Ivan Coyote and the Roadmap to Being Butch

Ivan Coyote is a Canadian author and spoken word performer who focuses on gender identity, and more specifically, what it means to be butch. Spoken word allows them to use their own butch and masculine identities to offer a very personal, linguistic perspective on female masculinity. A natural storyteller, they have also published eight collections of short stories and one novel. More recently, Coyote has explored the more challenging mediums of audio and film, producing three CD’s and four short films. Many of Coyote’s publications and performances have been collaborations, most notably with queer musician and performer Rae Spoon, who co-authored Gender Failure with Coyote and who toured with them extensively.

Ivan Coyote began performing in 1992 and has done numerous tours across North America since then. Many of these performances can be seen on YouTube, including pieces such as “To all of the kick ass, beautiful fierce femmes out there,” “Dear Younger Self,” “A Butch Roadmap,” and “Hair Today.” Within these pieces, Coyote considers how to navigate different elements of female masculinity, or butchness. These elements include their experience of (almost) passing as a man and how to find solidarity with other butch women. Coyote considers both how they see the world and how the world sees them, without losing any of their authenticity as a queer storyteller.

Essential to Coyote’s lived experiences and to their storytelling style is the concept of the Butch Roadmap, which they present in a performance aptly named “A Butch Roadmap.” This Roadmap, which they describe as “. . . directions so that I can be found, or followed,” serves as history, both personal and collective. Coyote must create this Roadmap because it does not exist. Their history has not been recorded, so they record the parts that they consider to be the most important. Coyote chooses to highlight the importance of solidarity, asking butch women to “Learn to recognize other butches for what they really are: your people.” To be butch is not to live in solitude. Butches must do things together, without belittling each other for having or doing feminine things.

Another performance that stands out is “Hair Today.” “Hair Today” also references the Roadmap of Coyote’s life, showing them the way to the barber’s chair, a place where, in this case, Coyote finds acceptance and comfort. Wary of the judgment of the surrounding world, Coyote knows that their acceptance or dismissal often depends on whether they pass as a man or not. Even in their self-identification as butch, Coyote often passes, at least initially, as a man, something that many butch women experience, as do trans men. Coyote’s storytelling in “Hair Today” also brings to mind Native American queer poetry, such as Paula Gunn Allen’s Some Like Indians Endure. Coyote’s stories, although different from this poem in medium, also carry a message of survival and solidarity.

In a world that often overlooks butch women, Coyote’s message is a simple one: be the best butch you can possibly be. As they remind us in “A Butch Roadmap,” this can be as simple as driving your grandmother to bingo or shoveling her driveway. For those of us who pass as men, it’s our job to be gentlemen who hold the door for big, burly men and little, old ladies alike. Accept yourself, be the best you can be, and never forget to find your family.

Stone Butch Blues

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In March of 1993, transgender activist Leslie Feinberg published a coming of age novel titled Stone Butch Blues. It is the fictional story of a young woman named Jess Goldberg and the many problems she faces growing up as a butch in the late1960’s.

The entirety of the novel revolves around the butch-femme subculture. In short, butch and femme are terms used to describe individual gender identities within the lesbian, gay, transgender and cross-dressing culture. Butch refers to a woman with very masculine traits and behaviors while femme refers to a person (usually a female) with overly feminine characteristics. It has been argued that this concept is solely a lesbian dyadic system where one cannot exist without the other and ultimately gave lesbians a clear way to identify. In fact, many gay women in the mid- 20th century, identified as butch or femme instead of identifying as gay, or homosexual. This seems to be the case not only in the novel but for the 20th century as well.

Within the lesbian bar culture for the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s butch-femme was the norm while butch-butch and femme-femme relationships were not. This was very true for the novel as well. Jess from the beginning of the novel allows the reader to dive into her relationship issues with femmes and the many mentors she had (usually older butches) to teach her what was and was not acceptable in these relationships. It was also very common back then for lesbians to feel like role distinctions needed to be sharply drawn because not being one or the other meant strong disapproval from both sides. Deviance from these identities were stigmatized.

Today many young people would argue that the classification of butch and femme are inadequate ways of describing an individual. Now a days, gender fluidity has become much more acceptable. In other words, the modern day gay community recognizes that labels, like such, are limiting in themselves. If people do chose to identify as butch or femme they often say the label is more of a representation of their gender identity rather than the role they play in a relationship. This notion has made way for the acceptance of butch-butch and femme-femme relationships. So it is safe to say that these labels and their meanings, as well as restrictions, have evolved over time.

Likewise, the violence towards these people who identify as butch or femme has changed. At its core, Jess’ character is greatly shaped by the experiences of violence hence the term ‘Stone Butch’. Many lesbians in the mid-20th century who identified as butch acquired a personality  that yearned for love but at the same time did not want to be touched. In the novel Jess is raped, beaten up by cops, set up to be injured and spoken to by doctors like she was something other than human.

“About an hour later the cops brought Mona back. My heart broke when I saw her. Two cops were dragging her; she could barely stand. Her hair was wet and stuck to her face. Her makeup was smeared. There was blood running down the back of her seamless stockings. They threw her in the cell next to mine. She stayed where she fell.”

 

As suspicion of communist and queers began to mount, violence was not uncommon during that time. Butch and femmes alike were commonly confronted with a need to defend their space.  Luckily, much of that has changed. With a rise in acceptance of the gay community, the extremely high rate of violence or dehumanization of gays has dropped significantly.

What has not changed over time is the desire. The lesbian community and gay community as a whole have always desired the same thing regardless of time, acceptance.

Like in Erica Jong’s poem Testament (Homage to Walt Whitman), there has been a long history of pain for the gay community.

“& three decades of pain

having cried for those that did not love me

those who loved me- but not enough

& those whom I did not love-“

Stone butches are notoriously known for not permitting themselves to be touched intimately, and consequently are also known for ‘being hard’. While many lesbians may not be that way today, both ways of identifying as a lesbian have yearned to “resolve now for joy.

“If that resolve means I must live alone,

I accept aloneness.”

Despite how much time passes, that is something that will never change. No one in the gay community will gave up a search for joy, happiness and acceptance. In the same manner, no lesbian, whether she be butch, femme or between the two, will stop believing in that notion or lose that hope.

“How to spin joy out of an empty heart?

The joy-egg germinates even in despair.

Orgasms of gloom convulse the world;

and the joy- seekers huddle together.”

 

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