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What A World: The B Word

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Reader says she’s got Papi’s “butch” right here.

Last month a mini-debate swirled among OutSmart staff concerning our choice for the January 2007 cover.

It had been previously determined that the cover would be a shot of Janina Gavankar, the smoldering actress who portrays Papi this season on Showtime’s The L Word. But staff was divided on which shot to use: a provocative front shot of the fully-clothed actress, or an even more provocative side shot revealing not a little of Gavankar’s breast.

Readers know which photo was chosen. We went with the hubba-hubba factor.

Some of our staff expected, if not an outcry from some of our more family values-inclined readers, at least an “ahem” from some of our more conservatively inclined advertisers. The first year OutSmart was published, one of our grocery store ads displayed a clip art picture of an ice cream cone, which a reader subliminally interpreted as a phallic object. Her interpretation caused enough consternation to inspire heated letters to the editor, and even the loss of some advertising dollars. Ice cream! Who knew!

Fast-forward to the 21st century.

The half-breast on last month’s cover created nary a nipple ripple. The cover story did, however, prompt a conversation that has been conducted in the lesbian community since Sappho strapped on her first Berkenstock sandals. (See “Ay, Papi,” January 2007.)

“I am furious with the recent Janina Gavankar interview,” one OutSmart reader wrote.

Describing what motivates Papi, a libidinous Latina character, Gavankar had stated in the interview, “She’s not butch. I think she loves being a woman and loves sharing that with other women.”

“So butches don’t love women? Duh, we are women!” the reader countered. “I don’t expect a straight woman pretending to be lesbian will even begin to understand butch/femme dynamics; know anything about our history; have ever heard of, seen or experienced the lesbian sex wars; or really have a clue about lesbian life.”

OK, fine. I don’t expect every letter that lands in my box to be a fan letter. After all, what’s the bitter without the sweet? The yin without the yang? The Hannity without the Colmes?

Before I could say, “She’s entitled to her own opinion,” a second e-mail from the same reader arrived, elaborating her experience and giving me more insight as to why “Papi” had pushed this lesbian’s hot button–and not in a good way.

Turns out that some of the “blood on the streets'” that makes Montrose sacred ground for Houston’s GLBT community (as longtime community advocate Ray Hill invokes in opposition to recent attempts to move the Pride parade and festival downtown, out of Montrose) is hers.

“I have had abuse heaped upon my head by strangers on the street, the men I’ve worked with, and the women’s community at large. I have had women freak out when I enter the restroom, children run to their parents frightened by their inability to determine my gender, and men want to prove their manhood by beating me up,” the reader continued.

“I spend a tremendous amount of energy watching for trouble, protecting myself from physical and psychic assault, and fighting to keep myself sane in a world that seems to despise me. I have tried to convince myself that this is a class issue, but know in my deepest heart that this is just a form of self-deception.

“People hate butch women.”

Wow. That declarative statement took me aback. Way aback.

Do people–more specifically, lesbians– indeed hate butch women?

Seems like that kind of hatred is problematic in its delivery. How do we avoid inflicting our scorn on a woman who simply prefers to live her life free from the scourge of panty-hose chafe vs. on a woman who really and truly identifies as butch? After all, looks can be deceiving: as Femme2Femme, that ’90s-era lipstick lesbian quartet, warbled, “Femme in the streets, butch in the sheets.”

A definitive measuring tool would help. Googling “butch + femme + test” yields plenty of identifying quizzes, some of which, like most Internet surveys, produce more reliable results than others. Nonetheless, I recommend taking one of these tests before dating someone whose “butch/femme” quotient may be in question. How else will you decide who gets out of the Subaru Forester to change the tire in the rain and who stays inside the Subaru Forester applying blue eye shadow?

One of these tests placed me smack-dab in the androgynous middle, scoring a 48 on a scale of one to 100, one being stone femme, 100 being stone butch. That means I could likely be the one changing the tire, the rain smearing my eye shadow. Pretty.

“Gay liberation didn’t happen because of Mattachine, ONE, Daughters of Bilitis or other assimilationist groups,” our butch reader concluded. “Gay liberation happened because the communities forged in working- class bars by ‘gender variant’ people had simply had enough. That’s why we celebrate a riot as the beginning of Pride. And if people truly understood this, butch women and effeminate men would be icons rather than embarrassments.”

So just as Spain bans too-thin supermodels from its fashion runways, should progressive, equality-minded lesbians ban unrealistic, non-diverse images of lesbians–especially when played by straight actresses–from our airwaves as well as our brainwaves?

Or should we support The L Word ‘s casting choices, continuing to uphold images of perceived “pretty” people–and places and things–as an ideal to which our community should aspire?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle, I believe. Probably right around 48.

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