My Butch Career, a memoir by Esther Newton

I was absolutely delighted to read My Butch Career, a memoir by Esther Newton. I had never heard of Newton before but I saw a recommendation for this book and was intrigued. Esther Newton is an American lesbian born in 1940 who came out before Stonewall and was a part of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement. She led a fascinating life and she is very skilled as a writer. There are many things that delighted me about this book, most notably these three: the fact that she wrote about all the social movements that interest me as a lesbian feminist, and how they personally affected her throughout her life; the fact that she wrote explicitly about her sexual feelings and some of her sexual experiences; and the fact that she wrote descriptions of her past that bring the reader right into the action—she wrote as if she has a photographic memory and can still capture every detail, both physical, emotional, and sensory, of the important scenes of her life. It was an intimate and moving read, and I found myself relating to her and appreciating very much what she shared.

One of the first things Newton wrote was a description of what ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ mean to her, and as regular readers know, this is a favourite topic of mine. In order to explain what femmes are, she compared them to Baby Houseman, the heroine of the film Dirty Dancing. I was resistant to this at first because why would you use a straight character to explain what a lesbian is? But after fully comprehending what she was explaining, I found this was an absolutely wonderful description. Newton thinks of a femme as a woman who is “gutsy and determined,” who will pursue the lover of her choice despite it being socially unacceptable. She understands that a femme has femininity but is anything but a doormat, and is actually quite subversive despite having a conventional appearance.

This leads me into telling you my favourite part of the book, which is pretty near the beginning, when Newton describes the first time she had sex with a woman. It happened when Newton was a young adult in college and she was attempting to dress feminine and blend in, and yet a femme woman spotted her and saw right through her disguise—saw that she was a dyke and that she was the masculine type. The femme was “gutsy and determined” just like Baby, and pursued what she wanted immediately. The tale of seduction was breathtaking and I read over it multiple times before moving on with the book. Today while writing this review I discovered that Esther Newton has recorded herself reading this passage and put it on her website—go listen to it!

I’ve always considered gender nonconforming women to be my heroes, but the way that Newton describes the femmes of the past makes me realize I should be in just as much awe of them. When I try to imagine being a feminine-looking college girl in the 1950s and having to spot butches, who were sometimes in feminine disguise as they didn’t feel free to express themselves properly, and make the first move on them, in an extremely homophobic environment and under pressure to marry a man, I think it would be extremely difficult and nearly impossible. After reading the story of Newton’s seduction by a young femme who knew what she wanted and went for it, I feel extremely grateful for every femme who’s ever done that.

I was thrilled to find out that Newton was a lesbian feminist during the second wave of feminism—what a time to be alive! I loved the way she described her emerging feminist consciousness:

“I was watching the Miss America pageant on television when suddenly from the balcony a banner appeared with two words: “Women’s Liberation.” I don’t recall seeing footage of the protests outside the hall, or the picture of the woman marked up like cuts of beef, or the crowning of a live sheep as Miss America. What I remember is my astonishment that women were protesting womanhood. There were other women out there, even women with long hair, feminine women, who were fed up with being good girls. As I saw it, they were joining me. I was no longer alone with my anger.” p132-133

It was beautiful to hear about Newton’s transformation from insecure girl to confident adult thanks in large part to the women’s movement.

Later, Newton got somewhat involved in the lesbian s/m movement that emerged after lesbian feminism had enforced a politically correct sexuality on the lesbian community. Regular readers of this blog know that I oppose the sex-positive movement on the grounds that it’s more positive toward abuse than sex. However, Newton is mature and reasonable and doesn’t demonize any group, not like the overly dramatic queer activists of today—she learned from and respected both movements and used what she learned from them to accept herself and express herself more fully. Come to think of it, I’ve actually done the same thing myself—after diving into a (purely historical, as the movements have already ended) study of the lesbian feminist movement and the “sex-pozzie” movement, I’ve also retained those lessons that I value and rejected those ideas that I thought were erroneous, and assimilated all I’ve learned into my conception of myself.

Before Newton accepted herself as a lesbian, she had a lot of relationships with men, and this was shocking for me to read. I had a moment of wondering if she is actually bisexual, but after finishing the book, I understand that she is truly lesbian, but pre-Stonewall life was so anti-gay that she feared getting kicked out of school and fired from her job if anyone thought she was gay. She felt she had to date men in order to survive. This was an important lesson for me, as a lesbian who came of age right around the time when same-sex marriage was legalized in my country, where GSAs are common in high schools, and where gays and lesbians can usually be out at work with no negative repercussions. Esther Newton is one of the people who changed things so that I can live the safe life I live, and I’m extremely grateful for her.

Newton succeeded in becoming an academic, after much struggle. I was moved by reading about how she struggled with sexism and homophobia on top of the usual setbacks and frustrations that occur when a young person embarks upon a career, and how she pushed herself through the pain and succeeded despite it all. She studied gay topics in anthropology when no one else was doing so and become a pioneer of gay and lesbian studies.

Newton is definitely a lesbian hero, and her story will inspire any lesbian, particularly those who struggle with being a non-conforming woman in a sexist society. Please read this book! Read it for the important lesson in lesbian history, for the gorgeous and sexy writing, and to celebrate one of our important lesbian pioneers.

Book Review: Renegade Nuns

Renegade Nuns by Lisa Jones is a novel about a woman who seeks answers after her sister’s death, and whose quest brings her into contact with a group of powerful nuns. The novel is both murder mystery and fantasy, and there is a third genre I will assign to it as well—it’s a radical feminist novel. That is, it’s a novel that describes male violence against women and the power of sisterhood in a way that only a radical feminist can.

The story of the death of fictional Riva Pine and her sister Becky’s journey to find out what happened to her is based on a true story. Jones’s real-life sister died the way Riva Pine did—from an apparent fall while doing yoga. As preposterous as it may seem, the police and the coroner declared it factual that she died from falling over while doing a yoga pose, as her husband claimed. Jones wrote this book around the more plausible explanation—that her husband killed her, and got away with murder. The novel is a work of fiction, and certainly the supernatural aspects of it are not at all real, but I can’t help thinking that there may be more truth in this novel than in the explanation that a woman died from a cracked skull from doing yoga. How many times has a man’s fiction been recorded as fact by other men while the truth, spoken by a woman, is considered fictional?

Jones describes the relationship between fictional Riva Pine and her husband Mack with expert level feminist awareness. Mack is a manipulative parasite, living off his wife’s earnings and taking everything he can from her, all the while knowing how to fake being a loving husband. Although there are no obvious signs of abuse, due to Mack’s expert façade, he slowly consumes his wife by taking all her energy, love, and money. There is nothing about her that he does not take for himself. Riva’s sister Becky sees him for what he is, doesn’t fall for his manipulations, and does everything she can to find out what really happened the day Riva died.

When Becky goes on a quest for information, she uncovers a group of nuns with supernatural powers. Soon she finds herself involved in their plans, and learning about them and their work as she goes along. These are not regular Catholic nuns, of course, they are renegade nuns. They are free-thinkers, healers, and rebels, using their powers to solve the problems with the Y chromosome and create opportunities for the planet as a whole to find peace. Their powers come from their own selves, and from their interactions with each other. Some of the nuns are lesbians and they use physical touch with each other in their healing. They remind me of radical feminist spirituality—the idea that women are powerful and magical and that we become even more so when we work together in sisterhood.

I found the nun characters delightful to read about. They prompted me to talk to Lisa Jones about her own beliefs. She says she became a radical feminist around 2010 or 2011 after decades of being a Buddhist. She read Mary Daly and felt that she was “turning on the lights.” That led to her reading more radical feminist books. She also has taken an interest in Christian mysticism. She says:

I met several women who claimed to channel Mary Magdalene or to be her reincarnation. Instead of reacting with knee-jerk derision, I tried to listen to how they were responding to patriarchy. I also met a group of women whom I call the “angel whisperers” — lightworkers, shamanists, herbalists — women who work to heal the world but don’t necessarily think in terms of feminist analysis. Later, a friend suggested that I read Sonia Johnson’s book “The SisterWitch Conspiracy,” which I found outrageous and profoundly heartening. I felt that the book merged feminist analysis with angel whispering. It gave me hope for a better future on this planet.

This is very much what comes through in her renegade nun characters. It’s an optimistic view of the world—that magical women are working on healing the planet already, like a group of feminist angels.

Here is another article about the book that may interest you. Also, here is the book’s website where you can find out how to purchase a copy and read the first chapter online.

I’d like to thank Lisa Jones for writing this book and for providing me with a box of free copies. If you are someone who knows me, just ask and I’ll give you one!

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.


“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

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!

Book Review: What Is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko

This review contains profane language. 😉

What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist And Her Pussy is a graphic novel (manga) by Rokudenashiko, the Japanese manga writer and artist who was arrested for obscenity over her vulva-shaped kayak. In her book, she documents her arrest and imprisonment as well as the reasons why she began creating this kind of art. She is a brave and rebellious woman with a delightful sense of humor and her book is entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s written in manga style and reads from back to front and from right to left. In addition to her documentation of her life as a rebel artist, it contains information pages about relevant Japanese culture and some photos of her art.

Rokudenashiko, whose real name is Megumi Igarashi, was arrested in 2014 for what was considered a violation of obscenity laws. She had done a 3D scan of her vulva and used that scan to print a vulva-shaped kayak using a 3D printer. She crowd-funded to pay for her creation and as a thank you gift to her donors, she sent each one the 3D scan of her vulva. They can use this digital file to print more objects shaped as her genitals. News of her arrest spread quickly and she now has a fan following around the world. Instead of being just a struggling manga writer she is now a famous “manko artist.”


Photo source

“Manko” is Japanese slang for female genitals. The translator of her book translated this word sometimes as vagina and sometimes as pussy. I’ve looked at definitions of manko on Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary and apparently this word can mean vagina, vulva, pussy, cunt, or “to fuck.” (It figures that the same word that means vagina also means to fuck. What does that tell you?) Just so you know what we’re dealing with, manko is not a medical term, it’s colloquial and profane, and probably is equivalent to “pussy” in English.

Igarashi started creating “manko art” quite by chance. As she says in her book, she was a struggling manga writer looking for interesting stories to tell so she could advance her career. She was searching on the Internet for pubic hair removal one day and she came across the possibility of vaginal reconstructive surgery. She had never thought of this before and she quickly decided to do it. It seems that she has a rather casual attitude toward plastic surgery. She had no “complex” about her genitals but she thought the experience would make a good story to write about in her manga. Essentially, she got the surgery just for the heck of it and to write about it.

Since she had just gotten a “beautiful new pussy,” (her words, not mine) and since she’s an artist and a quirky character, she decided to make a mold of her genitals. After she created the mold and looked at her plaster vulva, she thought it looked “boring.” A caption in the side of the cartoon says “Would’ve been better with flappy labia, actually.” That was my thought exactly! Maybe if your “new pussy” looks boring, what it actually needed was more labia! (And I’m definitely not trying to put down anyone with naturally small lips. Just saying, you don’t need to cut yours off to make it look “better.”) Since she thought it looked “boring,” she decorated it with flowers and things. Thus, her manko art was born.

A few other people in Japan started noticing her manko art and some women even came to a workshop to make their own. The women in the workshop really loved making art out of their genitals and Igarashi began to see how much she could inspire women with her art. However, she received a lot of negative backlash from people, mostly men, who thought what she was doing was unacceptable. Men’s responses came in two forms: either making vagina art was obscene, or they thought she must be really perverted and wanted random guys to fuck her. It never fails, if a woman appears in public while not hiding the fact that she has a vagina, random men assume that means she wants them to fuck her. (Porn culture! Rape culture!)

Igarashi’s style is not erotic though. Her style is funny, whimsical, cartoonish, and very “pop.” A lot of her designs are consumer products: an iPhone case with a vulva on it, for example. You can see her artwork on her online store and her Tumblr.

My favourite artwork of hers is the diorama where her vulva is the ground and soldiers are fighting over top of it. This feels like a more ‘serious’ artwork to me, and it’s very spot-on. The female genitals are simply the ground that men walk on, and they’re shooting each other over it.

vulva art 3

Photo source

I also like her vulva T-shirt. I would totally wear that.

Her response to getting negative backlash from cranky men was to make more manko art specifically to piss them off. When one commenter said that manko should only be looked at in the dark under blankets, she made a manko chandelier so that it would shine brightly across the room. Ha! When she made her 3D printed kayak, it was because she wanted to make something really big. What she really wants is to make a vulva-shaped vehicle, but since she doesn’t have a driver’s license, she made a kayak, which she can drive without a license. She really did sail the kayak.

When she was arrested, ten police officers entered her apartment without permission, raided her apartment for “obscene” artwork, and handcuffed her and tied her at the waist. Ten police officers to arrest a small, unarmed, female artist! Her excellent sense of humor and her gift of storytelling really come through when she describes her arrest. The police kept picking up art objects and asking her what they were. Nearly every time they asked, she said “it’s my manko,” and they were shocked that she would say this word out loud. She started finding it so funny that she began deliberately using the word as often as possible. There is one cartoon where it’s just a picture of her surrounded by speech bubbles, and each speech bubble says “manko.” That one really had me laughing. The idea of her being raided by the police for obscenity and saying “manko” as often as possible is so hilarious and the way she describes it is just adorable. She kept this up when in prison and in court. Every time she was allowed to make a statement, she said “manko” as often as possible just to piss them off. She even got them to read it back to her during times when they had to read her statement, which made them uncomfortable but amused her.

In her book, she initially draws herself as a person, but eventually she starts drawing herself as a large cartoon vulva, with eyes and a mouth and always a relevant facial expression. I get the impression like she felt it was her vulva that was getting in trouble with the authorities.

Igarashi has identified that there is a double standard in Japan with regards to genitals. It’s fine to mention the penis but it’s taboo to mention the vagina. In addition, men have no problem with porn but they have a problem with vulva art created by women. To really illustrate how far the double standard goes, there is actually a festival in Japan that celebrates the penis. Check this out on Wikipedia:

“The Shinto Kanamara Matsuri, (“Festival of the Steel Phallus”) is held each spring at the Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, Japan. The exact dates vary: the main festivities fall on the first Sunday in April. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, decorations, and a mikoshi parade. The Kanamara Matsuri is centered on a local penis-venerating shrine.”

penis statue

So it’s okay to have a parade where a big, tacky, ugly steel penis is rolled down the street, but if a woman makes a mold of her vulva, she needs to be arrested by ten police officers and thrown in jail.

Igarashi says some feminist things in her book and in her interviews, although she says she doesn’t necessarily call herself a feminist, and she is definitely a liberal, not a radical. She simply identifies a double standard and an unfairness toward women but she doesn’t theorize about patriarchy or name women as an oppressed class of people.

Of course, I have some theories about women as an oppressed class of people. There are lots of men who lose their shit when women try to represent their own genitals in art. It’s not just the men in Japan. Men in all parts of the British Empire have been losing their shit over vulva cupcakes in recent years. When women simply represent a vulva in their arts and crafts and name the vulva as a female body part, men believe they are being subjected to violence or obscenity, and they immediately shut down the female artist. This has to do with male supremacy and male ownership over women’s bodies. We know that men don’t have a problem with porn—they only have a problem with women’s artwork. That’s because men love depictions of women’s genitals when those depictions are created by men for men and when they represent men’s ideas of what women should be. What they don’t like is when women represent ourselves as we want to be represented. That challenges our status as a subordinated class—it makes us seem like autonomous human beings, and that terrifies men. The reason men shut down vulva cupcake parties and arrest female artists for “obscenity” is because those women are insubordinate, and they need to be taught their place. Our genitals are not for us to own or for us to name and describe or for us to represent in art—they’re for men to use as they see fit. Men can represent our genitals in porn, they can get surgery on themselves in order to wear a fake version of our genitals, and they can use our genitals in real life, through rape, incest, prostitution, and marriage, for their own purposes and against our will, but god forbid we actually take control and name them as our own.

Igarashi’s goals are liberal, not revolutionary. She wants to piss off anyone who doesn’t like the word “manko” by saying it over and over and she wants to make female genitals “more pop and accessible,” through the promotion of vulva-shaped cartoonish consumer products. (And speaking of her being liberal, her book makes references to “designated female at birth” and “cisgender women.” I’m not sure if the sparklegender ideology has made its way to Japan or if it was just her English translator, who is American, who wrote it that way.) It appears that her end goal is just to destigmatize female genitals. I applaud this goal; however, I would like to go even further and liberate the female sex class from oppression. This involves not only destigmatizing our genitals but also creating material changes that allow women everywhere to gain control over our own bodies, so that we can control when and how we reproduce, how we express our sexuality, and how we are viewed and represented in culture.

I was really happy to read this book. I devoured it in a couple of days, I laughed with delight all the way through, and I thought about the significance of vulva art. The fact that she’s a liberal feminist doesn’t stop me from loving her art and wanting to support her future work. I hope she does end up making that vulva-shaped vehicle.

A wonderful zine written by ten FtM detransitioners

The zine Blood and Visions: Womyn Reconciling With Being Female is a collection of writing from ten women who have experienced dysphoria and/or transition, and who have stopped transition or decided not to pursue transition. Most of them currently identify as lesbian and most of them identified as trans men or genderqueer for a time.

I heard about this zine from the bloggers I follow on WordPress, so thank you for the recommendation! I would like to pay it forward and recommend it again. Reading this writing was very moving and I will read it over and over again.

The writing is based on personal experience and thoughtful analysis of some of the themes present in the lives of women who transition, such as not conforming to social standards of what a woman is, the humiliation and shame of being female in a patriarchy, trauma and dissociation from the body—often due to male violence, internalized homophobia, and self-hatred. They have also shared some things they have found helpful in returning to being able to live in their bodies and accept themselves as gender-non-conforming women. The writing is very poetic at times, in the sense that each sentence is packed with powerful truth and emotion. It is to be read slowly and carefully, while taking in the impact of every sentence and every word.

A lot of these women received little social support for being dykes but lots and lots of support for being genderqueer or trans men. They saw no representation of butch and/or masculine women anywhere and didn’t realize other women like them existed. Transition seemed like a way to join a socially recognizable gender category, one in which they would be respected as human beings, and “fix” the problem of being female. Some of the writers lived as trans men for a few years; others barely started to transition before deciding not to.

The reasons for not continuing to transition were often because they didn’t truly want to fit in with men and be seen as male. Fitting in with men and not being found out as a biological female often meant participating in misogyny. Sometimes it meant being a female survivor of rape in an all male environment and hearing rape jokes and feeling unable to speak out against them from a “male” perspective. Some of the women began to detransition when they discovered that transition did not help with dysphoria, and when they found other methods that helped more. It sounds like none of these women is completely free of dysphoria—one even stated that she is still not even coping—but there are things that help a woman who is dissociating from her body, such as meditation, exercise, psychotherapy, political analysis of gender, meeting other women in similar situations, and learning to direct her anger at the culture who did this to her instead of directing her anger at herself.

There was a question asked in the book but not resolved. I don’t think there is any answer to this, but I am interested in this question, too. Why is it that some butch dykes identify as female while others transition to male? They are in similar situations, it seems. I suppose the difference lies in the amount of dysphoria that she feels. A butch dyke might love her female body and feel at home in it even though she faces discrimination and hatred from her society, while a FtM transitioner does not feel at home in her female body. It’s hard to know why this happens to one woman and not another. More positive representation of butch and/or masculine women would certainly help both groups though. Women deserve to know that lots of us are not Barbie dolls and that we can be strong and powerful and love other women.

There was one piece that gave advice to radical feminists on behalf of FtM detransitioners. Radical feminists tend to love hearing from detransitioners but we also sometimes treat them as tokens or sources of information rather than as comrades. Some radfems will pick and choose quotes from a detransitioner just to support her own ideology while not behaving respectfully toward the woman she is quoting. We can be condescending by calling a sex-change operation “mutilation” even if the woman doesn’t see it that way, or by saying detransitioners “regret” their transition even though they may not. None of the women who wrote for this book said they regretted their transition or wished to reverse it. They simply found a new way forward that is different from what they previously had envisioned. Detransition is not a return to what they were before or a move backwards, but is a new way forward and a new journey.

One of my favourite quotes in the zine is by Crash [blogs here] who wrote this stunning paragraph:

“What happened? Why did we stop after finding such relief? What we had forced down rose back up again and again. The attempted murder of our former selves proved uncompleted and we could only turn away from her for so long. The dyke inside would not die and she was stronger than medically sanctioned endocrine disruption, the latest in many attempts to erase and take her power.” (16)

I have read this quote over and over and over. There is so much here in this little paragraph. The idea of finding relief in transition but then also finding that the dyke within “would not die” is so powerful! I am savouring these words and finding that they make me proud and awed and full of love for lesbiankind. We lesbians are strong and powerful—more powerful than we realize and certainly more powerful than men believe.

Reading this zine made me feel similar to the way I feel when reading Stone Butch Blues. It is heartbreaking but somehow beautiful, too—it captures the terrible experience of being female in a patriarchy in a profound way, and it speaks to the lesbophobia that still crushes many of us, but it also speaks to the incredible resilience that women have. How I wish that all women could grow up knowing their appearance and personality are just fine the way they are, and that they can be any kind of woman they want to be.

Everyone interested in lesbians, FtMs, and detransition should buy this zine. You’ll be very glad you read these women’s words.

Reading Stone Butch Blues in 2015

Feinberg 2

Stone Butch Blues is a book that touched my heart very deeply. I bring it up every now and again because it’s part of my knowledge of the lesbian and FtM experience. Once you get to know the protagonist, Jess, she’ll never leave your heart. A commenter recently asked if this book was pro-transition. My answer is that this book cannot be categorized in terms of the current transgender cult. Feinberg wrote about a time when gender-non-conforming gays and lesbians were simply trying to survive from day to day. There were no Twitter wars or accusations of TERF back then. I would say that Stone Butch Blues is way more real and honest than the trans activism going on now. This book has been described as “so real it hurts” and I agree with that. Feinberg wrote about everyday life, love and survival in a really authentic way. I have reviewed this book before on a previous blog and unfortunately, I did not keep a copy of the review so now I’m writing it again. If some of this sounds familiar to you, you probably read my last one!

The protagonist, Jess Goldberg, is a butch lesbian who is a lot like the author. She was a different kind of girl right from the beginning. People would ask “is it a boy or a girl” all the time because they couldn’t figure her out.

“I didn’t want to be different. I longed to be everything grownups wanted, so they would love me. I followed all their rules, tried my best to please. But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown. No one ever offered a name for what was wrong with me. That’s what made me afraid it was really bad. I only came to recognize its melody through this constant refrain: “Is that a boy or a girl?” p.13

The story begins in the 1960s, a time when both homosexuality and cross dressing were illegal. Jess is sent to a psych ward and a charm school to try to train her out of being a tomboy and into being a lady. It doesn’t work. She leaves home at sixteen. Her parents don’t really want her, she is raped at school and doesn’t feel she can ever go back there, and so she decides it’s time to leave home and work full time. She sleeps on friends’ couches and works in a factory.

Jess discovers a gay bar for the first time and finds the lesbian family she’s been looking for. In this era there is a strict butch/femme code where lesbians have to play a role that is based on masculinity or femininity. The older butches take her out to buy her first suit and tie and teach her to toughen up. It doesn’t take long before she realizes why this toughening up is necessary. Gays, lesbians and cross dressers are all considered perverts and freaks and they are fair game for beatings and violence. Much of this violence comes from the police, who show up regularly at the gay bar to harass and arrest the patrons. The police terrorize them and torture them while at the station and they come back traumatized. Jess does “toughen up” in the sense that she locks away her emotions and she becomes a stone butch. (A stone butch is a lesbian who will pleasure her partner but cannot herself be touched.) Jess is traumatized on many occasions and survives because of the love of her lesbian and gay family.

Jess is a working class woman and this novel is as much about the struggles of the working class as it is about gender and sexuality. She works in various factories throughout her life and always takes a unionized job when she can. The author, Leslie Feinberg, said before her death that she wanted to be remembered as a revolutionary communist. The character Jess gets involved with her union and finds out how union men always put men first. Women’s issues are always going to be addressed after the next strike. Despite this treatment, she never crosses a picket line and remains in solidarity with her union comrades.

Eventually Jess does transition from female to male. The first time she hears about transition is when her and her lesbian family are suffering prolonged unemployment and are desperate to do something to change their fate. One day a group of butches try on fashion wigs to see if they can try to be feminine, but it doesn’t work at all. They just cannot perform femininity, it is alien to them. Then they start talking about sex-change operations to become men. It suits them better since they are masculine women. Jess never feels like she is a woman. Because she is a butch people generally call her a “he-she” and women call security when they see her in the washroom. When she hears about the women’s liberation movement she doesn’t think it applies to her. Jess never says she really feels like she is male, she just doesn’t feel female. This attitude was deliberately taught to her by everyone in society. She has been sent to a psych ward and a charm school and beaten and arrested for not being a proper woman. She gets the message loud and clear: women must be feminine, so she obviously can’t be one of them. When she first talks about transition to her girlfriend, she says “Honey, I can’t survive as a he-she much longer. I can’t keep taking the system head-on this way. I’m not gonna make it. We were talking about maybe starting on hormones, male hormones. I was thinking I might try to pass as a guy.” Her partner, Theresa, shouts at her one day “You’re a woman!” and Jess answers, “I’m a he-she. That’s different.” And then: “I’ve got to do something. I’ve been fighting to defend who I am all my life. I’m tired. I just don’t know how to survive. I just don’t know any other way.” When Theresa says she doesn’t want to be with a man, Jess says, “I’d still be a butch, even on hormones.”

I think it’s really obvious that Jess does not identify as a man. Rather, she is being backed up into a corner and can think of no other way out of her desperate situation other than pretending to be a man. Her real “gender identity” is butch lesbian, not man. But being a butch lesbian in a hostile world is killing her and she doesn’t think she’ll survive unless something changes. She takes the hormones and has the surgery. As I’ve written about here, she finds safety at first being seen as a man, because people treat her better than they did when they saw her as a butch lesbian. But over time, it gets harder and harder being seen as male when she is not. She is constantly trying to hide her secret by not talking about her life or getting close to anyone. Eventually she stops taking testosterone, but her body is forever changed. She’s now an even more masculine woman than before, and still passes for a man much of the time.

One of the most poignant moments during her life as a trans man is when she gets a vaginal infection. The only medical clinic she feels comfortable going to is a women’s clinic. Probably because men are violent upon finding out that this man is really a woman, but she faces no violence from women. In the waiting room at the women’s clinic other patients read her as male and inform her that she doesn’t belong there. The doctor reads her as male and she tries to convince the doctor that she really does have a vaginal infection but she cannot allow the doctor to examine her because she has so much trauma around her genitals. At this point in her life she has been raped many times and she will not expose her vulnerability to anyone. She is lucky that the doctor writes a prescription for antibiotics anyway, even though she believes her patient is probably male.

When I think about this situation in terms of current trans activism, I realize how stupid and counterproductive trans activism has become. What Jess really needs is for the world to accept her as a “he-she,” that is, a gender-non-conforming woman. She needs the world to know that some women wear suits and shave their heads, and the world needs to get over that. To pretend that she LITERALLY IS MALE while trying to get treated for a vaginal infection would be daft. It would only confuse the doctor even more. The truth of the situation is that she is a butch lesbian who has taken testosterone and had her breasts removed. She is still female and needs medical treatment as a female. Pretending otherwise does not help her or support her in any way. I am 100% in favour of any trans activism that focuses on the reality of gender-non-conforming people and helping them be accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are.

After Jess de-transitions, she is a very masculine woman who is either read as male or as a “freak” depending on who is looking. The violence continues. Jess has to fight for her life every once in a while when someone tries to punish her for being in between male and female. Sometimes she loses her job because she needs weeks to recover from an injury. Sometimes she loses everything she has and has to start all over again, sleeping in a movie theatre and saving up for another apartment. She is lonely for a long time, not fitting in with men nor with women. There is a really beautiful moment when she meets a new friend named Ruth, a trans woman, and Ruth prepares her a lovely dinner. Jess has been eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for a long time and has been living in poverty and loneliness. Ruth prepares a salad with flowers in it, and vegetables with herbs and homemade bread with butter. Jess has been starving for so many things—starving for food, for colours, for understanding and love. Ruth understands that Jess is trans and loves her for it. Jess finally feels seen and heard after a long time being invisible. When Jess sees and smells the homecooked meal it brings tears to her eyes. In fact, she is already moved to tears when she sees the colours in the salad. Leslie Feinberg has a gift for showing the full depth of love in the small gestures of kindness that people give each other.

I highly recommend this book for several reasons. The writing is superb; it shows the injustices faced by the gender-non-conforming, through their own eyes; it shows the triumph of being yourself even when you’re punished for it; it shows an important part of gay and lesbian history, with a focus on lesbians; it shows the beauty and tragedy of the human experience through acts of violence and acts of love. This novel is essential on any lesbian or trans reading list. I’ve read it several times and it gives me multiple emotional reactions. It makes me cry tears of anger at the injustices and trauma, it makes me proud of all the lesbians and gender-benders who have survived before me and it makes me want to continue the fight on behalf of the gender-non-conforming. It makes me proud of my own partner, who is a butch lesbian non-transitioner, and who is very precious to me. And I have to admit it makes me sexually aroused, not just because there are sex scenes, which there are, but because dykes being their fabulous selves is sexy as hell, no matter what they’re doing. I will also mention that there is a lot of violence in the book, including sexual violence. It helps to have a box of tissues handy while reading.

One of the reasons why there was a strict butch/femme code at this time in history is because gender roles were so strict that people couldn’t think any other way. These days lots of lesbians wouldn’t fit into either one of these labels, we tend to be rather androgynous or somewhere in between masculine and feminine. We have much more freedom to present ourselves in a way that makes sense to us without trying to fit into a pre-defined identity. What we’re seeing in trans activism today is instead of trying to break down the gender boxes even further and allow people to be themselves, we have to put everybody into a specific box and modify their bodies to make sure they completely conform. This is like going back to the pre-Stonewall era, only with more technology. It sure isn’t a step forwards.

Unfortunately Leslie Feinberg has passed away, but I would have loved to have heard her thoughts on current trans activism if I could. I know that she considered herself a trans warrior and used both female and gender-neutral pronouns. She considered herself a butch lesbian. She didn’t consider herself male. I remember her as a role model, a revolutionary communist, a brilliant mind and a loving heart. I very much appreciate her contribution to the world.

Feinberg 1

Pride film reminds us what activism and solidarity are supposed to be

The 2014 British film Pride tells the true story of a gay and lesbian group who helped a village of striking mineworkers in Wales during the 1984 miners’ strike. It is an uplifting movie about what can be accomplished when oppressed groups of people work together. It’s also a refreshing look at what activism is supposed to be—it is the hard work of raising money and raising morale and working with people to accomplish goals together. It’s about overcoming obstacles, getting to know people who are different from you and fighting for the greater good. Everyone needs this reminder about what solidarity looks like between groups who are both fighting their oppression. This film is timely in an era where the Left is completely watered-down and devoid of actual socialism and where gay liberation has turned into a movement to fit gays into the straight world without changing it. If you are into gay and lesbian liberation or if you are still a card-carrying Commie then this film will be your dream come true.

In 1984 Margaret Thatcher was in power and an intensive campaign of union-busting was underway. The government went so far as to prevent the miners from accessing their strike pay in an attempt to starve them back to work. A group of activists founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and raised thousands of dollars to keep the miners fed while they were striking. They went directly to a small mining village to bring their cash donations because the main branch of the union didn’t want to work with a gay group. They did the hard work of standing in the street holding buckets and begging for donations, they talked to people about the importance of helping striking workers, and they slept on floors in strangers’ homes while on the road. They raised the morale of the mineworkers and helped make it possible for them to stand up to the right-wing government and to fight for the working class. As for the mineworkers, many of them had never met a gay person before and they were faced with working in solidarity with a group of proud and political gays and lesbians. They had an opportunity to meet real gay people, to ask about rumors they’d heard about us and to eliminate their negative misconceptions. By the end of the film, the solidarity is rock solid between the two groups. When several busloads of mineworkers show up to the 1985 gay pride parade in London, to return the favor and show their support for gay rights, it’s a triumphant and stunning moment that makes me weep with joy every time I watch it. Even though the miners eventually lose the strike, something has been created that the right-wing government can never take away. The exhilarating feeling of knowing that other people support you no matter what and are standing beside you through the struggle is what keeps us going even today in the face of austerity and unregulated capitalism.

What passes for activism today is an absolute disgrace compared to the activism in this film. Nowadays activism largely consists of posting messages on social media that attempt to bully and shame others for having “phobic” viewpoints about certain groups even though the commenters would never go out of their way to actually help the group they’re arguing over. It’s armchair activism and not only does it not help people with their real-life needs, it has the idea of activism completely backwards. Activism is not the process of going on witch hunts and tearing people down for saying the wrong things, it is identifying people who need help and taking concrete steps to help them. Most of the idiots who cry “TERF” at women on Twitter would never go out into the street with a bucket and beg for donations to help trans people. And the idiots who cry “whorephobic” at abolitionists aren’t out there raising funds for women in the sex trade either. The people who are no-platforming feminists are simply shutting down conversations but not actually doing anything to build dialogue with people of differing viewpoints. They are not looking for a consensus or even a compromise, they only want to bully, silence, and shame people in the name of “fighting oppression.” The Left have turned into a group of neo-liberals who argue over the best way to vote strategically for the least offensive bourgeois political party thinking that they’re progressive. But why so much fuss over electoral politics? Get out into the community and actually help working class people. Don’t wait for the government to do it. Do it yourself. Raise money, volunteer, raise solidarity among groups. Fight the power together. Make any government that is in power care about the needs of workers and oppressed groups. And look for ways to resist capitalism in your community and put them into place without waiting for the corporate-sponsored government to do it for you. They never will. You have to do it yourself.

The only disappointment in this film is the lack of portrayal of women’s issues. It turns out the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was a male-dominated group where the women didn’t feel heard. Big surprise! No matter how awesome men are with their pro-gay and left-wing politics they always seem to shit on women. A separate woman-only group was formed called Lesbians Against Pit Closures who raised money for the mineworkers separately to give the women an opportunity for woman-centered activism. This is barely mentioned in the film. All we see in the film is one woman stating that she is forming a woman-only group and that she is a feminist. At that point a joke is made about not talking during the bingo game and that’s all we get to hear about that. I long to know more about what it was like for the lesbians in that group, why they decided to form a women-only group and what they did and learned within their separate space. One of the highlights of the film is the portrayal of the benefit concert by the main group, called Pits and Perverts. According to Wikipedia, the lesbian-only group put on benefit concerts too, but theirs are not portrayed in the film. This is erasure of lesbian-feminist history.

I highly recommend this film for all progressives, to show us what the work of fighting oppression is supposed to look like. To remind us that activism is not writing hilarious one-liners taking people down on Twitter, it is unglamorous hard work to provide oppressed groups with what they need to get by in their day-to-day lives. To remind us that different groups need to reach out to each other and try to understand each other and show each other teamwork and love.  And while we’re at it, let’s show solidarity to the world’s largest group of oppressed people: women. Let’s use our knowledge of solidarity and teamwork and apply that to the rights of women and girls, who still get bullied and erased within every so-called “progressive” group. Left-wing politics are not progressive if they only advance the rights of the male working class, and gay rights are not progressive if they only advance the rights of male gays. If you are fighting oppression by calling women nasty slurs and bullying us, you’re doing it wrong. Reach out and help other groups, no matter what. We all live on one planet and if we don’t work together we will destroy everything. Watching the film Pride will get you inspired and energized to get back on track with the type of activism we so desperately need. Although the film isn’t perfect, it’s pretty darn close.