Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold
Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis
1994 (originally published 1993) • 464 pages • Penguin Books
Bowie among us, it hasn’t been that long since I read a book by academics for academics. I read Black Space like two months ago! And yet, reading Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold brought me straight (HA!) back to my days at Agnes, powering through academic texts because I had to.
Not that I am not interested in the subject of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold—queer history (specifically, the 1940s and 1950s working class lesbian community of Buffalo, New York) with a heaping helping of oral history? Yes please. It’s a major academic text in queer history. But—emphasis on the academic. I’ve been so used to accessible, even lyrical writing in nonfiction and queer history (this is as good a time as any to recommend J. Bryan Lowder’s Slate epic, “What Was Gay?”) that coming back to the precise and polite hemming and hawing traditional academic writing demands just feels a little weird.
I don’t bring this up to sniff at Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold in some anti-intellectual exercise. (I literally can’t; my French blood will not let me.) I’m just kind of astonished that this is the first book I’ve read post-college that’s so dense that I can feel the strain of my mental facilities doing something they haven’t done in years. I haven’t lost the touch, but I’ve lost my facility with it.
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold is definitely worth it, though, even just to hear the stories of these women’s lives from their own lips. It’s a foundational text for a reason. It attempts to actively engage with the rigid butch-femme dynamic so prevalent in mid-century American lesbian culture instead of dismissing it in order to find out why and how it was created and enforced. And it shows a rare side to civil rights pioneers (as many of these women are, having physically claimed space for lesbian women in public in the twenty years covered here) as these women express jealousy of the younger generation reaping the rewards of their labor.
The former is particularly fascinating to me, as someone sitting pretty on contemporary queer culture with its diverse array of gender presentation. Kennedy and Davis go back to the drawing board on modern ideas about queer sexuality to divine why it was so tied up in gender identity. In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century texts regarding sexuality, homosexuality was only conceived of as an irregularity in gender identity: therefore, in their eyes, only a butch woman could be a lesbian. A femme in love with a butch was merely responding to the appropriate, “masculine” presence. Despite that strange logic (it’s still a same-sex relationship!), it’s nonetheless repeated by several narrators (as Kennedy and Davis deem their interviewees in their exhaustive introduction) when they refer to couples as “lesbians and their girlfriends.” And it seems like, in this particular community, that butch solidarity was much more coherent than femme solidarity due to the fact that it took courage to present as butch. Femmes, with their ability to pass as straight, were seen as integral but, perhaps, ephemeral.
And the latter is just heartbreaking. As much as I think the focus on legal marriage equality was, more often than not, a slice of respectability politics that distracted from bigger issues facing the queer community, it’s still something that I have access to that my queer foremothers did not, generally, have access to. Several narrators talk about the frustrations they faced not having any legal claim to shared property when a relationship went sour or, even more heartbreakingly, children they raised and loved. We so often portray civil rights pioneers as grateful for the chance to make room for their heirs, but it’s devastatingly refreshing to see these women express bitterness and jealousy towards young lesbians in the late eighties and nineties whose lives are easier than theirs. (Although still difficult.)
Twenty-two years on, it has become dated: it’s a little infuriating to watch Lavosky and Davis attempt to discuss women who passed as men without any seeming facility for trans issues. (There may be a slight explanation in that they focused only on women who still identified as lesbian, leaving out any number of queer women who identified differently and any trans men who may have been part of the community but had since transitioned.) And it’s hard to get into, especially for people unused to academic textbooks. But it’s still a wonderful resource and a picture of a lesbian community much, much different than queer communities today.
(Look, I managed to get through the whole review without gnashing my teeth about how spelling “femme” “fem” irritates my French-American soul! Oh, darn it.)
I rented this book from the public library.