Op-ed: Where Have All the Butches Gone?

In defense of resilient butches or effeminate fairies.

BY Riki Wilchins

January 14 2013 5:32 AM ET

When I was doing more public speaking, I used to do a little experiment. I’d be asked to address gay groups on the problem of gender. As they all looked at me expectantly, I would invite them to discuss their problem with gender.

This inevitably drew a lot of blank looks, especially with all-male groups.

So I would ask them, “How many of you are gay?”

They would all proudly raise their hands, proudly. Then I’d ask, “How many of you are bottoms?”

Everyone’s hand went down, fast. Really fast. So fast, in fact, that all the oxygen was suddenly sucked out of the room and we all had problems breathing.

Then they’d all look at the one self-identified fairy who still had his hand up and laugh. Apparently gay male communities are composed entirely of tops and tough guys. No wonder dating is so difficult!

And then I’d ask them, what was so humiliating, even here in the 21st century, to admit that just once — you were young, drunk, didn’t know what you were doing — just that once you were ... a catcher instead of a pitcher?

And it was the gender thing. Being a bottom meant taking the “woman’s role” in bed. No one wanted to admit to that publicly. No one wanted to be recognized as being any way visibly womanly, of being gender-nonconforming. That was stretching gay pride too far.

Where have all the butches gone?

This question was first posed to me by Joan Nestle, who was personally responsible for resuscitating butch/femme in the 1980s after it had fallen into the dustbin of political correctness (yes, it did seen like nearly all lesbians — urban or country — dressed in plaid shirts and boots for a while).

As a bone-deep femme herself, she was not referring to an absence of butch-identified women, but the sudden disappearance — as in a mass, silent, migration — of vast numbers of them from the lesbian community.

In a sense, she was a victim of both her own success,and the advances of medical science. While she made it safer for tens of thousands to embrace their inner butch, the emergence of transgender activism — and the new proliferation of vitamin T (testosterone) made it possible for a significant minority to embrace their inner FTM as well.

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