Bronze Amulet from Suffolk, England, woman
wielding a triple phallus
body is more than an assembly of organs and physiological functions.
It is an anomaly, a mystery, a metaphor.
human bodies are transparent to their medical certainties. In the
mechanistic world-view of modern science, questions about the
meaning of life are answered by the body’s reproductive functions.
Queer bodies refer us to the mystery of origin. What makes us? Why
are we here?
and gays cannot automatically assume a gendered body. We have no way
to unproblematically “be” men and women. Homosexuality means
always flirting with cultural stereotypes, performing gender, and
de-naturalizing it. We call the assignment of gender categories into
gay man can assume the clothes and gestures of a woman, but he does
not become a woman. Judith Butler observes that drag queens mimic
the “structure of impersonation by which any
gender is assumed.”[i]
When a drag-queen sings the feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” we
laugh at how a woman is contrived. Gay men can also act masculine,
but this masculinity appears in a way that again calls gender
categories into question. In gay men, masculinity loses its punch.
The forms and objects of masculinity stop reading as expressions of
power and privilege, and instead become erotic lures. Through gay
performances of masculinity, we notice that every
man contrives his gender through donning the clothes, postures and
privileges of men. All men become visible as male impersonators,
acting out the naturalized ideal of what a man is.
mask of a woman giving birth, worn by male dancers
butch lesbian can likewise assume the clothes and gestures of a man.
She can be seen as “masculine,” she looks so powerful, visible
and authoritative. A femme lesbian dresses in a skirt, lipstick and high-heeled shoes. She looks almost
like an ordinary woman. But lesbian culture understands the
butch-femme relationship with gender as creative and complex. Joan
Nestle describes femmes and butches as “gender pioneers with a
knack for alchemy.”[ii]
While men and women are impaled on opposite poles of sexual
difference, butch-femme is “a lesbian-specific way of
deconstructing gender that radically reclaims women’s erotic
energy.”[iii] Gender is posed as a space of seduction, play and invention.[iv]
Butch Jan Brown comments, “We become male, but under our own
rules. We define the maleness. We invent the men we become.”
ordinary man or woman undertakes gender as a compulsive and
compulsory repetition of the “fact” established at birth. The
first words spoken of any baby describe their destiny. “He’s a
boy!” “It’s a girl!” One might be a little more or a little
less like the stereotypes; no one feels adequately identified by
them. The assumption of gender involves impersonating an ideal that
no one really inhabits, Judith Butler says.[vi]
The butch undertakes gender differently, making her body into a
metaphor. She is steel strong and rock hard. She stands for courage,
daring, ferocity, the truth of independence, the dream of power. She
does not (cannot) become a man in the social and symbolic order. She
can only be a sign, a symbol, an aperture opening into the archetype
of masculinity. Beside or inside the butch there is always also the
femme. The femme does not aspire to be (and cannot be) a woman in
the social and symbolic order. She is an outlaw. Because of who she
loves, she must be impossibly strong, resilient, radical. Yet she
uses femininity as a language with which to represent herself and
her desire in erotic relationships. Femme is a symbol of
vulnerability, helplessness, the truth of dependence, the dream of
surrendered skin. Butch-femme is a way of being that gives weight
and resonance to the erotic moment. When we are held in one
another’s arms, power and surrender can be soul-gifts, not
compulsions of class and gender. Courage, compassion, ferocity,
tenderness – capacities so profoundly engaged in the erotic moment –
are translated into a stance, a relationship, and a subculture.
Butch and femme suggest the possibility of life before or after
gender – open to the archetypal patterns expressed by male
and female, without capitulation to the social designations and
compulsions. Being gay, we are called to live with the granite
endurance of Stone Butch and the glittering diamond of High Femme,
combined in our psyches and relationships.
phallus forms, in a convenient size for lesbian sex, are among the
oldest artifacts found throughout the world. This dildo from ancient
France is carved with vulvaforms. It invites us to imagine gender as
a plaything that can be slippery and skillfully employed.
phallus made from deer antler, engraved with vulvaforms, ancient
lesbians choose neither butch nor femme. Rather than building an
interrogatory, erotic or playful relationship with gender, we can
seek to refuse it. Saying ‘No’ to the social, legal and physical
consequences of being a woman, lesbians can become “embodied” in
a profound sense that is unavailable to non-lesbian women. We can
cultivate our body hair, use our muscles, and wear comfortable
shoes. This is a way of refusing to be a woman, refusing the form of
a woman’s body that our culture demands. It is also a positive
claim to strength, fur, comfort, and lesbian visibility. Inhabiting
our big, tough, hairy bodies with persistent grace, we embody
capacities and autonomies no ordinary woman can dream of. Women who
are not lesbians find their bodies made into the preserve of medical
knowledge. Internal and external appearances are anatomized,
defined, scrutinized, diagnosed and regulated by biomedical,
pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Women’s identities
devolve to their reproductive organs, and these are considered the
business of every passing stranger, the husband, the state, the
doctor, the pro-life movement, the pro-choice movement. Barbara
Duden comments, “woman’s body is public space.”[vii]
Lesbians disappear from the equation, slip away from the scrutiny,
and then return shrieking complaint –
we are invisible! Outside the reproductive imperative, refusing the
clothes, gestures, roles and functions that define and confine what
a woman is, we are ignored by the vast machinery that produces
women. We are not seen, diagnosed, and adjusted by expert knowledge.
We are cast upon our own resources. Thanks to double-edged sword of
lesbian invisibility, we can assume a private life and feel our
bodies as private space in ways no ordinary woman can. Lesbians can
suffer without being fixed. We can feel anger and enjoy laughter
viscerally and unapologetically. We can have sexual pleasure without
concern for pregnancy. Lesbian bodies, as spaces of physicality
claimed apart from expert knowledge, can admit embodied emotions.
may choose to approximate women or to impersonate men, but as
lesbians we always dwell in a nether-world of neither-nor. In
Herbert Marcuse’s phrase, we are “the continuous negation of
Being what a woman is not instead
of always only what she is, we
confront the totalitarian regime of the given facts with what is
excluded by it. If woman’s autonomies and capacities ever find
space to exist, it will be in bodies built by lesbians. ▼
painted pottery, two women, 5th C BC
Judith Butler, in Diana Fuss, ed., (21), emphasis original.
Nestle, 1992, (14).
Joan Nestle, 1992,
This paragraph in particular and this chapter in general owe
much to Sue Ellen Case, “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,”
in Abelove et. al. (1993), p. 294- 306.
Jan Brown in Joan Nestle, ibid., (414).
Judith Butler in Liz Kotz, 1992, (85).
Barbara Duden, 1993.