v. Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: aka, the most relatable and thrilling academic article i’ve ever read

Maybe I’m just not with the times or I’m too neck-deep in fan fiction to notice that there are some (many? god, I hope so) in academia who have the exact viewpoints and interests that I do.

Golly gee, then, did I pick the right article for when I lead the class discussion.

{Since this is a monster of a post, I’m actually utilizing the Read More tag. This thing’s ingenious, I tell ya.}

“Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” by Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem, published in The Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication back in 2000, and then reprinted Feminism and Composition: Critical Sourcebook in 2003, then reprinted again in Teaching Composition: Background Readings, 3rd ed. in 2007. All I can say is Y E S, QUEENS. If I ever get to meet these incredible thinkers, I’d like to shake their hands, because wow. It’s like all my inner thoughts and concerns about class, gender, and sexuality have just been laid out for the world… 18 year ago.

I was 6.

Man, I’m real behind.

Alright, before we get into anything regarding the article–which, may I say again, was one of the best academic readings I’ve had the privilege to encounter in a while–what did you think as you read through it? What was your initial impression? Relatable? Confusing? Totally out of your comfort zone? 

Regarding my initial impression: when I first began reading the piece, I was terrified the jargon was going to go over my head. It didn’t completely, in the end, so that’s good. But there were, I’ll be honest, probably some more complex concepts that I may not have fully grasped. That’s okay, though! Can’t find everything in a readthrough of a text. I hope to revisit this text, though. There’s a lot about the subjects of class, gender, and sexuality that I’d like to keep exploring. Mayhaps for a thesis? Hmmmm?

One more thing before I get into the actual article: I want you to think about some of the ways that you identify/define and present/perform aspects of yourself–(Those can be very different things.)–in a personal sense, in a professional sense, and in your writing. Just… think about it. And think about the effects of those definitions and presentations and performances–on you, and on others.

Okay, I lied. One more thing. Just a bit about the authors, a lot of which can be found at the end of their article. All three women are published (woop!) in journals such as Journal of Teaching Writing, Feminist Teacher, Writing on the Edge, Studies in Popular Culture, Journal of Basic Writing and Women in Literature and Life. They all have, to varying degrees, been involved in women’s and gender studies, LGBT studies, as well as literature, writing, and composition in academia. More info on their more recent happenings can be found on their staff pages, which I will lovingly link here: Gibson, Meem, and Marinara (now Brenckle, I believe?).

Alright! On to the article!

(Also, god forgive me, this came out to be a 3,000 word post and I still didn’t get to cover everything. Sigh.)

An Intro

Now, the way the article is organized is in 3 sections, or 3 “stories,” one by each author: Marinara’s Bi: playing with fixed identities, Meem’s Butch: personal pedagogy and the butch body, and Gibson’s Bar dyke: a cocktail waitress teaches writing. According to their introduction, “[through their] ‘stories,’ [they] hope to complicate the notion that identities can be performed in clean, organized, distinct ways by examining and theorizing our own experiences of class, gender, and sexual identity performance” (70). In writing this piece, they want (I believe) people to portray themselves, analyze those portrayals, and come to a conclusion that not all of those portrayals are clean cut and set in stone. They are up for debate, and academia should accept and appreciate that discourse instead of rejecting it.

But anyway.


Discovering our identities (and by that plural I mean that each person has multiple identifiable facets of themselves) is a process. Distinguishing the parts of ourselves that differ from the norm–the universal, central, default of a person (whatever that means)–can be challenging, especially if that “real me” Marinara talks about in her piece is comprised of parts that don’t quite fit even the non-default, socially acknowledged definitions of a person (72).

Phew, did that make sense at all?

Marinara looks at the labels people take on throughout the story of their lives–labels that mark them as Other to that default I mentioned: “Gay,” “Straight,” “Working class,” “Middle class,” etc.

What I seem to be getting from Marinara is that there is self-empowerment in these labels, in knowing who you are, but (and this is especially true back in 2000–18 years ago) there are “binary oppositions”–a One Or The Other And That’s It mentality (72).

Nowadays, gender and sexuality are viewed as a spectrum. We have unlimited possibilities with which to define ourselves and differentiate us from the fixed paradigms expected of a person.

Bisexuality, in this narrative, is seen as a socially-unclearly defined middle ground, “an incomplete dominance of either sexual trait, defies easy social categorization; it is an identity without visible rules, almost without referent” (73). Is there freedom in that? Or is there a longing to be defined and to have a name for yourself?

Class, as an identifier, Marinara explores, has less of a middle ground. Just as in her American Dream/”rags to riches” analogy, there’s that “moving up” quality. A transition–though a quick jump instead of a slow climb. With class, there’s the pressure of replacing your class with a new one, a better one. Up and up and up.

With sexuality and gender, though, there is no direction to climb towards. It’s not an upward climb to higher achievement, but more of a feeling around in the dark until you find the right light switch kind of discovery. This one’s too bright. This one’s too dim. This one sounds good in practice but doesn’t feel right. This is the one that should be picked, but again, it’s not right. etc. etc. Does that make sense?

Anyway, Marinara finds that in knowing aspects of ourselves can lead us to telling our stories, comparing them, contrasting, learning. Marinara sums up rather nicely the final sentences of her section:

“Keeping identity from becoming ‘fixed’ leaves room to construct other useful political positions, still more ‘Other’ places from which to speak. Increasing our understanding of those who tell stories from the social margins means exploring contradictions—the changing shapes of difference—so we can locate ourselves within/as the process of negotiating class and sexuality” (79).

[[Before I hop to the next topic, a quick reaction to Marinara’s class’s responses to the David Budbill poem “Roy, McInnes” and their Gender of the Narrator debate. Lately, I’ve been writing narrators/main characters with no discernible gender and there’s a freedom in that, I think. A freedom in being able to create a person outside of any kind of binary definition in regards to stereotypes and just… create a person. One main character of mine went fishing, and I heard someone refer to little Sam as “he”; another narrator of mine was briefly mentioned to be wearing “remnants of … makeup”; and many thought that character was female. Meanwhile, I had given no indication that either of the two were male or female. I’ve had reviewers compliment me upon realizing so. It’s freeing.]]


Deborah Meem’s section of the paper was split further into a telling of three stories regarding her butch persona and how it impacts her place in academia. She first brings up a chart common to women’s studies that details “two areas: (1) some of an individual’s multiple identities, and (2) the relative experience of privilege associated with each. Through positioning myself on this chart, I was able to articulate to myself for the first time some of the ways I partake of unearned privilege” (79).

I haven’t seen a chart like this before, but it’s interesting to see and sort of broadly get an idea of what kind of unearned privileges I have.

Screenshot 2018-10-21 at 15.25.32
(Gibson, Marinara & Meem 83)

By examining herself through the lens of this chart, Meem “began to understand how I occupy both the center and the margins of American society,” as we all should (79).

Before moving on to the stories, on which I will touch only briefly, let’s take a look at that Butch v. Femme binary Meem brings up. There is a history of the word butch and the concept behind it. Whereas butch lesbianism takes on more traditionally, stereotypically masculine qualities in style and personality, femme lesbianism is more traditionally, stereotypically feminine.

Interesting enough, the former type of lesbian persona is seen as powerful while latter type is … invisible. This will be touched on a bit more in Story 2, so stay tuned!

Story 1

Meem talks about a study regarding professors’ standard course evaluations and compared the results by professors’ sex. The results showed the expected, that “the three men averaged higher ratings in instrumental categories (knowledge, fairness) while the four women as a group averaged higher ratings in affective categories (helpfulness, availability).” What really called attention, though, was when the four women’s scores were compared. “Two of the women received much higher affective than instrumental scores while the other two (myself and another woman) [who were much more butch] had instrumental scores as high as the men’s and affective scores just slightly lower than those of the other two women’s” (80).

Meem then goes into talking about the Bem Sex-Role Inventory test “measure the degree of (stereotypical) masculinity and femininity that each of us projects” (81). I was able to find a test online based on the BSRI: the OSRI. Feel free to give it a go! I took it and was kind-of-but-not-really-surprised by my own results:

Screenshot 2018-10-21 at 15.05.06

I’m unsure how close this comes to the BSRI, but it’s interesting to check out in the meanwhile. Odd, though… I didn’t think I’d be as feminine on the chart as I turned out to be.

Story 2

Meem’s second story tells of the day she had to formally come out to her students. “A TV reporter for Cincinnati’s Channel 12 news [asked her] to be a ‘sample dyke at work’ for a feature timed to coincide with National Coming-Out Day” so Meem made a short and sweet announcement to her class the morning of the filming. Unsurprised silence and one young man’s “How do I look?” followed, and they went on with the filming.

While that’s great, and the story of instant acceptance is an endearing one, it’s unfortunate that a woman presenting some traits of masculinity is suddenly obviously known to be a lesbian. As Meem puts it in far more elegant words: “[the] point is that my coming out surprised no one, because, as Kristin Esterburg writes, in all areas ‘the coding of lesbians as not feminine and therefore in some way masculine predominate[s]’ (276). As a butch or masculine woman, I project a ‘lesbian’ persona without formally coming out” (81).

Sigh. Stereotypes and assumptions and all that.

[[I actually have a story to go along with this. When I had my pixie haircut, I was told I looked androgynous and I was like hell yeah. (One little kid even told me I “look like a boy.” I responded by asking if I was a pretty boy and they got very confused, which is a whole other matter entirely. #LetBoysBePretty #LetGirlsHaveShortHair) So anyway, I got confidence from that. My appearance gave me a label, a definition that I was totally fine to present. But one day, when I was getting a trim at the salon I frequent, an older lady in the chair next to me whispered something to her stylist, who was also an older lady. I didn’t hear what the woman in the chair said, but I clearly heard the stylist’s response. “Don’t worry, her mother still loves her.” … I don’t even know how to respond to that, honestly, so I’m just going to leave it at that. Talk about discouragement, though.]]

Story 3

The third story exemplifies the power that comes along with butchness. Masculinity has long been the side of the coin that stereotypically portrays power. A troublesome, know-it-all, male fellow committee member (lovingly nicknamed Professor Bluster) complained to a coworker that Meem was “so bossy!” and boy, did I roll my eyes so hard. Meem, though, is able to spin it in a positive(?) light:

“Had I been a man, he would not have hesitated to bring all committee work to a halt in order to engage in a pissing contest with me. As a butch woman, however, I had a certain power over him; he clearly perceived me as being immune to male feather-ruffling and intimidation. In other words, his usual strategies for getting attention were useless, and all he could do was call me bossy later on” (82).

In a sense, Meem’s butchness left her untouchable–an enigma her male coworker couldn’t figure out how to approach in a sensible manner outside of whiny gossip. I wonder, though, if that’s the best outcome. As someone who detests being spoken of behind my back, I’d rather endure the confrontation, I think.

The downside, though, Meem mentions later: “These responses, plus those from my three stories, indicate that students and faculty see my butchness as powerful, especially as contrasted with femme experience, which is mostly invisible … the relative invisibility of femmes makes it difficult for them to connect with sources of lesbian community in or out of the academy” (82-83).

“Femme” lesbianism isn’t seen at all, because it’s just seen as femininity, which falls into that “default” mentioned earlier for women.

Meem then brings up the chart again from earlier (I’ll be nice and drop it again below), pointing out the relative privilege and oppression the different facets of the chart hold. She actually added the third row to the chart, as well as the final column, noting this at the end of the article. While the “third category complicates the relentless binary oppositions … the sexuality column asserts that even in the context of heterosexual privilege, lesbians and gay men rank higher than bisexual or transgendered people … because in our culture ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ are assumed to be coherent identities, while bisexuality and transgender are so fluid—and contested—as to resist the consistency of definition and the relative safety of coherence” (93). This, unfortunately, still applies today, at least in some circles. Don’t let me near those circles.

Screenshot 2018-10-21 at 15.25.32



I’ll end this section with a final quote and a thought. “If it is true, as Judith Butler says, that fixed ‘identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes’ then complicating our own multiple identities is a revolutionary act” (84). Again, we want to identify ourselves, but in doing so, we set up borders. So there’s this desperate contradiction going on in our heads of wanting to be defined but not wanting those definitions to bind us so that we can’t explore outside of them. So when we are in fact able to comfortably play around and challenge what identifies us… maybe that’s when we get the power.

Bar Dyke

Gibson’s section details the struggle of relaying and relating to students too much in academia. As she says later on in her section, “as a faculty member submitting a dossier for reappointment, my task is to identify with administrators, not students” (90). BIG, ANNOYED SIGH.

Let me not get ahead of myself, though. In her dossier, Gibson challenged the idea that academics have to have a certain background. Surprise! Scholars are human, too. She claims that, in challenging traditionalist beliefs of universities by portraying our own personal stories while also providing proof of where we are in the academy, we can “deconstruct notions about who university students and faculty are and force the academy to respond more fully to the needs of diverse populations” (85). Hell yeah.

Gibson was advised (by a lovingly named Dr. Gatekeeper) to take out parts of her dossier to have it fit more with the university’s image. And what is that image? “[Tweed]: white, middle class, and heterosexual” (86).

Let’s take a brief pause to look around the room. Think of your other classes, of how diverse in population they are. How diverse in experience. Bear in mind that, of course, this article was written in 2000, so this kind of administrative, elitest mentality wasn’t as legally problematic or ridiculous as it seems today (though still being problematic and ridiculous, of course).

I can count the amount of white friends I have in university on 2 hands. 

I can count the amount of (fully, actualized, outspokenly) straight friends I have in university on 1 hand.

But @ academia, go off, I guess.

Back to Gibson. Her main goal in adding the personal stories of herself and her students into her dossier was that she wanted to “mainstream … the experiences of students who face similar circumstances” and yet Dr. Gatekeeper “explained that [Gibson] needed to develop a better sense of … place in the academy if [she] wanted to advance at an appropriate rate” (90).

First of all, I can’t stand that mentality in both academia and the workplace. “Know your place.” Man, get outta here. Gibson seemed to think the idea was horrid as well, as she goes on to “follow the old feminist adage ‘the personal is political’ and to disobey in the way McNaron suggests we should by ‘having and shaping [my] memories into coherent form’ (8)” (91).

Long story short, she made minor adjustments and submitted the dossier anyway.

Now that’s some bad bitch energy that I can appreciate.

To Conclude

I have gone on for FAR TOO LONG, so I will make this short.

I honestly don’t know how to properly conclude the massive info-dump and ramble that was this post. Is this technically an article review? Is that what this is? Has the length for it. Anyway, Gibson, Marinara, and Meem explore concepts of gender, class, and sexuality I feel we all could utilize in our everyday processes of shaping and understanding ourselves, the way others view us, and our writing.

I go off about voice in writing all the time. That’s not news. And this all just reaffirms my beliefs, honestly. Gibson has it right in quoting “the personal is political.” It’s our voices and our stories that will cause change in the world. We just need the means to define it all. And once we do that, we need to break out of those definitions and keep going. Up and up and through the dark.

So, I’ll end with these wise women’s final words:

The stories we have told here emphasize the shifting nature of our own personal and academic identities.

“Bi”presents herself as between comfortably recognizable identities: neither
wholly at home among her working-class former neighbors nor thoroughly assimilated into the academic middle class, neither safely straight nor stereotypically lesbian.

“Butch”stresses the paradoxical nature of power in the academy, according to which “dyke” becomes less a liability than a “drag” choice that can be traded on.

“Bar Dyke”illustrates the disjuncture among her own need to express herself in an authentic voice, the “tweed” rejection of that voice, and her sense that even what seemed most risky in her self-presentation in fact understated the lived reality.

We offer them not as models for teachers, but rather as possibilities for complicating the experience of Otherness in the academy. (93)

Alrighty. That’ll be all.

Remember to tell your stories, friends.

It’s the best we can do.

— C


Work Cited

Michelle Gibson, Deborah Meem, & Martha Marinara (2000). Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality. College Composition and Communication52(1), 69-95.

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