Posted: September 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

I’m back! I plan to resume posting on gender and queer stuff next week, but for the moment, to mark my 45th birthday, here is a post about my best childhood birthday memory.


I never have been much for celebrating my birthday as an adult and the few times I’ve tried to specifically do something for my birthday things haven’t gone well. Nothing really tragic — no hospital visits (though one close call), no breakups (even that once when I really wanted to), no arrests (haven’t even been close on that one), but not much good either. I feel like that tradition was established long ago, in what is now my favorite childhood birthday memory. Mind you, it was not a favorite at the time, but I have come to adore it.

It was a milestone birthday, made to seem all the more significant by its position near the beginning of the milestone parade: I was turning 13, that most awkward, angsty, and Judy Blume-est of years. It felt like a bit of a big deal to me, as most everything does when you’re that age, despite that fact that birthdays in my family were always fanfare-free.

Early one morning a few days before my birthday the phone rang and when my mother hung up, she was crying — not uncontrollably, it was more like she was choked up. My grandmother had died during the night. Her death was not expected but it also was not a surprise. She had been in nursing homes for a few years and her health was declining for several years prior to that, but there was nothing about that particular time that made it seem like her death was imminent.

I was never close with my grandmother, though we visited her somewhat regularly; nothing about those visits was warm or comfortable though. The interior of her house looked ready for a rainstorm, encased as it was in plastic. Thick vinyl carpet protectors lead from the door into the absurdly over-filled living room. There was more furniture than the room could reasonably hold and every surface was crowded with tacky knick-knacks and collectibles. It was a gauntlet of breakable terror, but if you followed the center of the carpet protector pathway with laser-guided precision and kept your arms and hands tucked closely to your sides, it was possible to safely reach a piece of plastic be-sheeted furniture, where you could remain affixed to your seat (in the summertime, quite literally) for the duration of the visit, relatively certain of not breaking anything. Unless you had to use the bathroom, then god help you.

She must have had some incredible stories to tell, spending World War I in Paris, coming to the U.S. alone and pregnant shortly after the war, trying to raise five kids on my grandfather’s meager coal-miner wages. Even if it had occurred to me to ask her about such things, I probably wouldn’t know much more than I do now. Somehow her French accent was still so thick I often couldn’t understand what she was saying, especially as her hearing and overall health deteriorated.  I do know that she always called my sister and me her “beautiful girls” which indicated to me she was either losing her eyesight or her mind, because I was never in any danger of being beautiful. At the very end of her life she didn’t remember who we were but when she was reminded, then we were again her beautiful girls.

Her funeral was the day before my birthday. It was the first funeral I’d been to and I had no idea what to expect. The big buffet that followed the service was especially confusing and seemed inappropriately festive, more like a family reunion than the anticipated show of grief. There was, of course, far more food than necessary and among the leftovers was a sheet cake with a big picture of Jesus in the middle and only a corner piece cut out. My parents, with their Midwestern practicality, decided that it would make a serviceable birthday cake for me.

Though I thought this was a terrible idea, we were taught not be complainers. The ethos in my family was to expect absolutely nothing and be grateful for whatever we did get. If I had expressed the slightest misgivings about having leftover cake for my birthday, the solution would have immediately and unquestionably been to have none at all. So the cake came home with us and my mother set about turning it into a birthday cake. When she peeled up the cardboard Christ, He left behind a large unfrosted rectangle in the middle of the cake and smears of the blue piping that had surrounded Him. There wasn’t much to be done for the missing corner piece, but I thought she could at least have gotten some white frosting and spackled over the exposed cake there and in the Jesus-vacated center. Candles and a little plastic Happy Birthday were all that was needed to complete the transformation.

I told myself that it didn’t bother me so much that I was getting a second-hand cake, but rather that it was second-hand funeral cake; somehow this distinction made me feel less ungrateful. The problem was the incongruity of a funeral/birthday cake, the mixing of events that shouldn’t be mixed. It was just so morbid after all, this chocolate cake with the dead grandma frosting.

In the end, I blew out candles, ate cake and ice cream and opened a few presents, just like every other birthday of my childhood. The one thing that made it memorable, that made it special, was that slapped-together cake. It was the ideal metaphor and symbol. It was awkward and ugly, much like I was at that age. It perfectly encapsulated my upbringing, nothing fancy but at least it’s something. My one regret about that birthday is that I don’t have a picture of the funeral cake with its cardboard Jesus frosting hole and missing corner piece, but I guess it doesn’t matter because I’ll never forget it.

Positive Space

Posted: August 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

I thought I would take a break from dissecting our community’s clashes and issues to talk about something positive. It’s a temporary reprieve; the damp and gloomy Northwest winter is around the corner, and after a chilly and gray “summer” I’m already primed for a stark, introspective, Bergman-film-like state of mind.

For the moment, though, it’s warm(ish) and (sort of) sunny … so I want to acknowledge that despite some inevitable conflicts about names and spaces and why they matter and what they mean (and there is more to be said about that, but in a different post), it is exciting and gratifying to watch our community grow. It is encouraging to see a wider range of gender expressions find a foothold, and to see a broader range of expression even within the butch identity. I am hopeful that fewer kids will be in the position many of us were in, growing up having absolutely no frame of reference for ourselves, no way to project ourselves into the world.

Even had I known what butches were, I’m not sure I would have seen myself as one when I was young. I didn’t fit any of the classic butch archetypes. I was never a tomboy. And I wasn’t rough or rugged or dangerous. No one wanted me on their teams and no one ever thought I was a boy. But I really wasn’t a girl either, even on those infrequent occasions when I tried to be. In the world as I knew it, I wasn’t anything at all. I was a phantom or a fiction. I was one of those drawings of negative space that beginning art students are always taught. I was nothing. I didn’t understand how to be in the world, how I was supposed to look or act. I didn’t understand how I could measure my worth if I had nothing to measure it by. I didn’t understand how I could even have any worth.

Had I been more enlightened or more confident maybe I could have seen the lack of definition as freedom. Maybe I could have imagined possibilities. But from within the confines of my own insecurity and the limited horizons of my working-class neighborhood and small blue-collar town, I could see mostly dead-ends and isolation. I couldn’t imagine possibilities for myself; I couldn’t imagine anything beyond getting away from there. But ultimately that was enough to propel me forward. Though I couldn’t exactly picture a world where I was an actual something, I still hoped for it. It was just enough to keep me alive.

I want more than that for today’s youth. I want them to feel confident that they do have a place, even if they haven’t yet figured out what they want that place to be. I want them to understand that they are real, that what they are is real. I want them not to worry too much about archetypes and just worry about finding their way. I want them to see only possibilities, not negative space.

No I am not blogging from Glacier National Park. I didn’t want to leave the blog empty the whole week though, so I am posting another installment in the ‘celebrating 25 years of being an out dyke’ series.

When I came out in college in 1986, I quickly became involved in the lesbian and gay rights group on campus, so most of my friends were activists and of course they were heading to D.C. in October of 1987 for the second March on Washington. They had a car arranged and a place to sleep and they invited me to go along. All I needed to do was show up and chip in for food and gas. It was a chance to be part of something historic. It was a chance to feel connected to a huge community. It was a chance to maybe get laid.*

But it was the weekend of my parents’ 40th Anniversary party — my conservative parents, to whom I was most definitely not out. So I glumly resigned myself to spending that fine fall weekend in my miserable hometown** instead of Washington D.C., doing my familial duty. I thought I was missing out on the chance for a transformative experience. I was wrong.

Almost as soon as I arrived home, my mother directed me to a small stack of newspapers from the previous several days. They were folded open to a series of articles about a controversy over the existence of a gay bar in town. I had a moment of panic, wondering why she was saving these and showing them to me. It turned out the bar was a few blocks from my aunt’s house. She was away on vacation and my mother was collecting the papers so my aunt could catch up on the hubbub when she returned.

I tried to seem nonchalant as I began reading the articles, though my stomach was tying itself into such tight knots that I felt like I would vomit. The bar was owned by an older woman and her son and it had been a typical neighborhood bar struggling to get by. When the owners saw two men dancing together there one evening, they told the pair they were welcome at the bar and suggested they tell their friends the same. Business boomed as more and more gay men came to the bar, along with a few lesbians.

 Neighbors were outraged. The “reasonable” ones wanted to shut the bar down. The less reasonable ones wanted patrons arrested. Or dead. The sheriff apologized to the community because being homosexual was “unfortunately not illegal” so he had no grounds to make arrests. He accepted as inevitable that the bar would be firebombed and said that he would “even feel bad for those who were trapped inside” when it was. He said that as though he was being magnanimous. As though the queers who were injured or killed would have had it coming. The flood of vitriol, venom and insults stood basically unchallenged. The only person who was publicly defending the bar or its patrons (besides the bar owners) was someone the ACLU sent in from out-of-town.***

I wanted to yell obscenities. I wanted to cry. I wanted to be able to acknowledge how personal it was for me, that it wasn’t just this odd thing that was happening in town. Hell, I wanted to go to the bar. Instead I returned the newspapers to their neat pile and muttered something about how ridiculous people were being. I didn’t say another word about it, but my head buzzed and my guts churned all weekend. My friends were marching in D.C. with hundreds of thousands of other gay people as I sat alone in an angry, pained silence.

But after that weekend, I understood that I had to come out to my parents sooner rather than later. I understood that it was important to me to feel like I could always choose to be out. It was important to me not to feel afraid or ashamed. Maybe going to the march**** would have had the same effect on me, I don’t know. But I do know that I came out to my parents on December 27, 1987. I do know that I have been out at every place where I have worked longer than a few months. I do know that in that October weekend, I was transformed.


* What? I was an activist, not the Dali Lama.
** It’s an auto industry town that has been dying a slow death economically over the last several decades. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. It has a regular spot at or near the top of the FBI’s list of cities with high rates of violent crime.
*** The bar owners eventually shut down in fear of their safety and the safety of anyone who patronized the bar.
**** When the third March on Washington happened in 1993, I was the editor of a lesbian community paper and I did attend the march. It was an amazing, joyous experience that I will never forget. I did not, however, get laid.

 I said last time that the next post would be about sex. Yeah, that’s not happening. Not yet. It’s not you, it’s me. As I started to write it, I realized there were several components that I wanted to introduce first, but I don’t want it to get too rambling and far-flung. So I need some time to work on it and kick around a little. In the meantime, I’m going to post on some other things. Maybe I even throw some vacation photos on here when I get back.

I am going to post one more thing that is tangentially related to the Butch Voices stuff, and then move on to other things. But I was having a conversation last evening about the BV stuff and the formation of Butch Nation, and I said that I hoped Butch Voices can find balance and that Butch Nation doesn’t emerge as reactionary, which would be a pretty typical thing to happen given the circumstances of its birth. I’m not sure how things are going to shake out with the two organizations, but it got me thinking about what I would like to see.

I hope for a butch organization that:

  • Has core feminist, anti-oppression, social justice values. These values should guide how the organization does its business.
  • Has a mission or vision statement that explicitly rejects a binary gender system.
  • Includes the landscape of butch identities not just in word but within the power structure. There has to be balanced power sharing as part of the organizational structure.
  • Has a regional powerbase. I would like to see something like regional chapters that have representation on the organization’s board/steering committee and that put on annual regional conferences. A structure like this allows broad participation in organizing, presenting at, and attending conferences.
  • Holds a bi-annual national conference. A bi-annual national conference is less financially draining than an annual one, and it allows the regional conferences to have the spotlight during the off years.
  • Has a few clearly articulated goals that are updated biannually as a follow-up to the national conference. These goals should inform the next biennial’s activities. For instance, perhaps at one of the national conferences a theme emerges from the discussions that centers on the need for more cross-generational dialog. The organization might adopt that as a goal and make a point of developing some activities through the 2-year period with that goal in mind.
  • Leverages technology to make some of its activities accessible without travel costs. Explore web-based panels and discussions. Hold regular web-based meetings between regional chapters, etc.
  • Recognizes that although female-identified butches and male-identified butches have many common issues and experiences, there is enough variation of experiences to justify undertaking smaller-scope activities that are focused on one portion of the butch landscape. They key would be to make sure resources are allocated fairly among different areas of the landscape. And certainly the regional and national conferences would need to address the organization’s entire constituency.
  • Partners with similar allied organizations (e.g. the Femme Collective) for resource sharing (shared expenses for web conferencing account, domain hosting, possibly some shared/coordinated fundraising activities, etc) where such sharing is beneficial to all parties.

That’s my wish-list at the moment.

After reading some of the discussions around the Butch Voices controversy over the last several days, I have been thinking about the broader issues that are being raised, issues that are part of this current situation but really have more far-reaching origins and implications. As others have noted, they are difficult conversations to have but I think we have seen that not having them isn’t really serving us well either.

One of the issues is that of how we even talk about sexism and misogyny in our communities. I have seen these discussions stall and flame out for years, often getting stuck on the same roadblocks again and again. I’m trying to come up with a good list of basic ground rules, some points everyone can agree on up-front so we can move the dialog forward when concerns are raised.

  1. We are all stakeholders in these discussions. If we are genuinely trying to create non-sexist communities and organizations then we must all be full participants in these conversations. While autonomous organizing among groups will always have its place, it is not valid to suggest that femmes should have limited participation in the larger discussion of sexism/misogyny in butch or trans communities.  And seriously, a femme who dates butches/transbutches/transmen is going to wind up on the business end of an awful lot of the misogyny manifested by them. So yeah, she has a stake* or two in this.
  2. Sexism/misogyny exists in our communities. None of us chose it; we were raised in a culture suffused with it. It’s not our fault that it exists but it is our fault if we choose to ignore it. It exists in every community** though it will not always manifest the same. This means, for example, if we are talking about the ways sexism/misogyny is perpetuated by butches, we are not saying it does not exist among femmes, nor do we need to take time out of that discussion to list the ways it is perpetuated by femmes. That is a different discussion.
  3. It still counts even if you are not aware you are doing it. That’s part of how –isms work; they become so deeply woven into what we consider normal that we don’t notice them if we don’t have to (i.e. if you’re in the group who is being bludgeoned by a particular –ism, you tend to notice it more).
  4. No individual gender presentation or identity is inherently sexist or misogynistic. Choosing to identify as male or to fully transition is not an abandonment or betrayal of feminist values.
  5. Someone calling you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language cannot be dismissed as an attack against your gender expression or identity as long as that person is abiding by rule #4.
  6. When someone calls you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language, they are not saying that you are a bad person. This means, among other things, a general defense of the caliber of your personhood or purity of your intentions is both unneeded and inappropriate. Focus on the behavior or language that is being called into question.
  7. When someone calls you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language, recounting your history of grievances against feminists or lesbians or whoever is not a valid response. Yes maybe some feminists have truly done you wrong in the past, that doesn’t exempt you from having to deal with your sexist/misogynistic shit.  And the way this scenario typically (not always) plays out is itself covered in a sticky sexist coating; it’s meta-sexism.  Feel free to hum along if you know this one, it goes something like this: Femme raises concerns about something being sexist or misogynistic. Butch or transman details one or more injustices committed against them that have nothing to do with the femme they are speaking to and have nothing to do with the action that they are being challenged on, but do have something to do with someone who identified as a feminist. Discussion screeches to a halt so butch or transman can be reassured and validated.  Femme’s initial concerns are set aside, minimized, or abandoned completely.
  8. If you are inclined to say something like “Misogyny means hating women and I love women, so what’s the problem” then you are a fucking tool who is being willfully obtuse and trying to derail discussion rather than engage in it. Go away and don’t come back until you’ve read beyond the first line of the Wikipedia entry and are ready to take this seriously.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything that should be a ground rule.

Be sure to tune in next time for: Butch Enough’s first post about sex. If I don’t chicken out. I kinda feel like there’s no point in me writing a post about sex if I’m not willing to make myself a little uncomfortable with it, so I’m still talking myself into it. But next week seems like a good time to try because I am leaving on vacation at the end of the week. And either I will a) get eaten by a bear*** (grizzly, not gay!) and not have to face having basically stood naked in front of the class or b) not get eaten by a bear (grizzly or gay!) and be so relieved about that I won’t care so much about having stood naked in front of the class.****

* I have recently met a femme who is very into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Very. Into. Now, I love me some Buffy but I do not think I will ever know as much about anything as this femme knows about Buffy. And it’s not the first time I’ve come across a femme who is waaay into Buffy, so I couldn’t write the paragraph about stakes and stake-holders without imagining a whole crew of femme vampire slayers armed with pointy sticks, taking out monsters. Which is bad, because this post is about a Very Serious And Important Topic and I shouldn’t get distracted like that, but there you go.

** Back in the 90s I worked for a lesbian organization in the Northwest. We were pretty much all good, dedicated lesbian feminists and yet were still hamstrung at times by internalized sexism. It manifested in an organizational culture of privation (“Someone brought us a beat-up, flea-infested sofa for our drop-in center? We’ll take it!”) which we did have some success in countering, and in a maddening resistance to making decisions and exercising leadership in the community, which we never really overcame. And we didn’t even talk about it. I brought it up sometimes, but it was kind of our dirty little secret.

*** Some of you have read this from me elsewhere, but I have a paranoia about bear attacks that is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk. And I am vacationing somewhere that features a nontrivial risk of bear attack. Relaxing!

**** The “naked” thing is a metaphor. I am not going to be posting naked or semi-naked pictures of myself here. Ever. Almost certainly.

This post was prompted by the controversy that has unfolded over the last week or so around the organization Butch Voices. If you are not familiar with the particulars, you can catch up here:

Concerns about “Masculine of Center”

I understand the desire for an umbrella term* to cover the various gender identifiers that Butch Voices is trying to include. And I understand that it would be impossible to come up with something that will entirely please everyone. But I think their adoption of “masculine of center” into their mission statement fails on a few counts.

First, a mission statement is not where you shortcut things. A mission statement is where you spell out exactly who you are and what is important to you. You say the words “butch” and “stud” and “aggressive.” You own them; you don’t lump them under a generalized term, and you don’t relegate them to history.

Beyond that, I think “masculine of center” as an umbrella is loaded and problematic. I realize it’s gaining popularity as a term used by individuals to describe themselves, and while I would love for people to really examine the term critically if they haven’t already, people are going to use whatever feels comfortable to them. But I am worried about the institutionalization of the term, its canonization if you will, as the broader description of these various gender identities.

While it may not be the intention of anyone who uses the term, “masculine of center” reduces gender expression down to a simple gradiation, with pure femininity on one end and pure masculinity on the other. It is a somewhat antiquated way to think of gender. It basically replicates the current binary gender system but with the concession that your biological sex does not determine which side of the gender line you are allowed to occupy.

I suspect that its similarity to the dominant gender paradigm may be part of the appeal of “masculine of center.” It feels familiar and immediately understandable. But that’s because it fits pretty well with how we’ve been taught to think of gender — and a lot of other things really. People may describe their politics as “left of center.” Back in the mid-90s, “butch of center” was a not-uncommon descriptor in lesbian personal ads, at least where I was looking (“femme of center” was also used, but not as often). We are accustomed to defining ourselves (and others) based on our perceived location along an axis.

And here we are on that dreaded continuum. Any time you use a structure like this, there is an implicit (or sometimes explicit) rating or ranking, that leaves some gender expressions as “more” and some as “less”. Thus, differences in expression of masculinity are quantitative rather than qualitative. That is, it becomes about different amounts of masculinity, rather than different kinds. Some are on top of the masculinity scale and some are on the bottom.

Again, I’m not saying that it is the intention of the folks at BV rate or rank or even delineate amounts of masculinity. I am saying, though, that the baggage that inevitably comes with an expression like “masculine of center” makes it unsuitable for use by BV as an umbrella term, and it concerns me that those in power seem either not to realize this or not to care.

And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that not all butches identify with the word masculine itself. Many do, maybe even most, but enough don’t that an organization calling itself Butch Voices should at least take that into consideration.

Other concerns about Butch Voices

While it is impossible to know all the particulars when events are shrouded in secrecy, there are obvious indications of a significant structural problem at BV. I am acquainted with a few female-identified butches who have been involved with BV in varying capacities in the past and none of them was at all surprised by this recent turn of events. Clearly many female-identified butches at BV feel like there are issues around sexism/misogyny (among other points) that aren’t being addressed. And it is just as clear, based on the recent ouster, who holds the power in the organization.

This line from the official statement written by Butch Voices Board President Krys Freeman is extremely telling:

Anyone knowledgeable about BUTCH Voices’ missions or initiatives can see that we have, and will continue to, work hard to include female identified, woman identified, and feminist Butches in all that we do…

It explicitly casts female-identified butches as outsiders that BV is “working” to include. Apart from the absurdity of a large group of butches, probably a majority of butches, being outsiders in an organization called Butch Voices, recent events would suggest that these efforts to “include” female-identified butches are not very effective. Of course, mere inclusion shouldn’t really be the goal anyway. For Butch Voices to be the organization it claims to be, true power-sharing would have to happen. Female-identified butches would have to have equal footing in the organizational power structure, rather than be outsiders the organization is trying to include – on its own terms.

Maybe BV will use this incident as an opportunity for growth, but thus far they have given me little reason to hope. Founder Joe LeBlanc writes:

We have made mistakes, and we will make mistakes in the future.  We’re human like that.  We expect the community to hold us accountable, as we hold each other accountable. 

Of course, holding BV accountable is impossible when everything is obscured behind meaningless generalities and confidentiality agreements. How can the community hold them accountable if they haven’t acknowledged what those mistakes were or given any indication of how they plan to address them. Instead they have dismissed the allegations of ageism and misogyny as “dirty laundry” and “personal conflicts.”  BV’s reaction to this has felt like an organization trying to make a problem go away, rather than an organization trying to fix a problem.

A final rant

I have no objection to “masculine of center” (MoC) being added to the list of identities that Butch Voices serves, however much I may personally dislike the term, because there are people who use that identifier for themselves. But I do have a few, somewhat ranty, final thoughts on BV presuming to fold butch (and the other identities as well, but since butch is the one I use, it is the one I feel qualified to speak on) into MoC.

Joe LeBlanc writes:

As an organization, we decided that “masculine of center” lacked the stigma and wounds that so many of us associate with having been called terms like “butch” or “aggressive” or “stud” in a derogatory manner.  We stand by this and believe that the term can and will only begin to carry wounds and stigmatize others if we allow it to; if our personal biases recreate cycles of oppression and “othering.”

Shall we stop calling ourselves queers as well? That word has a far more extensive history as an insult than butch. How about dyke? Words like “butch” are the names we have called ourselves for generations. They are words of strength and defiance and conviction. They are words full of history and no, not all of it is good, but all of it is ours.

They are powerful words, words of struggle and survival. They are words that don’t hide or gloss over or sanitize who we are. They are unapologetic. They are words that proclaim an existence outside of gender binaries. I am butch, and that is so much more than just a gradiation of masculinity. I am butch and it is a living, vibrant, vital identity, not some relic of a bygone era.

If the BV board finds “butch” to be such a stigmatized term that they want to cover it over with “masculine of center” (a profoundly imperfect term in its own right), fine. But they should start with the name of the organization itself and leave the word “butch” to those of us who wear it with honor and with pride. Anything else is shameless hypocrisy.

* Specifically, I understand the desire for an umbrella term or acronym to use as a convenience. I understand that it can be clumsy and space-consuming to try to list all the identities each time you want to reference them. I do not, however, understand or agree that an umbrella term is needed to replace existing terms because of some sort of perceived tainting.

** I stole this line from a very smart femme I know

The Flame

Posted: July 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

As a way to mark the 25th anniversary of when I came out, I am going to write a periodic series of posts that look at points in time during those 25 years. This one is about an Ann Arbor gay bar called The Flame, that I frequented in my college days.

Nothing about The Flame was inviting; it wasn’t intended to be. It was a decades-old dive, designed to keep curious, and possibly unsuspecting, eyes away rather than draw them in. The front window area was lined with half-dead spider plants and tattered flyers, all cast in a murky orange neon glow. Inside, the space was long and narrow, with very little room to navigate around the tables and booths. The dim and smoky interior was illuminated only by the neon behind the bar, and light from the jukebox and pinball machine.

The Flame didn’t serve food. It didn’t have a dance floor. It was a seedy place for alcohol and secrets and maybe a little shame. My activist friends said it was scary, that it was hostile to women. Their opinions were based on rumor and reputation though. I doubt any of them ever set foot onto its booze-soaked floor and I never confessed to them that I had.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the cramped confines were filled with college guys (I can probably count on one hand the number of women I ever saw in there). One Friday evening I noticed a man in a business suit, leaning alone against the pinball machine, clutching his drink tightly with both hands. He was in his mid-30s, small, and so visibly nervous I worried he’d pass out. I realized that I might be witnessing his very first visit to a gay bar, possibly the very first steps of his coming out process. He hadn’t even remembered to take off his wedding ring.

He didn’t speak to anyone, and in fact no one seemed to take notice of him. I wanted to tell him that I saw him, that I understood what a huge deal this was, that everything would be okay. But I was painfully shy, and really, some 21-year-old dyke congratulating him on his coming out was likely not what he was looking for anyway. I watched him until he walked toward the back of the bar and disappeared into the crush of bodies. I hope things worked out okay for him.

I preferred weeknights at The Flame. On weeknights it wasn’t where guys went to get picked up. It felt like the sort of place you go when you don’t have anywhere to go, when you don’t belong anywhere. The bar was usually quiet, sometimes almost somber, and frequented by a motley group of regulars who sat alone and rarely spoke.  The very first time I walked into The Flame my eyes fell upon a bearded, white-haired man wearing a sea captain’s hat. The Captain sat at his post at the end of the bar most weeknights.

One of the other regulars was a butch, the only person I met in Ann Arbor who explicitly identified that way. She was middle-aged, hardened and bitter. She was blue-collar and undereducated in a white-collar college town, and she had spent most of her adult life in a lesbian community where butches and femmes were considered, at best, embarrassing relics of a less enlightened era. She had reason to be bitter.

I understood, though could not have articulated, that she and I were the same — despite being nothing alike. I was young and a college student, and I didn’t yet identify as butch (honestly, I didn’t even realize that I could). But I recognized an ache inside her that existed in me too, a particular longing neither of us really had the means to satisfy. We were the same, and we both knew it. It’s why we couldn’t stand each other.

We were both infatuated with the same woman. She was the person who introduced me to The Flame in the first place and that’s where she had initially met the butch. She was the closest thing to a femme either of us could find, so the butch and I saw each other only with the wary eyes of an adversary. Though dancing was not allowed at the bar, the femme would dance alone in a tiny patch of open floor in front of the jukebox. The bartender had a soft spot for her, so usually he didn’t say anything unless one of the patrons complained. My rival and I lingered nearby, watching her turn and sway gently to the music with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. On rare occasions one of us would gather up the nerve to join her for a slow dance.

I scarcely ever said three words to the butch, but we were civil. Suspicious and resentful, but civil. For each of us, the other’s presence loomed uncomfortably over our interactions with the woman we both wanted. I remember standing in the femme’s apartment, asking her to go out with me on an actual date and I remember a huge bouquet of flowers from the butch sitting there on the table when I did it. She turned me down. In the end, she turned us both down.

I continued to hang out at The Flame, both with the femme and by myself, until I graduated. I wasn’t there often enough to be a regular, but I went often enough that I could walk in, slide a few quarters in the jukebox, play some pinball, and sorta feel like I belonged.