I’m suffering from a sort of culture shock. I noticed it as soon as I left the hotel yesterday.
You see, I’ve long known this about myself: My head turns when I see certain men on the street. Maybe it’s the cut and hang of a leather jacket, the perfect fit of a pair of well-faded jeans, or the shine of a polished shoe or boot. I watch their stride, long and certain, and the way their hips move. I admire the trim of their hair. And then I think, “Damn. If only you were a woman.”
Well, I’ve just returned from three days in heaven, from a place where the cut, the stride, the polish, and the trim belonged to butches of every shape and size. Whether trans-masculine, genderqueer, female-identified, old-school, or new, they were all represented.
My quivering femme heart will take a long time to still.
But, make no mistake, I wasn’t at the Butch Voices conference, held this past weekend at the Oakland Marriott, simply to ogle the participants. I was there as an ally, to lend my support. I was there to learn. I was there because I love butch women. Butch women are my friends, my confidants, and my lovers. I was there to say “thanks”.
Thanks for all the time you’ve offered me an arm. Thanks for making the bar runs at crowded parties. Thanks for loaning me your jacket, leading when we dance, cooking for me, wrapping me up in big authentic hugs, and letting me cry on your shoulder.
Thank you for the reverence and respect with which you’ve touched my body – sometimes with more regard than I was feeling for it myself.
I was there to say thanks for being the most visual icons of our lesbian sub-culture. Thank you for taking the public heat for all of us. In your roles as outlaws and gender-benders, you are our front-men.
From the moment we arrived, I was conscious of my role as a non-butch participant. I’m a buzz-cut, sort of low-maintenance femme, and I had anticipated this and didn’t want to spend days explaining my gender orientation. So I packed a dress, strappy sandals, and got a fresh pedicure in preparation. I wanted to be clear about my position, and not appear to be teetering on top of the fence.
Femmes were definitely in the minority and I chose my workshops carefully, not wanting to encroach on others’ opportunities for butch bonding. The public visibility of butch women led to such workshops as “Non-conforming Gender Presentation and Job Searching,” “Politics of Passing,” and “Butch in the Streets: Techniques for Increasing Safety in Public”. I did not attend these. I attended S. Bear Bergman’s workshop on chivalry, and Ivan Coyote’s workshop on beating writing procrastination. I did not attend the workshop called “An Exploration of Dick,” even though I have more than a passing acquaintance with the topic. Strap-ons and toys, are just that for me – toys. They’re not My Dick. (And that’s only one of the things that marks me as femme.) This was a conversation the butches needed to have amongst themselves. But to be clear, as a femme ally, I was never made to feel unwelcome. The places I didn’t go were by my own choice.
In response, I suppose, to the bonding and visibility of the assembled butches, I heard several young femme women express how they feel invisible to their own community – that they’re not immediately recognized as lesbian and have to work to be noticed by the very women they want to attract.
To some degree I understand this because my usual fashion accessory is a 12-year-old son, which identifies me as a mommy above all else. I think in liberal places and among my peers, I’m often read as a gay woman, but in many environments, I’m just an older orchestra mom with an edgy haircut and funky glasses.
And, I hear women over 40, lesbian and straight alike, complain about their invisibility to the world as a whole. They say younger people don’t look them in the eye, and until we become senior citizens, don’t extend us the courtesies they jump to extend to younger women. I suppose that’s a valid complaint in a society that places a high value on feminine youth and beauty. I think I circumvent this by going out of my way to make eye contact with strangers, and I am more likely to extend my courtesies to others – male or female – as to expect them extended to me. As a result, I don’t feel invisible so much as capable, if by necessity. I’ve worked in lots of environments where I was expected to lift, tote, and carry, and have set-up and stacked more folding tables and chairs than I would ever like to count. My egalitarianism makes my life run smoothly but doesn’t make me feel special.
Maybe that’s why I came home from Butch Voices feeling like a queen.
Yes, I felt conspicuous in my femininity among all the butch bodies. Yes, I was in the minority.
But I felt seen, valued, and cared for. I felt nurtured. It never occurred to me to move a folding chair. I’m pretty certain it would have been an insult to try, and I’m not bothered by that one iota. I do my share in other environments and had nothing to prove in this one. Everyone I met was warm in their greetings, gracious in their communications, conscious of their impact on the space around them. I heard one femme woman say that at the Saturday night Butch Nation entertainment review – which was jam-packed – she had never had so many people apologize for bumping into her.
Maybe this is because of the special pride so many butch women take in their manners. Maybe this is because we have all been socialized as female to some degree, and therefore have a special understanding of the value of warmth and courtesy.
In the past, I have told my son that if he wants to learn good manners and treat women with respect, he only has to look to his butch “uncles” for advice. And after this weekend, I stand by that now, more than ever.
My heartfelt thanks to Joe LeBlanc, the conference chair and Butch Voices board president, and the incredible group that put the conference together.
Here are all of the posts I made following the Butch Voices 2009 conference.