Chain Wallet and Zippers
My mother Bev called me a “butch” when I was in my mid-teens. She didn’t mean it as a compliment. It was in the 70s, a time celebrated by disco, bell-bottom jeans, shag carpets, muscle cars and avocado-coloured appliances. How did she know I coveted my brother’s chain wallet, the type popularized by bikers riding Harleys?
I always knew I was different from the other kids in the small town I grew up in. In grade school, girls were supposed to play with dolls, wear dresses, and pretend-hate the opposite sex. All I wanted to do was to play hockey and steal crabapples with the boys. I was called a tomboy for it. Just a ‘phase’ normal girls went through. My time as a tomboy never ended, and Bev called me out after my refusal one morning to wear a dress for a co-op work placement. Her frustration that day came from years of my rejecting her persistent pushes of dresses, lipstick, blush and hair products. Instead, I embraced running shoes and jeans, and at times, my brother’s sloppy and often dirty t-shirts. But, I never stole his wallet to wear because I intuitively knew it would be unsafe. It would make me a target. That it would be my mother taking aim hurt me … a lot. I didn’t quite know what butch meant at the time. Only that it was a putdown used to describe a girl as tough and mannish looking. I was confused and ashamed, wondering what I did wrong
It’s not as if I hadn’t heard the word before she flung it at me, because name-calling was common in high school. We easily used insults like chinks to describe the boat people who came to our small town from Vietnam. Jew, for anyone cheap with their money. Even the classic rhyme, ‘eenie, meenie, miny, moe,’ wasn’t spared. Parents never punished us for using those slurs or for others like spic, pig, faggot, or lezzie.
One day, a rumour went around school that lezzies actually used a secret finger tickle of the palm to identify themselves to each other. We practised the tickle on each other in the school parking lot during lunch break with lots of nervous laughter and chatter. No one ever came out as lesbian. I remember feeling relieved and disappointed, although I must confess I did have a lezzie moment of my own with a friend, spending a sweaty hour with her necking in the backyard tree house at her parent’s home. We were playing being ‘married’ by pressing our bodies together and giving each other the tongue. I wasn’t quite as enthused as she was. Though the idea of kissing someone while in a manly position appealed to me, I couldn’t slip my tongue around her metal braces without wanting to gag. It felt like licking wet zippers, similar to the steel ones found on the bulky snowsuits we wore when sledding down Dump Hill as children. The interlude also wasn’t as I imagined it should be, smooth and cool, sexy and hot. Ideas implanted after reading the numerous romance novels cast off by Bev. After flip-flopping around like some half-alive fish, alternating between being the macho top and the bottom femme, I gave up and lied about needing to get home.
Home was where I lived with three brothers and I was jealous of them. Not just because they got to wear boots and jean jackets and have chains draping from wallets stuffed into the back pockets of their jeans. I was resentful because they were able to take shop in school and worked on cars and made stuff out of wood, while I was forced to sit and learn sewing, cooking, typing and shorthand. My young confidence was squeezed out of me from being forced into those feminine roles. I could never relate and always felt out of place, inadequate, and a failure. Worse, I was lonely, so to belong I buried the tomboy and pretended to like boys, becoming angry and cloaked with a feeling of being somehow not enough. The faking and denial fueled self-hatred, and eventually I internalized my own homophobia. Externally, I started drinking and smoking and partying wherever I could find one.
At 17, I left home for Ottawa and a job as a secretary. I was grateful for the paycheque, but it meant I had to wear girl clothes while sitting at a desk typing, filing carbon copies, and answering the phones. I wasn’t so good at the dress-up part, but I excelled at the drunken lunches and parties.
It was after a party, when I was with a group of high school friends who had also landed in Ottawa, it being the closest big city to the valley I grew up in, that I bullied two women. It was late, and the women were walking toward us on the sidewalk. One of the guys yelled, “Hey look at the fuckin’ lezzies holding hands!” We all started taunting.
“Hey, are you fuckin’ queers?”
“Yeah you, you fuckin’ dykes.”
“A couple of freaks, homo losers.”
When we got up on them, the couple stepped off the concrete walkway and bunched together, heads down, ignoring our insults. It was dark, in an isolated area, and we were feral in our attack. Fear flared from their huddle and filled the space between us. I could smell it, sharp and tangy pheromones, and knew I was wrong, but I didn’t stop. Guilty.
The encounter shook me and through it I was made to look in the mirror where my likenesses to Bev were exposed and raw. The image didn’t match the carefree kid in a dirty t-shirt making a spectacular save during a street hockey game. I carried the ache for months because I couldn’t find the words or the language to decipher my misalignment and poor behaviour. I became sad and lethargic, and then unexpectedly one day on a benign errand with a friend, I blurted, “I think I’m gay.” The relief was instantaneous. I was free and ready for a new start. Sometime later I quit my secretarial gig and enrolled in a machine shop course.
Ottawa became a new world to me. The Coral Reef nightclub was a cave-like room, 21 steps descended from street level below the Rideau Centre’s parking garage. Open since the late 60s it had started life as a Caribbean dance club. It became a mixed gay bar when the Latin clientele moved on after discovering it was open to the queer community on some nights. Homer, the club owner and manager, came to offer two nights a week for women-only on Thursdays and Fridays. It was the place, actually it was the only place in Ottawa at the time, for gay women, lesbians and those in-between or curious to dance and socialize. The club was also affectionately referred to as the Oral Grief and I spent countless hours dancing, drinking, laughing and crying, and occasionally grinding crotches to disco dance anthems such as Born to Be Alive and That’s the Way I Like It.
In the early 80s, lesbian communities were intimate, and everyone pretty much knew everyone else, or knew someone who knew someone you wanted to know, and we all seemed to know when someone new was in town. A friend, who was into lesbian sadomasochism, described the dating scene at the time as incestuous. She explained our population was small and those not publicly out made it even smaller, limiting partner selections. She wasn’t wrong. The pitcher on my softball team had been with the catcher before being with the right fielder, who had been with the catcher before the coach, and the coach was with the first base, who had at one time shared spit with one of the fielders, which one I don’t remember. I believe there may be a section in the Lesbian Handbook that describes this phenomenon, along with other enduring lesbian practices, such as moving in with each other on the second date and how to remain friends with all your exes.
Coming out and finding my team gave me a safe place, some new words and a community where I belonged. I was generally happy even though Bev’s legacy, the butch tag, still percolated. I stuffed it away and instead proudly described myself as a dyke, an early reclamation of the insult that made most of my gay women friends cringe and look away. I quickly sorted out whom I could use the descriptor with (not many) and those I couldn’t (too many).
My butch phobia deepened in the 90s when I took a women’s studies course at Carleton University. During a class gathering, I overheard a conversation between two lesbian feminists about the need for women to have equality, equal pay, recognition for unpaid work like childcare, homecare, and how unproductive it was for lesbians to play the male role in same-sex relationships. This gender modeling, they claimed, only perpetuated the male hierarchy and its continued dominance over women. They might as well have slapped me with their Birkenstocks. The notion of buying a dildo to play with in my current relationship fizzled and died … dead, stomped on, never to rise again.