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Lambda Literary Award finalist

American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book

In the summer of 2009, butch writer and storyteller Ivan Coyote and gender researcher and femme dynamo Zena Sharman wrote down a wish-list of their favourite queer authors; they wanted to continue and expand the butch-femme conversation. The result is Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. The stories in these pages resist simple definitions. The people in these stories defy reductive stereotypes and inflexible categories. The pages in this book describe the lives of an incredible diversity of people whose hearts also pounded for some reason the first time they read or heard the words "butch" or "femme."

Contributors such as Jewelle Gomez (The Gilda Stories), Thea Hillman (Intersex), S. Bear Bergman (Butch is a Noun), Chandra Mayor (All the Pretty Girls), Amber Dawn (Sub Rosa), Anna Camilleri (Brazen Femme), Debra Anderson (Code White), Anne Fleming (Anomaly), Michael V. Smith (Cumberland), and Zoe Whittall (Bottle Rocket Hearts) explore the parameters, history, and power of a multitude of butch and femme realities. It's a raucous, insightful, sexy, and sometimes dangerous look at what the words butch and femme can mean in today’s ever-shifting gender landscape, with one eye on the past and the other on what is to come.

Includes a foreword by Joan Nestle, renowned femme author and editor of The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, a landmark anthology originally published in 1992.

Ivan E. Coyote is the author of seven books (including the novel Bow Grip, an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book) and a long-time muser on the trappings of the two-party gender system.

Zena Sharman is the assistant director of Canada's national Institute of Gender and Health.

Arsenal Pulp Press
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Our Only World: Ten Essays

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"The butch/femme dynamic is a conscious, loving binary of desire and trust; it's a dance of love and outlawed romance. Butches and femmes share a sense of tribe, extended family, and kinship—no matter what our genders might be. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will soon be recognized as a major contribution to the shelves of our queer literature. And it’s totally gonna be a must-have bedside reader for many. This is a smart, loving book by some terrific writers. They all know what it means to live and love as butch/femme beyond the stereotypes, and they’ve made their diesel femme Auntie Kate very proud of them. Kiss, kiss." —Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw

"The death of butch-femme has been greatly exaggerated. This beautiful collection captures the intensity of gender variant communities now while continuing to make important links to pioneers from the past. Here we meet femme sharks and cowboys, faggy butches, studs and futches. This book is like a pocketknife, it is useful, sharp and in the right hands it can do anything." —Jack Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity and In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives


Copyright 2011 by the contributors

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any form by any means—graphic, electronic or mechanical—without the prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may use brief excerpts in a review, or in the case of photocopying in Canada, a licence from Access Copyright.


#101, 211 East Georgia St

Vancouver, BC

V6A 1Z6

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council for its publishing program, and the Government of Canada (through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program) and the Government of British Columbia (through the Book Publishing Tax Credit Program) for its publishing act; ivities.

"A Butch Roadmap" and "Hats Off" were previously published in Missed Her, by Ivan E. Coyote.

Cover illustration by Elisha Lim

Printed and bound in Canada on recycled paper

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication:

Persistence [electronic resource] : all ways butch and

femme / [edited by] Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman.

Type of computer file: Electronic monograph in PDF format.

Issued also in print format.

ISBN 978-1-55152-405-4

1. Lesbians–Identity. 2. Gender identity. 3. Lesbians–

Biography. I. Coyote, Ivan E. (Ivan Elizabeth), 1969-

II. Sharman, Zena, 1979-

HQ75.5.P47 2011a 306.76’63 C2011-901944-2

We would like to dedicate this book to all the femmes and butches who came before us. We want to thank you for your strength and your spirit, for your red fingernails and your fishnet stockings and your neckties and white button-down shirts. We want to thank you for your bravery and your broken hearts and busted-up knees and bad backs. We want to thank you for keeping on, for rising above, for remembering, and for what you left behind. We want to thank you for making us possible. We want to thank you for being, for believing, and for persisting.


Forward!—Joan Nestle


Introduction · Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman

Ride · Anna Camilleri

My First Lover Was Not a Lesbian · Kimberly Dark

Coming Back Around to Butch · Miriam Zoila Pérez

A Dad Called Mum · Anne Fleming

A Beautiful Creature · Karleen Pendleton Jiménez

Never Be Hungry Again · Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Femme Butch Feminist · Jewelle Gomez

Home/Sickness: Self-Diagnosis · romham padraig gallacher

Looking Straight at You · Zena Sharman

A Butch Roadmap · Ivan E. Coyote

To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005: An Open Letter about Selling Sex, Selling Out, and Soldiering On · Amber Dawn

Brother Dog · S. Bear Bergman

Butch Is How I Feel · Brenda Barnes

Slide Rules · Nairne Holtz

Embodying Hunger and Desire with a Fistful of Bliss · Laiwan

Between My Fingers · Stacey Milbern

Masculine of Centre, Seeks Her Refined Femme · B. Cole

No Butches, No Femmes: The Mainstreaming of Queer Sexuality · Victoria A. Brownworth

What We Know To Be True · Sasha T. Goldberg

Me, Simone, and Dot · Chandra Mayor

For Annie B. (1915–81) · Donnelly Black

Split Myself Apart · Redwolf Painter

With Both Fists: Conscious Gender Building through the Butch and Femme Identities · Sinclair Sexsmith

A Guide to Getting Laid by a Girl in Lipstick and High Heels · Belinda Carroll

A Patch of Bright Flowers · Zoe Whittall

Rogue Femininity · Elizabeth Marston

Changed Sex. Grew Boobs. Started Wearing a Tie. · Amy Fox

The New Politics of Butch · Jeanne Córdova

Femme Cowboy · Rae Spoon

Futch: Thoughts from the Borderlands · Elaine Miller

Butch-Femme as Spiritual Practice · Thea Hillman

Rethinking High Maintenance: The Queer Fat Femme Guide to Not Blaming It on the Fact That You Don’t Like High Femmes · Bevin Branlandingham

38 B · Sailor Holladay

baby butch: a love letter from the future · Melissa Sky

Female Masculinity, Male Femininity, Feminine Masculinity, Masculine Femininity …? · Prince Jei and Misster Raju Rage

Backstage with Lady Gaga · Ben McCoy

Femme Shark Manifesto! · Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

A Failed Man · Michael V. Smith

Spotlight · Debra Anderson

Hats Off · Ivan E. Coyote


Joan Nestle

Dedicated to the contributors to The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader who have died since the book was published in 1992: Mabel Hampton, 1902–89; Marge McDonald, 1931–86; Audre Lorde, 1934–92; Deanna Alida, d. 1991; Jeanie Meuer, d. 1991; Blue Lunden, 1936–99; Ira Jeffries, d. 2010. My buddies, my mentors, my critics, my erotic comrades. So many years of courage and creations, touch and yearning and defiance and love, of complex histories of culture, gender, and desire. Your buddy misses you.

When Ivan and Zena told me of their soon-to-be-published collection, which you now hold in your hands, I did not react well. Their title was too close to that of my own work, The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, published by Alyson Books, and I wanted them to choose a title that reflected their own historical positioning. For the many years since the publication of Persistent Desire, I had refused to do a sequel, as I believed that it was a book born out of its own time’s struggles over erotic territories and gender certainties. Now, after having read this manuscript, I believe I made the right decision to contribute this foreword. The voices of another generation, of other cultural positions, new possibilities of gender discourse, and erotic adventuring are presented here, and these extend in complex ways the passionate and embattled conversation of the now out-of-print Persistent Desire. I asked the two editors if I could write a foreword that would give the reasons and some of the processes behind my work. While I was the editor and a contributor, Persistent Desire was the creation of all its writers—all sixty-seven of them who generously and excellently transformed the public face of gender and erotic conversation in the lesbian community from the 1990s on. I met two of those original contributors once again in these new pages—Jewelle Gomez and Jeanne Córdova. Their words remind me of their original gift of comradeship, so freely given in harder times (the 1970s and 1980s)—harder, I mean, in the ability to have full and open discussions of gender and sexual differences within our own communities. I am afraid, given the present political climate in North America, that we are in for a new definition of hard times.

It’s worth mentioning that I am now seventy and just this year had my third bout of a major cancer. I sometimes ask laughingly—how many cancers can a girl have? I am afraid I will find out, and so I look upon this foreword as a way to look backward, to fix in a more permanent (though life just laughs at such endeavours) form, the journey behind that pink-and-grey book cover showing a fem’s [1] large thigh sheathed in seamed stockings pushing its way between the legs of her butch lover; my black slip riding high and Deb’s urban boots holding their own, both of us cradled in rich New Hampshire meadow grass, and all captured in the lens of Morgan Gwenwald, that fine photographer of all things lesbian. My fem body, scarred in ways I had not imagined then, looks upon its younger self with gratitude for the kindness of that 1992 gay publisher who did not flinch at such an image. Even one’s thighs are historical documents. Time has shifted not just the contours of my body but the streets I walk, the skies I see. Eleven years ago, under the threat of aggressive breast cancer, I left New York’s upper west-side streets and moved to Melbourne, Australia, to be with my woman poppa, Dianne Otto. I am writing this in a room far away from the Greenwich Village streets where it all began, at least in a public way, back in 1958 when I walked into my first lesbian bar on 8th Street.

In her essay “Never Be Hungry Again,” Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha tells us, “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been writing the same story since I started writing.” How fitting, I thought. Ever since my work “Marcia’s Room” was first published in 1980, I have been trying to translate the language of desire of one time to another, trying to hold the forces of erasure and judgment at bay long enough to make known the wonders of the butches and fems I met in the working-class bars of the 1950s—both to honour how they held this woman’s body in often work-worn hands and raised her hips to such deeply sought caresses, to such deeply sought penetrations—but even more, to honour and make into history women’s communities of gender difference and hard-won autonomies of survival and pleasure. Out of my history—as a bar fem, as a gay liberationist, as a member of the first lesbian feminist groups in New York City—as a political dissenter from the deadly McCarthy era of the 1950s to the anti-war movements and the civil rights marches of the 1960s; out of my teaching in the revolutionary educational program called SEEK (Search for Elevation, Education, and Knowledge); out of my relationship with Mabel Hampton, the first lesbian I had ever known, who took me into her past with her wife Lillian Foster, back into the 1920s lesbian communities of Harlem and the Bronx; out of the life of Regina Nestle, my sometimes sex-worker and most-of-the-time bookkeeping mother, came the will to keep the ledger books open for what was acceptable lesbian, women’s, gay, social-justice history.

Perhaps you have heard of the Sex Wars, perhaps you think it is all an overstatement now that we live in a time of endless war, but I can tell you that at times it felt as if we were fighting for our lives, for the lives of our imaginations, for the right to think and talk about sexual difference and play of power out loud, for the right to question gender essentialisms, for the right to simply say our desires are more complex, and somehow, as Carole Vance [2] so brilliantly put it, to walk the streets between pleasure and danger. I am talking of the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality when a huge act of censorship went unchallenged—except by those hurt by the erasure of their work—because the group Women Against Pornography considered the artwork and some of the speakers unacceptable and told the college authorities that sex perverts were taking over the conference, and the university believed them. (The original censored program is held in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY, along with images from the lesser-known sex-radical speak-out we held as soon as the conference ended, in which one of the readers was a young woman named Judith Butler.) [3] A picket line of women wearing Women Against Pornography black T-shirts greeted us on that first sunny morning of the conference. They were giving out leaflets about the unacceptable speakers at the conference: Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, Gayle Rubin, Amber Hollibaugh, and me. Our crime was that we spoke of butch-fem, we spoke of S/M, we were an affront to the new order. This was the only picket line I ever crossed.

At the opening session, two things happened that influenced my decision to do Persistent Desire. I found myself standing behind the women who had worked so hard on the images and text for the program as the Barnard College president explained that the program had been pulled from every packet because it was too controversial, too explicit. Tears ran down the faces of those women as they suffered their public shaming. Disgusted, I walked toward the exit only to be stopped by one of the leaders of Women Against Pornography who told me in words I’ll never forget: “If you write about butch-fem in the past, we will let you do it; but if you write about it today, you are on the enemy list.” Oh, girl, what a mistake you made! All I can say is that none of us were unscathed by the public attacks and that some of the finest thinkers on gender and queer erotics in our communities were deeply wounded in these conflicts. I wanted to do an international, vast exploration of butch-fem lives to open up the conversation, let other voices from other histories as well as from the present day tell their stories, let their faces and bodies be seen, let new readers judge for themselves what was important about this way of desiring, being, playing, resisting, and cherishing—about its past and ongoing engagement with feminisms.

After the late 1970s, I developed a project that would eventually lead to some of the most moving and provoking moments of Persistent Desire. I decided to put together a slide show, the old-fashioned kind with a Kodak projector, slide trays, and a roll-up screen. This was the grassroots technology that I used to speak to gay and lesbian communities wherever they would have me and to bring them images and voices from lesbian history before 1969, with an emphasis on working-class butch-fem lives. With my shoe box-shaped cassette tape recorder, I sat at the working table of the Archives (also my dinner table) and listened to hundreds of hours of old-time butches (and fewer hours of old-time fems) telling their stories from the 1940s and ’50s. I listened to women like Sandy Kern, who hugged her first girlfriend during a blackout in 1945 on a Brooklyn stoop; to Jules Bruno, telling tales of her run-ins, as a young butch, with the police and of the first time she used a dildo—still one of my favourite narratives in all of lesbian history for its poetry, humour, bravado, and its portrait of an older fem woman clear about what she wanted, and all told within the bar-culture realities of the early 1960s. I was compiling what James Baldwin called, in his book Notes of a Native Son, a “geography of the Old Country.” He was speaking of the Jim Crow era American south in the early and middle twentieth century, while ours was the old country of vice-squad raids, police round-ups in lesbian and gay bars, physical assaults on dark streets, and all the paraphernalia of a time when homophobia was the law of the land. But that law did not stop Marge McDonald, another of the voices in Persistent Desire, from driving all over the night streets of Columbus, Ohio, in 1955 trying to find the one women’s bar “where I could finally meet one of my own kind.” This was the tension I wanted to recreate—of oppression and persistence. I still wonder why I’ve spent so much of my life seeking out these stories and telling my own. I believe it’s because I found profound moments of the human heart in them, because the women sitting before me often had so little of what my society considered wealth or safety, and amidst laughter, poses, flirtations, and devastating pain; they told me of the worlds of touch and community they had managed to create—the new homes, both of gender and of neighbourhood, they had created, breaking countless caste systems along the way, and the rages and ecstasies that threatened them every day. This was human stuff, important enough for the whole world to know about.

I started the slide show with images from the 1941 US government-sponsored medical study, Sex Variants, compiled by George W. Henry, MD, with its eighty case studies of people described as gender variants—women, men, and intersexed. In the back of the book were the line drawings done by the contributing doctors, who measured the nipples and labia, the rectums and penises of the people interviewed to show their biological abnormalities. Replete with the racism of its times, the book grew out of the government’s amazement at their “discovery” of so many “sexual deviants” during the two World Wars. When the measured body parts of our elders appeared on the screen, I talked about other lineages of biological determinism: the colonial masters’ measuring of the skull sizes of African-Americans to prove their inferiority and allowable candidacy for slavery; the weighing of the brains of women at the turn of the nineteenth century to prove their lack of intelligence and, therefore, their need for masculine custodial care; the Nazis’ careful measurements of the width of Jewish nostrils to establish their difference from the norm and suitability for extermination. I wanted this history of how our bodies were treated by the State and by science to be part of lesbian, queer history. I asked my audiences to be careful of arguments based on biological destiny. I still do. (Never will I fight for gay rights on the basis of the argument that I was born this way.) Henry’s book, with its clinical language, also gave me clues to the butch-fem history I was looking for. With a different reading, these records of “pathology” hinted at lives of resistance, passion, and accomplishment.

Marian J:

Marian is a large, middle-aged mulatto woman of medium height. Her well developed breasts and hips suggest the gentle mammy but her square shoulders, erect posture, decisive gait and fearless attitude give the impression of being distinctly masculine attributes … For forty years Marian has been a professional entertainer and for twenty years she was a favorite in European society …

Two hours later, the audience had seen images from McCarthy-era, government-led purges of sex-deviants and from the Well of Loneliness censorship trial of the 1920s, during which Lady Troubridge (Una Vincenzo) urged Marguerite “John” Radclyffe-Hall (her partner and the book’s author) on to full disclosure with the words, “I am sick to death of ambiguities.” They had seen images from The Captive, one of the first plays with a lesbian theme, which was presented on Broadway in 1928 and closed by the vice squad, and had heard of how butch-fem women protected each other during bar raids. My audiences listened to the voices of Audre Lorde, Sandy Kern, Jules Bruno, and Mabel Hampton while viewing photos of these women from the 1950s. I showed them images of Doris (Blue) Lunden as a baby butch in New Orleans in the 1950s, as a pregnant butch, as a feminist butch peace activist, and as a grandmother. While listening to a tape of ’50s bar music, the audiences watched as 100 images of butch and fem women from the early and mid-twentieth century were projected onto the screen. In small towns, in university towns, in gay and women’s centres, in living rooms and church halls, in the back rooms of bars, and at the Berkshire Conferences on the History of Women—wherever I was invited, I took this multi-media presentation of my version of lesbian history. At every showing, women would come up and tell me of their past experiences, of how they used to “pass” and not talk about their butch or fem selves, about how they had destroyed the old lesbian paperbacks because they were so terrified of being that ugly thing created by both the State and by those who should have known better. They brought photographs and asked me to put them into the slide show.

I had set out to conquer my own and others’ shame, and I did my work, my greatly loved work, with my best feminist self, with appreciation for the complexities of each queer person’s life. The Persistent Desire could only have been conceived after I had been a lesbian feminist for some years. Thus, through writing letters to old friends, making announcements in community publications, gathering responses to the slide show, working with the Lesbian Herstory Archives (which now holds all the materials I’ve collected and created), I amassed a huge manuscript, because I was convinced of the importance of each voice. Only the patient editing wisdom of Lynne Yamaguchi Fletcher at Alyson Books allowed me to pare down the manuscript to slightly over 500 pages.

We needed this vast archive, I believed, because one of the goals of Persistent Desire was to reconstitute lives fragmented by the small-minded, by those trapped by gender or class conventions, by those so taken with prevailing ideologies of liberation that they repeated new mantras of dismissal. In 1979, at the first ever National Women’s Studies Association Conference held on the grounds of the University of Kansas, with its endless fields open to endless skies, women were giddy with the community-building of lesbian-feminism. We were there to do a presentation about the Archives, but during the afternoon before our talk, I attended a slide show created to combat homophobia. All was going well, as we took pleasure in the cleverness of the images—we were so sunny with self-possession—until a slide with the words, “Old-fashioned stereotypes of lesbians,” came out of the darkness—and then, “Butch-fem is no longer a reality of lesbian lives; it was born out of a desperate time.” These words were accompanied by caricatures of women representing such desperation. The laughter stopped in my throat; perhaps I was the only ’50s bar lesbian there, perhaps others were passing, but all of a sudden the wonder of the camaraderie of shared, new world-visions turned to dust. I let my anger be known at this ahistorical and self-betraying public relations device, the same anger I felt when a leading, glamorous American lesbian writer of the 1980s said, “We’re not all truck drivers, you know.” Again, I saw the urge to achieve conventional respectability falsifying and denying a past; I saw the looming dangers of over-simplifications and further betrayals of communities that had made our present possible, but even more, I saw a dead-end way of looking at marginalized sexually different communities of gender, both those of the past and of the 1990s present. I didn’t think feminism demanded this of us. Just the opposite.

Persistent Desire was almost all I wanted it to be: a historical collection spanning fem-butch utterances from 1893 to the 1990s; an international anthology containing contributions from Mexico, the Philippines, Australia, England, Canada, Cuba, and Chile; and full of fem-butch display and gender provocation, with twenty-six pages of grainy black-and-white photographs. I have it in my hands now, and I can barely put it down. Many of the writers, narrators, and poets in the book were an important part of my mid- and late-twentieth century life; they were friends and colleagues in the deepest sense of the words: Liz (Elizabeth) Kennedy and Madeline Davis, who contributed one of their early chapters from Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold; Cheryl Clarke, whose poem “Of Althea and Flaxie” said all I was trying to do with the collection; Amber Hollibaugh and Cherríe Moraga, whose essay, “What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed with: Sexual Silences in Feminism,” became a classic moment of honest talk about sexuality and feminism; Jewelle Gomez, who wrote a wonderful poem about same-gendered difference, “Flamingos and Bears: A Parable”; the pioneering grass-roots lesbian scholar Judith Schwarz, who wrote about the butches she had known in 1963 working night-shift, cutting negatives in the labs of Technicolor, Inc., in San Francisco; Dorothy Allison; Kitty Tsui; Pam Parker; Chea Villanueva—I touch you all still. As if the subject itself was transitioning out of my hands into new times, Pat Califia’s poetry speaks of “Gender Fucks,” and Gayle Rubin, in her measured brilliance, looks to the future in “Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries.” All of us had stood our ground, watching each other’s backs when the attacks came, believing in the necessity of the work we were doing. The ground was shifting, however; new histories were emerging.

New Fem Territories

The year is 2009, the occasion is the Melbourne launch of the book Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities by Del LaGrace Volcano and Ulrika Dahl, the place is a queer bar with a small stage and red overhead lighting, much like the bars I went to in the ’50s (except without the police surveillance), with many people of many genders. I was invited to the stage by Ulrika, a high fem who held the room in her most capable hands.

“Thank you, Ulrika. My words tonight, my expression of fem power, grows out of the courage of the young fem-butch trans people, lesbian-feminist people, peace and gender activists both Palestinian and Israeli, with whom I spoke in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem two years ago. It is inspired by the courage of Raouda Marcos, the founder of ASWAT, the organization of Palestinian gay women, who fights for the lives of all her people on so many fronts. In 2008, I found the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who died at age sixty-seven on August 9, 2008 in exile and who lived his life labelled as a ‘present-absent alien’ by the Israeli government. I will carry his words on this fem body for the rest of my life. Dear Poet, how did I find you, through the dusty roads of unknown histories, you whose words live on so many tongues? I was so ignorant of the love you poured into your differently metered lines, of your swirling solid notes of exile, of the white mare that runs down into the valleys no longer safe, that drinks from your fathers’ wells, now empty of their sense of self. I came as a stranger, a Jewish fem stranger, into your cadences of loss and exultation, into your Andalusian sunsets and endless stony roads that lead to children carrying fathers on their backs, to endless journeys past familiar olive trees but with no rest allowed, no fruit given.

“I stood in front of the grey looming wall that divided life from life, that marked the loss of history for one people and the loss of a soul for another. That impenetrable wall, with its razor wire far above us, froze my fem queer body. And that is why I am here tonight. For many years, I have written, mapped, tracked the power of my fem desire, the strength of my thighs to grip the wanted body and shake it loose of its hard places, to offer my fullness of desire and flesh as a way through, as a break in the wall, as a yearning that refuses solid borders and policed boundaries. I have revelled in the thrust of penetration, the opening in the wall. In other writings, I have charted how desire for a certain kind of touch can push a woman off the map. And on that deserted sandy road in East Jerusalem facing the wall’s solid brutality, I had an inkling of a new fem politic, something beyond my earlier years of celebration of the fem-butch courage that had walked the hate-filled streets of Joseph McCarthy’s America. How does a fem face history; how does my body, which always speaks of my desires, confront the atrophy of national compassion that so marks our world? A port of entry, a simple thing, a taking in, an opening in the wall. Over ruins so huge they threaten to blot out all hope, your words find me. I have tasted your heat, seen the olive trees in exile, decorative in the gardens of the usurpers. What a strange two the world would think us, a 1950s Jewish fem from the Bronx and the dying Palestinian poet who lives in every Arabic mouth—but the only way I can live in a world where such a wall exists is to take your words into my mouth. A port of entry, a simple thing, a taking in, an opening in the wall.”

The poet, Mahmoud Darwish, speaks: “This is my language, collars of stars around the necks of lovers, my steps are of wind and sand/my world in my body and what my hands possess/I am the traveler and the path.”

Remember when I said that Persistent Desire was almost all I wanted it to be? I had wanted more fem voices and I still do, and after reading Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, I see that others were better suited to the new century. Since my book’s publication, readers have come up to me and asked if I knew that some of the butch writers in it were “transitioning.” The lesbian world of genders was changing all around me: in language and style, in biology as destiny being recreated or refused, in new kinds of masculinities, new kinds of erotic partnerships that delight in shifting bodies, new expressions of fem power, of snapping jaws, new combinations of identities alongside disavowals of all fixed gender selves, through fems and butches speaking for themselves, uncoupled, and differently gendered people weaving their complex selves through ancestral homes. At seventy, I have looked into the future, I have heard the new-old cries of don’t box us in, don’t be sure of how all this is going to turn out, we will forge new liberations in a time of endless war, we will work toward social justice in this world, carrying these complex bodies of desire with us, as much acts of the imagination as flesh and bone. We have cast off the anchors.

I wish you well on your journeys, so important for all of us. Thank you, Ivan and Zena, for giving me this vista.

Note: Copies of the 1992 edition of The Persistent Desire can still be found in used book stores, and it has been included in an EBSCO scanned collection for libraries. I must add that the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which I co-founded in 1974, made my work possible in all ways.

[1] In my own writing, I prefer using “fem,” the word as I imagined it when I first entered this community in the late 1950s. I had no knowledge that it was based on a French word, and “femme” still feels like an affectation to me, but I have often lost this battle for experiential and class purity to my editors.

[2] Carol Vance, anthropologist and epidemiologist, is co-director of the Institute for the Study of Sex in Society and History in New York; she is also the editor of Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (1984), the papers of the Scholar and Feminist IX Conference, Toward a Politics of Sexuality, of which I am speaking. She is a leading thinker in the intersections between human rights and sexuality.

[3] Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), and many other ground-breaking works, has become one of the world’s most exciting thinkers on issues of gender, performative language, and post-modern feminism.


First of all, we would like to thank Brian Lam, Susan Safyan, Robert Ballantyne, Shyla Seller, Cynara Geissler, and the rest of the dedicated and hardworking folks at Arsenal Pulp Press for believing in this book and helping us take it out of our hopes and into our hands. Arsenal’s ongoing commitment to publishing queer voices continues to inspire. We could not have made this book a reality without their fierce hearts and steady pens.

We would also like to thank Joan Nestle, not only for the heart-bending foreword that she wrote for this book, but also for being such a brave and eloquent mentor and role model for both of us, then, now, and always. Every movement needs its leaders, and we are truly blessed to have her as one of ours: as a writer, as an activist, a theorist, and a femme. Joan, we thank you. This book exists partly as a gift to you for everything you have given us.

We would like to thank Elisha Lim for the beautiful original piece of art that graces the front cover of this book. We would also like to acknowledge the commitment and hard work of each and every writer contained in these pages. Speaking honestly and with an open heart about issues as close to the bone as one’s own identity is never an easy thing, and we sincerely thank you all for taking that risk with your stories.

We would like to extend our thanks as well to the independent bookstores that will stock this book, and their staff. You help complete the equation: putting the right books into the right hands and onto shelves in cities and towns where, even today, books from the margins would otherwise go unfound. We would especially like to thank Little Sister’s bookstore and Janine Fuller for their tireless work against censorship of queer books at our borders, and in our country. Our heartfelt appreciation must also be extended to the many radical librarians out there, who will see to it that books like this find their way into the hands of those who need them the most.

Lastly, we would like to thank the butch and femme communities on this continent and around the world. This book is by us, for us, and for those that will come after. You are our family.


Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman

Stumbling onto Butch

I remember the day I first saw the word “butch” in print. How it stuck out of the sentence I found it in, like a purple-black thumbnail, like a blood smear on a hammer head. I was twenty-three years old, standing in the cramped and steamy space between shelves at the old Little Sister’s bookstore in Vancouver, holding a freshly inked copy of The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Butch. The word seemed somehow simultaneously archaic and revolutionary. Lost as I was at the time in an androgynous sea of second-wave lesbian feminists, the word butch seemed so … dangerous, so not what my lover and her Women’s Studies separatist friends would approve of, so … male-identified.

I had learned a lot since leaving my small-town northern working-class roots and moving to the big city five years earlier. I had come out of the closet everybody but me had always known I was in, and found community in Vancouver’s activist scene. I had learned Robert’s Rules of Order, non-violent peaceful resistance, and ways to smash the patriarchy. I learned that men were the enemy, and that being male-identified was counter-revolutionary at best—and at times, tantamount to treason. I had also learned to remain silent about what I fantasized while fucking my lovers, silent about what I really felt when I stepped into a strap-on harness, silent about why I avoided mirrors when naked. We were going to change the world. I was a good queer. A good feminist. How could I be butch? How could this word feel so good when I lifted it onto my shoulders? What would Andrea Dworkin think? Still, I bought The Persistent Desire and secreted it home, stashed it right between my 1992 edition of Practical Problems in Mathematics for Electricians and The Complete Guide to Repairing and Maintaining Your Ford Engine.

Twenty years later, “butch” fits like my favourite boots, like my oldest belt. Other words have been thrown about, and some even stuck for a while, but butch persists. It is the only thing I have always been. I have been out for twenty-four years and a butch for forty-one.

Reading My Way into Femme

As a kid, I used to carry my library books home in a little red wagon. This was partly a product of my bookish nature and partly because my single mother didn’t own a car, and we lived in a small northern town with a lousy transit system. Thirty-odd years later, my reading habits haven’t changed much. I’m still a bookworm. In fact, I’ve read my way into everything that’s ever mattered to me—feminism, social justice, queerness, femme.

I don’t remember the first time I read the word femme, but it was probably in some dusty corner of the university library—the HQ section, to be exact, which is where you can find all of the books the librarians classify under the broad category called “Family, Marriage, Women, and Sexuality.” It’s a veritable treasure-trove of writing about queers and perverts and gender warriors and freaks (and, to my great delight, is likely where this anthology will be found).

I was a twenty-something grad student doing a sort of independent study called “Am I queer or just a bi-curious co-ed?” Until then, I’d always written off my girl crushes as some sort of romantic quirk, a never-acted-upon marker of just how progressive a feminist I really was. It turns out I was a big old homo, but it took me a while to figure that out. After all, I’d never seen a lesbian who looked like me. The only dykes I’d ever met were middle-aged, sensibly dressed professors in comfortable shoes. I liked and admired them, but they didn’t look like my future.

That all changed when grad school brought me to the big city, where I got to know beautiful tattooed femmes and lithe sissy boys with drag-queen alter egos, and I met handsome butches who set my heart aflutter. Suddenly I could see myself in “queer.” I started going to the gay bar, took up go-go dancing for a queer punk band, and read everything I could get my hands on. It was in books like The Persistent Desire and Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity that I found words for who I was, and through these a lineage, a community, my heroes. Nearly ten years later, femme is more than just a word on a page. It’s who I am.

Broadening the Joining

When we first sat down to write the introduction for this book, we did what both of us have traditionally done when setting out to say something that matters to us: we started with the dictionary. Since we were looking for the most contemporary, hip, and down-with-the-people definitions of the words femme and butch, we passed over the Oxford English Dictionary in favour of the Internet. But even the interwebs couldn’t get it quite right. The word “stereotype” was bandied about a lot. Butch was used as a synonym for dominant, and most definitions of femme had a lot more to say about outfits and accessories than identity and politics. This would never do. Our experience of these words and the people who use them was so much bigger than that.

The stories in these pages resist simple definitions. The people in these stories defy reductive stereotypes and inflexible categories. The pages in this book describe the lives of an incredible diversity of people whose hearts also pounded for some reason the first time they read or heard the word butch or femme.

This book is a testament to the many beautiful ways butch and femme can be lived and embodied. It is our homage to the bodies that lived it before us, and it is our gift to those just discovering themselves.

Audre Lorde said: “When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining—I’m broadening the joining.” [4]

We hope this book will broaden the joining. We hope it will stretch and break and reform those tired and tiring definitions into the words and worlds we see around us. We hope this book will be opened in big-city bookstores by small-town butches and dragged home in wagons by bookworms blossoming into femmes. We hope that you find parts of yourself in these pages and a sense of history and community and belonging between its covers. And we hope you persist.

[4] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 10.


Anna Camilleri

I’ve heard it said that injury is far worse if a body knows it’s about to be hurt, and instinctively braces itself taut and tight like a stretched elastic band. It’s an autonomic response—like blood flow or arousal—it’s not a thinking thing, it just happens. That day, the safe distance between trivia about the endlessly fascinating human body and the mortality of my own was erased.

Half of Vaughan Avenue was torn up. Orange pylons and signs designated two narrow lanes and a reduced speed of thirty kilometres an hour. There wasn’t enough room to share the lane with a vehicle, so I slipped my bike into the centre, pedalled fast through a cloud of dust: lips pressed shut, eyes drawn shut to narrow slits.

The only thing that had been fluttering through my mind was how much I dislike the smell of tar. I wondered about the lungs of workers who mix and lay it, day in, day out. I could see up ahead to where the pylons ended.

I heard the car behind me, felt the heat of it. It was close, too close. Ass in the air, I pedalled harder.

Then I had a mouthful of gravel and knuckles that looked like they had been dragged across a cheese grater. I tried to pick myself up, but my body folded underneath me like a marionette that had been cut loose from its tethers. Blood pooled under my tongue. The taste of iron blended with the odour of freshly pressed tar smelled strangely like fire. There was blood on the road, burning in my body, but I couldn’t isolate the source. Cars drove past.

I spotted my bicycle twenty feet away from where I lay, its metal frame bent in half at the crossbar. It dawned on me that I had been hit by a driver who had not stopped. Right before I lost consciousness, lying belly down on the spine of the road, unable to move, I remember thinking, This isn’t a good place to hang out. You need to move.

It was the rasp of her voice that drew me back, and her hands at my temples, sweeping hair away from my face.


“Hi … What are you doing here?”

A smile came through in the creases of her eyes. “Just happened to be in the area—looks like you need a hand.”

I hadn’t seen her in six years, but asked after her periodically. She had become a tool-and-die maker in prosthetics manufacturing, was shacked up with a sweet young thing out in suburban Toronto, and in her second year of sobriety. Despite the mess I was in, I remembered the heat between us, felt it as though no time had passed: autonomic response—it’s not a thinking thing, it just happens.

Those long nights when we didn’t sleep until after the sun came up. Living on strong coffee and forevers. After some choice words about not putting up with any more shit, I left her standing there on the fire-escape one day, dragging hard on a cigarette, looking like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, only more brooding.

I willed myself not to turn back; I didn’t. Told myself that I’d forget her; I didn’t.

I was nineteen when we met, the city kid, all grown up at an early age, full of vitriol and righteousness and, underneath all of that, a soft underbelly with romantic dreams and convictions where everything was life or death and there was no such thing as relative value—everything was important, dire, immediate. She had ten or so years on me—but who was counting?—and had high-tailed it out of northern Manitoba when she was a teenager, farm-handed her way across the country until she landed in Toronto. Said it was the ugliest place she ever loved.

She had a low-riding boat of a car, a ’67 Cutlass Supreme that she fussed over as though she had carried it herself for three trimesters, with gleaming wheel hubs and a mint-condition interior that she conditioned with Armor All every weekend. The sum total of her bathroom products included a bar of soap that doubled as shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a deodorant stick. Two whole Rubbermaid containers contained nothing but car-care products.

On the days I arrived home before her, I could hear her coming up the hill in her Cutlass, even with the din of traffic from St. Clair Avenue and transport trucks rumbling north and south on Dufferin Street (which was more pothole than street).

She’d drop her tool belt, wrap her arms around me and say, “Did the day treat you right, babe?”

“Right enough,” I’d say. “Did you give ’em hell today?”

“Sure did, darlin’, sure did. Plenty for the both of us.”

She rode side-saddle next to me in the ambulance, and when we arrived in admissions, she answered the intake worker’s question about the nature of our relationship with the word “family.”

We left the hospital six hours later with a prescription for antibiotics, a long list of soft-tissue injuries that would heal, and strict orders that I not be allowed to sleep for more than three hours at a stretch for the next twenty-four hours (to make sure I didn’t have a concussion).

In my apartment, she ran a bath, undressed me, and helped me into it. Her gaze didn’t wander from my eyes. “I’m right on the other side of the door. Holler if you need me, darlin’, I mean Anna.”

She arranged for friends to care for me over the next couple of days, and just before she left said, “I’m not glad you were hit, but I’m glad I was there.” She planted a kiss on my forehead and turned to leave, but stopped short of the door. “I ask after you too. You know that, right?”

This time, it was my turn to watch her walk away.

Anna Camilleri has been hailed as a “storytelling siren” (Pride Toronto); “tough, visceral and funny” (Atlanta Journal Constitution) and a “cultural agitator ” (Now Magazine). She has performed across Canada and the US in theatres, festivals, and universities over the past fifteen years, and she is a founding member of SweLL, a collaborative performance project with Ivan E. Coyote and Lyndell Montgomery. Camilleri is writer/performer of the one-woman shows Still Breathing Fire and Sounds Siren Red, author of I Am a Red Dress, editor of Red Light: Superheroes, Saints, and Sluts, co-editor of Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, co-author of Boys Like Her: Transfictions, and writer/director of two nationally broadcast CBC radio works. Her books are included in the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Books Library Queer Canadian Literature collection, and she is artistic director of Red Dress Productions, a company that creates and disseminates original interdisciplinary performance and works with/in communities on large-scale, community-engaged public artworks. As lead visual artist, she recently completed Flux, a 27 x 5 foot (8.2 x 1.5 m) mosaic, working with members of the 519 Church Street Community Centre, and is currently engaged in a creative writing residency with students at the Triangle Program, Canada’s only alternative high school for LGBTQ youth. Anna can be found online at and

My First Lover Was Not a Lesbian

Kimberly Dark

My first lover was not a lesbian. One night after we made love, she stared at the ceiling, pondering.

“At least I’m not a lesbian,” she said.

I raised myself to one elbow on the bed. My skin was still sticking to her skin, the sheet tangled between us. I stared for a moment, incredulous. “Is that so?” I finally managed.

She nodded, shrugged.

“You ever been in love with a man?” I asked her.


“With a woman?”


“Have you ever felt really attracted to men?”

“No.” She was getting annoyed.

“Are you attracted to women?”

She glared at me.

“Take me, for example.” I offered, coquettishly. “I am a woman, you know.” I pressed myself against her and kissed her earlobe. She growled a bit, finished with my foolishness. She rolled on top of me and kissed me hard, long.

“Yes, I had noticed that,” she confirmed in a softened tone, once the kiss was finished. Her body on my body, moist thighs pressing against mine, hands holding my wrists, where she pinned me for this kiss of retribution, she conceded, “Okay, so maybe I’m bisexual.”

I guffawed, but then she silenced me again, in the best way she knew how. I can’t say I minded the disagreement—or the resolution. But being as I am, I didn’t let it go.

The next day, I tried to explain to her how her distance from other women appeared. Surely, I thought, I could make her see the way she signalled her queerness to others, despite her closeted ways.

“Women look at each other. We stand close to each other,” I explained.

“Not straight women,” she replied.

“Especially straight women,” I insisted.

“Yeah, well, not women like me,” she said firmly.

“I think that was the point, darling,” I rolled my eyes.

The truth is, her public distance from me made me tense. It made her tense. She tried to pass as a straight woman, and because this was stressful, she just looked like an awkward dyke trying not to gawk at some woman she found attractive. If she had allowed me to show my affection, at least she wouldn’t have looked pitiful.

It was ridiculous that she thought she could pass for straight. She was tall and athletic, with a muscular female swagger, no makeup, short hair, and sensible shoes. She had a tendency to say “Um-mmm” when a pretty woman walked by. This last part seemed involuntary, or she’d have corrected it, I’m sure. So, instead of acting like a couple deserving of one another’s affection, we acted like we were having an illicit affair. We glanced at each other playfully from across the room. We played footsies under the dinner table and flirted at a distance, electricity between us. I was young, and being queer still seemed potentially dangerous to me too, though less so than it did for her. Something was different in our experiences, and I was slowly putting it together. As a girly-girl, my queerness could be cute. Hers could be threatening. She knew it without knowing what she knew. And, of course, our flirtations were all the more obvious because of the tension. Inexperience made me insensitive to her troubles, but I was learning quickly. See, I can pass for straight. But she only pretends she can. She pretends that no one looks at her and thinks “dyke.” She envied my femme invisibility and was angered when I refused to use it.

A person could hear this story and sympathize with my closeted darling. It’s possible that the travails of the time prompted my lover’s inability to claim her butchness, to claim her queerness. It wasn’t as easy to live openly in 1983 as it is now. We lived in Southern California, but she had grown up in suburban Virginia—that matters too. People weren’t as evolved then in their queer consciousness. Today, we can all be held to a higher standard.

And yet, gay culture and living were already established in the 1980s—gay America was post-criminalization, post-institutionalization, post-Stonewall. But what does it matter if something exists, if you’ve never seen it? Gay America was an unknown destination on my map, and on hers. I was new, and while my lover could’ve found gay culture in 1983, she’d never looked. Why would she? She was not a lesbian, even though she slept with women and expressed her female gender femininity-free. She knew what she was just as surely as she knew what I was when she saw me, but she never called herself lesbian, gay, queer, or any other such thing.

Location and queer visibility can influence a person. While she was sixteen years my senior, she had known fewer openly gay people in Virginia than I had, living in Southern California. But then, all the gay people I knew were men: hairdressers, interior designers, and models. (Oh yes, just as you imagine, the gays were everywhere. And they were beautifully dressed—and tanned.) Gay men were fashionable, but all I ever heard about lesbians was that they were ugly, unfortunate women. They had no sense of style. Lesbians were worse than invisible in my youth; they were maligned. It’s not only important that one sees queers, but that one hears positive messages about diversity.

So ironically, my butch lover was not a lesbian, but I was pretty sure I was. I was different in so many ways. She was my first lover, and I stood in the bathroom the morning after we first made love saying the word “lesbian” over and over to the mirror just to feel it, to see if it would stick. I didn’t know where I would possibly find others like her—women to whom I could be that attracted. It took a few years to find the next one, probably because I never gave up femininity in order to be visible as queer. (My next butch lover was also in Southern California, and she had a long lesbian-feminist history attached to her identity. What an education—but that’s another story.)

Is it any wonder that we know what we know when we know it? History is not linear; our collective understanding of social phenomena lurches forward and falls back again, always intersecting variously with the individual paths we tread, the ways we understand ourselves, where we grow up, and how we’re taught to feel about being “other.” Nowadays, queer identities have become more mainstream, so that even a person in a rural or fundamentalist Christian community might’ve seen “the gays” on TV or the Internet. Of course, the persistent array is not all positive; it’s still easy to find people disrespecting each other and calling it normal.

The ready information about alternate identities multiplies, but at the same time, representations of queerness homogenize. We become sitcom characters and news-show sound bites. Femmes are the hot object-of-the-masculine-gaze lesbians, the female lesbians, and now we bear the burden of those identities rather than the burden of full invisibility. I definitely feel less invisible as a dyke in my queer community than I did twenty years ago, but no better understood by hetero culture. Butches and femmes are still the only two pop-media flavours of female queer. And butches are, well, like men. At least, that’s what most straight folks seem to think. We’ve all been simplified for public consumption. That’s the error I stand most vibrantly against: I am gorgeously complex—we all are.

Respect for complexity is still what’s wanted, and it’s what I work for. Part of the privilege of femme-invisibility is that I can choose when I become complex—I have slightly more control over how others perceive me. My first lover was well aware of this, and she still prefers to cultivate her own invisibility as a queer person. She and her current femme partner live in South Carolina, and they joke about how their families think it’s “real nice” that they can live together like that, two gals without husbands. It’s real nice that the one can coach the other on proper femininity, being that she’s always had a little trouble with it, and all. No one focuses too closely on her lack of progress with feminine ways. And that’s how they find peace together. I’m all for peace. In my case, I find it in queer community, by being of service when I can, and by celebrating complexity. I’ve certainly moved beyond saying the word “lesbian” to myself in the mirror. I tell stories on stage. When my son was about nine years old, someone asked him what I do for a living and, after a thoughtful pause, he replied, “She talks to people. She’s kind of a professional lesbian.”

We know what we know when we want to know it—and when it’s available to know. Language, explanations, and appearances undulate and shimmer like water. The way we understand things changes. I claim the word “queer” exactly because it’s complicated. My current lover, however, doesn’t embrace the word queer. She’s butch. She’s lesbian. She says “queer” is for younger people or for academic types. Why would I argue that point? I may be a professional lesbian, but I certainly don’t have all the answers. I just do what I can. I’m the non-threatening-looking queer, the gender-normative hottie who’s aging into the gender-normative nurturing mother-type. I can be queer in a way that won’t make you wince. I get it. Some femme dykes are upset by their invisibility as queers, but I accept it. I try to use it for the greater good, and I look for humour and grace in those moments when the more butch and androgynous among us make fun of my femininity. Finding respect for femininity is a whole ’nother issue; they don’t know who they’re dealing with—yet. I just go right on talking to people and complicating myself right in front of them. I’m happy to be part of the queer culture that’s now available in the media and on the Internet, a culture that was accessible only through books and individual encounters, twenty years ago.

It may be easier to be “gay,” but it’s still pretty rough to be different. Butch-femme couples like my first lover and her current partner can still cultivate a relative invisibility. It’s easy because they don’t use any fancy language that would make straight people uncomfortable; folks have been doing it like that silently for generations. They’re good neighbours; whatever it is they’re doing, they don’t do it in the streets and scare the horses. And, at the same time, because of all the boldness that came before me, it’s easier for women like me to be more visibly queer. My first lover is not a lesbian, but I am—contrary to what people might guess before they get to know us.

Kimberly Dark is a writer, mother, performer, and professor. She is the author of five award-winning solo performance scripts, and her poetry and prose appear in a number of publications. For more than ten years, Kimberly has inspired audiences in fancy theatres, esteemed universities, and fabulous festivals. She’s been exploring butch and femme roles and attractions on stage across North America and Europe since her first theatre show—The Butch/Femme Chronicles: Discussions With Women Who Are Not Like Me (and Some Who Are)—was released in 1998. Her 2009 release, Dykeotomy, returned to butch-femme sex and dating in an era of multiplied gender. The Salt Lake Tribune says: “Dark doesn’t shy away from provocative, incendiary statements, but don’t expect a rant. Her shows, leavened with humour, are more likely to explore how small everyday moments can inform the arc of our lives.” The High Plains Reader in Fargo, ND, says: “Dark’s skill as a storyteller gets to your heart by exposing hers.” Find her at

Coming Back Around to Butch

Miriam Zoila Pérez

My first real girl-crush was a butch. Well, she didn’t call herself that (and maybe never has), and she was in the closet (just like I was), but it was something about her short hair, expertly chosen jeans and T-shirts, boyish lines, and masculine sensibilities that drew me to her. When D and I met, I still believed there was an imaginary line down the middle of the clothing store that meant only the right side was for me. She was the fashion role model I’d never had and even took me to buy my first baseball cap.

I’d ignored minor crushes like these for years: my thirteen-year-old mind wandering to thoughts of kissing my drama teacher and seventeen-year-old me secretly wanting to kiss my math tutor. But this one I couldn’t ignore, even though it was more than two years of friendship before my feelings for her finally forced me to come out.

The line between wanting to date her and wanting to look like her felt tenuous, and looking back, I’m pretty sure any attempts at being sexual would have failed miserably. But my complicated feelings for D taught me this crucial lesson: I needed to figure out who I wanted to be before I could figure out who I wanted to be with.

I was barely a dyke then, let alone butch, but it was the lure of female masculinity that drew me out and into the queer world.

When I was coming out, butch was no longer new. There was both popular knowledge and an underground cultural understanding of what it meant to be butch—and there were books written from both perspectives. I may not have known it intimately, as a late-blooming queer who grew up in an extremely straight southern-US town, but I knew enough to feel self-conscious about claiming butchness.

You see, I was never a tomboy. There, I said it. I was never a goddamn tomboy; I never resisted the dresses my mom wanted me to wear, never hid in my dad’s closet trying on his clothes. I did gender conformity without any real fight, and when I came out to my mom, she used it against me—“But you were always so feminine!”

Maybe I didn’t have the fight in me, maybe I wanted to fit in more than I wanted to know myself, but until I was well past twenty, I wore my hair long, with earrings dangling, and makeup on my face. I wore spaghetti-strap tank tops and flowing skirts. I flaunted my cleavage.

The butch narrative I had absorbed, the one I began to furtively read about as I came out, wasn’t mine. I wasn’t a rough-and-tumble butch kid, all scabby knees and hardness, fighting against mom over Sunday dresses. I wasn’t good at sports, didn’t have trouble being friends with girls, didn’t feel more “boy” than “girl.” So when I slowly started easing toward the masculine side of the spectrum, I was self-conscious as hell. I felt like an impostor. I felt like a phony. I had similar feelings when I came out as lesbian, but my fantasies about women quickly assuaged my fears of being a queer fraud.

With my gender presentation, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was trying too hard. Even as I slowly shed the layers of femininity in my presentation, the self-consciousness still affected what labels I used. I knew what butch was, and I still felt it couldn’t be me. I had dated men. I wore a pink dress to prom. I was short and chubby and more giggly than tough.

It was a fierce femme who bossy-bottomed me into the role of butch top. It was easy to be the butch to C’s femme, and she delighted in my enjoyment of her high heels, pretty dresses, and makeup. In those moments, when my insecurity was stronger than my sense of self, the contrast between my budding masculinity and her strong, well-articulated femininity were just what I needed to feel whole, strong, even butch. C didn’t change me, exactly, but our gender-play heavy sex gave me room to figure out what my gender could look like in those private spaces we shared.

There are people who believe you can’t be butch without a femme, that you need the two ends of the spectrum all the time to be in balance. For me, that was only half-true. I did need the strength of my lover’s femininity to bring me into my own identity. I did need the contrast with her to let me see myself. But now that I’m there, I haven’t forgotten the tomboys I had crushes on in the early days. I still fantasize about fucking them—but now, not exactly as a girl. I needed my own sense of gender first so that I could come back to them.

We were at T’s mom’s apartment in Los Angeles the first time I painted her nails. I took the cheap, runny fire-engine red polish out of the bathroom cabinet and into the bedroom, kneeling on the scratchy carpet at the foot of the bed. T sat at the edge of the mattress, and I took each of her fingers into my hand, carefully removing the old chipped pearl-coloured polish she had messily applied herself. The acetone stung my nostrils, and I inhaled the scents of sleepovers and beauty parlours as I covered each nail with the bright red polish. You wouldn’t know it by looking at us, but I, with my short hair, white undershirt, and men’s jeans, was the expert manicurist in the room. T, with her chin-length curly hair, eye shadow, and purple low-cut blouse was the newbie to all things girly.

I’d had years of practice painting nails—my own and others—I had countless manicures and pedicures under my belt, courtesy of my mom, a once-a-week regular at the nail salon. After years of keeping my nails painted and long (between compulsive bouts of nail biting), I was happy to save my skills for a girlfriend-pampering session. T was impressed by my skillful use of the nail polish applicator, and I had a good excuse to worship her feet.

T and I both play with gender, and sometimes our orbits seem to be on opposite sides of the universe. But butch-femme doesn’t really suit us, even though gender play propels our relationship. The first time sex between T and I was ever really good—you know, the room-spinning, grin-plastering, sweaty kind—I gave our gender play credit.

It was Halloween, a holiday second only to Pride for its ability to release us queers from convention and let the real divas or dappers out for a night on the town. I had been using Halloween as an excuse to do just that for the last few years and each time, my drag became more convincing and less of a costume. T also used it as an excuse to dress in full rockabilly femme gear: black dress with deep cleavage, high heels, and red lipstick—the works. We were glued together that night, making out on the dance floor of the crowded bar, my tube-sock-enhanced package against her bare thigh. Later, when we finally undressed in the privacy of my room, the awkwardness fell away, propelled by the intensity of the night out as our better selves. We might not be a conventional butch-femme couple, but I’ll be damned if our gender play isn’t hot as hell.

It was almost a year before I talked to anyone other than my first girlfriend about gender. We’d actually just broken up when I met S—who I affectionately referred to as my gender friend—at a conference in Massachusetts. S and I were walking through the lobby after a few beers at the hotel bar when the conversation turned to shopping. We bonded over the difficulty of finding clothing to fit our frames—short and on the chubby side—when we wanted to wear mostly men’s clothes.

That conference was an exhilarating weekend of bits and pieces of gender conversation, something I was starved for after hesitantly coming out as genderqueer to my girlfriend only a year before. When the weekend was over, S gave me a business card with her contact info and a note scribbled on the back: Don’t forget to share outfits through the mail. I need more faggy butches in my life.

Faggy butch was good. It accurately described my pink button-down shirts, my giggles, the fact that I talk with my hands. I once saw a tape of myself in which I made a gesture that looked more like it belonged in A Chorus Line than in the middle of an interview. Faggy butch was like genderqueer—not quite this or that, a little of both, maybe. A friend once said to me, “I access my femininity through my masculinity.”

I feel lucky to have grown up in a world with butch pioneers, and I feel lucky that I had an idea about what being butch might have meant. But instead of making me feel part of the community, these constructions of what butch was—stereotypes, really—pushed me away from the word and the identity. Instead, I chose a newer term, genderqueer, which had yet to be defined; it was in flux, it was a new frontier. I may not have been butch “enough,” but genderqueer was all mine to rewrite and redefine.

I still like the word “genderqueer,” still claim it and own it and love the way it makes room for me, in all my complexities. But I’m coming back around to butch. Maybe it’s because the years of pink prom dresses are further and further behind me, maybe it’s because I’m learning from butch elders who talk in terms that make room for me, giggles and all. Maybe it’s also because the people I know have no idea (unless I tell them) that I was never a tomboy. They only know me—my short hair, tightly bound chest, and button-down shirts.

I think every new generation feels the need to reject their elders, reject what came before them, and feel that they are the new gender rebels. We invent terms, we create new spaces, and sometimes, we come back to where our big brothers started—home.

Miriam Zoila Pérez is a twenty-six-year-old Cuban-American writer, blogger, and reproductive justice activist. After growing up in North Carolina and leaving as soon as she was old enough, Pérez has lived in various East Coast cities for the last eight years. She is a trained doula and the founder of, a blog where she writes about the intersections between birth activism and social justice. Pérez is also an editor at, a leading feminist blog and online community. Her writing has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Bitch, The Nation, The American Prospect, and ColorLines. Her essays have been included in the anthologies Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape and Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Pérez is a member of the Board of Directors of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.

A Dad Called Mum

Anne Fleming

A long time ago, I was going to make a butch video. I was going to have a shot of just the ankles and feet of a row of dykes and ask the audience to identify the butch feet, the butch ankles. I was going to show a row of knees. A row of butts. I was going to show butch women’s mothers talking about what they thought of how their daughters dressed. I was going to do a matching game: which mother belongs to which daughter? I was going to do quick cuts of butches identifying themselves: “Well, I would say I’m sort of, you know, a faggy butch?” “Butch.” “I feel sorta guy-like, like I’m not a guy, but I’m not not a guy. Maybe that makes me trans, I don’t know.” “Gay butch.” “Flipped butch.” “Butch-a-licious!” “Fuckin’ bull dyke.” “Boi.”

I was going to show kid pictures of now grown-up butches. I was going to show butches singing. I was going to show butches not being able to open jars and passing them to their femme partners.

I think it’s safe to say now I’ll never make that video. [5] But it sure would be fun.

What I wanted to show, I guess, is that butch is a self-definition. That it’s not about the body but the spirit, or not about the body but the way that body moves. (Imagine it: the row of ankles, the femmes’ toenails.) Because lot of times you’ll look at photos and go, “Her? She’s not that butch.”

Because sometimes it’s a competition.

When I was a kid, I used to wear my dad’s ascots when nobody was home.

Isn’t there something campy about the word “butch”? Isn’t there something inherently mocking in it? Isn’t the word “butch” basically un-butch? That is to say, if you are butch, you are not really masculine, you are only pretending masculinity? (Aha. But pretend masculinity is the best kind.)

There was a butch-femme couple at the church where my mom was the adult education coordinator. They made her sad. They were aping heterosexual sex roles.

One time when I was eight, I was allowed to wear pants to the soirée of a conference my dad was attending in Banff. The pants were allowed because, with them, I would be wearing a shirt with puffed sleeves. Happily, my shoulders made the shirt look piratical rather than femmy, and a girl about my age thought I was a boy and asked me to dance. What was I going to do? I danced.

Five years later, at a dance at music camp, when the DJ called a snowball, another girl who thought I was a boy asked me to dance. When I held back she took it for the boy equivalent of coyness and pulled harder. “Come on. Dance.” But there were kids who knew me in the crowd. Kids who would say something, kids who would out me as a girl, and I worried about how she’d feel then. I didn’t dance.

At the same camp, there was a girl in my cabin with auburn hair and a dry sense of humour who, unasked, and somewhat mystifyingly, cleaned my trunk for me. (Trunk. You know. That thing with a lid you pack off to summer camp.) Messiness was a kind of butch incompetence she could help out with. If she found the cut-offs with the blood stains in the crotch, she never said. Looking back on it, I recognize her as a femme.

There was a butch woman who lived at the Y in Kitchener in the 1980s. She was in her late sixties, probably, when I was in my twenties. She was really handsome. Grey hair. Plaid shirt. Jeans. What a dull description that is. But I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, seeing her outside the Y, smoking.

For my twelfth birthday, my friends took me to a Blue Jays game, and then we stayed overnight at Anne Bunting’s house. Somebody asked whose body type would we most like to have? I assumed everyone would say what I would say: Anne Bunting’s. The most boyish. The narrowest hips. But they all said Katie Wilkins. Hourglass. They wanted hips, all my tomboy friends.

When I was seven, I had red jeans and a matching jean jacket. I should add that these were my only jeans. My mother did not believe in jeans for girls. I loved those jeans—loved the jacket, too, but not with the jeans. Too femmy. I had already heard, I don’t know how many times, kids asking me, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Up till then, I’d always answered, “girl.” I had a vague sense that it was a trick question. If I said “boy,” they’d say, “Bullshit, why are you trying to trick me?” One day, while wearing my red jeans and hanging out in the ravine across from the Dog Ladies’ house (yup, you guessed it, the Dog Ladies were the neighbourhood “spinsters”), I said, “boy.” And the kid who’d asked, a boy, asked, “Oh, yeah? How come you got no dick?” pointing at the flatness in my crotch.

We weren’t supposed to go to the ravine by ourselves, but it was our main activity. We lit fires under the Mount Pleasant bridge. We built jumps for our bikes. We climbed high in the willows and dropped twigs on passers-below. One day, when we were in grade five, we were under the bridge, and some grade seven kids came along. They’d been drinking. One of them put me in a headlock while another lit matches and threw them at my head. They talked about me in the third person: he, him. They thought I was our group’s ringleader. Katie Wilkins got her grade-eight brother to come to our rescue, and the grade seven kids took off.

At twenty-one, I worked at a winter outdoor-education centre in central Ontario. We had school groups up for two or three days at a time. One evening, I was sitting by the fire, reading or knitting—everyone knit there, the men and the women—and a group of twelve-year-old girls came in from their cabin to go to the washroom. They saw me there and walked over to chat. “We thought you were a guy when we came in last night,” one of them said.

“And we thought you were cute!” They cracked themselves up.

“Were you a tomboy when you were our age?” the most tomboyish of them asked.

Yes, I told them. I was.

“Don’t most people grow out of it?” she said.

Well … no.

The last five years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of reading to research my next novel, and I’ve found loads of fantastic stuff, including a pamphlet from 1620 called Hic Mulier; Or, The Man-Woman [6] and tales like this one from The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, dated 1694: “Two maidservants of a Delft regent amused themselves … One of them donned the clothing of her master, his trousers, his stockings and his shoes, finishing her costume by placing his fur hat on her head. The other dressed in her mistress’s clothes, pretending to be ‘his’ wife. Elegantly attired in this way, they went to a nearby village where they visited friends, then to a waffle stall, and finally to an inn, where they hired a violinist to play for them, dancing until late into the night.” [7]

The summer I was seventeen, I said to my friend Val, with whom I spent almost all my time, that I didn’t know what love felt like. “What does it feel like?” I asked rhetorically. “What does it feel like to say, ‘I love you’”?

So I said it. “I love you.” It didn’t feel like anything.

“Me?” said Val.

“No, no. I was just trying out the phrase.” It was true. But was I in love with Val? It never occurred to me that I could be.

At university, the winter I was eighteen, you could almost always get into the bar without being ID’d if you showed a second-year student card. One night I borrowed a friend’s card as usual, but the guy at the door thought I looked young and asked for other ID. Fuck, I thought. What am I going to do? I couldn’t show my own ID; it had a different name. I didn’t have Jane’s ID with me, didn’t think of that. Flustered, I gave him my own ID. He looked at it. He looked at me. His face got a look I know, the oh-my-god-I-got-this-person’s-gender-wrong look. He let me in.

I find myself telling these anecdotes—and there are more of them—over and over, as a way of asserting something: The time I got called “sir” when I was wearing a skirt; the two bank tellers, one in the small farming community of Woodstock, Ontario, the other at a big-city dyke-central intersection, who said to me, “Anne. That’s a funny name for a boy.”

What am I trying to assert?

That there’s something about me that is read as masculine—a gait, a manner, a mien—even when I am not trying, even when there are contrary indicators like long hair, skirts, or earrings. That this “read” matches my own sense of self. Until I was in my mid-thirties, my mother and I had this recurring argument: “Why are you trying to look like a boy?” she would ask. “I’m not,” I would say. “I am trying to look like myself.” That there are girls and women who get this—who love this—whose eyes sparkle at this, and who know, long before I do, just what it’s about.

That I have what feels like a natural, in-born masculinity that even my mother’s long, relentless siege could not vanquish or disguise. That I like and honour this masculinity. That it exists universally in women throughout time and space.

Whatever feelings I may have had about being masculine—that I was an ugly girl but would make a good-looking boy, for instance—they were all instantly resolved when I finally, in bed with my best friend, figured out I was a dyke. Suddenly, my life made sense. Suddenly, I wasn’t an ugly straight girl, I was a handsome baby dyke. I already loved my own masculinity. Now I could own it. Now I was part of a community, too, and part of a tradition. In 1983, masculinity in lesbians was the norm, even de rigueur (much to the chagrin of femmes who had to butch up to be recognized and authenticated, including the woman dating my male upstairs neighbour, whose hair, my roommate and I noted, was getting dykier and dykier, the woman who called me at the Leaping Lesbian radio show I hosted with a request to play: “Do I Move You?”, the woman who asserted her right to re-femme in the 1990s, the same woman I’ve adored for twenty-one years).

But it’s not the same for everyone.

I had a friend from summer camp who, when in high school, would answer the phone in a deep voice, and then, when she heard it was me, let her voice come out the way it “naturally” did. She’d moved from her mom’s to her dad’s house, and I figured from this voice thing that she had to answer the phone as Dennis, not Denise. But I didn’t ask, and she didn’t say. Years later, we both came out, and I heard the story of how she’d lived as Dennis during high school, how she’d told people she was the handyman at our girls’ camp, and how her girlfriend’s father had got her charged with fraud for using a male alias.

Years later again, I wrote a play based on my imagining of all this. I sent it to Dennis. I had written the play as a dialogue between the character and the court-ordered counsellor and Dennis brought up a line of the counsellor’s: “Have you ever considered a sex change?” There was a pause on the phone. S/he was about to say something big, something important. And then there was a knock at my door—my parents, arriving from Toronto. I had to go. I never did hear what s/he had to say. Always regretted it.

Years after that, my first book came out, and Dennis came to the Toronto launch. He’d thought about that sex change and he’d had it. He’d transitioned. His voice was deep. He had facial hair. His pecs and shoulders were bigger. He finally felt like he could be himself. Was himself. What had happened for me upon coming out had happened for him upon transitioning.

I confess I didn’t totally get it. We understand the world by extension of ourselves. It’s hard to get why people feel differently. It’s hard to believe they even do.

I interviewed a guy who was coming to Vancouver to do a one-man show called FTM. He’d been a dyke for a long time, but he’d had this profound and longstanding feeling that his body wasn’t right. He had dreams he was shaving. In his dreams, his body was male. In his psyche, he was male. Interviewing him was the first time I got how that was a difference between us. I’ve thought a lot since about how, if my body conformed less well to my ability to appear butch to my satisfaction—if I had bigger hips or gi-normous boobs or a girlier face—I might have felt the same as him. I might have felt that my body and soul did not match up. And I am finding that age is feminizing me. I weigh more, for one thing, and the chub on my face femmes me up in a way I don’t much like. I have to take birth control pills so I don’t bleed all the time. Sometimes I wonder if I couldn’t just take testosterone instead.

Three years ago, I wrote this:

“Kate, your dad’s here,” one of the kids calls out at my daughter’s preschool.

“No,” says one of the teachers. “That’s Kate’s mum.”

Sometimes it will be Kate herself who says, “I don’t have a dad. That’s my mum.”

But I always feel stuck. The kid’s not wrong. She’s made an accurate assessment: masculine-identified parent. But Kate’s not wrong, either. I’m a lesbian dad. And I’m trapped by nomenclature.

What should we call ourselves? My partner, Cindy, wanted a parental name for herself—“Mom” or “Mommy.” Because my family of origin was already saying I wouldn’t be a parent when our child was born but rather a “nursemaid,” calling ourselves Mommy and Anne wasn’t going to work.

Mom and Dad? Dad I liked, but Mom and Dad is just a little too … Mom and Dad, you know? A little too mainstream America. On the other hand, it’s pretty subversive because we’re not Mom and Dad from mainstream America. Ultimately, it seemed as though it would require too much public explanation: “Hi. I’m not actually male, but my daughter calls me Dad because that’s the parental identity I relate to the most.” Maybe it’s just because I’m chicken that I didn’t go for “Dad.” I couldn’t imagine going to visit the relatives and having to explain gender identity. I didn’t want to face the scorn and derision, fury and outrage I would endure from my father and brothers in particular, the embarrassment my sister and nephews might feel—the scorn, derision, fury, outrage, and embarrassment that our child might endure at my being called Dad all turned me against it. And now that Kate is four, there are lots of times I’m happy we didn’t opt for that. Like when we’re on our way into the women’s washroom, where I’m already suspect, but where I feel most comfortable peeing and taking my daughter to pee, or when I’m in the women’s change room at the pool, I’m kind of glad she’s not calling me Dad.

We looked at names from other languages. My cousin’s partner is Appa to her children—Korean for Dad—but that didn’t feel right to me, either. Cindy thought that she wouldn’t be able to say my idea for a hybrid name—Mumpa—without laughing. Mop? Also too comical. Wasn’t that what the Rubble’s kangaroo used to say on The Flintstones? Mop-mop? I kind of liked Pomo, but decided it was too clever. It’s not fair to set up a two year-old (or even a seven-year-old) to call you something that they won’t “get” until they’re twenty, something that is an inside joke to adults. Pa-Ma sounds like you’re saying “Palmer” with an English accent. Moppa is one friend’s version of a hybrid that we heard about too late. I was already, reluctantly, Mum.

What I have found interesting about this whole thing is that it’s made me realize how the word “Mom” has a specific, limited denotation, which is about …

I never finished the sentence. That’s where I stopped. The word “Mom” for me has a specific, limited denotation, which is about …

Femininity is the short answer, but not adequate, which is why I gave up on the essay rather than find the right word.

“Why can’t you just do with ‘Mom’ what you do with ‘woman’?” Cindy asks me. That is, why can’t you ask the world to expand its definition of Mom to include someone who is not feminine? I don’t have an answer. “I just can’t,” is the answer. And yet, it is what I have done. I’m a dad called “Mum.”

Which turns some heads. When people see us, they see masculine-presenting adult, feminine-presenting adult, and kid. They assume straightness—and then Kate calls me Mum. One clerk in a convenience store was so shocked he couldn’t stop laughing the whole time we paid for our milk. He was nice; it wasn’t mean laughter, he was just so freakin’ surprised.

When she doesn’t call me Mum, we pass. Like last week, a taxi driver in Paris tells us we should really go to gay Pride, the kids love it. He shrugs: Go figure, but hey, what the kids love, that’s what you do.

We’re always wondering, when do we say something? When do we come out? When do we let it go? People think Kate is a boy too. There’s an example being set here. We want to say, “These divisions between boy and girl, man and woman—they’re artificial and inadequate and they lead to injustice.” We don’t want to always think of the world in gendered terms. And yet, to be butch and femme is to be gendered, which seems important to shake up once in a while, regularly. Frankly, I get a little lost in thinking about it.

Funny thing is I now have a kid who is gender non-conforming. So I get to be completely not my mom and say, “What do you want to wear?” “Hair cut? Sure. Let’s go.”

One of the things we struggle with is trying to stop coding things as boy things or girl things. Loving spaceships is not a boy thing or a girl thing. Neither is loving Lego, or sparkly toenail polish, or pink, or bikes with flower decals. Or bikes with flame decals. Being butch doesn’t mean I can’t knit. And being femme doesn’t mean Cindy can’t be the jar-opener in the family.

When I was twenty-four, I read The Persistent Desire. In its pages, I found a kind of home. I found ways of articulating what I already knew: that the butch-femme couple at my mom’s church wasn’t aping anything—they were taking something, transforming it, and making something new that was their own. That butch is not a faked or pretended masculinity but a distinct masculinity, with its own fluidity and give, depending on who’s inhabiting it.

Anne Fleming is the author of Anomaly, a novel, and Pool-Hopping and Other Stories. She divides her time between Vancouver and Kelowna, where she teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus.

[5] But someone else has! See “Butch Tits,” by Jen Crothers (

[6] The pamphlet’s flavour is summed up on its title page: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of Our Times, Expressed in a Brief Declamation.

[7] From Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. Van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).

A Beautiful Creature

Karleen Pendleton Jiménez

“It’s the most feminine thing you could do,” she blurts out at the bar.

I cringe. It’s her explanation of why butches don’t get pregnant, present company excepted. The butch takes a swig of beer and watches for the impact of her words. I hate this part of being butch. On any given night, I am thrown into the mix of butch-on-butch competition and insecurity, when all I want to do is dance. We know each other’s vulnerabilities. She knows which issues draw my defensiveness. Throwing the word “feminine” in my direction has the desired effect.

It didn’t feel very feminine. I can’t say that I know what feminine feels like, but that wouldn’t be what I imagine. A femme might or might not choose pregnancy as an example of her own femininity.

In the first few months, there was a complete overhaul of my body. My system was designing the little factory that would build my baby. My blood volume increased. My heart pounded, leaving me breathless after I climbed up just one flight of stairs. I could barely consume a slice of toast without the sickness filling my stomach.

In the middle months, I was reborn. I could eat everything. I would run an errand only to find myself in a bakery scarfing down some buttery pastry. My body felt warm and powerful. I glowed. My reflection in the mirror was vibrant. I hadn’t looked that good since I was twenty-two—or maybe I had never looked that good. People smiled at me on the street. Men blushed and turned away.

In the last few months, my stomach stretched to the limit and the weight made my feet throb. My bones loosened and became sore. I couldn’t bend over to tie my shoelaces. I’d close my eyes and see myself as a twelve-year-old again, following my brothers around. I could hear them instructing me, warning me, “Suck it up. Don’t be a baby.”

The due date came and went, but the baby didn’t want to emerge. The midwives told me to walk as far as I could, to ease her out. I walked half the city in the summer rain, my belly hanging over my drenched jeans, to no avail.

And the birth? The induction. I remember carnage. There are photos full of blood. I remember the doctor sewing me back up for what seemed like an hour, as I held my new baby proudly on my chest. I remember that she apologized a few times for the damage to my body. Forceps. Unavoidable. Sorry.

My definition of butch involves chivalry. I want to be courageous, gallant, to show the highest respect for a woman. I think of an idealized knighthood, where such characteristics are valued and groomed. I would protect my lover from an enemy, risk physical harm.

I was nine years old the first time I held another girl. It was nighttime around the campfire, and the counsellors were telling gruesome stories to freak out the kids. The girl beside me—with hazel eyes and long braided hair—asked if I would hold her because she was scared. I had never imagined such a request. My instinct kicked in immediately. I wrapped my arms around her. I ceased being frightened myself because I could only think about how proud I felt to protect her. It didn’t matter if I was cold, or if the rock that I was sitting on was hard and uncomfortable. Everything, for an instant and for the first time in my life, felt right. I was a little knight beside the campfire.

I have to admit that there is actually little, in my twenty-first-century North American life, that calls for mortal risk. The scary stories, after all, weren’t real. My every-day gallantry probably has more to do with enduring minor physical discomfort for the benefit of the person beside me, especially a femme (but only if she wants it). Offering a chair, offering to do an errand or a chore, offering to share my food. Little tokens. That’s all. Gifts that make me feel strong, generous, and loving.

If anything, pregnancy was my most courageous act. I endured the burden of growing a whole life underneath my skin. I risked my life to make another. It’s the only time I’ve ever been admitted to a hospital. I listened to my baby’s heartbeat rise and then slow, dangerously slow. I panicked. I looked up at the doctor and agreed to have my body cut open for the baby. Without question. I’ve never been so brave. I’ve never fulfilled my ideal role of butch with such certainty.

“Were you embarrassed?” one of my buddies asked after the fact, wondering why I kept fairly quiet about the pregnancy. No. I was nervous. I was uncomfortable. I averted my eyes when I saw another butch I knew at the fertility clinic. “Please don’t tell anyone that you saw me here,” I pleaded.

I had a plan when I started high school. I was going to wear girls’ clothes. I was going to a new school in a different city, and I thought it was my chance to look normal. I would have no history. They wouldn’t know that all I wore in junior high were jeans, jerseys, and soccer shorts. It never occurred to me to do otherwise until the day a boy in my science class told me that people thought I was weird for wearing guys’ clothes. I wasn’t following the rules. I didn’t really know they existed. But I could fix that, and no one would have to know.

I had faith in pink sweaters to hide my masculine strut across the playground. I was just as oblivious to the stares of my classmates as I had been in my basketball sweats. The other students made bets about what gender I was. The ambiguity was hilarious to them. It wasn’t about winning the bet; the entertainment value was derived from debating the issue, making a case based on observable evidence.

I was their joke. Having a butch in class was funny on its own, but a butch trying desperately to look like a girl was hysterical. It was all the more humiliating that I was wearing bright-coloured blouses with ruffled collars in an attempt to appease them. I couldn’t protect myself in those clothes. When I came out a few years later, I got rid of feminine attire for good. I finally got to enjoy being attractive as a masculine woman, having women want me for precisely the same queerness that had previously been used against me.

“You’re going to have to wear a dress now,” my friend laughs, “a big, long matronly dress.” The first time I heard this, I chuckled along with the friend or acquaintance who had thought of the image. But then it kept happening. After work, on the phone, at a party, one woman after another kept coming up to me and sharing her vision: Since I was pregnant, I would have to wear a dress. They were only partly kidding, as I had seriously transgressed my role as a butch by getting pregnant, and now it was time for me to pay my dues. For months, they kept urging me to oblige them, “Come on, just once.”

I was nervous about the transformation of my butch body into something lush and womanly when I got pregnant, but it hadn’t crossed my mind that it would entail wearing a dress. The comments were meant in fun—they weren’t pressuring me as a woman to conform to social expectations; I was more like a man in drag on a wild night. Even though I understood their relatively harmless intentions, I could not shake the high school kid in me who had tried so hard to be okay.

Maybe I was embarrassed to be pregnant. I didn’t want to look like a butch who was trying to be a girl again, didn’t want to be in the in-between place where I didn’t know how to defend myself, where I felt part monster, part joke.

A pregnant woman’s body is hardly the model of conventional femininity. Bigger breasts aside, there is the massive hard ball of a stomach, more like my dad’s beer belly than a soft, rounded lady’s tummy. It’s true that some people find it attractive, but at least as many, if not more, are turned off by it. If the shape is not particularly feminine, if the work of pregnancy is often sweaty and sore and gruelling, then what is it exactly that makes it, in that butch’s opinion (and she’s not alone), the ultimate in femininity?

I think it’s because pregnancy is the physical manifestation of having been fucked. And specifically, fucked by a man. I think people reduce femininity to the one simple act. By the same token, the ultimate in masculinity is to be the one who does the fucking. Such conflation renders my butch pregnancy invisible, as it simultaneously devalues every femme in the world who does not have a baby. Their rich, complicated femininity is considered inferior to the more significant act of giving birth. This version of femininity is violent, tearing away at the legitimacy of our lives.

If femininity is taboo for butches, being fucked is even worse. As far as I can tell, a lot of us are, in fact, getting fucked by our girlfriends, but very few of us are willing to admit this openly. We barely confess to having needs of our own, or to crying, or to owning a piece of women’s clothing. This information can only be shared in whispers between friends after a couple of beers. There is no place for my pregnant body in this context. Walking down the street with my massive belly, I became the emblem of a fucked butch. The images of the famous pregnant man all over the magazines didn’t allow me to feel any less offensive or afraid.

But as I agonized over who I had become, men and women of all ages and ethnicities would smile at me on the street. They offered little gestures of their good wishes for me. I was pregnant and had finally joined the heterosexual club. Being butch could be overlooked because of the miracle of the baby. These were the people who had only ever noticed me as a queer or not noticed me at all. Meanwhile, friends and acquaintances expressed their surprise over my pregnancy—often joyous surprise, loving and supportive surprise, but surprise nonetheless—prompting my girlfriend and I to wonder about the state of butches as fully functional creatures of the earth. Are we not supposed to procreate? Are we somehow neutered by our gender expression? Are we eunuchs?

I understand that many butches have had to fight against traditional female roles. They have had to defend both their masculinity and sexuality against the family, friends, and community members who urged them to marry and have children like proper women. Sometimes our very survival lies in our ability to embrace our butch identity and reject social norms. I hope that as we struggle to make space for alternative lives, we don’t inadvertently give up the possibility of giving birth.

As a Chicana, I wasn’t going to buy in to this fate. I cut my teeth at Berkeley in the early 1990s, where Chicana feminism informed courses, politics, relationships, and house parties. There were plenty of butches in the community, butches who read Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa. We modelled our identities on woman-of-colour feminism. We were masculine, but still tied to a woman-centred politics. We read feminist manifestos, even if we struggled with bodies that were not altogether female.

We shared a family-centred politics as well; if you are Chicana, you care about family. That’s how we have survived for so long against institutional racism. We depend on the support of our families when everyone else fails us. Even if this closeness wasn’t always apparent in our actual families, the research said it was so. Our queer group on campus was called La Familia, and we made a pact to not give up on our families, even if it took them a while to learn how to accept us. I was even a student of Cherrié Moraga’s when she had her baby and wrote a memoir about it. Being a Chicana butch meant that I was a woman and that I could, and perhaps should, make family, an alternative vision of family, but family nonetheless.

My vision of family begins with my mother. As my mother’s daughter, there was no question about whether or not I would have a baby. I was in love with my mother, a big, round woman with dark brown eyes and hair. She knew everything. She was so smart that people from all over the community would call her to ask for advice. While she talked on the phone for hours lying on her bed, I would cuddle up beside her. I pushed my head into her armpit and rested my hand on her stomach.

In my earliest memories, I would follow her around shopping or on errands, clutching the seam of her pants. That was my spot, behind my mama’s leg, where I could peek out at new people. She taught me how to read when I was three and at ten told me I could get a PhD if I wanted to. She loved good humour, and my brothers and I would sit in the car on long drives and tell ridiculous stories to hear her laughter. She loved each of us, even though we three were entirely different from one another: one Democrat, one Republican, one Libertarian. She was shy in public and would tell me how much she admired my confidence and easiness with conversation.

We fought, too—big screaming matches—especially when I was a teenager. She would be yelling and crying in her light blue nightgown, crossing the living room toward me with her pain. She could be a crazy woman. I remember once thinking that I would tell her I was going to move out, but the sound got stuck in my throat. I couldn’t move away from her. The intensity of our relationship made me feel connected, cared for, alive. In my mother’s arms, I was not a tomboy, a queer, or a butch. I was just a kid hungry for her attention, for her approval, and for her love.

When she died a dozen years ago, it became even more important for me to have a baby. Losing my mother has been the biggest tragedy of my life. If I could no longer have a mother, then I needed to become one.

But first, I had to get through a pregnancy.

A butch pregnancy.

I have never felt so detached, so removed from the planet. Added to my state of gender nervousness was the physical obstacle growing inside. My massive stomach held me at a distance from everyone else.

At seven months pregnant, I board the subway to get home. It’s crowded on a Friday evening, and I am thankful for the young Latino teenager who gives up his seat for me. I silently note that there must be a mother responsible for his good manners.

I look across the aisle at a South Asian man ready for a night on the town. I can smell his sharp, spiced cologne mixed with pheromones on high alert. His hair is gelled up stiff. He is wearing a gold linked chain around his neck, a cream silk shirt, black pants, and pointy Italian shoes. I breathe him in and sigh. He is ready to impress a woman on a date and, hopefully, will make love to her later that night. I smile. I like the smell of his daring. It makes me nostalgic for my body without a heavy baby inside, my body that is fit and ready to romance a girl. I miss my clothes, my dress shirts and slacks that now won’t fit around my breasts or belly. I can barely get up to waddle out the door at my stop, and manage this only with the nagging feeling that my bladder wants to expel its tiny amount of pee.

I am eight months pregnant. It’s a summer night and I’ve curled my girlfriend’s fingers around my own and led her to our bedroom. I have become an expert at making love to my girlfriend. A dozen years of perfecting the dance. I know exactly when to bite her skin, when to caress her, when to pound her, and when to hold her. I know how to move inside, and I know how to rub and pull and make her body rise.

It’s hard to find a position to reach her. Should I sit cross-legged or on my knees or lie on my side? What angle affords me the longest timeframe before my legs or arms get cramped and I lose steam? I tw