Narrating and negotiating butch and femme : storying lesbian selves in a heteronormative world


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Narrating and negotiating butch and femme : storying lesbian selves in a heteronormative world
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xii, 230 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Crawley, Sara L
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 2002.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 219-229).
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Also available online.
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Statement of Responsibility:
by Sara L. Crawley.

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Copyright 2002


Sara L. Crawley

This dissertation is dedicated to Dianne, Lisa, Jen, Aneeza, and, especially, Barbara, and
all the women-mentors, lovers and friends-who have changed my life so measurably and
so much for the better.


Seven years in the making, this project rests on the shoulders of many people and,

after so much work and dedication from so many, I am compelled to acknowledge each

in sufficient detail. I extend my sincerest thanks, respect and appreciation to each of

them, listed in no particular order.

First, I wish to thank the thirty-seven women who shared their time, ideas, politics

and personal stories with me. Their commitment to feminism, equality and civil rights

overwhelms and inspires me. I know I have not always agreed with each of them, but I

hope each is satisfied that I treated her words with care and utmost concern for her

private thoughts, and for the advancement of lesbian communities and LGBT movements

in general.

I would like to thank the people who supported me administratively and

emotionally through my studies. I have most appreciated the support and joviality of

Kanitra Perry, Paula Ambroso, Dottie Faibisy, and Sheran Flowers. I would also like to

recognize the othermothering and community support of Mrs. Johnson, who asked me

how I did on my first day of teaching, and Lois, who never failed to smile.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who helped me transcribe my interviews

without whose help I would still be working in some dark, cramped room. Much thanks

go to Debbie Wallen, Mark Cohan, Laurel Tripp, Liz Fakazis, Marcela Pineros, and

Rachael Middleton.

Personal, heartfelt thanks go to Mrs. Matthews, my third grade teacher, who first

told me I should get a Ph.D. Never doubt the importance of what you say to an eight-year

old. We are listening.

Many people worked to provide financial opportunities to support my graduate

work. Among those are Art Evans at Florida Atlantic University, Mike Radelet, Barbara

Zsembik, Mary Ann Burg and Angel Kwolek-Folland at the University of Florida, and

Suzanna Rose at Florida International University.

I have collected many mentors and colleagues throughout my graduate studies

who commented on subsections of my work or took the time to chat about my interests.

They include, but are not limited to, Lynn Appleton, Norman Denzin, Carolyn Ellis, Tace

Hedrick, Dorothy Leland, Doni Loseke, Susan Mann, Pat Martin, Aurora Morcillo,

Marcela Pineros, Darin Weinberg, Kath Weston, Tom Wilson, and Barbara Zsembik.

Among the many mentors I have met, I owe the largest debt to the hard work of my

dissertation committee members: Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera, who work tirelessly to

liberate sociology from those who see it so close-mindedly as solely an academic pursuit;

Kim Emery, who pushed me to look far past "the data" to a level of theory that boggles

my mind; Jay Gubrium, whose theory and whose embodied person I have been so

fortunate to know; and, especially, Kendal Broad, who served as teacher, mentor, co-

author, editor, cheerleader, and friend. A special thanks are extended to Connie Shehan

who not only serves as co-author and mentor, but also rescued my dissertation defense by

sitting in as my sixth committee member.

In a cast of hundreds, there are but a few who have cared for my public and

private self as I advanced through graduate school. These are the people who have

sustained me, encouraged me, kicked me in the butt, held me when I cried, listened when

I burst with frustration, and sometimes lent a few bucks when I really needed it.

First, thank you to my parents, Mary and Harold Crawley, who have been the

inspiration for my education and who set the bar for excellence and dedication so high by

their own example. If anyone is solely responsible for setting this goal, it's Mom and

Dad. I continue to shoot for the standard they have achieved in being such amazing


Thanks go also to my sister, Cindy Crawley, for her generous dedication to my

post-Christmas bills for the last several years. Leave it to Nin to understand that a break

in semesters is not a pretty financial thing. I thank her also for pushing me to understand

that straight women work just as hard to get legitimation from the patriarchy.

Many thanks go to the UPI Coons-Mama Kane, Ray, Thomas, Mike, Deb, Paul

and Savannah Kate, Tom, Art, Jerry, Donna, Mark and Doug-for allowing my absence

these past five years. The hardest part of graduate school was missing all of them. I

missed them and my home every day. I will forever regret that I cannot recover those


Of all the people who helped me finish this degree, those who deserve my deepest

appreciation and humblest thanks are the graduate students at the University of Florida

whom I have had the greatest fortune to know. In my graduate training, I most value their

collegial spirit and friendly support through my coursework and teaching training. They

have all kept me (relatively) sane in an insane place. Many thanks go to Chris Faircloth,

Mark Cohan, Eileen O'Brien, Lara Foley, Carla Edwards, Toni McWhorter, Laurel

Tripp, and Leslie Houts (and also Liz Fakazis who shared in my dissertation woes like

any valued member of my cohort). I learned how to teach and how to research from them.

As much as I value my graduate cohort, certain folks supported me far past any

academic experience. Thanks go to Toni McWhorter, who gave me a roof in the toughest

of times. Barnacle was always available with a hug when I needed it. Thanks go

especially to "the family"-Susan Eichenberger, Melanie Wakeman, Lara Foley, Helena

Alden and Barbara Bonanno. They have listened to my ratings, fed me, counseled me,

instructed me, and suffered my often inflated ego on so many occasions. You are the

reason I survived.

Last, a thank you goes to Barbara. She taught me an aesthetic that I never knew.

She is my present and my future.



A CKN OW LED GM EN TS ................................................................................................. iv

A B ST R A C T ....................................................................................................................... xi


LITERA TU RE REV IEW ................................................................................................ 1

A Brief History of Butch and Femme............................................................................. 4
Engaging the D ebates ..................................................................................................... 7
W hat Are Butch And Femm e? .................................................................................... 7
Butch and Femme as Lesbian Gender.................................................................... 7
Butch and Femme as Sexual Identities................................................................... 9
Are Butch and Femme "Real" or Performance? ....................................................... 12
W ho does butch and fem m e? .................................................................................... 16
What Do We Want to Know About Butch and Femme and Who Is Asking the
Q questions? ..................................................................................................................... 20
Community Studies: What's It Like Where You Are? ............................................. 20
Positivists: How Can We Measure Butch and Femme Accurately? ......................... 21
Philosophies, Politics and Theories: Is There a Lesbian Subjectivity? .................... 22
Dyke Description: Let Me Tell You How I Feel ...................................................... 24
Changing the Analysis: Butch and Femme as Narrative Resources for Storying Selves
........................................................................................... ................... ....................... 2 6

METHODOLOGIES OF SELF PRODUCTION.......................................................... 30

Understanding a W orld of Stories................................................................................. 31
N arrating Social Selves................................................................................................. 33
Butch and Femme and Heteronormativity.................................................................... 36
The Coherence of Heteronormativity as a Going Concern........................................... 38
Looking Up at Institutionalized Heteronormativity...................................................... 41
Storying Lesbian Selves in a Heteronormative World-Tactics and Methods .............. 46
A N ote A bout M e.......................................................................................................... 51


Dresses.............................................. ............................................................................ 58
W eddings.................................................................................................................. 58
T-shirts...................................................................................................................... 59
Star Trek.................................................................................................................... 61
M arching Band...................................................................................................... 62
"You're A Young Lady."................................................................ ..................... 63
Funerals ..................................................................................................................... 66
Boats............................................................................................................................. 67
W aterskiing ................................................................................................... .............. 67
"You've Never Done A Day's W ork.". ............................................................ 68
"It's Not My Boat; You Need To Be Talking To Her." .................................... 69
San Francisco ............................................................................................................ 70
"Most Men Couldn't Even Put A Boat In That Slip That Well.". .................... 71
A W ell-Trained W omen's Crew ............................................................................... 72
Butchness ...................................................................................................................... 74
Dressing Down Today? ............................................................................................. 75
Butch For W hom ? ......................................................................................................... 82
Harleys ...................................................................................................................... 82
Sisters ........................................................................................................................ 84

FEM M E AS PUBLIC PERFORM ANCE ..................................................................... 88

The Story of Public Butch and Femme-Discourses-in-Practice ................................... 91
Butch Looks and Behavior............................................................ ........................ 93
Femme Looks and Behavior ..................................................................................... 96
The Butch/Femm e Scale and the Butch/Femme Game ............................................ 98
The Discursive Practices of Narrative M easuring.................................................. .... 103
M easuring Competence ............................ ..................................................... ........ 105
Some underlying assumptions for narrative measurement .................................... 106
Stigma, Bifurcated Consciousness and Accountability .............................................. 110
Butch Stigma........................................................................................................... 110
Femm e Stigma........................................................................................................ 113
Bifurcated Consciousness....................................................................................... 115
Heteronormativity, Science and the Coherence of Vertical Orientation .................... 119

AND FEM M E AS PRIVATE SELF..................................................................... ...... 129

Sexual Stories : "W hat" W e Begin W ith.................................................................... 130
(Hetero)Sexual Stereotypes: "W ho's the M an?" ....................... ...................... 130
Lesbian Sexual Stereotypes-"Tops" and "Bottoms" ..................................... ......... 134

"The Hows"-Producing Related-To-But-Different Sexuality.................................... 137
"It's Not That"-Inability to State Butch or Femme Specificity............................. 137
Sense of Realness or Origin.................................................................................... 143
Feminist Narrative Editing-Changing the Discourses-in-Practice............................. 149
Encouraging Flexibility and Accepting Difference................................................ 150
Sexual "Energy" and the Importance of Naming................................................... 154
W hy Reiterate Butch and Femme? ......................................................................... 156
Heteronormativity and the Lacking Erotics of Sameness........................................... 161

IN SELF STORIES ..................................................................................................... 169

Relating Institutional Persons to Reflexive Selves..................................................... 169
Age.............................................................................................................................. 173
Lesbians Over 30 .................................................................................................... 174
Lesbians Under 30 .................................................................................................. 177
Stories About Time..................................................................................................... 180
1950s....................................................................................................................... 183
1990s....................................................................................................................... 187
"We're All Just People"?-Material Experiences in Self-Production......................... 190
Sexism and Sexual Safety....................................................................................... 191
Racism ..................................................................................................................... 194
Classism .................................................................................................................. 197
Homophobia ............................................................................................................ 199
Sexual Maturity or Youthful Protest?-Explaining Sexual Stories .......... ................... 202
Life Course ............................................................................. ............................. .... 202
Political Generation Feminisms' Second and Third W aves ................................. 204
Second W ave's Awakening................................ .................................................... 205
Feminism 's Third W ave .......................................................................................... 206
A Final W ord on Butch and Femme over Time ............................ ............................. 210

LESBIANS CAN TEACH SOCIAL SCIENTISTS ...................................................212

The Analytic Importance of the Self .......................................................................... 214
A Final W ord on Findings and Future Directions .............................. ........................ 216

LIST OF REFERENCES.............................................................................................. ... 219

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ....................................................................................... .... 230

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Sara L. Crawley

August 2002

Chair: Jaber F. Gubrium
Cochair: Joe R. Feagin
Major Department: Sociology

This dissertation concerns how lesbians narrate butch and femme as parts of self

and as means to participate in communities and disrupt institutions. It begins with the

assumption that butch and femme are narrative resources for storying selves. Drawing

from a constructionist perspective, the project is concerned less with what butch and

femme are, than with how they are used to make sense of lesbian lives. Hence, butch and

femme are understood as useful ideas emergent from the local experiences of women

with non-normative sexual interests living in a heterosexist, deeply gendered everyday

world. The project is based on focus groups and couples and individual interviews with

lesbians in and around a suburban, university town. It is argued that the notions of butch

and femme tell us as much about the world in which we all live as about the individual

lesbians themselves. Butch and femme are produced through the process of making sense

of nonconformity in a heteronormative world. This is an interactional and interpretive

process narrated as reality. Butch and femme derive from the limited and limiting

discourses available for storying women's sexuality coherently, yet they are actively

produced as resistant to those discourses and specific to lesbians. The results of my

project suggest three important findings. First, often the coherences to which others hold

us accountable are at least as salient in the production of self and personhood as are our

own ideas of ourselves. Second, the heteronormative paradigm remains the only

coherence system for understanding sexuality and gender. Third, the voices of individuals

in their everyday lives illuminate the advancements of feminist politics and an

understanding of the meaning of time. Ultimately, this project is a testament to the

importance of narrating self as a means for individuals to actively participate in the

production of making sense of the world.


A popular T-shirt in the 1990s read simply "Butch on the Streets, Femme in the

Sheets." As a product of popular culture in these supposed post-feminist, postmodern

times, this slogan implies many pertinent concerns for the development of lesbian selves.

First, it claims an out, in-your-face, public persona for lesbians in this heterosexist

culture. Second, it continues to foreground sexuality as a significant factor in lesbian

identity. Third, it refers to lesbian history by continuing to value butch and femme2 as

lesbian-specific phenomena. And, in my estimation, most curiously, it suggests a revision

to that history that allows for new means of lesbian selves. While butch and femme used

to mean very specific public and private personas, now "butch" and "femme" can be

modified to describe a host of self-definitions that need not be consistent or definitive or

rule-bound. The assertion of "Butch on the Streets, Femme in the Sheets" as an identity

on one's T-shirt-clad chest claims the right to define one's own sexuality and present it

1 An earlier draft of this literature review was previously published in 2001 as "Are Butch
and Fern Working Class And Anti-Feminist?" Gender & Society 15:175-96. It is
reprinted here with permission from Sage Publications.
2 I am uncomfortable with the incessant pairing of butch and femme as inseparable
(i.e.,"butch/femme"). Walker (1993, footnote 9) addresses this concern as follows, "I
choose not to hyphenate butch and femme in order to construct identities that exist
separately as well as in combination. To me, the hyphenated version seems to preclude
considering the terms independently of one another or in other combinations (such as
butch-butch and femme-femme)." I agree and will use the phrase "butch/femme" only
when I specifically discuss a system of dichotomous pairings or interaction.

boldly in public, visible to lesbians and members of a dominant, heteronormative culture.

It is a naming of oneself-a narrating of gendered and sexual possibilities.

As lesbian notions of gender and sexuality, butch and femme are interesting

because they have been so pervasive in lesbian communities. Whether eager proponents

or outspoken opponents, lesbians in the United States have debated the meanings of butch

and femme for decades. This is still true today. Indeed, in all the interviews that I

completed and the many impromptu conversations that I have had over seven years of

researching butch and femme, I have never met a lesbian who had not heard of butch and

femme. I have met (and interviewed) lesbians who seriously disagreed with butch or

femme practices; lesbians who knew about butch and femme but did not associate

themselves with those ideas; and lesbians who identified their deepest essence as butch or

femme. But I have never been met with the question, "Butch? Femme? What do you

mean?" Curiously, on those occasions when I have asked lesbians to define the terms, a

good bit more difficulty ensues.

As it turns out, defining butch or femme seems to be a rather slippery issue among

lesbians. Indeed, asking for a definition tends to invoke debate much more than

resolution. The debate tends to have specific parts but no definitive end. And, although

I've never received a blank stare when asking, "What do butch or femme mean to you," I

have also rarely received a decisive answer. One narrator sums up this problematic when

she says, "You know when you see it, but you can't really say exactly what it is, you

know?" (Sam and Jo, couple interview line 99-100)

Given the relative public silence about lesbianism in dominant culture and the

well-recorded history of the fight by lesbians and gay men in the 20th century to create

public space and legitimacy, it is quite remarkable that, on the one hand, knowledge

about these two constructs could be so pervasive among lesbians, and, on the other hand,

the determination of what butch and femme are could remain unresolved. For these

reasons, I argue that butch and femme are not about just butches and femmes, as is often

assumed by researchers who study only butches and femnmes. Instead, I see butch and

femme as ways to speak gender and sexuality for lesbians.

Butch and femme are not about those lesbians. For that matter, they are not just

about lesbians. Butch and femme are about the way that gender and sexuality for lesbians

are made coherent in this Western, postmodern, heteronormative culture. As non-

standard gender representations and as non-standard sexual identities, butch and femme

may teach us quite a lot about heteronormativity.

The chapters within represent a theory of how lesbians produce gendered and

sexual (and also class-based and racialized) selves through narrating butch and femme.

But my focus is as much on the cultural context in which selves can be produced as on

the production of selves themselves. Simply put, my project is to ask lesbians how they

think about their place in the social world as lesbians and to analyze their talk to

illuminate how heteronormative discourses affect the narrative production of lesbian

selves. The research question that I pursue is: What is the narrative organization of butch

and femme? That is, how does heteronormativity provide an organized pattern through

which lesbians are instructed and instruct others to understand their experiences as

lesbians? Through this project, I examine the relationships between 1) individuals and

discourses, 2) individuals and communities, and 3) material and symbolic realities. I

begin with a brief history of butch and femme in the 20th century United States and a

summary of the debates about butch and femme.

A Brief History of Butch and Femme

Butch and femme emerged during the formation of many semi-public, lesbian

communities throughout the United States in the early and middle parts of the 20th

century, especially during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Adam 1987; Faderman 1991;

Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993). Butch and femme provide a unique organizing

system of personal representation, interpersonal interaction and community participation.

While butch and femme are difficult to define, and many authors hesitate to do so, Rubin

(1992) gives a particularly good description of them as follows:

Butch and femme are ways of coding identities and behaviors that are both
connected to and distinct from standard societal roles for men and women.
... "Femmes" identify as feminine within the larger culture; butchess"
identify primarily as masculine or prefer masculine signals, personal
appearance, and styles. (467)

Rubin's definition places butch and femme within the broader cultural context of

mainstream gender norms, but it also notes a distinction. Thus, femmes tend to conform

with gender norms for women with the exception of forming emotional and sexual

relationships with women. Butches tend toward gender nonconformity in dress and action

as well as in sexual relationships with women. Because they are non-compliant with

mainstream gender or sexual norms, butch and femme are defined by Rubin as categories

of "lesbian gender." Rubin also notes that butch and femme as stereotypical categories

are conceptual frameworks that have organized lesbian communities. The practice of

butch or femme and butch/femme interaction have varied over time and by individuals

and couples from complete immersion to partial compliance to complete avoidance.

A key question is why butch and femme emerged during the historical period that

it did. One should remember the American history into which this brief lesbian history

falls. World War II was of particular importance to a history of women. Not only was

Rosie the Riveter a harbinger of second wave feminism, but she also symbolizes

women's freedom from male dependence, especially for lesbians. Women's involvement

in World War II, whether in military service (D'Emilio 1983) or in factory jobs

previously reserved for men (Gilmartin 1996), created a space for women to define

themselves as workers and as independent sexual entities (D'Emilio 1983; Faderman

1991). Although lesbian identity was formative in the U.S. in the decades prior to World

War II, the geographical and financial opportunity to create lesbian communities reached

a necessary peak for the formation of public and semi-public lesbian communities during

and immediately after World War II (Faderman 1991). A similar effect was taking place

among gay male subculture as well (D'Emilio 1983). This physical possibility of public

gathering created the space for lesbian subcultures to emerge. Butch and femme emerged

with those subcultures (Faderman 1991; Gilmartin 1996; Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis


Many lesbian communities of the 1940s, '50s and '60s had strict rules for their

participants-each woman was expected to assume either butch or femme and couple with

an opposite partner. In these communities, women were discouraged from remaining

undecided, and no couples were to consist of two butches or two femmes (Faderman

1991; Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993; Stein 1997). Butch and femme came under

fire with the advent of late-1 960s and '70s feminisms, especially radical feminism, in

which the feminist project is seen as the elimination of masculinity (Abbott and Love

1972:173; Jeffreys 1989 and 1996; Stein 1997:80). Feminist censure of butch and femme

assumed that they were recreations of patriarchal gender norms in which butches were

necessarily using power over femmes, in the same manner that heterosexual men were

viewed as wielding power over women. Pratt (1995) discusses the radical feminist

perception of butch and femme as follows: "Often a lesbian considered 'too butch' was

assumed to be, at least in part, a male chauvinist. ... Frequently a lesbian who was 'too

femme' was perceived as a woman who had not liberated her mind or her body (19)."

Authors writing about 1970s lesbian communities tend to concur that butch and femme

did disappear or at least go underground during that period (Adam 1987; Case 1989;

Franzen 1993; Jeffreys 1989; Pratt 1995; Rubin 1992; Smith 1989; Walker 1993).

With the widespread and lasting impacts of feminisms, a researcher might expect

the disappearance of butch and femme to be lasting as well. But, according to many

authors, that has not been the case. In the late-1980s and 1990s, butch and femme are said

to have reemerged significantly (Case 1989; Faderman 1992; Jeffreys 1989 and 1996;

Morgan 1993; Stein 1997; Walker 1993; Whisman 1996). In what has become known as

the post-feminist era, debate has centered around whether the reemergence of butch and

femme are part of what Faludi (1991) describes as the "backlash" against feminisms or

whether 1990s butch and femme are different and more acceptable to feminists than

butch and femme of prior decades. Whisman (1996) suggests that lesbians of the 1990s

aligned politically and culturally with gay men, often as part of "queer" or

lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered movements (LGBT), rather than with straight

feminists as was the case in 1970s and 1980s with radical feminism. Thus, the emergence

of feminist and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered civil rights movements provide a

political tug of war for lesbian concerns in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Engaging the Debates

The literature on butch and femme is not a simple one to review. It originates

from many disciplines, contains political arguments for and against butch and femme,

and is written by academic and non-academic authors. With a variety of political and

scholarly interests bound up in the literature, there appear to be at least three important

debates throughout. The first is a descriptive foregrounding of either gender or sexuality

as significant in explaining how butchness or femmeness should be understood. The

second debate is whether butch and femme are real or performed. And, the third is who

may be involved in practicing butch or femme. After outlining these debates, I describe

the various scholarly interests represented in the debates and conclude this chapter by

outlining how this study will be situated in the debates.

What Are Butch And Femme?

Although authors tend to agree about the time frames in which butch and femme

behaviors have been exhibited most noticeably and about feminisms' major impact on

butch and femme behaviors, they do not agree on what butch and femme are. How do

authors explain their existence? Explanations of butch and femme tend to foreground two

aspects: butch and femme as lesbian gender and butch and femme as sexual identities.

But is it gender that influences sexuality or sexuality that influences gender?

Butch and Femme as Lesbian Gender

Many authors concentrate on what has come to be seen as the beginning: the

stereotypical butch and femme (and the definitional butch/femme) of 1950s bar culture.

Faderman (1991) interprets the emergence of butch and femme among working-class

lesbian communities as the result of gendered participation in working-class culture in an

era in which the "parent-culture roles [were] exaggerated between men and women"

(170), leaving lesbians no other models to follow. Although Faderman valorizes

femmeness as a more aggressive sexuality than that exhibited by other women of the

1950s, she views butch and femme largely as heterosexual imitation with butchness as a

means of obtaining status as defined by mainstream culture. Faderman implies that these

1950s butch and femme women were simply not aware of any form of organizing into

couples except heterosexual roles as taught by mainstream culture.

The interpretation of butchness and of butch/femme as socialized gender roles

caused many feminists of the 1970s to oppose butch and femme. The feminist argument

against butch and femme hinges on the notion that butch and femme are not exclusively

lesbian but are attempting to recreate patriarchy (Abbot and Love 1972: 93-8; Jeffreys

1989 and 1996; Smith 1989; Stein 1997). Jeffreys (1989) writes, "It is the basic building

block of feminist theory that women's oppression is maintained by the social construction

of masculine and feminine roles (176)." Jeffreys goes on to argue that butch/femme as a

dichotomous system of pairing is interpreted as the same as, if not reproduced from,

patriarchal norms constructed to oppress women or femmes by giving power to men or

butches. For Jeffreys (1996), all gender, including butch and femme, is dominance and

submission, which is the origin of all sexism.

Other interpretations of 1950s "butch and femme as lesbian gender" view butch

and femme not as gender roles but as gendered constructions that attempt to claim power

from an oppressive, dominant gender structure that benefits heterosexual men. In a study

of working-class bar culture in Buffalo, New York, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Lapovsky

Kennedy and Davis (1993) suggest that butch and femme developed as an organizing

system to combat the oppressive structure of gender by creating space for working-class

lesbian communities in the pre-civil rights, male-dominated, heterosexist society of that

time frame. Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis suggest that one reason that butches developed

their personas was as a necessary means of gaining respect from heterosexual men. The

display ofbutchness signaled the intention of, and often resulted in, literally fighting for

the right of lesbians to patronize the only bars available to them, usually heterosexual

bars in the seedy sections of town. In this interpretation, butch and femme are forms of

lesbian gender that attempt to break down the gender structure of mainstream culture.

In addition to sparking supportive arguments regarding butch and femme as

gender constructions, radical feminist censure of butch and femme also sparked responses

that interpret butch and femme more centrally as aspects of sexuality. Critics argue that

radical feminism tends to interpret issues narrowly through the perspectives of its middle-

class, generally white authors such that radical feminism does not represent the interests

of all lesbians, many of whom view lesbianism as a sexual identity.

Butch and Femme as Sexual Identities

Some of the early objectors to radical feminism's censure of butch and femme

(and some more-recent objectors as well) suggest that butch/femme is a complex system

of erotic interaction between intimate partners (DeLombard 1995; Hollibaugh and

Moraga 1981; Morgan 1993; Nestle 1981 and 1992; Walker 1998 and 2001). These

works tend to view butch and femme as one's essential (essentially lesbian) sexual

identity and butch/femme interaction as a "natural" result of these innate interests. In

describing herself and refuting the supposed oppression of femmes, Nestle (1981) defines

a femme as "a woman who loved and wanted to nurture the butch strength in other

women (21)." Supporters of butch and femme as sexual identities discuss the kind of

"love" and "nurturing" that occurred between butches and femmes, the origins of those

sexual urges, and the gendered practices that resulted from sexual interests and marked

one's sexual interests to prospective others.

Curiously, the literature discussing butch/femme sexuality treads somewhat

delicately around the composition of that sexuality. As Hollibaugh and Moraga's (1981)

title "What We're Rollin' Around in Bed With..." alludes to, silences around sexuality

have made it difficult to bring the discussion of lesbian sexual practices into public view.

Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis (1993) accomplish this discussion through the words of

their narrators. One butch narrator, D.J., describes a butch's sexual role (during the 1940s

and 1950s) as follows, "I treat a woman as a woman, down to the basic fact it'd have to

be my side doin' most of the doin' (191)." In this colloquial sense, butches were expected

to be the active partner while femmes were the recipients of butch advances. Indeed, the

butchest of butches, the stone butch, was purported to be so involved in that role that

stone butches would not allow themselves to be touched sexually by femmes at all

(Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993).

Of course, the kinds of practices engaged in are very unclear beyond the

discussion of active/passive partnerships. It remains unclear as to what body parts were

touched or not touched (clitorises? vaginas?) with which body parts (fingers? tongues?)

and whether other implements were involved. The discussion is largely encompassed by

descriptions of urges "to do" or "have done" and what comprises active or passive

engagement. One gets the impression that-not surprisingly-lesbians learned sexual

practices more via sexual experiences than discussion. I address this point more

specifically in Chapter 5.

Proponents of "butch and femme as sexual identities" address the implicit critique

of active/passive sexual practices as potentially imitative of heterosexuality. Lapovsky

Kennedy and Davis (1993) are quick to point out that, although butches were the "doers"

and femmes were recipients, the purpose was for butches to give pleasure, not to take it

as a heterosexual model suggests. They write, "Yet, unlike what transpires in the

dynamics of most heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give

sexual pleasure to a femme. It was in satisfying her femme that the butch received

fulfillment (191)." Thus, they argue for a revision to the paradigm that "active" means

"taker" while "passive" means "out of control."

Other authors provide interesting revisions to the standard notions of

active/passive erotic constructions. Nestle (1992) views butch/femme as "a lesbian

specific way of deconstructing gender that radically reclaims women's erotic energy

(14)." For Nestle, butchness and butch/femme are signals to dominant society of

women's erotic independence from oppressive heterosexual norms. Hollibaugh and

Moraga (1981) also argue positively for the erotically-charged nature of butch/femme

and suggest that feminists should begin to discuss why that eroticism has been shunned.

Both authors speak of sexual identity as being established very early in life and of the

attraction of opposite sexual identities as part of "natural" sexual desire.

Expressing a supportive position on butch and femme sexuality, Newton and

Walton (1984) articulate a popular view that is not often advanced by academic authors.

They suggest that many radical feminists who participated so fervently in erasing gender

norms were the same women who had been involved in butch and femme communities in

prior decades. These women were simply repressing the butch or femme sexual identities

that they held prior to becoming active in radical feminism. One woman retrospectively

expresses this sentiment:

At the height of my college cruising, I was attending Take Back the Night
meetings dressed in Mr. Greenjeans overalls, Birkenstocks, and a bowl
haircut that made me look like I'd just been released from a bad foster
home. There is nothing more pitiful to look at than a closeted femme.
(Walker 1993: 866)

In another work, Newton (1984) discusses how the earlier proto-type of the butch

lesbian-the "mannish lesbian"-"symbolized the stigma of lesbianism (560)." "Cross-

dressing for Hall [Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness, in which the lead

character is a woman who cross-dresses during the W.W.I era] is not a masquerade. It

stands for the New Woman's rebellion against the male order and, at the same time, for

the lesbian's desperate struggle to be and express her true self (570)." For Newton,

butchness is a way of displaying one's sexual identity (one's "true self") via displaying

gender non-conformity. Additionally, this display of non-conformity is not play or

performance. It is real and it has consequences.

Are Butch and Femme "Real" or Performance?

A primary issue for proponents of butch and femme is the experience of

"realness" of these identities. Feminist political arguments against butch and femme as

"roles" and theoretical arguments that understand butch and femme as gender constructs

rely on the assumption that butch or femme could be developed and, hence, are not

innate. The notion that butch and femme could be constructed appears to contest the

"realness" of the phenomena. Proponents of butch and femme tend to take issue with

these theorists and argue that butch and femme feel innate and that they are not actively

controlled or developed. One may work to more actively display a true self, but the true

self is seen as real and original and not consciously developed.

The concept of performance has been applied to re-emergent 1990s butch and

femme, describing them as erotic play or symbolic critiques of gender-as styles rather

than identities or essences (Case 1989; Faderman 1992). Arguably more fluid and

assumable than previously, butch and femme in the 1990s do not necessarily follow the

same strict rules of conduct that governed them in previous decades (although some

would argue they still do). Performance theorists argue that individuals may assume

butchness one day and femmeness the next, or change from butch to femme or vice versa

from one relationship to the next.

Faderman (1992) interprets current butch and femme as erotic play or

performance that develops erotic tension via dichotomous positions. She suggests that

newer butch and femme may be reactions to drab clothing styles introduced by radical

feminism and that feminisms have created a more egalitarian setting for butch/femnme

interaction such that butch/femme is now based on erotic play more than power relations.

Faderman's (1992) feminist interpretation of 1990s butch and femme suggests feminists

should accept them as erotic play and, thus, not threatening to feminist ideals.

Unlike Faderman's interpretation of 1990s butch and femme as absent of power

relations, many authors have argued for feminist interpretations of butch and femme that

accept them as means of symbolically combating dominant gender norms (De Lombard

1995; Case 1989; de Lauretis 1994; Lamos 1994; Morgan 1993). Case (1989) offers an

interpretation of contemporary butch and femme as campy, erotic play that deconstructs

dominant notions of gender. She writes:

In recuperating the space of seduction, the butch-femme couple can,
through their own agency, move through a field of symbols...playfully
inhabiting the camp space of irony and wit, free from biological
determinism, elitist essentialism, and the heterosexist cleavage of sexual
difference. (298)

For Case, butch/femme, when taken together, present a critique to dominant

structures of male power (i.e., possession of the phallus). Case suggests that the notion

that two women can create an erotic sexuality without men falsifies the heterosexist ideal

that sexuality is and must be about men. In her analysis, butch and femme are not

identities as much as representations-styles that reduce gender to nothing more than

playing dress up. For Case, it is this ability to view gender as play that subverts notions of

biologically determined gender. De Lauretis (1994) agrees with Case and asserts:

... butch-femme role-playing is exciting not because it represents
heterosexual desire, but because it doesn't; that is to say, in mimicking it,
it shows the uncanny distance, like an effect of ghosting, between desire
(heterosexually represented as it is) and the representation; and because
the representation doesn't fit the actors who perform it, it only points to
their investment in a fantasy-a fantasy that can never fully represent them
or their desire... (109-110)

Newton (1996), an anthropologist who has studied gay male camp, critiques

Case's argument and disagrees that butch and femme are simply camp. Newton suggests

that 1990s butch and femme may possess some elements of camp, but that 1950s butch

and femme were strikingly absent of the theatricality that was present in gay male camp

of the same era. Speaking about butch and femme prior to the late-1980s, Newton writes:

It [butch/femme] was utterly serious, always "for real," completely
different in feeling and tone from the fabulous and bittersweet excesses of
the camp drag queen. ...And until performance theorists came along, no
one positioned lesbian butch-femme as comparable to drag queen-centered
camp, primarily because it had so lacked the element of humor and light
theatricality, the self-conscious play which Case [quoted above] endowed
it. (164)

The work of Judith Butler provides what might be understood as an important

compromise in the debate over "realness." Butler (1996) also equates butch and femme to

drag but not as a theatrical performance. Rather, Butler suggests that drag, including

butch and femme, is performative as is all gender. Butler sees all gender as a constant and

repetitive imitation of an ideal the can never be met. Butler writes, "...gender is a kind of

imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the

very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself (185,

emphasis in original)." So, for Butler, gendered discourses incite performative repetition

of an ideal that is itself non-existent-for lesbians or for heterosexuals. But, their constant

repetition and reproduction becomes part of self and, thus, feels natural and original. In

this sense, Butler's notion ofperformativity is not theatrical, yet it illustrates how

discourses produce subjectivities.

Butler suggests that butch and femme are also performative but that they are

subversive of heterosexual gender imperatives because they cite a gendered sexuality that

cannot exist under those imperatives. Butler writes, "Reconsider then the homophobic

charge that queens and butches and femmes are imitations of the heterosexual real. Here

'imitation' carries the meaning of 'derivative' or 'secondary,' a copy of an origin which

is itself the ground of all copies, but which is itself a copy of nothing (185)."

Drawing on Judith Butler's notion of performativity, Kraus (1996) suggests that

lesbians of the 1950s used butch and femme as categories of sexuality that were

performed and constantly negotiated. Negotiating butch and femme as sexual identities

was the "desire work," a term Kraus has coined, these women performed to create lesbian

communities. Kraus's argument is much like that of Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis, but

Kraus views butch and femme in terms of sexuality, rather than political resistance to

male dominance. Kraus does not view them as erotic play, but discusses them as real

identities to the communities that constructed them and argues that their performances

had real implications for their performers.

Who does butch and femme?

Judging from the consistency of discussions about 1950s butch and femme, one

might expect most lesbian communities of that era to have been ruled by them. However,

some authors suggest some lesbian communities rejected butch and femme. Faderman

(1991) differentiates between butch and femme maintained by working-class lesbians and

the supposed rejection of butch and femme by middle- and upper-class lesbians.

Faderman suggests that, even if "one woman in a couple may have been more naturally

aggressive or more prone to traditionally feminine activities (175)," these differences

were expected to be downplayed, because middle-class lesbians had rules of "propriety

(181)." Faderman writes, "It was crucial in the middle-class lesbian subculture to behave

with sufficient, though never excessive, femininity and not to call attention to oneself as a

lesbian in any way (181)." Newton's (1993) ethnography of the growth of Cherry Grove,

Fire Island, from the 1930s to the 1980s also records a division between working-class

butch and femme lesbians and an older class of wealthy "ladies." Newton suggests that

affluent women avoided butch and femme to hide their stigmatized, lesbian identities

from their families. Although it is not specifically stated, Newton's narrators also imply

that they distanced themselves from butch and femme to avoid association with vulgar,

working-class constructs.

As Faderman and Newton suggest, social hierarchies were expected to transcend

sexual urges. Gilmartin (1996) provides insightful testimony from the life history of her

middle-class narrator, P.J., who frequented working-class lesbian bars in Colorado in the

1950s and 1960s, yet emphatically insists, "We Weren't Bar People." Gilmartin

concludes that P.J. did indeed engage lesbian communities and share cultural spaces with

working-class lesbians but took great pains to separate herself from both the symbolism

of working-class culture as less sophisticated and the potential for being publicly

recognized as lesbian if she presented herself in certain ways. In my own research

(Crawley 2001), social class seems to be an indicator, not of whether one has interests in

butch and femme erotics or performances, but in whether and where one is willing to

express them. In a review of hundreds of personal ads from the mid-1990s, advertisers

who indicated a middle-class status were less likely to call themselves butch or femrnme

but no less likely to be seeking a butch or femme lover. Consistent with Gilmartin, my

research suggests not so much a difference in engaging certain sexual practices, but a

reluctance for middle-class lesbians to align with what is perceived as working-class.

Some authors attack middle-class centered, radical feminist arguments as elitist

(Smith 1989; Walker 1993). Newton and Walton (1984) note the white, middle-class

nature of "the modem feminist movement." They suggest it is this middle-class influence

that encouraged the "anti-sexual and anti-difference" stance of "the movement" and that

"the movement" was ultimately elitist. Walker (1993) agrees:

The rejection of butch and femme styles by middle- and upper-class
women was frequently tinged with the condescending implication that
"role-play" was evidence of the backwardness, conservatism, and
confusion of working-class lesbians, who were generally depicted as
victims of patriarchal brainwashing. (875)

Similarly, Smith (1989) suggests that radical feminism rejected butch and femme

because radical feminism had its roots in the "class-bound and anti-sexual lesbian

movement of the 1950s and 1960s," largely headed by the assimilationist organization,

Daughters of Bilitis. Smith suggests that the downplaying of lesbian sexuality and similar

rejection of butch and femme by radical feminists were a result of their dominant,

middle-class backgrounds that de-emphasized sexuality. Thus, Smith argues that women

who identify as lesbian for emotional and sexual reasons, especially women of color and

working-class women, may not feel represented by this brand of feminism, including

radical feminism's condemnation of butch and femme.

Another argument centers not so much on elitism as on the difference between

assimilationist and radical politics. As discussed above, Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis'

(1993) study of a working-class lesbian community argues that, as lesbian gender, butch

and femme are a radical political statement about the dominant structures of gender and

sexuality. For their narrators, being butch all the time was a refusal to submit to dominant

gender imperatives; it was a working-class act of subversion.

If a discussion of butch and femme and social class is difficult to resolve, a

discussion of race is nearly non-existent. Reading the literature on butch and femme in

the U.S., one gets the distinct impression that to be lesbian is to be white. Although some

ethnographies record the existence of lesbians of color in largely white butch and femme

communities-for example, Buffalo, NY (Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993)-and others

record black lesbian communities that remained largely segregated from white

communities-for example Memphis (Buring 1997)-it is unclear how black lesbian

identities or the identities of other lesbians of color have been specifically impacted by

the influence of racism. Several authors of Black Feminist Thought have discussed the

complicated interplay of race, class, gender and sexual orientation for lesbians of color

(Clarke 1981; hooks 1989; Lorde 1984; Omosupe 1991). But the relevance of butch and

femme to lesbians of color remains unclear and understudied.

Buring's narrators explain that butch and femme were Eurocentric terms that were

sometimes adopted by black lesbians during the mid-century but sometimes not. Buring's

narrators suggest that "bulldagger" was a much more common (although pejorative) term

for lesbians within African-American culture. Omosupe (1991) agrees on this point.

Additionally, Buring adds that younger narrators discussing lesbian communities of the

1980s and 1990s rejected butch and femme terms altogether. Walker (2001) explains the

politics of erasure for femmes and for lesbians of color as particular issues that make

visibility difficult. She writes:

Each of these assumptions contributes to the double invisibility of the
lesbian of color within the white lesbian community; she is invisible first
as a lesbian, and then there is no perception of her sexual style. .. .That is
to say, while a butch woman of color might not be recognized as a lesbian
because she is not white, she might be perceived as lesbian because her
sexual style is considered 'blatant.' A femme woman of color, on the other
hand, will probably not be recognized as lesbian, first because she is not
white and then because she is not butch. (207)

In my own experience, the recording of experiences for lesbians of color is

difficult because so much segregation exists between white lesbians, who tend to have

access to and control of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered resources, and lesbians of

color, who often choose not to assimilate into those largely white spaces to access

"lesbian" communities. The denial about de facto segregation in contemporary U.S.

culture is immense and remains more than a social problem. Clearly, it is a research issue

and, hence, an impediment to knowledge production as well.

What Do We Want to Know About Butch and Femme and Who Is Asking the

Much of the difficulty in sorting out the debates about butch and femme, as well

as most debates about gender and sexualities, results from the multi-disciplinary origins

of the debaters. The authors are writing from different disciplines; hence, they are

engaged in different kinds of projects. Although butch and femme comprise a common

topic, not all authors are trying to accomplish the same scholarly or political goals. In this

section, I outline the basic varieties of knowledge projects produced on butch and femme.

I sum up my discussion by locating this project both inside and outside those categories.

Community Studies: What's It Like Where You Are?

Ethnographies, or community studies, are a common style of research project that

records the existence of specific communities during particular historical periods. This

project style is undertaken, by historians and anthropologists alike, to record the social

practices of people in certain geographic regions. Some excellent examples of community

studies involving lesbians include Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis' (1993) study of

Buffalo, New York during the 1940s, '50s and '60s; Buring's (1997) study of 1950s to

1990s Memphis; Newton's (1993) study of 1930s to 1980s Cherry Grove, Fire Island;

Gilmartin's (1996) study of 1950s and '60s communities in Colorado; and Franzen's

(1993) study of Albuquerque during the period 1965 to 1980.

The academic project of community studies is simply to document the existence

of certain cultural practices. The communities are expected to stand as testaments only to

their own existence. Hence, none are expected to be "representative" of phenomena in

any other place or time and especially not to reference some all-encompassing idea of

human existence. The best we can hope is to collect as many studies as possible to

identify likenesses across time or place.

Positivists: How Can We Measure Butch and Femme Accurately?

Positivists begin with completely different assumptions. The positivists work to

verify and measure specific phenomena-for example, butch and femme among lesbians-

including other factors correlating with their identification. These scholars tend to assume

that any lesbian identified as butch or femme is somehow true or real and assume the

fixity of these identities-a fixity that transcends time or place. Among this group, the

social and political conditions required to allow for butch and femme to exist as identities

are often assumed or ignored. True to their positivistic stance, these scholars tend to be

more methodologically concerned with accurate measurement. Presumably there is

something real to measure.

The research tends to rely on large-scale surveys administered to self-identified

lesbians with a vast field of questions to be answered. Included in past positivistic

measurements of butch and femme are: the correlation of butch and femme with social

class (Weber 1996); sex roles and power balance in relationships (Caldwell and Peplau

1984; Lynch and Reilly 1986; Rosenzweig and Lebow 1992); the existence of "butch-

femme dichotomies" among gay men (Haist and Hewitt 1974); and whether butch and

femme correlate to why non-lesbians may dislike lesbians (Laner and Laner 1980).

I, too, may be counted among the researchers intent on "counting" butch's and

femme's existence among lesbians. In my article "Are Butch and Femme Working-Class

and Anti-Feminist? (Crawley 2001)," I count the existence of the terms butch and femme

in lesbian personal ads over three decades. While my study was certainly empirical, I

hope it can be seen as not so adamantly in search of "accuracy" as it is concerned with

historical trends of how lesbians report their identities to each other. In this way, I see it

as tracing political trends, hopefully without falling prey to the general critique of overly

positivistic work.

A serious critique of this school of thought is the possibility of "accurately"

measuring so slippery a subject as one that is historically-situated, as subjectivity

theorists suggest. Regardless of the putative "objective" nature of these studies and

belying the politics that do exist in them, many of these studies include politically loaded

language in their results. For example, "no evidence of role-playing" was a finding of

more than one study (Caldwell and Peplau 1984; Lynch and Reilly 1986). The theorists

that I describe below would take exception to the attribution of butch and femme as role-

playing, suggesting a concern for the heterosexist assumption that is implicit in

attributing butch and femme to "role-playing" (i.e., imitating heterosexuality).

Philosophies, Politics and Theories: Is There a Lesbian Subjectivity?

Much less concerned with interpreting "data" about lesbians, a variety of scholars

from many disciplines are engaged in theoretical arguments relating to the existence and

political impact of lesbian subjectivities. This project considers the possibility of the

existence of the category "lesbian" (usually in 20th century U.S. culture), often including

the political factors that coalesce to produce both the category and the person (Bulter

1990 and 1993; Case 1989; Emery 2002). This project theorizes "lesbians" as a social

category of late 19th century/20th century invention. Often based on Foucaldian notions of

subjects and subjectivities, this project begins with an assumption that runs counter to

liberal political thought. A rational actor is not presumed. In this project, lesbians do not

create their subjectivities or agentically fashion their identities. Rather, discourses of

desire and gender incite a certain kind of subject to exist. Lesbians do not define

themselves. Rather, historically available discourses (roughly defined as prevailing

political and social ideas) define and produce "lesbians." The project is not about how

individual lesbians define themselves and their communities, but about how certain forms

of thought allow for lesbians to exist as a category. As a result, this project focuses on

histories and discourses as much as the lesbians who purportedly occupy them.

A related project focuses on lesbian politics and responds to Freudian and

sexological thought of the early 20th century that understood female same-sex eroticism

as pathological or underdeveloped psychosis (D'Emilio 1983; Emery 2002; Faderman

1981; Ned Katz 1995). As a result, much scholarly theorizing has worked to produce a

credible moral position for female same-sex erotic expression. The project among these

writers is to understand the available subjectivities of lesbianism and the historical

conditions that made each possible. For example, some issues include: "What is she like?

(Ainley 1995);" "What are the politics of looking like what you are? (Walker 1993, 1998

and 2001);" "Can there be a masculinity without men? (Halberstam 1998);" and "How

shall we imagine lesbian sexuality in the 1990s? (Creith 1996)" This project focuses on

the cultural representations of lesbianism, especially via media.

In both projects, understanding the relationship of texts to knowledge production

is of primary concern. A common, anecdotal critique of this style of work (and I think a

common concern of some of its authors) is that this project is often not accessible to the

lay reader. The lived experience ofbutchness or femmeness is overshadowed by the

expertness of the theories provided. Individual lesbians are all but silent. The last

category in my schema of lesbian knowledge-making attempts to address this problem.

Dyke Description: Let Me Tell You How I Feel.

Concurrent with the advent of second wave feminism and lesbian and gay civil

rights movements, lesbians seem to have been compelled to write about their own

experiences as the official and authoritative record of lesbianism. (See for example Abbot

and Love 1972, Grahn 1984, Martin and Lyon 1972). Much of this work has the feel of

authors frustrated over the "incorrect" representation of themselves and their lives in

(largely positivistic) academic texts and politically-motivated popular texts, especially

during the late 1960s to early 1980s era. These authors base the legitimacy of their

writings on their own life experiences. Some activist scholars wrote in this style to call

for political attention to feminist censure of butch and femme (Hollibaugh and Moraga

1981; Nestle 1981). More recent examples still wrestle with feminist ideals and the

appropriateness of pursuing butch or femme interests (De Lonbard 1995). Other

examples of this style include collections of dyke descriptions of many non-academic

authors, often with some editing and analysis on the part of the more academically

trained editor (Ainley 1995; Burana, Roxxie and Due 1994; Harris and Crocker 1997;

Nestle 1992; Weston 1996).

These works incite academic theorists to include lesbian voices critiquing

academic theory as not descriptive of "real" lesbian lives (Esterberg 1997). But as dyke

description has developed, more traditionally trained academics have gotten into the

game by combining personal life experiences with analyses. (Hollibaugh 2000; Munt

1998a and 1998b). These works have now become both deeply theoretical and personally

empirical. Again, I find my own work relating to these genres as one of my own

publications is produced in this style, which combines academic analysis with personal

testament (Crawley 2002). I include that article as Chapter 3 of this dissertation.

This dissertation relies on all these projects to complete my task. But it utilizes

only strategic instances of each to attempt a different project. I am sympathetic to the

goals of many of these projects. I applaud efforts to document lesbian history in

communities to include these histories in the knowledge base of human experiences. I

also applaud efforts of lesbians to record their own lives. If academics strive to document

and analyze human experience, surely lesbians' records of their own lives will be

valuable in this project. I find it useful to "count" lesbians, given certain ethical

parameters and credible assumptions. Counting is another form of documenting and is

invaluable in evaluating certain measures-for example, social inequalities. I am

especially intrigued by theories of lesbian subjectivities. I find the relationship between

discourses and individuals a defining interest of sociology. I agree that discourses create

limited subject positions, which greatly complicates the possibility of a free-thinking,

rational actor. But I worry about the disappearance of the individual from theories of

lesbian subjectivities. A free-thinking, rational actor with full autonomy and agency may

be a simplistic notion. But as sociologists well know, individuals do speak. As Blumer

asserted, the empirical world has a tendency to "talk back" to social science. Blumer


One errs if he [sic] thinks that since the empirical world can exist for
human beings only in terms of images or conceptions of it, therefore
reality must be sought in images or conceptions independent of an
empirical world. Such a solipsistic position is untenable and would make
empirical science impossible. The position is untenable because of the fact
that the empirical world can "talk back" to our pictures of it or assertions
about it-talk back in the sense of challenging and resisting, or not bending
to, our images or conceptions of it. This resistance gives the empirical
world an obdurate character that is the mark of reality. (22)

Here Blumer still gives the academician too much legitimacy, in that his

description places academicians as the scribes of "our" social science. But he offers an

important reminder that the empirical world talks. Individuals do speak and, although

their stories may be constrained by publicly available discourses, they still participate in

the telling. My project is not so much to argue about authorship as it is to listen to

lesbian's self stories. By listening to their stories of self, I hope to learn, not just about the

ways that self is constructed, but what stories of self tell us about the discourses that

make them possible.

Changing the Analysis:

Butch and Femme as Narrative Resources for Storying Selves
In this dissertation, I have two goals. First, I intend to listen and take seriously

lesbians' ideas of themselves. As a self-described lesbian and one who is sympathetic to

the lives of women who are non-normatively sexual, I want to believe lesbians and allow

them to tell me what is pertinent regarding whom they think they are in the social world.

Second, I ask not whether butch and femme are "real" (that is, the origins of urges) but

why the need for realness is important. That is, I use lesbians' stories of self to analyze,

not so much lesbians, as the discourses that lesbians have at their disposal to story a self.

More specifically, I investigate how lesbians narrate butch and femme as parts of

self and as means to participate in communities and disrupt institutions. I begin with the

assumption that butch and femme are narrative resources for storying selves (Holstein

and Gubrium 2000). Drawing from a constructionist perspective, the project is concerned

less with what butch and femme are, than with how they are used to make sense of

lesbian lives. Hence, I understand butch and femme as useful ideas emergent from the

local experiences of women with non-normative sexual interests living in a heterosexist,

deeply gendered, everyday world. And, I argue that the notions of butch and femme tell

us as much about the world in which we all live as about the individual lesbians


Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) notion of the narrative self we live by works to

explain how butch and femme as narrative resources can be both elective and not fully

conscious. It borrows from and augments Foucaldian notions of subjectivity by attending

to how the individual process of person production works, all the while understanding

how the available subject positions provide options for what may be understood as

socially possible. In this way, we can understand both the individual experience of person

production as well as the disciplining of individuals into proscribed subjectivities.

The project is based on interviews with focus groups, couples and individuals

with lesbians in and around a suburban, university town. I purport that the narrators of

my project represent, not just a geographic community (although I recognize that certain

features of this community will reflect some traits of the rural/suburban South, where it is

located), but a position in suburban US life that straddles a national LGBT "community"

replete with a barrage of nationally available media, stigma from the dominant US

culture, local community organizing, relationship issues, and a search to define self and

make sense of the world. It represents not so much a place (although I am proud to offer a

queer viewpoint that is not from hyper-urban New York or San Francisco) as it is

discourses and experiences that allow lesbians in suburban settings to construct stories of


In this introductory chapter, I have summarized the literature and debates on

butch and femme to date. Chapter 2 of the dissertation outlines the amalgamation of

methods that I used for this research. In this chapter, I briefly discuss a variety of

interpretive approaches proposed by several authors and explain how each aided in

completing my analysis in these chapters. Taking seriously the notion of a "sociology of

stories" (Plummer 1995) and storied selves (Holstein and Gubrium 2000), I provide my

own story of self in Chapter 3, both to situate myself in relationship to my narrators and

to advance a theory ofbutchness as an interpretation and display of ableness for female-

bodied persons. In the remaining chapters in the dissertation, I analyze the talk of my

narrators and address in detail the self "stories" of my narrators.

Chapter 4 demonstrates how the discourses surrounding butch and femme

encourage a sense of measurement of public lesbian selves. In doing so, I note the ways

in which lesbians continue to be held accountable to heteronormative notions of gender

and sexuality and produce a scientistic standard around which conformity and

subjectivity can be understood.

Chapter 5 focuses on the production of private lesbian selves and the limited

language available for understanding sexuality outside of heteronormative models.

Noting the pervasiveness of physical science metaphors, in particular "opposites attract,"

I argue that butch/femme becomes a default model for understanding lesbian sexuality,

given that any possibility of an erotics of likeness or sameness is squelched by

accountability to heteronormative models.

Finally, in Chapter 6, I discuss some variations of self-narration among lesbians

based on material circumstances including class, race and age difference. Having noted

these differences, I make some conjectures about the impacts of second wave and third

wave feminisms on lesbian political generations. In sum, I hope this project informs


lesbians and theorists how an analysis of everyday talk can illuminate the power of

discourse and of individuals' discursive practices.


Although this project is based on a theoretically well-developed interpretive

tradition in sociology (for a brief review of the interpretive tradition, see Holstein and

Gubrium 1994), there is no singular, easily identifiable method that I utilized in

accomplishing this project. Indeed, a step-by-step methodology that produces a concrete

answer is anathema to the interpretive tradition. Instead, I used the ideas of many

methodologists working within the interpretive tradition, piecing together their various

additions to the interpretive paradigm, to address my research question. Ultimately, I

want to know how lesbians come to understand self and what those stories of self tell us

about the everyday world in which we live. Tactically, I accomplish this through focus

groups, couples and individual interviews, fieldwork and autoethnography. Hence, this

chapter on methodology proposes to explain, not just the actual research techniques that I

employed, but the theoretical underpinnings of those approaches.

In this chapter, I investigate how selves are produced through talk. In doing so, I

address how we can theorize the construction of symbolic selves while honoring the

world of material experiences. I begin by introducing Plummer's (1995) interactionist

notion of "a sociology of stories" to explain why sexual and gendered life stories are

relevant to understanding culture. Next, I discuss the usefulness of theorizing storied

selves and introduce Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) notion of the "self we live by,"

which is created through interpretive practice. In order to attend to feminist concerns of

inequality, I augment the discussion with Dorothy Smith's notion of "looking up" at

institutions from the perspective of the individual. Having established a methodological

agenda, I conclude by outlining the research design and parameters and some "real

world" complications to that design that recognizes the sometimes messy issues of being

both researcher and community member.

Understanding a World of Stories

In Telling Sexual Stories (1995), Ken Plummer produces a decidedly

interactionist theory of the social world when he writes, "Society itself may be seen as a

textured but seamless web of stories emerging everywhere through interaction: holding

people together, pulling people apart, making societies work (5)." Reality, for Plummer,

is a world of stories we tell to each other and ourselves to make sense of our lives. Our

stories comprise our experiences, thoughts, feelings and the narratives available to

produce them. They provide for us the means for everyday people to understand everyday

lives. Plummer sees stories as a prime site for social science investigation. Hence,

researchers are not describing a concrete reality (in which positivistic Scientists, with a

capital "S," are interested) as much as a social reality produced by and for everyday

people. Nonetheless, this social reality has consequences for human interaction (Thomas

and Thomas 1928). It becomes real.

Plummer's main concern is the production of sexual stories. He notes a

proliferation of sexual stories in the late 20th century. He wants to know, not so much

what kind of sex is practiced, but what kind of knowledge is available about sexual

interaction to produce changes in the ways sexuality is understood and discussed. What

kinds of stories are being told? Why are they being told now, as opposed to some point in

the past? What stories are not told? Through analyses of stories about sex, Plummer

attends to not just sexuality but a cultural climate that makes certain kinds of discussions

possible. In a very nearly Foucauldian approach, Plummer concentrates not so much on

how the discourses/stories produce certain kinds of subjects but on how the stories

themselves could have come into being. Like Foucault (1977 and 1978), Plummer is

concerned with the specific discourses that are available at specific points in history. But

he wants to know how a variety of new stories proliferate from those discourses. He

provides a five step generic process for the telling of sexual stories: imagining,

articulating, inventing identities, creating social worlds and communities, and creating a

culture of public problems.3 Through this process, Plummer notes that in the everyday

world, people make sense of their realities through the only discourses available to them.

Plummer would understand the production of butch and femme as just such a

sexual story. Butch and femme emerged in the mid-20th century-in the very historical

moment in which Plummer notes a proliferation of sexual stories. It is interesting to note

that although butch and femme are often discussed as gendered constructs as I noted in

Chapter 1, they appeared on the social landscape as a sexual story-one of butches as the

sexual performer while femmes were the sexual recipients (Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis

1993). Myriad other stories have augmented butch and femme stories since then,

including different accounts of sexual aggressiveness and their relationship to gender.

Whether sexual urges rule gendered performances or gendered interests rule sexual

practices, it is clear that the language of sexual urges and gendered interests are

3 It is worth noting that Plummer does not see this as a simple linear process with distinct
phases. Rather, he is simply identifying the generic parts of the process that allows sexual
stories to emerge through social interaction.

inextricably intertwined. But sexual stories are not just free floating discourses about

social worlds; they are intimately crafted stories of self. Plummer writes, "The focus here

is neither on the solitary individual life (which is in principle unknown and unknowable),

nor on the text (which means nothing standing on its own), but on the interactions which

emerge around story telling. Stories can be seen as joint actions (20)." People are

understood as active producers of stories. Hence, a theory of social selves is necessary.

Narrating Social Selves

Holstein and Gubrium (2000) provide just such a notion of a narrative self by

noting that the self is not simply an abstract process or structure that can be referred to in

unitary terms. Instead, they ground the self in the everyday, local world as an

interactionally-produced entity by which individuals understand their experiences. They

suggest that social selves should be understood as "selves we live by." By this, they

mean the self is a story about ourselves that individuals agentcially create from socially

available narrative resources-locally produced social narratives that explain experiences

and positions in the culture (i.e., identities). Their theory is based in a pragmatist tradition

of modem theories of self, which bears a brief explanation here.

The modem notion of self has been a key sociological concept for nearly as long

as sociology has existed. Although other pragmatists theorized about the self, Mead's

notion of self is a distinctively social and, hence, sociologically useful one. Mead's

general thesis is that the self emerges through social interaction. Arguing against Freud's

internal ego and Watson's social conditioning theories, Mead's (1934) notion of self is

neither existent prior to social interaction nor wholly determined by social institutions. It

is mutually implicated in and constructed through social interaction. Mead writes, "The

self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises

in social experience (140)." Mead's assertion is that the self exists (it is a social object or

"thing") but only because of its production through social interaction. The nature of self

as object is of central importance to Mead because, as an object, the self exists apart from

the body or natural entity. It exists as a social entity-an entity of language, neither before

nor separate from the meaning making that occurs through language.

Mead characterizes the production of self as an internal conversation using

significant symbols. Social interaction is comprised of meaningful symbols (i.e.,

language) offered as "verbal gestures." Mead suggests that thought begins with an

attempt to predict what an "other" is thinking and then proceeds with an individual

expression of how to react to the predicted thoughts of others. As a reaction to the

behaviors of others, Mead's understanding of thought is one that must be emergent

through social interaction. Neither thought nor self can exist outside the social world.

Borrowing from Mead, Blumer (1969) took off with this notion of "objects" in

"the 'worlds' that exist for human beings" in his development of the "position of

symbolic interaction (10)." Blumer is concerned with the process of meaning-making

through interactions among individuals. His notion of the social world is the world of

meanings that actors construct and use for interaction. Further, Blumer argues that the

self emerges in everyday social interaction. This tradition provides just the support that

Holstein and Gubrium need to describe thinking, creative selves that are bound by the

social stories available to narrate lives.

In Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) formulation, the self is accomplished through

the process of interpretive practice, which is comprised of both discursive practice and

discourses-in-practice. The notion of discursive practice borrows from

ethnomethodologists the idea that selves are not just a substantive thing but also a social

accomplishment. They are practices to be "done." The aim is to note how members

speak themselves into existence via their own use of theory-produced as stories of self.

Using their own discursive practices, how do they accomplish the selves they set out to


But Holstein and Gubrium also want to know about substantive constraints on

constructing that self. This is their notion of discourses-in-practice. Using a Foucauldian

notion of cultural discourses, they describe how narratives about self are constrained by

the local discourses that are already in place in the local, everyday experience. Selves

cannot be freely bandied about. They are constrained by meaningful discourses, or

narrative resources, from which members must borrow. Narrative resources are the

stories from which we draw in discursive practice and are constrained by the discourses-

in-practice that regulate the available stories to be told. For example, "man," "woman,"

"heterosexual," "bisexual," are linguistic resources that define for us the meaning of

bodies and the varieties of sexuality that may define them. It is unfathomable to speak of

gender or sexuality existing outside many of these predefined notions.

One further theoretical note should made before trying to understand how butch

and femme are storied. The process of interpretive practice is one that must always take

place within local culture (Holstein and Gubrium 2000). The world of our experience is

a local one-one of tactical interaction for each of us. Because it is formed through our

interactive experiences, the culture that is available in the local, everyday setting is the

framework that we must use for understanding our experiences. Hence, it must be clear

that interpretive practice is always situated within local culture for each individual.

Thus, interpretive practice is both creative and constrained. It is accomplished in

the local, everyday experience of interaction and reflects the story of self that each

individual uses to make sense of their experiences.

Butch and Femme and Heteronormativity

Butch and femme, then, are stories that emerge from a particular location within a

historically-specific social system (the intersections of gender and sexuality for women

with same-sex desires in a patriarchal, heterosexist, Western culture). Patriarchally

proscribed notions of gender (Lorber 1994) 4 and compulsory heterosexuality (Rich 1986)

are discourses that limit and constrain the ways in which intimate interaction can be

imagined, discussed, and made coherent (Jeffreys 1996). Ingraham (1996) pushes these

concepts together to argue that gender theorists should not speak of "gender" but rather of

"heterogender" because dominant constructions of gender are so bound with notions of

sexuality as to "naturalize the institution of heterosexuality (179)." Richardson (1996)

agrees, referring to "heteronormativity" or the "institutionalized ...form of practice and

relationships, of family structure, and identity. It is constructed as a coherent, natural,

fixed and stable category; as universal and monolithic (2)." With the pervasiveness of the

heterogendered discourse, there is no possibility of stepping completely outside this

coherence system. However, there are ways to negotiate within it.

4 An incredibly large literature provides both theory and empirical evidence of the notion
of patriarchal gender. Lorber's Paradoxes of Gender (1994) provides a very useful and
extensive review of that literature.

Through the artful process of self-production, lesbians use aspects of the

heteronormative discourse. That is, lesbians create self through the culturally mandated,

institutionalized sexual story to which we are all bound and which makes all gender

coherent. But through notions of butch and femme, lesbians also restructure and critique

the heteronormative system. Holstein and Gubrium (1997; 2000) note that selves are not

just produced in totality but, rather, are artfully constructed and narratively composed.

Through the process of composing a self, a member uses several narrative tools. One, in

particular, is narrative editing, in which members actively retell a familiar tale however

with unfamiliar twists. Holstein and Gubrium (2000) write, "[People narrating self]

needn't reproduce particular coherences, even if there are local imperatives suggesting

that they do so, although storytellers are accountable for veering off locally preferred

courses (113)." Fortunately for lesbians, occupying non-normative sexual status provides

an opportunity to narratively and interactionally edit dominant notions ofheterogender.

Heteronormativity may be constraining, but, as Holstein and Gubrium (2000) add, the

telling of personal stories (that is, narrative practice) allows individuals to exert agency

by actively constructing themselves within the regulatory constraints of the coherent

discourses. Hence, as actively constructed non-normative positions in the normative

discourses of gender and sexuality, butch and femme actually talk lesbians into being.

Butch and femme are pervasive and persistent over time as constructs, not because they

imitate heterosex, but because the regulatory regimes of heteronormativity have been so

ever-present and oppressive in 20th century U.S. culture. Once "butch" and "femme"

categories have been talked into being, they become narrative resources for the further

future production of selves, communities and political resistance.

The Coherence of Heteronormativity as a Going Concern

Before moving on, I think a brief note on coherence is important. Narrative

resources must always be coherent within the discourses on which they depend. They are

not free floating and randomly created. They work within the pervasive discourses that

make a particular culture coherent. To argue that narrative resources must be coherent is

not to suggest they are accurate, real or removed from political interests. In fact, quite the

opposite is true. Linde (1993), a linguist, notes that coherence is "a property of texts" (12)

that has more to do with the familiarity of actors with a particular kind of story or setting,

than any absolute truth. Coherence is largely a context in which speaking can be

understood. Linde writes:

Coherence must also be understood as a cooperative achievement of the
speaker and the addressee; it is not an absolute property of a disembodied,
unsituated text. The speaker works to construct a text whose coherence
can be appreciated, and at the same time the addressee works to reach
some understanding of it as a coherent text and to communicate that
understanding (12).

Here Linde addresses speech acts in much the same way Goffminan (1959)

described performative presentations of self. Both theorists suggest that actors/speakers

are responsible to each other to accomplish a coherent interaction. Hence, both must use a

recognizable context to accomplish an interaction with an other.

Linde goes on to say that, linguistically, this is accomplished via coherence

systems-a "global cultural device for structuring experience into socially sharable

narrative (163)." The interesting feature of Linde's notion of coherence systems is the

interplay between "expert" knowledge and "common sense." She writes:

A coherence system of the type discussed here is a system of beliefs that
occupies a position midway between common sense -the beliefs and
relations between beliefs that any person in the culture may be assumed to
know (if not to share) and that anyone may use-and expert systems,

which are beliefs and relations between beliefs held, understood, and
properly used by experts in a particular domain. A coherence system is a
system of beliefs derived from some expert system, but used by someone
with no corresponding expertise or credentials. (163, emphasis in original)

In making the claim of a difference between "experts" and lay persons, I do not

believe Linde intends to reify some hierarchy of knowledge. At least, that is not my

intention. Rather, the distinction provides for the means by which so-called expert

knowledge can be taken out of theoretical context by a lay person. My colleagues often

differentiate between scholarship and what might be called "pop sociology or

psychology." For example, the notion that men are from Mars and women are from

Venus is patently ridiculous to a scholarly gender theorist, but nonetheless it is used to

support any number of political interests, given that the book suggesting such an idea

(Gray 1992) was widely discussed in the popular media. Probably originating from

Freudian notions of gender difference, it greatly misreads the scholarly work produced on

gender, especially the well-developed literature on the essentialism/constructionism

debate. Still, in practice, individuals nationwide probably use it to theorize their own life

situations because it seems to shore up the existence of gender difference in U.S. culture


Thinking of heteronormativity as a coherence system offers not just a notion of

how these ideas are spread as discourse, but a means of understanding how the original

works of Freud, Kinsey, and others have been read and interpreted and reinterpreted by a

variety of "experts" and lay theorists for a variety of political interests. In addition to

academically produced theory (which, of course, is also embroiled in political concerns

but at least hopefully is bound by some ethic of procedure and depth of analysis or

critique), the concept of coherence systems provides the voice of the lay person in

theorizing from the narratives available through so-called common sense. Noting the

potential for misinterpretation is not so much about who gets it right or gets it wrong but

how lay persons use theory that is mediated by the politics of popular media sources. For

as Linde argues, we can only speak of what makes sense, not only to the speaker but to

the listener as well.

Linde's notion of coherence systems as a means for theorizing everyday lives

illuminates how particular stories about sexuality and gender persist over time even with

little scholarly support. As Rubin argues in "The Traffic in Women (1975)," Freud's

psychoanalytic theory of the preeminence of the phallus may work as description of the

social world but it is no justification for men's on-going political power. Nonetheless,

individual men (and often women too) continue to justify their own sexist behavior based

on some essentialist belief that possession of the penis is somehow better than possession

of a vagina. With little scholarly utility, Freudian theory still pervades common sense

understanding and usage. Sex is still understood as something men do to women (Frye

1992) and gender is still understood as inherent in the body (Lorber 1993, 1994, and

1996). Speaking through the discourses of heteronormativity is to some degree required

for notions about sexuality and gender to be coherent. Indeed, lesbians may well wish to

express selves that are outside ofheteronormativity, but doing so may render them


Nonetheless, I have been in a quandary as to how Lorber (1994) and others can

talk of gender as institutionalized and yet there is no institution-no place to go, no

building to house the texts. How, then, can gender be institutional? Everett C. Hughes

(1971) provides the solution by recognizing that "institutions," as the preferred object of

analysis for sociologists, have been over-legitimized as actual places or definable

organizations. Instead, Hughes is interested in more ethereal arrangements he calls

"going concerns," which he defines as "having existed at least long enough to have been

seen" and as "having a present existence and an historical dimension (54)." The

coherence ofheteronormativity becomes a going concern for individuals speaking their

selves. The institutional character of gender/heteronormativity derives from the

commitment of people to keep speaking it-to continue to use it as a coherence system.

Unfortunately, as the only coherence system that is widely available, most individuals are

left with little choice but to reference heteronormativity and, hence, maintain it as a going

concern. Heteronormativity, then, as institutional coherence system, perpetuates itself as

a going concern for members as they speak their ideas, concerns, interests and selves into


Looking Up at Institutionalized Heteronormativity

In this project, I begin from the view of the individual looking up at the

institutionalized going concern of heteronormativity. In writing what she calls a

"Sociology for Women," Dorothy Smith (1987) suggests a method (which she calls

institutional ethnography) of "looking up" at institutions from the individual's point of

view.5 Smith argues that this method illuminates the workings of institutions by noting

the processes of participation in those institutions. She wants to understand how "social

relations exist as extended sequences of action which link together individuals'

5 While Dorothy Smith expressly speaks of a "Sociology for Women" and "institutional
ethnography" in her book The Everyday World as Problematic, the notion of "looking
up" at institutions from the perspective of the individual was one she communicated
during a group discussion of Institutional Ethnography that I attended at the August 2000
meetings of the American Sociological Association in Washington, D.C.

experiences and institutional processes (Grahame 356)." Smith's assumption is that

institutional discourse is in the speech of those participating in and ruled by that

institution. Institutional language is there because it is practiced and it is available and

because to avoid using institutional language would render the interaction incoherent.

She envisions institutional processes as the "relations of ruling" that affect individual

experience as "bifurcated consciousness."

Smith's overarching concern is for the oppression of women, understood through

women's lived experiences rather than through extralocal structures of knowledge. She

situates her work as feminist standpoint research. Centrally concerned with

understanding raced, classed and gendered oppression (in the Marxist sense), it is

definitionally a critical perspective (Calhoun 1995; Denzin 1994). Smith suggests that

late capitalism has helped to create a social atmosphere in which such ideas as markets,

government, and politics become reified into larger-than-life structures with anonymous

actors that remove consciousness from the everyday, local world. She defines the

relations of ruling as follows: "When I write of 'ruling' in this context I am identifying a

complex of organized practices, including government, law, business and financial

management, professional organization, and educational institutions as well as the

discourses in texts that interpenetrate the multiple sites of power (3)."

This complex ordering of social life creates an atmosphere in which emphasis is

placed on the "extralocal," rather than the local. Further, the extralocal, disembodied

relations of ruling exist largely as institutional discourses that organize everyday lives.

Institutional discourse exists beyond the individuals who participate in institutions.

Smith writes, "The relations of ruling are rationally organized. They are objectified,

impersonal, claiming universality. Their gender subtext has been invisible (4)."

The rational, universal understanding of institutional processes creates what Smith

calls bifurcated consciousness-a split between the knowerr" and the "known." She

writes, "Forms of consciousness are created that are properties of organization or

discourse rather than of individual subjects (3)." Consciousness is removed from the

individual and given to systems. Smith writes:

Entering the governing mode of our kind of society lifts the actor out of
the immediate local and particular place in which she is in the body. She
uses what becomes present to her in this place as a means to pass beyond
it to the conceptual order. This mode of action creates a bifurcation of
consciousness, a bifurcation, of course, that is present for all those
participating in this mode of action. It establishes two modes of knowing,
experiencing, and acting-one located in the body and in the space that it
occupies and moves into, the other passing beyond it. And although I
have made use of the feminine pronoun in general, it is primarily men who
are active in this mode. (82)

Importantly, Smith sees this consciousness as a gendered consciousness in that the

relations of ruling are largely structured by men and exclusionary of women's voices.

Since women's lives are often required to be centered around the local and men can often

escape their relationship to the local, bifurcated consciousness is particularly troubling for

women. Women's voices are often excluded from the realm of the extralocal, public

ruling apparatus, yet their experiences in the local are not taken as a basis for knowledge.

Hence, men not only control the ruling apparatus, they largely own knowledge.

Billed as a "sociology for women" (Smith 1987) and a "strategy for feminist

inquiry," (DeVault 1999) Smith's critique of current sociological practice is a

distinctively feminist one (Olesen 1994). In particular, she is critical of the notion of

objectivity that establishes a knower/known relationship in which scientists are called to

observe respondents and report on them from the distance, producing knowledge for the

ruling regime, rather than knowledge for women.

To address the shortcomings that Smith notes in current sociological practice, she

devises an alternate method, institutional ethnography, as a feminist method of inquiry.

Institutional ethnography is a means of putting the everyday world at the center of study.

The everyday world is taken as the site of study-the problematic-of sociology (Grahame

1998). In this way both the relations of ruling and the world of the everyday (as

organized by the relations of ruling) are exposed. Smith writes:

Locating the standpoint of women in the everyday world outside the text
(in which the text is written and is read) creates a whole new set of
problems to be solved, problems of the relationship between text and
reader, problems of how to write texts that will not transcribe the subject's
actualities into the relations of ruling, texts that will providefor their
readers a way of seeing further into the relations organizing their lives.
(emphasis added, 47)

To create an institutional ethnography, a researcher must start from the narratives

produced and practiced in the everyday world. The researcher must engage in

observation of everyday practice and in interviewing people about their local, everyday

livesfrom the standpoint of experiencing those everyday practices and narratives.

Using institutional ethnography, one does not view "the field" as a site, the thing

studied, or become overly concerned with the poetics of representation. Instead, Smith

compels us to study localpractice in order to shed light on the discourses and organizing

structures that hold these local cultures in place. The aim is to understand local practices

from the standpoint of practitioners so as to understand the actual structuring powers of

institutionalized discourses.

The works of Smith, Plummer and Holstein and Gubrium segue nicely because

they have much in common. All three envision themselves as pragmatists-interested in

the everyday world of social interaction. Their interests lie not in texts themselves but the

narratives produced through locally-situated, historically-specific social interaction.

Plummer is especially consistent with Holstein and Gubrium's approach. Both find a

basis in Foucauldian notions of discourse within interpretive notions of social practice.

Their differences lie largely in their divergent focus. Holstein and Gubrium are concerned

with the kinds of selves that can be narrated within specific local cultures. They address

the narratives that produce certain types of individuals: What kinds of identities are

available to exist within cultural settings? Plummer focuses on the stories told by

individuals with greatest concern for what can be learned about the social context: What

do the individuals' stories tell us about the historical moment?

Similar to Plummer, Smith is more concerned with what individuals' narratives

tell us about social settings-in particular for Smith, institutions. But her departure from

Plummer is her overarching, feminist concern for women's condition of inequality. Here,

she is more true to her Marxist background than the Foucauldian leanings of Plummer

and Holstein and Gubrium. Smith's ultimate concern is to describe why women

experience the social world so differently from-and less favorably than-men. Also a

feminist standpoint theorist, I share her overarching concern. I believe sociologists fail to

describe the social world when they neglect to include an analysis of its major organizing

principles-gender, race, class and sexuality. Hence, Smith's concerns are a useful

addition to Holstein and Gubrium's and Plummer's approaches. Yet, Smith's approach is

not without its problems.

Smith's reliance on Marx leaves her less well situated to describe the creative

agency of actors. It focuses very well on the constraints of institutions but neglects the

possibility for individual negotiation within restrictive institutions. Her description of

power continues to focus on institutional forces, implying that group action against

institutions is the primary means for true social change. What I demonstrate in later

chapters is that, through using interpretive practice (i.e., individual and community talk

that produces new interpretations of reality), lesbians attempt to move beyond the

discourses that constrain them. Hence, change can begin to happen on the individual level

as well as through community action and social movement participation.

Using all these approaches in concert allows me to address agentic actors and

oppressive institutions. Using Holstein and Gubrium's approach, I focus on the selves

that are available within institutional discourses. Using Smith's and Plummer's

approaches, I focus on institutional settings and discourses available during specific

historical moments. In this way, I hope to describe lesbian experiences of gender and

sexuality and the broader context in which they occur.

Storying Lesbian Selves in a Heteronormative World-Tactics and Methods

In this dissertation, I collect lesbian stories about butch and femme. I do so by

interviewing women interacting in lesbian communities about their experiences with

butch and femme-positive and negative, personal and observed, participating or

avoiding. In short, I listen to what lesbians have to say to each other and to me about

butch and femme. I listen to how they produce their interpretation of themselves, with or

without butch or femme, and I listen to how butch or femme as institutional discourses

shape or constrain their ability to interpret themselves freely. I did not restrict my

interviews to lesbians who self-identified as "butch" or "femme" or some form of those. I

wanted to hear what a variety of lesbians had to say about butch and femme. Hence, this

dissertation is not the story of butches and femmes. It is the relationship of the ideas of

butch and femme to lesbian stories.

Taking the notion about storying selves seriously, my goal is not to find a specific

thing about butch or femme or lesbian sexuality or gender. Rather, my goal is to let the

members speak for themselves-to let the stories flow.

As a feminist researcher, I am not trying to maintain objectivity (Fonow and Cook

1991). I cannot go as a third person observer into "the field."6 1 live in "the field." I met

many of my narrators casually or through work settings before seeking narrators. As a

result, many narrators know me, and some of the context of my life and research. I have

played softball and basketball with some, had my hair cut by one, gone to bars and

concerts and dinners with various, gone to faculty organization meetings with one or two,

gone to student organization meetings with many, lived in the same neighborhood as

some and crossed paths with most in bookstores or restaurants or on the street or on

campus. I lived and worked in the general area of my interviews for four years. Often, my

narrators would refer to situations or acquaintances that we may have had in common.

Often, they would question me about my identification or relationships or sexual

interests. Surely, this is not a situation of objectivity.

6 In the classic sense of anthropological study, cultures are studied as foreign objects to
the researcher (Abu-Lughod 1991; Atkinson and Hammersley 1994). Interviewing and
fieldwork are used to "discover" the existent setting as a natural world in itself. [For
examples of these kinds of methods, see Emerson, Fretz and Shaw (1995); Lofland and
Lofland (1995).] Critiquing such an approach, postmodernist ethnographers are more
occupied with how the process of doing anthropology itself "writes culture" (Clifford and
Marcus 1986). Griffith refers to this as the insider/outsider debate, in which she calls for
researchers to more critically examine our positions as both insiders and outsiders (1998).
She is not satisfied with understanding the researcher as either insider or outsider, but
compels us to understand our positions both inside and outside the local.

As an active interviewer, I recognize that during each interview session I have

already asked narrators to step outside their everyday lives just by asking them to reflect

upon themselves (Holstein and Gubrium 1995). Surely my interventions cannot produce a

"natural" setting. So the interviews that I undertook were purposefully unstructured,

lasting varying lengths of time, with no specific goals except to ask members to talk

about themselves and to talk about butch and femme.

Nonetheless, I did have a general set of questions from which I worked to spur

members to think about certain general topics, which were garnered from the literature on

butch and femme as reviewed in Chapter 1. The general topics began with "what does the

term 'butch' or the term 'femme' mean to you?" and proceeded by prompting members

to think about historical aspects of butch and femme, their relationship to appearance

and/or sexuality, race and class, inner feelings, perceptions about non-lesbians and their

conjectures about ideal communities. The questions were designed to prompt members to

think about both themselves and their place in lesbian communities. But members were

allowed to move the discussion in any direction while I actively interacted to ensure I had

a clear understanding of their accounts. If members did not discuss a particular issue, I

asked them to think about its relevance. Sometimes, members launched into a new

discussion of that relevance. Sometimes, they simply said certain aspects were not that

relevant for them. In either case, the prompting was not used to ask them to "get the

answer right" so much as to ask them what they thought. How do lesbians perceive the

existence or lack of existence of butch and femme in their lives?

I think a brief statement of ethics is necessary. As sponsored research through the

University of Florida, I adhered strictly to the rules and guidelines of the Institutional

Review Board to protect the ethics of the project and the confidentiality of the

participating members. I adhered strictly to the process for obtaining consent and have

been constantly vigilant of the need to maintain confidentiality. As a result, only

pseudonyms have been used in this dissertation. No actual identities will be used except

for my own.

I pursued multiple types of interviews-focus groups and individual and couples

interviews. My interest was to invoke members to speak in a variety of settings where

their status as lesbian might be relevant. I wanted to know how members talked in

community settings, how they interacted in couples and what they thought of themselves

on a most intimate level. Where possible, I completed focus groups and asked those

participants to participate in couples interviews followed by individual interviews.

However, this method was not strictly adhered to as some members were not available

for the entire barrage of interviews. Some members completed all three interviews, some

participated in only an individual interview or only the focus group interview or only the

couples interview.

In total, I held three focus groups that loosely reflect the major social groups for

lesbians in the area; and my partner and I participated in one group meeting in which I

was invited to both participate as a member and ask others to reflect about their thoughts.

I also held eight couples interviews and twenty-seven individual interviews (of which 2

took place via e-mail).

Demographically, my narrators were relatively diverse with the exception of one

dimension-race. The vast majority of my narrators are white (34), two are African

American and one is Asian American. The extent of the racial divide in the area surprised

even me. Although I did some exploratory work to include more women of color, I

determined that racial communities in the area were largely separate, such that pursuing

more communities would, in effect, entail pursuing more than one project. I was

concerned that giving short attention to interactional communities that are not my own

might risk misunderstanding sub-cultural differences, or worse, imposing white notions

on non-white communities. So, I chose to limit my study to the community settings with

which I was already familiar. I address race briefly in Chapter 6 but largely leave the

issue of racial difference to future studies. Hence, it is important to be clear that this is

largely a study of white lesbian culture.

In most other respects, my narrators were largely diverse. They ranged in age

from 19 to 71. At least five have children (ranging from small to adult). They come from

various class backgrounds-from odd jobs to trades to professions and business owners to

being independently wealthy. They come from all over U.S. and include two of

international origin. All identified as lesbian, including one lesbian-identified M-to-F

transsexual, although some mentioned they might identify as bisexual were it not so

difficult to do within lesbian communities. In terms of coming out, they ranged from

recently out to more than 40 years as lesbian. With respect to butch and femme, their

identities ranged from femme to stone butch to no specific identification, with many

permutations and combinations of identities.

A significant division did appear by age. Although I did not organize the focus

groups as such, the four group meetings were roughly divided into two groups of women

under 30 and two groups of women over 30. I delve into the issue of age difference in

Chapter 6.

In addition to my specific interview agenda, I also participated in any number of

occasions that augmented my ideas and experiences regarding this subject matter. This I

view as fieldwork. I participated in the organizations that I tapped for focus groups and

discussed my research and ideas with numerous community members on numerous

occasions. I held frequent conversations with many members of the local lesbian

community. I was continuously engaged in these discussions with many people-my

dissertation committee mentors, local merchants and business women, members of sports

leagues (some who are faculty mentors as well), friends, current and former students and

students referred to me by other faculty members, social workers, friends of friends, local

performers, other graduate students, among others. Indeed, I often found that, after I

completed an interview, I would receive invitations to shoot pool, go to lunch, go out to

bars, attend future discussion groups, go to house parties and any number of other

friendship building activities. In short, I was "in the field" constantly before the data

collection actually began and for two years after that.

In sum, the methods used to support this dissertation are an amalgamation of

interpretive methods. They were designed to proliferate opportunities to incite talk about

butch and femme, not to draw false boundaries around myself as a researcher or the

"results" of the research. Indeed, the research continues.

A Note About Me

On a more personal, political note, I prefer this methodological approach and the

notion of an agentic storied self because it gives a legitimate and knowledgable voice to

lesbians. As a lesbian, I recognize the political importance of allowing lesbian voices to

speak and be heard. Additionally, it is continually important to recognize that lesbian

experiences are related to dominant heteronormative discourses, not deviant from or

unaffected by those discourses. As a researcher, I appreciate that a sociology of stories

understands the storied nature of all sexuality and a notion of selves we live by suggests

that all people story selves for themselves. Hence, researchers are not separate from their

research site. Researchers also have selves that are storied (in some way, however

revisionist or radical) from the available discourses. In the following chapter, I take this

premise seriously and provide my own story of self, complete with an interactionist

theory of butchness.


When something is about masculinity, it is not always "about men." I
think it is important to drive a wedge in, early and often and if possible
conclusively, between the two topics, masculinity and men, whose relation
to one another it is so difficult not to presume. (Kosofsky Sedgwick

Taking seriously the notions that selves are narrated in the everyday world and

that I, as a researcher and lesbian, live in the world of my narrators, I provide in this

chapter my own story of self. The notions "butch" and "femme" and expectations of

heteronormativity have been as salient for me in my coming out as lesbian and, indeed,

throughout my life, as they have been for any of my narrators. Hence, in relating the

stories of my narrators, it seems only fairplay to provide my own story of the way in

which I acquired butchness. In doing so, I argue that butchness can be understood as an

attempt to display ableness for female-bodied people. This theory of butchness as

ableness segues nicely into Chapter 4, in which I note how the talk of my narrators

produces the assumption of competence for butchness but not femmeness. In sum, my

autoethnography gives context to the assumptions regarding butch and femme that are

present in the everyday talk of lesbians. And so, I begin narrating how I understand

butchness in my own life story.

7 This chapter was previously published in 2002 under the same title in Cultural Studies
,-6 Critical Methodologies, Volume 2, Number 1, pages 69-92. It is reprinted here with
permission from Sage Publications.

This is not me. Of course, my face is pictured but it is not me. I look nice, don't I?

That's what I have heard often, "You look so pretty in this picture!" I don't see

beauty in this picture. I see the make-up my sister applied, the way she styled my hair, the

dress my parents bought, the daughter and granddaughter that every girl is supposed to

be, and the wife that every woman is supposed to become. What is not pictured is me. In

this picture, I am a prop in the collective fantasy of The American Dream (Butler 1993;

de Lauretis 1994). In this picture, I exemplify and reify the "natural" morality of

heterosexuality, contractual marriage and capitalistic success. It is a comfortable fantasy,

but it is no more "natural" than the lipstick and hairspray that I am wearing. It was never

me. I looked like that exactly one day in my life. I wasn't too happy about it then, but

what choice does a girl have?

This is me. I look good in a tux, don't I? Rarely have I heard that I could look


Tuxedos also produce a fantasy-an alternative dream, if you will-but it's a queer

one-harder to read, not as comfortable. The alternative fantasy makes it harder to

imagine "daughter," "sister," "girl"-and "wife" has a very different meaning than it did

before. This picture is closer to the me I see. It is closer to the fantasy I want to construct.

The Sara that I see in my mind doesn't wear dresses. She sails, drinks beer, studies hard,

dances, drives a truck, jokes with friends, among other things. I don't wear dresses

because a simple dress has the power to hide all those other parts of me.

It is through an understanding of my relationship to dresses, boats, and butchness

that I interpret the way I have negotiated a place in the world. I am a self-proclaimed

butch lesbian and I am continually mystified by the ways in which gender and sexuality

intersect and are constructed for people with non-standard gender presentations. This

chapter is an invitation into the images of my experiences that provide an analytic for the

existence of butchness.

I offer my story (Denzin 1992) not because I see myself as a particular exemplar

of lesbianism or even of femaleness. Quite the contrary, what is most useful about my

experiences is that they are whole unremarkable. My life is as everyday and

commonplace as anyone's. As an autoethnography, the story is not so much about me as

it is about the experience of gender and sexuality in late 20th century America. And,

although it is a life narrative about a lesbian, I offer it as potentially informative to

anyone who has acquired a Westernized, gendered self and critically reflects on them.

I also write by way of offering a theory of gendered selves. Specifically, I argue

that butchness in lesbians is a response to cultural notions about the appropriateness of

ableness for female-bodied people. Butchness is a practice in a sexist, heterosexist culture

that engages female-bodied people in the expression of ableness. This may not be the

8 In claiming my butchness as felt experience, I am going out on a limb politically. There
is a danger that this paper will be read as an assertion that my experiences may be
indicative of the experiences of all butches. That is not my intention. I recognize that
many other butches may not see me as butch or "butch enough" to represent butchness
for various reasons including some of the following. I do not work a job that requires
physical labor. I do not "pack" (the practice of wearing a harness and carrying a dildo in
one's pants in declaration of one's right to sexual agency and one's readiness to engage
in sexual interaction with a fem). I recognize myself as a woman by identifying as a
"butch lesbian" which renders me not qualified by some standards to represent
stonebutchness or transgender butchness. But it is not my intention to represent all forms
ofbutchness in this paper. I am only hoping to use my felt experiences to open new
theoretical directions. I should note that the "felt experiences" to which I refer are those
of a white, working-class butch currently living and working in a middle-class, academic
setting. Butch and fem may have different meanings to lesbians of color and I do not
intend to represent that experience. It is my opinion that the experiences of people of
color are significantly underrepresented in gay and lesbian studies and that more work
needs to be done on and by lesbians of color.

only experience or interpretation ofbutchness. But it is, I think, an original one and one

that speaks, not only about butches, but about culture, discourse, and a resistance that

gives rise to such a possibility. In theorizing the personal, I provide a frame of reference

for renewing a sense of how one can construct sexuality.

Always at issue is how to voice an argument. At 35 years old, I have been in

graduate school studying sociology for six years, concentrating my academic interests on

butch and femme in lesbian communities. Having read volumes of literature on butch and

femme, I have come away feeling that academic "texts" do not reflect some of my lived

experience. Often informing disciplines rather than lesbians, they do not reflect the

everyday, material knowledge that I feel regarding butchness.9 As a result, I choose to

put myself in the text (literally) by offering an autoethnography. I model this work after

the sociological contributions of Carolyn Ellis (1991a; 1991b; 1993; 1997; and 1998).

Ellis uses autoethnography to "find her voice, speak from her body, not from the body of

the paper (Ellis 1997:135)."

In this chapter, I speak through the voice of my embodied experiences as well as

through the voice of a gender theorist and sociologist. It is both personal and theoretical,

interweaving lived experience with how that experience, writ large, both is and can be

represented as being. Grounding this in personal experience, I present "scenes" from my

history (as I interpret them now, of course) and organize them to narrate for the reader the

story of gender and sexuality as I organize it for myself. In doing so, I attempt to show in

9 Two notable exceptions to this critique are Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis (1993), which
provides an oral history of the 1950s era lesbian community in Buffalo, New York, and
Munt (1998), which has collected several autoethnographic style texts by a variety of
authors. I hope this piece adds to the work that these two volumes provide.

the next two sections how I commonly understand the notions of "dresses" and "boats" as

metaphors for requisite femininity and able-ness respectively. Following this, I use

butchness as a resource to respond, both personally and theoretically, to a culture that

sees the female body as less competent than the male body. In the process, butchness

becomes an embodied display that critiques the preposterous notion that masculinity is

essential to any-body.



[Scene: It is 1996. Sitting around the dinner table at my parents' house, my

mother, my partner, and I are discussing an upcoming wedding of a close, female friend.

She had asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding and I found myself completely

frustrated over the lack of available choices with which that request left me. It was not

the first wedding in which I had been asked to be a bridesmaid from this close set of

friends. All of my friends from high school and college would be there and were well

aware of my life-long aversion to wearing dresses. It was a dilemma that I have always

hated: how to participate fully in a very important, very public day of a good friend

without committing the cardinal sin against my hard-won construction of self-feminizing

to suit normative gender imperatives. My partner and I had come home for the weekend

to visit my parents and our friends and take a two-day respite from the rigors of grad

school. We are catching Mom up on the latest news.]

"I have to wear another goddamn dress, I ranted at no one in particular, as my

partner nodded in agreement with my felt frustration. "Terri promised when we were at

Wendy's wedding that, when she got married, I could wear a tux. And now she is


"Oh, you know she can't really let you wear a tux to her wedding, my mom replied.

"I know, I replied. "It's not just her wedding. It's her mom's wedding too. I just

can't stand that I have to wear a dress. And everyone will be there-staring, I said,


"Oh, nobody will be staring, "my mom tried to console me.

"YES, THEY WILL. YOU KNOW THEY WILL. Everyone knows how much I hate

dresses and you know they will be watching me and laughing at how silly I look, "I

replied, surprising myself and my mom with more anger than I expected to express. I got

up and left the table frustrated and shaking with anger. "Goddammit, I thought to

myself, "I'm 30 years old and they still don't understand why I hate wearing dresses."

For many years I have been aware that I have one of two choices on these

occasions: (1) I can be in the wedding as a bridesmaid, choking up my own pride and self

respect and symbolically signifying the importance of my close friendship with someone

who is very important to me, or (2) I can simply attend the wedding as a guest, honoring

my own convictions about distasteful, heterosexualizing, sexist rituals and my choice of

personal presentation. Of course, this second choice calls into question the importance of

my friendship with the bride. After all, if I really cared about her as a close friend,

wouldn't I just buck up and wear the dress?


[Scene: We are in the backyard of a farm in rural, central Indiana on which I live

with my mom, dad and sister, Cindy. Open fields of clover wave in the wind on a warm

summer day. Our house is on a bend in the road with neighbors on one side and another

family at the end of our long, gravel driveway. Behind our house are several acres of

woods with trees to climb and a creek with a rock bridge. If you are good at jumping

from rock to rock, you might even keep your feet from getting wet. It is a fantasyland for

kids with endless possibilities of forts and wilderness survival and all kinds of adventure.

When the days get hotter than 80 degrees (Farenheit), we get to go barefooted. There are

several neighbor kids that Cindy and I play with. We are behind the house right now

playing with Danny. It's 1971, the first year that I know what a year is. I'm 5 years old.]

"Sara come here, Mom yelled from the house.

"What? I answered as I walked toward the back door.

"Come over here and put this t-shirt on.


"Because I said so."

"But it's hot. I don't want to wear a t-shirt."

"It's not that hot. Put this on. You should be wearing a shirt."

"But I don't want to. Why do I have to?"

"Because you shouldn't be running around without a shirt on anymore.

"Why not? Danny doesn 't have to wear a t-shirt. Dad doesn't have to wear a t-

shirt. Why do I have to? "

"Because girls need to wear t-shirts."

"Why? I don't want to wear a shirt."

"Don't argue. Put this on."

I, of course, did what Mom said. You have to do what Mom says. But I spent the

rest of the afternoon arguing with Mom's logic in my mind. "But, Mom... I don't

understand. That doesn't make any sense. It's not fair. I don't want to wear a shirt. Why

should I have to wear a shirt? What does being a girl have anything to do with wearing a

t-shirt?" It was so frustrating and illogical. Why did I get stuck being hot just because I

was a girl? It just doesn't make any sense.

Star Trek

[Scene: I am 6 years old and in first grade. Mom and I are in my bedroom as I'm

dressing for school. Mom and I are having an earnest chat as she sits at the foot of my

twin bed with the railing on one side. I stand amid the toys strewn around the floor.]

"Can't you just wear a dress to school once in a while?" Mom practically


Mom finally gave her last offer, "Ok. I'll make you a deal. You only have to wear

a dress one day a week."

"What kind of deal is that? I thought to myself. "What's in it for me? I thought a

deal was where both folks got something out of it." "But I don't want to wear a dress,

ever, I told her.

Poor Mom. I was never compliant on this issue. She didn't seem to understand

that you can't play at recess with a dress on. Besides, lately we had been playing Star

Trek a lot. It was Darren's idea because he liked it so much and he knew all the

characters. He wanted to be Mr. Spock so I got to be Captain Kirk. You have to be able to

run up and over mounds of dirt and dive behind them if you are going to play Star Trek-

especially if you are going to be Captain Kirk. You can't be wearing a dress to do that.

Your underwear would show. I got stuck wearing a dress that day but our "deal" fell

through. My persistence won out. I didn't wear dresses that year. In fact, I didn't wear a

dress again until seventh grade when I was inducted into the National Junior Honor

Society. You practically have to wear a dress for something like that. It's formal. At any

rate, that's my record so far-six years without wearing a dress. To this very day I'm still

working on it. (Damn weddings!) I'm going to break that record in about four more


Marching Band

[Scene: It's 1982. I am 16 and a sophomore in high school. We had long since

moved from Indiana to South Florida where my Dad's job had relocated. In high school,

marching band would become my passion-sort of like a religion. I played trumpet. It was

very serious. We had to have the halftime show polished. I wanted a leadership role. I

wanted my voice to count and I wanted responsibility. But there were few officer

positions available to sophomores. You could be a librarian or a quartermaster. Librarians

were primarily assigned to file the sheet music and keep track of who had it checked out.

Quartermasters loaded instruments on buses when we went on trips. Located in the center

of an auditorium-style practice room, I am standing on the podium in front of 100

students giving my electoral address for the position of Quartermaster. Why would

anyone want to file sheet music?]

"I have worked hard for this band and I'm prepared to work harder. I'll work

hard to keep the instruments in order and pack them carefully on the busses. I'll show up

early for games and stay late to pack up. I'll represent anyone's concerns in officer

meetings and communicate issues to the other officers and to Mr. Kidd. I want this job

and I'll work hard at it. And if anyone doesn 't think I can lift a sousaphone, say so right

now and I'll prove it to you once and for all. I have lifted them before and I can lift one

now. Please vote for me for Quartermaster. "

[I had been honing my feminist oration skills since seventh grade. It is now later

in the same year. Several officers are standing around the band room chatting while

waiting for an officer meeting to begin. One of the librarians is talking to me while others

are looking on.]

"Sara you should wear just a little bit of mascara. You have such pretty eyes. You

would look so much nicer with just a little bit of makeup, "Diana commented completely


"Won't that run when I sweat? I replied.

"Well, try not to do things that make you sweat."

"Uh-Huh!" I chuckled as I walked away.

How does one respond to that? Boy, did she have me pegged wrong. I worked

hard as Quartermaster that year. The following year I would be 1st Lieutenant and my

senior year I would be Band Captain-the highest officer that was not a drum major. I did

sweat quite a lot but my makeup never ran. I always remember band very fondly. I was

always glad that I had been an officer. I enjoyed having my opinion heard.

"You're A Young Lady."

[Scene: It's 1986. I'm 20 and looking for the dreaded summer job between

sophomore and junior years in college. I needed to save big cash that year because I

intended to spend the next summer studying in Innsbruck, Austria. My parents had

agreed to pay the summer tuition since the credits counted toward my degree but I had to

earn my round-trip airfare, Eurail pass and spending money for nine weeks. I needed a

job that paid real money, no more $3.35 an hour. The valet parking jobs for private clubs

on the beach were long since gone. I didn't have any connections at major companies. I

looked through the want ads for decent jobs and the pickings were slim. They all entailed

manual labor but that was fine with me. I needed money. I was turned away for several

jobs over the phone. I answered two ads in person. I'm standing at the reception desk of a

local, family-owned firm that offered $7.50 an hour for laying Italian tile. Behind the

reception desk is an elderly woman who appears to be a grandmotherly-figure helping out

with some office work]

"May I have an application, please, I asked.

"What job are you applying for?" she seemed confused.

"There was an ad in the paper for someone to lay tile. I wanted to apply."

"You can't apply for that job. You 're a young lady, she replied almost shocked.

"Can I at least fill out an application? I asked, thinking that someone else would

do the actual screening for the job.

"We only take applications from men for that job, she answered firmly.

There was nothing else that I could say. "They don't have a clue whether I can do

that job, I thought to myself as I turned and left. "I know that's illegal and there isn 't a

damn thing I can do about it. Goddammit!"

[I left that office quietly seething. It was pointless to argue. The next day I met

with the owner of a lawn maintenance company, expecting the same reception. We sat in

cab of his aging Toyota pick up in front of the parking lot of the convenience store where

his work crew took lunch break. He looked me up and down to determine my physical


"Do you think you can do the work? he asked.

"I'll damn sure give it a try, I told him.

"Well," he said. "I'm not sexist. I'll let you try it. Ifyou can't do it, just let me

know. I'll pay you and we can part company."

I started the next day and worked from 8:00 am to 4:30pm (with half an hour for

lunch) from early May to early August. As it turned out, he was only speaking for himself

when he said he wasn't sexist. Everyone else on the crew was overtly sexist. Because the

crew hated me for being female, I got to pull weeds all day long. I took shit from them

EVERY DAY. They said I slowed them down. They would supposedly have to do more

work to make up for my presence. I found out later that I only slowed down their crack

smoking. While I was pulling weeds, the crew boss would send one worker to crack town

to buy some stuff for them. When he returned, they would all get high in the backyard of

one of the houses we were working on. In the mean time, I was cutting 100 two-foot high

ball bushes by hand or laying a truckload of mulch or pulling weeds for 11 houses in a

row. I have never been in so much pain. I hated it. The muscles in my fingers swelled so

that my rings didn't fit until after the summer was over. I found out about the crack

smoking in the middle of the summer when the crew boss approached me in the middle

of a particularly large lawn to ask if I thought I could ride the mower. I was shocked.

What a stupid question. I had been driving the dump truck to haul the trash. What made

him think I couldn't drive a riding lawn mower? As it turns out, this new offer was only

extended because he was so high on crack that he was afraid he would drive the mower

into the lake. Apparently, the rest of the crew was just as high. Otherwise, riding the

mower would have been reserved for the "obviously more qualified" men. A few years

later my Dad told me he never understood why I stayed with that job. He said he had

never seen anyone work so hard. He said I looked "pitiful." I couldn't quit that job. I

wasn't about to. They would have been right. It would have been too muchfor a girl. It

wasn't worth the money.


[Scene: I am inside the living room of my grandparents house in north central

Indiana. It's 1987. I'm 21. It is the day of Grandpa's funeral and the whole family has

just returned to Grandma and Grandpa's house after the service. Grandma is sitting in her

chair blowing her nose and wiping the hours' old tears from her water-weary eyes. It has

been a difficult day for everyone and I'm exhausted by 3pm. One of my cousins is sitting

on the couch quietly. I just finished changing into comfortable clothes and collapsing into

an easy chair across the room. The living room is absolutely still. No one is quite sure

what to do or say. Other cousins, aunts and uncles are moving up and down the stairway

in the process of changing clothes also.]

"You look better now, Grandma says to me as she blows her nose again. She has

been bursting into tears at odd intervals all day and it's been so difficult to know what to

say or do primarily because there is nothing that can be said or done.

What do you mean ?" I asked surprised by her comment.

"Wearing jeans. "She pauses to blow her nose and catch her breath. "You look

more like yourself "

"I bought the suit just before I came up for the funeral, I said sniffling. "Mom

suggested I buy one since I will need one for interviewing soon." It seemed necessary to

buy a business suit with jacket and skirt to use for interviews after graduation next year.

"Well, it's a fine suit but I like you better in jeans."

"Me too. "My eyes began to tear again-for Grandpa and for me.

After all those years of her and Mom tag teaming me about the merits of dresses,

she finally admitted they just don't fit me. It was the best gift Grandma ever gave me.

She understood. Grandma died five years later. I wore pants to her funeral.

As you can see, wearing dresses has never been a picnic for me. I associate them

with the expectation that my female body can't do [insert any physical task]. Dresses

ARE femininity to me and I don't understand why everyone seems so hell bent on

expecting my participation in what I perceive as my own disabling. For me, the

appearance of femininity signals the appearance of disability. However, as I will discuss

later, dresses are not perceived as disabling by all women (my sister in particular), which

establishes a particular complexity to interaction. Before addressing this complexity, I

address my response to requisite femininity.



[Scene: It is 1984. I am 18. We are in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway

somewhere between Palm Beach Inlet and Jupiter Inlet on my friends' boat. It is summer

in south Florida and the sun is beating down. It is 95 degrees with 98% humidity and the

water temperature feels like bath water. Mike has just finished jumping wakes on the

hydroslide. We've all been rating his falls-1 is letting go of the ski rope, 10 is drawing

blood. He got about an 8 and decided it was someone else's turn. Bill already took a turn

and Thomas is driving the boat.]

"Hey, Sara. Your turn, Thomas calls out.

"Cool. I'll take a turn, "I reply as I lean over the gunwhale to tend to the ski rope

lest it get caught in the prop.

"Do you want skis or the hydroslide? Bill asks. He stands poised to hand me the

skis if I would prefer them to the board Mike has in the water.

"Hydroslide," I replied, "but you can hand me a beer though."

Bill shoots me a grin as he hands me a beer. I slip it in my ski vest. "Shit, that's

cold." I grin back at him.

Mike climbs in the boat as I jump over the side, beer and all. I kick over to the

board as Thomas motors the boat ahead to take the slack out of the ski rope.

"Bonzai!" I yell as Thomas hits the throttle. As the ski rope yanks me out of the

water, I pull the board under my knees and velcro the strap around my legs. In less than

10 seconds after the boat pulls me out of the water, I've opened the beer and commence

to drinking it while skiing. After about 30 seconds the air has sucked out 1/3 of the beer, I

have consumed the rest and I take my shot at wake jumping. How spectacular will my

falls be?

Bill reaches in the cooler for a handful of ice and yells, "Duck, S, as he begins

to hurl ice cubes in my direction.

Ok, it's kind of silly and infantile but it was A LOT of fun. Somewhere there is a

picture of me just before I am about to take off on the hydroslide smiling about as big as

my face will smile. I've never looked quite so healthy in any wedding picture. In 1992,

Thomas, Ray and I took an outboard motor repair course. In 1993, Thomas and I got our

commercial captains licenses. (It was a 2-for-I at Sea School.) They are all the happiest

of memories.

"You've Never Done A Day's Work."

[Scene: It is May 1983. I am just about to finish my junior year in high school. I

need a summer job. I've just parked in front of the local boat supply store which has a

help-wanted sign displayed in the front window.]

"Isaw the sign in the window about help wanted. I am looking for ajob, "Isay to

the man behind the cash register.

A very salty-looking, tanned old guy laughed out loud. "You want a job?" he


"Yes," I replied.

"Are you qualified?" he asked. "Let me see your hands."

"What? I asked, confused.

"Let me see your hands, "he said. "I'll tell you ifyou are qualified, he laughed.

Sensing where this was going, I tentatively opened my hands to let him see my


"See, you've never done a days' work, "hepronounced.

"Nevermind, I said and left quickly, thinking to myself, "What the fuck do you

expect, asshole. (I had already learned how to talk like a sailor.) "I'm a high school

student, idiot. What do you think my hands will look like? Besides, what do your hands

have to look like to sell boat bumpers and coolers over a sales counter?"

It was clear to me that he had seen a young, female person and concluded right

there that I couldn't be qualified. He didn't care that I knew a bow from a stem, had 2

years experience operating a cash register and an SAT score higher than he could count.

He wasn't willing to teach me anything.

"It's Not My Boat; You Need To Be Talking To Her."

[Scene: It is 1993. I am 27. Mike and I are standing in a boat store in the Florida

Keys looking for a boat part. At 25, I bought my first sailboat. She's beautiful-Tatiana,

an O'Day 25'centerboard sloop-red. I had been docking the boat behind Mike's

apartment in the Florida Keys and we sailed and worked on the boat together often during

that time. Mike and I are debating whether any of the parts on the shelf will work for the

job at hand. A store employee approaches us to help.]

"May I help y 'allfind something? the store employee asked.

"I need a replacement for this water strainer gasket," I said as I handed him the

worn-out part.

He looked directly at Mike and asked, "Did you get this off the boat you're


"Yeah, "Mike said tentatively and looking in my direction.

"I need exactly the same piece, "I jumped in.

"Do you know the size of the part? he directed again at Mike.

Mike looked him right in the face and said, "It's not my boat and it's not my

money. You need to be talking to her."

The salesman was startled for a minute but then continued his line of questioning

directed quite carefully at me this time, "Uh, well, do you know what size you need? "

It was clear to all of us that he had made the standard faux pas. He assumed a boat

owner must be male.

San Francisco

[Scene: We are aboard a 28-foot sailboat on the San Francisco Bay. It is May. My

partner and I are on vacation with my ex-partner and her new partner. (I know. I know.

Ellen has a joke about this. That must be why it's funny.) We've rented a sailboat for the

afternoon from a marina in Sausalito. After displaying my captain's license to the

dockmaster and plucking down a credit card for the $1,000 deposit on the boat, I asked

the dockmaster for some local knowledge of the bay area and a run down of the specific

mechanics of the boat we had rented. He gave me a demeaning quiz on sailing knowledge

and very little else and we were off.]

"Wow, look how high it is, "Dianne said as she stares 150feet overhead. Kelly is

busy taking pictures of each of us and the surrounding bay and landscape.

"I can't believe we are sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, "said my partner

in awe at its enormity.

"A toast, "I offer, "to sailing and friends and San Francisco." We all raise our

wine glasses, sip and sit quietly for a moment.

"Shit yeah!" is the most appropriate thing I can think to say.

"Most Men Couldn't Even Put A Boat In That Slip That Well."

[Scene: We are at Lake Park Marina a few years after I purchased Tatiana. I just

finished sailing with my Mom and sister, both of whom are relatively inexperienced on

boats. They never had the interest in boats that I did and, hence, never learned what one

does when one is approaching or leaving a dock. We were done with our day of sailing

and I had just maneuvered the boat back into its slip. This was a municipal marina with

boats tightly packed in so docking is always tricky. But I am used to it and I steered the

boat into the slip pretty handily, backed down on the engine and grabbed the dock lines.

No sooner had we landed but a gentleman walked over to the slip.]

"I hope you don't take this wrong but that was a pretty fine docking job. Most

men could 't even put a boat in that slip that well."

"It's not my first day on the job, I saidflashing him a half smile, bowing up my

chest and fanning my tailfeathers as I had seen men do for each other from time to time.

"Well it was a pretty damn fine job, "he repeated and kept muttering about

something until he had clearly overstayed his welcome. "Well, have a nice day, "he said

and left.

I purposefully had let him dangle uncomfortably. I know he was only trying to be

nice but the implication of his "compliment" kept bothering me. The implication was that

most women couldn't be expected to dock a boat, let alone well. And, most men should

be expected to dock a boat better than most women. This has always perplexed me. I

have two hands and two legs. What should impede me from being able to sail a boat? It's

as if there is something missing from female bodies that makes them less capable. This

baffles me because I have never seen a sailing maneuver in which a penis is actually

utilized to pilot the boat.

A Well-Trained Women's Crew

[Scene: It is April 1995. I am standing on the back porch of a friend's apartment

with several friends gathered for our standard Friday evening beer fest. The humidity is

high but the breeze moderates the heat. I am standing with several mostly male friends

exchanging jokes and stories. Someone brought up the issue of the America3 Women's

Team, the first women's crew to compete for the America's Cup. They were to begin

racing in a few weeks.]

A friend and long-time sailor belted out, "A well-trained men's crew will beat a

well-trained women's crew every time."

"What? I half shouted.

"I said a well-trained men's crew will beat a well-trained women's crew every

time, "he repeated.

I stood silently unable to reply for a moment, then just walked off toward the

cooler to grab another beer.

Why were all men supposed to be better than all women? What is it about

sailing-a sport that requires technology in the vessel and skill of handling, but not purely

muscle-that preempted women's successful competition? He clearly believes that no

matter what women do, men are better. (See Crawley 1998 for my reply.)

Boats for me are freedom. They are travel and adventure and motion. I have this

odd love of motion. I never get seasick. I love the feeling of skimming across the water in

a power boat on a plane at 3/4 speed with my hair blown back so far the sun is burning my

scalp line; or sailing on a close reach with 15 knots of wind and the boat healed over 25

degrees; or simply feeling the waves lift my torso out of the water as I dangle from the

bow rail of a boat adrift, rising and falling with the waves. I'm not sure where this love of

the water came from. It has an interesting parallel to my sexuality. Neither of my parents

are boaters. I'm not sure how I got interested, although I can remember wanting a boat

since I was about 11 or 12.

One of the things I have learned most strikingly from my boating experiences is

ableness-my own ableness and the lack of ableness taught to or perceived of female-

bodied persons. I have learned that I begin each new task-fixing the rigging, changing the

packing on the prop shaft, finding and fixing an oil leak-with a measure of self-doubt.

Female-bodied people learn to attempt physical tasks with a self-imposed understanding

that I will try but it is likely that "I cannot."10 Each time I attack something new, I must

go through the process of proving to myself that I am able. And so, I have sailed boats,

built decks, repaired engines, ridden my bike 280 miles in 3 days, traveled Europe alone

among other adventures. My point is that I have had to learn that I am able. I have had to

teach myself that my body is not the frail, physically useless thing that was implied by

cultural messages all around me. The teaching of ableness to myself has come in slow,

painful experimenting with things that I was told I could not do. I had toperform

ableness to myself to teach myself that the cultural messages were wrong. Along the way,

I started receiving different social messages about what those performances of ableness

meant in terms of sexuality.


At 27, I finally came out as a lesbian. I say finally because I had had a

relationship with a woman 4 years earlier but was reluctant to think about "what that all

means." I was now beginning a relationship with another woman and was beginning to

recognize that it was becoming a pattern. From that point forward, self-acceptance came

relatively easily to me, fortunately. But coming out after having already formed one's

adult identity causes one to rethink all kinds of things. History is reconfigured ("Oh, now

that makes sense.") and all those lurking interests become possible, and sensible. Now

there seems to be no reason to feminize for anyone.

10 1 use the term female-bodied here very purposefully. As Young (1980) describes
through her notion of "inhibited intentionality (146)," all people who possess female
bodies, are understood to be "women" and are taught to restrict their body usage such that
they understand their capabilities more in terms of "I cannot" rather than "I can." Hence,
part of becoming a woman entails understanding one's (female) body as incapable.

Dressing Down Today?

[Scene: I had been working for a major insurance-related corporation for four

years. It's 8:45am inside a large corporate workspace with cubicles forming a maze

throughout the otherwise open floor. I have just arrived at work and am heading toward

the cafeteria for my morning diet coke. Walking down the hall amid several other

professionally dressed worker bees, I approach a male co-worker and friend who is

dressed in a man's suit minus the jacket. I am wearing a pair of linen pants and silk shirt.

I too had already shed my jacket.]

"Good morning, Mark, "I start.

"Well not exactly good but hi yourself, he replied with usual heavy sarcasm.

(Mark's glass was usually half empty.) "Dressed down today, I see, "he continues.

"Huh? I responded with morning grogginess.

"The pants. Are you trying to get fired?" He was joking about losing my job but

completely serious about implying I was dressed casually.

"Wait, I'm wearing the same thing as you, I responded a bit dumbfounded.

"Figures you would want to dress like a man, he quipped with his signature gay

male cattiness.

"Good morning, Mark!" I pronounced as I rounded the door to the cafeteria

leaving this unwanted encounter behind.

One has to feminize to look "professional." Talk about your double binds (Frye

1983). This realization made the problem of whether to participate in weddings infinitely

more difficult. My response to my colleagues was to stop wearing skirts entirely. At 29, I

left the corporate world for an MA program in my home town. At 31, I entered a Ph.D.

program at the University of Florida and gave away my last "professional" skirt. (I had

long since stopped wearing them but had kept them in the closet, just in case.) At 33, I

participated in the last wedding in which I will ever wear a dress. I only have 4 more

years to break the record I set from first grade to seventh grade.

At 32, I began writing this chapter. In writing this chapter, it became clear to me

that I had been butch much longer than I had been lesbian. I didn't identify it as

butchness but I knew I was different. It wasn't until later that I learned to call my gender

struggle butchness. The term was a resource that had not been available to me earlier

(Gubrium and Holstein 1998). But I still refused makeup and dresses and any of the

trappings of femininity because they stifled me.

For me, butchness wasn't primarily about sexuality or even about lesbianism.

(However, my non-standard gender presentation has always caused others to question my

sexual orientation even before I became aware of my sexual interests. Gender and

sexuality discourses are so entwined that non-normative gender always calls sexuality

into question.) But I didn't know to call it butchness until I came out as lesbian. I do not

wish to suggest that butchness is not itself about sexuality. Certainly butchness has been

about sexuality historically and it continues to be in many ways, and it may be in ways

for other people that it has not always been for me.

For me, butchness has always been about having to prove that I can do whatever I

want to do-that my female body is not a restriction. For me, butchness is the display of

ableness. But the display is not just for everyone else, whether male or female. It is a

display of ablenessfor me too. In many ways, I have come to believe that they might be

right. The discourse about females' lack of ableness comes from so many instructors that

it is hard to reject. As Bartky (1990) outlines, in this panoptical culture, femininity is not

a trait that some women elect. It is a social control mechanism that is transcribed on the

female body by ever-judging eyes. Ever-present surveillance represses difference. The

judgment comes from everywhere. Until, eventually it comes from inside in the form of

self-doubt and self-judgment. In many ways, I have come to believe I might not be able.

The issue is not whether butchness is about gender OR sexuality, but rather that

butchness happens at the particular intersection of gender and sexuality for lesbians

interacting within a sexist, heterosexist culture. Butches are not "women" who want to be

"men." They are female-bodied persons who wish to gain social access to doing things

that traditionally only males have been allowed to do (e.g., work on engines, work in

construction, have their input taken as legitimate and authoritative). They wish to resist

the regulatory discourses-in-practice (Holstein and Gubrium 2000) of "women" as

passive and incapable, and desirous of and dependent on "men." To achieve that, butches

participate in those performances that the gatekeepers of those spaces-men-see as

granting legitimacy to the actor because it is those performances that give gatekeepers the

perception that one is able to do that job or activity. Weston (1990) writes, "In the face of

a weight of evidence indicating that a woman has the knowledge, skill, and experience to

do a job, employers and coworkers still have difficulty believing that she will be able to

produce (137, emphasis in original)." Hence, women are often disallowed access to

certain activities, especially jobs, because men perceive them as incapable (see also

Crawley 1998). One response to this conundrum for female-bodied people is to take on

the persona of ableness-butchness.

The conundrum goes something like this. Unless one performs a job, such as,

construction worker well, one may not be granted access to doing that job-and displaying

any sort of quality that is seen as "feminine" (which is always, already applied to female-

bodied people) is not permissible in that performance. I want to be clear here that I am

not referring to the physical accomplishment of the activity (i.e., driving a nail into a

piece of wood or learning to sail a boat) which may be, in fact, quite simple to master. I

am referring to the accomplishment of the accepted style of performing the task such that

the male gatekeepers of a setting perceive the task is done "well," that is, to the related

discursive and performative practice of masculinity (Gubrium and Holstein 1998). Hence,

butches have an interest in doing "masculinity" only to the extent that it performs

"construction worker" well. That is, they want to be seen as able. This is not the

performance of "man" but the performance of "construction worker" which is often

conflated with "man" since males are often the only people granted access to the job.

To perform "construction worker" or any other male-only activity requires years

of practice, potentially a life time. And, this practice is not performed only to the external

audience but often must be performed to self as well, since part of the audience that must

perceive the task to be done "well" is me. I must learn to convince myself that Iperform

the task "well."

This is how butchness is produced. Seeing or being a "woman" who performs

"masculinity" well is not a viable option in our regulatory regime (Butler 1993). She

cannot be "woman" if she performs "man" well and she cannot be "man" without the

appropriate "sex" so she must be something else-"butch." The reiteration of "masculine"

femaleness as "butch" to self and by others continually constructs that space where

females can accomplish certain tasks "well" and constructs those identities of butchness

for butches. Once produced as a non-standard narrative resource, butchness now becomes

available for future use among lesbians in local culture.11

In her book, Female Masculinity (1998), Judith Halberstam writes:

When gender-ambiguous children are constantly challenged about their
gender identity, the chain of misrecognitions can actually produce a new
recognition: in other words, to be constantly mistaken for a boy, for many
tomboys, can contribute to the production of masculine identity. It was
not until my midtwenties that I finally found a word for my particular
gender configuration: butch. (19)

Here she asserts that new, recognizable categories can be produced by the consistent

performance of coherent categories by the "wrong" people (i.e., women doing

masculinity). But one who engages in new category production may not know how to

understand the experience until it is given a name and communal context. (i.e., "Oh, I'm

like them and they call it...") In this instance, a new narrative resource is produced-

butchness. 12

I do not believe that all females who engage in butchness are necessarily aware of

the pursuit of "masculinity" as access or ableness. But the need for repetition is clear. It is

this repetition that convinces butches that they are "essentially or naturally masculine."13

Thus, it is not that butches are born masculine but that they have been pursuing the

activities labeled as masculine for a long time. Since gender discourses categorize the

activity as masculine and masculinity must be performed well to participate in the

activity, butches view themselves as many others likely have-able as a masculine person.

11 Indeed, this paper also participates in constructing and producing the meaning of
butchness by defining it as ableness.

12 Halberstam also argues that female masculinity has always contributed to the
production of masculinities although if has largely gone unrecognized. This concept is
very compelling and deserves greater theoretical attention although I do not pursue it in
this paper.

The interest in and pursuit of the activity becomes the defining feature to both the

individual and to observers that the butch is "naturally" masculine. Of course, it comes to

feel "natural" because it is so constantly practiced.

Let me return briefly to the personal theme running through this chapter. This is

precisely why I hate wearing dresses. In my experience, the path to constructing myself

as an able person who can accomplish many tasks in which a person of my "sex" is not

supposed to engage has been long, difficult, and sometimes painful. And, given the

regulatory expectations of femininity that I have had to side step, the path has

encompassed my everyday existence since my earliest memories of asking my mom to

explain to me why I had to wear a t-shirt to play outside. Since those early

understandings of femininity as restrictive and disabling, I have engaged in a constant

battle against expectations to build my self as not feminine, not unable but able, and not

constrained by my female body. At 35, the feminizing expectation that I have no choice

but to wear a dress in certain settings feels like a direct attack on the self that I have been

building publicly and inwardly for years. Dismissals that it should be "no big deal" for

me to do so add immeasurable insult to injury.

Wearing butch style is an announcement and co-optation of personal power. I

feel this power of resistance when I cut my hair razor short and wear ties, pants that bag

around my waist, thick leather belts, and "men's" underwear. This is a way that I

demonstrate to myself and others that I will not be feminized by expectations for clothing

and appearance. This is a way that I tell lesbians whom I do not know that I am one of

them and heterosexuals whom I do not know that I am not one of them. This is the way

13 This is effectively Butler's argument in Bodies That Matter (1993).

that I announce to the world that I hate wearing dresses and I illustrate to them all how

silly I would look in them. This is the way I announce to others and myself that, if

"masculinity" is ableness, then I am as able and capable of doing "masculinity" "well" as


Presenting myself as an out, butch dyke has exacted a change in the behavior of

others. Men now give me the respectful nod reserved only for peers. Women regularly

flash me the deferential, Daddy's-little-girl smile. Car parts dealers now speak directly to

me even when Mom is the one trying to get her car fixed. People seem to react to the

performance of masculinity, not the actual ableness. Yes, I can sail a boat and make a

majority of repairs on my own boat. No, I haven't a clue why some switches make car

engines overheat. In this, I have never been trained. But whenever I have been called

upon (or not) to address a particular situation, my abilities and knowledge have been

largely irrelevant in how others have treated me. Only the performance of masculinity has

changed others' reactions to my input. Performing masculinity seems to compel respect.

It's not that I wish to co-opt hegemonic masculinity at the expense of women. But I do

want the respect that is accorded only to men. I want it for me and I want it for other

women too.14

14 1 want to be clear to recognize that females wearing masculinity also face potential
pitfalls. In addition to respectful treatment, I have also received extremely disrespectful
treatment, including epithets hurled out of car windows, strangers unabashedly staring,
and multitudes of women virtually running out of public restrooms. I am constantly
aware that my appearance may incite discomfort that could result in extreme physical

As for sexuality, I do not wish to diminish its importance. But it has not been a

large component of butchness for me. Nonetheless, identity invades the bedroom. In my

experience, butchness is not restricted to enacting a stereotypical heterosexual, male

sexual role in a lesbian couple. Indeed, through many years of discussing sexuality with

many lesbians, I have never heard any lesbian express an interest in "being the man"

sexually or in looking for a partner who will assume that role. Although much literature

describes some forms of butchness as the sexual initiator (Hollibaugh and Moraga 1981;

Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993; Nestle 1992), I have never felt compelled to engage

that form of sexuality. (Nonetheless, I do support any female's interest in developing

sexual agency including some butches' interest in pursuing aggressive sexual

subjectivity.) In my experience, butch sexuality can be interpreted in many ways.

Freeing myself from the culturally prescribed feminine sexual self has expanded the

possibilities for my sexual self, never restricted my ability to engage in sexuality in a

particular way (as I believe heterosexual scripts did). It has expanded my understanding

of the use of my body for pleasure and contributed to understanding my sexuality as a

space in which I am free to explore.

Butch For Whom?


[Scene: Standing inside the local outlaw biker club clubhouse on Friday evening,

a friend and fellow graduate student, Dan, is showing me around the establishment where

he is a member and is doing participant observation field work. An avid Harley Davidson

enthusiast, he had invited me to the club to introduce me to his friends, enjoy a few beers

and show off his prized bike to me. As I am sitting astride the bike and Dan is revving the

engine, I am dutifully showing my admiration for such a fine machine and making a fuss

over certain features as I, of course, am expected to display my camaraderie with my

friend. A friend of Dan's and my partner are standing nearby watching the show. Shortly,

our small crowd of Harley admirers is approached by an unknown club member suitably

dressed in dirty blue jeans, an old t-shirt, leather boots and a bandana on his head.]

"Go ahead and really rev it, Dan said. "It's a Harley. That's what it's made


Upon his command, I gave the throttle a good crank and felt my body vibrate in

places I hadn 'tfelt before. "Son of a bitch!" I responded, again demonstrating

appropriate admiration for the massive machine that I was balancing between my legs.

Slugging his Budweiser and commenting on my obvious previous ignorance of

how much a Harley Davidson vibrates, the unidentified biker belted out, "Yeah, it's cool,

man. You just put your bitch on the back and, by the time, you get there, she's ready!"

Accompanied by certain lewd gestures, his comment could not be misconstrued.

Dan and I exchanged a few confused glances as an extremely uncomfortable

silence hung in the air where there had previously been deafening noise.

"Well, anyway, it's a nice bike, the unknown biker said nervously and he left to

return to the pool table where his girlfriend had been waiting.

Dan and I just stood there and giggled. Dan was perplexed as to whether the

unnamed interloper was talking to me or him. To me, it was readily apparent that he was

addressing me but I was equally unsure of his intentions. Did he realize that I am female

or did he mistake me for male? Did he assume that I am a dyke and determine that his

masculinist performance was hence appropriate? Was he aware that my partner was

standing there observing the entire incident? Later that evening after a few more beers, I

approached the man to ask him what he was thinking when he made the comment. He

stated sheepishly that he knew I was female but that he did not know why he said what he

did. Apparently, he just went on autopilot and did "biker" as he always did in such

circumstances. He offered a half-hearted apology and we shared a beer and a laugh over

it but the gender problematic remained unresolved.


[Scene: Having just arrived to visit me in grad school, my sister, Cindy, and I

stopped at the McDonalds near the Orlando airport to get her something edible after her

economy flight. While munching on fries, we are chatting to catch up on the news.]

"So what's new?" she asked after we had already covered the pleasantries about

herflightfrom Newark.

"Not much. School is keeping me as busy as ever, "I replied.

"Are you still enjoying teaching as much as you were? she asked.

"Oh yeah, I replied. "Teaching rocks. Just the other day Igot to come out to my

students. I showed them a picture of me in a wedding dress and then a tux. That's always


"I bet that got their attention, "she giggled with me.

"Oh yeah. I like to keep them on their toes."

"Speaking of wedding dresses, Mom told me Leslie is getting married soon and

you're in the wedding." Mom makes it her job to keep us all apprised of each other's


"Yep. In March. I have to wear another bridesmaid's dress. It's so demeaning."

"It's not demeaning to wear a dress. It's only demeaning ifyou make it

demeaning. I think it is insulting to women for you to call it demeaning. Cindy was

clearly affronted.

"Well, you know how much I hate dresses, "I tried to stand my ground.

"Just because you hate dresses doesn't mean it is demeaning for all women to

wear them, she pronounced indignantly.

Caught off guard and slight dumbfounded, I decided to change the subject. "Well,

that's not until March. What do you want to do while you are here? "

Cindy's response caused me to seriously reconsider my thinking about dresses

and femininity. After all, what was I implying about her if I suggested that wearing

dresses and being femininized was demeaning to me? She likes wearing dresses at times

and has no issues with femininity herself. My existence as one who will not accept the

feminizing expectations force-placed on women problematizes her participation in such

feminizing rituals. How shall she and other normatively-gendered female family and

friends perceive my feelings? How does my problematic as a masculine female create a

problematic for their acceptance of femininity? Is it possible to create a singular theory of

gender while trying to encompass the lived experience of interaction? Perhaps our

problematic are simply different. My project is to unhinge the relationship between

female bodies and femininity while hers is to disconnect dresses, the signifier of

femininity, from the appearance of disability. In many ways, it seems to me that my

project might be easier to accomplish. I support the project of feminine women to undo

the signification of disability. Perhaps we should concentrate on paying more attention to

the overarching project-working to end assumptions of women's (and men's)

appearance of ableness, in favor of concentrating on each individual's actual ableness.

Nonetheless, our different projects often make interaction complicated.

Butchness is not a unitary, undifferentiated understanding of self. Ifbutchness is

created in and through interaction, it is clearly enacted differently for different audiences.

Given that gender is a regulatory regime in U.S. culture (Butler 1993 and 1996), then

interacting with heterosexual women and heterosexual men requires a different

performance and results in different performative experiences.

Additionally, part of the problematic of creating butchness is the lack of

normative, cultural space to understand and interact with masculine females. How is a

male to respond to a masculine female in a setting that has traditionally been all-male?

There is no typical experience from which to draw. Should she be unproblematically

accepted as "one of the guys" and the sexist bantering and "male bonding" be continued?

Should the entire group revise its practices to accommodate a gender non-specific

setting? The problematic is that there are no rules for how such a masculine female fits

into this space. It is new and confusing ground to be covered.

Female masculinity does not fit into the compliant performance of self that

Goffmian (1959) describes. If it is a critique to the regulatory regime of gender that Butler

discusses (and I believe it is), it only works as a critique because it is both recognizable

and unrecognizable at the same time. Although Halberstam argues that the masculinity of

females has a long history and has helped to construct what the entire culture knows as

masculinity, it remains a space with uncertain rules. If Goffminan describes conformity (the

maintenance of order), how do we understand the maintenance of non-conformity? What

are the rules for interacting with masculine females? If Goffinan is right, there are no

options beyond masculinity and femininity because nothing else is recognizable. Hence,

female masculinity is both uncommon and unavoidable-simultaneously recognizable and

problematic. Butchness disrupts the rules of interaction at the same time that it reifies

them. For those of us who enact butchness, it is necessary to avoid having our

bodies/selves understood as incapable but also problematic as a dangerous space that

challenges comfortable heteronormativity. The question is always whether to wear the

dress and lose myself or wear the tux and cause everyone else to question themselves. As

for me, I've tried the dress. From now on, I choose the tux.


When speaking of butch and femme as public self-presentation, notions of

women's equality and feminism become a significant concern for lesbians. Images of

butch and femme suggest a potential for power imbalance, yet most of my narrators

explicitly spoke about feminism or expectations for egalitarian relationships. They were

quite aware of the potential of political fallout from within the lesbian community for

aligning too closely with heterosexual ideals, for as the old feminist critique goes, why

would lesbians want to recreate gender roles that are patriarchal and oppressive to women

(Jeffreys 1989 and 1996)? If butch and femme are "imitating heterosexuality," butch

lesbians might be oppressing femme lesbians. Hence, lesbians are invested in not aligning

with what are purportedly heterosexual ideals. But, how can public butch and femme

appear similar to heterosexual masculinity and femininity and not be oppressive? How

can we theorize butch and femme as egalitarian?

In this chapter, I argue that heteronormativity as both discourse-or what Holstein

and Gubrium (2000) call discourses-in-practice-and discursive practice pervades

discussion of public presentations of lesbian self. As such, lesbians are not so much

borrowing from or imitating heterosexual paradigms as participating in the only paradigm

that is available to all of us.

It is important to note that public performances and discussions of butch and

femme include notions of both gender and sexuality-in public settings. In Chapter 5, I