Esther’s Butch Career

I first met Esther Newton at an armory.

The occasion was the opening keynote of the OutWrite ‘92 (or was it OutWrite ‘93?) conference in Boston.  She and a companion sat in the row just in front of me and I recognized her name from the name tag.

As we waited for the speaker we exchanged conversation.  Per the usual niceties, I told her I was from Flint, and she said she’d earned her undergrad at the University of Michigan.  I must’ve mentioned that I’d written the history appendix for the study From Invisibility to Inclusion: Opening the Doors for Lesbians and Gay Men at the University of Michigan, better known as the Lavender Report.  I remember promising to send her a copy of the report when I got home.

So far as I know, I did.

Now 27 (or 26?) years later, I’ve found myself engrossed in Esther’s new memoir, My Butch Career, published in November by Duke University Press.

Having developed a friendship with her over the years, I’ll refer to her as Esther.  I hope this is okay.

In her very personal book, Esther examines growing up in New York with Leftist parents who pushed her to achieve intellectually and professionally.  She s admirably mindful of the social privilege in which she came of age.

Esther grew up a tomboy, modeling her masculinity after her adoptive father Saul, whose stature and manner she strove to emulate.  Social disapproval be damned.

Meanwhile, Esther navigated the estrangement she felt from her mother Virginia, emotionally crushed after her marriage to Saul ended in divorce following World War II.

I next met Esther in Kalamazoo in 1997, when she and her partner Holly Hughes had guest professor gigs at K-College, Holly’s alma mater.  Holly is a native of Saginaw, and had returned to Michigan to teach performance art after enduring the hostility and trauma of having her arts grant revoked as part of the vicious Culture Wars of the early 1990s.

I did a profile of them for Between The Lines, exploring the difference on campus since Holly had attended and highlighting their role as “Bigshot Outsiders.”   West Michigan was a long way from the East Village.

In our interview, Esther told me about the traumatic experience she had at U of M in the late 1950s, when University officials engaged in major crackdowns on homosexual activity.  Esther herself was the target of punitive surveillance by the dean of women.

my butch career cover
My Butch Career.

A memoir differs from oral history as a means of queer remembering.  Oral history recollections are typically in response to questions and prompts from an interviewer.  Answers are spontaneous and subject to lapses of the moment.

Writers craft memoirs through a more extended process, with time to muse and reflect, time for details to emerge and accumulate, details which might not come to the fore on a given day.  The memoirist may also take a more active role in shaping the overall narrative, mindful of audience and message in ways someone voicing their stories on the fly might not.

Esther’s account of her time at U of M captures her first lesbian sexual experience of being seduced by “Betty,” an older, art school student who wore black eyeliner and hung with the Beatnik crowd in the Union.  Before long, Esther discovered the gay bars of 1950s Greenwich Village and started identifying as a butch.

When Dean of Women Deborah Bacon got word of Esther being seen in a telephone booth with another reputed lesbian, she threatened to have Esther expelled, but instead had her kicked out of her elite residents hall and moved her to a dorm with all the troubled students.

Her experience in Ann Arbor plus the social expectations of grad school drove her into self-concealment even as she pursued pioneering anthropological research at the University of Chicago into the gay male world of female impersonation.

Esther landed a tenure-track job at the new SUNY-Purchase campus in Westchester County, frustrated by marginalization and homophobia.  She found more fulfillment in the rise of lesbian feminism in New York in the early 1970s.

A capstone experience of my undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan was taking a course called Queer in America with Esther, and co-taught by Gayle Rubin.  Esther insisted that we all learn to do PowerPoint presentations, a skillset that has served me well. I remember sitting in polite apprehension as one of my classmates presented on my “Cars and Bars” essay.  A bizarre class session indeed.

Perhaps the most profound part of Esther’s memoir is the gorgeously evoked relationship with Dominique, with whom she had a five-year cross-Atlantic romance.  Sex and French feminisms and sex and questing for Gertrude Stein and sex.

Then there’s Esther at 35 meeting Hèléne, age 80, in the French countryside, their recognition and generational chasm evidence in a single glance.

Spring break last year, Esther let me stay over with her in a lesbian retirement community in Florida where she winters.  She greeted me at the gate in the golf cart she used to get around. I regret we had only a short visit chatting in her luxurious armchairs, her prize poodles nearby, before it was time to sleep.

The next morning I woke early, made my bed, and slipped out as quietly as I could.

She is a formidable scholar of striking and stern beauty.  I am fortunate and grateful to know her.

Get a copy of My Butch Career and delve into a past that belongs to Esther personally and, thanks to her generous sharing, to all of us queer folk collectively.

Read it.  Relish it.

Tim Retzloff

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