"Misty? A butch named Misty?" Vernita Gray said in utter dismay. She leaned over the railing around the dance floor and stared incredulously at the seven women lined up to compete in this year's Butchiest Dyke Contest.
Some of the women were smoking cigarettes and posing in their softball jackets and T-shirts. One woman carried a riding crop. Another kept wiping her nose on her arm and grabbing her crotch.
"How the heck can you have a butch named Misty?" asked Gray, last year's winner of Paris Dance's contest.
"Yeah," said Roberta Gray, no relation to Vernita, as she sipped from a sweaty longneck. "Butches should be called Rusty or Stevie or Champ or something like that. Not Misty--man, that's femmy."
Out under the hot lights Misty, long hair tied back, decked in leathers and flannel, was gamely getting ready to do the Walk. The Walk--a nonverbal part of the program--was designed to show coolness. A trio of judges--one fem and two androgynous types (lovers, actually)--kept score.
"Last year people were dropping their pants to show off their boxer shorts and stuff," said Vernita Gray. "Shit, I didn't do that. I just wait for the women to come to me." She winked. "That's the essence of it, you know--that kind of confidence, a sense of your true woman's self."
The first butch--a cigarette-smoking softball player from a team called (Your Worst) Nightmares--strutted and jived across the floor with a winking, sure sense of calm. The next contestant, a handsome Latina in a blue blazer, shyly stepped through the line and shuffled across.
"Man, that woman's confused," said a young woman in a leather jacket hanging over the rail. "She's not a butch. She's just wearing a blazer."
Karen Hutt, a tall, sweet-faced woman in a sweater and dress pants, who at 35 was one of the oldest contestants, was next. She walked straight over to the judges and asked them individually if they cared to dance.
"That's her, that's my successor," said Gray, smiling. "She might not make it with this crowd"--Hutt, like Gray, was black, and most of the audience was white--"but she's the only one up there who gets it."
The next contestant, Jan--a red haired, freckled Huck Finn type--doffed her shirt in one quick move and, amidst catcalls and whistles, paraded over to the judges in her black bra, flexing her biceps.
"Take it off! Take it off!" someone yelled. "God, if you're going to go that far just go all the way--otherwise what's the point?"
All through the contest emcee Tracy Barrientos grilled the contestants on the roots of their butchiness, their butch behavior, their butch ethics. The younger contestants consistently said they were malelike. The "Nightmares" contestant said she knew she was butch when she refused to wear dresses in Catholic school and preferred to play with Tonka trucks. Jan declared she liked nothing feminine, "nothing that girls did." Still another contender referred to women as "bitches," drawing boos and hisses from the nearly all-women audience.
"Man, you can see why I won last time," Gray said disgustedly, and walked off to get a drink.
Only Hutt and Rhonda Craven, the only other African American competitor, went out of their way to affirm their gender. "To me, being butch is being in touch with your masculine as well as your feminine side," said Craven, who wore both a tie and a double-headed ax, a matriarchal lesbian symbol, "but to always be all woman."
"Being butch is not copying men," Hutt said, "but digging deep inside your womanhood to be strong."
Finally it was Misty's turn. Out in the crowd her three roommates started chanting, "Work it, girl! Sashay! Shante!" As Misty took her first tentative steps, the three burst out laughing.
"She's the most fem person in the entire world," said Cathleen, one of the roommates.
"Yeah, in real life she wears silk undies and dresses," said Michelle, another roomie.
"Everybody in the bar knows her as a fem," said Cindy, the third roommate. "We thought the contest gave her an opportunity to show off a part of her personality that had been closeted for a long time."
"The jacket's mine," said Cathleen, watching Misty inch along straight-faced, "and the suspenders belong to a friend of ours."
"The denim shorts are mine," said Michelle, "and the boots are borrowed."
"But I think the flannel's hers," said Cindy. "Yeah, the flannel's hers. I'm sure of it."
By the time Misty made it back to her starting point the bar was rocking with laughter.
Even Vernita Gray was laughing good-naturedly. "Man, I gotta teach these girls a thing or two," she said, and walked across the floor with a combination sashay and pimp strut that drew thunderous applause.
The contest was the brainchild of Paris owner Linda Rodgers, who said, "I do the contest because I'm sick of the idea that suddenly everybody in the lesbian and gay movement has to look respectable by heterosexual terms. We don't all look 'normal,' whatever that is, and we don't all want to assimilate. And I think butches are a wonderful part of our culture and our history--and they need to be acknowledged."
But as contest time, 8 PM, rolled around, it looked like butches might be extinct. Every woman at Paris was tuned in to the two TVs broadcasting the final episode of Cheers. Barrientos couldn't get anyone to sign up.
"Well, I wasn't going to do it at all," admitted Craven, "but then I realized there were a couple of younger women who wanted to do it but weren't sure. And I thought, well, if I do it, maybe they'll do it."
More or less the same thing happened to Hutt, who was just in with her lover, Therese Quinn, for a drink and some company. "She's a wonderful butch," Quinn said dreamily. Hutt, standing next to her, beamed.
"You know, I'd like to get a group of butches together and deprogram them from all this male stuff," Hutt said. "All this talking about 'the women' and 'the bitches'--like they're a different species. That's silly. If you're a true butch you know how to be gentle, how to be kind."
At the judges' table Git, a middle-aged woman who could pass for a TV mom, was busy tallying scores. "I don't like to identify as butch or fem," she said, "but in this case it was about the stereotype."
"It was about a certain toughness," said Xio Lescano, another judge.
Just as the judges were finishing, Rene Contreras and Elizabeth Zuverink suddenly appeared. Contreras, wearing a skullcap and greasepaint from head to toe, looked like an intergalactic butch elf. Zuverink was dressed only in cutoffs and a pair of roses on a string to cover her nipples.
"The contest started at eight?" said Contreras. "Wow, man, we thought it started at nine."
Vernita Gray looked at her watch, laughing. "It's eleven."
"Wow, like, we thought, you know, we'd enter in the dare-to-wear category, you know?" Contreras continued.
The "Nightmares" contestant was poking her fingers into the roses on Zuverink's chest and leaning down to smell them. "Very nice," she said. "Oh yes, very nice!"
"This is a butch contest, for Christ's sake," said a woman in overalls. "What the hell category is 'dare-to-wear'?"
"Gosh, we spent all night getting it together for this," Contreras protested as Zuverink leaned provocatively against the railing, lifting a stiletto heel slightly off the floor.
Finally Barrientos and Gray announced that Hutt, Huck Finn, and the "Nightmares" woman had been selected as finalists. The winner would be determined by audience applause after each described her favorite fantasy.
"Come on, baby, give us something butch," Gray exhorted the "Nightmares" woman, who only produced a cliche: an island of Amazons and lots of sex. Gray rolled her eyes.
Hutt directed her fantasy at her lover. It involved Amsterdam, Venice, lesbian gondoliers, moonlight, promises of commitment, and multiple orgasms. The crowd exploded in applause, stomping and whistling. Gray nodded in approval.
That left Huck Finn, who said her fantasy had already come true and she couldn't reveal the details.
"Give us dirt!" the crowd chanted. "Give us raunch!"
Huck Finn took the microphone and tried to spin out a scene that included parking lots, police sirens, and dinner at Geja's.
"Ah, shit--$30 for fried food," muttered Gray.
Hutt won by roaring acclaim. Her prize was $50 and a red coronet strikingly similar to the Imperial Margarine crown.
Quinn looked on proudly. "The others were a little young," she said. "They need to be around older dykes more, butches who can share with them some words of wisdom."
In the corner Misty and her roommates were laughing. Misty had lost the leather jacket and was busy flipping her wrists and giggling.
Huck Finn was sulking. "I'm butchier than her," she said. "I mean, she's wearing earrings. I'm butchier, I'm butchier."
"She just doesn't get it," said Roberta Gray. "At all."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.