Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Butches and Their Clothes – Still Walking the Gauntlet

Drag Kings, fashion shows, butches and ties are everywhere, but what’s all the commotion about? Seems like only yesterday it was femmes and lipstick lesbians stressing out about ‘what to wear’ to the next hot event. Now we’ve got the Top 100 Hot Butches List, and the heat is now on us—butches—to toss the t-shirts and rag-ass jeans. Don’t leave the house lookin’ like a washed-up granola dyke with bad hair.
Are there politics behind butches and their clothes, or is this just another reason for lesbians to trend-out meaninglessly? Yes, we got politics. Clothes are an important dimension of the new butch renaissance. Because many of us have been deeply traumatized about clothing.

As a teenager, I hated being dragged to Macy's by my mother. Every trip meant a new oppression by girl things called bras, stockings, slips, shoes that pinch, and other ‘harnesses’ for parts of my body that used to be free. I could not figure out how to get into the bra-thing and was sure my mother had it wrong—it had to be a new sort of football jockstrap. But my teenage voice didn’t count. I was forced to endure five years of daily gender oppression.
In my first year of college and freedom, I was sure I still hated clothes shopping but I had to wear something, so back to Macy's I went. Parking my Chevy in the only free parking spot I could find, I accidentally entered the store by another entrance. What a shock! I found myself in paradise in Macy's—the Boy’s Department. The colors, the styles, real jackets, normal shoes and trousers! I couldn’t believe it! There was nothing wrong with ‘shopping’, I’d just been lost in the women’s sections all these years. Thrilled, I moved on…and had an identity crisis in the Men’s Department! And no, it never occurred to me that I was crossing the evil waters of the gender binary. I hadn’t a clue. My body was just responding instinctively to all the right clothes.

But my lifetime trauma wasn’t over. As my body grew into a woman’s with several butch features—like being so short-waisted that women’s pants crawled up to my breasts, and men’s shirt sleeves hung below my elbows—I spent the next couple of decades running back and forth between the various departments, including petite, looking desperately for an article of clothing that fit without causing havoc within my cross-gendered psyche. The low-waisted fad was terrific, but I went years not buying new socks until the young men’s department—and young men themselves—finally stopped wearing children’s socks. I always buy three of everything that fits because years might pass before I’d find another shirt that worked with my butch wardrobe.
Becoming a feminist helped me understand the politics of clothes—that clothes were made to reinforce heterosexual stereotypes. And to marginalize those of us who didn’t fit the fashion paradigm of “male” and “female.”
That’s when I got angry and started dressing with a political vengeance. I wanted to prove to the world that a masculine-inclined woman could look dapper. I even trained my siblings and parents. When my mother bought me hooped gold earrings on my 40th birthday, my father - seeing my sad face - offered to take them away and bought me a cool black belt instead.

In case you think anti-butch remarks are a thing of the past—I overheard my femme partner having a conversation at the last party we went to. She was talking with two 50-something year old lesbian feminists:
“Butch doesn’t happen anymore,” one of them sneered, as if they smelled rotten veggies.
“Labels don’t need to be prescriptive,” said my femme. “Masculinity doesn’t belong to men anymore. Haven’t you heard?”
“The word ‘masculine’ is still a dirty word to us,” they countered.
“Butch and femme exist in every generation of lesbians,” my woman said."Why don’t we stop trying to tell each other who to be?”
“Well! We don’t need to be men.”

So I see my Sweetheart point to me and my butch bud Pat Aldarete, both in tie & jacket that night. She says, “Jeanne and Pat have no choice but to claim their masculinity. When they walk into restaurants people still stare at them. Like they have a right to ask, “Are you a guy or a chick?”
“Oh, that never happens anymore!” I hear my two same-aged ‘sisters’ tell my lover.
A few hours later, my girl and I go out to a Valley eatery, and I walk the het gauntlet of stares from middle-aged straight men and their wives. But…oh wait! This time it is different. The only ones who didn’t stare was the straight couple under thirty.

So yes, butches are still trying to express our real selves in a world that still has a het gauntlet and doesn’t make clothes for us. Nowadays there are a few butch fashion lines struggling to break even, and even Nordstrom makes that occasional shirt “for the tailored woman.” So, butch—or some call it “androgynous” –clothing trauma lives on (made only slightly easier by a more unisexed society.) But that’s what all the fuss is about, we butches are still trying to change the world.

*L.A’s next Butch fashion show takes place Friday, October 9, at the BUTCHVoices.LA Conference. Email for more info: