The room smelled like hair wax and Old Spice deodorant and cigarette smoke caught in clothes.
There was the clunk of shitkicker boots and the creak of leather jackets and talking. Always there was talking.
I was in the conference room of a hotel in downtown Oakland, at the first-ever Butch Voices conference. Billed as “four days of workshops, entertainment and bonding for butches, aggressives, studs and allies,” it was the first time in my life I had ever been in a room surrounded by people like me, and I was dumbfounded.
So many barbershop haircuts and biceps and work boots. There were ponytails too, and cornrows, and three-piece suits. Butches that made me feel like I was still just a kid, and little baby butches that made me remember when my jeans fit like that. Every possible variation on butch, in all sizes, and many colours.
I remember thinking this is what straight, athletic men must feel like at a hockey game, but then realized that actually they get to feel like this all the time, so in fact it is not the same thing at all. Not the same thing as waiting 40 years to be just one among the many.
An hour or so before, I had rolled my luggage into the marble foyer, convinced I had the wrong hotel. Everything was so spotless and fancy; I could not imagine 400 butches descending upon this sterile place. The valets were all in red uniforms. The muzac was soothing, if you were into panpipes. I was almost surprised when the well-groomed woman behind the counter found my reservation.
I got into the elevator with a dashing salt-and-pepper-haired black man with an immaculately trimmed moustache and stylishly thin beard. The man smiled wide at me, and nodded hello.
“You here for the conference too?” The handsome woman I had mistaken for a handsome man had a rich, deep, but unmistakably female voice. Not the honey over gravel timbre I have come to love from my trans male friends. Something different in the tone of her voice. Something familiar, too.
I nodded, and leaned up against the elevator wall. I was in the right place after all. Exactly the right place, in fact. I breathed in the smell of her cologne, let my eyes fall over her a little, trying not to look like I was noticing her pressed dress shirt and pants, her perfect silver and black beard and moustache, the shine on her shoes, her wide shoulders and short square nails.
“My name is Grey,” she extended a long fingered hand for me to shake. “So I’ll see you tonight at the meet and greet then?”
I cannot capture in 1,000 words or less exactly what transpired for me during the four days that followed, and what the experience meant for me. I could never describe the heart balm that I felt spending four days surrounded by everything and everyone butch, so I will just relate a few highlights.
Art all over the place, by butches, about butches. Photographs, paintings, films, the works. Not just a fleeting glimpse of a sort of butch. Not butch as the butt of a joke. Not a straight girl playing a butch on TV. Not a watered down version of butch made palatable enough for mainstream taste buds.
Real images and depictions of people who looked a whole lot like me. A glimpse at my own history. Proof that we have always been here, and evidence that we intend to continue to exist.
An all-butch tap dance ensemble. Need I say more about how great this was?
A multi-generational all butch panel discussion. Hearing a 73-year-old butch woman talk about seducing women during the war. And by the war I mean the Second World War.
This was also one of the discussions I found most difficult to sit through. One of the panelists came of age in the ’70s and was what some would call a decidedly second wave feminist lesbian separatist. She had what I found to be a lot of hateful things to say about my trans brothers, and patronizing and narrow-minded things to say about my femme sisters.
I guess it was naïve to think we were just all going to get along. I squirmed in my seat, my blood starting to boil. My new friend Grey was right beside me, and she leaned towards me so we could whisper.
“I want her to shut up right now. She is being so divisive. We finally get a chance to come together and she is trying to pit us all against each other. Listen to her, she is spewing hate,” I whispered between clenched teeth.
Grey tipped her head to one side, took a deep breath. Placed her palm on my leg, peaceful.
“You are mistaking hate for fear. Look at her. All I see is her fear. She is so afraid of disappearing.” Grey spoke in that smooth, deep voice of hers, the one I had already learned to love.
I heard an old school butch in a dapper suit give a keynote speech on feminism. She got a standing ovation before she even started talking, and another when she was finished.
And then there was all the talking. We talked in workshops, in the gym, in the halls outside our hotel rooms, over breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night drinks.
We talked about chivalry and non-monogamy and history and politics and sex and sexuality and femmes and faggots and boxers versus briefs. What was most amazing for me was the stuff we didn’t need to talk about. That was what touched me most, I think.
Everything I didn’t have to say, all the things that didn’t need explaining. I didn’t worry about being understood or believed, because for the first time in my life I was surrounded by other butches. And they just knew.