BY CINDY ZELMAN
The Early Draft
Perhaps the title begs the question, “If you’re really a butch, what the hell are you doing with a purse?”
Let’s travel in the way-back machine, shall we? Before iPods and iPads and cell phones, and before I realized I was a lesbian, never mind of the butch-y persuasion.
In the early years of the 1980s, I held onto the societally-mandated expectation that I was heterosexual and feminine enough to lure a man. Way back then, boys and girls, there was no such thing as “business casual” at work, meaning, for the most part, women were expected to wear skirts, skirt suits, dresses, high heels, and carry handbags or purses. A particularly attractive woman could pull off a pants suit, and the more attractive she was, the more masculine, let’s say, that pantsuit could be. I was not that attractive. So every so often, you might catch me in a body-hugging red jersey dress that focused male attention on my physique, which was my selling point, so to speak. These were the times I lived in; and this is who I was before I knew who I was.
I had a closet full of feminine work gear, most of which I hated. Among that gear were the pocket books of my young adulthood.
Sometime in the 1990s, when I was full swing into my lesbian identity and companies went business casual, making it easier for me to wear slacks, then pants, then corduroys, then flannel and overalls (just kidding about the last two), I happily embraced this less feminine mode of dress. Wearing pants felt much more like me. The hot red dress got dusty in the closet, probably fell to the closet floor, got picked up a few years later and thrown into a Goodwill bin. I do wonder, sometimes, who might have inherited it. In any case, I’m sure well before the turn of the century, I stopped wearing skirts and dresses altogether. I became me.
But even after I dumped the feminine clothes, there were two things I couldn’t shake: 1. the purse and 2. the bristling feeling I experienced at being identified by some (not all) as “butch.”
The purse, or in my case, the hand bag, or in these parts, the pocketbook, was so useful. Perhaps it was my anxiety problems—my agoraphobia and panic disorder—that made it necessary for me to feel comforted only when everything I needed to survive was as easy as pulling it out of my pocketbook: driver’s license, credit card, Xanax, feminine hygiene products, brown bag for when I needed to hyperventilate. You know, the usual.
As for Butch, it is no more a choice than is being a lesbian. But it took me years to understand this and a close reading of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues to appreciate the history of the butch in America, the struggle, the chivalry if you will. I don’t choose to dress less feminine; the desire to be who I am chooses it for me. And those lesbians you think look like guys, they aren’t being affected; they are being themselves. I know this now, but as I said, it took years of overcoming my own internal homophobia and Leslie Feinberg to educate me. I was caught in between butch and femme for many years. But the last vestiges of me as feminine continue to hang from a strap on my shoulder and reside in the confines of a leather handbag.
So, what’s in my butch’s purse?
Look, this will be as much as a surprise to me as it may be to you, because I don’t dig too deeply in there if I don’t have to. I don’t like to know what’s at the bottom. My life changes so much that it could be nearly anything and possibly something I’ve blocked out of memory. I’m just going to grab things at random here and hope they make for interesting reading.
- Oh, figures I pull this one out first: a $500 diamond ring (friendship, she said, not engagement) that an ex-girlfriend once gave me. I kid you not and she is on my Facebook now, so I hope she doesn’t read this. If you do, Pam, and you want the ring back, just let me know. Okay? No hard feelings?
- An old vial that once contained Xanax but now contains two Tylenol. This is not interesting in and of itself, but the two Tylenol are from my trip to Colorado last year, the one where I got headaches and excess anxiety from the high elevation and swore I’d never set foot in that state again. Well, guess what? I’m refilling the vial with Xanax and Tylenol because I think I’m going back to the Wet Mountain Valley Writers’ Workshop again this summer!
- A check for $104.00 from my health care provider to reimburse me for seeing a psychiatrist. There aren’t a lot of people I know who would be willing to admit on a blog that they see a psychiatrist. But if you know me, I think it becomes apparent that I don’t care what I say. I’ve been seeing my psychiatrist for more than a dozen years, and she, among other things, is the reason I can take that trip to Colorado, not once, but twice. Note: She also gives me the Xanax.
- A checkbook. That’s kind of an obsolete item in these days of paying online. I guess I keep the checkbook around for old times’ sake, just as I keep…
- One feminine napkin and one tampon. I don’t need those anymore, either, but like the checkbook, they remind me of my younger days, which sucked, but still, it was nice to be younger.
- Ooooh, a nice green pen that says, “Solstice MFA Graduate.” I’m very proud of that pen. I worked hard for that pen. I wrote 50,000+ words to get that pen. What an awesome time of life that was, those two years in the Solstice MFA program.
- A receipt from the Stop and Shop for $125 dollars, a good third of which is spent on cat and bunny food, cat and bunny litter, cat and bunny stuff. Thank god my dad left me a little money so I could feed my pets. What’s that, I hear? Oh, it’s just Dad rolling over in his grave.
- A bottle of Ibuprofen, which I don’t take as often as Tylenol, but sometimes you just need Ibuprofen, like when you get a strange nerve ticking in your spine causing a wincing pain in your scalp. What? That doesn’t happen to you? Okay, never mind.
- A wallet full of credit cards and debit cards and licenses (current and expired) and a work ID and receipts I don’t need and coupons I’ll never use. Do you know what is not in my wallet? Cash. I have no cash. I almost never have cash. Who needs cash when a credit card earns you points? For every $5,000 I spend, I get $50 back in my bank account. What a deal!
- An extra set of car keys because twice in my life I’ve lost my keys. In one instance, back in the 1980s, this forced my mother to call an ex-boyfriend of hers to come pick me up, and as a result, they unhappily got back together. She reminds me of this still. Yes, after 30 years she says, “Don’t lose your keys,” and I respond, “What does it matter now? He’s dead, right?”
- I told two women I was writing this blog, “What does a butch have in her purse?” and they both said (apart from one another): Chapstick! Girls, I don’t have any Chapstick. I’m going to take your guesses as a huge compliment that my lips are soft and moist and…well, you know.
- Twelve pounds of coins: pennies, mostly pennies, dimes, nickels, quarters. I added this one in at the suggestion of my friend Suzanne who reminded me that with all of that change, my pocketbook doubles as a dumbbell and I can do weight lifting, thereby, I realized, adding some justification for a butch to carry a purse: she can use it to work out.
I’m not the butch-iest of butches, and it may surprise some of you out there to know that a few of my girlfriends have sworn I was “femme.” I used to wear more makeup, including lipstick, mascara, and eyeliner, so maybe that’s where the confusion lay. I also have muscles, but one girlfriend said to me, “Even your muscles are feminine.” Hmmm…
I don’t mind anymore if someone sees me as butch, or more accurately perhaps, as “soft butch,” meaning I don’t look too masculine. If I were younger, I guess I’d be known as a “boi.” But shit, I’m not younger. But you can call me anything you want, just keep the beautiful women coming. Pun? Let’s not go there.
I’m trying to figure out how to lose this pocketbook, the main appeal of which is knowing everything I need to start a new life is contained within it: credit cards, identification, 12 pounds of change (for toll booths), and a $500 ring to give to the woman of my dreams.
How do the rest of you butches out there get by without a handbag? Please weigh in. And even if you’re not butch, or even gay, I’d be happy to entertain all ideas on how to get rid of my butch’s purse. I feel kind of embarrassed walking around with a purse and flexing my biceps at the same time.
Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston, whose blog, “The Early Draft,” explores a variety of topics, including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia, and humor.