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.

Video: Butch documentary

This is an absolutely beautiful mini documentary about an artist doing a photography project on butches. Her name is SD Holman and you can find information about her project here.

She talks about butches but she also mentions her femme partner and how meaningful her support was. I wrote down this awesome quote:

“I was hoping that young butches especially, but all butches or masculine-of-center women, would feel the way my wife Catherine made me feel, which was disastrously handsome.”

Here’s the video:

Video: Growing up butch

This is a video by the excellent vlogger Mainely Butch!

This made me think about whether I could describe what it’s like growing up femme. I think that would be hard to do though. Women describe what it was like growing up butch by naming the reasons they were different from other girls. So how do you describe growing up the same as other girls?

I was pretty typical when I was a kid. I enjoyed lots of the activities and clothing that was assigned to girls. I played a hell of a lot of Barbies. However, I wasn’t a total princess. I liked playing outside, and I generally wore pants, not skirts. As a teen I didn’t understand makeup or underwire bras and I didn’t want them anywhere near me. (I do wear underwire bras now, but still no makeup.) No one ever mistook me for a boy though. Even if I put on men’s clothing, which I sometimes do, I still look like a woman. Clothing can’t hide my obviously female shape.

I didn’t suspect I was a lesbian when I was a kid even though I did have noticeable “warm and fuzzy feelings” toward other girls, followed by explicitly sexual feelings as I approached puberty. I was taught to believe that everyone is heterosexual and so I assumed I would be, until the truth finally made itself undeniable.

I would say that every point that I could make about what’s it’s like being a femme is something that comes from my adulthood.

For example, I remember being at my first party for lesbian and bi women. I wore a tight pair of jeans and a pink sweater. At that particular party, there was a lipstick lesbian couple and a few androgynous-looking women and one masculine lesbian. The lipsticks were pretty to look at, but there was one woman in that group who made me totally nervous, and that was the masculine one. She saw the fear in my eyes and she knew something about me even before I did. Not long after that day I realized I was attracted to her in a way I wasn’t to the others. She knew it, too. I found out weeks later that she still remembered the outfit I wore at that party, and that detail lit a fire inside me. She was already involved so we didn’t do anything, and I don’t know her anymore. But later on another butch lit me on fire, and we are still together now.

I am happy with my feminine body and I love when my partner calls me pretty. Although the idea of being a wife to a man makes me nauseous, I love being my partner’s wife. Being a butch’s girl is the absolute best thing in life.

Being a femme means feeling different on the inside even though you don’t look any different to other people. Straight women will often assume I’m one of them, but I always know I’m not. Sometimes a coworker will say something to me about a man being handsome, and I just feel surprised and confused. How do they know? It seems arbitrary to me, deciding which men are handsome. To me, they just look like men. But show me a photo of k.d.lang and I’ll need a fainting couch to swoon onto.

I’m still exploring what it means to be femme, and it really helps when other lesbians talk about their experience.

Thanks for the video, Mainely Butch!

Olive Yang, butch hero

I was very pleased to come across this article about an Asian butch lesbian named Olive Yang, who spend her life as a cross-dressing warlord.

From the New York Times:

“MUSE, Myanmar — She was born to royalty in British colonial Burma, but rejected that life to become a cross-dressing warlord whose C.I.A.-supplied army established opium trade routes across the Golden Triangle. By the time of her death, last week at 90, she had led hundreds of men, endured prison and torture, generated gossip for her relationship with a film actress and, finally, helped forge a truce between ethnic rebels and the government.

Olive Yang grew up as one of 11 children in an ethnic Chinese family of hereditary rulers of what was then the semiautonomous Shan state of Kokang. According to relatives, she wore boys’ clothes, refused to bind her feet and frequently fell in love with her brothers’ romantic interests.

Concerned about their unconventional daughter, her parents arranged for her to marry a younger cousin. Shortly after she became pregnant, archives show, she left her husband to pursue a life among opium-trafficking bandits. Her son, Duan Jipu — named for the American jeeps Ms. Yang had seen in the Chinese city of Kunming during World War II — was raised by other family members.

Ms. Yang’s pursuit of a career as a militia leader and opium smuggler grew in part out of her desperation to escape traditional gender roles, her relatives said.”

Now, I’m not trying to say that leading the illegal drug trade is heroic, but defying traditional gender roles is. I am proud of this woman for escaping from a marriage she didn’t want and dressing how she wanted and pursuing relationships with women. Her bravery reminds me of Joan of Arc. Long live gender rebels!

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.

Must-watch film: Gender Troubles—The Butches

I finally got to see Gender Troubles: The Butches after a whole year of waiting! This film has been made available for the next two weeks for free as an International Women’s Day present! It can be accessed here.

Gender Troubles: The Butches is a documentary that interviews five butch lesbians on a variety of issues affecting butch lesbians. Here is the filmmaker’s statement:

“I felt a need to make this film because as a butch lesbian myself I have experienced so much isolation. I often felt that I was the only one like this. Growing up in a rural area I had no role models. I could not find a future for myself in the women in my life. Not in my family. Not among friends or at school. Not in the adults in my world. Not in newspapers, magazines, television or the movies. I was left to figure it all out by myself. I don’t want other butches, especially younger ones, to feel like they have to go through it all alone too.

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was in my 20s after college I discovered others similar to myself there. I was relieved. But 30 years later I still find that many of the myths and stereotypes about butches like us persist. We are still battling for our right to exist and to be ourselves. Insults, insinuated or shouted, still occur. I continue to find degrading caricatures of people like me. Realistic and positive images of butches are still lacking in the media.

My butch friends had gone through many similar situations but we had rarely shared our stories, often out of shame. As a result we didn’t know how common our experiences were. And we had been under the erroneous impression that we each had to bear these burdens alone. My butch friends inspired me to do something for us and to acknowledge and appreciate our own lives.

So with the help of my friends, we made this film to validate other butches, most whom we would never meet, and to let them know that we know what it is like. They aren’t the only ones. We have been there too and they are fine just the way they are.

With this film I feel we are like the citizens of Dr. Seuss’s Whoville who shout all together
​“We are here! We are here! We are here!” so we can be heard and claim our space.”

I am so happy to see positive, authentic representation of a group of butch lesbians who are proud and happy with who they are. What a treat!