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.