Public reaction to the butch-fem couple [in the 1940s] was usually hostile, and often violent. Being noticed on the streets and the harassment that followed dominates the memories of both Black and white narrators. Ronni gives a typical description:
“Oh, you were looked down upon socially. When I walked down the streert, cars used to pull over and say, ‘Hey faggot, hey lezzie.’ They called you names with such maliciousness. And they hated to see you when you were with a girl. I was the one that was mostly picked on because I was identified. I was playing the male part in this relationship and most guys hated it. Women would look at me in kind of a confused looking [way], you know, straight women would look at me in kind of wonder.”
Piri remembers how the police used to harass her for dressing like a man:
“I’ve had the police walk up to me and say, ‘Get out of the car’. I’m drivin’. They say get out of the car; and I get out. And they say, ‘What kind of shoes you got on? You got on men’s shoes?’ And I say, ‘No, I got on women’s shoes.’ I got on some basket-weave women’s shoes. And he say, ‘Well you damn lucky.’ ‘Cause everything else I had on were men’s–shirts, pants. At that time when they pick you up, if you didn’t have on two garments that belong to a woman you could go to jail…and the same thing with a man…. They call it male impersonation or female impersonation and they’d take you downtown. It would really just be an inconvenience…. It would give them the opportunity to whack the shit out of you.”
Many narrators mention the legal specification for proper dress, although some said it required three pieces of female clothing, not two. If such a law did in fact exist, it did not dramatically affect the appearance of butches, who were clever at getting around it while maintaining their masculine image. The police used such regulations to harass Black lesbians more than whites, however.
Given the severe harassment, the butch role in these communities during the 1950s became identified with defending oneself and one’s girl in the rough street bars and on the streets. Matty describes the connection between her appearance and her need to be an effective fighter. The cultivated masculine mannerisms were necessary on the street:
“When I first came out in the bars it was a horror story. You know they say that you play roles. Yeag, back then you did play roles, and I was a bit more masculine back then than I am now. That was only because you walk down the street and they knew you were gay and you’d be minding your business and there’d be two or three guys standing on a street corner, and they’d come up to you and say, ‘You want to be a man, let’s see if you can fight like a man.’ Now being a man was the last thing on my mind, but man, they’d take a poke at you and you had to learn to fight. Then…when you go out, you better wear clothes that you could really scramble in if you had to. And it got to be really bad, I actually had walked down the street with some friends not doing anything and had people spit at me, or spit at us, it was really bad.”
[…] If the world was dangerous for butches, it was equally dangerous for the fems in their company, whom the butches felt they needed to protect. Some butches state that they did most of their fighting for their fems. Sandy describes how confrontational men could be.
“Well you had to be strong–roll with the punches. If some guy whacked you off, said, ‘Hey babe,’ you know. Most of the time you got all your punches for the fem anyhow, you know. It was because they hated you….’How come this queer can have you and I can do this and that….’ You didn’t hardly have time to say anything, but all she would have to say [is] ‘No,’ when he said, ‘Let’s go, I’ll get you away from this.’ He was so rejected by this ‘no’ that he would boom, go to you. You would naturally get up and fight the guy, at least I would. And we did that all the time, those that were out in their pants and T-shirts. And we’d knock them on their ass, and if one couldn’t do it we’d all help. And that’s how we kept our women. They cared for us, but you don’t think for a minute they would have stayed with us too long or something if we stood there and just were silent…. Nine times out of ten she’d be with you to help you with your black eye and your split lip. Or you kicked his ass and she bought you dinner then. But you never failed, or you tried not to…. You were there, you were gay, you were queer and you were masculine.”
–Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community