Five Questions With… S. Bear Bergman

S. Bear Bergman is the author of Butch is a Noun, a writer, theatre artist, and educator who tours regularly. Zie’s book, Butch is a Noun, is one of my favorites of the past year because it’s funny, self-ironic, but full of a kind of combination of sadness and love that I found meditative and energizing.

1) I have to say that it was the title of your book, Butch is a Noun, that first caught my attention. Tell me how you came up with it, and why you chose it.

It’s both one of my talents and one of my, er, little problems that I’m a huge language geek. I love words, I love language, and I am always deeply satisfied when I can talk about something well, with good words. But I had a hard time, talking about butch. I would say I’m a butch, and people would hear I’m a butch woman or I’m a butch lesbian. Neither of which is comfortable, or accurate. I kept saying No, listen, I mean that I am a butch, as a noun, all by itself – not a modifier but a thing to them be further described.

For a while, I referred to it as The Butch Book, but I never really liked that as a title, it was just sort of a characterization – an internal shorthand. Then one day, I was applying for some time at a writers’ residency to finish it and when it asked for the project title I somehow just knew: Butch Is a Noun.

2) While I was reading Butch is a Noun, I happened to also be reading The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, and in some ways the two books fit hand-in-glove. What do you think is different about being a butch now as compared to any other time?

Well, for one thing, we have so much better fashion right now. Well, white butches do. White men’s traditional clothes have gotten just stylish enough to be worth wearing; butches of color have really never had that problem in the same way.

No, seriously – I think that the conversations about masculinity is much broader, much richer, in a way that is beginning to include transgressive masculinities. Which, for my money, is great. I also think that as transsexuality has been added to that conversation, butch has also changed – that there is now this rippling undercurrent of thinking that a butch is a middle ground. Butch is getting constructed as more masculine that woman but less masculine than FTM, which I really don’t think is the case at all. I’m not sure that gender and sex have all that much more to do with one another here than anywhere else on the gender continuum.

Personally, I feel that I’m more than ‘sufficiently masculine’ to transition and live as a man, if I cared to – I can even spit and scratch, if I must. :: grin :: I don’t, for specific reasons – largely, related to my desire to keep living in the world as visibly queer. I’m such a culturally-masculine being that if I were to transition in terms of sex I would have to live in the world as a pretty gender-normative man, and I’m not comfortable with that right now – maybe never, but definitely not now.

Sometimes, elder butches ask me if I’m on hormones, if I’m transitioning and when I say No they nod at me approvingly and clap me on the back and say Good for you. But I’m not so comfortable with that, either. I would want to be approved of just as much if I did, or if I ever do, make some medical steps regarding transition. I know that the decision to live in Butch gets seen as a certain kind of choice, but for me it’s where I am, right now, in this moment. I think that Butch Is a Noun is a book for all sorts of masculine things, especially those to exist in a thoughtful considered kind of masculinity – or those who wish to.

3) Despite your being a little bit younger than me, I was pretty amazed by how many of your stories “felt right” to some part of me I left behind in my early 20s, and that only recently I’ve been exploring again. I’ve always chalked that up to having passed as heterosexual. Do you think it’s possible for a het woman to be butch? Why or why not?

Of course, I think it’s possible. I think that any combination of sex and gender is possible – and that many of the more unusual ones are the most delicious. :: grin :: But your masculinity, your butchness, whatever we’re calling it – it’s part of the great big gender game. Everyone’s mileage may vary, there’s really no dealer to see for details, it’s prohibited all over the place but cannot be voided, and no one has seen the warranty in some time, but that’s okay. We hardly miss it.

I’m kind of teasing, but I’m also so serious about this – I really want for people to feel like they can live in whatever gender, or genders, they want, no matter what their sex or sexual orientation or other characteristics are. And if you want to mix it up and be a hearty blend, you should do that, and if anyone gives you a hard time about it – never mind. That’s their stuff. People should be what makes their hearts happy, and not bother about anyone else’s boxes.

4) So tell me about “butch flight” and whether or not it exists.

That’s an intensely subjective question. It’s like asking the whole world How’s the weather today? There’s no way to answer. I think that some people, some geographic or ideologic locations, feel like it exists and some don’t. And some of those think it’s bad and some are neutral about it and some are celebratory.

Again, see above – I think people should do, or be, what they feel called to, and enjoy it, and do it well, and revel in it and not annoy anyone else about their harmless choices. You know? If what someone else is doing isn’t harming you or anyone else – why get saddled up and disapprove of it? Why make someone feel bad for doing what makes them feel good? That’s not kind. It’s not graceful. There’s no honor in that, and no real pleasure, either.

5) Your story about being able to approach a class of kids as a gender-neutral person is really fascinating to me, but in some ways I saw it not only as you registering as “not gendered” to the kids, but also part & parcel of you understanding and having some connection to both genders. There’s an intersection of experience and presentation there that intrigues me – which do you think is more important?

It’s not about being “not gendered.” Not at all. I have a lot of gender – in fact, anyone who needs extra should contact me, because my apartment is small. :: grin :: Ahem.

My ability to work with young men who are oppositional in some way is about me having a gender – that is, butch – with which they have no traction. They can’t perform a gender that bangs against it, as they can with men (by performing a my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours sort of gender, and refusing to be managed) or with women, where they can perform a highly-sexualized, I-know-you-want-it-bitch kind of a gender. Neither of those work on butch – I don’t have a dick (well, not at work), and they don’t want to fuck me. So they get kind of… undermined in their bad behavior. It becomes, somehow, safe to listen to me, and to let me see them.

As far as experience and presentation – they’re both important, they feed from and inform one another. They exist hand in hand. I reach for both of them, and I think that serves me well. Which is what I like – when gender serves me. :: grin ::

If you liked this interview, you can come join the conversation on the boards about Bear’s book and performances, and you can watch zie read the first chapter from Butch is a Noun on YouTube.