abcabcabc Bathrooms, Butches, and the Aesthetics of Female Masculinity | AUGUR ◆ Estudios Visuales
Delia Grace Jack Unveiled, 1994 Gelatin-silver print, 24 x 20 inches (61 x 50.8 cm) Courtesy of the artist
Arte contemporáneo, Documentos 1

Bathrooms, Butches, and the Aesthetics of Female Masculinity


By: Judith Halberstam.


Recently, on my way to give a talk in Minneapolis, I had to make a connection at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Feeling the need to use the facilities, to freshen up, to relieve myself, and other euphemisms, I strode purposefully into the women’s bathroom. No sooner had I entered the stall than someone was knocking on the door: “Open up, security here!” As soon as I spoke, the two guards realized their error, mumbled apologies, and took off. I understood immediately what had happened. Once again, I had been mistaken for a man or a boy, and some woman (fearing what exactly?) had called security. On that same trip, in Denver’s new airport, the same sequence of events was repeated.

Needless to say, the policing of gender within bathrooms is intensified in the realm of the airport, where people are literally moving through space and time in ways that cause them to want to stabilize some boundaries (gender) even as they traverse others (state). However, having one’s gender challenged in the women’s rest room is a frequent occurrence in the lives of many androgynous or masculine women. Indeed, it is so frequent that one wonders whether the category “woman” when used to designate public functions is completely outmoded. [1]

It is no accident that travel hubs become zones of intense scrutiny and observation. But gender policing within airport bathrooms is merely an intensified version of a larger “bathroom problem.” The bathroom problem makes all its participants aware of otherwise invisible gender standards and their violation and brings us all up against the laws that bind women to femininity. The accusation, “You’re in the wrong bathroom,” really says two different things. First, it announces that your gender seems at odds with your sex (your apparent masculinity or androgyny is at odds with your supposed femaleness); second, it suggests that single-gender bathrooms are only for those who fit clearly into one category (male) or the other (female).

Della Grace. <strong><em>Jacks Back</em>, </strong>1994<br />
Gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches (61 x 50.8 cm)
Della Grace. Jack's Back, 1994
Gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches (61 x 50.8 cm)

The frequency with which I and others I know are mistaken for men in public bathrooms suggests that a large number of feminine women spend a large amount of time and energy policing masculine women. Something very different happens, of course, in the men’s public toilet, where the space is more likely to become a sexual cruising zone than a site for gender repression. Lee Edelman, in an essay about the interpenetration of nationalism and sexuality, argues that “the institutional men’s room constitutes a site at which the zones of public and private cross with a distinctive psychic charge.” [2] Noting the significance of the juxtaposition of public urinals with private stalls, Edelman comments: “Indeed, the effort to provide a space of privacy interior to the men’s room itself, a space that would still be subject to some degree of public regulation and control, had encouraged by 1964 the increasing popularity of the coin-operated toilet stall within the public washroom.” [3] The men’s room, in other words, constitutes both an architecture of surveillance and an incitement to desire, a space of potential homosocial interaction and homoerotic interaction.

Sex-segregated bathrooms may be necessary to protect women from male predations, but they also produce and extend a rather outdated notion of a public/private split between male and female society. [4] The bathroom is a domestic space beyond the home that comes to represent domestic order, or a parody of it, out in the world. The women’s bathroom accordingly becomes a sanctuary of enhanced femininity, a “little-girl’s room” to which one retreats to powder one’s nose or fix one’s hair. The men’s bathroom signifies as the extension of the public nature of masculinity—it is precisely not domestic even though the names given to the sexual space of the bathroom—such as “cottage” or “tearoom”—suggest it is a parody of the domestic. The codes that dominate within the women’s bathroom are primarily gender codes; in the men’s room they are sexual codes. Private gender versus public sex, discretely repressive versus openly sexual, bathrooms beyond the home take on the proportions of a gender factory. Marjorie Garber comments upon the liminality of the bathroom in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety in a chapter on the perils and privileges of crossdressing. Here, Garber discusses the very different modes of passing and cross-dressing for crossidentified genetic males and females, [5] and she observes that the rest room is a “potential Waterloo” for both female-to-male (FTM) and male-to-female (MTF) cross-dressers and transsexuals. [6] For the FTM, the men’s room represents the most severe test of his ability to pass, and advice frequently circulates within FTM communities about how to go unnoticed in male-only spaces. Garber notes: “The cultural paranoia of being caught in the ultimately wrong place, which may be inseparable from the pleasure of ‘passing’ in that same place, depends in part on the same cultural binarism, the idea that gender categories are sufficiently uncomplicated to permit self-assortment into one of the two ‘rooms’ without deconstructive reading.” [7] It is worth pointing out here (if only because Garber does not) that the perils for passing FTMs in the men’s room are very different from the perils of passing MTFs in the women’s room. On the one hand, the FTM in the men’s room is likely to be less scrutinized because men are not quite as vigilant about intruders as women, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, if caught, the FTM may face some version of gender panic from the man who discovers him, and it is quite reasonable to expect and fear violence in the wake of such a discovery. The MTF, by comparison, will be more scrutinized in the women’s room but possibly less open to punishment if caught. Because the FTM ventures into male territory with the potential threat of violence hanging over his head, it is crucial to recognize that the bathroom problem is much more than a glitch in the machinery of gender segregation and is better described in terms of the violent enforcement of our current gender system.

Garber’s reading of the perilous risks of using rest rooms for both FTMs and MTFs develops out of her introductory discussion of what Jacques Lacan calls “urinary segregation.” [8] Lacan, we may recall, uses the term to describe the relations between identities and signifiers, choosing the simple diagram of the rest-room signs “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” to show that, within the production of sexual difference, primacy is granted to the signifier over that which it signifies; in more simple terms, naming confers rather than reflects meaning. In the same way, the system of urinary segregation creates the very functionality of the categories “men” and “women.” While rest-room signs seem to serve and ratify distinctions that already exist, in actual fact these markers produce identifications within these constructed categories. Garber latches onto the notion of urinary segregation because it helps her to describe the processes of cultural binarism within the production of gender; for Garber, transvestites and transsexuals challenge this system by resisting the literal translation of the signs “Ladies” and “Gentlemen.” Garber uses the figures of the transvestite and the transsexual to show the obvious flaws and gaps in a binary gender system; the transvestite as interloper creates, for Garber, a “third space of possibility” within which all binaries become unstable. [9] Unfortunately, as in all attempts to break a binary by producing a third term, Garber’s third space tends to stabilize the other two. Edelman also turns to Lacan’s term “urinary segregation” in his discussion of the “tearoom,” but he uses Lacan’s diagram to mark heterosexual anxiety “about the potential inscriptions of homosexual desire and about the possibility of knowing or recognizing whatever might constitute ‘homosexual difference.’  [10] While for Garber, it is the transvestite who marks the instability of the markers “Ladies” and “Gentlemen,” for Edelman, it is the passing homosexual who does so.

Both Garber and Edelman, interestingly enough, seem to fix upon the men’s room as the site of these various destabilizing performances. As I am arguing here, however, focusing exclusively on the drama of the men’s room avoids the much more complicated theater of the women’s room. Garber writes of urinary segregation: “For transvestites and transsexuals, the ‘men’s room’ problem is really a challenge to the way in which such cultural binarism is read.” [11] She goes on to list some cinematic examples of the perils of urinary segregation, discussing scenes from Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982), Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972), and Female Impersonator Pageant (1975). Garber’s examples are odd illustrations of “the men’s-room problem” if only because at least one of her examples, Tootsie, demonstrates gender policing in the women’s room. Also, Garber makes it sound as if vigorous gender policing happens in the men’s room while the women’s room is a more benign zone. She notes, “In fact, the urinal has appeared in a number of fairly recent films as a marker of the ultimate ‘difference’—or studied indifference.”  [12] Obviously, Garber is drawing a parallel here between the conventions of gender attribution within which the penis marks the “ultimate difference”; however, by not moving beyond this remarkably predictable description of gender differentiation, she overlooks the main distinction between gender policing in the men’s room and in the women’s room. Namely, in the women’s room, not only the MTF but all gender-ambiguous females are scrutinized, while in the men’s room, biological men are rarely deemed out of place. Garber’s insistence that there is a third space of possibility occupied by the transvestite closes down the possibility that there may be a fourth, fifth, sixth, or one-hundredth space beyond the binary. In fact, the “women’s-room problem” (as opposed to the “men’s-room problem”) indicates a multiplicity of gender displays even within the supposedly stable category of “woman.”

What gender, then, are the hundreds of people born female who are consistently not read as female in the women’s room? And since so many women clearly fail the women’s-room test, why have we not begun to count and name the genders that are clearly emerging at this time? One could answer this question in two ways: On the one hand, we do not name and notice new genders because as a society we are committed to maintaining a binary gender system. On the other hand, we could also say that the failure of “male” and “female” to exhaust the field of gender variation actually ensures the continued dominance of these terms. Precisely because virtually nobody fits the definitions of male and female, the categories gain power and currency. Finally, as I suggested in relation to Garber’s arguments about transvestism, “thirdness” merely balances the binary system and, furthermore, tends to homogenize many different gender variations under the banner of “other.”

It is remarkably easy in this society to not look like a woman; it is relatively difficult, by comparison, to not look like a man. So another question posed by the bathroom problem might be, what makes femininity so approximate and masculinity so precise? Or to pose the question with a different spin, why is femininity easily impersonated or performed while masculinity seems resistant to imitation? Of course, this formulation does not easily hold and, indeed, quickly collapses into the exact opposite: Why is it, in the case of the masculine woman in the bathroom, that one finds the limits of femininity so quickly while the limits of masculinity in the men’s room seem fairly expansive?

We might tackle these questions by thinking about the effects, social and cultural, of reversing gender typing. In other words, what are the implications of male femininity and female masculinity? In “Reading the Male Body,” Susan Bordo laments that “when masculinity gets symbolically ‘undone’ in this culture, the deconstruction nearly always lands us in the territory of the degraded, while when femininity gets symbolically undone, the result is an immense elevation in status.” [13] This changes the

terms of gender irreversibility slightly; here Bordo seems to suggest that even a hint of the feminine sullies male masculinity while all masculinizations of femaleness are elevating. (I think my bathroom example proves that this is not so.) Her examples of elevated masculine females include the heroines of Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), and Sigourney Weaver in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1986). It is not difficult to see that what renders these

performances of female masculinity quite tame is their resolute heterosexuality. When and where female masculinity conjoins with possibly queer identities, it is far less likely to meet with approval. It is important when thinking about gender variations like male femininity and female masculinity not simply to create another binary. In Bordo’s reading, masculinity everywhere and always signifies power; in alternative models of gender variation, female masculinity is not simply the opposite of female femininity nor is it a female version of male masculinity. Rather, as we shall see in some of the artwork and gender performances discussed below, very often the unholy union of femaleness and masculinity produces wildly unpredictable results.


Many theorists have observed that gender is a technology, one that works to obscure the mechanisms by which gender is rendered natural. In other words, the apparent “givenness” of gender is its technology, and while femininity often manifests as technical effect or simply as artificial, masculinity draws its power from its seeming stability and organic qualities. Judith Butler, for example, following Monique Wittig, writes in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity: “To be male is not to be ‘sexed'; to be ‘sexed’ is always a way of becoming particular and relative, and males within this system participate in the form of the universal person.” [14] The systems that sustain the conflation of maleness and universality are various, of course, but can generally be described as compulsory heterosexuality within capitalism. While Garber, as we saw, feels that the only way out of the cultural binarism of gender is to valorize a disruptive third term, Wittig believes that the very categories “man” and “woman” must be refused and resisted. Butler, on the other hand, refuses to invest in either thirdness or the Utopian ungendered space, arguing for the proliferation of gender performances within parodic repetition. In a project on alternative masculinities, such as mine, it does not make sense to go with Wittig’s call for the abolition of gender or with Garber’s “third space of possibility”; and yet, while the notion of parodic performance as theorized in Gender Trouble may be the obvious starting point for all attempts to cast masculinities without men, we need a more descriptive account than Butler’s of the places within representation where corporeality and performance conspire to produce masculinity with a difference.

<em><strong>Elvis Herselvis</strong></em>, 1990<br />
Photographed by Phyllis Christopher
Elvis Herselvis, 1990
Photographed by Phyllis Christopher

One might begin by pointing out that it is relatively simple to expose the mechanisms of even dominant male masculinity; indeed, the most masculinist of film genres, the action-adventure film, does so all the time. For example, we could look to the James Bond film, Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995), for a representation of the technology of masculinity. In Goldeneye, Bond battles the usual array of bad guys: Commies, Nazis, mercenaries, and a superaggressive, violent femme type. He puts on his usual performance of debonair action-adventure hero and has his usual supply of gadgetry to aid him—a retractable belt, a bomb disguised as a pen, a laser-weapon watch, and so on. But there is something curiously lacking in this latest Bond flick, namely, credible masculine power. Bond’s boss, M, is a noticeably butch older woman who calls Bond a dinosaur and chastises him for being a misogynist and a sexist. His secretary, Miss Moneypenny, accuses him of sexual harassment, his male buddy betrays him and calls him a dupe, and, ultimately, women seem not to go for his charms—bad suits and lots of sexual innuendo—which seem as old and as ineffective as his gadgets. Masculinity, in this rather actionless film, is primarily prosthetic and, in it and countless other action films, has little if anything to do with biological maleness. It signifies more often as a technical special effect. In Goldeneye, it is M who most convincingly performs masculinity, and she does so partly by exposing the sham of Bond’s own performance. It is M who convinces us that sexism and misogyny are not necessarily part and parcel of masculinity even though historically it has become difficult, if not impossible, to separate masculinity from the oppression of women. The action-adventure hero should embody an extreme version of normative masculinity, but, instead, we find that excessive masculinity turns into a parody or exposure of the norm. Since masculinity tends to manifest as natural gender itself, the action flick, with its emphasis on prosthetic extension, actually undermines the heterosexuality of the hero even as it extends his masculinity. So, in Goldeneye, Bond’s masculinity is linked not only to a profoundly unnatural form of masculine embodiment but also to gay masculinities. In the scene in which Bond goes to pick up his newest set of gadgets, a campy and almost queeny science nerd gives Bond his brand-new accessories and demonstrates each one with great enthusiasm. It is no accident that the science nerd is called Agent Q. We might read Agent Q as a perfect model of the interpenetration of queer and dominant regimes. Q is indeed an agent—a queer subject who exposes the workings of dominant heterosexual masculinity. The gay masculinity of Agent Q and the female masculinity of M provide a remarkable representation of the absolute dependence of dominant masculinities upon minority masculinities.

Minority masculinities and femininities destabilize binary gender systems in many different locations. As many feminist and antiracist critics have commented, femininity and masculinity signify as normative within and through white, middle-class, heterosexual bodies. Richard Fung, for example, writing about gay male porn, suggests that pornographic narrative structures assume a white male viewer who embodies a normative standard of male beauty and male desirability. Within this scopic field, porn characterizes black men as excessively sexual and wholly phallic and Asian men as passive and asexual. [15] Films by artists of color that disrupt this representational code — Looking for Langston (Isaac Julien, 1988) and Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989), for example—can undo the hierarchic relations between dominant and minority sexualities. They also have the power to reorganize masculinity itself. Other assaults upon dominant gender regimes come from queer butch art and performance, which might include drag king shows, butch theatrical roles, or art featuring gender-variant subjects. In terms of drag king performances, stars like Elvis Herselvis or Tony Las Vegas (performed by Julie Wheeler) turn dominant masculinity around by parodying male superstardom and working conventional modes of performed sexism and misogyny into successful comedy routines. As Tony Las Vegas, for example, Wheeler manages to parody masculinity by performing its most unnatural and obviously staged aspect: sexism. Exhorting the audiences in dyke clubs to “show us yer tits” and standing far too close to other women onstage with him, Tony reeks of the tricks of misogyny. Tony’s manipulations of a stagy and theatrical masculinity draw attention not simply to the performative aspect of masculinity but also to the places where nonperformativity has ideological implications. In other words, by exposing smarmy male attentions to females as staged, the drag king refuses any construction of misogyny as the natural order of things.

In one of the very few articles in print on the topic of drag kings, Sarah Murray asks provocatively: “Why hasn’t drag developed into a distinct theatrical genre among lesbians in the United States?” [16] She answers her own question by drawing upon conventional notions of lesbian invisibility and by remarking on the “naturalization of themasculine.” She states correctly, “A woman has less to grab on to when doing individual drag.” [17] Obviously, my argument about the apparent stability of male masculinity concurs with Murray’s analysis. I also agree with her that the forms of masculinity available for parody tend to be either working-class masculinities (the construction worker, for example) or explicitly performative middle-class masculinities like the lounge lizard. Furthermore, the masculinities that offer up subversions of recognizably dominant male masculinity tend to be nonwhite. Where we diverge, however, is on the topic of lesbian masculinities themselves. Murray finds butch iconicity to be less about redefining masculinity and more about appropriating male power. She reduces butchness to an historical marker of lesbian visibility that belongs to 1950s lesbian communities but not to contemporary queer dyke culture, and she suggests that lesbians, ultimately, “don’t feel free to play with the masculine the way gay men play with the feminine.” [18]

<em><strong>Betsey L. A. Gallagher Murray Hill and Penelope Tuesdae as John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John</strong></em>, 1996.<br />
Gelatin-silver print, 16 x 20 inches (40.6 x 50.8 cm ) Photographed by Tanya Braganti
Betsey L. A. Gallagher Murray Hill and Penelope Tuesdae as John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, 1996.
Gelatin-silver print, 16 x 20 inches (40.6 x 50.8 cm ) Photographed by Tanya Braganti

I would respond to these arguments by saying, first, that it is crucial to recognize that masculinity does not belong to men, has not only been produced by men, and does not properly express patriarchy. A popular misunderstanding of lesbian butchness depicts it as either an appropriation of dominant male masculinity or an instance of false consciousness in which the butch simply lacks strong models of lesbian identity. What I am trying to show in this essay (and what is demonstrated in the longer project of which it is a part) is that what we call “masculinity” has also been produced by women, by specifically masculine women, who are gender deviants and often lesbians. For this reason, it is inaccurate and indeed regressive to make masculinity into a general term for “behavior associated with males.” To argue then, as Murray does, that women do not feel free to play with masculinity is to position masculinity as something separate from all lesbian women, as something they may play with but not a quality they may express or embody. Second, in relation to Murray, butch identity has a complicated relation to notions of lesbian community and lesbian visibility and, partic ularly, to lesbian drag. Since so little has been written on lesbian masculinity that does not reduce it to a stereotype of the lesbian or a pathetic parody of maleness, we have yet to determine what its relations might be to either lesbian or transgender definition. Furthermore, butches may not be the most appropriate women to do male drag. Murray avoids any substantive discussion of transgenderism in her article because she cannot account for what happens when drag is not a costume but represents part of an identity effect. When she does mention transgender figures like Billy Tipton, she incorrectly and imprecisely characterizes them as “female” and uses feminine pronouns to talk about their performed identities. To be perfectly clear, butches, and transgender butches in particular, do not wear male clothing as drag—they embody masculinity. For this reason, some of the best drag king performances may actually come from femme drag kings like Shelley Mars, performers who maintain a disjunctive between gender and performed gender.

In a slightly different kind of butch theater, a queer performance-art piece called You’re Just Like My Father (1995), Peggy Shaw represents female masculinity as a pugnacious and gritty staging —that is, restaging—of family dynamics via the butch daughter. There is no question here that Shaw’s masculinity is part and parcel of her lesbianism rather than a drag identity. Shaw becomes her mother’s substitute husband and her lovers’ substitute fathers and brothers and constructs her own masculinity by reworking and improving the masculinities she observes around her. She moves easily back and forth between various personae: she is the fighter, the crooner, the soldier, the breadwinner, the romeo, the patriarch. In each of these roles, Shaw makes it clear that she is a femalebodied person inhabiting each role and that each role is part of her gender identity. In order to play among a variety of masculine identifications, Shaw, furthermore, is not forced to become her father or to appropriate his maleness; she is already “just like” her father and their masculinities exist on parallel planes.

Catherine Opie. <em><strong>Wolfe</strong></em>, <strong>from th</strong><em><strong>e Being and Having </strong></em><strong>series</strong>, 1991<br />
Chromogenic print, framed, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm )
Catherine Opie. Wolfe, from the Being and Having series, 1991
Chromogenic print, framed, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm )

The Art of Gender

The fleshing out of female masculinities has not been limited to theatrical arenas. In the photographic work of artists like Catherine Opie and Delia Grace, we can watch the female body becoming masculine in stunning and powerful ways. Opie’s lush photographic portraits of members of dyke, transgender, and S/M communities put a particular version of female masculinity on display. In one of her early projects, entitled Being and Having, Opie created a series of framed portraits of mustachioed or bearded faces set against startling yellow backdrops. In each shot, the camera zooms in on the model’s face (often even cropping the top of the head), bringing the spectator right up against a face that, despite its proximity, remains gender ambiguous. The close-up articulates what feels like an intimacy between model and artist, an intimacy, moreover, that is not readily available to the viewer. In many of the portraits, the camera comes close enough to the model’s face to reveal the artificiality

of the facial hair; in others, the facial hair appears to be real, setting up a visual trap: we may pause to wonder whether we are looking at a male or a female face. In many of the commentaries on Opie’s work, in fact, critics insist that its complexity relies upon the “operations that almost unconsciously take place when we determine whether we are looking at a man or a woman.” [19] But, if we look at her photographs within a larger context of productions of female masculinity, the ambiguity, or binarism, of gender seems spectacularly irrelevant. Indeed, in this context, these portraits are not simply ambiguous—they are resolute images of female masculinity, in which, as Opie puts it, her cross-dressing models take their performances “both into the bedroom and out to public spaces. They are, I suppose, exhibitionists, and their scene has become a public spectator sport.” [20]

Catherine Opie. <em><strong>J.</strong></em>, <strong>from th</strong><em><strong>e Being and Having </strong></em><strong>series</strong>, 1991<br />
Chromogenic print, framed, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm )
Catherine Opie. J., from the Being and Having series, 1991
Chromogenic print, framed, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm )

Opie’s images of bearded, pierced, and tattooed dykes and transgender men create a powerful visual aesthetic of alternative masculinities. While Opie’s work is often compared to Diane Arbus’s because both take as subject so-called misfits and freaks, she vigorously denies such a comparison:

I try to present people with an extreme amount of dignity. I mean, they’re always going to he stared at, hut I try to make the portraits stare hack. That’s what the relationship is all ahout. I mean, it’s not like Diane Arbus or anything like that. Some of the portraits look very sad, I think they have this distant gaze but they are never pathetic.  [21]

Opie’s insistence that her portraits “stare back” creates an interesting power dynamic not only between photographer and model but also between image and spectator. The power of the gaze in an Opie portrait always, and literally, rests with the image: the perpetual stare challenges the spectator’s own sense of gender congruity, even of self. Indeed, this gaze replicates the hostile stares that the model probably faces every day in the street. One reviewer of Opie’s 1994 show, Portraits, commented that the isolation of each subject within the stylized frame of the photograph, with its brilliant color backdrop, transforms them into “abstract signs” and leaves the spectator free to be a voyeur. [22] But such an assessment ignores the disorienting effect of these pictures—the subjects are positively regal in their opulent settings, and their colorful displays of tattoos and body markings single them out for photographic glory. The stare of the spectator is forced to be admiring and appreciative rather tan simply objectifying and voyeuristic. The tattoos, piercings, and body modifications that mark the Opie model become in her portraits far more than the signifiers of outlaw status. Whether we are confronted with the hormonally and surgically altered bodies of transgender men or the tattooed and pierced and scarred skin of the butch dyke, we look at bodies that display layered and multiple identifications, adding a gender dimension unassimilable within the boundaries of “man” or “woman.”

Della Grace. <strong><em>Jack Unveiled</em></strong>, 1994<br />
Gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches (61 x 50.8 cm)
Della Grace. Jack Unveiled, 1994
Gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches (61 x 50.8 cm)

Grace’s images of gender-ambiguous bodies are, like Opie’s, stylized portraits in the Mapplethorpe tradition. However, in many of Grace’s photographs an action defines gender ambiguity in relation to a set of sexual practices. Her photos often feature two or more bodies in play, and we thus see gender as a complex set of negotiations between bodies, identities, and desire. In Triad (1992), for example, three shaven and bald female bodies are intertwined in a three-way embrace. The pallor of the bodies and the smoothness of the shaven skin turn skin to marble, refusing the traditional softness of femininity. Grace frequently affords her subjects an almost mythical treatment, photographing them in classical costume or titling the photographs after mythological subjects, and, as does Opie, she always grants her models dignity, power, and beauty even as she exposes them to the gaze.

In her photographs of butch bodies, Grace borrows from gay male erotic imagery to construct a context for an unself-conscious female masculinity. In Jack’s Back (1994), we see a sailor with his back toward us. He wears white Navy-issue pants and a white cap and has a hand tucked into his waistband. The back of the head is closely shaven, the shoulders are broad and manly. This image could have been plucked from Paul Cadmus or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) or the image bank of gay erotica. However, the back belongs to Jackie, a beautifully built and tightly muscled butch whom Grace has photographed repeatedly. In Jack Unveiled (1994), we now see Jackie head on, wearing khaki pants and pulling an army T-shirt over her head. While the model’s face is still partially obscured, her torso (Jack’s front) is exposed. The breasts are just pronounced enough to mark Jackie as a “woman,” but they are small enough and the torso is muscular enough to keep the ambiguity intact.

Opie also uses back shots to make gender unreadable. In Dyke (1994), we see a torso set against an elaborate backdrop. The word “DYKE” is tattooed in Gothic script just below the neckline of a head of very short hair. On the one hand, the inscription dispels gender ambiguity by declaring the body lesbian, but on the other hand, given the many multigendered images of dykes that Opie has produced, the word “DYKE” gives very few clues as to what the front of this body might look like. Opie’s and Grace’s “back art” is a refusal to engage with the all-too-easy game of gender ambiguity.

They want gender literally to be a surface for inscriptions, words and drawings, art and desire. In another back shot, Self- Portrait (1993), Opie exposes her own back to view. Cut into the skin is a childlike image of two stick figures in skirts holding hands, standing in front of a stick house, below a bubble cloud. The picture, seemingly etched in blood, sits uncomfortably close to one of Opie’s arm tattoos. Turning the back into a canvas, Opie dispels curiosity about what the front of the body might reveal. As the artist notes about this self-portrait: “It says a lot of different things. One of them is that I have my back to you.”[23] While so many of Opie’s photographs literally return the gaze with piercing stares, the back shots circumvent the question of the gaze, allowing a space to open up for both gender variation and different inscriptions of the sexed body.

Opie’s cuttings and the tattoos and scars on the bodies of both Opie’s and Grace’s models stand in direct opposition to another recent and popular image of gender bending created by the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Demi Moore appeared on the cover of the August 1992 Vanity Fair, naked but for a painted man’s suit. Inside the magazine were further pictures of Moore, still wearing the painted suit and leaning over the body of a sleeping man, her husband, Bruce Willis. These photographs were considered innovative and challenging when they were first published, but if we juxtapose Leibovitz’s images of Moore’s painted body with the gender art of Opie and Grace, we will be reminded of how fiercely heterosexual and gender invariant popular culture tends to be. Moore’s body suit precisely fails to suggest even a mild representation of female masculinity precisely because it so anxiously emphasizes the femaleness of her body. While Opie’s and Grace’s portraits often make no effort to make femaleness visible, the Moore images represent femaleness as that which confers femininity upon even the most conventional of masculine facades (the suit). By contrast, the female masculinity in the work of Opie and Grace offers a glimpse into worlds where alternative masculinities make an art of gender.

Catherine Opie. <strong><em>Dyke</em></strong>, 1992<br />
Chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm)
Catherine Opie. Dyke, 1992
Chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm)
Catherine Opie. <em><strong>Self Portrait</strong></em>, 1992<br />
Chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm)
Catherine Opie. Self Portrait, 1992
Chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm)

Queer Futures

In this essay, I have tried to chart the implications of gender policing and gender performances within public spaces and to map them onto a Utopian vision of radically different bodies and sexualities. By making such a move, I do not wish to suggest that we can magically wish into being a new set of properly descriptive genders that would put pressure on the outmoded categories of male and female. Nor do I mean to suggest that by simply desegregating public toilets we will change the function of dominant genders within heteropatriarchal cultures. However, it seems to me that there are some very obvious spaces in which gender difference, as conventionally described, simply does not work and that the breakdown of gender as a signifying system in these arenas can be exploited to hasten the proliferation of alternate gender regimes in other locations. From drag kings to spies with gadgets, from butch bodies to FTM bodies, gender and sexuality and their technologies are already excessively strange. It is simply a matter of keeping them that way.


[1] The continued viability of the category “woman” has already been challenged in a variety of academic locations: Monique Wittig, most notably, argued that “lesbians are not women” in her essay “The Straight Mind,” in Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 121. Wittig claims that since lesbians are refusing primary relations to men, they cannot occupy the position “woman.” In another philosophical challenge to the category “woman,” transgender philosopher Jacob Hale uses Wittig’s radical claim to theorize the possibility of gendered embodiments that exceed male and female; see Hale, “Are Lesbians Women?” Hypatia 11, no. 2 (spring 1996), pp. 94-121. Elsewhere, Cheshire Calhoun suggests that the category “woman” may actually “operate as a lesbian closet”; see Calhoun, “The Gender Closet: Lesbian Disappearance under the Sign “Woman”, Feminist Studies 21, no. 1 (spring 1995), pp.- 7-34.

[2] Lee Edelman, “Tearooms and Sympathy or, The Epistemology of the Water Closet,” in Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 158.

[3] Ibid., p. 159.

[4] Some people are currently writing about the social construction of gender within the operation of sex-segregated bathrooms. Barbara Cruikshank, for example, is presently working on a project, called “Flushing Gender: Public Toilets and Public Life,” that tries to expand upon gender-based exclusion in public toilets to think about other exclusionary public space.

[5] For an examination of differing notions of genetic and biological gender, see, for example, Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” The Sciences 33 (March-April 1993), pp. 20-24.

[6] Mariorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross- Dressing & Cultural Anxiety (New York:

Routledge, 1992), p. 47. Obviously, Garber’s use of the term “Waterloo” makes a pun out of the drama of bathroom surveillance. While the pun is clever and even amusing, it is also troubling. The constant use of puns throughout the book has the overall effect of making gender crossing sound like a game or at least trivializes the often life-or-death processes involved in cross-identification. This is not to say that gender can never be a “laughing matter” and must always be treated seriously but only to question the use of the pun as a theoretical method.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. pp. 13-16.

[9] Although Garber never uses this precise term in her text, it does appear in the index (ibid., p. 441). For a discussion of the “third” in more general terms, see ibid., pp. 9-13.

[10] Edelman, “Tearooms and Sympathy,” p. 160.

[11] Garber, Vested Interests, p. 14.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Susan Bordo, “Reading the Male Body,” Michigan Quarterly Review 32, no. 4 (fall 1993), p. 721.

[14] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ( New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 113.

[15] Richard Fung, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn,” in Bad Object Choices, ed., How Do I Look? Queer Video and Film 1 Seattle: Bay Press, 1991), pp. 145-68.

[16] Sarah Murray, “Dragon Ladies, Draggin’ Men: Some Reflections on Gender, Drag and

Homosexual Communities,” Public Culture 6, no. 2 ( winter 1994), p. 344.

[17] Ibid., p. 356.

[18] Ibid., p. 360.

[19] David Pagel, “Catherine Opie,” Art Issues (September-October 1994), p. 45.

[20] Anna Maria Smith, “The Feminine Gaze: Photographer Catherine Opie Documents

Lesbian Daddy/Boy Subculture,” The Advocate, November 19, 1991, p. 83. This is a great early review of Opie’s work, although the title “The Feminine Gaze” seems to insist on the femininitv ot all things produced by women. Let’s face it, there is nothing feminine about this work.

[21] Russell Ferguson, “Catherine Opie with Russell Ferguson” (interview), Index 1, no. 2 (April 1996), p. 29.

[22] Michael Cohen, “Catherine Opie—Regen Projects,” Flash Art 27, no. 179 ( December 1994), P- 98.

[23] Ferguson, “Catherine Opie,” p. 30.

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  • […] través del ensayo,“Bathrooms, Butches, and the Aesthetics of Female Masculinity”, Judith Halberstam explora los vínculos que se entablan entre los espacios públicos, las […]

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