I was working on the second floor of J. C. Penneys, in the fabric department. The important thing to remember here is that the second floor of Penneys was where they sold piece goods, baby clothes, and draperies. Everything else was on the ground floor, off the mall. Nobody ever came up to the second floor except women—women who had babies, who sewed, and who decorated. And this is where I saw my first lesbians. Or, at least, it was the first time I identified the experience as such.
They were a couple, I remember—a butch and a fem. The butch was in her forties, dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Her breasts were not apparent. She wore her black hair slicked back in a style left over from the fifties, a “duck’s ass” or “DA.” The skin on her face was leathery and tan, with hard lines around the eyes and the mouth. And her hands were in her pockets.
Her companion was everything she was not—except, of course, a lesbian. She appeared to be at least ten years younger, a blonde—although perhaps not a natural one, and she wore tight blue jeans, but not bellbottoms. These were working-class women, or what we anti-war, student-hippie types would call “greasers.” She was shorter than her companion, and she wore makeup and earrings. Her hair was styled in a kind of bouffant look that was the shellacked, feminine counterpart of the DA.
The femme was buying fabric, and she was anxious that her purchase be pleasing to her companion. The butch appeared to be very uncomfortable with finding herself on the second floor of J.C. Penneys, and she answered her partner in a surly and self-conscious manner. She told her she didn’t know anything about this kind of “stuff.”
I remember that I shared the fem’s anxiety about pleasing this woman. I wanted her to know that I also cared, that I welcomed her presence in my department—was honored by it, even. I wanted to protect her from my co-workers who might be startled by her appearance, who might make judgments, who might even try to exchange a look with me. I wanted her to know that I would not side with them against her, that I would never be like one of them. I wanted her to smile at me, and, of course, she never did.
I think of this butch woman now, and I wonder what she made of the lesbians who must have just been emerging in Boulder—my generation of lesbians—young women in hiking boots with hairy legs and hairy armpits, neither butch nor fem, taking and teaching self-defense and auto repair classes, starting carpentry collectives, and organizing women’s clinics and women’s presses and women’s bookstores and women’s festivals. Lesbians fighting and loving and trashing and marching and mimeographing, smashing the state, taking back the night, giving peace a chance, making love not war. Feminists and Marxists and communists and vegetarians. Lesbians with speculums looking at each other’s cervices, lesbians with vibrators learning how to have orgasms, lesbians with kiwis, with zucchinis, with bananas, with cucumbers. Lesbians in threesomes and foursomes, in marriages, in families, in collectives, in cooperatives, in tents, in tepees, in yurts, in cabins, in dormitories. Lesbians quoting Ti-Grace Atkinson, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Shulamith Firestone, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Jill Johnston, Valerie Solanas.
What must this butch have thought of this veritable explosion of latter-day tribadists? What could she have thought? Where in her centuries of oppression could she find any reason to trust women, even lesbians, who were not like herself? With the unerring instinct of the hunted, she would have concluded, and rightly, that the lesbians of the early seventies were dangerous to her.
Had she smiled at me on that second floor of J.C. Penney’s, or shared a look that admitted to her vulnerability or—worse yet—solicited my support, I would have betrayed her, and in a heartbeat.
It was this perpetual knowledge of an ever-present potential for betrayal that had etched the hard, hard lines around her eyes and her mouth. It was this knowledge that the fem was hoping to soften, to erase for just a moment, in the manufacture of some article of clothing for herself, for her lover, for their home, that would signify a kind of normalcy, a kind of belongingness that could never be a reality for a woman who had to run daily a gauntlet of scorn, violence, and contempt that would have killed an ordinary woman. And so her eyes never met mine, because they never missed a thing.
[Originally published in Chokecherries Anthology, Society of the Muse of the Southwest, Taos, NM, 2011]