My Butch Wears a Hot Pink Bra: When Reality Interrupts Theory

Smith, Trixie G.

We started the course, a graduate seminar in Queer Rhetorics, with the novel CryBaby Butch because I wanted to give some context to the copious amounts of theory we were going to be reading.  I was hoping this story of Anna, a new PhD in English who hasn’t found the tenure-stream job she wants but is instead teaching adult learners to read and write, would resonate with my students.  This soft butch of the 90s faces more than illiteracy when an old-fashioned butch from the 60s enrolls in her class.  Chris makes Anna reconsider what she thinks it means to be butch, including the roles that illiteracy and literacy play in butch/femme relationships.  The novel also sheds light on ties between socioeconomic class, work, sex, and relationships.  A key scene occurs when Anna’s professional friends take her out to eat for her birthday and end up in an esoteric debate about queer theory, even as she’s thinking about the girl from her class who’s in the hospital for standing up to her boyfriend, as well as the fights Chris is having with her girlfriend Kathleen because she’s becoming less dependent on Kathleen to read for her. 

I had read Crybaby Butch several times and taught it in a couple of different classes.  I knew that the novel had some important scenes that could help students see theory at work in every day life. I was going to be working with a rather large group of students with a range of experiences—those brand new to queer theory, and even grad school, as well as those who were out and proud and already pushing the boundaries of queer—so I wanted to provide entry points for them all.  I remembered the novel as a rhetorical performance that could be dissected and complicated. But I wasn’t prepared for the effect the novel would have on me this go around because of the reality in my own life at the time.  My own new relationship was trying to cope with difference.  The butch/femme roles being played out in my life were good, sexually exciting, a definite turn on.  The problems came in when we tried to mesh our very different lives:

No college vs. a PhD
A series of low-wage jobs vs. a career as a teacher
20 years of being estranged from family after coming out vs. a somewhat accepting family who loved me no matter what
Cheap beer and lots of it vs. a Gray Goose martini or a single shot of Jameson’s
A desire to cuddle in bed and watch trash TV vs. queer theory to read every week
(okay, so maybe there was some agreement on that one)

These differences of education and class were the complicating factors, not my having to wait for her to initiate sex.  And they started a series of visceral responses to the theory we were reading and discussing for class.  Here I share a few of those conflicting moments, snippets of thought and talk, of trying to make sense when my theory was interrupted by the reality of my life. 

We’re reading Henessy’s “The Material of Sex” and Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens” as well as Jagose’s Introduction to Queer Theory and we’re talking about the importance of naming and claiming identities.  Where and how does queer theory claim the position it needs in order to move forward and accomplish something in the world?  How does queer theory intersect with desire and pleasure?  With race? With class? With sexual identity? How can queer, as verb, noun, and/or adjective, help us resist and subvert false binaries?

I leave class, headed home, with questions circling in my head.  Several of the straight students in class, all doing interesting work about non-normative practices, have asked a loaded question about who can use the term queer.  They want to know how they can use queer theory, queer methodology, queer practices without seeming like they have co-opted something from a position of power and privilege.  What is the value or rhetorical weight of using the term queer as opposed to, or perhaps alongside of, feminist or post-modern or decolonial, they ask.  I have no definitive answer for them.

My butch wears a hot pink bra . . . with hearts on it, Victoria’s Secret no less.
It’s her only clothing from the women’s department
Her boxers, shorts, polo shirts, ties all come from the men’s department

This hot pink bra is a Y-strap so it doesn’t show under her wife beater tee
Yes, she calls it that, all the southern boys do
But she would never beat her wife, she knows
It’s she who has been hurt in the past . . . it’s not just the blood and bruises, it’s the pain deep inside where love and trust have been damaged.

My butch loves it when I call her my butch baby, but really hates it when I call her a girl.  That’s her label for me; she often explains our differences with the phrase “that’s because you’re a girl.”  But today I’m reading Judith Halberstam, or is it Jack?  We’re reading both this semester.  I’m really taken with what she has to say about The Queer Art of Failure, the value of failure, the ways we can build from it and develop something new. How we need to be more forgiving of ourselves, our own experiments in life and love, our own forays into theory and activism. The handout provided by today’s facilitators has a note in my purple ink about reveling in my relationship failure.  The differences have been too much and my butch baby has moved back down south.  We’re trying the long distance thing but it isn’t going too well.  I’m sure I have a very limited idea about what a long-distance romance should be and do.  But just because something doesn’t work or completely make sense, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, revise from it, build on it, rebuild in it.  More theory is swimming in my head, it keeps me from thinking about my broken heart or lonely bed. 

At this point I’m connecting to Sally Munt and Eve Sedgewick and perhaps even Bersani as I think about the roles that shame might play in my life and relationships.  How do you, how do I, get to the place where shame is seen as resistance building, as a thing to be valued and cultivated? How does shame stop being embarrassment, regret, tears, something hidden and buried?  My mind gets it, but my body doesn’t know how to enact it.  And it certainly doesn’t know how to get someone else to enact it . . . To embrace the shame and failure in order to let it go or make something new out of it.

My butch wears 27 tattoos . . . today
Many of them are names—memorials to past girlfriends, the dead children of long ago lovers, a friend killed in a hate crime
I used to want my name there, too, on her body, so I could see it and touch it.
But I’ve decided I’d rather be a living thing in her life, not a remembrance of something past.

I’ve come to see the tattoos as an archive of sorts. A living archive to the hurt and pain my butch has lived through.  An artful display of the ghosts she fights with, so I have to fight with, on a regular basis.  They memorialize her reasons not to trust, not to believe things will be or at least can be different.  At times I want to erase these memories, this past, these people, even though I know it is these experiences that have made her who she is.  I’m again in conflict because I agree with Joan Nestle about the importance of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, for example.  I know our stories, even the painful ones, need to be recorded and remembered.  I also agree with my friends Jackie Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander when they encourage those of us who claim queer to continue to build all kinds of queer archives, online, in our communities, in our homes, even on our bodies.  The thing about archives is that they are meant to be shared; they don’t actually do anyone any good if they are buried treasure, their contents must be on display for others to see and question.  But is the embodied archive an exception to this rule? Is it the interruption?  Or is this one way we “bring our identities with us” as Heather Love encourages?

In this midst of writing this essay
                        A break (up) . . . . . .
                        Lessons learned and applied.

And now I’m back to Sarah Ahmed’s ideas of disorientation in Queer Phenomenology.  The whole semester has felt like my own personal disorientation, a shaking of my lines, even my queer lines.  But it’s not just me.  My students say this course has shaken their lines, too.  Many of them have made new connections or discoveries; one says her assumptions have been challenged, and she’s grateful.  Some of them have experimented with new rhetorical forms and modes of writing, as well as tools for teaching and class discussion. A couple of them have questioned their own sexuality and self-identities.

Of course, we discussed in class how we have to keep moving the lines or stepping outside of them or we’ll just reinscribe new lines.  Sedgwick, too, encourages us to disrupt existing narratives, to develop alternate readings, in order to make new spaces for speaking and performing, for living. We can already see numerous homonormative lines that seek to define what it means to be gay or lesbian or bisexual.  What it looks like to be butch or femme.  How a queer should vote or which political party to support. 

Take gay marriage for example.  I read Warner arguing against gay marriage.  He says we need to resist this form of normalization and becoming just like them.  My intellect, my theory, agrees—I should resist this heteronormative convention. But when the government wants to get involved and decide whether or not gay marriage in constitutional, I find myself supporting a cause I don’t really believe in.  But even more disruptive to my way of thinking is this reality:  when my lover looks in my eyes and tells me she wants to spend the rest of her life with me, and asks me if I will marry her, my heart says yes.  My reality says YES.  At that moment, I’m not thinking about Warner or political statements; and I’m not thinking about tax breaks and access at the hospital.  I’m thinking about celebrating our love and commitment to each other.  Of course, marriage won’t make it last or make it real.

Femme seeking butch WOMAN, embodying the best of all genders:
     Not a misogynist wrapped up in bound breasts or barely hidden like the vagina
          behind baggy jeans.
     A take-charge attitude that translates into actually getting things done.
Being a gentle (wo)man is more than just opening doors or carrying bags—we femmes can actually do that for ourselves.

Califia writes, “Whenever desire and behavior conflict with rhetoric, it’s time to re-examine the rhetoric.”  I interpret that as whenever reality conflicts with theory, it’s time to re-examine the theory, but I would add that it could also be time to change my behavior, to change my reality.  As Ann Cvetkovich says, it may be time to re-examine my commitments and to “create conjunctions between academia, activism, and art,” between theory and reality. 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sarah. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

Alexander, Jonathan, and Jackie Rhodes. “Queer Rhetoric and the Pleasures of the Archive.” Enculturation (2012). Web.

Bersani, Leo. Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.

Califia, Patrick. “Gay Men, Lesbians, and Sex: Doing It Together.” Queer Theory. Eds. Iain Moreland and Annebelle Willox. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005: 22-27. Print.

Cohen, Cathy J.  “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3.4 (May 1997): 437-65. Print.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Frank, Judith. Crybaby Butch. Ann Arbor, MI: Firebrand Books, 2004. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Henessy, Rosemary. “The Material of Sex.” The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Eds Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose. London: Routledge, 2012. 134-49. Print.

Jagose, Annemarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: NYUP, 1997. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.

Munt, Sally R. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Nestle, Joan. “The Will to Remember: The Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York.” Feminist Review 34 (Spring 1990): 86-94. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer and Now.” The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Eds Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose. London: Routledge, 2012. 3-17. Print.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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