Book review: “Butch is a Noun” by S. Bear Bergman

Upon recommendation from fellow blogger The Butch (thanks man!) I found another lovely queer book to read: Butch is a Noun (BiaN). The author, Bear, goes into all the ways ze does gender, and I can’t help but hear echoes of Stone Butch Blues, if only because both butches are products of similar societies: both are from New England Jewish roots, and both resist femininity with all their strength. Not only that, but (though SBB does this only tangentially) both books address variety within the butch community: butches who are women, butches who are transmasculine, butches who are men, butches who love other butches, and the oppression they face from within the community.

Now I feel like these books were a product of a much more heteronormative era than we are living in right now, so I don’t relate to much of it. The chivalry. The glorification of performing gender to the point of impracticality. But both books also address the need for such posturing, stemming from the the external pressures to be a certain way all the time, to be consistent in one’s gender, to be always reinforcing gender roles even while defying them.

SBB talks mostly about being one kind of butch, about the pain of existing in an era where norms were violently enforced by the police, about fighting for civil rights and workers’ rights and the struggles of the working class. It was about how civil rights, for workers and for LGBT people, were sometimes one and the same. It was about all these things, and Leslie’s personal identity underwent very little questioning or change. Ze was a butch through and through, refusing dresses, dating femmes, working manual labor jobs. And ze was repeatedly forced to fight for and justify zir existence.

BiaN is about a slightly different life. Bear alludes to rough and even violent experiences, but with the help of hir family and butch brotherhood, she is fortunate enough to write a book that focuses more on the positive aspects of butchness. Absent are the bar raids and police rapes in SBB. Butchness has evolved. Ze alludes to ever-present violence, to butches hardening up as they get older, to the stress of daily interactions; but by and large ze focuses hir writing on the glorification of masculinity, of femininity, of butch/femme dynamics, of a romantic dynamic so often underrepresented in the media.

I will say I still don’t identify with the book’s old-school gender dynamics. Back when I was dating men, wearing dresses and wearing my hair long, I still didn’t find it necessary for people to open car doors for me, to protect me from mud, to carry my groceries, pay for dinner. It made me angry. I learned later to be grateful, to not assume the worst of the male/butch party in these situations, and to just say thank you and slip into the car seat with a smile. But my dad never did any of that stuff for my mom, she didn’t seek it, and we never discussed it: those gender dynamics feel stilted and uncomfortable. So to find a whole queer subculture glorifying these gender dynamics felt surprising to me. And that’s when I realized some people LIKE being treated this way.

Maybe I’m too much a product of my upbringing. My parents are about the same height; my dad is marginally stronger than my mom; they both worked for comparable salaries their whole lives. There was no butch/femme at home. My mom is capable and active and doesn’t wear makeup; my dad does not peacock his masculinity. So for me, the model for masculinity and the model for femininity are hardly different. Maybe I’d have felt differently in a more gender-divergent household. But then I look at my brothers, so comfortable in their masculinity, and I realize we all have multiple influences shaping our gender experiences. But I was always closer to my parents than my brothers were; it’s inevitable that their gender dynamic would play a role in shaping my own experience.

Or maybe it’s because I generally fit into femininity when I want to, and as a result never had to assert my identity as otherwise; Feinberg and Bergman certainly faced much more othering as children, and as a result, discovering who they were rather than who they weren’t created in their butch identity a sense of pride that is freshly asserted every time they interact with the world as a masculine creature. In their time, I would have been a “femme”.

But as far as masculine-feminine goes, and this is something I just never ever related to, both books portray romance between masculine and feminine as this electric dynamic, that being your partner’s opposite was very much a desirable thing, whereas I always struggled with that in romance. The thing about this is that Bear is in fact married to a man. Ze alludes to being a butch who likes other butches, boys, men, masculine humans of various identities, at the beginning… and then waxes poetic about femmes for page upon page, and then squeezing in a few pages about butch-on-butch. To have a feminist masculine writer talk about femmes with such admiration and respect is wonderful and enjoyable to read, for sure; but the balance of butch/femme and butch/butch was skewed heavily toward the former. I’d been looking forward to some more discussion about butch/butch as a complementary presence to the butch/femme, but there was little besides the chapter calling Bear out on the unequal attention to the two dynamics. I eventually started skimming over the parts that were painting flowery word-pictures about butch masculinity and femme femininity because there was so much of it there; almost as if the book itself was conforming. Nevertheless, this is a personal gripe, and it was all very well-done.

Aside from not identifying with their perception of gender dynamics, both Feinberg and Bergman are from New England Jewish upbringings. I didn’t completely identify with Feinberg though because of her working class roots; I was unquestioningly going to college and they forbade me from doing menial summer jobs because we didn’t need the money (though I wanted to because I wanted to feel needed and I was ashamed that I had privilege). Feinberg’s descriptions of factory work and the need for unions and union politics was completely new and eye opening for me. But I thought I’d have more in common with Bergman, because Boston-area judaism has a kind of commonality. It turns out that her family’s synagogue-going habits (vs. my family’s lack thereof) and her family’s gender dynamics and her mother’s pressure on her to perm her hair and wear makeup… these are not things I can relate to at all. Her family sounded wealthier than mine, and indeed in my hometown there was a great divide between us first-generation Israeli kids and the rest of the jewish kids, as well as a divide between the upper-class jewish kids and the middle-class jewish kids. There were many differences that came up yet again in BiaN.

I think more than anything BiaN made me realize how much heterogeneity there is even within that community; my identity as a Boston-area jew intersects with my first-generational status and my middle-class suburban status and, of course, my femme-ish status.

Tl;dr: Reading books about experiences other than one’s own is incredibly eye opening. I found Butch is a Noun to be a wonderful read to follow Stone Butch Blues. The two books are complementary pictures of female-assigned masculinity. I’d love to pick up a book about femme-ness next, or some other female-assigned masculinity besides butchness, to see the queer world through a fresh set of eyes that have seen their own unique challenges. Right now, I give this book a solid thumbs up.

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Thoughts on “Stone Butch Blues”

Alright so I read Stone Butch Blues. 5/5 stars. Two and two-thirds thumbs up. 1 out of 1 queer nerds interviewed have described this book as “uber duber compelling”.

True to its title, it’s about a stone butch. True to its title, it’s chockfull of the blues.

The book does an amazing job showing the rise of the lesbian subculture, the evolution of feminism, and the isolation of growing up different. If you’re at all gender-nonconforming, if you embody female masculinity or masculine femininity or transmasculinity or transfemininity or any of those permutations, you have to read it. Scratch that; if you’re a person, you should read it.

Things are tough for Jess, who grows up in Buffalo, NY in the 50s/60s, in a working-class Jewish family. Violence, police brutality and corruption, and economic constraints on non-conforming people abound. Butches of all kinds are represented: straight butches, gay butches, transmasculine butches, butch-loving butches; but most of all, femme-loving butches. Femmes are well-represented, butches of color, transwomen, gay men, drag queens, etc. Police brutality and corruption is called out bigtime. At the intersection of labor rights and gay rights and radical feminism, the main character, Jess, comes into their own. Jess discovers and works to overcome their own conservatism as well: double standards concerning gender roles, gender identity, gender expression. Having found a home and a family amidst the hardcore exclusive butch/femme culture, they struggle to transcend the idea that it is the only way to be lesbian.

I don’t identify as butch, so the book spoke to me differently than it would to butch-identified people, but it’s powerful and awesome no matter how you identify. It finds a place for everyone, no matter how they identify, and how diversity strengthened the gay rights movement. And they bring up the difficulties of being butch-loving butches, or straight butches, or butches who wish they could be with men but struggle to find acceptance anywhere they can, and so they try to blend into the lesbian community. Everyone struggles to fit in somehow and to find a label that will provide them with comfort. As Jess confronts this, and struggles with their own rejection after spending years passing as male, their world opens up.

A whole lot of stuff is brought up in the book. If you get the opportunity, pick up a copy. The landscape of LGBTQ life is so different today, Stone Butch Blues is an important reminder of how the world we live in today came to be. 

Man, I’d probably be the bane of the butch/femme lifestyle’s existence, because I’m neither/nor for so many things. How on earth would I have been pinned down?! And back then, not being able to be pinned down was a dangerous thing, because you’d lose your community and your safety blanket. But nowadays, us non-binary, non gay/straight folks are lucky that not only is there space in the queer community, but also in the world at large (for the most part). Separatism is far from over, but it’s fading, and I like it. Because there’s nobody exactly like me. There’s probably nobody exactly like you, either. And to not be tossed out because of it… that’s a beautiful thing.

“Where the bois are” in NYMagazine evokes conflicting feelings, leaves much unanswered

This article about boi culture in NYMagazine is a really interesting read. Although this article covers a subculture that’s filling an important niche in the queer world, this article seems very dismissive and negative to me. Let’s see what lovely truth-nuggets this reporter has uncovered for us!

First off it’s funny when reporters delve into a subculture.

Secondly, the ageism here is really interesting, as is the rejection of queer politics while at the same time embodying the very same gender-defiance that was made possible by a previous generation of gender-rule-breaking women/womyn.

Boihood has nothing to do with earth mothers or sisterhood or herbal tea, and everything to do with being young, hip, “sex positive,” a little masculine, and ready to rock.

Also note how “sex positive” is in quotes: it’s not political sex positivity; it’s sex positivity in a perpetual-teenager sense.

Some hypothetical questions off the top of my head: Is it a positive thing to have this culture where you no longer have to be militantly political 24/7, this sense that most enemies of LGBT society are vanquished? Or is it an excuse to act like kids even into adulthood because growing up is just too hard? Does it come from a positive environment surrounding LGBT acceptance, or is it a result of a negative youth-oriented age-ist culture? Is it a redefinition of female masculinity in the same way effeminate men redefine masculinity? Or is it brattiness?

As one butch interviewed for the article said:

What’s new is seeing these kids who really seem to be striving for a certain kind of juvenilia, not just masculinity. They really want to be kids. This hit me when I saw this girl—this boi, I guess—barreling out of a store in Chelsea in huge, oversize jeans, a backpack, and a baseball cap pulled down low. And she was running as if she were late for the school bus . . . Her whole aura was so completely rough-and-tumble 8-year-old that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had a slingshot in one pocket and a frog in the other.

Whether or not it’s necessarily a bad thing to reject “adult” queer culture is debatable. There does seem to be a flexibility in gender roles that is refreshing: some bois date butches, some date femmes, some date other bois, some transition and use male pronouns, some remain female-identified. It’s become non-political in terms of feminism and homosexuality, but in terms of gender they seem to be filling the spectrum from male to female and bridging the gender gap.

The article seems to have found “one of each” bois with douchey views: one that uses misogynistic rhetoric like “bros before hos”, one that is against transgender bois, one that thinks boi-on-boi or butch-on-butch is gross and that likewise femme-on-femme is “air”, one that thinks “butch-femme” is stupid. They also found a femme who is fed up with bois because of her perception that they represent the feminization of butch women.

Maybe this is a product of too many conflicting expectations put on people within the LGBT community, and a young generation even less concerned with rules and politics than their predecessors. The biggest take-away from this article for me was this subculture is about subverting the binary, generally: masculine-of-center dykes don’t have to be macho butch anymore, and male-identified people don’t have to medically transition anymore. But the other take-away is that this culture is associated with exclusion, artsiness, youth, insolence, and lack of respect for others, which seems to do a disservice to non-binary people who are older, more political, more butch, more femme, more traditional, less traditional, less promiscuous.

This article never purported to seek out a representative sample of lesbians, but it never made clear that not all young LGBT people are like this and that this subculture is a luxury in cities such as NYC and San Fran where politics have become so progressive as to render gay rights virtually obsolete, attracting LGBT youth to a scene promising an escape from the gravity of being outsiders in a heteronormative world.

And at the end of the day, having a less-masculine-yet-still-potentially-male-identified subculture is awesome: people female assigned at birth who transition/don’t transition but identify as male don’t have to prove their masculinity? Awesome!! It’ll be interesting to see how this movement evolves with time and becomes more age-inclusive.

What are your thoughts?

LGBT movie review: “Cloudburst”

So I’m going to try therapy again this week because I literally couldn’t get out of bed til 3 today and it just hurt to get dressed and make coffee. I’ve been too stubborn to let therapy work before, but I think I might be dealing with the big D. (not that. you dirty-minded reader you.)

Since I have been working on my thesis proposal all weekend, I decided to let myself have at least half of today to relax and watch “Cloudburst”, one of my favorite lesbian movies. It’s just cute as f***. To feel more productive, I will write you dudes-in-the-gender-neutral-sense a lovely movie review!

Enjoy.


 

Stella and Dot are two elderly lesbians in their ’70s who live together in a small Maine town. Stella, a foul-mouthed stubborn butch, spends much of her time taking care of Dot, her mostly blind partner of 30 years. Dot appears to be the only person with the patience to put up with Stella’s dirty commentary; while Stella seems to be the only one with the patience to describe the world to blind Dot.

Dot: "What shapes are the clouds?"  Stella: "I see a donkey, pulling two nuns and a beagle."

Dot: “What shapes are the clouds?”
Stella: “I see a donkey, pulling two nuns and a beagle.

One night Dot hurts her back after Stella breaks out a vibrating dildo. Nobody taught them about safe sex. Dot’s granddaughter, Molly, wants to put her in a nursing home, fearing any worse injury. Stella chases her out of the house with hot tea and flour.

Dot: The doctor says it will be six weeks before you can slap my ass again.

Molly, who seems to have a lot of denial about her grandma being a lesbian (oh honey…), tricks Dot into signing a contract to put her in a nursing home.

Molly’s boyfriend tries to explain why Stella cares so much that they’re taking Dot away to the Bangor, ME nursing home. Molly remains oblivious.

Tommy: They’re clam smashers!

Molly: They have clams in Bangor!

Molly’s policeman boyfriend is not entirely cooperative, but is completely whipped and so managed to get Dot into the car. He gets this lovely visual, courtesy of Stella:

I’m not your grandmother, Tommy Warkovsky. But I did get to second base with her… in the 7th grade!!

Oh Tommy how will you sleep at night?

Stella proceeds to break Dottie out of the nursing home, and they decide to get married in Nova Scotia so that Stella can get legal custody of Dot.

Stella: "It's like being 9 years old all over again."  Nursing home security guard: "Hey, I don't make the rules." Stella: "That's what Joseph Goebbels said!"

Stella: “It’s like being 9 years old all over again.”
Nursing home security guard: “Hey, I don’t make the rules.”
Stella: “That’s what Joseph Goebbels said!”

Dot and Stella pick up Prentice, a young trampy hitchhiker from New York City; Stella’s foul mouth gets them into trouble repeatedly on their quest to get married. Hilarity, tragedy, tenderness, and cunnilingus jokes ensue.

Stella, talking about going down on K.D. Lang; Dottie rolling her eyes; Prentice taking it all in stride.

Stella, talking about going down on K.D. Lang; Dottie rolling her eyes; Prentice taking it all in stride.

I love the movie because it’s not just about an immature 70 year old lesbian marrying a grandma; it’s not about two women fending off homophobic family. It’s not about a grandma coming out to her granddaughter. It’s about all these things; but it’s also about getting older and the form that life and relationships take when you know yourself inside and out. It gets cheesy, it gets hokey, it tries hard to make heavy moments light; but overall the movie is really uplifting and adds some much-needed diversity to the lesbian movie repertoire.

 

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Stella: Some days you live for the future, the one you imagine, even though you know it’s never gonna happen. If you’re ever lucky enough to have a perfect day, don’t let go of it. Paint a picture of it. If you ever have a perfect day, hold on to it like it’s your dick.

The movie is available on Netflix, and is 93 minutes long.