Portrait of a Middle-Class Butch Academic

Alexis Clements reviews Esther Newton’s “My Butch Career,” a memoir of the early life and career of an important pioneer in the field of LGBTQ Studies.

Portrait of a Middle-Class Butch Academic

My Butch Career by Esther Newton. Duke University Press Books. 288 pages.

CLASS IS A particularly thorny subject in the United States these days. Certainly it has always been thorny, but it feels especially complex at this moment, when the party controlling the government’s levers has built itself up on ideas of class that make little to no sense, when a billionaire daddy’s boy claims alliance with a “working class” whose only members are white, male manufacturing and industrial workers — a group that makes up only a very slim portion of the

actual working class

, and when neoliberal Democrats flounder around trying to protect their own wealth, along with the war machine, while throwing only a few social issue bones to those struggling to stay afloat in late-stage capitalism. All of this is to say that class, as a political construct and organizing principle, has lost much of its coherence in the United States because so many people doing so much of the talking claim class identities and affiliations that don’t match how they actually live.

That made it all the more surprising to find middle-class status and its implications to be so much of the subject of Esther Newton’s new memoir, My Butch Career. And it’s doubly interesting, because this is a memoir by an LGBTQ woman.

Born in 1940, in New York City, to a mother from an upper-middle-class WASP background, Newton describes herself as having three fathers, all Jewish, from her mother’s multiple marriages and affairs with Jewish men. Of her heritage, Newton has this to say: “I am the prototype of what whiteness became after the Irish and Jews and Italians and Poles elbowed and charmed and fucked their way in.” Describing herself as one of the “bright losers,” Newton did well in school, first in New York City, then in Palo Alto, California, where her mother moved them when Newton was 11. She loved reading from early on, but had no specific intellectual or artistic ambitions as a young person, save a sometimes ambition to write, driven by an awareness that a couple of female forebears on her mother’s side were published writers, and also nudged along by a breathless encounter with John Malcolm Brinnin’s 1959 biography of Gertrude Stein, The Third Rose.

Newton intially focused her college studies on European history, then merged that with African history, ultimately pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago that she assumed would focus on Africa. One of only a few women in the field at the time, she had long struggled with both her sexuality and masculinity. In 1963, she and a fellow grad student, Cal, furtively came out to one another while on what she had assumed was a date. Subsequently, Cal brought her along to the parties and bars that made up his closeted middle-class queer life. It was in one of those bars that she got the idea to begin what would prove to be an incredibly risky but pivotal career move — the pursuit of a PhD dissertation on drag queens, or “female impersonators,” which she completed in 1968, the year before the Stonewall riots.

The heroes of most well-known LGBTQ stories are those at the very bottom, those who responded to police raids in dives and late-night coffee shops with fists, broken glass, and bricks; who adopted butch/femme identities as a survival tactic and a fuck you to heterosexual society. Otherwise, they’re those with enough wealth to do quite a bit of whatever they want, the children of vast enough fortunes to set themselves up in private coteries that helped insulate them from the risks faced by their counterparts further down the socioeconomic ladder. We don’t often hear the stories of middle-class queer women who came of age before Stonewall; we don’t hear those stories for a particular reason: because so very many women who wanted a middle-class existence in that era, chose or felt forced to surrender to middle-class imperatives such as assimilation, sublimation, or a wholesale denial of their queerness.

For those reasons, it’s quite unusual to hold a memoir in one’s hands that chronicles the life of someone floating in the miasma of middle-class queerness without dissembling or pretending to be of a different ilk. Throughout My Butch Career, Newton is remarkably candid about the ways that class has influenced her work and perspective on the historical events unfolding around her. And this awareness is something that Newton has been cultivating since completing that risky dissertation back in the 1960s. Originally titled “The drag queens; a study in urban anthropology,” she went on to adapt and publish it a few years later as the groundbreaking book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. In a profound reflection in the 1972 preface to that book, she has this to say about the ways in which her middle-class experience challenged her ability to see the world in the same way as her subjects — subjects who were often barely or, at best, precariously employed and who lived, even if only partially, flamboyantly out lives that dramatically limited their professional and personal worlds:

Perhaps what needs to be explained is why I was blind where they could see. Here we return to questions posed by normalcy, or middle class culture. Middle class culture seems to me to have built-in social blindness, compounded by arrogance. I was prepared to find the views of deviants interesting, but never seriously considered that they could be correct. In the end, I have tried to let impersonators speak for themselves. They say a great deal about America.

Throughout her work and her life, Newton continued to encounter queer culture across the class spectrum, whether it be the drags queens in that first study; the many moneyed men and women of Cherry Grove, the small resort community on Fire Island that was the first lesbian and gay town in the United States; the activists from mixed backgrounds whom she encounted while exploring her burgeoning political interests; or the intimate lives of her lovers, some of whom moved in circles of wealth and privilege.

While her memoir covers her family history, her uneasy and often difficult relationship with her gender (“I became an anti-girl, a girl refusenik, caught between genders”), and a number of her love affairs, it’s no mistake that a particular emphasis throughout is on her pursuit of a career. Not only was the pursuit of a career the one available, if difficult to achieve, alternative to heterosexual communion and procreation for middle-class women, it was also a way to avoid the fates she observed among the only other butch women she met early in adulthood:

The worst jobs [held by bar butches] were working on loading docks or pimping and selling drugs. I had been raised to think that jobs like that weren’t for people like me. But I didn’t come from wealth, either, and if I was a queer, I wouldn’t have a man to support me. I would have to work. What kind of life could I have? Someone who looked like a butch bar dyke — which is to say, someone who looked so obviously gay — could never have a career.

What’s interesting about her pursuit of a career, as it’s laid out in this memoir, is that it didn’t follow a straight or clear path. Though she knew she needed a career, it doesn’t seem that she had a strong sense of what it would be exactly. And though she was undertaking important academic work from early on, her longtime journaling habit and that early encounter with the figure of Gertrude Stein persisted as a latent desire to be a writer of novels and clever prose. Stein also seemed to counter the example presented by the butches she was meeting and seeing out in bars, offering a glimpse of what it might mean to be a famous butch woman.

History plays a crucial role in 20th-century queer lives, a role that can’t be overstated. And it’s clear that it was crucial in Newton’s queer formation. In particular, it’s the absence and clouding of queer histories that makes it play such an important role. There are all manner of cliché platitudes that note how difficult it can be to form a sense of one’s self and understand what’s possible without first seeing examples, but it’s hard to deny that for many there’s a deep truth in those statements. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard queer women of many ages talk about going to the library to hunt down the handful of books that could be found that discussed the word lesbian, even if they had nothing very positive or motivating to say. This is no doubt the reason why reading that biography of Stein had such a lasting impression on Newton, and returned to the top of her mind when things got rocky early in her professional life.

In the late 1960s, Newton moved back to New York City to finish her dissertation, and in the spring of 1968 she began her first year of full-time teaching at Queens College. She also began to get swept up in the feminist and lesbian organizing that was happening at the time, if tentatively when it came to public events, as she rightly feared there would be consequences in her work life if she was publicly involved in feminist or gay politics. In a bizarre move from the Queens College administration, Newton came up for tenure review after only two years of teaching — not nearly enough time for a young professor to build up a case for permanent employment. The committee reviewing her tenure could not agree, and so she was essentially fired, though she was given a year to find a new job.

The majority of her job interviews didn’t pan out and she feared she might not find work at all, but in the 11th hour, she was given a teaching job at Purchase College, a then-brand-new school in the State University of New York system that was to focus on the arts and liberal arts and that had no distinct departments, no grades, and was filling up primarily with young and idealistic faculty members. But again, when she came up for tenure review in 1973, the committee split, with two older, male senior faculty members recommending that she not be giving tenure because she was “teaching against marriage” and because they viewed her as man-hating — “there is a difference between being a feminist and being anti-male,” one wrote in his letter explaining his feelings about her employment. Here she was again, being rejected for her work, her gender, her presumed sexuality (she was still closeted at work at the time), and her burgeoning politics.

In an unexpected twist of fate that summer, after facing down another job loss just a couple of years into a new position, the president of Purchase College ended up going against the split committee and effectively granting her tenure. But smarting from the blow, along with recent ruptures in her love life, Newton accepted an invitation from a friend to skip town. She ended up in Mexico, where she met a wealthy French woman who became her lover for a number of years — Newton gives her the pseudonym Dominique in the memoir. That summer in Mexico, Newton began to properly cultivate that latent Steinian desire, and her dreams of being tucked into a garret in Paris and communing with other lesbians finally came true a year later, when she got a year off teaching to take herself and a stack of typing paper to stay with Dominique.

In the end, that desire to be Stein did not pan out for Newton. She was neither rich enough nor adept enough at creative writing. When she returned to New York City after a year trying to craft a novel, only to have it judged inadequate, she had this to write: “Scraping together the down payment on a studio apartment back in my home base, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I resigned myself to what felt like defeat.”

What’s particularly interesting about Newton’s sense of failure in becoming the next Gertrude Stein is that her academic writing is incredibly engaging, rich with humor, intimacy, and insight, and free of the pedantic and obtuse language that bogs down most scholarly work. It’s a testament to just how few role models she had, to the persistence of a middle-class desire to attain greatness, to how easily we internalize the lie of American meritocracy, that Newton couldn’t see that she was a writer, just in a different mold. Take for example this passage from her first book, Mother Camp, describing one of the female impersonators whose culture she set out to chronicle:

When Tiger walks, he sways […] His arms never hang “naturally” at his sides, but are held out from his body at rigid angles, with long thin hands projecting like plumes. We walk into a cheap department store; somebody whistles. Tiger turns, one hip hooked out, one arm extended, palm turned up, head thrown back at an angle. He declaims, in a loud stagey voice, “My, the peasants are restless today.” A moment later he leans over toward me with an ironic smile, pats his hair in place: “Should I go home and put more make-up on, or do you think I look fantastic enough already?”

Newton was part of a generation of people who grew up with early 20th-century role models of greatness that often took the figure of powerful men, or in Newton’s case, a powerful masculine woman. But she came of age in a moment when many of her peers were seeking to destroy every old model they encountered and build the world anew. Her own ambitions were pinballing off of the powerful forces of early feminist fervor, lesbian feminist organizing and fucking, as well as the unrelenting misogyny and heterosexism of the institutions in which she was also trying to build an academic life. While Mother Camp is today considered a pioneering and important study of queer culture, it was something of a professional disaster at the moment of its publication. The fact that Newton had chosen queers and Americans as her objects of study led to her being fired from one job, and nearly losing a second. Even Margaret Mead, one of the world’s most well-known anthropologists, tried to warn Newton off this course of study. Mead was one of many contemporaries who held the heavily ethnocentric and racist view that “real” anthropology consisted of a virtually all white cadre of Western academics peering in on “primitive” cultures comprised almost entirely of people of color. As Newton aptly put it in the preface to Mother Camp:

[A]nthropology (and the other social sciences) are the ideological arms of sociopolitical arrangements. […] In general, scholarship reflects and molds the sociopolitical system called a university, and universities are not independent from our social order, but are paid and organized to perpetuate and legitimize it.

This, of course, was an insight Newton gained firsthand when she was considered outside of her universities’ social order and faced an ejection from it.

My Butch Career ends after she returns from France, when she has shed many of the illusions and uncertainties she began with, when the the political fervor of her early adulthood is quieting and the backlash of the ’80s still lay ahead. This is the moment when she begins to settle into her career. At times her telling of these early years can feel freighted with what feel like remnants of her literary ambitions and insecurities, fragmenting as time and voice shift between chapters or topics, and there are moments when she doesn’t always have as much insight into her privileged position as others. But when it comes to the social and queer history unfolding around her, and her role in it, this book offers a layer of nuance and counterpoint that is both illuminating and unique.

In many books about moments of great political change authors either are or pretend to be wholly in line with radical politics. They express no ambiguities and they don’t admit, as Newton does, to standing on the sidewalks instead of heeding the call to step onto the streets. While many readers may not be able to relate to all of Newton’s reactions, and contemporary academics seeking to build a career will smart at her ability to secure full-time employment and enough money to travel and take lengthy periods of time off, the fact that Newton admits to prevaricating invites the reader to examine their own politics and reactions, to look into moments when they’ve stood back or stayed home or cringed at those more radical or poorer than they. It also pushes readers to recognize just how many people who identify as LGBTQ want to have middle-class lives and success, and what that means for the ways in which queer politics have shifted as those things have become easier for some queers to achieve. While most of the stories that drive queer history highlight those who struggle the most or the least, the reality is that those in the middle have an enormous influence on what happens for all queers, for good or for ill, and we’d all do well to think more about the ways that class has shaped our politics since the first struggles began. It’s a testament to just how great an anthropologist and chronicler of queer life she is that Newton makes sure to include the kinds of details that paint a more complete and complex picture of the world as she’s experienced it.


Alexis Clements is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

LARB Contributor

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. A regular contributor to Hyperallergic, her writing has also appeared in The Guardian, SalonBitch Magazine, American Theatre, The Brooklyn Rail, and Nature, among others. She recently started a podcast, The Answer Is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are asked to work. She also recently completed her first feature-length documentary, All We’ve Got, which examines LGBTQ women’s communities and spaces across the US. Learn more about her work at www.alexisclements.com.


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