Looking Back at the Past
‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’
by Kit van Cleave
The history of gay liberation is like a jigsaw puzzle: gaps are filled in as new research is done and older books are reissued. Sometimes just the passage of time makes books from the past even more important than when they were first published.
That’s certainly the case with Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, a rare book in several ways—an ethnography, stressing the importance of butch-fem relationships as revolutionary, with an Amazon $124 hardcover price (the softcover is $42.70). Many surprising points of view in this work impact the lesbian scene today and provide historical details rarely discussed in that community. First published in 1993 by Routledge, it was a lost treasure brought out in paperback this year.
Authors Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis spent almost a decade developing this largely oral history project about a multiracial, working-class community of gay women in Buffalo, New York, from the l930s to the l960s. While they were able to find and interview 45 women about their lives in those decades, they had few written journals or letters, and virtually no research from the time on lesbian communities.
It’s probably difficult for younger lesbians to realize how oppressive U.S. society was during these early years of the 20th century, and how random events shaped the gay movement of today. Despite Coco Chanel’s influence on European women’s fashions (trousers, pockets in jackets, French sailors’ sweaters, new fabrics), American women during the early 20th century did not wear pants of any sort in public. Wearing “slacks” was influenced more by closeted movie stars Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn, whose wealth and public adulation allowed them enormous personal freedom. Though women through time have cross-dressed for a variety of reasons, the rise of the butch (male-imitative) figure in the 1930s was a working-class development exacerbated during World War II when women went to work in factories while American men were at war. While at work, they wore clothing generally designed for men.
Wearing pants became a way for women to revolt against the über-masculinization of a gender-conformist society. Kennedy and Davis suggest that the butch figure was an early revolutionary activist for women’s liberation and an individual’s right to live as she wished.
They paid a heavy price for their male attire—beaten, humiliated, evicted, unemployed, disenfranchised, disinherited. Interestingly, butches were also an embarrassment to the women’s movement in the 1970s. Indeed, without the butch-fem couple, oppressed and brutalized, the women’s movement may not have appeared when it did.
These authors were well qualified to research this hidden Buffalo community, as they had contacts in it. Thus, they had a few phone numbers for interview contacts so they could begin their oral history project. Several factors set Buffalo apart in the l930s: it had a black community, a working-class women’s group, and several early “gay bars,” which actually meant women couples could be patrons (as long as they didn’t “carry on” or dance together). World War II changed the lives of all working women by giving them jobs, treating them with respect, and providing them financial means to be independent.
In the 1930s, lesbians, like blacks and Jews, generally kept their heads down, were law-abiding, and hoped society would just ignore them. By the 1940s, with a war culture changing everyone’s expectations, Kennedy and David outline the emergence of a more ideological butch-fem pairing. In addition, black and white lesbians were slowly beginning to inter-relate.
Often they got together at house parties as a way to meet others and find potential lovers. House parties had long been a bonding event for black Americans, and, interested in growing a sense of community, they invited white friends to these celebrations.
Of course, America was still quite racist in these decades; discrimination, homophobia, and
harassment by police were daily occurrences both black and white lesbians lived with. Butches were at the bottom of the social ladder, rejected by almost everybody—except fems, who sought them out based on their “presentation” as male-imitative.
As one interviewee, Matty, put it, “Things back then were horrible, and I think that because I fought like a man to survive, I made it somehow easier for the kids coming out today. I did all their fighting for them. I’m not a rich person…. I would have nothing to leave anybody in this world, but I have that that I can leave to the kids who are coming out now, who will come into the future. That I left them a better place to come into….
“Even though I was getting my brains beaten up, I would never stand up and say, ‘No, don’t hit me. I’m not gay; I’m not gay.’ I would not do that…. I was maybe stupid and proud, but they’d come up and say, ‘Are you gay?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I am.’ Pow, they’d hit you. For no reason at all. It was silly and it was ridiculous; and I took my beatings and I survived it,” she states.
But by the 1950s, the butch warriors had a hardened attitude about getting along in America. They were much tougher in their resistance, much more aggressive with straights who sought to oppress them. Sexually, these are the years of the “tough bar lesbians,” who wouldn’t tolerate a putdown or insult. They’d fight.
This also affected the development of the “stone butch,” shut away from her emotions, who would make love to a woman but not allow her partner to reciprocate or share equally in passion. Many made love with all their clothes on, and they were possessive, jealous, and protective of their lifestyle.
But this very detailed book is also a teaching text in history about the changes in mid-century American social progress. These were the beginning years of the black civil rights movement, which would be followed by women’s liberation, then Stonewall in 1969. Kennedy and Davis researched deeply; they describe a central propaganda issue of the 1950s—that of the heterosexual family unit with one dad, one mom, and two kids, held up as representative of the greatest nation. It’s hard to realize that divorce was difficult then, seen as destabilizing.
So many issues are included in this fine book that it’s hard to choose which is most outstanding, but everyone will be moved by the interviews of those who lived proudly through these tumultuous years. This is one of the best books I’ve found to review in recent months, and definitely worth the paper price. Young gay women will be educated (and entertained), while older ones will find themselves remembering their own lives during this era.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.