Struggling with Gender in the Early 1970s: An Archival Posting in Honour of Leslie Feinberg’s Birthday

Leslie Feinberg, author of the fictional book Stone Butch Blues, showed us a side of 1960s lesbian butch culture that had not been well known: a good number of butches either transitioned, or experimented with hormones. Feinberg’s book illuminates the struggles ze and zer friends had around gender, struggles that intensified as the women’s and gay liberation movements took aim at what they called “role playing.” Since liberationists saw gender as the source of women’s and gay people’s oppression, then gender was to be eliminated. As one document I recently read said: gender roles were so popular that liberation groups often had to address them in consciousness-raising groups, which amounted to being told to either stop “role playing” or get out of the movement.

This spring while digging through the GLBT Archives in San Francisco I found among letters addressed to Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon one set that showed what a painful struggle and confusing time it was for people like Leslie. The writer was trying desperately to live up to the ideal that Lyon and Martin laid out in their revolutionary book Lesbian/Woman. Published in 1972, it was for many women the bible of lesbian living, and remained so for many years after. Martin and Lyon argued that lesbians needed to reject masculinity and live a “normal” life in accordance with the standards of their time. It was a viewpoint shared by some of the women who joined the only lesbian organization that existed at the time and which Lyons and Martin had been instrumental in founding: the Daughters of Bilitis, or DOB.

The person whose letters I share below struggled terribly to live up to this prescription. Even their partner, they wrote, wished they were not so butch. But, they confessed, after years of living as a butch, they no longer felt comfortable donning female attire:

“I feel like a man! I hate my body… I hate it because it is so… so female.”

Twenty years ago we would have treated this person as a lesbian. After all, they strongly and proudly identify as one. Now, however, it seems so obvious that this person is trans*— or is it so obvious? A butch from the same era said to me herself: if there was more awareness of transgender issues when I was younger, would I have transitioned? I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

The only thing we know for sure is that when we proscribe behaviour, we do damage to ourselves and to each other. I am glad to be living in a time when conversations about gender fluidity abound. Thanks, Leslie Feinberg, for your enormous contribution to that necessary change.

1. Butch, Trans letter to Del and Phyllis on how to be straight-acting_5409 2. Butch, Trans letter to Del and Phyllis on how to be straight-acting_5410 3. Butch, Trans letter to Del and Phyllis on how to be straight-acting_5411 4. Butch, Trans letter to Del and Phyllis on how to be straight-acting_5412 5. Butch, Trans letter to Del and Phyllis on how to be straight-acting _5413 CROPPEDA P1 1:14:72 A P2 1:14:72_5415 A P3 1:14:72_5416 A P4 1:14:72A P5 1:14:72 CROPPED

These documents are available in the GLBT Archives without restriction. It was my decision to remove the author’s name.