Not an Odalisque

Stone Butch Blues, Today

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I have been reading ‘Stone Butch Blues’. When I first saw the title—browsing the library catalogue for books on butch/femme identity and trans issues—I thought it was a musician’s autobiography; I had to go all the way back to the library when I realised my mistake. For those of you as ignorant as me, it’s the story of a butch lesbian in 1960s America, and it’s full of oppression, systemized violence and rape. Her lovers are prostitutes and the gay bars are danger zones. It’s a story about being on the fringes of society, and, for some characters, losing grip on society’s tassels entirely.

I have a sense that this experience should speak to me, as part of lesbian history. The freedom I have now, to kiss a girl in the street, was won by people like her returning to the gay bar, night after night, in the knowledge that if the police come—and one day they will—she’ll be beaten and raped. In a sense she did it for me, yet her fierce identity, her need to refer to all lesbians as ‘butches’ or ‘femme’s (nouns, not adjectives), her intensity, alienates me.

Reading Emma Donoghue’s ‘Passions Between Women’, on the other hand, which explores lesbian identity in eighteenth century Britain, I have a sense of fun, a sense that, in those circumstances, I would form a ‘romantic friendship’ and pen pastorals to my love. I would marry a woman dressed as a man, or do many of the numerous, ingenious things women who loved women did to make room for their passion in a restrictive society. The penalties for such behaviour were not heavy. Female husbands, for example, were generally tried for fraud (as the ‘male’ partner, they owned the wife’s property). In 1694 one was sentenced:

She was ordered to Bridewell to be well whipt and kept to hard labour till further order of the court.

Donoghue notes that,

The punishment, too, sounds mild, in the context of the period, when pickpocketing and rape were hanging matters….there is no record of executions in Britain or America. When British female husbands received any punishment, it was typically a matter of six months in jail and a symbolic exposure.

Adjusting for the harshness of the era (with a lack of subtlety that probably has Foucault spinning in his grave), British lesbians of 300 years ago were afforded more self-expression than American lesbians 50 years ago, and if they wore a suit they did it to create a private space for their love, rather than to slot into an inflexible butch identity. That freedom may be why I feel more affinity to eighteenth century lesbians than I do to the Stone Butch crowd.

I didn’t grow up in a world where lesbians were seriously oppressed. My mother’s cousin used to come to visit, wearing black trousers and doc martens, she leant me tomes on feminist theory, and lived with her best friend. My school had an openly lesbian head teacher, in addition to the obligatory P.E. coven. The head teacher was terrifying, respectable, and given to reading out long passages by Julian of Norwich on Monday mornings. She was in no way transgressive.

Did I find it difficult admitting I like women? Sometimes. Have I played the pronoun game? Absolutely. I’m not worried about retribution, though, I’m just overcome by the weight of misunderstanding.

In my forays into mainstream society, the assumptions about me are so great and so many that I don’t know where to begin changing them. I’m a woman, so I must be obsessed about my weight, elated when complimented on my looks, scared of strange men, reassured by the protective presence of male acquaintances. I must demand monogamy, probably against the instincts of my male lover, I must prefer sweet white wine to real ale, I must want a desk job, and refuse to consider one that involves lifting files (thanks, recruitment agent, for that).

Not everyone makes these assumptions, but enough people do, often enough, that fighting it feels futile. When someone says, “you look good, you must have lost weight,” I could say, “I looked good beforehand, and in any case I have no interest in weight as a measure of beauty, given the socio-economic factors determining both,” or I could be polite and change the subject. When I say I have a date and everyone assumes it’s with a man, or when I say my partner has a date and everyone assumes it’s with a woman, frankly, there are bigger things I’ve let slide.

Which is all to say, the world hasn’t recognised my sexual identity and given me a card and some balloons, and I’m ok with that. In this particular kettle of fish, my sexuality is a sardine to the giant tuna of other aspects of my life. What of ‘Stone Butch Blues’? Well, I’m glad they did it. Maybe it’s because they fought so hard that I’m able to put my energies into frying bigger fish. Maybe I’m missing something important, about how things were different in America, about what it means to be lesbian and working class, and maybe I’ll learn those things if I keep reading. I’m curious, though, about how everyone else feels about our history. Do you feel some affinity for their pain, or are we so far beyond it, that the historical lesbians we identify with have to be the ones with pluck, breeches, poetry and cutlasses?

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Written by Not an Odalisque

July 15, 2012 at 12:48 pm

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