We were deluded, they said; we were foolish, absurd. Sometimes it was more brittle, more hostile, more derogatory. At meetings I attended, marches I participated in, dances my lover and I showed up to attend, I was asked why we had bothered to come or told we were not welcome: ‘No femmie women with he/she men.’
I was told I should find myself a 'real’ man if that’s what I was into. I often had to escort and then remain with my butch lovers so they could use the women’s bathroom at movement institutions. That was in 1973. In 1995, I and my stone butch lover of the time were refused entrance to a lesbian feminist women’s dance at the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Center during Gay Pride Week. We were told the same things I’d been told twenty-five years before: It - butch/femme - was a dangerous heterosexist trap.
The hostility and ridicule we faced inside the lesbian movement paralleled and overlapped our lives in the broader straight world - where we were often treated as criminals. My first butch lover and I began to fear coming home after we found our cat murdered in front of our apartment, with a note pinned to the door saying we’d be next. We regularly fought with men who waited outside the bar for the most obvious bull daggers and their 'faggot girlfriends,’ or we turned away and hated ourselves for giving in.
Strolling together as a butch/femme couple, we were an erotic, magnetic, moving target for all the sexual fear, envy, and ignorance of this culture. Our movements and decisions were fraught with potential danger. Unexpected visits to the emergency room, how to rent a motel room, crossing a border, being busted at bars when the cops came for their weekly payoffs, getting an apartment. None of these acts were simple or could ever be taken for granted.
I have always had to laugh whenever I hear that femmes are not as tough, capable, or rugged as our butch lovers. We fought together, we carried ourselves with our heads high, we protected the women we loved when we could - and they tried to protect us - we held each other when we didn’t win, and we held each other when we did.
Butch-fem roles were the primary organising principle for romance and courting. Butches were attracted to fems, and vice versa. Butches were not attracted to one another, not were fems attracted to one another. These guidelines for attraction ran very deep. Butch narrators of the 1940s insist they were never attracted to other butches. This same pattern continued into the 1950s. Toni remembers that she knew positively what she was looking for the first time she entered a gay bar:
“I wanted a girlfriend, a girlfriend that was more, like, femmy. And, in the beginning, the first women I was attracted to were always like real femmy, intially they were bleached blonds. That was what really turned me on was bleached blondes, and of course makeup and real femmy clothes, y’know, dresses and high heels and stuff like that….And the first few relationships–the first several years of being gay these are the women I related to. They were like the extreme opposite of how I am.”
Just as the butch was expected to be the aggressor sexually, she was expected to take more of the initiative in courting, to gaze boldly, to light a cigarette, to strike up a conversation, to buy a drink, or to ask for a dance. Pearl sees being pursued as part of her identity.
“I never had any questions about [being feminine], I never really thought of any other way….I just always like to dress up and I always wanted….someone to pay attention to me….I was not an aggressor….The butch type was the aggressor, like a man would be the aggressor. To pick you up or want to take you out….I would sit back and let them come to me.”
Joanna mentions feeling uncomfortable in today’s bar world where she sees everybody cruising. “And my idea of a butchy girl was one who cruised. So that is confusing to me [nowadays] to see a fem cruising….You’d let someone know you like them, of course, but I always associated that kind of thing, [cruising] with a butchy girl.” Courtship usually proceeded in a very romantic and highly stylised manner. Butches sent flowers, gave gifts, and took their dates out to dinner.
Despite the public prerogative of initiating relationships, most butches were cautious. As D.J. explains, they did not assume that they would be successful.
“If I would say, ‘Would you care for a drink?’ Now if she didn’t accept, well you’d sort of back off. I would never press nothing. And she would have to be the first to make any move of any description of wanting to go out to dinner–through conversation or whatever–then I would pick up from there. But I would never–you can really tell through a conversation if someone is or they’re not, or if they want to or they don’t.”
Some butches might have been more aggressive, but others were even more careful. Phil remembers the more intense butches:
“I’ve seen butches come on to fems, crazy, and pursue it….You know, like [they] can’t see anything else but that one person, and do everything and try everything to make out with her and meet her. No matter what they have to do, like get someone else to do something, and get their phone number through someone else, and pursue it that way….There’s a few that do have that–I don’t know the word I want to use–confidence or that much macho, to do stuff like this.”
Such butches were not in the majority. Quite a few butch narrators, from both decades and from all social subgroups, insisted that they never made the first move. Phil remembers vividly fems’ overtures to her, most of which were not very subtle.
“Well I was bowling, and she’d be sitting back there watching constantly. Then she started to talk, and then–I don’t know, they always say you have this feeling that you know, one knows the other, and we became friends and we went out. It just happened normally after that….[Then] she just called up and said I have a key to a motel…on that order.”
Judi, a very handsome stud, in making fun of her own shyness gives the idea that most relationships began with mutual interest.
“I never made passes, I was too shy and nice….[Butches] are supposed to, see I was a punk though….I was a butch but I was kind of quiet and not very aggressive….People just kind of drifted my way, what can I say….I would never overtly make a pass. I remember one time I…wanted to talk to this woman, so I went over to her, this was in a bar, I said, ‘If a slow record comes on I’ll be standing over here’; and I just walked away. So it was up to her if she wanted to ask me to dance. So if I was going to say something to somebody it was like that, backwards sort of….That’s the woman I was with for five years….I let her call me up. But now just her, just everybody that I fooled around with. That’s the way I did it, ‘cause that’s the kind of person I am. See I‘m a really quiet person, and I don’t have a lot to say, only when the tape is on.”
The difference between the butch and the fem in initiating courtship was more a question of emphasis and style rather than a polarization of active and passive. True, fems rarely asked butches to dance, or bought drinks for butches. Nevertheless, they did not just wait to be chosen. In deciding with whom they would flirt, dance, and hold extended conversations, fems made clear their own choices and in doing so, shaped their own lives. A fem’s approach entailed positioning herself correctly so that she could identity whom she was interested in and indicate it as she pleased.
Bell remembers the details of how she began a relationship in prison, and it is our guess that the butch-fem dynamics in the bars and house parties were quite similar. She saw herself as having chosen the butch she wanted. They both indicated their interest to one another nonverbally, then the butch took the first verbal step.
“Well, I think basically that I was the one, I used to see her looking at me, like when we were having dinner. We worked in the kitchen together too, but she was in a different part. I used to catch her looking at me a lot but she was a very attractive girl, and I used to watch her too and I just felt a very strong gut desire within me that I would like to be with this woman. It’s funny, when I saw something that I wanted or that I liked I would really pursue that and try to get it. One night we were sitting in the rec room where they had the radio and the TV, and we…were sitting close together that night and she just kind of said real quietly, ‘I would like to be with you some time, I find you very attractive.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know something Deena, I think I would like the same thing.’ And she said, ‘Well we’ll decide when we can do it, when we can get together.’”
Because we have had at least one conversation with women who were out in the bars in the 1950s and early 1960s, we have been able to put together a composite picture of how a fem might go about catching the attention of a butch in the bars. After seeing someone she is attracted to, the first thing the fem would do is ask someone she already knew the name of her chosen butch and her status: “Is she going with anybody?” If she found out that the butch might be available, a fem might get up from her seat and go to the juke box, making sure she crossed the butch’s line of vision as closely as she could manage. She would spend quite some time staring at the title listing (even if she knew it by heart already!) and occasionally glancing in the butch’s direction. She would then manage to play a song that might directly indicate her interest. If the butch was anywhere in range of the juke box, the fem would stay there and watch the dancers or hold passing conversation with other people she might know. She would always make sure, however, that she glanced often at the desired butch.
If the fem was noticed and the butch was interested, the butch would go to the juke box and might either spend time staring at the titles or might ask the fem for her opinion on specific songs, the titles of which were indicative of attraction. The butch might mention that the bar was crowded, empty, quiet, noisy, anything to keep conversation going. If the fem wanted to dance, she might tell the butch that this was one of her favorite songs, to let the butch know she’d probably acquiesce to dancing to the number. If a fem was particularly bold, she might ask the butch if she ever danced–not if she would dance with her here and now–but only in a general, noncommittal way, so ego was not on the line. Any of these moves would let the butch know it was time to make her move and ask the fem to dance.
Once on the dance floor, things could progress more rapidly. After all, they would now be touching. They would be able to feel in each other’s hands, bodies and voices–breathing patterns, ways of holding close, hands moving on backs, shoulders, waists, flirtatious conversation (like “I like the way you move.”)–whether this was going to go further. Being able to touch one another was usually the clincher. If that was a successful erotic experience, the butch would usually ask to buy the fem a drink and later ask for her phone number and the courtship would commence.
Like the butches, some fems were more forward in their ability to express their desires, other less so. The culture encouraged them to develop their subjectivity, and offered no penalty for those who were more aggressive as long as they stayed within cultural boundaries and maintained their fem style: flirtatious, seductive, charmingly naive, or concerned, depending on their age and experience.
–Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeleine D. Davis
((Sorry again for not having a post ready last week! And it’s also likely that I might not be able to update next week either due to work and other things that I gotta do. Plus I haven’t giving myself time to rest, and it’s becoming apparent, so I wanted to take it easy for just one more week, you know? In the meantime, the ask box is still open!))