Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Wounded Butch

I recently enjoyed a good meal at a long table with several lesbians. Down the other end someone mentioned Biddy Martin's work, with which none of us, sadly, was all that familiar. (Ask this group about golf etiquette, however, and you're in business.) Biddy Martin, you may recall, is the newly appointed president of Amherst College, and she is also an out lesbian who has written provocative and dense academic essays about "the significance of being lesbian." Someone at the table mentioned that somewhere in Martin's work is something called "the wounded butch." What does that mean?!?! We all wanted to know, especially me, straining to hear across the length of the table, leaning forward like Rachel Maddow. No one had a good answer. Since then, in my efforts to be helpful and to engage some of my brain cells while otherwise caring for my beautiful infant son, I have done the legwork. Ladies, leave it to me to solve the mystery of "the wounded butch." (I'll explain later why I have placed a photo of Radclyffe Hall at the top of the page. But of course some of you smarties may already understand why she's there.)

I have Biddy Martin's books on order (as do apparently all the sisters in the lesbian vortex of Western Massachusetts), but in the meantime I found — via a search of the EBSCO academic database — the essay containing the wounded butch reference. The essay is called "Extraordinary Homosexuals and the Fear of Being Ordinary." Originally published in 1994, it argues against radical rebellion and "anti-normativity" in queer identity. It points out the anti-feminist tendency of queer theorists to assign lesbian desire as something that does not reside in the unappealing and asexual "maternal swamp of woman-identification." It cautions against railing so violently against mainstream society that we exile ourselves into wilderness. Had she published this just a few years earlier, it would have been helpful to me during the time I was choosing to wear my black leather motorcycle jacket to the civic board meetings I was covering as a young journalist. You know, might have made my entrance as an out lesbian into the working world less isolating and, ah, dykey. (A person fairly prominent in the profession once asked me, "Do you always dress like this for work?" At that moment I was wearing construction boots and khaki cut-off shorts.) Martin writes: "Implicit in these constructions of queerness, I fear, is the lure of an existence without limit, without bodies or psyches, and certainly without mothers, as well as a refusal to acknowledge the agency exerted by the givenness of bodies and psyches in history, or by the circumstances in which we find ourselves with others."

Examining this tendency toward "politics of rebellion" – and the impulse to consider ourselves "extraordinary" – Martin spends a good deal of time with a specific example: Aimée Duc's 1901 German novel, "Sind es Frauen" ("Are They Women?"), which follows the social interactions and political convictions of a group of educated lesbians in Zurich. These characters think of themselves as a third sex, which Martin explains was the fashion at the time among sexologists, who viewed masculine females as highly exotic creatures. Martin describes the lesbian characters as possessing "cosmopolitan rootlessness and alternative affiliations," which are initially celebrated but eventually rejected as the lesbians long for connection with mother and country. (I wonder, was Duc's choice of title influenced by Sojourner Truth's famous speech "Ain't I a Woman" delivered fifty years prior? Of course the answer those authors suggest is "no" for Duc and "yes" for Truth.) Martin explains that Duc's novel has been "hailed as one of the first 'positive' representations of lesbian love" — but not so fast, she says. The lesbians in the novel make a point to distinguish themselves from ordinary women, who were very much second class citizens. The lesbians wanted to think of themselves as members of the exotic, strong, and extraordinary "third sex," not the dimwitted, dour, and oppressed "second sex." Right? Who wants to be a plain old woman? Martin rightly refuses to gloss over the misogyny implicit in the novel's premise even if the lesbians live happily ever after.

Okay, so what about the wounded butch? The main character in the novel is a lesbian we would recognize as butch. Biddy Martin explains the butch is wounded — as all butches are, I think she wants us to understand — by the loss or unremitting threatened loss of her femme to an actual man. This loss not only breaks the butch's heart but also reminds the butch of the reality of her femaleness, which she has worked so hard to deny via "butch performances" and by embracing the separate third sex identity as a defense against feeling like a dreaded ordinary woman. Martin's argument is contrary to what we hear in most queer theory circles, and it makes sense to me. I also think it has important ramifications today in the increasing numbers of butches who identify as trans — a third, extraordinary sex if ever there was one. I say this because doesn't it seem as though trans men often want to remain in the lesbian community as "other" rather than stride off into the world of men? I wrote in an earlier post that a third sex, as I heard advocated by Leslie Feinberg (Stone Butch Blues) in the early 1990s, might offer a good option for butch lesbians who just don't feel like women. Now I see I might want to revise my position on that. Martin points out the anti-feminist perspective in this, and she also wisely fears that the lure of the extraordinary third sex will draw queers away from social investment and even the attachments of love. I think most of us — gay or straight — would recognize the benefits of maturing beyond the days of the rootless outsider, romantic as the solitary Shane McCutcheon might seem to be.

Which brings me back to Radclyffe Hall and her swaggering but miserable butch protagonist Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness. After reading Biddy Martin, I see now that Stephen is a classic wounded butch. Stephen was supposed to be a son. She does not feel like a girl. She prefers to dress like a boy. She is considered abnormal. She loses the women she loves. She even has a disfiguring scar on her face! (Am I remembering that correctly?) If Stephen Gordon were a real person and alive today, I hope she would be able to marry a woman she loves, express her gender how she wishes, embrace the power of being a woman, and experience life as a big, triumphant, butch lesbian.

6 comments:

M said...

Nice post, but you lost me after the golf etiquette reference. More later.

Jen Warner said...

Excellent post (article?). And to think I found it while Googling out tennis players. Random. And sad (for me).

Sapphist Gazetteer said...

Thank, Jen. I'm glad you wandered in. :-)

laura.g said...

eh. i see the very real tension between a certain (admittedly central) strand of feminist theorizing and the notion of (male) trans identities -- that conversation was raging at my (single-sex) college in the early aughts (and probably in gay and queer communities all over the place)-- but i think that in practice trans identities just don't present the kinds of problems that the theories might suggest-- the kind of problems that i take it you, too, are suggesting.

over the years, as i watch so many friends who began (so to speak) their transitions five, eight, ten years ago, i'd say that thing that i tend to find myself somewhat confounded or troubled or surprised by is that they HAVE essentially disappeared into a world of men-- or, rather, into very comfortable male identities. pretty wives. babies. gardens. passing among all of their straight neighbors and coworkers. but but that's just anecdotal, and it's certainly not true of anything close to all the trans men i know. and those trans men who, by contrast, identify specifically as trans and conceive of it as a kind of third sex or something of that nature, tend to be the most community-oriented people i know, dead set on building and participating in highly cooperative communities. neither group, in short, seems to amount to (or aspire to amount to) your wounded anything.

it's an interesting topic though. glad you wrote something on it.

Sapphist Gazetteer said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and enlightening comment, laura.g. I'm interested in this topic partly because it's so foreign to me. I'm fascinated that you know many friends who have transitioned. In contrast, I know none. None. And yet I'm a lesbian with many lesbian friends (several of whom are graduates of women's colleges) who has lived primarily in urban and progressive communities for most of my adult life. Is it because I was in college in the 80s, twenty years before you? Is the act of transitioning a trend of the new millennium?

laura.g said...

i do actually think that it's somewhat generational. i hesitate to call trans identities a trend, because i do think that the experiences of self that undewrite trans identities are probably nothing new. i know several trans men in their forties and older-- although i do NOT know any transmen who were publicly identifying as trans before about 2002 (although, to be fair, that's about when i started to identify with and really look around the queer community myself, so that's probably a good part of why i really started seeing it then). anyway, for better and for worse, it looks from my perspective as though initial concerns about trans identities tend to fade with exposure.

one of the things that queer communities do, right, isn't so much eliminate categories as generate more of them, so that more people have identifying language for themselves that feels true to their experience-- categories that they can proudly identify with, language that they can use to explain themselves to others (and to themselves). trans is just one of those-- an identity more about where you experience yourself as falling on the gender spectrum than the sexuality spectrum. it's just a way for some people to better name their experience of their own gender (as distinct from their sexuality).

and then, of course, once you're inside trans communities you start to see the seriously unbelievable diversity of identities among them. and of course, there's then language being developed every day for talking about THOSE distinctions. for some people being trans means being in transition from one thing to another thing. for other people trans is a somewhat static identity of just being someone who is neither male nor female. some young people seem to use the word 'trans' just to mean what we used to mean by 'queer'-- except to talk explicitly about gender rather than sexuality.

it's definitely true that there's been a "trend" away from identifying as butch, and toward identifying as trans. but then i think there's been a sort of localized gay hipster counter trend back toward butch and dyke identities. kids these days, you know? they're playing around with stuff, trying to be cool, and trying to figure out who they are. it's all the same as it ever was. the kids, as they say, are alright.