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Riki Wilchins

Op-ed: Where Have All the Butches Gone?

Op-ed: Where Have All the Butches Gone?


In defense of resilient butches or effeminate fairies.

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.

In the '70s it seemed like to be transsexual was to be male-to-female. Even the doctors reported that they saw three or four MTFs for every FTM. Being transgender, it seems, was largely (if not exclusively) something for those of us who were XY.

But that turned out to be largely an artifact of surgery and history. The first tiny waves of trannies who came out as such -- from the early, early Christine Jorgenson to the later but still early Jan Morris. And it is simply (and unfortunately) much more practical to do MTF "bottom surgery" than FTM.

As the boundaries of transgender began to shift with new visibility and activism -- and it became more acceptable to live as your correct sex with or without a complete surgical makeover -- suddenly the numbers of FTMs skyrocketed. The guys started showing up at the same doctors' and clinics as the gals. And among them were many who had lived for years as butches.

The effect was the disappearance of a broad slice of a whole generation of butches from the lesbian community that Joan bemoaned.

Where have all the butches gone?

This was the same question I asked myself throughout the rise of trans activism. When transgender people were attacked, where were the butches and femmes? As the part of the gay community most identified with gender and affected by gender intolerance, why were they never there showing solidarity? Why were they never organized? Why was there never a specifically butch/femme voice seeking political representation, visibility, and recognition? There were certainly butch/femme organizations, but all the ones I knew of were social or historical in nature.

For that matter, where were all the effeminate gay men? There were the Radical Faeries (not to mention the cheeky Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence), but again they were mostly personal and social, lacking any political edge or political agenda.

This was an important question, because in past decades the visible face of the gay community was the butches, fairies, and drag queens.

They were the ones your mom and mine "just knew" were gay. They were the ones who were "visibly queer," who embarrassed more closeted gays and made straight people uncomfortable. They were what "obvious homosexuals" looked like before we all were promoted to good, normal gays.

Perhaps more to the point, they were the ones who couldn't or wouldn't pass as heterosexual, and too many of them had scars -- both psychological and physical -- to show for it.

For many years, the now-defunct GenderPAC fought a long and difficult effort to keep our political activism "gender rights" instead of "transgender rights" so the movement was open and accessible to those nontransgender gays who were gender-queer -- in other words, for people who never showed up.

Where have all the butches gone?

This was also the question I asked myself as I sat among 200 folks drawn from the very top of the pyramid of gay political leaders at one of the country's largest liberal foundations last month.

Sitting around me was everybody who was anybody for broad ranging discussions of the past, present, and future of the modern LGBTQ movement.

We talked about all the identities in the rainbow -- gay men, bisexuals, transgender kids, lesbians.

Everyone, that is, except for butches and fairies. In some ways, it was a fascinating display of communal myopia. It was as if all adult gayness was gender-normative, except for transgender people and a few gender-fluid kids.

Our politics still resembles our dating website profiles: "no butches" for women and "straight-looking and -acting only" for men.

Gender-phobia is still at the heart of modern gay consciousness and gay pride. There may be private acceptance of gender difference, but when it comes to political visibility, for all intents we may as well be straight.

I no longer expect gay leaders to discuss butchness or effeminacy, but I find it sad and amazing that even the butches and fairies in the room never mention gender oppression as an important facet of gay politics -- theirs or anyone else's.

Where have all the butches gone?

Until we are less embarrassed to be gender-queer, we will not find them. They will remain invisible, hidden in plain sight, even though they are all around and in front us. In fact, those strong, silent butches are there, right over there ... right next to all those sweet, effeminate fairies. But we won't notice them, and they won't ask for our political notice either.

RIKI WILCHINS is an author and activist.

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Riki Wilchins