First, one of my ex-girlfriends is visiting Madison in a couple of weeks and we’re going to get together for dinner. We haven’t seen each other for probably over twenty years. I’m looking forward to her visit for a number of reasons, including seeing how time has changed us and how we might remain the same. My recent post, The Ties that Bind explored who in our lives help make up a family, and how friendships bind us together and to our personal history.
Second, I’ve been exploring and been challenged by the changes in gender identity in the last 40-plus years of my life. Coming out as a lesbian in the 1970s, I referenced the history of the butch/femme dichotomy of the 1950s, the free-spirited flower children days of the 1960s, and came out during the androgynous 1970s. Today, there are new terms and identities, from trans to queer, to genderqueer, which explore continuum’s of gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation.
Lastly, as I’ve been thinking of my past intimate relationships, I realize I’ve defined myself, to some degree, in relation to those I loved.
What My Butch Girlfriends Taught Me about Myself.
Before I learned how and what to name myself, I met and loved butch women. Each one taught me something, first, who they were and what costs they paid to be in the world, to live congruently with their identification as butch women, then next, who and what I was to them and finally to myself. In relation to each other, more precisely, in relationship with each other, our gender identities were explored, revealed and evolved. Love, sex, intimacy, play and friendship is more than simply an exchange of emotions, sensation and experience, it is a journey of discovery to the core of who we each are, what we become and how we are perceived, judged and accepted in the world.
Clues about Myself
It was 1955 in Racine, Wisconsin, my birthplace. I was the eldest child of young working-class parents. I was a curious, observant child, exploring my environment, trying to make sense and understand the behavior of the people who inhabited my world. Even at that young age, I tried to find my place and learn how to navigate the world around me. One of my strongest early memories was my first day of school.
My mother curled my long hair and placed a color-coordinated satin bow above each ear. I wore my new dress with polka dots and ruffles, white socks trimmed in lace and my brand new black and white saddle shoes with hounds tooth laces that I learned to tie myself. Mom grabbed the Kodak Brownie camera and took a series of pictures, Linda on her first day of school. “Wave to the camera.” “Smile” “Fold your hands in your lap.” “Stand like a little lady.”
When I returned that first day, I ran home, and without greeting my mother, quickly climbed the stairs to my room, removed my dress, extricated the bows from my hair, brushed out the curls, pulled my hair tightly back and with a rubber band, made a pony-tail, put on my t-shirt with the pocket on the left breast just like Dad’s, and slipped into my corduroy pants with the elastic waist band and deep pockets. I jumped into my sneakers, without socks. Mom called up to my room. “Come tell me about your first day of school and I want to take a couple more pictures of you in your dress, so I can finish this roll of film.”
My mother, who seldom expressed dismay when she saw her children, was disappointed that I had changed back into my tomboy, comfort clothes. Her smile quickly returned as she laughed and said enthusiastically, “Let’s finish this role of film!” I dug my hands deep into my pockets, tipped my head forward, relaxed my belly, and furrowed my brow, as my smile turned into a slight pout. Still today, I don’t like having my picture taken, yet my true self was revealed and preserved in those remaining Brownie camera photographs in contrast to the pictures taken earlier in the day of how my parents hoped I’d be.
By 1971 I was married to Frank, my first love, living and working in Kenosha, Wisconsin in a textile mill. For the most part I was happy; I had a job, was married to the man I loved, and lived in a small but comfortable, second story, walk-up apartment. It wasn’t until Gloria, as in G-L-O-R-I-A, sauntered into my workplace and life, that I realized that an insatiable desire lived just under the surface, a hunger and curiosity awakened by this handsome, raven-haired woman with fair skin, ebony eyes and a sailor’s walk. We became fast and inseparable friends.
Soon Gloria and I established a once-a-week standing date. Some weeks we would hang out at my place, drink cheap red wine, smoke a couple of joints, and talk late into the night while listening to Bette Midler wail:
“Do you wanna dance, and hold my hand?
Tell me you’re my lover.
Oh baby, do you wanna dance?
We could dance under the moonlight,
hug and kiss all through the night.
Oh baby, tell me, do you wanna dance with me baby?”
Other nights we would go out for pizza or go dancing in a club. One weekend we road-tripped to Water Street in Milwaukee and were having a drink at a bar, sitting close as lovers do, when a man approached me, sliding his arm around my shoulder and neck, pulling me closely to his chest and asked if I wanted to dance or maybe more. Gloria immediately stood up from her bar stool, elongating her lean, yet strong body, and with an open palm, pushing the man off of me, exclaiming, “She’s with me!” There was a long moment of silence as everyone nearby turned their heads and attention to us to see what was going to happen next. Remember this was the Midwest in 1971. Gloria’s ebony eyes burned straight into his, her legs opened wide to brace herself with her arm fully extended to create a boundary, she waited for his response. He released his grip on me, pretended to laugh it off as if it was all harmless play, then mumbled only so we could hear, “lezzie cunts” and walked away.
Gloria and I never consummated our relationship. We mutually agreed, by default, that we weren’t ready for me to leave my husband, and for her to leave her partner, Deb. I made a geographic escape to Madison to return to school, but in reality, I needed to put miles between Gloria and I so I wouldn’t act on my desire. I wasn’t ready yet.
A byproduct of my time with Gloria was that I knew I needed more women in my life. It was the beginning of the second wave of feminism and I became involved in conscious-raising groups, first attending, then facilitating. Suddenly I was surrounded by strong women-identified women who were exploring relationships some with each other outside of their marriages and partnerships.
I met Catherine at a Women and the Law Conference at the University of Wisconsin. Our booths were next to each other in the expo area. We talked all day and I was mesmerized by this long dark-haired woman with ice blue eyes and porcelain, freckled skin who passionately spoke about the feminist restaurant collective, Lysistrata, she was launching. We broke down our booths and Catherine asked me to join her at a private party at the Edgewater Hotel. Without pause I said yes. She squired me the rest of the evening, the palm of her hand resting in the small of my back, guiding me to our destinations. We moved from the party to her white Alfa Romero convertible for a top down drive under the stars, to an early morning breakfast at the Curve Restaurant, finally delivering me to my door, when she said with unbridled certainty, “I want to see you again.”
I both dreaded and wished for this moment to come. I had neglected to tell Catherine I was a married to a man. Almost pushing me out of the car, she declared, “Call me when you get rid of him.” I did call her a couple of weeks later and told her that I didn’t “get rid of him,” yet I desperately wanted to see her. We made a date for an evening of wine and dinner in her basement apartment where she seduced me and I surrendered completely, soon discovering that I was home where I was always meant to be, in the bed and the arms of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to please a woman. My surprise was how natural it was to love another woman and how capable I was as her lover.
Mary, My Gas Pump Jockey
Frank and I remained together as a married couple. I wasn’t ready to leave him as quickly as Catherine demanded. She and I separated. When Frank confronted me and asked if I had an affair with her, I confessed. After a number of heart-to-heart talks, he agreed that we could open up our relationship, have an open marriage, a popular alternative lifestyle in the pre-AIDS decade of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The only caveat is that he would be the only man in my life. I thought, no problem. I only wanted women.
I maintained a non-sexual romantic relationship with a portrait photographer named Megan, a sensual, bi-sexual woman. We went out on dates, danced at Lysistrata, held hands, slept together at women’s retreats and wrote passionate love letters to each other. Megan was more androgynous as was popular at the time and I still maintained a more feminine appearance, boots with gaucho pants or prairie dresses, my long hair returned to the curls of my youth. Butch-femme identity was frowned upon and judged as an anachronism during these feminist times. Yet there was a lack of sexual tension, no push and pull caused by difference, too much similarity.
All of that changed for me when Mary appeared in my life . First she joined one of my consciousness-raising groups. I learned that this soft-spoken woman, with long fingers, strong hands and arms that displayed every vein, was a gas pump jockey at the service station in my neighborhood. Full-service gas stations had not completely disappeared yet in the mid to late 70’s. Soon I was stopping for gas two or three times a week simply to have Mary take care of me. And take care of me she did.
One cold winter on my birthday in January when we were all snow bound in our homes, Mary called and confessed that she wanted me. Like Catherine before her, she said it with a certainty that captured my attention. Soon she seduced me, and yes, I surrendered. We began an affair. Mary would brazenly appear at my door, flowers in hand, as Frank answered. She’d state matter of factly, “I’m here to pickup Linda for our date.”
Frank and I eventually separated and I found my first apartment as an adult on my own. Mary and I continued to see each other. Eventually we moved in together into our own place. Mary went back to technical college to become an airframe and power plant mechanic. She was a classic butch when it was unpopular to be one, and though I loved her, like my mother with me decades earlier, I tried to soften her rough edges. The biggest fight we ever had was when I yelled at her when she wanted to bring her father’s guns into our home, her inheritance from her dead father. I didn’t trust Mary’s anger and our argument degenerated until I said, “If I wanted to be with a man, I’d still be with one.” I regret it now, she was perfect as she was.
There were more butch women between Gloria and my most recent long term relationship with Cindy. Common attributes of my lovers and partners were that they were all “soft butches,” strong-willed, confident, soft-spoken and tender-hearted women who were comfortable in their bodies, capable, both in their strength and ability to do whatever they attempted and most of all, especially as lovers. Many suffered discrimination in their youth, were bullied by classmates or abused by their parents, shipped off to psychiatrists or worse yet, charm schools.
My favorite story that Cindy would share, even more than her story of when at sixteen she jumped out the window of her parent’s home in Austin, Texas to runaway and follow-her female volleyball coach and lover to La Crosse, Wisconsin, was her story from elementary school. It defined her.
Cindy adored her older brother, Larry, nicknamed “Bubba.” One day when she was about eight years old she went off to school, her plaid shirt, unbuttoned and wide open, revealing her bare chest just like Bubba would wear in the backyard when he was horsing around with his friends or cutting the lawn. The teacher called her mother when Cindy refused to button her shirt because she couldn’t understand the reason why she should. When her father discovered what happened he threw Cindy into her mother’s lap, proclaiming, “Do something with her!”
The women I have loved are women who refused to conform to traditional gender identities. In fact, I have loved women who have remained true to their essence, who have lived authentically, sometimes at a great cost. I admire these women. I have loved these women.
What does that make me? In the end, I guess, pretty lucky.
For further reading on gender identity: