Friday, July 11, 2008

Contradictions

Who would have thunk that the events of the past week, what with Darlene jumping on furniture and screaming at mice and me sewing her lace-hemmed pants as a kind of joke gift would lead to such serious thoughts as those currently swirling over there at the Slant.

At issue is Darlene's dilemma: should she leave the white lace ruffle on the hem or her cat-and-mouse pajamas or should she remove it. Initially, I had given my consent for her to remove the lace so that she would be more comfortable in the pants, but then a conversation ensued about comfort zones, expanding paradigms and breaking down stereotypes. All from a pair of pants with mousies on them. Good grief.

So here is the thing. Darlene and I are both what is considered butch in the queer world, which means a variety of things depending upon the person and the community. When I hear the term butch, it brings to mind a certain set of descriptors that are pretty cut and dried: masculine in appearance and attitude, certainly no make-up, perfume is more likely to be a men's cologne or not at all, a harsher, brasher demeanor than our more feminine sisters, and in some cases, less open to emotional expression. It all sounds very much like my dad.

Now, I identify as butch. OK. To me this evokes a lot of what I just mentioned. But, I do lots of things that are considered to be among the "feminine arts" like cooking and sewing. I have a little side business selling cookies to a local coffee shop that keeps me in pin money through the summer. Somehow people don't have a huge problem with the idea that I might cook. Women cook all the time, but it is not unusual for men to cook either. In fact, look at the Food Network sometime and see how many shows there are hosted by men. Scads of 'em! To the point where volumes have been written about women chefs trying to break into the business. So people are ok with a butch woman like me cooking.

But then they learn that I know how to sew, and that I make some kind of neat things when I do sew, it gets stuck sideways in their brains. It is true, though. I make all my own Hawaiian shirts, for example, and all of L's and my pajamas, for summer and winter. I make aprons to use in the kitchen, and i have even sold a few. I also do easy stuff like little rice pillows to stick in the microwave and use as heating pads - utterly wonderful!

Usually by this time, people's eyes start to glaze over, or they begin to look for an escape. Because nobody wants to deal with the apparent contradiction that is me. I am a butch woman who likes to weld and build things and cook and sew things. Why is that weird? Why is that upsetting to what people understand of the world?

Because I straddle the realms of what are classically considered to be men's and women's roles and behaviors. I challenge people's perceptions of what is appropriate and acceptable.

To the straight world, I am a woman who behaves and dresses often in very mannish ways, and who is a contractor who builds things and welds things and generally gets along at the hardware store like one of the boys. The fact that I sew and cook does not seem that unusual to them because they see me first as a woman who is rebelling in this other realm, but behaving like I am "supposed to" over here with the kitchen and the sewing machine.

To the lesbian world, I am a big butch gal who drives a truck and uses tools and generally does all kinds of butchly things and then I throw a wrench into the works by announcing that I can sew and cook. The queer community sees me first as butch, then as a woman, never considering that I might be comfortable in some areas of both.

I have to say that I generally get more grief from lesbians, particularly butch ones, for my sewing and cooking than I ever get from the straight world for welding and carpentry.

And I find that to be both fascinating and sad.

Did not our forbears in this movement march and die for our right to express ourselves in whatever way makes us happy? How is it then that the queer community wants so desperately (broad brush, blanket statements, I know - work with me here) to pigeonhole us all into little categories from which we cannot escape. An effeminate man is destined forever to be labeled as a sissy boy or queen, or as he ages, as an old auntie. Perhaps he is comfortable in those roles and within that set of behaviors and circumstances, but woe to him if he is not. If he decides to take a beginning carpentry class at the local adult ed program, he's going to get grief from his community for "trying to be all butch. Do you think he can get a hammer in pink?"

Why is this? I think it has to do with pecking order, with power, and with insecurities. Gay men are emasculated by the straight world for being queer and then again by the queer world for being "too queer" which in my mind really translates into "too female" which brings us into our own internalized sexism.

We (and this goes for many gay men as well as lesbians) don't want to be weak, so we cast aside all of the vestiges of femininity. We avoid the kitchen save for trips in for pizza and beer. We eschew skirts and dresses and lace and frilly things because they remind us of our place and role in society as second-class citizens. We loathe that stuff with the passion of a sixteen-year-old-boy. We become the sexist pigs we fought so long and hard against.

I confess I do not know much about femme politics, but I am learning a little bit here and there. I understand that the girly girls have as much trouble within the gay community as nearly any other sub-set because they seem to assimilate in straight culture by day and sleep with women by night. But I understand that assimilation is not the idea here. They are as comfortable in skirts and heels as I am in work jeans and boots. And who am I to tell them they're selling out or "passing" when to do so would be to judge them with the same sexist brush that so many men use to paint women as inferior.

So all of this came about as a result of an inch of lace and satin at the bottom of a pair of pajama pants that I sewed for another butch girl. Which is funny, because I added the lace as a dig, an attack, if you will, upon her butch status. As if by adding a thing generally associated with femininity it could reduce her status somehow. It was a joke, but it has raised some very serious thoughts.

So now, to keep it or leave it? Well, I have argued for leaving it. I think it would be good to reach a little outside of our comfort zones, to expand a paradigm or put a few chinks into the old stereotype. How insecure are we if an inch of lace hem is going to threaten the integrity of our inner most identifying features. I have not asked her to march down Congress Street in the things, merely to wear them around the house and maybe listen to what her inner self has to say about the whole experience. They were made with affection and care, and I think that might counter some of the weirdness associated with the image they offer. If the inner self really chafes that much at the lace, then take it off. It's only single-stitched and the rest of the garment is double-stitched. But for a while, why not try on something to challenge us and to see what we can learn from the experience. If this butch girl can cook and sew without jeopardizing my status, then certainly another can wear the products of my labors without doing so either.

4 comments:

toklas23 said...

you will pleased to know said lounge pants are on, at this very moment. lace and all.

love. these. pants.

and thanks for this truly thought-provoking post my friend. i liked what i read.

Zack said...

You wrote >>I have to say that I generally get more grief from lesbians, particularly butch ones, for my sewing and cooking than I ever get from the straight world for welding and carpentry.<<

I think that part of your grief from butch lesbians might be that when groups see themselves as having a particular identity (for example - butch), it's taken as a rejection of that identity - essentially as if you're saying that it isn't good enough for you - when you choose to behave or present in a way that doesn't fit what members of that group think is the behavior that represents that identity.

I agree with you that it's power and insecurities. This is something that I've thought about a lot, too, as someone who was supposedly once a lesbian and who is transitioning to male (I argue with that - I may be transitioning to physically male, but I have always been male). Many lesbians want nothing to do with me, and I'm not sure what the reason is. I think it's because I'm either perceived as taking male privilege, because I'm perceived as rejecting lesbians, or as turning my back on the "community," or am supposedly secretly anti-woman. My partner has experienced this, also - she's turned her back on the community, supposedly, by being with me, so she's not a "real lesbian" and is unwelcome by some groups.

I think that people will always put others - and themselves - in little boxes. It's human nature - we have to categorize in order to make sense of the world. All we can do about it is to try and challenge the makeup of those boxes and get people to open their minds about others.

Carlita said...

I found this post incredibly thoughtful and fascinating. I'll be back to read more.

MRMacrum said...

Top notch post Dawn.

I guess what it all comes down to is being comfortable with yourself and telling others, no matter which way they swing, to shove it. If my lifestyle threatens another person, that is their problem, not mine.

Your peak into the gay culture here is illuminating for me. I never considered gays as being so stratified. But it makes sense. Society certainly is. Every community has it's own odd set of dos and don'ts, proper and improper. When someone does not fit comfortably within the parameters, it makes folks uncomfortable.