“Are you going to stop dressing like a gas station attendant now?” This wasn’t the first time my mother had asked me that. We’d been fighting about my appearance since the seventies, a decade that still employed gas station attendants.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
Happy Pride Queers! I know it was yesterday. That means today, I get to promote the book I wrote. It’s called Chemically Enhanced Butch. It’s a queer memoir, but funny. It’s the coming of age tale of the old school butch you’ve been waiting for. Look at that carabiner on my belt loop. You have to earn that many keys. I opened the last dyke bar in the upper Midwest to get those keys.
The bar didn’t last, because the best things in life never do, though I did accidentally nail some guy in the junk with that hammer. I eventually made the decision to grow my own sideburns instead of pasting hair clippings to my face, so I don’t know if I still get to call myself a butch, but I do, and we can talk about it.
“For the space of a song, I achieved the Rainbow Connection that Kermit the Frog had once promised me as a child.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
I’m of an age (fifty) when I can still remember Ronald Reagan and Tammy Faye (before she became a drag queen) and mullets unironically. I got to spend my twenties in San Francisco. That was the 90s y’all, RIP. So many girlfriends, so many drugs. I had a motorcycle and a mohawk. I really miss being that attractive, but I don’t miss being that dumb.
“But if I had to pick a moment in my life, like if a genie was forcing me, to go back and whisper some hard-won insight to a younger me, I would go back to early 1991, when I drove over that hill by Candlestick Park and saw the San Francisco skyline for the first time. I would tell that twenty- one-year-old dummy, “Pay attention. This is special. You’ll never see anything like this again.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
I didn’t take testosterone until I was 41, during my second semester at Harvard Divinity School. That’s another good story. Spoiler alert – it involves another doomed encounter with a pretty straight girl. Could my character be any more inevitable?
“She couldn’t have anticipated the out-of-control rock-’n’-roll semi, overloaded with grief and tornadoes, she was encountering when she made her first clever jest to me. She was just hoping for an escort into the forbidden roadside queer juke joint she hadn’t yet had the occasion to see.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
Butches are hot and insecure, heroic and unsympathetic, well-meaning and woefully overwhelmed. We wrangle an unfathomable amount of complexity into that Dickie’s short-sleeve button up. Often we spend a decent majority of our energy trying to showcase our magic to our parents and normative society, in general. Alas, the only way their untrained eyes would ever be able to discern it, however, would be if we managed to change the world. That is why we spend the rest of our time pretending we are secret Hobbit superhero, unless we are busy getting a new cute girl an almond milk, half-caff, chai latte.
After decades of depression and terrible decisions, sifting through cliches and archetypes, some of us find a place in our bodies to negotiate a truce with our demons. I’ll take this happily ever after. That is an act of resilience and transgression that does actually change the world.
Come read my story. Be a pirate with me. Be weird with me. Have difficult conversations with me. If you’re a misfit, you’re not alone.
Links to buy the ebook on my homepage. Paperbacks coming in July.
St. Vern/Virgil, Patron Saint of hats with beavers on them.
Assessing the inventory of discarded treasures that the building still housed was one of the more amusing activities that we indulged in while taking in the weight of new fortress ownership. Highlights on the list include a 22′ shuffleboard game, an impressive air pistol found under an old, but comfortable couch, a bonanza of furniture carts and dollies, various crutches and wheelchairs, and this picture of this handsome guy we named Vern. Later, after we were open, an older hottie with red hair who, I swear, introduced herself as Trixie used to come visit the space on occasion. It had been her bar home when it was the Legion. I took her on a tour during one of those visits including the large room we set aside as office/liquor storage space where Vern’s framed picture was enshrined to the right as you entered. She picked it up and shouted, “Oh my God, where’d you get this picture of Virgil?” And even though the two names are not similar in any way, except that they are both old-timey and start with ‘V’, it was enough to confirm the pre-ordained order of righteousness in the universe and Pi’s place in the history of awesomely fighting the good fight. This was actually kind of a regular phenomenon at Pi, which is one of the things I miss the most because normal life is often not overly filled with hearty pirate-dick-grabbing Fuck Yeah’s.
When we were done newly investigating the crannies, Benny and I had serious work to do. I now owned my very own commercial building. It was also legally owned also by my soon-to-be ex-wife, who understandably didn’t want to hang out there much and my new business partner who was already colorfully expressing her disinterest in understanding magnitude of the build-out process at hand. Mostly she liked to smoke pot and dream of feeling like Sam Malone in Cheers, which at the time seemed relatively benign. Neither one of them were there much at all, so, it was 12,000 square feet of my uninterrupted vision in all practicality. Promise and mold. Benny and I had made it look a little prettier on the outside on our first day. I remember the gleeful blend of terror and some sort of emboldened queer psuedo-nationalism. I felt important. I felt devoted. Then I had to go home.
As I’ve referenced, immediately prior to spontaneously deciding to open a dyke bar in South Minneapolis, I had been obsessively courting a straight woman for nearly a year and a half while simultaneously trying to resist this same compulsion because it was destroying my long-term relationship. If you’re a butch, you’ve probably experienced the addictive rush of a pretty straight woman alternately expressing a never-before-felt, supernatural, inescapable, deeply spiritual connection to you, and then 45 minutes later, acting like they’re struggling to remember your name. This situation can drag on for some time, as you know, as well as nudge your sense of identity into the realm of make-believe. Well, I happened to win this particular round of butch/straight-girl I Want To, But I Can’t, No Wait… and found I had a new girlfriend. Subsequently, my beloved friend and partner of nearly a decade moved out of our house. Most of our friends sided with her, as they should have.
You know when you do something like this to your life, you gotta act like you knew what you were doing all along, right? Meanwhile, whenever I thought about my ex, the pain and nausea was overwhelming. What a coward. Hanging out with my new ‘girlfriend’ also felt uncomfortable from the start. What a coward.
But, my new building offered an unmanagable number of tasks to face every single day. I was also sincerely under the impression that I was doing this in order to provide a necessary haven for the lost and overshadowed in my community. Somebody had to do it. Gay marriage was out to Tone Down our tacky, shitty, fabulous culture. Perhaps I could work off my psychic debt. If I succeed, perhaps I could redeem myself and my character. I would also never really have to go home and face the destruction and failure that dusted every surface in my house. It was only during the short commutes to and from my fractured existences that I would allow myself to cry in fits of self-pity and regret.
Now that we have the protagonist’s emotional low point firmly established, let’s start the training montage portion of our story!
Post #1. Day #2.
After our initial, sunny triumph over the weeds, there was necessarily the following day, and another one, and another one. The building was in such a state of disrepair and decay that it was not even worth developing a list of potential renovations at this time. It seemed reasonable to focus on removing things that smell or were potentially hazardous. Honestly, a good portion of time and energy is expended merely trying to decide what the next step should be. Many prospective restaurant owners hire people for this very task. Lack of money was my only project manager, so specific missions were defined by this driver of ingenuity. Demolition and clean-up can thankfully be done fairly cheaply.
My ego has historically been very attached to my ability to perform long days of hard and messy physical labor. Such is the impoverished identity of an old-school butch. So my initial inclination was to tackle the mess. Benny quickly intervened and told me to go find some money and get us a liquor license. There were only two of us at this time and he also possessed the martyr laborer instinct, but I was the sole vision manager. It was my fault we were here doing this. He would thusly take charge of the demolition and crap removal department. He also independently assumed the responsibility of bringing me turkey sandwiches every day. It was around this point that I became completely unable to shop for or feed myself.
It was time for me to go talk to some grown-ups. Never having even worked in the service industry or received any kind of business training (besides being my parent’s offspring), it is difficult to just decide one day that you should assume that you have any kind of legitimate access to the gate-keepers of capitalism. For us over-educated, life-style underachievers, it feels very much like a private club that perhaps our parents belong to, but our only glimpse of the inner-workings and protocols has been from the lifetime kiddie table at carefully scripted holiday events. But at least I had been to those events, and I grew up around my parent’s businessy super-powers, and I’m white. I instinctively knew my privilege would aid me now.
I knew we would obviously need a liquor license to operate a bar. I did not quite understand how complicated it actually is to obtain permission to sell alcohol in Minneapolis yet. I also had a rudimentary understanding that a Business Plan was some sort of magical document that made banks give you money. These responsibilities framed my immediate agenda.
I made an appointment to finally receive my Liquor License Application. These are acquired at a business licensing office on the first floor of City Hall downtown. They don’t just hand them out. You have to actually have a meeting with a liquor inspector. I was wearing my usual summer uniform, Dickie’s cut-offs and a black t-shirt. I grabbed my bag, a canvas shopping bag from a book store in San Francisco. I had casually grabbed this tote one day from my home and now carried it with me everywhere. It contained my Spiderman notebook, a date book, and the remains of a bag of sunflower seeds that had spilled. It is now one of many priceless artifacts with which I still cannot bear to part.
still contains seeds
I rode my trusty, crusty mountain bike to City Hall one sunny morning. City Hall in Minneapolis was built to look like a kind of old-world stone fortress. I will admit that in all of my many meetings with the necessary grown-ups that police your ability to open a business, I generally felt intimidated and out of place. My mother would have also been appalled by my wardrobe choices. I made my otherness public, contrary to my mother’s life-long advice, but I felt like I was out to change the world, or at least challenge the arbitrarily appointed powers that denied my legitimacy. An adolescent rebellion to be sure, but it provided the requisite resolve to face the faces of authority. (Crap, was all of this to prove something to my mother? Probably, but moving on.)
oooh, it’s so big and hard.
Once at City Hall, I passed through the initial clusters of people who believe in striding everywhere and checked in at the correct plexiglass. I was then ushered into a small office within the licensing department. I was sat at a small round conference table. A short time passed and three large polished older white men in really nice suits with impressive briefcases came in and sat at the table with me. They were followed by a slightly scruffy, compact man in a short-sleeved button-up and khakis. Phil.
Phil sat next to me and began his spiel, carefully distributing professional respect with equity around the table. When he noticed my Spiderman notebook, he told me about his twin two-year-old boys who loved Spiderman everything. He was nice to me.
When the subject of the food and non-alcoholic beverage revenue requirements came up, one of the lawyers on my right informed him that their corporation would be seeking a “nightclub” exemption for their venture. I told Phil that I too was seeking an exemption to the revenue requirement, but since the “nightclub” exemption was only possible in zoned specific areas downtown, I had sought out a location that met the other required geographical criteria that would allow me to sell as much booze as I wanted. When he told me that, after fifteen years as a liquor inspector, he was not aware of such an exemption, I simply recited the pertinent code word for word and even offered the reference number. I do not have an idetic memory, I was simply obsessed.
The smile he offered me then seemed to convey that I had found a magic ally to aid my quest, like running into the scarecrow on the yellow brick road. One of the businessmen chuckled and half-jokingly offered me a job. The amusing contrast of my antagonistic appearance with my casual eloquence was obviously playing well in this tiny room. I was beaming with the potential of eventual success and probably subconsciously, being validated by white men. I had passed through a gate. I left that initial meeting with an application that was, itself, nearly thirty pages in length, each detailing a different leg of the bureaucratic scavenger hunt I was now responsible for completing.
The next important task to begin would be writing a business plan. I called my mother first, who promptly Fed-exed me three different books on the subject. I also looked for templates on the internet. All of this research yielded mostly tips on how to make your plan “pop”. I hate that word used in that context. What I needed was practical step-by-step consultation. Someone told me about Women Venture, a non-profit established, in part, to help female entrepreneurs find funding for their projects. I had high hopes that such an institution had just been waiting for a project like mine. They had even been featured on Oprah who had donated boots to help women get into the construction industry.
This experience would be the first in a substantial list of bewildering experiences where a woman-run or woman-centered company or individual stunned me with disinterest, disorganization, or greedy self-importance. I was a butch woman opening a dyke bar. How much more vagina cred do I require for your assistance and solidarity? It happened with enough regularity that it began to be a source of private, probably offensive humor for me and Benny. It also began to slowly reveal our perceptions of who our people were, who we were really trying to open this bar for. Sometimes, being a lesbian or a gay or a groovy liberal feminist does not make you interesting and brave and insightful. Sometimes it just makes you an unimaginative, self-aggrandizing little punk.
Women Venture requires you to attend an introductory informational meeting. I think it cost $35. I eagerly attended. Surrounded by images of Oprah, they wasted an hour of my time encouraging me to indulge in one of their spa retreats, which would not only provide necessary, relaxing ‘me’ time, but would allow me to network with other would-be professionals. Not one useful word was uttered. After the meeting, I cornered the facilitator, asking if there were people there that could help me write a business plan, or if there were classes, or if they could talk to me about what banks required or how did people get grants from them. She actually seemed confused by my determination to open my own business, which, in turn, confused and angered me. She awkwardly helped me make an appointment with one of their advisors for some individual consultation. This appointment yielded nothing but a “good job, you seem to be on the right track” and cost an additional $80.
I left their offices gape-faced and crazy-eyed, wondering what I was going to do next. Then, as I was walking out of the building, I noticed a small office with its door open. The sign on the door said something about the Small Business Administration. I knew from my online research that this organization had something to do with fostering small businesses. I poked my head in and saw an older man with distractingly bushy eyebrows watching the Price Is Right on a small portable TV sitting on the corner of his desk. I don’t recall the conversation that we had that first day, but turns out, not fifty feet from the offices of Woman Venture, housed in the very same building, the SBA had built a small satellite office and its sole purpose was to help people write business plans. They had free computers to use, with free business plan writing software, and a retired business owner and ex-city councilman would not only help you through the process for free, but take your completed plan home to read and provide free thoughtful feedback. Tom. Tom would also give you free coffee and sometimes doughnuts.
Suck it Women Venture. And Oprah, too. Just kidding Oprah. I’m scared of you like a Catholic school girl is scared of Jesus making her pregnant.
I hung out with Tom for endless hours at least twice a week for the next couple of months. Benny came with me once for support. He fidgeted like we forgot his Ritalin, but I think I just wanted to show him. I wanted someone to know what I was doing. I was writing mission statements and making up projected revenues and pretending I knew what repairs the building needed and how much it would cost and how much we would need for an ice machine and glassware and an initial liquor inventory. It was a lot like playing some ‘build-a-bar’ board game or Facebook app. Tom told me that it was all just guesses anyway. It was most important to promote your idea and yourself…two activities with which I am still quite uncomfortable.
Another theme established at this time was some kind of sick cosmic recurring cycle of facing the crushing disappointment of immanent failure quickly followed by the exhausting exultation of some sort of benevolent, serendipitous, magical intervention that cleared our path for at least the next short leg of our journey. Benny and I came to cautiously expect miracles, Pi miracles. We started to understand we were facilitating a project that was charmed. The business plan and the liquor license, at this early juncture, were my two big projects that loomed like circling dragons on the road between me and the portals of queer glory, but I had already gained the favor of two unlikely straight white male demi-wizards with conventional entrepreneurial powers. It was up to me to trudge forth with my canvas tote of hope.
Benny still had his other job at the coffee shop, but would still come to the bar whenever he wasn’t working. His to-do list was considerably more vague at this time. I had asked him to be my bar manager. We were a long way from having a bar to manage. It was still August at this point in the story. He busied himself throwing away less awesome leftovers from the previous business and demolishing any drywall that was stained with mold. There was also a long hallway of filthy, ancient bar carpet that was welded in place with an overabundance of old adhesive. At a pace of several inches a day, armed only with a 3″ rigid paint scraper, he steadfastly removed it all. I rented dumpster after dumpster.
sad to see the cheese sauce go
the cart and barrel mold abatement method.
All of these projects were happening simultaneously, along with a hundred other details I’ve forgotten, but I do recall a mere day or two after acquiring my liquor license application, barely two weeks into this endeavor, sitting on the steps of Benny’s Powderhorn duplex, I received an unsettling call from another emerging ally, Elena.
Elena was a regular at the coffee shop where Benny worked who flirted with me and Benny. On the surface, Elena was a powerhouse. At the time, she was the director of a nearby important Neighborhood Association, not Pi’s. She loved the intrigue and drama of City Hall and municipal politics and was really good at her job. She was also a hard femme who hadn’t fully explored this aspect of herself and was drawn to Benny and me, Benny for his earnest, and deceptively simple butchness, and me for my history of sexual recklessness and love of obscure 80’s R&B. We had always been friendly acquaintances, but with the initiation of the Pi Project, she gladly made herself our own consultant and City Hall mole.
Elena called to inform us that a prominent City Councilman had already heard about our liquor license application and had been rumored to say that under no circumstances would he ever allow us to get our license. Something about over his dead body, I don’t know. This news was initially confusing because the councilman in question was not only openly gay, but also represented a ward historically inhabited by Minneapolis’ own old school version of the Lesbian Mafia. These women were not the self-proclaimed Facebook Familia. They were the middle-aged lesbian feminists active in the 70’s who now held various respected leadership positions at non-profits, school boards, community organizations, and co-ops. They were all connected through past romances and grudges. Thankfully, Pi was in another councilman’s ward, but it still seemed like a big deal that a City Fucking Councilman had declared Pi anathema.
So, I freaked out a bit. I even called his office to try to talk to him, but was rejected. And then another emotion took over. I was sitting there on the stoop with Benny, asking him whether I should continue trying to open this bar or if I should run away to Hawaii with my new girlfriend and live in a hut on the beach. That fucking Benny face.
I’m so sorry I couldn’t find a better picture and I’m so glad we eventually took testosterone.
It made me want to be brave. It made me want to be not disappointing. My life suddenly turned into a cartoon with the appearance of an actual mustachio-twirling villain, who in real life, irrationally and prematurely, condemned our dreams with a mwah-ha-ha. I had no idea prior to this that anybody was actually taking me seriously. Thanks Councilman Oldtwink. Over the coming months, the circumstantial evidence would become overwhelming that he had some personal grudge against this endeavor and it just made me want to win.
I asked for an audience with my old boss from the co-op who happened to be one of the pillars of the older lesbian guard and had known this councilman when he was still a Woman Studies major at the U. At our meeting, she, of course, expressed concerned about the riskiness of my venture and the fragility of my mental state, but also obliquely intimated that she would ‘make inquiries on my behalf’. I have no idea if any backstage blackmail phonetree actually took place, but I had the feeling that some kind of torch-passing blessing had occurred.
I was now aware that people knew what I was doing. The hornet’s nest had been kicked. Everyone started to transition into allies or enemies. I began to understand that there was more at stake than my personal need for redemption.
Obsession is necessarily melodramatic. One end of the line distinguishing poetic from creepy is clenched in the teeth of the obsessed, the other is held by the people you imagine are watching you. The plausibility of real-world benefit from your compulsive visions is determined by the quality of your hustle. I had serious game just then. I made myself mayor of the Island of Misfit Queers and people were starting to encourage me in real life. I imagined it was like those kids running behind Rocky in Rocky II. A good training montage is a worthy spirituality.
So what is the first step when you finally decide to open the gay bar of your dreams? Take a moment to think about it. What is the first logical thing you would do set this phantasmagoria in motion on the physical plane? I know so many of you have thought about it. Your own economic treehouse is the charming, undiscovered, magic trinket shop in the bohemian district of capitalism. It is sporadically even more alluring to you than, building your own tiny house (organic farm and strawbale home are so ten years ago), or thinking about how it would feel to be in witness protection. And among queers, especially queers born with vaginas, talking about opening a dyke bar is one of our favorite party games. We all want the fort. What do you do to get it?
Well, first make sure you’ve had some kind of psychotic break. Make sure it’s severe enough to completely disable your ability to participate significantly in any relationship in your life. Next, embrace the obscure, but persistent suspicion in your head that you possess magical powers. Allow yourself to believe that you are now an actual pirate action hero, secretly charged by the collective powers of history to build this enchanted hideaway. The outcasts have always been your people. You have been called to build the sanctuary that suspends normal time and space within its walls so they can conduct their clandestine and awkward social rituals within the safety of the anthropologically appropriate diorama that only you can manifest.
The first necessary incantation for manifestation of visions is transcription. You must say it out loud, and preferably write it down. You may use the vehicle of your choice. Mine was a spiral-bound Spiderman notebook purchased from a Walgreens on the way to my first “meeting” about the bar. “Meeting” needs to have the ironic quotes at this stage because having a secret meeting about opening a bar when you make $12 an hour stocking shelves at a co-op feels roughly like planning your wedding when you’re eight.
It is essential to have an ally, more than a friend attend this first meeting. Otherwise, you would be that person obsessively and furiously writing in a Spiderman notebook, in a bar, by yourself. You need someone who takes you seriously, and believes in you, but still has some tether to the real world you’d rather not interact with just then. They can relay messages and make you sandwiches.
Benny and I had our first planning session at Bryant Lake Bowl, a familiar Minneapolis hipster hang-out that was once a divey old bowling alley. The woman who owns this establishment is a lesbian who has built a local empire from her prowess collaborating locally-sourced meat, midwestern kitsch, and zero-waste aspirations. Managing to set aside my jealousy for her success for a moment, we accomplished three things at this meeting: I roughed out a sketch of the actual space I was imagining, we made a long list of the items and services we imagined a bar would require, and we decided on a name.
The first page of my notebook, recalls the imagination of the bar’s physical space.
This drawing is titled Joe and Jack’s Pi Hut at the top. It includes renderings of a stage, dance floor, bar, pool tables, and a quieter area with tables. There are three restrooms, with one set aside as gender-inclusive. The resemblance of this drawing to the as yet unmet building that eventually housed Pi Bar feels a bit supernatural.
People often assume that because I eventually acquired a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies I must be religious or spiritual in some way. This is inaccurate except in the most intimate and cryptic sense. What I am may be more precisely conveyed as superstitious. Sometimes I sense unseen voyeurs. They frequently receive mundane offerings from me in the form of a pinch of salt over my left shoulder while making breakfast or a modified cadence while walking my dog to avoid sidewalk cracks. This could be merely a shame-induced psychological projection, or perhaps it is a subconscious perception of an alternative reality where underdogs prevail and all that is necessary to access aid from this morally-attuned universal dark matter is earnestness of heart and a narcissistic disdain for commercial practicality. Whatever the situation is, the universe wanted me to open this dyke bar. The serendipitous Hobbit quest that followed that day can only be truly comprehended in retrospect as fairy tale, complete with fortuitous fairy encounters, chance treasure finds, and the obligatory gauntlet of trials of faith.
The next several pages of my Spiderman scripture are occupied with a long, subdivided list of all of the things we could think of that this space might require. My favorite passage can be found on page 1, category 2, under the heading “Building”. Under it was the simple instruction: “Buying”. I do not recall why the participle form is used.
Step 2: Find Grail
I am so grateful to still possess artifacts from this time. I was drinking a lot so it’s helpful. I remember where Benny and I were sitting and I do have a fairly strong memory of the portion of the meeting when we were trying to come up with a name. I do not recall any of the other ideas, but I remember us both feeling the magic of Pi when it appeared at the table. We knew we had guessed the right name and in uttering it together, we conjured the specter of its future.
Many have asked me about the name or even more think they know why we called the place Pi. Some know I used to be a Math geek. More know I turned into a classic philosophy geek with a special love for translating ancient Greek. In math, Pi is the constant no matter how big the circle gets – an apt metaphor for our endeavor. In philosophy, it has been used to hypothesize some existence of order or harmony or plan in an ostensibly chaotic existence. Pretty deep, kinda cool, a bit esoteric for commercial application. There is also the double entendre created by American slang. (Pie is a word for pussy) Belly up to the pussy bar. Get it? Oddly, all the boys, including the gay ones assumed this to be the implied allegory and thought it quite amusing, which it is. Lesbians, for whom the bar was founded, always acted like they had never heard of that euphemism. Whatever lesbians. The name Pi, in addition to being all of those things as a bonus, was my nickname for my partner at the time, Patricia.
She had meant everything to me for over nine years and I knew I was in the process of wrecking our relationship. The name was a form of homage to one of my very favorite people from whom I was distancing myself and trying to deal with the pain that caused us both.
This brings up one of the guilt sections of processing this story. Patricia was still my partner when we would buy the building a short four months after this initial meeting and also legally became my business partner that same month…less than a month before she moved out of our house. She was obligated financially and legally after our divorce, to ride this ride with me. For those of you who think I’m an asshole, I will not argue with you. I can only try to assure you that profound gratitude and contrition have always been a part of this story.
I left our secret meeting with a marginally more detailed list of tasks for myself and a transcendent sense of resolve, or perhaps refreshed delusion. Benny had recently gotten a third job barbacking for some douchey nightclub downtown and would now add the task of reconnaissance to his duties. I was about to finally graduate from college and thought that perhaps the bar could be thought of as a research paper. I headed to the public library.
On the fourth floor of the Minneapolis Central Library in downtown, one can find the entire collection of Municipal Codes and Ordinances for the city of Minneapolis. I eagerly read the entire tome devoted to Liquor Codes. Prior to this, I had some vague understanding, somehow, of the 60/40 rule. That is, Minneapolis requires establishments that sell alcohol to make 60% of their revenue from food and non-alcoholic beverage sales. An archaic and restrictive zoning fascism. I also knew of businesses in Minneapolis that operated as nightclubs and wanted to understand the seeming contradiction. I knew that Pi would never, ever meet those standards. I didn’t even want to sell food. I also wanted to be in South Minneapolis where I didn’t actually know of any other examples of the type of establishment I wanted to create. What I found went something like this: any new liquor license granted to an establishment south of 22nd St (out of the old patrol zone -whatever that means) would only be given to a restaurant, hotel, or fraternal organization (like the Elks Lodge). All new licenses would be held to the 60/40 rule unless the following exemption criteria were met: The building must be in an area zoned I-2 (light industrial and commercial), must be in a 7-acre contiguous plot, and be 500 feet away from the nearest residential zone (R-1), and 300 feet away from the nearest school or church.
Later, I would be accused of exploiting a loophole in the liquor code, that happened to inadvertently be also in direct contradiction to some other zoning code. Right now, in the library, holding the biggest three-ring binder I had ever seen, I felt like Indiana Jones, or one of the Goonies and I had just discovered a long-lost treasure map.
My next stop would be to a beaurecratic zoning catch-all office that Minneapolis had established on the second floor of a government office building kitty-corner from City Hall. It used to be called simply “One-Stop”. I would visit this office many times in the coming months. Upon my initial visit, a ritual of sorts was established. Among the mounting pressures of my dissolving partnership, the partially-secret development of a new romance, finals, and devoting any spare time to advancing my fantasy bar plan, the stress was beginning to feel heavy. “One-Stop” was the first place I was going to have to talk to a representative from the governement-business-capitalist complex whose world I was trying to infiltrate, a muggle, if you will. As I entered the building, I remember feeling kind of like a spy or burglar. But at least, I didn’t feel like the asshole I normally felt like. However; as I stepped onto the escalator, I felt time stop. The feeling that overwhelmed me was that as long as I was simply riding up this escalator, I didn’t have to do anything else. These escalator rides became dear to me so I never rushed them. Then I got off and was a magic pirate again and proceeded.
I met my first fairy here. I don’t recall his name. He seemed gay. His job seemed worse than working at the DMV because people will kill you if you tell them that the addition they want to put onto their house is eight inches too high and their $15,000 architect should have known that. When he called my number, I tried to sound confident as I explained why I was there. I felt like a child explaining my plan to catch Santa Claus. I wanted to open a bar. I had read the liquor code and recited the necessary geo-political details for the exemption I required. I was wondering if he knew of any areas of South Minneapolis that met those criteria and what applications I should require for opening said bar. He looked at me for a moment, obviously taking in my appearance, which was butch dyke in sweaty cut-off t-shirt and dickies. A widening grin crept across his face. It was not condescending as I feared it might be. It somehow said, yeesss, let me help you shove something large and uncomfortable into city hall’s ass. Or maybe it was completely patronizing and he was just trying not to laugh. Regardless, he pulled up a zoning map on the computer. It did not take long for us to discern from this map that the only appropriate area in South Minneapolis that met my needs was an awkward, semi-industrial area Southwest of the neo-liberal Seward residential neighborhood and just North of the developing East Lake St. commercial corridor.
I knew that area from commuting from my house to the U of M on my bike. It’s filled with short, 30-40 year-old small warehouses built on the ruins of an old rail hub. It’s actually quite accessible by freeway, light rail, and it’s right off the Greenway (one of Minneapolis’ main paved bike thoroughfares). I was confident, looking at that screen that the treasure was hidden there.
After Pi’s demise, many cited location as one of its main detrimental qualities… Thank you for your input. How’s Chicago?
The “One-Stop” fairy also informed me that my fleeting fantasy of converting an old warehouse was financially untenable as the city would require an EPA report and any facility not used previously for food service would have to be brought up to code as if it were a new construction. This introduced two new obstacles. One, we were not going to get out of serving food. This required a “nightclub” exemption which was only possible in specially zoned areas of downtown. (Lesbians were not going to pay for parking). Also, I would have to find a building in my as yet non-existent price range, in the middle of that small area full of old warehouses, that used to be a restaurant or a bar. He also informed me that I would need a location to even start my liquor license application.
I was sure my benevolent invisible forces were watching me walk out of that office in slow motion that day, to face insurmountable odds. 70’s power chords beginning to lay the mood. Back in Black maybe.
A lot happened that summer. I will leave my complicated and uncomfortable romantic debacle largely out of the narrative, mostly to protect the feelings of those involved who have moved on with their lives. Benny and I revealed our plans for the bar at a birthday party in late June. The artistic, hip gayborhood in attendance was enthusiastic and offered their input. This brought a new element of reality to the pursuit and propelled me further down the path. Occasionally, someone who was not at that party would approach me to ask if I needed help with anything. Word was spreading. A collection of expectation and hope was started and everyone seemed to take us seriously. I started to develop charismatic glamoring abilities when I talked to others about my vision, which now included a venue that would provide a space for the many talented visual and performing queer artists that I knew. I just needed to find a space. Oh yeah, and money.
My mother had planned a trip to Yellowstone for the two of us that summer. It was there that my mom informed me that she and my father had inherited $50,000 from my Grandpa Buddy, who had died the summer before. My father wanted me to have it for my future, since they are relatively financially secure. This brings us to part two of my guilt, remembering this story. My parents have always believed in my intellect and potential and have wanted me to succeed professionally. I’m not sure what their visions for me have been, but I’m positive they did not include a queer nightclub. I timidly told my mother about my plan. It made her incredibly uncomfortable, mostly because she thought it was risky as a business owner herself. But I think she might have also doubted the eventual fruition of this crazy scheme. She gave me the money anyway. And again, thank you and I’m sorry is all I can say about that.
In addition to this unexpected seed money, Patricia and I also had a home equity line for an additional $40,000. Then a woman I didn’t know, but apparently had been to one of my Halloween house parties (I have a picture) and was good friends with an acquaintance of mine had heard about the bar and wanted to meet with me about investing.
This is perhaps the most complicated thread of this whole saga and I’m just not going to explain it really. It is the third and last section of my guilty conscience side-plot. My sadness concerning her investment is complicated by anger, but certainly not enough to want to cause her any additional distress. For now, I will simply state that there was a third investor, who wanted to be a part of this. Without her willingness to risk so much and believe in my plan, Pi Bar would have never happened. At least, not in the way it did. Anyone who knows more of this story, including her identity, and has questions or is mad at me can contact me personally. I’d be glad to explain my side of the story.
So, just like that, money unexpectedly appeared. I called a commercial real estate broker and set an appointment. A few days before our meeting, I rode my bike through the weird little Seward industrial dead zone. On a side street, just one block long, I passed an enormous, low-slung, brick building. Judging by the prairie growing in the parking lot, it had been abandoned for some time. I cupped by hands around my face to block out the sunlight as I peered into one of the few windows. I was looking into an office with bent and broken aluminum blinds. There was a for sale sign that had partially fallen out of the window. I called the number on the yellowing sign and got a voice mail for some software company. I thought I had gotten a wrong number, but left a message, nevertheless, explaining my interest in the property and my desperate desire to see inside. I left my phone number.
I probably tried not to look like a total miscreant in preparation for meeting a real-life commercial real estate agent for coffee at Muddy Water’s in Uptown. We sat on their outdoor patio. I tried to patiently listen to his well-informed expertise as he explained to me that most aspiring bar owners can usually expect to search for up to two years to find the perfect property, and can use that time to refine their business plans and secure build-out financing. He was obviously not privy to my other-worldly time-line. I became increasingly anxious as he droned on and was acutely aware that he was not part of this adventure. I nodded in eager agreement to mask my growing impatience in an attempt to politely expedite this dead-end conversation. I even muted an incoming call without looking at my phone so I wouldn’t appear rude.
When I safely on the sidewalk, preparing to unlock my bike to escape this unfruitful encounter, I checked my message. It was the owner of the building I had called about wondering if I had any free time to look at it tomorrow.
Soundtrack changes to Flashdance. What a Feeling. My watchers had sent me a portent of their intentions. I obediently hit redial on my flip-phone.
“Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.” Jose Munoz, CruisingUtopia
I think what is secretly seductive about fictional apocalyptic scenarios, especially ones that involve few survivors, is the allure of fantasizing about the ideal circumstances necessary for all of the horseshit that causes all of our anxiety to be completely erased. I think many start this kind of avoidance therapy early in life. It’s a little like praying for a snowstorm or a minor car accident when you fail to finish your book report the night before it is due. As we mature and our anxiety becomes more complex, so does the fantasy. In the increasingly elaborate best case situation (the one that is obsessively recreated in your mind) all of your friends would survive and your most beloved family members, though because of the state of crisis, all of their disappointment and failed expectations connected to you become meaningless. Debt, financial and emotional, is irrelevant. Your only New Year’s resolution is survival. Dominant regulatory norms for privileged attributes disintegrate. The complex, evolved global systems of oppressive power are reset. Your mother would finally understand your moral priorities and see your true leadership potential.
And, of course, you know you’ll be among the survivors. Because you’re good at surviving. And you think you already understand loneliness and deprivation. And maybe, all the dickheads die. Maybe the aggregate, dark forces of demonic global injustice are scorched and reabsorbed into cosmic dust. Wouldn’t that be dreamy?
Besides just incidentally roughing-out the origins of the Christian faith, I am merely trying to conjure a common state of mind that often accompanies the timeless suffering of just being human, tethered to social and cultural networks and relationships that sustain us and crush us. I think this perverted little end-of-times delusion is a gift of evolution to the human brain meant to temporarily relieve the burden of consciousness. Coming down from a particularly vivid round of daydreaming about a utopic apocalyptic outcome, or your off-the-grid, eat-pray-love Airstream fort can be harsh. Familiar interpersonal cramping sets in, the fit of your shirt reminds you that you haven’t been to the gym in two weeks, while your laundry, bills, and achievement deficiencies line up around your bed in blitz formation. Is it really just another Tuesday? Stupid apocalypse never shows up.
Another, more tangibly destructive way to try to escape your own existence, and one that I chose as a lifestyle, is torching the life you’re in, alienating people who could have cared about you, and hurling yourself at a new potential life, imagining that this time, you’ll be able to stay, and somehow, your own skin will cease being completely uncomfortable. Please keep in mind, anyone caught quoting Confucius (“no matter where you go, there you are”) at this juncture, shall be excluded from surviving the apocalypse in my head.
At the end of the 90’s, the end of my twenties, San Francisco had become uncomfortable. I was exhausted. The city that had been my refuge and my enlightenment, seemed equally exhausted by the 90’s. People were moving away. Some didn’t make it through the decade. The scene was changing, dissolving. Speed-fueled, dirty girl punk shows were morphing into straight-edge, academically-informed riot grrrl shows.
A subtle, but important transition. Heroin was the pace at which the city was now limping into the new century, subduing the exquisite anger that had been its hailing beacon. And, of course, I had sufficiently pissed off most of the people I knew and it was time to go.
I thought it was time to grow up. Certainly my parents were wearied by my lack of maturity. I thought I knew what adulthood should look like and that I should go there. I had lucked into a relationship with a woman who actually seemed to be a perfect match for me. Patricia is one of the smartest people I had met. She was unfailingly caring and supportive. She has lots of rad tattoos and cool fashion, and she actually loved me. I’m sure one may be able to anticipate in this story that I screwed this up as well, but for now, we had been together for almost two years when I had somehow talked her into moving to Minneapolis, where grown-ups have back yards and play board games.
I’m sure Patricia would have happily stayed in San Francisco. She’s one of those people who everyone likes and she can stay at the same job for years and years. Nevertheless, at the end of 1999, we packed all of our stuff onto a moving truck, put our two cats, some clothes, and anything of value (not much) into my 1966 Chrysler 300 and started driving out of San Francisco in the middle of a warm night, at the end of August. We had a difficult time finding a hotel that night because of a beanie-baby convention in Sacramento. We had no jobs, no place to stay, and we knew no one in Minneapolis. Minneapolis had no idea that we were on our way.
mine is white
I wanted to buy a house and have a grown-up job. Actually, I, more accurately, “envisioned” those things more than I’d say I “wanted” them. It’s what my new life looked like in my head. I usually have no idea what I want, or even what that word means. It is important to note that my visions usually come true and there is often unforeseen collateral damage. Yes, I am magic. No, I do not completely understand my powers, but four days after arriving in Minneapolis, we had an apartment and jobs.
We both got jobs working for the Wedge Co-op in their new produce distribution warehouse, Co-op Partners. Patricia still has that job. She does their books. I split my time working in the warehouse, driving a truck for them, and working in the produce department at the Wedge. We had both worked for the same woman-owned, woman-operated, organic produce distributor in San Francisco, so our expertise had extra-fancy liberal credentials. We had the usual, palatable urban and queer confluence of affinities. We were good-tipping, transgressive politics-oriented vegetarians, with tattoos, who liked to drink and smoke. We were the new butch/femme power couple in town.
With our exotic San Francisco mystique, and our charming demeanor, we made friends easily. In March of 2000, we closed on our house. It was a boarded-up, abandoned, 100-year-old mess in a South Minneapolis neighborhood that our new friends cautioned us not to buy in. (The same one that is, fifteen years later, to be the home of the new Seward Co-op, which is likely our fault.) To be fair, neither Patricia nor our realtor wanted us to buy this house either, mostly because of its condition, and maybe the smell, but my visions will not be denied. Patricia made the best of it, as she always did, while I set about acquiring new butch skills, pretending I knew how to fix-up our house.
My intention of becoming a grown-up seemed to be fleshing itself out. The house was becoming functional, though still very much in the style of a 90’s apartment in San Francisco. We had people over. We went out a lot. I became the warehouse manager at Co-op Partners which could be perceived as a real job. Our friends admired the stability of our relationship. We got a dog.
It’s hard to say whether I could have sustained that life, had my brain allowed me to enjoy it. I think lots of people fashion lives by assembling psychologically pleasing bits and baubles of expectations and accessorizing with personal cultural affiliations. Bargains on identities can be found at your local Home Depot, thrift stores, and antique architectural doo-dad establishments. I assume many are content with the identity that occupies their space, how it looks, how it is reflected by their community, their family. Some may even be happy. Some experience ennui. I just always felt like my brain was on fire and my face was melting.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly loved Patricia. I loved our house and our pets and our friends. I wish I trusted psychology more to enlighten me on the demon jamboree that has been banging out maniacal banjo duels in my head for as long as I can remember. I think the destruction began in 2003.
I was fat. That has always been a thing. I hadn’t ever been this big. Since I stopped doing speed in ’98 and started drinking nice beer, I had steadily packed it on. My job was less than satisfying. My boss was the most repugnant, vile person I had ever met. Edward, seriously, you are disgusting. Working for him gave me irritable bowel syndrome. The fact that I had never finished college actually caused me nausea every time I remembered it. I had also started wearing sweaters.
I hated being a grown-up. Patricia hated it too, but I think she was just trying to be supportive. One morning, we were having breakfast at The French Meadow on Lyndale. I had ordered a dish that normally came with poached eggs. I don’t like poached eggs, so I asked that they come scrambled or something. They gave me poached eggs. I spent the next three hours, outside, in my truck sobbing uncontrollably. I think I quit my job the next day.
mmm, scrotum toast
I applied to the University of Minnesota soon after. Because of the many F’s I had collected from dropping out of school twice, I had to go into an individualized degree program through the College of Continuing Education. This actually meant I could take any classes I wanted. I loved it so much. I had it in my head that maybe I wanted to go to grad school, too, so I took a language, Ancient Greek. My heart was actually touched by the beauty of something for the maybe the first time. I ended up with twice as many credits necessary for a degree, with a 3.94 GPA. I don’t know how people finish school in their twenties.
I had also started working out. I rode my bike everywhere. I even started taking yoga at the U. I lost all the weight and was probably in the best shape of my life. I eventually completed a real triathlon.
Patricia and I threw away our sweaters and remembered that we were cool in the 90’s. And even if we were actually nerds by SF standards, Minneapolis didn’t need to know that.
Our social circle also started expanding. We made friends with all the South Minneapolis hipster queers. We started throwing fabulous parties at our house that everybody came to.
Meanwhile, on the other side of my brain…I started spending more and more time at the gym or the coffeshop writing papers, or even sitting by myself on the porch, anywhere but in the house. My familiar, amiable daily suicidal thoughts were showing their more sinister sides. I wanted to run again. I didn’t know why.
That’s the part that torments and mocks your intellect. Compulsive, self-destructive behavior has never been sufficiently explained to me. Psychology can try to carve it up and name a disorder or disease specific to your behavior that is socially unproductive. Religion can talk about attachment as suffering or the seven deadly sins, which are just severe attachments that create hell in your brain. But those explanations are egocentric and diagnostically unsatisfying. We evolve on a much larger scale. Human culture, with its homogenizing nature, is arguably beneficial to tribes with more cohesive cultures, but I think the force of assimilation is also an elegant and cruel metaphysical test of evolution. If you fit in and thrive, it is likely your genes will be passed on, renewing an assimilating model of human. If you are shunned and alienated at a young age, you are given a second and much harder test. Your own brain will start to weed you out of the pack and no one ever suggests it’s a test. Depression may paralyze you and cause your own destruction. You start to believe that you are of no value to your own pack. Your compulsion to escape leads to all sorts of unsavory and dangerous behavior. You may start to have completely obsessive visions propelling you away from anything that makes you happy because you were not meant to be happy. Happy is for those stupid cake-eaters that fit in.
uh-oh thumbs down for nerds
There is a benefit to humanity that you give by running this gauntlet, however. If you make it through, it means you possess magic mutant rainbow unicorn genes and you really are the only hope for any further human evolution. It’s taken me a long time to realize that my torment was just a dare from Mother Nature. You think you’re acting out of desire, but really you’re just picking yourself off, or at least making yourself more vulnerable to predators.
There are many flavors of compulsion. Mine usually took the form of obsessive crushes on pretty straight girls. C’mon butches, back me up. This may seem benign until you start to recognize that the onset of these epic infatuations always seem to coincide with times in your life when you are closest to potential intimacy and stability. The objects of my preoccupation have never been meant to lead to a successful relationship (and never have). I think I have just wanted to win, like any masculine animal brutishly overpowering rivals, while also overcoming the obstacles of my own anatomy, and achieving some bullshit identity whose entitlements I will never really possess. Maybe I subconsciously believe it’s a way to earn my spot in the pack. As an added benefit, these episodes also completely destroy whatever life situation you’re in that was providing some measure of that completely foreign and unwelcome feeling of actual security and accomplishment.
where are her arms?
The first crush I had while I was still with Patricia was on my African History professor, which caused me to fail my final. The second was on my yoga instructor at the U, which resulted in me never being able to return to the athletic center. The third was ultimately fatal to my relationship with Patricia. Patricia was even smart enough to know that I was destroying something that I actually didn’t want to destroy and she wondered what the fuck I was doing. I felt like I was possessed. I felt helpless. I felt like a monster. It took over a year to exhaust Patricia enough to leave. I didn’t realize that I could disappoint myself that much or that I could be that sad, but I could not stop myself from wrecking everything and isolating myself.
The only helpful thing I had done, subconsciously, is back myself into a corner. I couldn’t run. I had a dog and cats. I had a house that was basically a psychic projection of myself. And there were a couple of people I couldn’t live without. One, in particular, I have known in all of my previous lives, and once I recognized him, I couldn’t just leave.
I met Benny Benson within a few months of my arrival in Minneapolis. I was pulling a pallet through the Wedge at 6am. As I passed aisle 4, I saw a new person stocking shelves. I thought to myself, “Shit, that’s cute. Look at that new baby butch who works here.” I introduced myself and asked if I could buy her a coffee. She said no and looked at me like I had poop on my face. Over the next few weeks, I saw little sporty spice roll into the Wedge with a super hot femme girl a few times, which delighted me more than it probably should have. We chatted occasionally at work and we were definitely drawn to one another, but there seemed to an odd barrier to our friendship. Then one night, I was playing in a Euchre tournament at Bar Abeline in Uptown. I saw Benny there with that same pretty girl, but the girl seemed to be on a date with some bio-boy and Benny was wearing blue eye-shadow.
The next day I approached Benny at work, confused, and asked, perhaps a bit too aggressively, “Are you a dyke, or what?” Benny started to kind of choke up and finally said, “I don’t know.” Instantly, I felt all of their pain flood into my own chest and knew it. I knew him. In my teens, I was sent a protector. In my twenties, I was sent a mentor. In my thirties, I was given a brother.
I took him to Cafe Wyrd and we talked about butch stuff and that pretty femme girl he’d had a crush on for years, but never kissed. I got him laid by sending an older woman after him. He still likes to bitch about that. Then over the next few years, Benny started going to gay bars and getting himself laid. He played softball with the lesbians who shave their legs. We didn’t actually hang out that much, except that we were the part of each others lives that remained constant no matter what other dumb shit was going on.
In Early April of 2006, I was in my last semester of coursework at the U. I was in a class called Dissident Sexualities in U.S. History which cast new light on my own history and provided new perspective on the communities I had known in San Francisco. I realized that the queers, in the 90’s, in SF, were special, and that it wasn’t just me that had gotten boring in my ridiculous quest to grow up. Across the nation, the gays were treating fabulous like herpes and liberally applying gay marriage ointment to stop the oozing of awesome. Rich old homos were publicly bitching about drag queens and leather daddies in the Pride Parade because we couldn’t scare the hets anymore if we hoped to be just like them. The Townhouse in St. Paul put a security guard outside the men’s room to check ID’s lest a transman tried to pee in there.
So that’s when the fire started. My marriage was ending. Unbelievable sadness worked with my socially reprehensible behavior to effectively burn all ties to the identity I had been crafting. I couldn’t run away, but I couldn’t find safety. The gays were now crusading for assimilation and vying for membership in the dominant paradigm by burning the heretic queers. Where would the misfits go? Where would I go?
Sanctuary. Apocalypse. Creating the circumstances under which the brutality of cultural norms could be suspended for a time, and not just in my head. In order to find the island of misfit toys, I had to build it. I really could see no other alternative for my life or my tribe.
The next morning, I went into work at Linden Hills Co-op, to stock shelves with Benny Benson. I told him I was opening a bar and I wanted him to be my bar manager. Without hesitation or question, he simply said yes. That was in April of 2006, we were open in February of 2007.
4/20/06 so high
It’s finally time to tell you how Pi Bar happened now that you know why.
His name was Omar, I think. He was probably in his fifties, with a considerable paunch and a greasy, salt and pepper ponytail drooping from the back of a backwards black flat cap. Sitting on a stool, under a dim backdoor lamp, he barely looked at Rhodie Mae’s old military ID and knew I was lying to him. After fondling my tits and pocketing the $10, he opened the door.
Anticipation gave way to panic as I took in the situation. Are these the women I will have to date? Is this what lesbians look like? Grand Central will always remain in my distant memory, the hardest, seediest, stickiest gay bar I have ever encountered. Located in Riverside, California, forever in 1987, it was within fifteen miles of three military bases. The women inside were not just butch, these were bulldaggers. I had never even seen other butches, let alone this rare tribe of government trained militia mullets. Not a femme in sight. I had walked into a prison porn and I was the bad little school girl. At that age, I was very proud of what I thought of as a natural ability in looking like I knew what I was doing. At least, I thought I appeared undaunted. I must have looked ridiculous. I had been to plenty of clubs by the time I was seventeen, but they had been straight, and mostly black. So I was dressed like I was going to an R & B nightclub circa Janet Jackson, Nasty Boys.
I was hellu fly.
I took a seat at the bar, facing the dance floor. I was scanning the room, trying to find someone, anyone I could ask to dance. It was mostly boys dancing. The women were playing pool. I don’t remember how long I sat there. I couldn’t just leave without talking to someone. And then she came in. She was tall and beautiful… and feminine. I watched her for a while as she danced and talked to people. I was trying to gather the courage to ask her to dance. So I finished another Rolling Rock and finally pushed my stool out to get up. I felt a firm, meaty hand grip my left shoulder, keeping me in my place. The voice behind me said, “Sit down son, that’s a man.”
The butch’s name was Yoli. She laughed warmly and put her arm around me. She took me into the bathroom and gave me a line, then spent the rest of the night playing pool with me. That was my first time in a gay bar. It was only a week or two since I found out they existed, that there were other gay people and they had their own bars.
I had already had my first girlfriend a full year before I ever found out there was a whole big, gay world out there. We played softball together. She played center field and I was the catcher. The summer after our sophomore year, we spent every day together until it dramatically turned to more while “wrestling” one day. Our teenage passion went Thelma and Louise the night her mom found out and beat her. We ran away for about two weeks to San Francisco, a ten-hour greyhound ride away, because we had heard that’s where the gays went. We didn’t find any. We spent most of our time in the bus station bathroom, fighting because I didn’t want us to turn tricks. We came home to even more drama. Our romance ended the night her mom told me to kill myself and I swallowed two bottles of sleeping pills in her backyard. After finally being rushed to the hospital and having my stomach pumped, my parents put me in a locked mental health facility for two and a half months. It would be over twenty years until I communicated with her again. Upon my return to high school, I found that everyone had known where I had been and what I was. My girlfriend had to switch highschools, a merciful option not open to me. My mother does not accept punking out, not even from hell. My high school was in a podunk shithole called Apple Valley, California, about thirty miles south of Barstow, a larger shithole in the middle of the Southern California desert. These were communities founded by people just wanting to escape the growing diversity of culture in Los Angeles, so they could do some seriously creepy, ignorant shit out in the middle of nowhere. I even got kicked out of high school sports for being a lesbian. The irony of that would not become hilarious for some time.
I had actually been running away for years, but I was usually home in time for dinner. When I was eleven, we lived in a suburb of Phoenix, I started calling real estate agents about listings for land in the Sedona woods. I had this idea that I could live in a tent and work at Burger King or something. I just knew that my presence in the suburban landscape was more mutually corrosive than even The Breakfast Club could hope to portray. I would hop trains and hitchhike home as a day trip. I had a whole life only strangers knew about. My parents are dynamic, successful people and I am their only progeny. I was smart and strong and powerful, but I was not of their people. Growing up in the suburbs, doesn’t matter which one, you grow up in the dominant American model. It has a way of completely obscuring everything else. Nobody tells you about the other worlds that have been excluded from yours. They think there is no logical reason you would want an alternative, except that if you don’t fit in, they also have a way of squeezing you out like a zit on the nose of their pasty, doughy face. I made a habit of flinging myself at the nearest passing exoticism that caught my eye. Any misfit or marginalized individual was automatically my friend. I felt duty-bound to protect them from the injustice of the culture that had forged me, like so many young, bleeding hearts. It didn’t take me long to understand my relative privilege. I tried to minimize it. At that time, it didn’t make any sense to my parents or me for that matter, that I seemed to be rejecting my world of relative comfort and future social and economic certainty. I also felt unworthy of the pain I was in because I was smart and not unattractive and white. My secret life was my problem and I was the only shameful, slutty, chubby, oddly-masculine homo to blame. You know those white suburban kids with dreads or cornrows that inflect their speech with poser gangster rapper? They are being expelled by their own culture, or at least, that’s what they think. It is a completely unsympathetic behavior pattern, I will not deny. Kids are kinda dumb though and struggling for identity, all of them. I’m positive I’m also guilty of some youthful, idiotic cultural appropriation, but mostly, I tried to keep my mouth shut and learn. I had basically three tiers of existence. The person I was at home, the person I was with my school friends, and the no one I was when I was with strangers. I got to know some people who lived in the shadows. I knew lots of people who avoided the shadows. People told me their secrets because I was always just traveling through and I had become very adept at being whoever someone needed me to be, regardless of how ignorant I was of the actual experiences of individuals coming from non-dominant American cultures. I think of this as “cultural dysphoria”, easily as prominent and problematic as its distant, gender related cousin, but wholly more potentially offensive, philosophically and emotionally. Optimistically, someone born into some amount of privilege may develop a richer empathy with a broader world if one’s implicit social power is kept uncomfortably lodged up one’s ass like a weathered fencepost, reminding one, with each shift of body weight, of the humility of individual existence and the guilt-informed honor of personal accountability.
I spent most of my time feeling inauthentic, wondering if I was a sociopath. I understood emotions logically, as theatric apparel, and performed them on cue. My own private sadness and anger felt inappropriate and indulgent. Looking back at how my own values were formed and how my physicality developed, I have come to believe that those who grow up in substantial existential conflict with their surrounding cultural expectations and norms, have a predilection toward various forms of sorcery later in life. Of course, this is frequently offset by wildly self-destructive behavior patterns and a profound skepticism concerning the legitimacy of human intimacy and trust, but we’re fun at parties. Cultural outlaws tend to be drawn toward the mysticism of the human condition, while secretly clinging to the belief that their own uniqueness may very well change the world. Because, when everything you do and feel is wrong, a natural reaction might reasonably be to make up a world where you’re right. And while live-action role-playing games serve many thousands of the misunderstood, I believe there are also other kinds of weirdos who may eventually confront the need to suddenly and violently invert their interminable self-hating inner narrative with a substantive attempt to reveal to the world that, actually, it’s you world, that’s wrong, not me. Is there a way an individual can become completely unhinged, productively?
Mercifully, once a decade, I was sent a sort of shamanic guide in the guise of a best friend. Their authenticity and strength as people in the world lent a transcendent quality to their characters, like yoda. In my teens, through high school, this was GeeGee Hayes. While calmly disregarding my existential flailing, she seamlessly transitioned from being the girl who took me to the NCO Club at George Air Force Base, which is basically a bar out of normal jurisdiction that served underaged girls so they would “entertain” soldiers, to being my personal bodyguard who walked with me between each class at Apple Valley High, psychologically slamming any potential threat against the wall before they said one word. Being certainly the toughest one of the five black people out of three-thousand at my high school, she was also from Los Angeles, and had allegedly shot some guy at a public pool when she was twelve. She is important to this story because she protected me. She taught me that I wasn’t as smart and privileged as I thought I was and that, as an outcast of sorts, I would need to become much, much tougher and more resilient.
At my mother’s insistence, and with Gee’s help, I finished high school.
After a few years of college at Cal Poly Pomona and a few more girlfriends, I moved with one of them to San Francisco. This time I found the gays. It was 1991. I was 21. I was still naive, and still a nerd, but the difference between LA lesbians and SF dykes was revolutionary. Within three months of arriving, I had shaved my head, gained thirty pounds, and purged my wardrobe of all pastels. My gender narrative had me cultivating the blue-collar, truck-driving, pretty-girl wrangling butch dip-shittery. While my outsider, culture-deprived, Opie-turned-white-trash Rizzo side had me awestruck with the cornucopia of transgressive freakdom San Francisco had to offer. San Francisco was once where all the disaffected, small town expatriates landed. Everybody who just could not make it work where they were and managed to find passage, found some kind of refuge there, a collaborative din of the damaged.
It is hard to say whether my fledgling butch identity merely morphed to compliment each new girlfriend or if the hollowness of each new apparition just pitifully begged for somatic legitimacy from the eyes of a new lover. Regardless, I hurt a lot of people. Twenty years later, there are probably still a handful that would not talk to me if we ran into each other on the street. I was cute for the very first time in my life, and apparently, this was too much power for me to handle. I simply experienced this as a blur of chaotic compulsion, untethered to any intimate connection or sense of self. I was a cocky and selfish and ill-equipped to make better of the cacophonous, kaleidoscopic upheaval that was San Francisco in the 1990’s. I didn’t even know it was special until years later. If Dominant Culture wages war within each new psyche, this decade, in this place gave space for riot. Whenever briefly unoccupied with my own defense, if the veils of shame and penitence fluttered aside, stunning gestures of coup found my spine.
The 90’s also gave me Pally.
backward baseball cap in the middle.
Pally was completely unimpressed with my swagger. She thought my girlfriend collection was dumb. It’s like she could actually see a person past the facade and seemed to like me. Gee was my protector, Pally was my guide, a mentor of sorts. She taught me things by laughing at me, and thereby somehow illuminating the folly of so many of my attachments to norms of propriety and appearance. She taught me about rock and roll. She taught me about drugs. And there may have been some sex, in that Ancient Greek kinda way. I had a reverence for Pally, still do. I watched the way she saw people and aspired to her instincts. She helped the world seem less intimidating by showing me that it was just full of people. She even introduced me to my first wife, or more precisely, told us to date each other instead of both being in love with her, which we did, and it was a really good thing, for a really long time.
It’s so hard to sort out which stories to tell, that are truly relevant to the story of Pi, which is the story I intended to tell. I think they are all important to the story, but perhaps most important to reading the story is just enough to make it about everyone. My first time in a gay bar, the damage of the eighties, the dissent of the nineties, my personal flaws and struggles, and the significance of a couple of relationships are all part of an identifiable path. I ran away again to Minnesota at the end of 1999. I found my tent in the woods in an abandoned VFW in South Minneapolis, surrounded by runaways. I probably would have made more money working for Burger King…
Make a peace sign with both hands, facing yourself.
Turn both sets of fingers toward each other, turning the right hand counterclockwise a quarter turn and smash the crotch of each finger scissor together as if mimicking two women smashing vulvas in mid-air as a viable sex act.
Now, affect a look of condescending befuddlement and repeat this motion over and over while asking your hot, femme girlfriend, in the presence of her hot, femme ex-girlfriend, “What did you two used to do together?”
Two things: A, number one, this actually happened. A butch dyke I know, in her thirties, who does not otherwise seem mentally deficient actually said and did this in front two beautiful, intelligent, queer, femme women…relatively recently.
B, number two, if you didn’t notice that the tip of my left index finger is amputated (caught in the lift-gate of a truck) and that my right middle finger is permanently crooked and gnarled (played too much softball and basketball), go back and check out how butch I am.
Is there anything hotter than a butch? Our insecurities, neediness, jealousy, infidelity, mood swings, and digestive problems are irresistible in the right black t-shirt. Don’t forget our giant dyke ass trying to get into some boy jeans. Seriously, how do we ever get laid? Chicks fucking dig us, that’s how.
See what I did there…talking about ‘chicks’ as if I wasn’t one. Butches do that. We get to do a lot of shit that cisboys wish they could. When my current girlfriend has dated men, she dated tall, thin, good-looking, well-behaved, sensitive men who respected her boundaries and were good in bed. On the other hand, the butches she’s dated have been a variety of short, fat, awkward, crass, demanding, ill-behaved, or bad in bed, and she’s totally hooked. Mostly on me, cuz I’m the king.
I’m what you might consider to be a “classic butch”. All other butch types are derivative of this model. Younger butches nowadays often opt out of this category, I imagine because of its highly demanding skill set requirements and the fact that you can’t smoke in bars anymore. As a paradigm, we of the “classic” tribe are proud, epic caricatures unto ourselves. We invented the nod, the swagger, and the smirk. As the most ridiculous of all lesbian stereotypes, we also suffer and display, most acutely, the common and highly annoying symptoms of what I commonly refer to as the Butch Syndrome. Though I’m positive I did not coin this term, I am confident of my expert insight into butch dumbassery. Let us speak now in sweeping generalizations for comic effect.
The following list of symptoms and anti-social behaviors is not meant to be exhaustive nor all-encompassing. It is intended to be a helpful diagnostic tool for exasperated femmes and egomaniacal, self-centered douchebags who consider themselves butch.
then I am yours, my lady
Obsession with straight girls. (Can lead to stalking, bad poetry, lifting objects that are far too heavy for you, and many failed gay marriages.) This is just a sad, sad story. Butches embody, perform, and present masculinity every day. We have striven to perfect that masculinity despite parental objection, relentless ritual public emasculation, and a lifetime of tiny little heartbreaks every time we think about that pretty girl we will never have (which is roughly 5000 times a day if you have a crush.) Classic butches are usually really good at being boys by an early age. We are often better at being boys than the boys. Then boys hit puberty and gain height and strength, while we get tits and ass, and then a dark, mocking hate moves in and takes up half of our intestines for the rest of our life. Despite all of this, butches cannot help getting crushes on inaccessible cute little girls. My first was Deborah Hansen in kindergarten. She was the prettiest and smallest girl in school. I would protect her from the boys, and carry her stuff, and be her confidant. She was the first in a very long line of pretty straight girls to utter these six soul-crushing words to me, “I wish you were a boy.” Sad face. Here’s the thing. I think there are a variety of modes of attraction in life. There’s the kind when somebody smells like you want to shove your ovaries in their vagina, the kind no one talks about that makes you feel like a dirty, dirty whore, and the most common kind for butches and probably for everyone, the one that makes you feel like the person you want to be. This one starts before puberty when we are all newly cultivating our little gender identities. We are learning our cultural paradigms of gender, power, and relationships just like our ABC’s and we are exposed to a staggering array of gender acquisition stimuli. By four or five, we know about marriage and courtship and romance and that it is supposed to happen for a boy and a girl. The girls love us butches, especially, though. Our fresh, earnest, awkward masculinity is completely endearing to an overly objectified pretty straight girl. It actually seems more authentic. We are often the alphas in our pack and not nearly as tedious as boys with penises. (This continues into adulthood.) But they also understand that we are not appropriate public mates. So they love to play house with us and make us their secret, fake boyfriends (also as adults). In private, we are the fairy tale, the star-crossed archetypes. Both parties are happy to contribute to this mutually delusional made-for-TV dramatic mini-series. Come on boys, you know you’ve done some cheesy-ass shit for some pretty, pretty straight girl. We are the boyfriends with no flaws, except for that one tiny void between our legs. Even at an early age all the way to an embarrassing maturity, you know how this is going to end. While you are wooing her, you feel like the hero, the epitome of masculinity. It is an identity suspended in time and space, and a great way to avoid anything that would be healthy for your self-esteem. This is a diagnostically common way to cope with the cosmic injustice that is our gender nightmare. I think, even as a kid, we realize that we aren’t going to get the same human perks as the dominant paradigm, no matter how adept we are at the assimilation of it. I think our identity fractures into the person we have to be for our parents, the person we have to be so we won’t get beat up, and sometimes for a few blissful weeks, months, even years, we are the person who fights the good fight, often in the name of our beautiful princess. Kids pretend that they are superheroes all the time. Butches just get to do it our whole life. With a straight girl, we get to beat the boy for the affections of the girl that still wishes we were a boy. It’s a sick, self-hating, delicious fetish that we cannot resist. We nurture our martyr complexes, secretly learn how to fix things, do tricks, and bake their favorite cupcakes. We study their dream men and perfect our affectation of just that. How many of you live for that moment when she looks at you like you’re a fucking wizard because you included her favorite, obscure song on a mixed tape? Duh, you overheard her telling her friends that when you were skulking around the corner like a crazy person. You are hers to use, to torture, to disappoint. You will crawl through dog shit to bring her a latte (soy, most likely). If she doesn’t leave you in a couple weeks for some hairy, smelly vegan cisboy that sometimes feels guilty about getting a blow job, your identity will eventually start to feel flat, the magic bubble pops. You even may start to feel quite resentful that she has come to expect you to do all the chores, pay for everything, and be ok that she never wants to have sex with you anymore, even though that’s the way you set it up with all your martyr bullshit, dumbass…and then… what’s that? Is that another damsel in distress? This brings me to…
Serial Monogamy. (Can lead to extensive and complicated community shunning, sustaining physical injuries or property damage, loss of cars, great apartments, beloved pets, and favorite sex toys, also fantasies of sudden death or living alone in the woods forever just to avoid breaking up with yet another person.) You can prattle on to me all you want about some new-fangled polyamorous genderqueer disturbance in the normative gender binary within the queer universe, but I have yet to see any significant decline in cliches and impulsive commitment decisions. Serial monogamy is an embarrassing lesbian punch-line on par with softball and mullets. Though the appearance of mullets is largely ironic nowadays, (except for that exotic older subset of butches who own Honda Viragos and all kinda look like Steven Tyler from Aerosmith) we will never completely rid ourselves of dykes who wear their white visors upside-down or our proverbial U-hauls. I did four minutes of google research on the topic and it was mostly articles on how this is becoming the norm for straight couples, too, and perhaps it’s logical to think we are evolving past traditional monogamy enough to see that there’s more than just one soulmate for everyone, and we’re reconciling our animal instincts to have multiple sexual partners with the societal courtesy of monogamy, and blahblah more poopywords. Serial monogamy happens, especially for butches, because we, more than cismen, strive to perfect an ideal of masculinity. Stay with me. When we are developing our young gender identities, we do not merely emulate, we absorb and begin to embody an amalgam of a wide array of masculine archetypes, characteristics, body language, and eccentricities. I think, because we learn early that we are not going to get to be normal boys, we commonly respond by stoically accepting the challenge to outdo boys in all conceivable categories. It’s why we’re so good at shit. Impressing girls and humiliating boys is what we do. We are also not tethered to normal boy rules. We just get to go ahead and be a character from middle earth. As such, honor is very important to us…as an ideal. And that is because, that is what makes us a knight. Along with this honor thing is that whole marriage obsession that is really one of the cornerstones of Western ideology. We do not have a choice in the models that inform our formation. Plus (see symptom #1) we are instantly devoted to the person that makes us feel like the manly superhero we aspire to be. Often, it is a pretty feminine girl, the rights to whom we would like possess as soon as possible, who is working out her own gender perfection issues with us. Then…omg can’t stop touching your vagina…camping…meeting family…cats…furniture building…new clothes…new dietary restrictions that you pretend you always had…more cats…you’ve built your hobbit hole in the shire. You all know what that feels like, the high of summer camp sorcery, the utopia of gender perfection. Obviously, this is not sustainable. But the “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup is exceptionally valid for the butch. The torture of realizing that you cannot keep up the completely magical combination of your dad, Danny Zucco, Gimli the Dwarf, and your dad, that the love of your life made you feel like at the beginning, is almost as intense as your obsession with the new chick that makes you feel like a better version of your dad, Bo Duke, Angus Young, and maybe, your dad’s dad.
me and my dad
It is a fragile psychological barrier you have erected against any understanding of your own human needs that were never met by any culturally ordained model of entitlement. You end up not knowing what you want or who you are, except that you are really good at being cocky and awesome and making promises that you can’t keep.
Saying and doing inexplicably misogynistic, racist, classist, and generally stupid things. (Can lead to lesbian Republicans…should lead to its own reality TV channel.) What do you call two butches making out? Fags. What do you call two femmes making out? Sweet. This might be a more benign, drunken encounter with a butch. Might have been me. Our masculinity is assembled and internalized from the available dominant models of masculinity. Dominant American culture provides an endless variety of templates for dumass dude. Neither one’s life experience as a vagina owner, nor membership in a queer subculture will automatically cleanse your gender performances of stupidity. Humorous, horrifying, or just confusing, the irony is always thick and deep like an imaginary penis humping the disbelief in our masculinity into submission. There’s the common dumb frat boy butch feigning ignorance of lesbian sex, “but who puts it in?” There’s the double, secret irony of the butch softball dyke who has a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on her truck and shaves her legs. There’s the high-powered, creepiness of a rich butch on the national board of the HRC who once bragged to me, “I used to sell land mines for a living. Mother Theresa used to be my competition.” There’s the butch who owns one of the only gay clubs in the Twin Cities where lesbians go in large numbers who said that she’d rather just have gay men there and has actually placed security outside the men’s room door to check the gender on ID’s before allowing/denying access. There’s the terrifying former owner of another lesbian bar in the area, one whose customer base was largely people of color. She once gave me the advice as a new queer bar owner, when I was developing a night to attract more people of color, “You don’t want those jungle bunnies in here.” It’s enough to make me want to hang out with straight people. When a cisdude says something offensive, you immediately know you can just punch him. When dykes do it, it takes too long to pick the slimy layer of assumed solidarity off of your face and most often you just bumble off wondering if you heard them right. You did. Tell them they throw like a girl and punch them in the vagina.
Affinity for creating fashion after the style of boy bands, mythical warriors, muppets, or science fiction characters. (Can lead to fuck yeah, I fuckin’ rocked that shit.) We all know about dyke fashion. It’s amazing and ridiculous and so terrible that it’s hot, to someone we hope. We aren’t fabulous like gay boys. We are scary and mythical. We must intimidate through bewilderment and woo with total dedication to our fantastic facade. Our ability to completely replicate a current, popular men’s fashion is often limited by less than masculine, unavoidable curves. Besides the fact, as has been mentioned, we are actually superheroes, denied the conventional choices of normativity. It’s your fault world, that we look the way we do. I found so many examples of epic butchness on the internet. I couldn’t use them, because it felt ishy. So these are of me. I don’t have any of me in an abercrombie and fitch t-shirt with a faux hawk made out of bad highlights, but it still might happen. You can always send me one of you.
those are bolo ties
I don’t know if I can go on being this hot.
Ewoks are charming.
I picked you this tiny flower.
5. Intestinal difficulties or stomach problems. This is merely anecdotal, but have you ever noticed how most butches have some sort of digestive issues? Just saying. Could be that being butch causes anxiety.
I’ve been pretty harsh on butches today. These are my faults. I’ve spent most of my days wondering how I can continue to make the same mistakes, be such an idiot. I’ve also spent most days trying not fantasize about dying. My self-destructive behavior patterns are comfortable companions. I have lost friends, communities, support, and hurt people I truly care about. Coping with a non-normative gender manifestation is hard. When such an integral part of your identity disappoints your parents, alienates peers, confuses and terrifies potential love interests, and causes you to hate your own body, it’s hard to not just want to disappear. Butches find way inspiring ways around that. Our overcompensation does often lead us to be renaissance men. We can fix things and build things. We can often cook, bake, and sew. We are often artistic, sensitive, and intuitive from a lifetime of having to read people so carefully to know where we stand. We have developed real courage. We are often funny. We can be fiercely loyal and loving. We are capable of deep intimacy if you can convince us we deserve it. Sometimes, our piggy banter is charming. We can have successful relationships, I think, if we find a place of safety even when our facade crumbles, even when we’re naked. We are incredible at spacial organization and helping people move. And most of us are happy looking like handsome gas station attendants, unless we’re being fancy. We are better at being boys. We always have been. To straight girls that I’ve dated, who are now married to men, I’m sorry I was too awesome. To queer femmes, that are amazing in every way, that I might have been real, real stupid around, sorry fam, my bad. To young butches, who don’t want to call yourself butch, your music sucks and I don’t understand your hair. Download entire Lunachick library immediately. Also, please smoke a cigarette and buy a motorcycle. I think I’m ready to ride a horse.
She can dance
She can sing
She can do most anything
She is the jerk the jerk of all trades
She can build
She can fight
She can bust out your light
She is the jerk the jerk of all trades
Never ever ever ever underestimate
She will kill you kill you with her hate
She is the jerk the jerk of all trades
She can write
She can pose
She can punch you in your nose!
“Nay, even in the life of the same individual there is succession and not absolute unity: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval between youth and age, and in which every animal is said to have life and identity, he is undergoing a perpetual process of loss and reparation.” Plato, Symposium (207d-208d)
The self is always coming into being. That is the actual verb. (Yes, I did study ancient Greek.) In this quote, Plato (in the voice of Socrates) points out our common perception that identity and sense of self is commonly considered consistent or that there is some abiding authenticity that is as real as our physical being, that we are the same living being throughout our life. (The translation of “identity” is literally “to be oneself”). He is also identifying a “perpetual process of loss and reparation” – that it is the nature of our mortal existence that we experience continual damage that we (by our own physical and psychic abilities) resist in our inclination to repair and survive. Thusly, we are always in a process of coming into being, including our own identity as self-perception and an actor in the world. It seems illogical at times, how fiercely we struggle for consistency of identity considering the social disadvantage that occasionally that defiance can produce. Self-destructive impulses, fetishes, obsessions, and secret dark personalities co-exist and co-manage with our highest aspirations, heartfelt intimacies, and loves to consolidate and approximate a person. We begin to depend upon who we think we are at a very early age. A lifetime of submission or resistance to our experience constantly recreates our dependent attachment to our identity which gives the effect of a consistent identity while actually always changing.
What are the possibilities and restrictions on who we can be? How is it that we can look back to our earliest remembered experiences and see ourselves, already working with a set of skills, perceptions, and behaviors that we still utilize in adulthood when so much of our plot has yet to unfold? It is logical, if we are products of adaptive evolution, that we as individuals are creatures of an adaptive nature. It’s what we do. It also seems reasonable that the process of evolution has equipped us, at birth, with certain mental and physical capacities that allow our own unique interaction with our own singular environment. How much of our “identity” as an individual is cultivated as we adapt, even as infants and how much is who we were meant to be or born to be? Babies, while they are learning their language of origin are also learning the social and cultural relationships of power and gender that are simply another aspect of social communication. They become fluent in both by an early age. Have you ever experienced a two-year old lying? No one teaches a child how to lie, which makes this spontaneous competence in the manipulation of language and power seem a little eerie even if they’re not good at it. I think the potential for success as a human organism must have a biological component that we all come with. Little kids do all kinds of things that no one teaches them. We have the ability to create utilizing the rules we’ve been given. We have all inherited an evolutionarily engineered, bio-neurological glob of ability to ascertain and utilize an astonishingly complex matrix of flexible and restrictive rules of language and human relationships that are completely unique to one’s environment of infancy and early childhood. There are rules of gender just like grammar that we must master if we are to be a participant in our world. Our infant genitals determine our starting point on the local game board, but we all pick up on the rules for the other players, too. If the genitals are so important to the game, how does anyone get it wrong? The only difference, I think, between a little human, born with a penis who acts like a boy by the time he’s five and a little human, born with a vagina who acts like a boy by the time she’s five is that the latter has advanced mutant, unicorn genes that allow her more interpretive creativity. They both have learned correctly how a little boy is supposed to act.
I was a pretty big kid. I was 9 pounds at birth. By the time I was 2, I was 45 pounds. I entered kindergarten at 75 and was at least a foot taller than any of my classmates. I have theories about my size, mostly having to do with my body actually physically responding to an inner adaptive urgency to expedite self-sufficiency. Regardless of the cause, my size was part of my inner narrative by the time I got to school. I felt both alien and special, self-conscious and powerful. I knew I was different and that I was certainly not like other little girls, nor was I invited to play in the reindeer games of boys (unless my size and strength was required to vanquish an enemy). I was Ferdinand the Bull instead of a bully, but had a sense of responsibility associated with my superior strength and intellect. Little kids would come to me for protection. In this way, my size augmented my unusual gender expression. If I was invited to a slumber party with girls, I was the one who slept by the door to protect the rest of the girls. The boys, at recess, actually invented a unique game which was basically to see how many boys it would take to tackle me. My physicality made me masculine and it had its own genre of positive feedback in the form of a specialized outsider power in my social group. I think I was an alpha before I was a boy. But, power and masculinity are associated at an early stage in development. Kids know your gender and relative social position better than you do usually, especially apart from the gaze of grown-ups, who have an additional set of expectations. Children understand the language of gender and power long before they learn irregular semantic structure and socially established contradictions in values of gender and power.
In first grade, it was my turn for ‘show and tell’ which was terrifying for me. I had gone to some carnival with my parents and won a doll, I think for throwing a ball at something. I was more proud about winning than of the doll, but my mother suggested that I take the doll for show and tell. She also put me in a dress with ribbons in my hair. I remember being apprehensive, but even at that age, one has an understanding that it should be alright to have and display gender appropriate clothes and possessions, even though it is uncomfortable and you don’t know why. And of course, there’s mom’s face while she is trying to make her big scary unicorn into a pretty girl. She thinks I’m pretty, but I could see her discomfort at wondering why it feels peculiar to dress me this way. But we proceed through the apprehension, which evolves into our interminable collaborative routine of awkwardness and conflict, and I go to school. The teacher calls me up with my doll. She looks nervous, too. Even before I get out my story about how I knocked down the thing with the thing, all of the boys are shitting themselves laughing at me. The girls are giggling, too, but with a look of “oooh, I thought we were clear about you not doing things that we do.” Of course I run out of the room crying. I remember a sadness that was like mourning a loss associated with not being able to be like other girls. Even though I really never tried, it was an expectation that I could not meet and there was nothing more debilitating to me than disappointing my parents. There was definitely a felt deficiency related to the possibility of being like other girls that was also externally enforced. I don’t like being bad at things, even things I don’t want to do. I also remember a deep and clear anger after my first profound experience of public emasculation. I would never get to be a boy either. I was big and strong and good at sports. Other kids looked to me for protection and I was always among the first to be chosen for teams in P.E. That was my source of control and power in my social environment and even though it could be isolating, it enabled a sense of status in its eccentricity. It also made me good at being a boy. All at once, I knew others would always have inexplicable expectations on my masculinity, but I would never enjoy any of the entitlements of maleness. So mad, so, so mad.
How does this happen? How does a person, born with a vagina excel at acting like a boy by the time they even encounter an institutionalized peer group like day care or kindergarten? Why does a little gender queer continue to refine their non-normative gender expression even after they figure out that it pisses everyone off and it’s not going to help you get laid anytime soon? Some say we are born this way. There seems to be a common belief that one’s soul is gendered and one may be born into the wrong body. What this belief does is attempt to shift agency and thereby, a judgement of culpability away from the individual, allowing a possibility for social empathy and access to mental health care. If an individual’s gender expression is somehow innate, commonly contrasted with behavioral, it is somehow more understandable and forgivable, for the individual as well as everyone else. But, do we really want to make the argument that naturalized gender exists? Do we really want to go back in time and tell Simone de Beauvoir that yes, actually one is born a woman. Within the discourses of resistance to hegemonic social paradigms, the assertion that gender roles are socially constructed, is effective precisely because dominant heteronormative gender roles are fucked up, but seem timeless and pre-ordained. To proclaim them artificially made and imposed is to disempower them and reveal their artifice. This opens the possibility of social change in the relative power relationship and acceptable characteristics associated with prescribed gender roles. Though this only really happens at a glacial pace, it is an important rhetorical weapon for ongoing feminist deconstruction. However, for the gender defiant, like this transman, the idea that gender is merely a mutable social construct is initially unsettling on a personal level and leaves the transgender community politically vulnerable to a host of philosophical attacks on our authenticity – from liberal gays to conservative straights. Are we ridiculous children playing dress-up? Can we be “rehabilitated”? Are transmen assimilating an oppressive norm that harms the rest of the queer community? Gender is such a dangerous thing to fuck with because it is so foundational to all of our identities. There must be a way to reconcile these two divergent, yet philosophically important assertions. Gender is constructed, yet it is somehow real and important. It is essential to the way we move, and feel, and fuck, and love…but we shouldn’t take it so seriously.
Judith Butler is a classic rock star in this effort.
“Bound to seek recognition of its own existence in categories, terms, and names that are not of its own making, the subject seeks the sign of its own existence outside itself, in a discourse that is at once dominant and indifferent. Social categories signify subordination and existence at once. In other words, within subjection the price of existence is subordination.” ― Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection
Judy is so smart. Damn, I really wish I could sound that smart. An individual is “bound”, meaning obligated, to look for itself in the relational structures and language it has learned. These structures are “dominant” and “indifferent”. They were here before you and they’ll be here after you. Our identity is relational. We are social animals. Our identity, our “existence”, is continually reaffirmed or denied by our social environment. Our subordination is inescapable. We “seek” recognition as a boy or a girl, which is just a category, but our existence hinges on one or the other. Genderqueer is of course a category, but essentially an unintelligible category in most cultural paradigms. This is why I’ve spent most of my life in tiny, insular urban queer communities. We don’t like to think of ourselves as subordinate. We like to think we are originals, but we are merely a unique amalgam of pre-established social categories. Even our eccentricity is dependent on norms for its charm to be possible. It is important to realize also that this “subordination”, though inflammatory as a word choice, suggests the obligatory nature of gender that we commonly appeal to in the “born this way” argument.
Gender is “a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief” – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Judy makes so much sense she makes me nervous. I think she intentionally uses language that belittles and mocks human experience. As she should, humans are ridiculous. The ones with the most power are often additionally assholes. She is making the point that not only is gender a social construction, but we are all also brainwashed to believe in it. That’s a great point. That’s an extremely uncomfortable point. Is she adding enough subconscious obligation to one’s gender role for a transman to feel like he’s not just playing house? Is she allowing enough agency for social transgression? I think Judith Butler is certainly smart enough to understand her project. I have often thought, though, as an academic, that she may be a little inexperienced when it comes to the weirdos. What does Judith Butler know about punk rock? This is what I want to know.
Noam Chomsky is a linguist, among other things. I once took a beginning linguistics class. They discussed his theory of deep structure or deep grammar. It is about a child’s acquisition of language. He theorized that a child is born with a hard-wired language template in place that merely plugs in the idiosyncratic features of the particular language they are exposed to. Evidence for this comes from children making mistakes like “I swimmed yesterday” instead of “I swam yesterday.” They understand the grammar rule that tells them to put an “-ed” on the end of a verb to indicate past-tense, but they have not mastered the irregular verb forms yet. When I heard this theory for the first time, it was a moment of epiphany for me concerning gender, even though nobody else seems to share my enthusiasm. Language acquisition cannot be detached from the rest of the communication skills we acquire. Social power dynamics and gender relationships must be included in total cultural proficiency. I am not the first to point this out. Judith Butler draws on linguistics, and indeed, Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition theory sounds eerily like Butler’s performativity thirty years earlier…at least in my head. Though Chomsky seems to have a sense of delight and wonder at human possibility, where I think Butler seems deeply disappointed in the human condition.
“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied…We thus make a fundamental distinction between the competence (the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations)…The most striking aspect of linguistic competence is what we may call the ‘creativity of language,’ that is, the speaker’s abilityto produce new sentences, sentences that are immediately understood by other speakers although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are ‘familiar.'” -Noam Chomsky
So language, like normative gender roles, have rules which are fixed when we learn them. He makes a distinction between competence and performance. I think we more consciously choose our words than go to the closet and choose our gender, but trying to come up with an entirely original gender would be like me trying to spontaneously speak Martian. Once you are past puberty, it’s becomes increasingly difficult for a human to learn a new language. Actually, it starts becoming incrementally harder past the age of around four. So, my only reason for bringing this up is to say that maybe we don’t start out as a particular gender, just like we don’t speak a particular language when we’re born. We learn the rules of our native language and social dynamics and we don’t learn them wrong. In our mind, we correctly place ourselves within the matrix of social power and by the time we get to kindergarten, it’s too late to change it even after we figured out that everybody else thinks we’re wrong, or when we “produce new sentences…that are immediately understood…although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are familiar.” We are constrained to our own native grammatical laws and the gender dynamics we were taught, but our process of “free creation” can lead to unique performances, like poetry, especially as we further our mastery of the rules.
Often, the whole transgender discourse revolves around a very strict, non-feminist gender binary. The rigid pronoun insistence is exactly in opposition to the feminist effort to make pronouns inclusive or neutral thirty years ago. There is an actual experience as transgender that seems richer than the experience of cispeople. It is a gift of dysphoria. This word is also Greek. It means difficult to bear. It is often commonly used to indicate profound confusion or hallucination, but it is deep adversity. It has a passive sense which is to be born (carried) violently as if by a storm. Those are powered gendered norms that we are subordinate to which toss us about and are painful to bear. But, I am grateful to have been in the storm.
I occasionally experience a little melancholy or longing nostalgia when I think about my transition. I look like a man. For forty years of my life, I looked like a freak. That was my performance. Being a dude is less exhausting, but less fabulous in a way. It’s nuances like this that I don’t think academics understand fully. They only know about the non-normative narratives they’ve read about and happened ten years ago. They don’t know what it feels like to be a gangster. (Damn, it feels good, btw.) Academia is a locus of dominant power arbitration. There are many a treatise about what it means to write post-colonial theory in a squarely colonial institution. I don’t know if I can go back. Harvard almost killed me with its smiley-faced normativity. But now I’m a balding white dude, so I think gangster’s out too. I’m blogging.
By far, the most brilliant philosopher on the subject of the way I feel about gender is John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the most amazing movie in the history of the universe, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. My first semester at Harvard, I watched Hedwig almost every single night. I had been ok being an unbalanced, cocky butch pirate around a bunch of queers in San Francisco and Minneapolis, but not even a childhood in the suburbs prepared me for that kind of elite, east coast, beautiful people, old money kind of soul-crushing polite exclusion. I don’t know what it was, but I completely unravelled. Hedwig was like going to an AA meeting. I was working the program and taking it one day at a time. Hedwig was my sponsor and my higher power. Every syllable of dialogue is brilliant and I’d like to share with you, ‘Wig in a Box’. In this one song, Mitchell conveys a complex theory of gender, including performativity, the feeling of being duped by social constructions of gender, envy and longing, the triumphal feeling of exquisite failure but doing gender better than any cis-counterparts, and of course the fact that no matter how much it sucks, unicorns have the wisdom and the shine.
When I was two years old, my favorite TV show was The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. It was 1972. Perhaps this is my first memory or perhaps my mother has told the story so many times that I think I can remember it. I believe I do remember watching one of the many times when Sonny and Cher used to close the show by bringing out Chastity for their final number. I would insert myself into the TV with them. I might have made my first petty comparisons between my cuteness and Chastity’s cuteness, preferring my own. Perhaps I might have thought that I would make a more suitable famous TV child. Apparently, I used to carry around a picture of Cher with me wherever I went. I also told my day-care providers that was, in fact, Sonny and Cher’s child and that I was just on loan to my parents. They must have told my folks, because my parents started calling me Tara Bono, which was eventually shortened to just Bo. This is the name my parents have called me my entire life. Fortunately, it has enduring gender neutrality.
Thus began the paranormal resemblance of my life to Chastity Bono’s. We are almost exactly the same age. We both came out as lesbians at around sixteen. We both transitioned later in life. I didn’t think about it much over the years. It was a cute story my mom liked to tell about my childhood. My mom. She is not like Cher in so many ways. Who is? But, she is pretty and thin. There is also something relatively uncommon about her femininity and presence that is quite Cherlike. My mother has a larger than normal life aura surrounding her, like Cher. Not in a theatrical sense (although she has that side), more associated with her superhuman competency. Think Annette Bening in American Beauty or Robin Wright in House of Cards. I just realized that Kevin Spacey is the husband in both of those shows – weird. She is super capable and really pretty and she is kind of a big deal in her own community. She also has a sense of entitlement that borders on the masculine. Many pretty women know that they can manipulate because of their beauty. Caroll and Cher seem to bend cumulative human folly to their will, using their beauty merely as a jedi mind trick that disguises their true alien forms. Their looks are not the most significant thing about either of them. They are significant people. As to their femininity, there is something additionally performative about it for both of them, almost as if it is not a naturally occurring gender role. There is a similarity to the way Cher wears a Bob Mackie spider web dress and the way my mother dons a St. John’s knit pant suit. They are intimidating, not titillating. I think what I am saying is that my mother and Cher actually are drag queens. What choice did Chaz and I have but to become men?
There is a huge difference between a drag queen and a masculine woman. One is entertaining and powerful. The awkwardness of the other is just uncomfortable for everyone.
Occasionally, we would do our best to make our mothers happy.
But the transitional lesbian mullets happened…
which is actually the fault of…
And this, of course, happened…
but then this…
Unlike my mother, Cher has another child, a son. I think his name is Who Gives a Shit. I believe Cher rolled her eyes upon hearing he was getting married. Cisboys with drug problems are boring. I think Chaz and I have mothers who actually ended up really liking us as people. And I’m pretty sure we are the only ones who understand our mothers.
While I was at grad school in Boston, about a year after I had started transitioning, my mother called one night. Her voice was a bit frantic. “I need you to send me a current picture of yourself. A good one. I can pay for you to have one taken if you don’t have one.” I say, “I think I have one, ma. What do you need it for?” She explained, “I got tickets to Dancing with the Stars…and it’s for the night that Cher is going to be there.”
Because my mother is magic, she just assumed that she was going to be able to meet Cher and tell her the whole story. She also told me I was more handsome and a better dancer than Chaz, but she is my mother. I sent her a picture I had actually taken for my girlfriend back in Minneapolis, so I was trying to look hot, which of course, my mom loved, because she’s just so happy that I’m good-looking now. “You always did suck at being a girl,” is what she said when I told her I was transitioning.
My mother took the picture with her to Dancing with the Stars, but she didn’t meet Cher. They stuck her way up on the third tier in the back. I’m sure Cher would have taken care of that shit had she known my mother was there. I’m not sure if Chaz and I are evidence for some obscure psychological template. This is what happens when magic drag queens raise butch dykes. I’m sure we are very different people, simultaneous hairdos aside. I wonder if Chaz dresses in drag every Halloween like I do. I bet I walk better in heels.
I’ll measure time I’ll measure height I’ll calculate My birthrite Good Lord I’m big I’m heading on Man-size Got my leather boots on – PJ Harvey, Man-size
Are wet dreams common? For whom? I haven’t heard much talk about them lately. I have had one. It visited me when I was around sixteen. It was a ‘point-of-view’ production. I was driving an old muscle car with black leather bucket seats and a long-handled gear shift. I was alone, driving fast. I especially remember the sky as a hi-def, David Lynch dream sequence kind of hot orange. There were mountains on both sides and I was approaching a narrow, flat bridge across an impossibly wide and deep gorge. I felt rising pleasure and excitement. I looked down and noticed my big, hard cock in my own left hand. The mountains receded from around me as I drove faster onto the bridge. I watched myself stroke myself faster as I drove faster, not looking up at the road. As I was about to cum, the car/I veered sharply to the left, quickly breaking through the low guard rail and into mid-air. I never saw the bottom and I didn’t fall for long. I woke up sweating and panting with throbbing clit.
I am not someone who remembers my dreams often, nor even many singular waking events in my life, but this was an omen with no intention of being forgotten. The uncanny physicality of the actual dream and of me and of the darkness of my bedroom continues to stick to me, though it’s been almost thirty years (or more, my age is the most arbitrary part of this narrative). I immediately thought I had just witnessed how I died in a past life. This is hilarious, if true, that there may be some part of my eternal soul that is so fascinated with my own penis and touching it and admiring it that it not only caused my death at least once, but that this self-destructive compulsion follows me into every incarnation. I am still a little cockcentric, though I do not possess one in this lifetime.
Occasionally, I pull out this wet dream to help me think critically about gender. I think it is a versatile metaphor for gender experience. Had I been born with a penis, I imagine that I would have been experienced this dream as fairly unremarkable. Having a penis and dreaming about touching it probably doesn’t stimulate much analysis of the link between masculinity and a cock in cis-men. I have had sex in other dreams with my own body, but never resulting in spontaneous orgasm. I don’t recall ever having another dream where I so viscerally embodied an alternate flesh. It felt real. This sensation of ‘realness’ and its fickle presence is a bit of what I believe gender performance desires. It was probably the most experiential moment of maleness in my life, but much of the time, I don’t even know if ‘male’ is what I have wanted to achieve.
This vivid dream, an altered state of consciousness is not completely unlike the daily involuntary masculinity I perform. My masculinity perpetually defies the fact of my body. When I am alone, I must touch my female genitals to masturbate, though I may be fantasizing about having an erect penis and putting it where I imagine it would feel good to my phantom limb. When I am not alone, my gender performance, to the extent that it is successful and fulfilling for myself and others, must necessarily be collaborative. When I put my silicon penis on and have sex with my girlfriend, we must both suspend disbelief to achieve the desired intimacy. It is infinitely hotter to tell someone to suck your cock, than to suck your strapon. I cannot feel my penis inside her, but the illusion helps me orgasm nonetheless. Practically speaking, it might seem more desirable to have her go down on the anatomy I do have, but the reaffirmation of my masculine identity is just as important, if not more, than an orgasm. This is why stone butches exist. At least they used to.
When surrounded by other urban queers, being a masculine woman is an intelligible identity, easily integrated into social discourse, verbal and non-verbal. When in normative surroundings, the dominant paradigm polices and excludes and mocks the masculine woman. Cis-gendered, heteronormative people sometimes don’t like to play dress up with you and your arduously crafted gender identity. Suddenly, the recollection that your masculinity is a dirty adolescent dream you once had hits you like shame pie in your girl face. In the life of a young butch, those moments of cognitive dissonance assemble to form a relentless clown parade of humiliation. Oh, young butches, I just want to send you all to Pippi Longstocking Island with horses, and femmes, and proud moms who never want you to wear a dress, and dads you can beat at basketball.
At forty-one, I made the decision to transition. Into what, is unclear to me, possibly because I am one of those people who uncritically link maleness with penises. But, I love taking testosterone. Adult puberty is so much more fun than menopause. One of the multitude of benefits that I perceive for my life is simply the public plausibility of my act. It is exhausting to be a constant subject of internal conflict for others.
Once I had a dream that I was a man. I came all over myself, then I died. The body that bares the life that I have had deserves the entitlements it has earned and the pleasures it can experience.
Silence my lady head Get girl out of my head Douse hair with gasoline Set it light and set it free, PJ Harvey, Man-size
Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
I tell stories all the time. I think I am a good storyteller. I think I have good stories to tell. That is what I have instead of a fake job at Target Corporate that doesn’t even make sense. That’s me in the picture. I was taking that for my new girlfriend. I don’t remember if I sent that one to her or not. That’s my little apartment in Brookline, MA. I stayed there while I was getting my master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. I went to Harvard because the dyke bar in Minneapolis that I opened, closed and I was emotionally broken and forty and I didn’t know what else to do. My new girlfriend stayed in Minneapolis. Long-distance relationships are horrible and I was crazy jealous and had just started taking testosterone. You can see the hint of a new goatee as well as a little cleavage under my creepy bathrobe, which I think is hot. I’ve been home for a couple years now, and things are great. I just have some stories to tell. I have more facial hair now, but I still have my tits. I wanted to call this blog ‘hairy tits’, but people keep cringing every time I say that. I do actually want people to cringe a little at this blog, though. I want commentary and resistance and conversation. I want to talk about sex and gender and body parts (silicon or flesh) in a more uncomfortable way. The blogs I’ve read about queers, transmen, and butches (and that’s not really that many) have been pretty tame and have narratives we have become comfortable with. They talk about bowties, and binding, and bathrooms, which are fun and fuzzy subjects that warm the queer cockles like a drag queen doing Whitney Houston, and these stories create community and are important. I think my transition is one of my least interesting stories, but it will be fun to read, nonetheless. I am a lazy, lazy transman, if you insist upon calling me that. I do like muscles and wanting to fuck all the time. I miss San Francisco in the 90’s. I miss punk rock. I miss sex-positive, bald, dyke whores… most of the time. I am also getting to old for that shit all the time. I do not miss being a baby butch disco queen in LA in the 80’s, but that happened. I really like being happy and well-rested. I have a lot of great stories though. I wanted to write a book, but Katrina told me that people blog now. After much initial resistance, I found the rambling serial format might actually work better. My best stories are about opening a dyke bar, but that requires background. I want to talk about sex and gender deeply. I want to know about your dark sides and tell you about mine, because I tend to think our common narratives, as valuable as they are to our community, are mostly incomplete, and largely horseshit. My dream would be a community of weirdo truth-tellers. Let’s fix modern psychology together and even teach Judith Butler a thing or two about gender. Mostly, I’m going to tell stories though, really good ones.