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Where the Butch Love Truly Began

February 9, 2012

My Twitter friend, Bren wrote this post about respecting our LGBT elders. If you haven’t read it yet, go read. I’ll wait.

I left her a comment and decided I’d write the longer version in my own post. Here it is:

I hope that all of you a have at least a passing knowledge of queer history and you know that back pre-Stonewall (and, hell, even after Stonewall for a while), police would raid gay bars and hassle the queers. Mostly the drag queens and the butches. They had to be wearing at least three pieces of clothing of the “appropriate” gender. If they weren’t they’d get arrested. They got arrested, anyway, and worse. If you don’t know anything about this, then please read Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and The Persistent Desire by Joan Nestle. You need to. Really.

The Stonewall Riots that began the queer rights movement? Began because of drag queens and butches. Straight up, old-school, suit-and-tie-wearing butches. None of this metrosexual crap. Butch. And let’s not forget the drag queens. [Which is why it ticks me off beyond belief when people say they don’t want the butches and the drag queens at gay pride stuff because we wouldn’t even HAVE gay pride stuff without the butches and the drag queens.]

I came out in 1987. In Michigan. In 1988, my girlfriend and I moved to Grand Rapids, MI. I loved to dance and she loved to drink, so went to a bar called Club 67 on the weekends fairly frequently.

People think those bar raids were long gone by then, but it’s not true. Oh, not for the “3 pieces of women’s clothing” thing, but drugs. Drugs that were, at least once that I know of FOR SURE, planted by cops as an excuse to arrest a butch. Not kidding. Anyway, one time, I was at a bar being raided and freaking because a) it was my first time in a bar that got raided (but it wouldn’t be my last) and b) I went to a Catholic college – getting arrested might have caused me problems.

What happened when these raids happened was that the police came in – in full fucking riot gear – and sealed off all entrances and exits. They sometimes made you line up – like you were in grade school – and sometimes they didn’t. If they lined you up, they were going to check IDs, looking for underage people, no doubt. If they lined you up, you knew there was going to be ugliness. Some butch was going to get arrested. Some butch with a loud mouth, who was sick of the harassment, was probably going to get assaulted. And the femmes? Well, it never happened to me, but I’ve heard about the femmes who got arrested. I’m grateful that I wasn’t one of them. I can’t even type the words about what happened to one woman I knew. It’s not my story to tell and I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m sure you can figure it out.

So, we were getting raided. I was freaking out. My girlfriend had gone out to the car for something, so she wasn’t even in the damned bar and she had better sense than to TRY to get in. I mean, even to get me, she shouldn’t have tried to get in. It was dangerous. Not only was she a butch, she was Mexican. That was a whole other layer of trouble for her.

I have no idea what I did to catch their attention, but these three older, very old school butches, surrounded me, and pushed me to the back of a crowd of butches. They told me to sit down on a chair that was back in the corner, behind the pool tables, and they gathered the rest of their friends to stand in front of me so that if the police didn’t make us all line up, then maybe they wouldn’t see me. All of those butches in that bar, at least 50 of them, keeping me safe from the police. There were too many people in Club 67 that night and the police didn’t make us line up and they never saw me. I cried the entire time, I’m not ashamed to tell you. I was 21 and scared witless.

I’ll never forget those butches. After that, whenever I’d go to that bar, I’d see one of them and they’d wink at me and say something sweet and I’d always send over a pitcher of beer. I fell in love with every last one of them that day. So when someone asks me why I like butches, I tell them this. I learned what it felt like to be cared for and loved at the hands of about 50 strangers.

And let me tell you something else, young lesbians. When you carry on about how you “don’t get” butches and “If you wanted a man, you’d get a man” you are showing your ignorance, along with your ass.

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10 Comments
  1. This made me cry.

    Real, actual tears.

    I’m thankful that my experiences with hatred have been smaller, more personal, less terrifying, than a raid. But I can tell you that I have known more kindness at the hands of butches, both strangers and friends, than anywhere else in the queer community.

    I’m glad they took such good care of you. And I love you for taking care of them in turn.

    • Thanks for the comment, babe. I have had both the most kindness from the sort of butches who will self-ID as butch and who appreciate femmes. I don’t have words always for what I see in them every day, for their experiences in the world, but I know you totally know. I’m glad you liked the post.

  2. Ah, the good old days…I remember leaving a gay bar in the wee hours of the morning in the mid 80s and having a car full of yuppie wannabe’s from Temple or UPenn, fresh from a kegger, throwing rocks at us. ROCKS. And the name calling. It was a long time before I lovingly accepted the term “Dyke” because if you can take back the names then they can’t hurt you and while I look as far from the part as possible I am the FIRST of my compatriots to stand up in a crowd that’s being hassled and say “That’s MS. Dyke to you, thank you very much.” It’s always nice when it stops them dead in their tracks.

    I know we’ve come a long way from Stonewall and we’ve come along way from our covert club days in the 80s but even last year, attending a TransFaith conference in Charlotte, NC, the Bishop who was running the event had to warn the attendees before a free evening to “have a good time, but be wary. This is still the south, it’s still the Bible Belt, and we don’t want anyone going to the hospital or the morgue.” Sad to say, we just haven’t come far enough.

    Great post!

    • Yeah. Outside that same bar once, I was walking from my car to the door and a car full of young men yelled “Dyke!” at me. I laughed. I was like, “Really? Is THAT what this is? Thank you! Now I know!” I mean, really. Can’t they be at least a LITTLE more creative?

      It’s true that it is still very scary in many places in the country. Surprisingly, Grand Rapids has become much more LGBT-friendly. In the 90s, they passed a gay rights ordinance. Which, amazing, right? And it’s been upheld in court a few times. Things change. It just sometimes takes the police a little while to catch up.

  3. Thank you for sharing such an incredible love story with us all. I had no idea that raids like that were still happening in the 80s, but I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked, what with the raid that happened in Texas just a few years ago. While I’ve never been arrested, I harbor a distrust of law enforcement – justified or not – because I know how things have historically been between the police and the queer community.

    Hearing about these brave, noble, chivalrous old school butches makes me so damn proud to wear my butch armor everyday.

    • Maybe in Boston, they weren’t. Grand Rapids was a very small city then – jut more than 100,000 people and very, very conservative. We are the home of the Christian Reformed Church of America – one of the most conversative mainline religions. We’ve come a long way.

      Thank you for wearing your butch armor every day. And I hope you always have a femme in your life who loves and appreciates just how much it takes for you to wear it.

  4. Miss B—this is exactly why I adore you so. YOU GET IT. You understand the truth that the straight (and stupid) world sees as merely “masculine” or “feminine”, blue or pink, pants or skirt. Every time my love goes out into the world, there’s always some part of me that fears for her safety. Because I know that there’s people out there who would do her harm simply because she cuts her hair too short for their taste. Her mere existence is an act of defiance. The fact that we love and continue to love despite the violence, the hatred, and those who would throw rocks—is a political act. ❤ You for posting this!!!

    • I have lots to say on this, actually. Too much for one post, so you’re likely to see more about it in the future. 🙂

  5. Thank you for helping shape the queer world as we know it.

    • Well, you’re welcome! I’m not sure I’m actually *doing* that, but I’ll take the compliment, nonetheless. 🙂

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