What’s in a butch’s purse?

The Early Draft

Cindy Zelman

Is it as egotistical as I think to include a photo of myself?

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.”


These aren’t big enough to hold all my stuff

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.

Stone Butch Blues

One of the most beautiful books you could ever read

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.

At the bottom of my butch’s purse

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.

18 Responses to “What’s in a butch’s purse?”

  1. NNG

    Sounds like the best segue for you may be a messenger bag. It’s got all the function of a purse, but adds a touch of business class and includes room for your laptop and Kindle. There’s still plenty of side pockets for the items you may not want to fall out at the coffee counter.

  2. Davi

    I’m neither butch nor femme (genderqueer, more like it) who likes androgyny. So that means jeans too tight for pockets but certainly no purse over the shoulder for the things I would keep in there (list below). I have one of those little across the shoulder canvas bags, about 12″ x 8*, taller rather than wide. Works great, androgynous, guys and girls can wear them, they aren’t designer and so are pretty easy on the pocketbook. Problem solved! As for what’s inside:

    Pocketbook. Red leather, bought it in Florence on a splurge. Very buttery indeed.
    Android phone, sometimes charger
    Keys (house, car, motorcycle 🙂
    Single eyeglasses case for alternating sunnies and prescription eyeglasses as needed
    Box of mints
    Formerly a pack of cigs and lighter


    • Cindy Zelman

      Well, Davi, you are a lot more efficient than I am with what you carry in your bag! What about my Xanax? My Tylenol? My Klonopin? All of my credit card receipts for the last five years? My credit cards, my debit cards, my store cards, my useless, expired license? My five pound key chain with a kazillion keys? I could go on. I will try to take a lesson from you, however. I admire your efficiency. Did you say you bought a red leather pocketbook in Florence? Did I read that right??? 🙂

  3. KD

    Im allergic to purses… Im almost positive of this. Even when my Mother In Law requests that I hold her purse, I totally expect to break out in hives. I take my chances and hold it anyway, because I like her, but I’m sure I look like countless guys charged with the task… holding it away from myself like I’ll catch something from it. Before I started college, I got away with just a backpack for school. When I was a “grown up”, my mom decided I must have one, so she bought me a green denim one, because green is my favorite color and I always wore jeans. Perfect, right? I came home to find it on the dining room table and Mom was so proud of herself. “What’s that for?” “You! Youre in college now, so you really need one of these.” “That is what my back pack is for.” “No, you will be going places and you can’t take your back pack everywhere.” “Why can’t I?” “Just humor me and use it.” I think it lasted a semester of uneasy near hives before I decided it was just not me… Oh, this is before I realized just who and what I was. Now, I can see how much of my past was being somebody I wasn’t just to make other people happy. After years of being jealous of my big brother wearing cargo shorts, I finally got to the “to hell with what other people think, I’m gonna be me”, and bought some for myself. Eureka! Not only are the damn things comfortable and durable, but I can carry all the stuff I need in the big pockets! This conversion to sensible fashion has come in really handy since I began having my 5 back surgeries, because even my beloved back pack is a bad idea with a spine that is shot. God help me… if cargos (pants for the cooler weather) go out of style, I’m totally SOL.

    • Cindy Zelman

      Hi KD. I loved your story. I admire how you overcame all that pressure and bought the cargo shorts, how you became yourself. It seems we all need to go through that period of becoming who we are. I’m sorry your back is shot, and I hope you feel better. I don’t think cargo pants will every go out of style.

      Thanks for reading. Cindy

      • KD

        Hi Cindy,
        I’m glad you liked my story. This blog was my intro to your work and it spoke to me and was more entertaining than the other voices in my head (ha ha), so now I’m hooked on your writing. You have no one to blame but yourself for having me as a new fan. I’ll try following you on Facebook, but that is probably as scary as I get… honest. Thanks for sharing your humor and unique perspective. I look forward to reading more.

        -Kris Domich

  4. Heather

    I just carry a really small wallet that fits in my pocket. Phones seem to be getting bigger again so sometimes that poses a problem depending on the pants I’m wearing. Mostly I get everything I need from my wife’s purse and often times throw my phone, keys, wallet, sunglasses, etc. in her bag 🙂

    • Cindy Zelman

      Ohhhhhhh….you throw your stuff in your WIFE’s purse. Hahahaha… Heather, what would you do with all that stuff if you didn’t have a wife with a purse? I don’t have a wife, just a purse. I can’t stand it. But you all are giving me great ideas. Thank you for reading.

  5. Charlie

    I was just going to say messenger bag, or backpack. Backpacks have the added bonus of giving you that eternal student look.

  6. Cindy Zelman


    I like the idea of messenger bags and/or back packs. Neither is overly femmey and both will give me the space I need for all of my stuff/junk/necessities. Thank you for the suggestion and thank you for reading.


  7. Michelle Hampton

    Hilarious…yes keep the beautiful women coming. 🙂 A satchel, messenger bag, lots of man purse options out there. Sure you’ll figure it out. I know I dropped the purse thing, like, I don’t know, a decade ago. Good Writing!!

    • Cindy

      Michelle Hampton, it’s great to hear from you. Thanks for the kind words and for reading. I hope you’ve been well. Cindy

  8. Chris

    I’ve got a messenger bag for “work” and a backpack for travelling. Other than that, wallet and phone can go in pockets and my keys are on a lanyard. Occasionally, I get to put my stuff in somebody’s handbag or purse

    • Cindy Zelman

      Hi Chris,

      I’m getting a lot of suggestions for messenger bags. I’ll need to check those out. I also have a book bag, which I didn’t mention in my piece. That, too, is full of “stuff.”

      Thanks for reading.

  9. krissy

    When I was a kid the pockets of my jeans and hoodies sufficed but this was before cell phones and I never had a pen or a tampon when I needed one. I used to lose my keys a lot. Its hard to find androgynous purses and messenger bags are used as straps to mug people! Society is slowly coming around to the idea of a butch with a purse but I do get looked at funny.

    • Cindy Zelman

      Oh my gosh, you never had a tampon when you needed one? That could be a problem, hahahaha. I didn’t know the straps on messenger bags were used to mug people. That’s terrible. It is weird having a purse, isn’t it? Thank you for reading, Krissy.

  10. Cindy Zelman

    Geez, Kris’ what a lovely comment. I hadn’t checked back here till now. Thank you so much. Cindy PS Glad I beat out the other voices in your head. 🙂


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