A Dying Breed: Navigating Butch/Femme After the Death of Leslie Feinberg

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When word reached me on Monday afternoon that Leslie Feinberg had died, I felt as though the air had been ripped from my lungs. Perched on a couch in the women’s studies lounge after my morning class, I read the text message from my partner and found myself speechless, and then compelled to speech – who could I tell who would understand the depth of loss I was feeling in this moment? While it would seem that a women’s studies department would be an ideal place to mourn the loss of such an important queer writer and activist, instead I struggled to pin down a classmate among those filtering in and out of the lounge who might understand how I was feeling. Even the faculty I spoke to did not know ze had been ill. In what could have been a moment of community gathering, I felt deeply alone. I felt the weight of a significant political shift.

The reality is that Feinberg’s death is not just a devastating loss for many in the LGBT community, but also that this moment marks something of an historical turning point in the world of identity. An old school butch who came up in bars and factories, Feinberg was one of a dying breed. Ze and hir partner, poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, were an old school butch/femme couple. And while Pratt survives (an icon in her own right), I find myself asking, where can young butches and femmes look now and see themselves reflected back? Standing here in my mid-twenties, butch/femme seems to be a sadly waning culture.

Gay Pride Day

I pose this question with the fact in mind that there are simply fewer and fewer young queer folks of my generation who identify with the historic butch/femme paradigm. I myself stumbled into femme identity sometime around 2010 after spending high school and the beginning of college mucking around with unsatisfying and unsuccessful androgyny and a general inclination towards the masculine, though not particularly butch, all for the sake of visibility. After that, femme was a blessing, an identity that slipped on naturally. I donned it gratefully. Since then, although I have found pockets of young femmes in places like Tumblr, the primary personal presentation style among my peers continues to lean towards the same androgyny I couldn’t make fit. It was not uncommon at my women’s college to perform a double take at the passing of a preteen boy, easily mistaking them for queer college girls. Androgyny seems to be the modern model. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t what I want or who I am. Moreover, it isn’t where we come from.

Butch/femme came along with a certain necessity in earlier decades. Without it, you were illegible in the bar scene, raising suspicion that perhaps you were an intruder, liable to be reporting illegal activitiessuch as dancing with a partner of the same sexto the police. This mode of coupling was also in many ways an economic necessitythe illegibility of femmes as lesbians helped them maintain job security in ways that were difficult for butches to attain. Somewhat later, second wave feminism caused butch/femme to take a political hit as femmes were accused of buying into the patriarchy, butches of aping men, and the butch/femme pairing of cleaving too closely to the model of heterosexual couples. This didn’t mean that butch/femme went away, but the criticisms were strong. Indeed, the second wave marks one of the early moments during which androgyny became something of the rule for gender.

Certainly I would not claim that butches and femmes have since disappeared; at the very least, both groups typically have biannual conferences (though the femme conference organization collapsed this past year). But the reality is that when I look for butches and femmes in the world around me, the vast majority are at least a decade older than I am, often more. Part of this I think is symptomatic of a kind of queer/lesbian rift. Butch/femme is a lesbian identity at its core, and that is a significant part of what I love about it. I love the connection it gives me to the past, the trappings of my femme gender presentation, and the self-styling of the few butches I know. I love the solidarity with other femmes, our subversion of what people tend to think of when they think of lesbians, and the love we give as much to each other as to butches. My queer friends and classmates can call me a dupe of the patriarchy if they like (and getting engaged to a butch didn’t help my case any), but every day that I live this identity, I work to undermine the patriarchy’s sense of unlimited access to my body as a woman. My loyalties lie with other lesbians and that can’t be taken away.

Radclyffe Hall

I think here it may be worth making an important distinction between queer and lesbian. Both terms map onto Feinberg, who described hirself as a transgender lesbian, but the correlation is not one to one. I often self-identify with both queer and lesbian, but if pressed, I would tell you that I am a lesbian first, that my loyalties to movement history and the battle it took to occupy lesbianism with some degree of safety is something I cannot reject or subjugate to queerness. Certainly queerness has its own battles, but I cannot in good faith sign on to much of radical queer politics anymore. I have watched my generation of radical queers tear down too many vital lesbian figures in the face of their deaths, and I will not participate in thatAdrienne Rich reduced to her citation in a Janice Raymond book, for example, and now Feinberg appropriated as a transmisogynist because ze was female-bodied and identified as transgender and a lesbian (despite, for example, all of hir activism in support of CeCe McDonald, even while critically ill). These politics are shortsighted and historically and culturally irresponsible. I place my loyalties, then, with lesbianism.

Still, the question remains, what is a young butch or femme to do in the face of Feinberg’s death? Part of why my mourning for Feinberg runs so deep is that Stone Butch Blues describes so acutely what it means for me to be in the world, even though I am femme and not butch. I have sobbed over this book, hearing deeply the resonances in Feinberg’s novel (which is highly autobiographical) and what my partner tells me about their gender. Reading of the violence the main character Jess faces, I would sit and worry over my partner’s safety. I felt the tenderness between Jess and various femmes in the book acutely. The text is a roadmap to my own desires, my own hopes and fears as a young lesbian. I may not occupy the space of the 1950s bar, but I know the moments that stir up fear in me, know when I close my mouth to the truth of my being. I know it is still not always safe for my partner to move through space as a gender non-conforming person. Some things haven’t changed.

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We need to build up those ties to history while we still can. We need to connect across generations. I have held contentious and painful conversations with older lesbians who came up in the bars who think that my generation’s affiliations with queerness are a way of disregarding all the work they’ve done. I want to step forward and say that I haven’t forgotten, that I know the stories, but would love to hear them again, first hand. I have read Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. I have made my way through Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold—but I want more. Feinberg was an icon and will remain one, but I think young butches and femmes have the responsibility to raise up new role models. And the best way to do that is by talking and sharing. By reaching across the often restrictive boundaries that separate us from our elders. I want older butches and femmes to know that as grateful as I am for Feinberg’s life and work, I am also grateful for theirs.

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