I Dreamed of a Butch Knight
My mother lingered at the gas station up the boulevard from our apartment in Van Nuys, California. It was 1961 and I was four.
“See those men?” she said to me, gesturing to a seedy bar across the street. “They’re women.”
I’m sure it took some real observation to see that the women entering the bar were not straight couples. It was a working-class bar in a working-class neighborhood. The butches looked like male laborers or maybe truck drivers — uniforms, white T-shirts, plaid flannel shirts, D.A.'s and cropped haircuts — while the femmes were womanly in appearance, like any woman in a summer dress with a purse on her arm that you might see in a department store.
My mother also had a thing for tough men. I mean real tough, like thugs and bad boys, and the sinewy tattooed junkies that operated the rides at Pacific Ocean Park in Venice Beach. My father, a Robert Mitchum look-alike, was an alcoholic chain-smoking bricklayer with a motorcycle, missing teeth and a heart of gold. I was born when they were teenagers, and she left him when I was three.
My grandparents told her she had to marry a Jewish man. It was a threat. So she married a much older Sephardic Jew who was a swarthy wimp — a badly dressed bookkeeper with a comb-over, a guy who sexually abused children. She never said a nice thing about him but kept up her adoration of macho men and manly women like they were mythical, as if their masculinity was the promise of something. Rescue maybe.
Image: Sam Howzit
I absorbed my mother’s fascination with hyper masculinity and it became my obsession. Even before I had a clue about gender or sexuality, my little heart pounded when I saw a tough woman in men’s clothing. As a preteen, I daydreamed about a young man kissing me goodnight at the doorstep, but underneath it all he was a woman. As soon as my mind went there, I shut the fantasy down. I had so much shame.
When my stepfather had me committed to a mental hospital at 16, after I finally told a neighbor that he'd raped me, I met Tony, a “he/she” (a common "freak" slur that caught my breath). She was on the adult ward and they didn’t mingle with the teens, so I did my best to seduce her during outdoor time on the broken and weedy blacktop, scorching in the California sun, while she smoked cigarettes between her thumb and forefinger, all the way down to the butt.
Before I ran out the emergency exit and into the waiting car of my high school girlfriend, Tony told me we’d get married after her sex-change surgery. In our fantasy, I would make dinner in an apron while she worked as a laborer and she’d come home all dirty and sweaty, and I’d have a martini ready.
I never did get Tony’s last name and never saw her again but she became my mythical macho man.
For years, I watched manly women from the margins, too ashamed of my desire to act on it. It was my secret. In the meantime, I took lots of drugs and had sex with girls in bands, girls at high school, girls in scenes for guys. There was an unspoken agreement that we were straight, but just fooling around because it was Hollywood and we were decadent and free spirits. Mostly, I slept with rock stars and random men, lots of them, for money and a place to stay.
When I left Los Angeles for New York City in 1984, with a good job in the music business, I made a decision to start my life anew. Essentially, I wrote a script and acted in it: no drugs, drink, dykes; marry a Jewish man, have children. It was the script that trapped my mother.
When I was in my 30s with two young children, a husband (Jewish) and an undergraduate in college for the first time, I started cruising the HQ section in the NYU library. I hid books among the stacks: early transgender autobiographies, lesbian cultural history, pulp fiction, anthologies of personal narratives. The writing was mostly dreadful but that is how I figured out there were woman like me — femmes — and that all butches were not monosyllabic truck drivers in the corner seat of a bar.
I came out to my husband when my children were 5 and 8 years old. He was kind and tried to be understanding; it breaks my heart to think about it. I was a mess. Imploding. It was a hard choice to make because my straight life was great but I could not be like my mother in a long-unfulfilled life of yearning for something unknown.