Last Butch Standing: Talking Fried Chicken, Analog to Digital, and The End of Butch with Lex Vaughn – Alex McClelland

I love lesbian butches. They have often been my friends and a strong part of my support network. As a young fag in the 1990s, my safety was often threatened because I was never masculine enough. In the lez-queer-gay world, we have a deeply complex relationship with gender roles, especially with masculinity and butchness – ways of being that are often demonized, fetishized and commodified more than they are understood or reconciled.

While I am no longer a scrawny effeminate teenager, I am often comforted in knowing that my lez-bro pals have got my back, and vice versa. Hanging out with my butch lez pals has allowed us to engage with masculinity in ways that aren’t dangerous or sexual, but rather just part of a hybrid state of being.

Recently, I had a chat with my pal, artist Lex Vaughn about being a butch lesbian. Lex is the comedy mastermind behind AM Radio geriatric dandy Peanut Brittle, and the famed and frigid ventriloquist Diane and her alter ego puppet troublemaker Graham. Lex and I have an ongoing conversation about the lesbian butch in the current social and cultural context, where the identity for some is outdated and seems to have lost its utility and place. Here is part of this discussion.

Gisele-Suzor-Morin

Alex McClelland: Hi! How are you feeling today?

Lex Vaughn: It’s a great day to be alive. But I am a bit hungover. There’s chicken on the stove, which is always great, and… we got potatoes, and parsnips. I’m in love, the sun is shining!

AM: Amazing! So let’s talk about butchness. I really love your butchness a lot. There is such a comfortableness and casualness to how you embody butch. We have been having some chats about this for a while now. Can you tell me your philosophy on being butch?

LV: Yes. Thank you. I think the natural transition from cooking chicken would be to talk about butchness.

AM: Haha!

LV: Well, my thoughts on butchness, umm… I just turned 40, and even though I’m not freaked out about it, I feel that it’s inevitable that you’re going to examine what that means about one’s goals, life scopes, blah blah blah. I tried to circumvent all of that 40 anxiety by creating a birthday party that was part Croning, part Quinceañera, so that I could incorporate aging and youth and ritual and humour. I didn’t want to be having dinner at Jack Astor’s or something, you know? But anyways, I am at this place where I have experienced some sort of passage, and I am thinking a lot about my identity in the world, both socially and sexually.

AM: Well you look great. Your grey hairs are especially fancy today. But why are you not wearing any pants?

LV: Real butches don’t wear pants, thank you. I love being a silver fox! I think that my white walls are a big part of my butch/creature identity. It makes me feel like I’m part of some secret society. Except the other day, I googled “silver haired butches,” and all I found was “Silver Haired Bitches,” which was this crazy hot and gross hetero porn from the 1980s.

AM: Haha [coughing] ha! Sorry. I have a touch of kennel cough. What do you mean by secret society of butches?

LV: Yes, well sometimes it seems that way. I feel like ‘The Butch’ is an endangered species, you know, a dying breed, and it has really gotten me all fired up lately.

AM: Fired up how? Like that you have to assert being a butch to keep the flame alive?

LV: Oh, for sure, and for a whole number of reasons. I mean, we are in the middle of an incredible era, where everything is accessible and mutable and beyond stasis, you know? We are so beyond analog, and digital has become this whole limitless beast, in both a good and bad way. And some days I feel like I’ve “fallen behind” and that I’m old fashioned by still identifying as butch. But that’s a super fucked place to get my head into, because it’s not about evolution, per se, it’s more about pride.

AM: So along with moving towards the digital and this new multiplicity that is replacing the binary (whether that is evolution, or progress or not), do you feel like the past ways of existing or identifying are now being erased? Do you think that the word ‘butch’ itself is then now used pejoratively?

LV: Oh my god yes! Regardless of their sex or gender, even people who are tough acting or very masculine bristle easily at the term butch. I think that that’s a throwback from butch/femme identity politics, or, the ongoing resistance to the binary. You know, some people just aren’t that interested in having that label anymore.

AM: What was it like being a butch growing up?

LV: When I was first living in San Francisco in 1990 and I started dating more, within the uh, well, I had been dating girls for a long time, but I was dating like jocks and poets, and people who weren’t necessarily in the S/M or identity politics world. Anyhow, I started dating this woman who identified as a high-femme top. That was her deal, and I thought it was so funny, cause I grew up in Colorado where lesbians were lesbians and just played softball, drove trucks, and wore really crappy shoes. Even dyke was a derogatory term!

Anyway, I was like 19 and I dating this high-femme top, and I remember hanging out with her and a friend of hers, this butch, and I had a toothpick in my mouth and she’s just like, “Oh look at the little butch.” And I was like, “I’m not butch”, and she’s like “oh honey, you’re butcher than you think you are!” And then I was like, “fuck you”… in my mind.

But after that, I was like, oh okay, yeah, butch, that fits! It didn’t take very long. I think I had resistance to having that identity placed on me because, a) it was someone trying to limit me and tell me who I was, and b) because I grew up with my mom, who was the least militant person ever. She’s really put off by anything political and always says “why does everyone have to have labels?” So it just took me a while to kind of uh… absorb that, but not for very long ‘cause it’s just who I am.

AM: It is totally who you are. Did you have any butch role models back in the day? Or even today?

LV: Oh, for sure. My butch identity really became solidified at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which–inherently fucked politics aside–was a mind-blowing experience for me.

I was 21 years old when I first went, and the idea of creating community through labour was totally my jam. Every single thing was being built by dykes. Everyone’s out there with sledge hammers and building scaffolding, and giant stages and laying pipe and doing wiring and you know, chopping down trees and shit, just everything.

Then there’s this whole community of workers of freaks and old school butches and grandmas and high-femmes and hippies and druggies and witches. But the butches and freaks, that’s what got me. These creature weirdos who identified as nothing and everything. Also, these 40-to-70-year-old butches who worked their asses off, and got the shit kicked out of them in the outside world to maintain this identity – that really marked me.

AM: They worked their asses off to keep it butch?

LV: Yes, in that way, and also in an industrious sense too. I am very dedicated to the butch body in the workplace.

AM: Hot.

LV: [laughs] So, J.D. Samson has been really integral about being an activist for that. Just as much as she was for rescuing the word ‘lesbian’ from its perceived grossness. Remember in the 1990s and early 2000s when ‘lesbian’ was offensive?

AM: Yeah, I do remember that. So how does being a butch body relate to your work as a comic, or in the service industry?

LV: I was at Second City for three years as an ensemble member, doing improv and sketch comedy with the Touring Company. In that company, as a cast, you do older sketch material from Toronto or Chicago, and nine out of…, no, ALL of the sketches had characters for women that were only either mothers, sisters or girlfriends, or doing really girly things, you know whatever, it’s a heterosexual world.

In Toronto, Second City specifically is way more relationship-based comedy and situations, whereas Chicago works a little more with gender and are way more political. So there’s specific types of comedy that each Second City emphasizes. I found that being active in the industry, you have to play the part. I had to wear make-up, grow my hair a bit, wear more feminine clothes. I tried to go as androgynous as a could, and a lot of the times we would be touring and people would be like “oh my god it’s K.D. Lang.” I’ve been called K.D. Lang or Ellen so many times, like, there’s worse things that could happen right?

AM: Yeah, I guess.

LV: But, I found it really insulting. I had to be all these women. Like, these kind of subservient or stereotypical women.

AM: Gross.

LV: Because of my personality and that I was good at what I was doing, I got more experience and got to play men in some sketches. Also, when I was doing improv, I could just be myself, and I brought in a lot more gay politics. By presenting the way I did, I was kind of able to bring that forward. But as I was more in the industry, I started learning like, oh, I just have to be in drag, like this is the game you play. That’s how it works. And you look at Rachel Maddow, butch has to wear make up, look at Ellen, butch has to wear make up…

AM: Yeah true, true…

LV: Look at K.D. Lang, butch, well she doesn’t have to wear make up, but she does sometimes, right? It’s just what’s expected and it’s how you sell, and that’s just what the market is. So I find that, you know, I sometimes just get frustrated with the industry that I have to be that way, and it’s exhausting to be in drag, you know? But I know a lot of people that I trust who also work in the industry are the same way to me, they say “if you had fucking blond hair you’d be famous.” Do you know what I mean? If you were a girl, if you acted like a girl…

AM: If you only had long blond hair…

LV: Yeah, if I just did the part better, I would have a lot more luck in the ‘industry.’ But I’m not really willing to do that. It’s a hard job and it’s really difficult to resist. Like, I know that’s what I’m good at, and I know that’s what I want to do. But I just don’t really feel like being a girl sometimes.

AM: What about your other jobs in the service industry? Or in your daily life? How does butch visibility fit in there?

LV: Thank you for getting me out of that k-hole of possible self-loathing.

AM: That’s why we are friends.

LV: I love you. Let’s see. Well, it’s all about service, right? And that is just such a craggy nest of gender crapola, but it’s something that I’m good at and feel strongly about as an important life tenet. It’s work with the public, and so similar rules apply around people’s perception of my face.

AM: “Excuse me, sir.”

LV: [Laughs] Yes! “Excuse me uh, ma’am sir, sir ma’am, uhhh, ahhhhhhh!!” My favourite is the back-track look on their faces. I can tell in a fraction of a second what someone’s already putting on me. I combat it by being really charming or friendly and just doing my job, and most of the time the gender stare freakout just disappears. We both get back to a normal human exchange. I think that has been my greatest asset, is having a really strong and cordial personality. That has really saved me from a lot of grief, and a lot of blatant homophobia. I have been very lucky in that regard.

In my life outside my work, there are places like public bathrooms that are sometimes an issue. Well it’s mostly an issue. But I find that I when go into bathrooms, when in whatever, like the Houston Airport, I’ll go like “la, la, la, la, la”, like I’ll raise my voice, or I’ll whistle, or I’ll walk, or I’ll flounce. It’s like a protection of myself, or it’s not even that, it’s like protecting people from freaking the fuck out…

AM: So it’s kind of acting like a queen to pre-empt people’s reactions towards you as a butch?

LV: Yes, a pre-emptive strike!

AM: And overall, it sounds like asserting a confident butchness in your life is very important both in hetero and in gay and/or queer worlds.

For me, we are in a curious moment, where some queers are still so embroiled in these identity politics discussions, which for me are seemingly endless, and can be tiring, but are still very important for many people as they discover themselves. And instead of identity politics going away, with the multiplicity of identities today, these discussions can be more complicated and heated than ever. Which can turn into this ‘snake-eating-its-own-tail’ obsessive community narcissism.  There can be this fear about exclusion, because queers have been so oppressed and still are. You know what I mean?

But at the same time, with new ways of identifying, our past can be steamrollered over. Not that it should be an either/or situation, a past/present issue, an analog/digital issue, or a gender binary/gender multiplicity issue. It is just interesting how ways of being can be so quickly erased from the community consciousness.

LV: For me it’s visibility, which is activism. I prefer it to have a positive effect, and I think it’s more important than ever to identify as a butch. Although it just seems ludicrous to so many people who see it as so outdated. You know, a lot of people get so bent out of shape about it. Also, people say to me, “It must be so easy for you to date; you are, like, one of the last butches standing.” I’ve heard that so many times. I can think of like maybe five or six butches right off the top of my head that are in my age group.

AM: Last butch standing! [laughs]

LV: Yeah, Last Butch Standing, my new reality show! I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, being a butch lesbian. When I was still in my teens, there were so many butches in San Francisco, and lots of butch pride. At Michigan there’s still the Butch Strut. They have a Femme Parade and the Butch Strut, and its really cute…

AM: That’s amazing.

LV: …yeah, like 200 butches from all over. It’s like going to Mecca or something. Did you read the Malcolm X autobiography? In it he goes to Mecca, and it totally blew his mind open right? Cause he saw white guys with red hair, and all these diverse Muslim brothers from all over the world and he’s just like “oh,” and I feel that same way at Michigan. It’s like when I watch the Butch Strut. I’m like “oh shit, you are the butchest thing in your town.” They will be wearing a little frilly shirt or you know, just that they identify; it’s so heart-warming. But they’re still out there. It just makes me so happy. But maybe I’m just… maybe I’m old fashioned. Or maybe I just really need to eat that chicken and potatoes. You want some?

AM: Yes please.

LV: Get a plate, queen!

Alex McClelland is a writer, researcher and activist who is perusing a Ph.D. at Concordia University in Montreal. Alex is a member of AIDS ACTION NOW! and co-curates the Day With(out) Art postervirus project.

Lex Vaughn is a multi-disciplinary artist from the USA, now with a Canadian passport. She has been performing the character “Peanut Brittle,” a geriatric dandy, since 2004, and makes people angry and aroused with her ventriloquism work of the duo “Graham and Diane.” Lex’s website is out of date because she often refuses to engage with the 21st century, much to her demise. http://lexvaughn.net/

Photo Credit:  Gisèle Suzor-Morin