The Queer Issue: Rachel Maddow, the New Sexy

The Butch is back, with a poster girl

On a balmy spring night at the Stonewall Bar, Ellie Conant sizes up the competition with a quick glance, rolls up her shirtsleeves, bellies up to the pool table, and plunks down four quarters. In the dim light, Conant's iridescent yellow eye shadow perfectly matches her short, spiky hair. A group of younger lesbians give her the side-eye, then whisper animatedly about the glamorous butch's distinct look. A thin woman approaches Conant with a smirk. Conant confidently snatches up a pool cue and thrusts it into her opponent's hand. "You break," she says, as she racks the balls.

When she's not hustling pool games, Conant promotes ribald lesbian parties like "Snapshot" and "Muff Muff Give." "I'm a butch who tries to put fabulosity into the game," she tells me earnestly. "When I walk down the street, people see an Asian butch with boy clothes and short hair. So I wear the eyeliner and eye shadow. I break it out. I look good."

Not that she's "feminine." No, Conant considers herself butch. But as Josie Smith-Malave of Top Chef fame, also playing pool that night at the Stonewall, put it, "Today's butch is fashion-conscious: We get the mani/pedi, the waxing. We spend the day at the spa, as opposed to donning work boots and flannel shirts—and hating men."

After years of America getting its lesbian images via the model-perfect waifs of Showtime's The L Word, the lipstick lesbian has given way to a new butch, who differs markedly from her mullet-coiffed, man-hating predecessor. When k.d. lang graced the cover of Vanity Fair receiving a shave from Cindy Crawford in 1993, it epitomized the butch-femme dichotomy in lesbian culture—or, at least, the larger world's perception of it. Today, butch icons, like Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres, are considered sex symbols by their Sapphic sisters—and by not a few men.

Here at the Stonewall and other local oases of butch culture, New Yorkers are happy to see their own kind return to the limelight. For decades, popular culture portrayed butches as unfashionable, mannish, and leather-clad sadists, like the one played by Mercedes McCambridge in Touch of Evil, who, when Janet Leigh is about to get gang-banged, growls, "I just wanna watch." Dyke comedian Kate Clinton remembers her dad calling her older butch cousin's Brylcreem'd hair "the hard look."

Pre–gay lib lesbians divided themselves into butches and femmes as a survival strategy, as a way to define themselves and their relationships. After Stonewall in 1969—at the same time that gay men rejected effete stereotypes for the macho "clone" look—lesbian feminists rejected butch in favor of androgyne.

The butch aesthetic made a brief comeback in the '80s and early '90s, when lesbian activists donned Dickies and Doc Martens and took to the streets to protest. These butches were heavily influenced by earlier feminists' ideals to espouse lesbian separatism. Unconcerned with appearing glamorous, they saw the battle for women's rights as a polarity that relied upon men as the enemy.

Attorney Yetta Kurland personifies today's kinder, gentler butch. Recently, outside the iconic West Village lesbian bar the Cubby Hole, Kurland, suited up in a custom-tailored dress shirt and silk tie, received a steady stream of supporters for her underdog battle against entrenched femme lesbian and City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn for her Council seat.

Kurland recalled how, during the second wave of feminism, being butch was considered politically incorrect, a demeaning nod to male/female roles.

The new butch is not only not afraid to be pretty, but she's equally comfortable with men and straight women. "The younger generation is more hip to diversity among the genders and perhaps even within their own sexuality," says comedian Julie Goldman, the token butch on Logo's The Big Gay Sketch Show. "I think the butch identity for the 50-plus crowd has way more constrictions. The younger the butch, the less captive she is to confining labels or roles." 

So why should butch expression need to continue? Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to crystallize the issue, when she stirred the sexual melting pot with the on-air query: "Why would a woman want to be with a woman who looks like a man?"

Feminist critics argue that butches dress and act "masculine" not to be men, but to express a different way of being a woman. "Being butch doesn't mean you want to be a man," says Goldman. "You're a woman—you're just a butch woman. I also think butch indicates a playfulness with gender, and that's just fucking cool."

Top Chef's Smith-Malave playfully describes herself as a "futch," a fem butch: "I'm a woman, and I'm allowed the fluidity of expressing myself that way, of embracing the female side of me."

If there's a new butch poster girl, it's got to be MSNBC anchor, Maddow. A bona fide butch sex symbol, desired by lesbians, straight women, and men, Maddow describes herself as "a big lesbian who looks like a man. I'm not Anchorbabe, and I'm never going to be. My goal is to do the physical appearance stuff in such a way that it is not comment-worthy."

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