Dykes in Tuxes: part 1, the Tony Awards

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Like most of us, ever since the Diane Sawyer Interview and Vanity Fair Cover I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, about appropriation of clothes and image, about what constitutes “sexy” and for whom.

Although it is more fair to say I think about that stuff all the time. Those questions, about sex and gender and power, are at the heart of how I understand feminism as an analysis of power in my society. Not Feminism as an identity (are you or aren’t you) or Feminism as a set of answers. Feminism as a series of hard, honest-as-possible questions. Uncomfortable questions – cause if you’re entirely comfortable with your answers, you haven’t asked the right question yet. The closer an issue is to our core, to our understanding of our place in the world, the more important it is that we ask the uncomfortable questions.

And I have a lot of uncomfortable questions to ask about gender as it is playing out in the current social debates.

But first, another pop-culture event of the moment, the Tony Awards, for which I hauled my tiny little tv and Roku downstairs and then had to pay $6 to CBS for “Full Access” because I don’t have cable. This year, for the first time, this show and its entire artistic and power structure had actual relevance to my life. For the first time, Dykes, not just the occasional gay women or bit lesbian roles, but Dykes were onstage and in the award program. I had considered not watching, because I’m going to see the show next week and didn’t want to watch only one production number isolated and in advance. But then the Fun Home team insisted on “Ring of Keys” as their song in the show, and Sunday at 9 pm became a Dyke Cultural Moment, which are damn near otherwise extinct.

Of course I was sobbing even before the first note was sung. As in sobbing-gasping- for-breath. Scaring my dog sobbing. Sobbing that comes from a place in my heart that was empty and hollow and just waiting for words and images to fill it.

Which is what Alison Bechdel has been doing for us, for dykes, since all of us were young and high on the energy created when hundreds of thousands of women were coming out all across the country within just a few years. I was in Madison Wisconsin then, a perfect place to be for who I was and who I wanted to grow to be, and when I first walked into one of the Dyke Dance parties I could only stand there in awe and a little fear and, and,

And, honestly, searching for words I didn’t have yet. Which is why that moment in “Ring of Keys” when Young Alison sings “I feel” and then stumbles, having no words, broke me open.

That moment, and then the word swagger. Do you know how deeply swagger is a Dyke word?

I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
I am the dragon, the dangerous dagger
I am the bulldyke, the bulldagger.
Judy Grahn

Swagger – it’s sexual, it’s cocky, it’s Male, it’s pirate-ly. One swaggers only when one owns not only one’s body but also the entire space around the body. It is the direct opposite of femininity and mincing along in high heels.* Swagger is the lesbian appropriation of the male power to claim the body, claim the space, be open and proud and loud. Swagger is utterly direct evidence that Lesbians were creating this show.

Before sobbing all during the song and again after it members of Dyke Nation were carefully scanning every audience shot, especially as Fun Home started racking up awards. Where was Alison? She was there, we all knew, but why weren’t they showing her?? Someone texted a link to Urvashi Vaid’s twitter feed in which Alison was shown on the red carpet. With a backpack on. Oh goddess yes!

And then Fun Home had won Best Musical and the whole cast and crew were onstage and still WHERE THE HELL WAS ALISON? Then someone pushed her forward and there she was, her handsome butch self, in a tux, young-Alison’s very fantasy of being a GQ cover image.

And there I was crying again, such violent gratitude for even this one little Butch Dyke moment in the world of violent silencing. For, as performer Sara Felder pointed out, even as Fun Home was winning there was still a wall of silence:

Yet another Tony Awards reflection:
What does it mean to name and be named?
Considering the large wins for Fun Home and Curious Incident, i don’t think I heard the words: ‘queer, dyke, gay, homosexual, butch’ (nor from Curious Incident – autism spectrum.) Even the description of Fun Home from the Grey family, managed to describe it without saying the words. (Yes, I know he came out as gay recently, so there was an implication there.) I missed the first hour so I assume I missed this? or…? It’s interesting to me because it is such a huge step towards lesbian/butch visibility… yet… was it there and I missed it? Surprising, right? (Sara Felder, Facebook post, June 8th, 2015)

And of course Sara didn’t miss it. There wasn’t an it. So ok, maybe it isn’t the job of an awards show to fully acknowledge all the social-change implications of a musical or play. But in an evening when Alan Cumming was making ENDLESS JOKES ABOUT HIS BISEXUAL DESIRES, the gaping difference between gay and lesbian realities was, well, gaping.

And don’t get me started on the absence of dykes and butches. We don’t exist. There was a time when the phrases “butch dyke” or “bull dyke” or “bull dagger” were thrown around publicly as the ultimate cultural put-downs, THE way to scare women by flinging up images of the MONSTERS they’d become if they turned gay. Before that time, in closeted underground Dyke Time, butch dyke was a real thing, a known way for a human female to be, but then that knowledge was erased. And, to my own shame years later, the eraser was driven in large part by the lesbian feminist culture I embraced when I came out. We wore jeans and flannel shirts and men’s shoes and decried all that was feminine but derided older Butches for being “too male.”**

Yep, my own tribe tried to erase swagger. For a while, at least, but swagger couldn’t be fully kept down. Swaggering is too much fun, and once one feels the freedom of swaggering it is impossible to forget. Swaggering has meant many different things over the years in between, associated with “lost bar dyke” culture, “scary publicly sexual dyke” culture, and “jock dyke” culture. These days there is an active effort to reclaim Butch in face of the FTM activism, as evidenced in the Butch Voices movement.

For To Swagger is to be Butch. To be public. To insist on taking up space, on being seen, even if not named, as in the Tony Awards.

A quick quiz – name 2 items of clothing that represent Butchly Swagger.
1. Tux, and not the cut-to-fit-model-female-body-breasts-hanging-out tux but a real tux
2. The wallet or keys or both hanging on the chain from the belt loop. Which, of course, requires having clothing that has belt loops.

Sunday night we had both, of course, along with silence. The words “butch” and “dyke” don’t belong in the verses of “Ring of Keys,” because the strength of the song is how Young Alison doesn’t the vocabulary for what she nonetheless inherently knows. Of course, we Dykes watching knew the Butch being seen, both from the comic strip and from the actual panel in Fun Home:

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We saw her there on stage, that big ole’ butch, knew she had swaggered in and would swagger out again. Did anyone else SEE her? I have no way of knowing, although I always suspect not. I am so grateful to the writers for using swagger repeatedly in the chorus, for letting it carry the cultural significance of referring to the swaggering bull dyke more strongly than anything else that’s ever existed on a mainstream stage. (Or even most gay or lesbian stages – playwright Carolyn Gage has written about this extensively. For an overview of her work, watch her narrated slide show “The Butch Visibility Project,” which is embedded below.)

I do know the world saw Alison herself on stage, even if they weren’t sure what they were seeing, and even if Fun Home was rushed off the stage so a song from Jersey Boys could come on. And I do know that, in the middle of a sea of hyper-determined-gender outfits Alison was in a tux.

Of course.

Cause can you in any way imagine her (or Mo) in one of those dresses?

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coming up in part 2:

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*Although, to be fair, I have seen jocks forced into heels for family functions swagger in those heels, in which case the femininity becomes an uncomfortable costume and the pointy shoes take on a weapon-like quality.

**I think a lot about why this happened. These days I’m pinning it on class. Those old dykes were pretending to be men, the argument went, whereas we are appropriating male power and freedom. The difference being we had gone to college and read books about it.