Of Butches, Kings, and Masculinity

I love butch girls. Girls with slick, shiny, barbershop haircuts, trimmed so short your fingertips can barely grip it. Girls with shirts that button the other way. Girls that swagger. Girls who have dicks made of flesh and silicone and latex and magic. Girls who get stared at in the ladies' room, girls who shop in the boys department, girls who live every moment looking like they weren't supposed to. Girls with hands that touch me like they have been exploring my body their entire lives. Girls who have big cocks, love blowjobs, and like to fuck girls hard. It is the girls that get called sir every day who make me catch my breath, the girls with strong jaws who buckle my knees, the girls who are a different gender who make me want to lay down for them.

Straight men (my friends included) can and have been friendly to my lovers, but they're often uncomfortable when they're butches. Part of their discomfort is that butches are inherently threatening to most men. Men sense that a butch's masculinity is more appealing to me than theirs, and if she's packin' heat (wielding a dildo), which you know they imagine she is, well, there you have it. My girlfriend Red is a better man than most men.

At my cousin's wedding a few weeks back in upstate New York, Red and I were (surprise, surprise) the only lesbians. We were seated at a table with all my cousin's friends—married yuppies. The husbands were totally fascinated by Red. One in particular wanted to know where she got her hair cut, and he admired her flattop repeatedly, saying he wished his looked so good. This experience at the wedding has actually been happening a lot lately, and other butches I know report similar situations. I'm still mystified when straight men seem drawn to Red, but I have a few theories. In some cases, I think that men feel they can have a safe gay interaction with her; they can flirt and be playful (and even talk interior decorating) as if she were another guy because they know she's really a woman. Sometimes men actually identify with her as one of the guys, automatically admitting her into that fraternal order. But when they admire her suit, her wingtips, her hair, they seem to be learning from her what it's like to be a good man. She embodies a study of ideal masculinity, which is all in the details.

I recently told some of my stories to butch scholar and gender theorist Judith "Jack" Halberstam. She is the author of the ball-busting book Female Masculinity (Routledge), so you could imagine she had a lot to say on the subject of butches. Here's how she read the phenomenon of my butch girlfriend as a straight-man magnet: "These men who are drawn to your girlfriend recognize the effort that goes into producing masculinity. Masculinity becomes visible when it's on a body that's not male." To Halberstam and others, masculinity (like femininity) is ultimately artificial, a performance, something you create and re-create through clothing, style, gestures, and body language.

Halberstam's latest project, The Drag King Book (Serpent's Tail), is a collaboration with photographer Del Lagrace Volcano on the world of drag kings, particularly documenting drag king scenes in New York, San Francisco, and London. Halberstam's text, which includes interviews and analysis, is full of rich imagery, penetrating insight, and striking personalities (including her own). Volcano is the photographer formerly known as Della Grace, now a transman and hermaphrodyke. His photos of drag kings are not mere snapshots or National Geographic anthropological wonders; they are probing portraits, interpretive pictures, alluring images of women at the forefront of gender performance. This treasure is both a document of alternative culture and a coffee-table book for the new millennium—just don't assume you know what's in the coffee.

One subject in The Drag King Book is Mo B. Dick, creator-producer of the famed but now defunct Club Casanova, who has been a king among kings. Her club was the thriving New York drag king scene, and made it possible for this new art form to grow and showcase itself to the world. The alter ego of a girl named Mo, Mo B. Dick is a sleazy, lounge-lizardy guy with sideburns, a pompadour, and plenty of attitude. Mo's persona is a parody of one type of masculinity, and she plays it to the hilt. Dred, another New York subject of the book, is in a league all her own. She chooses from a diverse bunch of African American masculinities, from a super-fly Isaac Hayes to a badass rapper to the andro king himself, The Artist (Prince). Her performances are sharp, thoughtful, and sexy. When drag kings are good, they're very good.

When drag kings are bad...well, I've seen performances that are so sloppy and haphazard that they're reminiscent of unrehearsed high school talent shows. Halberstam says when she goes to a bad drag king performance, it's usually too long and feels as if the same one joke is being played over and over and over. But she reminds me that performing in drag is a very young, growing art form, and we have yet to see the potential reached for performances that go beyond simple parody, that are complex, nuanced, funny, and seductive; I'd like to see drag kings make sport of not only male icons (like Elvis, the Bee Gees, the Village People) but also archetypes. Drag king Murray Hill is leading that front, with her performance of a middle-aged, overweight guy who could be a used-car salesman who's running for office.

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