No one is told they are a baby man. Or a baby woman. You’re a baby. Then a boy. Or a girl. Then a man or a woman.
It’s different with butch. With femme. I cling to these two categories the way we cling to a 2-party political system. We know that there are so many other ontological possibilities. I know that queer oedipality has rendered these categories moot. Still, I put so much hope and longing into what they could possibly be and do for us, and then the heartbreak, inevitable. But I return to this one. I inhabit butch. Warts and all.
But let me get down from the ether and come at you con puro butch cuerpazo. This is an essay burning with the cuerpazo de barrio politics and the everyday gender renegade. It begins with an origin narrative.
I had dropped out of college. It was the third quarter and I still couldn’t pass Geography. The experience felt like a waste of my hard-earned coffee shop barista tip money so I opted to stop going to school and figure myself out before college became another humiliating experience for me. What there was to figure out was endemic to my age. I was an average student in high school, Bs and Cs and lots of rashes from the herringbone skirts I wore and overwrought feelings of forlornness for varieties of otherwise uninterested girls I was madly in love with in 1994. Oh yeah, I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Lakewood, California and the dogmatic monotony sucked the marrow of ambition out of my bones. The last straw was the marriage project, assigned the last semester of my senior year. It was a graduation requirement. I asked if there was another project I could do since I told my teacher, Mr. Reardon, that I had no plans to marry.
I applied to two CSU’s and the University of San Francisco. I got into the public schools. I opted to stay in L.A. I knew I wasn’t ready to venture out to the Bay Area at 18. I could barely tell the truth at 18.
My underachieving in the quarter system and I were not getting along. So I quit school and went to work. First at coffee shop in North Hollywood. Eagle’s Coffee Pub and News Stand. It was right across the street from the Television Arts & Sciences building. I would wait on a lot of famous people like Faye Dunaway, Ed Asner, and Michael Damian who played Danny on the Young and the Restless. Well, I surely was. It was at Eagle’s that I became friends with Beth, a Jewish goth who sang in a twee pop band called Aberdeen. She was obsessed with all things Scottish, especially the Jesus and Mary Chain. Beth and her younger boyfriend, John, were from Palm Desert, lived in North Hollywood in a tiny bachelor apartment that she paid $300 a month for by working at this radio tip sheet, a Soundscan competitor that tracked rock songs on different rock music radio stations across the county. I had confided to Beth many of my same-gender crushes. She had become a close friend. Then my big alcoholic lady boss at the coffee shop began to sexually harass me and the money wasn’t that good so Beth got me a job at her office. I worked in the retail department, calling different record stores across the country and asking why they thought Insane Clown Posse was always their top seller week to week. I was really obsessed with punk and hardcore and indie and emo and riot grrrl and going to places like Jabberjaw and the Alligator Lounge to see bands from all over the States perform. To me live music was an opportunity to imagine a world different than the one I was born into and get away from the doldrums of my family life, not getting into a good college and other failures I felt as a child of immigrants. I was supposed to do better than my parents. Their hopes and dreams emblazoned onto my future and I felt like I had let them down by being really good at being a blossoming little homo. I was also good at knowing about bands and ‘zines and about who was having a fight in our little incestuous punk rock scene of the mid-1990s. I was good at gossip and finding my spot sometimes by force in this wretched little community of DiY-ers.
Beth and I were the only two racially ambiguous young women that presented in almost direct opposition to the normative female and feminine genders in our company. We had dyed black hair, wore band t-shirts, doc Marten boots, black tights and nail polish, sneakers and thrift store scores and flea market finds. Most of the other female bodied people there wore tight jeans, white button down blouses with the top three buttons very unbuttoned and earth tone chunky wedges. And they were blonde. It was rocker lady office casual.
The men that ran the company had a few things in common—they had NRA stickers on their doors alongside the logos of their favorite sports teams and photos of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen. It was a deeply masculinist space, with the clichés that run rampant in these kinds of workplaces. Jimmy Fast, the president of the company, was a renowned Hockey radio personality. He would flaunt his high paying salary by driving large SUVs before they became common on the road and would also fly in his chicken wings straight from Buffalo, New York. He would also hit on most of the blonde white women in the building.
I strived for invisibility at this place. I wanted to hide the fact that I was a young woman. I just wanted to get through every day without attracting any unsolicited remarks about my sexual availability. I just wanted the free music Cds and concert tickets that the environment afforded me. I just was not prepared nor willing to pay for it by engaging the older white men in charge about their various gratuitous desires. I got in trouble once for saying something negative about Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad record. This was a group that didn’t care for the word NO.
At our holiday party on the Sunset strip, I made the mistake of wearing a dress. I wore dresses infrequently. This one that hit the knee but that according to Jimmy Fast’s leering commentary showed my sweet little body. I was 21. I wondered how women did it. How could we put up with this strange and quotidian degradation? I was creeped out and far from having developed the callous of feminine detachment that most of my female-identified friends carry like a badge of valor.
I couldn’t wear a dress any longer.
I was nearing the end of my first year with this company. And I had just experienced my first same-gender heartbreak. The work culture’s toxicity along with my break-up was beginning to weigh on me in ways that drove me to engage in unhealthy behaviors. I was young, not in college, working full-time and hitting those Burbank happy hours to decompress.
But I longed for community. I didn’t know that was what I was missing. I needed to talk about loving and losing another woman. And I didn’t know how to do that until I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Latina Lesbian support group that met every Sunday in East Los Angeles. I had never seen those two words together in newsprint. And I had never really stopped to explore those two words in relation to my identity. So I waited for Sunday. And it came. And I was the first to arrive to the Bienestar in East Los Angeles at four o’clock on the dot where a beautiful Chicana with a curly cascade of black hair received me. She wore a kid-sized guayabera shirt unopened revealing her virgin necklace encased in a piece of stunning turquoise. I wanted to ask her, “Are you a Latina lesbian?” She was devoid of any hipster posturing. Unlike me, I was deeply entrenched in with my highwater black pants, Vans sneakers and navy blue golf jacket. My look was very Ian Svenonius, circa 1992. He was the singer from my favorite band Nation of Ulysses. We didn’t call it hipster back then with venomous rage. And gentrification was just a twinkle in capitalism’s eye.
The first meeting of my new Latina lesbian support group held a dynamic set of intelligent Chicana mujeres. Like, seriously. I was in love with them all. We broke each other’s hearts. Now, I don’t want to break anonymity here, but this group of young artists have gone on to create some of the most stunning art, performance, policy, and scholarship. I met my best friends here and enemies that still make my spirit ache.
We met for about six more Sundays when suddenly, the ferociously sharp femme that ran our meetings announced that our dear group had lost its funding from the organization. At the time I hadn’t realized that lesbian programming would always be cut first in the age of translating AIDS and HIV to our barrio communities. I understood that but in my immaturity resented that reality as I pursued any and all opportunity to explore my identity.
It was losing funding for my lesbian support group that put me on my path to art-making. I found a group of women to vent to, to hold space for, to find that I was not alone and neither were they.