part, but somewhere inside I always thought my body was lying to me. If I liked all the things that “only boys” got to do, then somehow I must be a boy. Before feminism came along and said, “Girls can be anything they want to be,” I had no mental options save thinking I was a boy. Reality had set in with no explanation.
All I knew then was that “the bra” was the beginning of the end. It portended strange things. Like changing your personality when boys came around. And acting stupid so that they would come around.
In high school I quickly discovered I could kill two birds with one stupid act by hanging around my girlfriends. While boys stumbled over themselves flocking to the dollhouse, I’d enjoy female company and appear to be heterosexually correct.
This thinking was partially successful. I acquired the friendship of the best-looking girl in my class. I would later learn that becoming the confidante of the prom queen is one of the few privileges doled out to teenage baby butches. Prom queen types, themselves, sick of boys, like to hide behind the creased shirt of a little dyke girlfriend. Then, too, we were no competition. We baby butches offered what they really wanted, adoration without pawing.
This stratagem worked. I spent the weekends with Miss Prom Queen and her entourage. But I gave myself away with other aberrant behavior. I spent my school week with Miss Cukras, my softball coach. I was obsessed with softball and Miss Cukras. In my junior year, when Miss Cukras left my school for another assignment, I became visibly depressed. Mother noticed. She also observed that I didn’t wear my bra when playing softball and I spaced my dates out to one per month and was home “so early!” from them.
Years later, I would learn that mother noticed a lot “odd” things. But in my adolescent savoir faire I was sure she knew less than I. I was a Catholic and Catholics believed J.F.K. was the Second Coming. What did I know? As the cacophony of puberty clanged, I began to absorb a vague sense that something was very wrong.
As I searched for an identity, my alienation deepened. Standing out at shortstop, ever vigilant for grounders, I tried to unscramble the plays in my inner diamond. Why didn’t I really belong to any of the in-crowds? I was smart and funny, so the brains accepted me. The socialites had to let me come to their parties because Sharon, the prom queen, was my best friend. And I was a hero to the girls’ varsity club because I pitched well. But the brains thought the girl jocks were weird. The girl’s varsity never debated Socrates. And the boys couldn’t even spell debate.
My mother invented butch oppression. She clouded my adolescence with Catholic confusions like “Don’t play with boys” and “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Her ultimate torture came in my junior year” “If you expect to go to camp this summer, I want you to enter the Junior Miss Contest … and win… like your sister.”
The cabaret stage lights slapped the platform runway and my tightly bound breasts. The green light signaled my turn as I hyperventilated in the corseted yellow formal. The runway looked longer than a Concorde escape path. I’d never make it. My mother’s words replayed in my head: “Put one leg in front of the other; swing your hip all the way around each time.” She called this ‘poise.” I called it disabled. Gratefully, I suffer posttraumatic stress syndrome and cannot to this day remember how Jeanne Cordova ran the Junior Miss gauntlet and lived.
Today I argue with my lover, “Are butches more oppressed than femmes, or vice versa?” But back then there was no debate. High school years are much harder on butches. Femmes passed as straight, even to themselves. Butches can’t. We stick out like G.I. Joes in Barbie Land.
The contest convinced me there was no place for me. I didn’t fit. Except on the pitcher’s mound or at shortstop, where I was alone.
I finished high school with Sharon, striding with her over to the boys’ quad every day. None of them seemed interested in me, but I didn’t care, because I got to comb Sharon’s hair every recess in the girls’ bathroom, I never brushed my own. I tried to explain to Sharon that constantly combing one’s hair was vain. My mother was always reading to us from a book that clearly said, “Vanity, of vanities, all then is vanity, but to love God and serve him alone.” Sharon said she’d never read The Imitation of Christ. When I offered my anti-vanity rationale as a defense for the state of my hair, my mother clarified, “Jeanne, you are confusing the secular and spiritual worlds.”
Apparently, I remained confused. I entered the convent directly after high school.
Convent boot camp
If I hadn’t been raised in the babbling cloister of my family’s naïveté I might gave understood what Mother General meant when she said my induction test scores indicated that I had “a problem with authority.” I might have realized then, instead of later, that I was an uppity dyke.
I arrived on Entrance Day wearing my James Dean wraparound sunglasses, sincerely believing that the warriorship of my patron saint (butch dyke Jeanne d’Arc) was spiritually motivated. I left the holy sisterhood one year later thoroughly edified by the carnal motivations and wraparound body of novice Sister Marie Immaculata. My boot camp in the sisterhood of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (detailed in my autobiographical novel, Kicking the Habit) did clarify my lesbianism. It did not further my butch identity. Once again, I was out in the secular world, but with no habit to shroud this unpenitent butch body.
Leaving the convent, I felt wondrously liberated. I was a lesbian! At long last, I knew who I was. Unfortunately, no-one else did.
Somehow I landed at Cal State L.A. in a boy-girl-boy-girl student housing complex. (I later deduced that my mother had deliberately steered me into this co-ed purgatory.) I wandered this wasteland, subjecting myself to another year of trauma in the heterosexual zone.
Since the opportunity was at hand, I had decided to try heterosexuality. I reasoned that since I loved making love with a woman, and fully intended to pursue them for the rest of my life, perhaps I should test my decision with an empirical experiment – a man.
Paul was a flop in bed, but he was an excellent role model. An Italian New Yorker who had no interest in anything more sociological than the girls he lived next to, Paulo Bonaventura was an adorable rake. A jockey by night and a probation officer by day, Paul was exactly what Cordova – my budding butch persona – wanted to be when she grew up. I watched how Paul seduced women in Las Vegas and carefully researched quality men’s shops for the latest in gentlemen’s attire – for him, of course.
After six months, I remembered my original hypotheses, and I finally made it with my jockey. Peggy Lee sang “Is That All There Is?” as Paul answered the question for me. All I can say about sex with Paul is that I felt rather queer.
Men want desperately to believe that lesbians either hate men or just haven’t found the right one. Paul was everything a woman would want – sexy, gentle, caring. Still boring. I suppose it’s too hard for men to admit the simple truth: for lesbians, sex with them is like peanut butter compared to caviar; like “The Donna Reed Show’ competing with Gone With The Wind.
I put Paul on a plane to Sicily, forgetting at the airport to ask, “Will you be back?” Returning to my silent, lonely apartment, I lay on my couch for weeks racking my brain. Where could I meet other homosexuals? In desperation I put an ad in the local Los Angeles Free Press: “Young, Lonely, Gay Woman. Would like to meet similar for friendship. Please call.”
One week later, “Similar” showed up on my doorstep with red, three-inch fingernails and platinum blonde hair covering an ass urgently in need of covering. But Toni took one look at me and said, “Baby Jail Bait, you’re no kinda dyke,” and was gone before I could even ask here if she were a real lesbian.
The following morning I called every parks and Recreation listing in the Los Angeles phone book. Where would I find homosexual girls? On the softball field, of course? One month later, a few days past my twentieth birthday, I was at a dyke bar in Pico Rivera. I was in paradise.
Unbeknownst to this would-be gay virgin, Pico Rivera was home of the biggest, baddest dykes in East L.A. In Mexican-American culture, the dykes were butch, and the femmes weren’t. But what did I, ex-nun, know of such things? I was a “gay girl.” I thought the life was simple.
It was the summer of ’68 and my contemporaries were “on strike,” marching down the Sunset Strip in bell-bottoms and beads screaming, “Out Now!”
I didn’t want out. I’d just found my way in.
Judy had picked me up on the first day of softball practice. Standing five feet barefooted, Judy worked for the phone company and thought “abstract thinking” meant absentminded. But Judy was the cutest thing I ever saw. At twenty, cute is enough. Judy wore men’s black stud-toed wing tips, a frosted ducktail, and low-waisted trousers. I thought this was the standard gay girls uniform, and of course, I wanted one. And I wanted Judy.
Yet, one hot spring night six months later, as I sat with Judy’s arm around me at Tullies, I absentmindedly discovered the truth behind Judy’s uniform. Through the smoke, I observed the girls at the bar. The same three dykes always lit the cigarettes of their partners. Their partners sat on the stools while the dykes stood. The tough-looking ones paid for the drinks and they slung their arms around the seated girls.
“That’ll be $3.50 for the last round.” The waitress stopped in front of us. Judy lifted her arm off my neck and reached for her wallet.
The next Saturday, Judy took me shopping with her to Sears. As she strode past the women’s department, I was confused. When she began ruffling through the shirts in the men’s section, I was hooked.
Ever since my bra days, I had hated shopping. Shopping with Mom meant more torture garments. Shopping with Mother Superior meant a new set of rosary beads. Shopping with Judy was a delight. My fingers brushed the flannel shirts and explored the creases of zip-front trousers. The muted, solid colors spoke to my soul. Here were clothes a girl could wear. Judy flew into a rage as it became evident I was buying clothes for myself, not her. I quickly began to realize that Judy was the cigarette lighter, not the lightee. And so was I. Judy and I broke up the next day. She yelled at me, “You’re no kinda femme.” But I stuck through the day-long argument and obtained a frantic, but complete, education on “butch-femme.”
My relationship with Judy also showed me that my parents thought being butch was at once more acceptable and more reprehensible than being femme. That Christmas my father literally threw Judy out of his home. He wouldn’t abide “that kind of woman.” In the decades that followed, bringing my femme lovers home would be easier. My parents imply denied that my feminine girlfriends were lesbians. Me? I was harder to get rid of.
“The gay life” was becoming more complicated. Judy was right. I was no kinda femme, but I didn’t know much about being a butch either. Clearly I had missed something critical. I would have to learn a new set of behaviors, how to treat a lady, how to get a date, how to take her to bed.
School had always come easily to me, but no course came as naturally as “Butch 101” (part of the curriculum that was available to any baby butch making the bar scene). Abruptly I switched bars, giving myself a tabula rasa for my new identity. I studied the clothes of the butches at Tommy’s in the slums of Baldwin Park, and I frequented Sears and brought accordingly. I stood in front of my mirror practicing how to knot a tie. A week before the Halloween of 1969, I broke down in frustration and called Brother Bill.
“I’ve got a costume party,” I explained my tie problem. Bill knew I was gay and “no kinda femme,” but he didn’t understand what a butch was.
As a youngster, I’d been my father’s substitute son until the illusion crumbled at puberty. Bill, my junior by two years, was right there to pick up the spoils. As “son” he got my father’s business, my mother’s love, the mantle of the family name. As “daughter”, I became superfluous in the scheme of family power. I learned early that men had what I wanted: money, power, and women. And could do it my way, by being a butch.
Finally, in pinstripes and cholo boots, Cordova as Butch was ready to venture back into East L.A. I was primed for real practice. That’s when Charlene, the only straight woman I’ve ever wooed, sashayed into my life. A former model, she was the most ravishing, silken-night hair-down-to-her-ass beauty I’d ever seen in Gayland. She later told me that she really wanted a man and that she had mistakenly wandered into Tullies that night having just broken up with her boyfriend. But Butch 101 also taught, “There’s no such thing as a straight girl --- only virgins looking for the right girl.” “Being a dyke” was “being a man.” Being tough, or at least convincingly in control, defined the choreography. Naturally, I didn’t take Charlene’s protestations seriously. I knew I was the “right girl” for her. I followed Butch 101 steps, convinced that Charlene and I were the perfect couple.
Six months later, Charlene ran off with her male theater director. I advanced to Butch 201: “How to tell the difference between a femme and a straight girl. Before.” This lesson was more sophisticated. Charlene had treated me like a man. Butching out for her hadn’t made me feel close to her.
Much to my surprise, I didn’t feel any more natural being treated like a man than I did being treated like a woman, I thought I hated being a woman, that I really was a man trapped in a woman’s body, a transsexual. At the wizened age of twenty-one, I’d nearly fulfilled my ambition. In the eyes of my girlfriend and friends I’d almost become a man. But in this new role I remained foreign to myself. Worse yet, it didn’t work. Charlene left.
Butch 201 taught me that a real lesbian femme was a gay girl who wanted her butch to look masculine but be a woman. This gave me new pause for thought. How could I be a man and a woman at the same time, in one body? Was this possible?
The day I discovered that my Cal State Abnormal Psych text called me “gender dysfunctional,” I brought my text home. In a furious burst of rare culinary endeavor, I flung butter in a frying pan and threw Abnormal Psych on the burner. Moments later, Judy came flying out of the bedroom gasping, “What’s that horrible smell?”
“I’m sending Abnormal Psych back to hell where it belongs,” I answered calmly, spatula in hand. “I’m frying this heresy like a good Catholic.”
It would take gay liberation and feminism another several years to show me that “gender dysfunction” really didn’t exist; that I was not wrong, they were. My parents and Catholicism had taught me to accept the gender dichotomy. The patriarchy had created this “disease” by rigidly classifying male and female behavior according to anatomy. By this definition, my little0girl-bodied, male-behaving self was “sick.” Insisting that the world was flat, as millions once did, also led to equally unhealthy conclusions about the universe.
I would eventually become a political activist, because my ornery spirit knew, long before my mind could explain, that our gay place in the world had been fundamentally misdefined. If men and women weren’t divided and gender were accepted as fluid, I wouldn’t be perceived as deviating from a nonexistent norm. And neither would the other one or two billion queers like me. I wasn’t a transsexual; I was simply individual, gender and psyche, a recombinant dyke.
As a baby butch revolutionary in the seventies, I would soon learn that society defined “normal” to codify how those in power wanted their world to be. “Normal” had nothing to do with Catholicism, or even God, but everything to do with power and money.
Being a butch was not the world’s idea of being powerful or successful. It was a wonder I survived long enough to find my own power.
Butch Code limitations
Feminism came to my rescue.
I enrolled at UCLA for my junior year, which meant moving across town, leaving Pico, and leaving my buddies who worked for Pacific Telephone by day and drank by night. But my wardrobe of ties was now complete and I’d managed, with some Ivy League suspenders and a host of L.L. Bean blazers, to set my own butch style. I was working full-time in Watts and was finally within sight of my degree in social work. My career plans were clear. Like Cesar Chavez, I was going to save the ghetto. All I needed was a new bar and a new girl.
I found the former quickly enough by joining the softball team at the 7th Circle, a seedy little dive that despite its reputation as a “reds” (we’re not talking politics) bar became my weekend home. Home was completed the night I met Gayle there and took her to my one-bedroom in the Fairfax district (later to become West Hollywood.)
Doing the swagger thing at the Circle, I protected Gayle from unwarranted advances, threw a few punches to establish my territory, and refined the codes of Butch 301: honor your dyke buddies, it instructed, don’t make it with a buddy’s girl and expect to keep her friendship. Don’t flaunt your one-night stands in your girlfriend’s face – make sure your friends don’t either. Don’t trust ki-kis (switch-hitters who flip-flopped from butch to femme depending on who they were trying to make.) And, above all, never let on if you find yourself sexually attracted to another butch.
The Butch Code was obviously a limited worldview. I grew bored. I didn’t need a twelve-step program to see the ravages of alcohol on the faces of my sage butch mentors. I didn’t then agree with my generation about marching in the streets against our country’s war (I’d spent the sixties in the cloister and in Pico; I didn’t even know where Vietnam was). I had no political consciousness, but I was frustrated and pissed off. I wanted being queer to mean more than spending my life in a bar.
On October 3, 1970, I walked into my first “homosexual meeting.” I hadn’t heard about Stonewall, but I knew I was in the right place. A stone butch named Carole sat at the head table, and the whole room buzzed with talk about “religion and the homophile.” Six months later, I succeeded Carole as president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis and opened the first lesbian center in the city. History had surged forward. By that time we talked about “gay rights.”
One day I found a leaflet crammed in the mailbox of our DOB Center. It was from another organized group of gay girls, the Lesbian-Feminists. I’d heard about them through the dyke grapevine. No one knew what their name meant, they were reported to be “wierdos,” and they were known to hang out at a center for women. This sounded ominous, but the leaflet gave an address, and said. “All women welcome.” I decided queer unity must prevail; I would visit their territory.
Feminism and the butch closet
It was not love at first sight. Listening to my “sisters” that first night was one of the most disorienting experiences of my life. These women forbade use of the word girl. No one flirted with anyone. No one even asked my name, much less noticed my new wing tips. The Lesbian-Feminists did nothing but talk for five solid hours. And they weren’t even discussing an outing or anything tangible. They were spouting some convoluted religious politic. It had to be religious, because they were all intensely righteous. I thought I knew the religions of the world, but this was a new one. Apparently it was also very ancient, because one them proclaimed their “matriarchy” was as “old as history itself.”
By midnight I was convinced I’d received the wrong information. These girls weren’t lesbians. There were no butches. Many of them looked vaguely feminine, in the hippie style of the day. A clunky sandal seemed to be their shoe of choice, but none of them wore makeup. I knew no bona fide femme would go out in public without wearing makeup or heels.
Concluding that they were some kind of crackpot sect, I rose to leave. As I stomped across the wood floor, enjoying how the chains on my boots clanged through their meanderings, the one called “Radical Rita Right On” shouted at me, “What kind of lesbian are you?’
I began to wonder.
Feminism healed the core contradictions of my life. Feminism said I was clearly a woman, but that I could be any kind of woman I wanted to be, and that in fact I was “an amazon”, a kind of proud free woman who refused to be defined by the rules of patriarchy. This sounded great. Certainly more enhancing – and more workable – than my former analysis of myself as an unrequited transsexual.
Feminism defined “the enemy” I had been looking for all my life. I knew “they” had it wrong about gender dysfunction. I knew “they” wanted me dead. But also knew that the enemy wasn’t the military-industrial complex. In these groups I recognized dear old Dad. I knew these folks only wanted money. Issues about gender were deeper and had to do with basic definitions of male and female. These issues, I suspected, had to do with power. My new philosophy explained why the enemy hated queers so much that they’d kill us in our own bars. Feminism explained “sexism” as the economics of world power through the control of women’s sexuality. Men were the enemy – the political system called the patriarchy.
“The androgynous imperative”2
Almost against my will, the early seventies turned me into a “lesbian-feminist.” Feminism tore apart my butch identity. A former Catholic, I could smell heresy before I heard it. Feminism was heretical to “the gay world.” Feminism struck at the core. Feminism said, “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” I had no idea what this mean, but I knew it wasn’t Webster’s. I came to embrace and love lesbian-feminism, because I knew these wierdos were right. Innately, I’d always felt lesbianism was more than sexual behavior. Lesbianism embodied a political rage, an ornery core.
The new blasphemy attacked my trappings as well as my core. Feminism eliminated dirty dancing; leading my partner was “heterosexist”; bumping and grinding was plain ‘ol “sexist.” The Lesbian-Feminists said it was wrong for femmes to wear makeup, patriarchal to indulge in monogamy, and “male-identified” (a mortal sin) for butches to wear ties. In fact, the Lesbian-Feminists insisted there was no such thing as butch-femme. It was a “heterosexual cop-out.” (By then I knew that anything heterosexual was anathema.) These frizzy-headed, unshaven interlopers decreed that “womyn” who acted like men (butches) or like girls (femmes) were not even lesbians! Feminism’s only analysis of “butch” was as synonymous with “male” – which meant thoroughly politically incorrect. I didn’t have a political analysis to explain my butch self, so I gave myself up to “the larger struggle.”
It wasn’t too hard to adopt the new uniform of my faith. I already had hiking boots, 501’s, and several denim jackets. (All I needed was a few political buttons on my chest.) This had not been my everyday outfit, but I had to admit, denim wore well for the decade. It was cheaper than replenishing my tie-and-suspender collection. So, on the outside, I became an instant androgyne.
One might well ask: Why would a self-respecting, adamant butch dyke ever buy such crap! Wasn’t I settled in my identity, clear about who was a lesbian and who was not, happy in my bed and in my head?
When I returned to DOB and tried to explain feminism, my chapter thought I’d taken leave of my senses. I intuited that the secret plot to vote me out of office at the next election was born that evening in their rage at a president who obviously wanted to change their way of life.
A butch without metal
The dress code was hard on Gayle, whom the Lesbian-Feminists labeled a “female impersonator” because of her polished nails and make-up. Gayle said she wanted nothing to do with a women’s “liberation” movement that bound her.
My own chains had become something of a problem. Doing reconnaissance on my favorite chain-link black leather boots, Radical Rita Right On had advised me, “You can’t expect to retain a position of leadership with male-identified chain on your shoes.” My dark night of butchdom came one evening as, with pliers, I pried off the gold chains slung around the ankles of my boots. Looking up at my bedroom wall, I read Judy Grahn’s poster poem, “A common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread.” Snapping the chain off my second boot, I almost cried and wondered if Grahn’s persona, Edward the Dyke, would have liked my boots. I reached into the back of my closet, pulled a piece of black velvet out of my sex-toys box, and gently wrapped my chains in it.
Reshod, I stood in requiem in my boots. They were naked. I was stripped. I’d spent my life learning how to take my power through my feet. I’d drawn strength through the ground, through my boots. Felt the energy shoot out through my words, my hands. Now a link in my butch power chain was severed. What did it mean to live as a butch without chains?
Shortly thereafter, Gayle and I filed for divorce on the grounds of political incompatibility. Like thousands of others, she had been turned off by feminism’s dogma, before she heard its deeper truth. In the divorce, Gayle got out toy box. She said I wouldn’t be needing it, because, “obviously lesbian-feminists don’t know how to fuck.”
But lesbian-feminists were adroit in fucking each other over. Robin Morgan was right; sisterhood was powerful.
On a drizzly Los Angeles night in February 1972, I sat with my lesbian-feminist self and dozens of similars. We were tête-à-tête with a large group of straight feminists for a “Straight-Gay Dialogue.” I hadn’t yet figured out why feminism was always misnaming the obvious. Radical Rita Right On said, “We are redefining our sexist language.” I figured that, like me, everyone secretly knew that these “Straight-Gay Dialogs” were a euphemism for “bringing the straight ladies out,” as my old Pico crowd would have put it. Language was such a problem in those days.
I was sitting there nervously slapping my hiking boots together, probably lost in a retrograde daze, when I heard a voice call out, “Are there any butches in the room?” Subconsciously, I shot my hand up.
A hush swept the room and brought me into the present. I panicked. There was only one other woman in the room with her hand raised. “Damn!” I swore to myself, recalling the leader’s question as I felt my face turn as blue as my denim. I’d been nailed by the androgynous imperative!
“This meeting is for women-identified woman only. All butches must leave,” the leader decreed. Having come to accept that all discussions in the women’s movement were collectively decided except when someone actually decided something, I stood and strode.
“This is politics. Don’t take it personally.” The older butch slammed the door in back of us as she put her arm around my shoulder. “They’ll change their minds tomorrow anyway. Come home with me. I know just what you need.”
I took Butch 401 from this older butch mentor, and became the first graduate of her school. “The Robin Tyler Academy for Butches.” Robin showed me my first dildo (lab included), butch positions for three-ways, and how to top a butch. This postgraduate work was especially valuable, if not politically consistent, because in the early seventies feminism taught that sleeping across roles was sexist. If you were butch, your “egalitarian,” politically correct partner had to be another butch. The same held true for femmes. This queer situation became the basis for the now infamous “short, meaningful relationship.” I tried it. This one of the few butch lessons I flunked.
My twenty-year friendship with Robin Tyler was born that day in the “wander underground” of a movement that didn’t understand it’s own. As butches we organized marches for “choice,” wondering when ours would come. Robin and I and a growing cadre of closet butches banded together to fight for our identities. Butch bonding was also powerful. No one understood a sexual outlaw like another sexual outlaw. If the personal really was political, my personal reality proved there had to be such a thing as a feminist butch.
The Jaded Butch League
No local feminist rag, including my own Lesbian Tide, would accept an ad for our political organization, The Jaded Butch League. So we organized secretly. At JBL meetings, we pondered (theoretically, of course) the political paradox of why so many lesbian-feminists hated us but wanted to sleep with us. Our top theoretician, Yolanda Retter (who publicly called herself “Yoli the Terrible” just to scare the white-girl feminists with her Latin anger), helped us safely discover our own sexism. With the added motivation of trying to be politically as well as sexually acceptable to our newfound lesbian feminist lovers, we painfully peeled off some of the layers of our sexism. Objective reality was also changing. It was impossible to retain any sense of “femme as weak” when your lover was shouting at you nightly through a bullhorn on Hollywood Boulevard.
Nevertheless, lesbian-feminists debate over “role-playing” raged through the seventies, placing a strong third on feminism’s politically incorrect Top Ten – just behind “sadomasochistic woman hating” and “monogamy.” Feminism makes strange bedfellows.
Not all was bleak for me during the decade. There were pockets of feminists who accepted me as a butch. One such dominant entity was the Radical Feminist Therapy Collective, who ran the Westside Women’s Center – collectively, of course. In the mid-seventies, the RFTC defined lesbian-feminism in Southern California. I was not a therapist, but I was publicly redistricting the human condition (and sleeping with one of its members), so I was admitted to this august body of all-femme “superdykes.” (Politically correct lesbian-feminists were “dykes” – not to be confused with the politically incorrect “butches.”) During my short stint with the RFTC, I came to believe that the Blessed Virgin must have been a lesbian-feminist femme. Mary, too, was gorgeous, paradoxical, didn’t sleep with men, and gave up her male son.
Through the RFTC, with Gahan Kelly, Jane Herman, Judy Freespirit, and Gudrun Fonfa – leaders who birthed the concepts of fat liberation, feminist therapy, and looksism – I learned that not all feminists hated butches. The collective coined the term post-power femme, which meant a feminist, femme-identified lesbian who was so secure in her power that she didn’t have to deny her femininity. These were the steel magnolias of lesbian-feminism, the true mothers of invention, before whom this butch was – just fine!
Raging butch publisher: The Lesbian Tide
Meanwhile, life on my own newspaper, the Lesbian Tide, was a study in lesbian contradiction and feminist paradox.
How did a raging butch get to be publisher of the nation’s premier lesbian-feminist paper of the seventies? Like much of the turbulent seventies, it was a dialectic accident; I snuck in the back door.
In 1971, when DOB abbreviated my “communist” (Women against the War) presidency, they offered me the booby prize of remaining on the Board of Officers by holding the lowest position – newsletter editor. I accepted. I’d been editor of my high school paper; I knew the power of the press. From here, as Marx would say, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump as this editor collided with herstory. I changed the name of my four-page mimeograph from the DOB Newsletter to the Lesbian Tide, because I could feel the tide of herstory changing. The whole world was.
Realizing its mistake, the DOB membership soon voted me and my communist tide out of the organization. Politically, I’d been gone for months already. But I was now free to invite my lesbian-feminist soul mates onto the staff.
The mates of the not-so-collective Tide Collective reflected the infra-chaos of our movement. In addition to my paradoxical self, there was an archetypal lesbian-come -lately (from heterosexuality) feminist femme, co-editor Sharon McDonald; our very own politically correct Vassar white girl, Shirl Buss (who later processed her own organization, White Women against White Women against White Women against Racism, to death); an old-gay femme Barbara Gehrke, a former navy woman who thought women’s liberation meant changing laws to make women free (poor dear!); and a bisexual, Cheri Lesh, who also must have crept in some window simply because she was a great writer. Lesh taught me that there were indeed a small percentage of human beings who did not find gender a factor in sexual attraction.
My ten-year indenture, 1970-1980, to the Tide and this outrageous family of women helped me survive lesbian-feminism. With our Vassar analysis editor, Buss, I completed my studies in lesbian-feminist language: androgynous was a synonym for butch; cheating on your lover was called “having a nonmonogamous relationship”; and “role-playing´ was “consciousness raising.” Learning all these new things was called “networking” or “skill building” depending on the environment you were studying. And, of course, fighting for your identity, even unsuccessfully, was called “processing.”
As the undercover butch publisher of the Lesbian Tide, I edited major features such as “Are Roles Really Dead?” and quoted myself as the anonymous “Mariane” (pretty femme, pretty clever) – defender of the now ancient heritage of butchdom. I survived through coups and controversy, not the least of which was whether the Lesbian Tide was a “lesbian-feminist” publication, or a “feminist lesbian” publication.
Lesbians of the nineties might rightly wonder why their foremothers spent three years in this ridiculous semantic debate when they could have been proclaiming “Queer Power” on the “Donahue Show.” What can I say? It seemed important at the time. I was a dyke long before I learned to spell feminism, so I was adamant that no Jennie-Come-Lately politic was going to give my lesbianism second billing as a descriptive adjective. I was not just a feminist who happened to be a lesbian. That would be as silly as calling myself a butch feminist. Somewhere in my but I knew that feminism had both saved me and shoved me back into the closet. Feminism rescued women, but it subverted lesbianism.
Butch wars with NOW
I wish I could say that gliding into the eighties, our feminist foremothers finally copped to their mistaken interpretation of lesbianism as a solely political position. Perhaps Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem never found themselves in a real lesbian “position” – so it’s not their fault. Being a dyke is a you-had-to-be-there fundamental. Perhaps we lesbians had not business allowing straight men or straight women to define us.
My butch’s war with feminism finally culminated in 1983, when the president of the California National Organization for Women (NOW) was arrested for murder. The infamous story of the State of Louisiana’s attempt to use Ginny Foat’s ex-husband to discredit the women’s movement is well chronicled in Foat’s book, Never Guilt, Never Free. What is not revealed in that or any other book is the story of the butch oppression that occurred during this “victory.”
On the miserable morning of January 11, my more-butch-than-thou roommate, Jean O’Leary, and I were disarranged on my living room floor discussing politics and women as usual when our also-closeted butch bud Ivy Bottini, telephoned to report, “The FBI picked up Ginny. We’ve got to fight back!”
Ivy, known as L.A.’s “grandmother” of lesbianism, stomped over in her black denims a half an hour later. By dinner, “The National Ginny Foat Defense Fund” was fully phoned and had raised $10,000 toward Ginny’s trial. For four grueling months, the three of us worked twelve-hour days responding to press calls from around the country, speaking, and organizing the political and financial effort to get Ginny, our post-power lesbian femme sister and personal friend, out of the slammer. As if the task at hand wasn’t impossible enough, answering the Chicago Tribune’s phone request to speak to “Mrs. Cordova” make the work almost schizophrenic. But we were committed. Our personal lives ground to a halt. This was a matter, perhaps, of life and death.
Ginny’s organization, NOW, as usual came later to their daughter’s defense. While they “discussed” the controversial hot potato of how a murder charge would play to housewives in South Dakota, NOW leaders sent secret “Right on, sisters!” notes of thanks that we dykes were actually doing something.
Finally NOW made up its mind, just weeks after my living room carpet had got worn through with the dozens of dyke feet using my house as defense headquarters. Jean, Ivy, and I got the word from National NOW Board member and lesbian-feminist Jean Conger: “We need you to step aside.”
“Why?” we screamed at Conger. “We’ve done a great job!”
“We… ah, NOW… the lawyers have decided that Ginny’s lesbianism can’t become a factor in the Louisiana courtroom,” she explained. “It’s too dangerous.”
“We never expected NOW to out Ginny in court.” I swallowed. “What’s Ginny’s lesbianism got to do with us remaining chairs of the defense fund?”
“The press wants personal interviews with the directors of the defense fund. I’m supposed to take over, now.” Conger paused and looked at Ivy, Jean and I in our 501’s, our legs thrown up on chairs, our cropped hair by now standing on end. She was addressing the three most “obviously butch” dyke leaders in Southern California.
“Butches are good enough to raise money,” I muttered to my buds, “but not ‘appropriate” for the L.A.Times. It’s called, it’s time to ‘pass’.”
NOW, fronted by lesbian femmes and earring butches, passed. For once, NOW didn’t even try to make excuses. There was nothing to say.
The next night I threw logs into the fireplace of my empty living room. As the fire crackled, I wondered what sound would issue from the mouths of the dyke crew coming the next day expecting to continue work. I counted the exhausting years since my twenty-first birthday. Thirteen years of having to prove my butch self to a sisterhood that would never understand, much less champion, the kind of women I was. I recounted the times, when, despite my leadership in the California movements, I’d not been invited to appear on TV talk shows. I wasn’t an acceptable lesbian role model. Never mind that drag queens and bull dykes led the stonewall riots. By the mid-eighties, the right wing of gay liberation and the women’s movement was in full control of our “revolution”
Like most radical philosophies, feminism had separated itself from its own radical vision, freedom from gender. It had widened the patriarchy’s definition of a “real woman” but left me out. I could be anything I wanted to be, except a butch.
The flames from the fireplace turned my olive green poster of Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation into a sickly purple. Johnston had called lesbianism “the feminist solution.” This butch still had no solution. I wept.
The femme within
I went on to find my own solution.
Shirley MacLaine’s voice reverberated through the ballroom speakers as some six hundred of us – gay, straight, male and female – lay in meditation on the carpet of the Holiday Inn. We were living experiments in MacLaine’s 1987 workshop, “Channeling Your Higher Self.”
I punched my black leather purse into a tighter pillow beneath my head. My purse, whom I lovingly called, “my yin chromosome,” had been with me through nearly two decades of the lesbian civil wars. She’d been the butt of much harassment by lesbian-feminists and stone butches who didn’t understand the difference between a butch purse and a femme purse. A butch purse in an only child. Femmes have as many purses as shoes.
Shirley MacLaine, as far as I knew, didn’t understand the difference between a butch and a femme, but she was about to reconcile both identities in me. As our meditation deepened into its second hour, the New Age guru led us: “I want to take you back to your primordial selves,” she whispered. “Back to the moment when you were whole, back before the great separation. I want you to meet your real ‘other half’.”
“If you are filled with yang energy, this person is your yin double. If you are a nurturer, this person is your evidencing soul mate. This man-woman is your twin flame, your complete balance, your perfect lover, your intimate friend. I want you to imagine that you really see her-him; you see beyond his himness, her herness. You see perfection. You introduce yourself… shake hands … sit and wonder at this wonder. They are everything you’ve always searched for. Imagine touching. Imagine making love. This person is you.”
In this altered, holy instant, I met my femme self. I knew immediately who she was: my mother, my lover, my daughter – my lost yin self. She was “the right girl” for me. And I was her butch. As our moment of ecstatic orgasm came, I felt my spirit move over. Her presence filled my cells. There was a rush, then a calm … a fire, then a peace. Yin met yang, raw balance. I’d never known what it felt like to be a woman in quite the same way this spirit felt inside me. That afternoon my perfect lover was within me and all mine. The world was safe. This butch would never be alone again.
Being butch, femme, straight, bi, transsexual is our gender identity, our gender destiny. It is now our job to redefine who we are; it is merely our job to discover who we are – and make a safe-land for our reality. This is why, in the early nineties, as I watch the dawn of “queerism” redefining the parameters of gender, I know that someday we’ll understand that sexuality is more outrageously free than even we radical feminists dared believe.
against corduroy, a gray
tie; pinpricked with red.
… Narrow swatch
of knotted cloth, it’s stitches
close and even – how does it
elicit such a strange rush,
paths of wanting? --- Christine Cassidy, 1990
Last night I sat talking to my lover and some new friends in a straight lounge in a heterosexual San Francisco hotel. I wore my tie, the gray-and-burgundy paisley one, and my Humphrey Bogart gray fedora. Feminism had tried to airbrush butches out of lesbianism. But “the sexually non-conforming”3 had not been tamed. Now a middle-aged butch, I was finally dressed again.
I’d spent the weekend at the Outwrite ’91 Gay and Lesbian Writers’ Conference, flirting with straight waitresses, sitting in the very fine company of five outrageous feminist lesbian femmes – all of them activists, all, like Jo Ann Loulan, pushy power femmes who are once again raiding the borders of the lesbian nation. We’d spent most of the three days in the hotel’s restaurant and dubbed our table “The Erotic Table Gang.” We fugitives had dissected and reclaimed butch-femme – the ultimate lesbian archetype, the secret of our power. Perhaps, I thought, the reality of butch-femme was our witch potion, the solution too powerful, the goddess name even we cannot speak, the core of a woman who transcends gender, the ornery spirit self that refuses definition.
I’d loved these hours as my real self. I’d felt again the pride and passion of being a pariah in a movement of lip-synch radicals. Looking across y future, I knew my last forty years in this lifetime might undergo many more radical definitions. But being a butch would always be my “erotic dance,”4 my waltz with myself, a solo if necessary. I had returned to who I was.
It was late in the fogbound bay night and I realized my lover and I would spend most of the night in the cold airport, trying to find a flight home to L.A. But I also knew anything was worth having spent two days in the company of women who knew who I was. Now a butch for twenty-three years, I’ve met only a handful of “self-avowed” femmes. Half of them had sat at my table that weekend; the other half has been my lovers. So to Jo Ann, to Adrienne and Robbi, to Christine and my own lover, Lynn, to the power femmes of the lesbian nineties.. and to my femme self … I say, “Thank you. You make this butch safe in the world.”
My warmest thanks to editors Christine Cassidy and Lynn Harris Ballen. For further details, see Sexism: It’s a Nasty Affair! (New York: Free Press, 1976) and Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story (Los Angeles: Multiple Dimensions, 1990), by Jeanne Cordova. Related material is also published in the Lesbian Tide (1970-1980), and in Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973).
Jo Ann Loulan, The Lesbian Erotic Dance; Butch, Femme, Androgyny and Other Rhythms (San Francisco: Spinsters, 1990),
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991).
Loulan, The Lesbian Erotic Dance