Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When Butchdom Was in Flower

I’ve just had one of the most unusual experiences of my life – being in unknown city surrounded by 400 Butch identified - women, dykes, bois, trans folk, youthful studlets, aged bulldykes, feminist she/he’s, rapper-aggressives, classic and soft butches, and every other kind of lesbian Butch I’ve never seen nor heard about.

Yeah – I was there at the start of a new movement being born within the great family of LGBT people, but here the “B” stands for Butch. Yes, I’m talking about the first ever Butch Voices Conference in Oakland, August 20-24, 2009.

Walking into the grand ballroom of the Marriott up to the stage to give my keynote address, I saw and felt a great wave of power and awe sweep toward me. The power in the surge felt all-woman, yet also mass-culine, a rough-and-tumble, yet strangely elegant surge of love. What is this power? I asked myself as my shoulders coiled in fight or flight mode, the first instinct of growing up butch in a hostile world.

But then I saw Jewelle Gomez in the second row stand up and start clapping. And then the whole room rose up like an old-bull rising to her feet one last time, and I realized that they were clapping for me like I was Achilles returned from a lifetime of war.

And suddenly I realized that this surge was the force of butch-love. And it wasn’t just for me it was for each other. None of us had ever in our lifetime been with a great crowd of our own kind and this was awe, amazement, and wait… I remember the feeling from the 70s, great bands of lesbian feminists gathering and shouting and reveling in ‘sisterhood’, but only this time… it was lesbian brotherhood.

And later I found myself in a workshop led by Sasha T. Goldberg - a room packed with 60 butches who’d come to hear what the hell the workshop title “Bulldagger: For Women-Identified, Female Pronoun using Butches” – meant. And what it turned out to mean was some fear that our kind of butch might be an endangered species. We worried that so many of the young Butches were choosing unusual combinations of mixing ‘butch’ with masculinity. Did that mean that our definition of butch was being cut off at the knees? So we put our fear out on the table and looked at it. We talked about the loneliness of growing up as the original gender-warriors of lesbianism. And out of that shared pain came the realization that we need to re-define ‘butch’ in a post-trans world. And out of this realization we decided that we would not surrender to fear, not even to the fear of extinction. No, that’s not the butch way. We don’t surrender to fear. So we decided, we are not going to cut off our junior brothers who are taking ‘butch’ beyond the binary of male & female. How could we reject them when our own lives are about demanding that the straight world move over and accept the existence of masculine woman? How could we divorce them off when they are only creating a new platform out of the freedom we fought to give to them?

And so it was decided, almost from the very first day, not just in this workshop, but the Butch Voice Conference as a whole declared that we didn’t want to draw a line between female and male identified butches. We didn’t want to cut off the new shadows of what it might mean to be butch. We just said “no” to dividing ourselves along the patriarchally created lines of binary genders that we’ve fought so long and hard to bury.

And in case some dykes are out there saying, so what’s the big news, a bunch of ‘guys’ got together and decided they are guys? That wasn’t the case. When I gave the Conference organizers the title of my keynote, “Keeping our Feminism, While Exploring our Masculinities,” I thought I might be a lone voice of feminism at the weekend. But I was determined to insist that the new generation of butches know the strength of Feminism and don’t grow up without it. So I was shocked and over-joyed when butch after butch, particularly the African American, working-class butches, whose voice was strong this weekend, claimed feminism as a cornerstone of their own ideology of ‘butch.’

And yes, Butch Voices also taught me a lot about class. Things that this other class, privileged, Chicana, feminist, classic-butch never knew. And I had one of the best nights of my lesbian life rocking to the performance night talent called “Butch Nation” which blew the roof off Humanity Hall in Oakland. But these are others stories…more stories about butch voices…that I hope to write about later.

So for the thousands of dykes who missed this extra-ordinary event, tune into - because the awesome organizers promise ButchVoices2 two years from this summer.

For more from me see my website under construction at, moving shortly to

PS Title of my blog gives a nod to 1922 book/play/movie 'When Knighthood Was in Flower', about chivalry in the Tudor Period!

PHOTO: Lisa Everly. (seen here, Lynn H. Ballen & Jeanne Cordova, co-producers of the LEX-Lesbian Exploratorium exhibit, GenderPlay, part of the BV art showcase 'Visually Speaking' )