Friday, October 8, 2010

The Butch Mystique

I am fascinated that my description of Mary Carillo as "butch" sparked such an interesting conversation.  Here I am, living my entire adult life in lesbian culture, thinking I know everything about who we are. And thinking that Mary Carillo is the tall gallant epitome of butch. But a few of my darling readers have said, whoa, no, not the case. They say she's more accurately described as "androgynous" or "just Mary" because she occasionally wears pastels and because we have no way of knowing if she is butch-identified (or even lesbian.)  These are very good points. But I do not concede the argument.

First, I want to talk about this comment: "Butchness requires a degree of self-identification, meaning I don't think that you can assume a woman is butch based on superficial characteristics." This is interesting and, to me, a little troubling. Maybe because I came out during the Reagan administration my views on such things are outdated. (Example: I still say "transgendered person" rather than what I've noticed everyone else says, "transgender." When did the shift occur? Beats me. But keep in mind the speed-of-light changes occuring in this realm: My 1993 copy of Stone Butch Blues (purchased at Shakespeare & Co. in NYC in 1994!) uses the term "transgendered" on the back cover blurb. Judith Butler's seminal work Gender Trouble, published in 1990, includes neither "transgendered" nor "transgender.") In any case, here is what I understand about the term "butch" in lesbian culture:

It's an unfortunate and uninformed mistake to view "butch/femme" as simply limited to bedroom roles and—good grief—the heterosexual construct. If we say you can't assume a woman is butch based on superficial characteristics, we are suggesting that butch is something we can't see. Or that it's strictly a sexual behavior rather than an aesthetic. A noun rather than an adjective. It also seems to belie that old chestnut: "Butch on the streets, femme in the sheets," which suggests butch presentation is often just bravado concealing an emotional trainwreck.

In contrast, I think butch is something you can express when you want to. For some of us, it's diurnal. For others, it's as infrequent as chopping wood. To me, it simply describes traditionally masculine characteristics — bold, brave, macho, robust, strong, strapping, virile — displayed by a woman. Yes, there are the anachronistic "butch/femme" pairings described in Leslie Feinberg's groundbreaking novel Stone Butch Blues, but Feinberg is describing a pre-Stonewall era. Lillian Faderman documents this bygone period thoroughly in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, and she even establishes that butch/femme roles in the 1950s and 1960s were exclusive to working class lesbians who had no other way of identifying their community. Faderman also points out that wealthy and middle class lesbians "generally rejected" the butch/femme roles and dress codes, which they found "aesthetically repulsive."

I have zero interest in igniting class warfare in the lesbian community. It is also my understanding that lesbian culture has evolved since the '50s and '60s. Yes, we still have our special "stone butches," but I don't think anyone would argue that the terms "butch" and "stone butch" are interchangeable. And these days, wouldn't a woman who seeks to pass as a man or who identifies as a man be described as trans rather than butch? Butch in my mind is inherently lesbian; it is implicit that the person is female. Judith Butler herself has spent her career asserting that sexuality is not linked to gender. And I assume that would include sexual roles assigned to the genderqueer, no? Being butch does not come with a required list of sexual behaviors.


Anonymous said...

Um, SG. Are you trying to kill me?


Sapphist Gazetteer said...

You can handle it. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Since when does being a femme in the sheets = being an emotional trainwreck? I am offended!

Sapphist Gazetteer said...

We have an algebraic error here. Just because the old adage "butch on the streets, femme in the sheets" suggests an emotional trainwreck underneath butch bravado does not mean femme = emotional trainwreck.
If Butch=B, Femme=F, and T=Trainwreck, then B+T=F In Sheets. But it does not mean that F=T.

M said...

Perhaps a better equation is:

B = T

or Butch to the Femmeth power = trainwreck. (There are not a lot of formatting options in this comment box.