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Cross-Dressing in Butch-Femme Relationships

Economic necessity and social mobility are recurrent issues in works concerned with lesbian cross-dressing and butch-femme relationships. Leslie Feinberg's 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues investigates the erotics of butch-femme relationships through its narrator, Jess Goldberg, who grows up in working-class Buffalo. Taunted by others because of her androgynous looks, beaten by her father, and raped by the high school football hero, she leaves home at fifteen in search of other people like herself, other "he-shes."

Like Stephen Gordon and Leslie Searle, Jess was born with a masculine body and a masculine name. Like The Well of Loneliness and To Love and Be Wise, Stone Butch Blues chronicles the role the body plays in the heroine's life and how it shapes her identity.

Jess finds other "he-shes" and feels less isolated but believes the only way out of her situation is to define her gender the way her friend Grant has, with hormones and breast reduction surgery. She soon learns, however, that hormones and surgery are not the solution she wants.

If anything, she is lonelier and more unsure afterward. The surgery and hormones change the only identity she ever knew as a "butch." She is no longer able to find a femme lesbian at the bars, and she frequently has to leave jobs, fearful that someone will discover that she is not really a man. Only when she moves to New York does she begin to find herself.

As Inspector Grant resolves Lee Searle's cross-dressing with a "true story," so does Jess, when she stumbles across a headline in an old newspaper in the library, "Male Butler Discovered After Death To Be Woman": "Now I knew there was another woman in the world who had made the same complicated decision . . . I made."

She also sees herself in her neighbor Ruth: "I could tell that womanhood had not come easily to her. It wasn't just her large Adam's apple or her broad, big-boned hands. It was the way she dropped her eyes and rushed away when I spoke to her."

Like Stephen Gordon staring at herself in the mirror in The Well of Loneliness, Jess "saw herself." But the body Jess saw was not "a monstrous fetter" but another "he-she," one whom she loves. Through her relationship with Ruth, Jess finds the strength to be happy, to have hope.


Stone Butch Blues and Patience and Sarah both offer a rare pleasure: The cross-dresser gets his/her "woman"/"man" in the end. Both novels also offer endings wherein the cross-dressing characters transcend the "rules" of transgender romance that Carol Cooper argues "present a same-sex version of the male-dominant, female-submissive dynamic." Patience and Sarah, two "women," and Jess and Ruth, two "he-she's," subvert the conventional cross-dressing narratives they evoke.

Drag queen characters rarely have such luck. Save for Torch Song Trilogy's Arnold, who ekes out happiness and fulfillment in parenthood, and Splendora's Timothy John, who finds love sans dress and wig, the only pleasure in the text for the gay male cross-dressed character is in the performance.

Charles Henry Fuller's 1991 short story "The Jazz Singer" illustrates the pleasure of the performance with the story of Christopher, a young black man who retreats to the attic of his house, dons wig, nylons and open-toed heels to perform "The Jazz Singer."

His father discovers him mid-performance, screams "take this shit off," and explains to Christopher, "There are things in this world a man can do and there are things a man would be better off dead than ever getting caught up in--especially a black man." Christopher does not flinch, however, as his father leaves the attic; he retreats into his performance, which "release[s him] from the confining roles of family misfit and neighborhood oddity."

The freedom that Christopher, Myra Breckinridge, Molina, and other gay male cross-dressed characters feel when performing "women" and the humble lives of Sarah or Jess as they pass as "men" in order to make a life for themselves and their loves illustrate the fundamental differences between the gay male and lesbian cross-dressed character.

In literature, the gay male cross-dresser emulates the artifice of femininity. She strives to exaggerate the notion of femininity into a glamorous spectacle. She strives for the perfect pose. In contrast, the lesbian cross-dresser aims not to be noticed, to pass, to not be discovered until after death. He wants to live his life; she wants to live and relive that magic moment.

Seth Clark Silberman

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literature >> Overview:  Butch-Femme Relations

It is impossible to understand twentieth-century lesbian literature without recognizing the significance of butch-femme relationships.

social sciences >> Overview:  Butch-Femme

Butch-femme identities are controversial and difficult to define with precision, but both roles subvert prescribed gender and sexual expectations; ultimately, the butch-femme dynamic is a unique way of living and loving.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressers have often been misunderstood and maligned, especially in societies with rigid gender roles.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Kings and Male Impersonators

A recent arrival in the drag arena, drag kings are part of an international drag movement that emerged in London and San Francisco in the mid 1980s.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity, but it has for a long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

literature >> Feinberg, Leslie

Political organizer, grassroots historian, and accomplished writer, Leslie Feinberg is a pioneer of transgender activism and culture.

literature >> Fierstein, Harvey

Award-winning Harvey Fierstein is one of the finest gay male playwrights currently working in the American theater.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

arts >> Jorgensen, Christine

Actress, singer, and writer Christine Jorgenson was not the first male-to-female transsexual to undergo sex reassignment surgery, but the publicity surrounding her case enabled her to educate the public about the differences between homosexuality, transvestism, and transsexualtiy.

literature >> Miller, Isabel

The fiction of Isabel Miller explores and celebrates relationships between women, often across class lines.

literature >> Morris, Jan

The talented and prolific Anglo-Welsh journalist, historian, and travel writer Jan Morris was one of the first transsexuals to tell her story publicly in a memoir.

literature >> Puig, Manuel

Homosexual themes and motifs are suggested in a number of Manuel Puig's eight novels, and in the best known of them, Kiss of the Spider Woman, homosexual desire is central to the fiction.

literature >> Rechy, John

In his novels about hustling, preeminently City of Night and Numbers, John Rechy moves from the world of homosexual behavior into the world of gay identity.

arts >> Richards, Renee

Transsexual tennis player Renee Richards successfully sued the United States Tennis Association when it barred her from competing in the U.S. Women's Open, establishing an important precedent for the rights of transsexual athletes.

literature >> Sackville-West, Vita

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literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

literature >> Vidal, Gore

The multifaceted Gore Vidal is important in the gay literary heritage because of the straightforwardness with which he pursued gay themes and included gay characters in his work.

arts >> Wolfe, George C.

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literature >> Woolf, Virginia

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Ackroyd, Peter. Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Castelli, Elizabeth. "'I Will Make Mary Male': Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity." Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, eds. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Cauldwell, David O. "Psychopathia transexualis." Sexology 16 (1949): 274-280.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Meyer, Morris. "Unveiling the Word: Science and Narrative in Transsexual Striptease." Gender As Performance. Laurence Senelick, ed. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992.

Murray, Sarah E. "Dragon Ladies, Draggin' Men: Some Reflections on Gender, Drag and Homosexual Communities." Public Culture 6.2 (Winter 1994): 343-363.

Nestle, Joan. A Restricted Country. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1987.

_____, ed. The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992.

Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

_____. "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman." Signs 9.4 (Summer 1984): 557-575.


    Citation Information
    Author: Silberman, Seth Clark  
    Entry Title: Cross-Dressing  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 29, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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