Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

Boots of Leather

 

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold:  The History of a Lesbian Community.  New York:  Routledge, 1993.

 

Subject:  The formation of a lesbian identity and community in Buffalo, New York.  The authors pay particular attention to the members of the working class and their creation of – and subsequent interaction with – a lesbian bar scene in Buffalo.

Research Questions:  What form did lesbian identity take in a Rust Belt city during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s?  In what ways did lesbian women form a sense of community?  How did community influence the gay liberation movement that began in the 1970s?  To use George Chauncey’s language, what were the “gay spaces” of the Buffalo lesbian community?  How do members of this community remember these decades and in what historical context do they place their lives?

Authors’ Arguments:  Kennedy and Davis show that the identity formation of lesbians in mid-20th century Buffalo involved a lot more agency than what might be expected.  The authors point out that this community was marginalized not only by the dominant heterosexual society, but also later scholars of feminist theory, who often dismissed the “butch-fem” lesbians as doing nothing more than passively accepting and mimicking the patriarchal structure of “normal” society.  However, the authors show that butches and fems did not passively (or blindly) adopt these roles totally; in fact, these butch-fem roles (Kennedy and Davis hesitate to use the term “roles” because the people involved were not simply “playing”) were adapted from the available model, but were then actively transformed to meet the particular needs of working class (and even middle class) lesbians.

Butch-fem lesbians not only transformed these roles, but these roles also became crucial to the formation of a sense of community.  How?  1) It gave the lesbian community a framework or structure within which it could function.  These roles “were a social imperative” (152) and only after adopting one could a lesbian “participate comfortably in the community and receive its benefits.”  2) Butch-fem roles also helped create a community in a more basic level:  the butch role in particular (with its specific mode of dress, speech, and mannerisms) made butch lesbians visible to other lesbians, and to the straight world.  “The possibility of recognizing one another was essential for the building of a distinct culture and identity.” (153)

The butch-fem roles gendered lesbian relationships, but they also took the sexuality of women firmly out of the hands of men.  Thus, the butch role was, in itself, an act of defiance and resistance.  The authors point out three main ways in which the butch-fem role was a form of pre-political resistance:  1) butches and butch-fem couples, by “not denying” their interest in women, were at the core of lesbian resistance by becoming visibly different than the dominant society and by forming their own culture; 2) in the 1950s, the butch, who was central to the community’s increased boldness, had little inclination to accommodate the conventions of femininity, and pushed to diminish the time spent hiding in order to eliminate the division between public and private selves; 3) the butches added a new element of resistance:  the willingness to stand up for and defend with physical force their fems’ and their own right to express sexual love for women.  (184).

This tripartite list emphasizes a main goal of the book:  to historicize Stonewall; by that I mean, to put the Stonewall Riots into their historical context by showing that the gay liberation movement that many claim began with the Riots in 1969, did not simply emerge spontaneously or randomly.  Instead, the formation of lesbian identities and lesbian community(ies) had been occurring slowly (below the radar) for decades before 1969, when the gay rights/liberation movement emerged and took this community-identity formation to a different scale.  But what’s most important is that the process explored by Kennedy and Davis was a necessary condition that allowed the Stonewall Riots to be successful in starting a nation-wide movement.

The authors also show the intersection of race and class in this community.  The community seemed to transcend race lines, but stop at class boundaries.  For instance, the masculine-feminine roles were present in both white and black couples, though the words used often differed:  white “masculine” lesbians identified as “butch,” while their black counterparts were known as “studs.”  The people at any given bar or house party (both places around which this new community organized) were usually mixed between black, white, and even some Native Americans.   The authors show why the working class was (and had to be) the driving force behind the formation of a lesbian community: while being “out” did not affect the livelihood of upper class lesbians (they could rely on personal wealthy if they lost their job), middle class lesbians often had to strictly distinguish between private and public lives; their life depended on the income of their job, so being “open” was not an option.  Instead, they went to the bars on the weekend to socialize.  A large portion of “fem” lesbians came from this social class, and were often white collar workers like nurses and teachers.  It was the working class group of lesbians, then, that had nothing to lose by being lesbian both in their private lives and in the public sphere.   Therefore, they asserted openly their lesbianism and laid the foundation for a lesbian community (It should be noted that all of the narrators commented that “we didn’t know what a ‘closet’ was” thus showing that the idiom of the closet either didn’t exist yet, or simply wasn’t prevalent in the way these lesbians thought about themselves.) 

The authors also show how these identities changed over the decades.  While in the 1940s, there seemed to be a dominant feeling to keep work and social lives separate (while not denying lesbianism), by the 1950s, the butch began assuming the firm resistance of the permanent, masculine role.  In the 1960s, a younger “rougher, tougher” generation of butch lesbians had emerged that was more aggressive in asserting a larger lesbian community while simultaneously resisting the straight world.  By the end of the 60s, this tension erupted in a national gay liberation movement.

Similar to Chauncey’s Gay New York, Kennedy and Davis show the importance that geographic spaces (namely bars – and also house parties) played in this identity formation.  Not only did it give lesbians a safe place to go and socialize (though, they were not always safe), they also helped to (re)enforce gender roles.  There were “rougher” bars, while there were also bars where the rough and tough butches were welcome, but it was made clear that violence wasn’t tolerated.  Often within these ‘safe places,’ the space was divided:  in the Carousel, fems and gay men often gathered in the front, near the windows (this was also used as a safety tactic, because the mixed appearance wouldn’t so quickly give away the bar’s status as a ‘gay bar’) while the rougher butches gathered in the back room.

Context & Method:  Like I’ve already said, this work seeks to challenge the feminist historiography that also, in its own way, marginalized the working class butch-fem couples of mid-20th century America.  This work also puts the formation of a lesbian community in its historical context (historicizing the liberation movement that began in the 70s and showing that there was resistance to anti-homosexual norms before Stonewall).  The methodology is noteworthy because it is an oral history – the voices of some of the lesbians from this community are given a central place, which also helps give agency to these women.  This work is also an ethno-history, meaning that uses the methodology of an ethnography, the intensive study of the culture and identity of a single community (which may be insightful and descriptive, but provides only a “snapshot in time,” a static glimpse into a culture), but adds the analytical approach of history, that is the analysis of change over time.

My Comments:  I really loved this book.  I liked that it was an oral history and we got to hear from the women themselves.  Because of the marginalization of this group of people, the “traditional” historical documents weren’t available to historians, so without the methods of oral history, this story would not be knowable.

For more works on the history of sexuality or gender, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

  1. Pingback: History Is Personal | A Curious Wanderer

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