Book Review: ‘Bishop’s Run’ by B.D. Gates

I didn’t realize how hungry I was for a good lesbian novel until I read Bishop’s Run by B.D. Gates. Reading this novel made me realize how unsatisfying other novels I’ve read have been. I have to admit I haven’t spent much time looking for lesbian novels, and there may be good novels out there already that I just haven’t read yet. (Don’t worry, I will get to reading them eventually!) Mostly what I’ve read before is works of literature with “queer” themes by professional fiction writers. Although they are technically great pieces of writing, they aren’t as satisfying to my lesbian heart as a novel written by an ordinary lesbian for the entertainment of a purely lesbian audience.

Bishop’s Run is the story of Bishop, a woman who wakes up after a near-death experience and finds herself being nursed back to health and taken care of by the Witness Protection Program. She has to take on a new identity as a woman named “Lisa Baxter” and start her life all over in a new place. The novel takes us through her journey to recovery, starting a new job, meeting new people, and trying to hide and forget the life she left behind. Her new identity is provided by Witness Protection, and it’s quite different from her real life story, so it’s a process for her to learn to live convincingly as “Lisa Baxter” when her real self keeps threatening to reveal itself.

Bishop, now renamed Baxter, lands in a small town called Tenley in the southern United States. Although she is living in the Bible Belt, the story doesn’t focus on homophobia or intolerance—instead it paints a charming picture of rural life and friendly neighbors. The people of Tenley are very kind to her and make sure she gets everything she needs. The first part of the book is very positive—it’s all about her finding a job she enjoys, making friends, joining a softball team, and finding the other members of her local lesbian “tribe.” There is a long history of novels with lesbian characters who either die, go crazy, end up with a man, or lead a miserable life, and this novel does the opposite. It’s a refreshing story of lesbian success, health and happiness.

That’s not to say that it’s overly or unrealistically positive. It does contain the normal frustrations of lesbian life—like when you get your heart broken, or when you go through rough patches with your friends, or when your softball team isn’t playing well because of the dyke drama occurring among the players! And there is an occasional mention of homophobia, but it’s not the focus of the book.

There is a subtle butch/femme flavor among the characters, and I love the way it’s presented. Gates doesn’t try to categorize anyone using superficial markers or stereotypes. She rarely calls anyone by any label, and only uses the word “butch” once in the whole novel. She just describes their personalities and it comes through. The narrator, Bishop, is a “full-on dyke” and “not the frilly type,” who loves to crack jokes, play cards with the guys, and flirt with women. She is given the name of “Lisa” for her new life, but she finds it too feminine, and prefers to be called by her new last name, “Baxter.” Her butch personality is visible in a whole lot of subtle behaviors, like the way she flirts and carries herself. The women Bishop finds interesting are pretty women who are also strong people who can stand up for themselves, drive fast and shoot a gun. They come across as authentic and endearing lesbian personalities.

This is the first time I’ve read a novel with a happy butch narrator. The only other novel I’ve read starring a butch lesbian is Stone Butch Blues, which, although it’s an excellent book for many reasons, is characterized by almost never-ending misery. Bishop’s Run is the story of a happy butch, who lives her life the way she wants to as an out lesbian, who overcomes her obstacles and thrives in life no matter where she is planted. Although she has experienced some violence, it’s not related to her being a masculine lesbian. Despite having masculine mannerisms and being an obvious dyke, she feels no discomfort with her female body. She is the butch hero that the lesbian community has always needed.

One of the first things I want to know when I pick up a lesbian novel, after “Does anyone die or go crazy?” is whether there is a sex scene and whether it’s good (because sometimes they aren’t!) Let me tell you, there are several, and they are stunning. Gates describes sex between women in full detail in a way that is realistic and exquisitely satisfying both physically and emotionally. They are beautiful to behold and you may have to go back and read them twice.

This novel was refreshing both for its positive portrayal of lesbians and also its exclusive focus on lesbians. It’s not about “queer” people or any kind of special snowflake – it’s about a real lesbian community rather than an alphabet soup that includes the whole world. The way the lesbians in Tenley take care of each other is touching and beautiful. They don’t allow any dykes to go homeless, to be left out or alone, they befriend each other and watch out for each other. Older lesbians serve as role models for the younger ones to look up to. It’s a beautiful portrayal of the community we are longing for.

Here are a few words about the author. She is a butch lesbian living in a small Southern U.S. town. She’s old enough to remember what the lesbian community used to be like but “doesn’t feel any older than 28.” She started writing this novel just for fun but became more determined to publish it as it came along. Here are some words of hers from a short interview:

“When I started writing this around June 2015, I was writing out of boredom, and creating an alternate reality was a great escape. I “went to Tenley” every day and visited with the lesbian characters I’d imagined, I thought about them when I wasn’t writing and, quite suddenly, they were real and they were driving the story, telling me what was happening, what they were thinking, I just had to type fast enough to keep up with them. Then came the “Purge of 2016,” when all the lesbian and bisexual women were killed off on multiple TV shows in a matter of months and it broke my heart. All across my social media platforms, women were just shattered. I didn’t grow up seeing myself reflected on any screen that didn’t end with tragedy or death for any character remotely like me, so you’d think I’d be used to it, but I wasn’t. It hurt like hell. I hadn’t intended to publish “Bishop’s Run,” but when I looked at what I had been writing for myself and realized that damned few people, if any, were writing for real, honest-to-god butches, and that butches deserved our lives represented as much as anyone, I decided that my story wasn’t just for me anymore. So, “Bishop’s Run” is for the butches, and the women who love them.”

I was surprised to hear that she didn’t originally intend to publish it, because I think it’s the Lesbian Novel of the Year. It’s my all-time favorite one. Great things happen when we create our own materials and represent ourselves. This is a fantastic contribution to the lesbian community.

You can purchase the book on Amazon at this link.

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Hannah Hart is the loveliest person

I read Hannah Hart’s memoir called Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded and the main thing I learned about her was that she is the loveliest person ever! I was skeptical at first about the idea of a 30-year-old writing a memoir, because what does someone so young have to reminisce about? Well in Hannah Hart’s case, it turns out, a lot!

She wrote about her childhood, which was difficult on account of her mother being schizophrenic. She wrote about the way her career took shape—with both struggles and triumphs. She wrote about coming out as a lesbian, which involved a period of denial at first, which she told in a most adorable way.

I had mixed feelings about the book itself. Some of the content is very interesting and engaging, and some of it I found not interesting or important enough to include in a memoir. The parts I liked the most were the parts about growing up with a mother who is ill and the parts about coming out.

Hannah told poignant stories about growing up in a neglectful and dirty home. Her mother was still able to work when she was young but her illness grew worse and worse. Hannah ended up being the primary caretaker for her little sister when she was still a kid herself, because her mother was no longer able to care for her. As a teenager and finally old enough to fully understand her home situation, she made the difficult decision of telling the authorities about her mother’s illness so that her little sister would get taken away and adopted. I cried several times over the hard things she had to do while still very young. I’m not sure if I would have been strong enough to handle it. Even as a young adult, one of her first tasks was to financially support her mother, since she could not work anymore and would have been on the street otherwise. Hannah’s family very much illustrates the need for better mental health services. It’s a crime that there isn’t better help for people with mental illnesses.

What I liked learning the most about her career is about the charity work she did on her Hello Harto tour. When her YouTube channel My Drunk Kitchen became wildly successful, she went on a crowd-funded tour doing shows in cities all around North America, Europe and Australia. The tour involved filming episodes of My Drunk Kitchen and meeting up with fans at local food banks. Instead of just greeting her fans while standing around in a room, she had them volunteer their time to help the local community.

In Buffering, she says:

“Visiting food banks while on the road gave us a bird’s-eye view of the different food resources available in each of the twenty-two cities. For instance, Second Harvest Food Bank in Oregon makes its own almond butter for distribution. Whereas at the food bank in Detroit, volunteers spent the day chipping frozen meat out of giant blocks of ice. It was a fascinating (and sometimes devastating) view of America. Or rather, a view of the many different “Americas” that exist in our shared land. (p56)”

You can watch a short documentary about her tour here:

When she talked about coming out, the first thing to explain was that her father is a Jehovah’s Witness, and due to his religion he does not accept her being gay. Like any gay kid with homophobic parents, she had to work through the idea that her desires were sinful before she could accept them. Now that I’ve read a few lesbian memoirs I’ve noticed that periods of denial are very common for us. There is a time period where we sort of know we are gay but don’t know it know it yet. Hannah had a huge crush on one of her female friends in college, and the girl liked her back, and they dated for quite some time while still thinking of themselves as straight. They had lots of sex while still thinking of themselves as straight. Hannah wrote a hilarious comment about how she imagined the two of them getting married “as two straight women.” Finally, she was able to admit that she was a lesbian. Her coming out video part one has over a million views:

The first time I heard of Hannah Hart was years ago when she was an unknown funny girl who had made a few videos of herself getting drunk and cooking very badly in a hilarious way. That first video she ever made, Butter Yo Shit, just recorded to cheer up a friend who was in a different city, now has over 4 million views:

I have to admit I haven’t been following her career very closely, because I’m not much of a YouTuber, I much prefer reading and writing over videos. I adore her first ten videos when she is still relatively unknown and hasn’t become a YouTube star yet, and I’ve watched them many times, but I haven’t watched much beyond the first ten. However, I’m still going to recommend that everybody subscribe to her channel and get to know this wonderful woman. She is cheerful, friendly, funny and caring, and she is going to spend her life doing great things. I can see her having her own talk show like Ellen Degeneres because she is just as sunny and inspiring. So many millenials are obsessed with themselves and their appearance and their identities, but Hannah Hart knows what’s important: creating community, thinking about others, and helping people who are struggling. I am truly in awe over what a fantastic person she is. If she can accomplish so much by 30, despite such difficult beginnings, imagine what she will accomplish with the rest of her life!

Whether you read her book or watch her channel, definitely get to know Hannah Hart—you’ll be glad you did!

Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide

Last weekend I went to the library to browse through the queer books and I came across Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. I’ve heard other people say this book is good so I thought I should check it out. Coyote is an accomplished writer and speaker and a queer Canadian icon. Tomboy Survival Guide is their latest book, published in 2016.

Coyote is a talented storyteller who writes in a vulnerable way, heart exposed, and I was drawn in immediately. By the second chapter I already had tears running down my cheeks. The title suggests that this book is a guide for tomboys, but what it actually is is a memoir that is as much about family as it is about gender. The stories are about growing up as a tomboy, being a butch lesbian, and being a trans person, and they are also about being from a loving family from Whitehorse, Yukon—a family that remains important and valuable throughout the author’s life. Western Canada provides a beautiful backdrop for Coyote’s stories, whether it’s the Yukon or British Columbia.

I have been enjoying the book immensely over the past week while simultaneously struggling with the question of how I can review a book by someone who I support on some levels but who has very different political beliefs from me. Coyote is pro-trans, and is against my kind of feminism. Reading through their twitter account recently told me that Coyote calls women “TERFs.”  I cannot discuss this book without addressing this political divide and I can’t get very far into a discussion of their work without making a decision about pronoun use.

Coyote’s pronouns are “they/them” but I do not agree that a butch lesbian should be called ‘they.’ Calling a female human ‘they’ is supposed to imply that she is not female, but is instead somewhere in between, and it disappears the difference between gender and sex. A butch lesbian is biologically female and has a masculine gender. I don’t believe it’s right to imply that a non-feminine woman is not a woman at all—that reinforces the idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women. The idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women is one of the things that harms all of us. I think that when you agree that a masculine woman isn’t a woman, you are agreeing with the bullies who think she’s not okay the way she is.

I believe with all my heart that the way to support a butch lesbian is to respect her masculine gender and her femaleness, and to appreciate them both as integral parts of her that are both significant in making her who she is, and to maintain that being female and masculine isn’t a contradiction that needs to be resolved but something to honour and respect as it is. I think that calling her “they” to erase her femaleness does the same thing that straight women do when they tell her she doesn’t belong in the women’s washroom: it’s kicking her out of womanhood because she doesn’t fit the feminine standard.

With all that in mind, I know that if I were to support Coyote by calling her “she” it would be taken as me not supporting her because she uses “they.” Therefore I am going to use a mix of pronouns to acknowledge both my position and hers. It is my intention here to promote their work and their voice without letting go of my own perspective.

Whenever I read a book written by a butch, I see my own partner among the pages. Coyote’s book really hit home for me because she is a Canadian lesbian and so are my partner and I. In fact, I know that we have mutual acquaintances and some of my friends have seen her perform.

One of the first stories Coyote told of her tomboy nature was being in swimming lessons as a kid and wearing only the bottom half of her bathing suit and allowing everyone to think she was a boy. My partner did the exact same thing when she was a kid, wearing swim trunks to the community pool because that’s what she felt comfortable in, and she kept doing that until the boys were harassing her and the lifeguard told her she had to put a top on. She was not happy about this.

Near the opening of the book Coyote wrote a wonderful description of being a tomboy. It’s not about consciously rejecting the feminine and trying to be masculine, it’s about having something different about you that exists in your personality and in your very bones that you would not be able to change even if you dressed in women’s clothes.

“I didn’t not want to be a girl because I had been told that they were weaker or somehow lesser than boys. It was never that simple. I didn’t even really actively not want to be like the other girls. I just knew. I just knew that I wasn’t. I couldn’t. I would never be. (p14)”

Later on when they described attending college to learn Electricity and Industrial Electronics I saw my partner in the pages again. One of the only two women among hundreds of men, they endured harassment from their classmates despite being excellent in the program.

It can be a minefield navigating the world as a masculine woman because you never know how people are going to interpret you or treat you. Coyote wrote about times when she was “one of the guys” and times when she was “one of the girls.” Although some of their college classmates harassed them horribly, they recalled a positive memory of one classmate asking their advice on how to do something nice for his wife. In that moment, Coyote was not a failure of a woman but an expert on womanhood.

Although it wasn’t the least bit funny for her at the time, I laughed when she recalled the time when a guy managing a tourist destination, hot springs in a cave, made her wear a women’s swimsuit while calling her “sir.” Sometimes people get hilariously mixed up when they encounter an ambiguous-looking person.

Four years before writing this book, and already in their forties, Coyote had top surgery. They called this decision “the healthy, happy thing for me to do,” (p170) even though it caused them to completely lose feeling in their nipples. They describes the numbness in a very poignant paragraph:

“They are beyond numb. They feel nothing. Sometimes I think I can feel the flesh underneath them, maybe I can feel pressure there, maybe. But I can’t feel her fingertips or her tongue, or her teeth. I can’t feel the cold lake or the warm sun either.” (p151)

Is it really a fair trade, to get the chest you want but lose feeling in your nipples?

It’s interesting that Coyote says the following:

“But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. (p170–171)”

I fully agree with this. No one is trapped in the wrong body. It’s not their bodies that need to change, it’s the way they are being treated that needs to change. It’s important to locate the problem correctly. Don’t blame something on your body when it’s not your body’s fault.

Throughout much of the book, Coyote doesn’t mention being trans, because in her childhood and young adulthood she didn’t have a trans identity yet. Near the end of the book, the trans issue starts to come up. She wrote about getting hate mail from both conservatives and radical feminists regarding her writing on transgender bathroom use. She reports both groups of people saying the same thing in their hate mail, which is:

“No offense, but, if I had to share a woman’s washroom with someone who looks like you, I would feel…uncomfortable.

And…

“Why don’t you just use the men’s room? (p224)”

Although I am a radical feminist, this quote does not represent my position at all. It’s not what anyone in my own circle of feminists says, either. We don’t want to see butch women kicked out of the women’s washroom, we think all women belong there. We aren’t uncomfortable around butch women. Some of us, like me, love butch women. We also think that single-occupant washrooms are a good idea in order to accommodate gender nonconforming people, or anyone who wants to pee alone. We don’t think that trans people should be kicked out of all the bathrooms. We don’t think women should be forced into the men’s room. I don’t know who emailed her, but they didn’t say anything close to what I would have said. My position is that everyone should be accommodated in washrooms, without forgetting that allowing the entire world into the women’s washroom does not properly accommodate women. Overly-broad gender identity laws that are based on self-declaration and no objective criteria allows anyone to announce they’re a woman and enter the washroom. This is not good policy.

There is another part of the book where Coyote’s pro-trans position bothers me. She printed a letter from a mother whose teenage daughter is transitioning to male. The teen first identified as a lesbian and then identified as trans. Coyote wrote a response to the mother which spoke of her daughter as if she were truly her son and would grow up to be a man. She didn’t leave any room for the fact that this teen could actually be a lesbian. That’s what you do when you believe in transgender politics, is immediately affirm someone’s trans identity and ignore the fact that the person is actually homosexual. Only a so-called “trans exclusive radical feminist” like me can see what is really happening here. An adult lesbian is refusing to call herself a lesbian, preferring to label herself as something other than a woman, and is affirming a younger lesbian who is doing the same. This is absolutely tragic. This is not what I want for the lesbian community. I want lesbians to be able to proudly declare their lesbian identity without falling prey to the ancient homophobic idea that lesbians are really men or that we’re failed women. I want us to carve out space for all different kinds of women to be ourselves without shame, and to show the world that women are diverse and beautiful in our differences. If it were me giving advice, I would have left the door open to this young woman actually being a lesbian and validated what she is probably feeling without jumping right onto the trans train.

For the most part, I loved Tomboy Survival Guide, and I would definitely recommend it. I was very moved by her stories and I thought the book was exquisitely written. I always appreciate hearing about what life is like for little tomboys who grow up to be butch. My criticism is that because of her pro-trans position, her writing is not as lesbian-positive as it could be. What I always hope to see in any book written by a lesbian is a positive lesbian identity and a pro-woman stance.

Book Review: Leaving Normal—Adventures in Gender

This year I want to start reviewing books by lesbians. If you have any recommendations, please send them along!

I am very pleased with the first lesbian book I have read this year which is Leaving Normal : Adventures in Gender by Rae Theodore, who blogs at https://middleagebutch.wordpress.com/.

Leaving Normal : Adventures in Gender is a creative nonfiction memoir that presents scenes from the life of a butch lesbian who went through a long coming-out process. This book is light-hearted and enjoyable to read, and provides an excellent illustration of life as a tomboy and the process of coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation after a period of denial. If you are familiar with her blog then you know that she has a pleasant writing style and sense of humor.

Theodore describes herself as being in between man and woman. It’s not easy to describe the feeling of being unlike other women but not a man either. She describes it in imagery and metaphors, sometimes lonely ones and sometimes cute ones. In one chapter she is a lost Cub Scout in a vast field. There are people to the west and the east, but no one else with her in the middle. In another chapter she imagines that at her mother’s baby shower, when the cake was cut open, it must not have revealed blue or pink cake, but instead rainbow.

She takes us to several scenes from her childhood where the difference between her and other girls was apparent, although she couldn’t name what the difference was at a young age. She paints a picture of the experiences that tomboys and butches go through as they navigate a heteronormative world, such as being mistaken for a boy or man in various social situations and being expected to like girly things and have crushes on boys despite being obviously not the type for it.

She is very good at choosing just the right simile or image to make her childhood experiences appear in full living colour. I found it very charming to read about life in the late 1970s. In some ways it wasn’t so different from my own. While she used to gaze at her Grease poster, presumably looking at John Travolta but secretly looking at Olivia Newton-John, I gazed upon my X-Files posters a couple of decades later, presumably looking at David Duchovny but secretly looking at Gillian Anderson.

Like any lesbian in deep denial, she attempted to date boys and was confused when she felt nothing for them. She described her first kiss like this:

“The kiss is like walking into a glass door. First, there is the impact and then the shock of it all. After it is over, I will inspect my body for marks and bruises. I thought I would fall into my first kiss in the same way I instinctively leaned into my first slide and ended up with a single spiked cleat resting on the second base bag. I stand motionless in the driveway while Dwayne Miller walks to his truck and drives away. I am frozen, rooted to the macadam. My house is only a few feet away, but it seems like miles. I know there is something wrong with me, but I don’t know what. I had gotten what I had wanted, but in the end I had wanted something else. I wonder if this is what love feels like. Or maybe this is what it feels like to be completely lost.”
(p83-84, first edition)

This is such a perfect description. She was expecting to enjoy the kiss but instead she felt like she had walked into a glass door and was left lost and confused. Compare this to the way she felt looking at a pretty girl:

“My attention is focused across the street at a girl in a tight pair of bluejeans. Her back is turned toward me, and my eyes have settled on the curves right below the point of her jean pockets. The pocket points function as makeshift arrows. ‘Look here,’ they seem to shout as if mounted to a billboard and outlined in blinking red lights. But the truth is I would have found my way there without any arrows or makers or maps.
It’s the fullness of the curves that has me captivated. She seems so full that she is on the verge of running over like a pitcher filled with too much liquid. I wait for something to spill out — perhaps a line from a song or a whispered secret—but it never does. Somehow, I know she holds the meaning of life, even though she is just a girl in a pair of jeans standing outside in the rain.
I know that I belong here paired with fleshy softness and ripeness and abundance that can be found on forever-rolling curves of lips and hips and breasts and cheeks. At the same time, I am lost because I don’t know how to get from here to there even though she’s just standing across the street.” (p95-96, first edition)

This description is luscious and wonderfully explanatory and it’s my favourite part of the book. Here are some things I love about this:

  • Although she described herself as “lost” after kissing a boy, when looking at a cute girl she felt she could find her way without a map. (Awwwww ♥)
  • She found existential meaning in her attraction to this girl and could only describe the feeling in poetry. (When wondering who it is you’re attracted to, take a close look at who inspires you to write poetry. If you find that the curve of someone’s body holds songs, secrets, and the meaning of life, that’s who you’re attracted to!)
  • The idea of knowing she belonged among women but didn’t know how to get there was so touching. That’s one of the things a lesbian will deal with when coming out. How to find other lesbians? How to approach a woman for the first time? This is one of the reasons why lesbian community is so important.

When she finally comes out of denial and admits to herself that she is a lesbian, it’s a very touching and beautiful realization. I won’t say how she realized it—you have to read the book! Then she realizes that she has always known, on some level. I remember that feeling too. After I got over the initial shock of realizing that I was attracted to women, I suddenly felt stupid, because I had always known it, I just didn’t want to know what I knew.

Luckily, Theodore is now a happily married lesbian living with her wife and feeling a lot more normal. Another lesbian success story!

This would be a good book for anyone who’s ever struggled to reconcile with her sexuality or who has had to navigate the world while being gender nonconforming. Although I have quoted from the first edition, I will note that the second edition is out now, with several new chapters added. Here is the information for purchasing the book.
Happy reading!