I have a piece in Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, it’s not my best piece. This is what I wish I could have written for it…
Growing up in Southeast Alaska, people knew what a Native person looked like. My almond-shaped eyes were seen even if they were blue-grey. I could not escape my cheekbones, short stocky body or flat ass, no matter how light my skin is. Most of all, I could not hide the fact that I was from “that” family, the mixed-blood one with both light and dark skin who frequented bars and threw parties until all hours of the night.
I had very few friends growing up, some because I was smart and some because we were mixed-blood. My nose was always in a book and I wanted to talk about things kids my age didn’t. Why only white people got to play Native roles? Why the only Native hero was Billy Jack and why was he white, not played by a mixed-blood? Why did those white men who played Indians in the old movie paint their skin red cause we weren’t red, the closest thing we got to red was mahogany when we were in the sun? Why were boys and girls treated differently? Why were we were “that” family, what made that distinction?
So I spent most of my time alone until I was 9. Reading, wandering the woods and beaches. Playing in the tide pools, watching the killer whales chase the sea lions and sharks during herring season, climbing the rocky cliffs imagining I was climbing a mountain, picking and eating berries until my fingers and mouth were stained blue. Sometimes a neighborhood ballgame would get going and sometimes I was allowed to play, using mud puddles as bases. Mom making my brother and I strip naked at the door, straight to the shower cause we were soaked, filthy, lips blue from the cold.
At 9 I spent most of my spare time working odd jobs to pay for clothes, books, music. There wasn’t much money, so anything extra, I had to pay for. I mowed lawns, stacked wood and did so much babysitting, I often wondered who was raising the kids, me or their parents?
At 15, my parents moved us to the lower 48. The lumber mill where they worked kept going on strike, which we couldn’t afford and my parents were ready to be out of Alaska. I thought I was. But I had spent my entire life surrounded by mixed-bloods and being completely visibly Native wherever I went. I didn’t understand how much that affected me until I no longer had it, until my family’s history was completely invisible and I was no longer seen as Native.
Individuality is erased in whiteness. Your family history, personal struggles, what defines you no longer matters, because you belong to a bigger picture now. And keeping that picture perfect, how you compete with the neighbor next door is more important than anything else. You are a number, yet another face in the crowd. In moving to the lower 48, I had become white and it was unbearably lonely and alienating compared to where I had come from.
In 1991 I moved to San Francisco from Eureka. I was finally free of the rednecks and could come out of the closet without fear of being thrown into a garbage can, chased down the street by a jacked up pick-up truck with a gun rack mounted behind the driver’s seat, or beaten into a bloody pulp. Or so I thought.
I was seen as a 13 year-old boy in the Bay, carded for cigarettes until I was well into my mid-30’s, asked where my parents were and often questioned for the authenticity of my driver’s license. I also played with my gender. Dressing very girly got me called a faggot every time but I was able to keep jobs and find housing. Dressing my natural masculine way got me chased down the street by three white guys wondering if I was a boy or a girl and, by God, they were going to find out. Dressing masculine got me called everything under the sun (fucking Dyke, faggot, queer), beer bottles thrown, fired from jobs, denied housing. Of course it probably didn’t help that I had a red or blue or pink mohawk, tattoos and piercings.
One day, while on the phone with my grandmother, she told me about a group of Tlingits in the bay. I wanted, so desperately, to see those jowls again, the almond shaped eyes and talk about Indian popcorn (dried seaweed), the saltiness of dried fish, the way the air tastes in the summer and every shade of green you have ever seen. I called them up and told them I was mixed-blood from Sitka; a two-spirit, tattooed, pierced, punk because to just show up with a red or blue or pink mohawk and being genderbent was not a good idea.
They told me I could come to gatherings, but there was a high chance I would be asked to leave. There are a few schools of Tlingit; traditionalists, church-goers, and those who do not follow any religion or spirituality. All of them have a strong root of homophobia even though at one point, before colonization, we had more than two genders. I ended up not going to any gatherings; I was already having a hard time adjusting to all the sights, sounds and overwhelming amount of people in the bay. I didn’t want to add to the invisibility by fighting to be accepted as a genderbent two-spirit punk by my own people.
At this point in my life, I made the decision to give up being seen as a mixed-blood, I decided to live my life as a queer only. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth. I was tired of being invisible, tired of fighting people’s perception of my brown hair, blue-grey eyes, light skin and looking like a 13 year-old boy at 22 years old. I didn’t feel like I had the right to claim it with my light skin and eyes. And, in all honesty, I was often told I didn’t have a right to claim it, so I gave up. Let it go and tried to forget.
But I never stopped carrying by blood-quantum/registration card in my wallet. Or hearing my grandmother’s voice about being proud of my heritage, of never forgetting the struggle I come from. Every time I came home, I was reminded of the mix of light/dark skin and what it’s like to have people stop and stare when I say “grandma”, or “uncle” or “auntie”. Reminded what it’s like to be treated like a Native because in Alaska they know what a Native person looks like regardless of skin color.
In 1994, I started working in the warehouse at Good Vibrations, at the time it was a women-owned sex-toy co-op. I was ecstatic, as a mid-20’s queer in San Francisco, it was THE place to work (besides Veritable Vegetable). I picked and packed mail-orders, unpacked boxes and boxes of toys, books and videos, entered the UPS manifest (my first real computer experience), and eventually helped manage inventory. It was a dream to work with an all queer, mostly female-bodied crew.
Butch/Femme was strong in the 90’s and talk in the warehouse at Good Vibes was about the Fairy Butch show and what folks were going to wear to an event. I mostly kept quiet during these discussions; my views on butches were not popular. What I had seen about butches up to this point was rather sexist and demeaning to all female bodied people, which included me. Besides, if my mother heard one of those butches speak to a femme the way I heard when I was out, she would have smacked them upside the head, grabbed their ear and dragged them off to wash their mouth out with soap.
What I’ve been taught of masculinity comes from my father (step-father but he raised me as his own) who is caring, kind, supportive, gentle, loving. Always giving kisses and hugs to all of us kids, regardless of gender, even as adults. His mannerisms are what drew my mother to him when I was 2 and he has taught the other men in my family that it’s ok to show these traits. Alaskan men are tough, thoroughly seasoned by accidents waiting to happen but my dad often spoke about a fragileness in men that is not found in women and showed his admiration for them because of this. He admired them because they are what make him, as a man, strong.
One of my co-workers cornered me one day. Starting an argument lasting for days, months even, with me on the definition of Butch and how, no matter how much I wanted to deny it, I was butch. Back and forth we went, like a freaking tennis match about sexism and how the origin of the term is pretty white working class, how exclusive it is to folks who grew up like myself. My co-workers were like family, they knew of my mixed-blood heritage, but I’m not sure they really understood how much it was a part of my life or how much it affected me. In the course of these conversations, they started to understand and in between the arguing about being butch, we started talking about mixed blood.
My co-worker is Mexican/Italian mix and was heavily involved in a two-spirit group in the East Bay. I started asking questions and she stopped talking. Until we got around another co-worker who was Mexican and didn’t pass like I did. Then as heavily as she argued with me about being Butch, she argued with her about accepting her indigenous roots and coming to a sweat. Every time I asked her why she never asked me to a sweat, she said it was an honor and privilege to be asked. If I deserved it, she would ask me to come. One day.
My other co-worker and I were good friends. We often hung out and had long talks about dark and light skin, what makes a person of color and why she was so pushed to go to a sweat when she didn’t want to and I clearly did. We would go to dinner at this place near the Castro and do experiments to see if we could get the waiter (same one every time) to give the check to my friend instead of me. He never stopped giving me the check and never looked her in the eye. It was the first time a person with darker skin outside of my family acknowledged that I was Native and had the right to claim my heritage. I was 25 years old.
It took almost 6 months of asking my co-worker why she didn’t invite me to a sweat, before I was invited. It took 6 months of arguing about the identity of butch before I was willing to concede but first I had to read Stone Butch Blues to understand that the fragileness my dad always talked about was a part of butch masculinity and that I did, indeed, carry it.
I’ve been following the good red road and identifying with Butch for 19 years now. I’ve defined these things and redefined them. I try to own my skin privilege to open doors for discussions around race and my masculinity to redefine what it means to be masculine. Even though I still use the term butch as a part of my identity, I more often use the term two-spirit. It gives me more room to slide around on the gender spectrum while owning the red road and that I am Native. But the two things I never forget, that are always with me, are my grandmother’s words and the responsibility of acknowledging the privilege I carry as a white-looking masculine person of color.