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: 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!

All that and a woman, too

Sometimes lesbians are asked “If you are attracted to someone who looks like a man, why not just be with a man?” Luckily I have never been asked this ridiculous question, but I see it being brought up by lesbian writers on a regular basis, so there are obviously some dummies still asking it. I have been pondering what my answer would be. If I love masculinity on women, then why don’t I like men? Of course, there is a really obvious answer to that question, which is I’m not interested in men because I’m a lesbian, duh. But you know me, I never answer a question with only one sentence.

To answer this question, I’m actually going to quote a commenter from an earlier thread who made a comment about how a butch lesbian is “all that and a woman too.” Her comment can be found here.  Although she was talking about a specific situation with a couple of people she knows, one who transitioned and one who remained lesbian, her comment really struck me as a great starting point to explain what I love about butches. Butches are “all that and a woman, too.”

A long time ago, I attempted to be heterosexual. This experiment didn’t work. I never felt romantic love for a man, and never felt satisfied in bed. There was always something missing. The first time I fell in love with a woman, as an adult, she was a straight woman, and even though this wasn’t a real relationship, I discovered the power a woman has to fill my heart with love and also the power she has to break me. For the first time in my life I found myself hopelessly under the spell of love and only able to describe how I felt in poetry. It took me several years to disentangle myself from her, but I had to, because she was straight and wanted a man. With my new awareness that I wanted a woman, I set out to find the lesbians.

I casually dated a few women and nothing lasted very long until I met my current partner. The first time I saw her it was at a gender and sexuality conference. She stood out as the most blatantly gay woman in the room. I remember exactly how she looked that day and I was intrigued. Of course I saw her again, and this time I caught her eye too. I didn’t know back then that I was looking for a butch. I just knew she was hot and we had an immediate, intense attraction. Over the years I have come to understand the meaning of butch and femme by hearing about it from other lesbians.

I’m someone who usually felt comfortable learning how to do “girly” activities, and I certainly noticed sexism as I was growing up, but it didn’t feel odd or wrong to me to learn how to cook or sew, and that’s what I was taught. I’m still quite in a rage that I wasn’t taught things like woodworking and fixing things, because these are useful skills for anyone and the reason I wasn’t taught those is because I was a girl.

My partner grew up in the exact same world with the exact same gender roles but she couldn’t pretend to like stereotypically girl activities. Instead, she did what the boys did, and learned how to fix all sorts of things from her uncle.  Her mother, having grown up on a farm in Europe during WWII, was a significant influence on encouraging her independence and interest in non-traditional roles.  That encouragement meant having to take up tasks not traditionally considered female in Western society and doing “men’s” work around the house. Although she had the support of her mother in doing “men’s” work, she did not find much support in the wider world.

Being a nonconforming woman within the strict gender roles of North America has not been easy for her, but it was the only way for her to be. By the time I met her, she had become a warrior woman, a woman who had paved her own way into male-dominated fields, fighting off sexism and homophobia every step of the way. She had earned the right to call herself butch.

I find her strength and warrior spirit endlessly inspiring, charming, endearing, and sexy. I feel safe when I’m with her because I know she is strong, and she can protect me from anything because she has already spent a lifetime protecting herself.

I am strong in some ways. I have an inner strength of character that gets me through difficult situations, but my most obvious characteristic is not strength, but sweetness. I have many of the character traits that society views as feminine, like caring, compassion, and sensitivity. I balance out my partner’s warrior spirit with the softness that life has never given her.

When I read Stone Butch Blues and I see how the femmes took care of butches who had been beaten up by homophobic thugs and cops I see myself in those femme characters. The world out there tells my partner she’s in the wrong bathroom, calls her an “it” and gives her frightened looks, but when I see her I don’t see a freak of nature, I see a fantastic, inspirational woman, and I heap enough love on her to make up for all their hate.

I love how she doesn’t need a man to do anything for her, she does it herself. She can fix her own sink, change her own tire, build her own furniture, and fix broken electronics. She can do all these things because she has always been interested in knowing how and that’s what she has learned. I love how she does all these things way better than men do. Men often do a half-assed job and she does it carefully and gets it right. I find it so charming and adorable when I complain that something is broken and she whips out her solder and heat gun and fixes it. I never have any idea she even owns these tools, or even what they are, but she pulls them out and fixes the thing. It’s funny sometimes, like, duh, she’s a butch — of course she has a tool for that. I wouldn’t have any idea where to even start!

We don’t intentionally try to imitate heterosexuality, as some feminists claim about butch/femme couples. We do whatever we are interested in, regardless of what gender role it falls into. I have described her ability to work with tools, because that’s “masculine,” but the truth is she also does most of the cleaning around the house, so if she’s trying to imitate the traditional husband’s role she’s not doing a good job of that! And if she is out of the house and a light bulb goes out, I don’t wait for her to get home so she can change it, I just change it myself. I am not trying to play the role of helpless damsel in distress! Butch/femme is not about the artificial and intentional performance of gender roles, it’s about pair-bonding with someone whose natural personality complements yours.

She brings something out in me that men cannot. She brings out my cute, flirty self, my affection, and my sweetness. She brings this out in me because I love her and there is an energy flow between us that pulls a feminine side out of me to complement her masculine side. Men do not do this to me. Around men I am quite unmoved, indifferent, and businesslike. No instinct to flirt and be cute comes to me from being around men.

The reason I react to her the way I do is because she is a woman, and I’m attracted to women. Homosexuals are attracted to a sex, not a gender. Even though I like masculinity on women, I only like masculinity if it’s on women. I don’t like any gender at all on men, because I’m not interested in men.

I love being partnered to a woman who can do all the things that a man can do (better than a man could, actually) while still being a woman. I love that she has never been able to fit into society’s idea of what a woman is. I love that she stands out as obviously gay and I love being obviously gay when I’m with her. I don’t understand when some women want their butch partners to “tone it down.” I would never want my partner to change who she is and I wouldn’t want her to tone down exactly what makes me attracted to her. And I certainly don’t want her to be a man nor do I see her as a man. I love that she is “all that and a woman too.”