Title TBA

18 12 2010

I was born in 1947. By age six I was a “tomboy”, hurrying home after school to get out of my mandatory skirt or dress and into the clothes that gave me freedom to roller skate on the sidewalks or ride my bike until I had to be in for dinner.

 

Despite some minor dismay, my mother was rather impressed and amused at her little girl’s “un-ladylike” interests and talents. (This dismay became major when I approached puberty and didn’t grow out of this presumedstage. ) I became quite proficient at chubbies with a Boyscout knife, climbing trees without injury, enthusiastically pushing the manual lawn-mower all over our large side yard, and any other physical activities I could come up with. My brother, Tommy, was a typical boy and we played first-bounce-or-fly against the chimney wall on the side of the house for hours as well as baseball, catch, pickle, etc. He taught me a lot about athletic skills. At my grandmother’s cottage on the shore of a small lake, every weekend of every summer, Tommy, our favorite cousins and I learned to swim and dive at age five and spent many hours in the lake, playing badminton, tetherball, croquet and rowing the boat. My mother elevated my status from  “tomboy” to “amazon” and explained that these females were strong, capable, courageous and independent. I loved that identity and have held onto it ever since, especially knowing that their independence was from men. In fourth grade we had to select an instrument to learn and, because I knew from earlier piano lessons that I wasn’t well coordinated using both of my hands for different activities, I chose the trumpet. Mom objected that that was a “boy’s instrument” but I won the argument because my position was rational and hers was just sexist ideology.

 

That was pre-puberty me. When I started junior high school, I tried to conform to the sexist role behaviors so I would be accepted by the other girls, hopefully not any boys. I grew my hair long enough to be set in a bubble style or pageboy and shaved my legs (but not for long because of the blood). These were my concessions. I continued using my natural talents and became famous as a superior girl athlete. I was elected President of Gym Cadets by my classmates for two consecutive terms ( a first at the school). As President, I was the gym teacher’s assistant before, during and after class and inter-murals. I was totally in love with her which motivated me to be as good at everything we did as I possibly could be. Most of the girls took notice of my attachment to her and accepted it; their only effort to diminish my disinterest in boys was to encourage me to wear a padded bra after observing me in the locker room and seeing I needed to wear no bra at all since there wasn’t enough to my breasts to need support. I bought the bra but wore it only a few times because I felt like such a phony in it.

 

I knew at age eleven that I was accepting of homosexuality because my mother presented me with a shoe box of love letters to my oldest and dearest brother from a boy, exclaiming, “Isn’t this disgusting?” I was surprised and confused by her feelings. “No”, I countered. “I think it’s wonderful that Johnny is loved by someone that he loves back.” The conversation ended. Two years later, I came home from a pajama party with my seventh grade peers and took a nap during which I had my first wet dream about one of them. I knew then I was a Lesbian and that was just a fine fact of my life. I would be sixteen before I fell in love with a tomboy friend and had my first Lesbian relationship. Was I butch? Yes. I was confident, guiltless, shameless and free to show my feelings toward her so I initiated touching; she, in contrast, felt afraid, guilty, shameful and inhibited. But we didn’t play roles. We were just two young tomboy girls in an intimacy not understood by us or tolerated by her mother who, when she found a love note from me in her daughter’s pocket, forbade her to see me or else she wouldn’t get to go to college. Her mother won and I reacted with self-destructive behaviors and deep depression that lasted throughout high school. Those years were miserable at school, believing that I was the only “queer” in my class of 846 students, still grieving my first forsaken love, still required to wear skirts or dresses in which I felt unreal, and getting ” a talk” from one of my gym teachers about her concern that I was not taking care of myself and that I had to be brave. I knew she pitied me and probably empathized but I also knew she was afraid to take me under her wing for fear of being outed by association or accused of influencing me to be who I already was. And at home there was a mother who saw me as the negative stereotype of a homosexual (male) from the moment she knew I was a Lesbian and not just going through a stage. The only readily available literature and belief system defined us as sick, immoral, depraved, promiscuous, predatory, sinful, unnatural and dirty. So I, Susan, had no reality to my parents anymore so everything I said or did was distorted by their blind assumptions.

 

What saved me from enduring depression and loneliness was my oldest brother taking me downtown to a gay bar and somehow getting me past the bouncer when I was seventeen. I dressed in drag: a white ivy-league shirt, black pants and blazer, my brother’s thin tie. I felt so handsome and I was! Because there were only two “roles” to play in the 1950’s and early-mid 60’s,butch was my clear option as I had never had an affinity for the “feminine” for myself or in other women.

 

Femmes were not what I was attracted to: it was women like me who were strong, independent, sensible and unconventional. This caused me problems in the sexist bar culture. Butches rejected me if I was attracted to them because they were seeking femmes and I embarrassed them with my attention/intention. How very queer I was being by not playing butch-femme like the “normal” homosexual and straight societies did! But the butches tried to save me. Because I was emotional and even wrote poetry, they suspected that I was a femme in dyke clothing and relabeled me a “kiki” which was a Lesbian who was neither butch nor femme. There was a curiosity and stigma to this, like being a mulatto or hermaphrodite. When Sandra Bem, Ph. D. introduced the concept of “androgyny” as an integrated identity, set of skills and behaviors of both masculine and feminine definitions (which are merely social constructs anyway), I found validation at last: to be outside the rigid, contrived heterosexist model of roles, gender and sexual identities. Thank you, Dr. Bem!

 

My education at the gay bars was painful at times. I talked with “bull dykes” who never let their partner touch them during sex; who were totally identified with the stereotypical male/ masculine/macho ideal. Then one night an “androgynous” college student came in wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. She didn’t look like she “dressed up” for the gay bar scene; she didn’t look gay but like a regular college student, Outside of the bar I might have been very attracted to her but in this context, she didn’t have much appeal: she wasn’t playing the scene and, after all, this was the only place we could play it.

 

In the late 1960’s just before Stonewall and feminism exploded, I fell in love with a woman whose proud small waste and seductive nature went into her identification as a femme. We loved going to restaurants with me donning a three-piece suit to see if we could “pass” as a heterosexual couple. We chose Bob as my name and tried to remember to use it but when she slipped up, we just laughed and laughed, not afraid if we blew our caper. We just weren’t afraid.

 

We always wore drag to the bar on Saturday nights to dance and socialize: she in her dresses and I in my tailored suits and ties. In our other worlds, I dressed butch (flannel shirts, pants always, tee shirts, anything tailored) and she often donned slacks with feminine tops, make-up, styled hair. I had always initiated sex with my lovers and experienced most of my sexual feelings by being butch, making love to them, coming with very little touching on their part. But one afternoon, this femme with whom I was still in love and living with turned me onto my back and made love to me the way I did to her (and others before her). I allowed myself to feel like “a natural woman” (Thank you, Carol King) which changed my sense of myself and truly freed me from identification as a butch so that I could become genuinely and thoroughly androgynous. Previous to this, I had often been mistaken as a male at gas stations, in stores and restaurants, etc. but have not been for four decades (apart from a few sexist, senile male residents in nursing homes where I’ve worked.

 

At age 63, I proudly remain a tomboy, an amazon, a butch, and an androgynous Lesbian dyke. I am grateful for each of us who has had the courage to be ourselves in the face of fear, hatred, ridicule, even violence; to make a statement to society that there are women who are willing to defy artificial roles and identities that stifle our ability to fulfill our potentials as complete human beings; to wear masculine clothes like banners to proclaim our courage, practicality, strength, sensibility, difference; to put Lesbians into the light of visibility so that we may know each other and not think we’re alone.

 

Butches have born the brunt of discrimination because we are not afraid to defy the mandate that women dedicate their lives to serving and pleasing men, to needing them sexually, socially and financially. We risk threatening conventional women by not validating their roles with men, with dependency, vulnerability and victimization (often so subtle they don’t even know it’s happening). We don’t need to drive Harleys or dress in drag to make our statement of strength, courage and rebellion. We carry it in our bones and our bones will feed the earth.

 

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One response

13 05 2011
Nili

Bravo to you for that wonderful story of your life. I loved every word and this should be an inspiration for all baby butches to live their own lives as they please, and for all women to embrace whatever identity fits their own persona. I am very femme, but an amazonian femme as well, and can totally identify with many parts of your story. Thank you for this compelling piece!

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