Pride Month Stories #4: Older Butch Talks 1960s Lesbian Dating

I love hearing lesbian couples’ meeting stories—especially from the days before dating apps existed, when avenues for doing so were far more limited—and it’s not every day that the opportunity to talk to a queer woman from an older generation presents itself. When Rita* gets into my car though, I’m in for the treat of hearing one.

“We met at a bar in the ’60s. Shirley* was playing the piano,” Rita recounts, dressed in a black blazer. Hints of grey speckle her otherwise fudge-colored hair, which is brushed neatly to the left side of her face.

Lesbian piano bar
Rita met her wife at a lesbian piano bar in the ’60s

“I remember I approached her drinking a rum and coke. Told her I was looking for someone to give me piano lessons. Which she ended up giving me. Music lessons and a life together thereafter.”

First came the tutorials, then came the falling in love, followed by the telling of their parents. Later came the pushback from family members and friends, the moving in together anyways, the cat and the furnishings and the building of a life, the fighting and disagreeing and momentary breaking apart only to always return to each other, to work on the relationship they’d started that night inside *Sapho’s Bar.

Our conversation meandered into several directions, so I’ve divided it into sub-headings for ease of reading.

~~

On gender roles and pronouns

In explaining how she and her wife met, Rita touches upon the contrast between gender roles back in her time compared with gender roles now (particularly within the lesbian community).

Her wife Shirley presented as more conventionally femme back in their day— in part because, as Rita explains, polarizing into one or the other (either butch or femme) was how you signaled what you were interested in.

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold
Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy’s book about lesbian history

If you were a femme seeking a butch, you capitalized on your femininity, and vice versa.

“You put on the lipstick and the high heels before going to the bar, even if you wouldn’t ordinarily wear those articles of clothing,” Rita says.

Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy elaborates on this in her book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, when writing about how the “diesel dyke, bull dyke, or truck-driver lesbian of the 1950s, infamous for her masculine excesses, might not have had a masculine identity until she entered the community. It was a stance she adopted because it offered her a way of announcing, encouraging, and supporting her erotic love of women.”

Rita says that while this dichomitization was especially common in the ’50s, remnants of it still lingered into the ’60s when she and Shirley met.

We briefly cover the topic of pronoun use. Though Rita says she personally doesn’t feel like “they” fits her (“I still feel like a woman, albeit a butch one”), she respects members of the younger generation’s “expansion of the paradigm of gender.”

“It’s good for the people who don’t feel like they fall into the role of ‘butch’ or ‘femme,’ or ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ ‘They’ is the in-between space,” she recognizes. “A more nuanced identity, perhaps.”

~~

On modern-day dating

Rita, who has heard about modern-day dating from her great niece, compares it to dating in her time, when options were more limited—which Rita doesn’t necessarily see as a bad thing.

 “We focused on what was right in front of us. Scarcity had us considering each option more thoughtfully. I think the absence of technological bombardment and distraction encouraged us to love deeply despite imperfections.”

Of maintaining her romantic relationship back in her time, Rita notes: “It was hard then for lesbians, for any sexual minority—but our love was strong. Which helped us withstand all the societal rejection and outside pressures.” 

Butches and femmes
It was common for 1950s lesbians to be placed into the box of either “butch” or “femme”

The fact that she and her wife had a lot more working against them yet still were able to make their relationship work humbles me and puts my own problems in perspective.

Though I lack the experience of living in any other era to use as a point of comparison, particularly in my 20s I did wonder something similar to what Rita voiced. I worried that technology and quick fix culture were shifting our lenses toward (unconsciously) viewing people as products similar to the ones we can order off Amazon or Uber Eats.

I wondered if, in pursuit of the instant park, we were seeing connection more as something that just arrives—or should arrive—solid and fully intact inside a neat and shiny package, rather than as something built and worked towards through empathy, patience, and looking inward to understand what we ourselves may be contributing to an unsatisfying dynamic (the term “reciprocal relationship” after all implies we are not merely a consumer but also a provider in return). 

Not to say that there isn’t a positive side to this newer mentality. Perhaps we’re less likely than before to put up with toxic behaviors, to force a relationship when it’s not working, or to stay in one out of inertia. Being single can be preferable to and even healthier than remaining in an unfulfilling relationship with unmet needs. Having standards is a sign of strength.

The fact that where before, people who might have settled for a 45 now feel worthy enough in themselves to shoot higher, I view as a positive thing. But it’s when we reject an 80 percent match, intent on finding the 95, that I begin to question it.

~~

On butch representation in the media

A final topic we discuss before our ride ends is butch representation in the media.

Big Boo from Orange is the New Black
Big Boo from Orange is the New Black is one example of positive butch representation in the media

Rita doesn’t watch that much TV, but of the options she has scanned through, she has seen less representation of women like her as compared with more feminine-presenting queer women. Media tends to be more heavily saturated with conventionally attractive femme-femme couples that are palatable to the male gaze.

Big Boo from Orange is the New Black was an example of one positive representation; Mae from Netflix’s Feel Good and Abby from Showtime’s Work In Progress are a couple of others. Still, well fleshed-out butch characters are few and far between—certainly irrepresentative of their real-life, actual population outside of Hollywood.

Rita’s not bitter about it; it’s just something she’s noticed.

~~

Bridging the generations

When I reflect on our ride, an essay written by Rebecca Solnit comes to mind. In it she addresses how “epic public changes made the era of [her] youth a foreign country, one in which [she] no longer lives.”

 “The young will never visit, and most will never know how different it was and why it changed and who to thank,” Solnit writes.

I view Rita’s contributions similarly. In my mind people like her are in large part to thank for some of the strides made on the LGBT rights and visibility front, which have allowed for the freedom to be choosy while swiping through a vast array of dating prospects, cushioned by the knowledge that if things don’t work out with one, a seemingly inexhaustible smorgasbord awaits.

In choosing to endure hardship and pushback from both their families and the culture at large so as to live the lives they wanted, Rita and Shirley helped make a similar life possible for many of us present-day queers. 

Maybe our “official” places are sparser than those available to gay men; as Julie Compton wrote, “Gay establishments vastly outnumber lesbian ones in San Francisco and across the world, with ours continuing to close at an alarming rate;” and as Lena Wilson in her New York Times article “Where Did All The Lesbian Bars Go?” wrote, “According to Greggor Mattson, an associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College, lesbian bar listings in the United States had waned to 15 in 2019, down from 31 in 2007.”

Our ride reminds me though, that with or without a designated space, every now and then we find each other. We cross paths at unexpected moments. We exchange ideas about how life once was compared to how it is now. We form a bridge between the old and the new, weaving threads between earlier generations and more recent ones. Conversing with Rita, I’m prompted to remember that we’ve always existed, and will continue to.

Maybe some day we’ll live in a Pantopia where heterosexuality isn’t assumed and gayness is normalized to the point that it’s rarely if ever considered compelling fodder for conversation. People will see woman-woman pairings, men-men pairings,  gender-queer with transgender with agender, and not bat an eye— thus rendering lesbian spots like Sapho’s Bar and Jolene’s in San Francisco obsolete and unnecessary.

Maybe a Lyft flying car pilot, when speaking to an elder queer woman passenger like myself, will ask with incredulity: “Being gay was actually a thing to talk about?”

And like Rita did during our ride, I’ll pass along my own lesbian dispatches from the 2020 era.

*Check back tomorrow for the final post in the Pride series. If you liked this story consider sharing it on social media. You can also follow our IG @lyft_tales

~~~

Photo credits

Piano– http://realeramusiclessons.com/instruments/piano/

Lesbian symbol– https://fineartamerica.com/featured/lesbian-love-icon-rainbow-colored-peter-hermes-furian.html?product=acrylic-print

1950s lesbians–https://www.queerevents.ca/queer-culture/posts/lesbian-subcultures

Big Boo, Orange is the New Black– https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/lea-delaria-orange-new-black-s-big-boo-we-need-put-positive-face-being-butch-lesbian-9686443.html

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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