A girl in a newsboy cap and a white t-shirt with rolled-up sleeves is leaning against the back wall at Meow Mix and telling her friend, “Some femme . . . just some femme. I met her at a party three weeks ago, but now she’s like e-mailing me and I’m just like, chill out, bitch!” Her chest is smooth and flat: She’s either had top surgery—a double mastectomy—or, more likely, she binds her breasts. She thrusts her forearm in front of her face as if she’s rapping as she says, “Some of these chicks, it’s like you top them once and then they’re all up in your face. It’s like, did I get you off? Yes. Am I your new best friend? No. You know what I’m saying, bro?”
Her friend nods and keeps her eyes on the blonde go-go dancer in tiny white shorts undulating on a tabletop. “Bois like us,” she says, “we’ve got to stick together.”
There was a point at which lesbianism seemed as much like a fringe political party as it did a sexual identity: What better way to declare “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” than to be a woman without a man, a woman with other women. “Lesbianism is a women’s liberation plot,” was how the group Radicalesbians put it when they famously commandeered the mike at now’s Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. It was the ultimate in dismantling the dominant paradigm, rejecting male domination, and all the rest of it, and sex seemed kind of secondary.
But in the contemporary young gay women’s world, what you like and what you do and who you do it with are who you are. In “the scene,” the back-and-forth migratory ladies’ pipeline that runs between San Francisco and New York City, sexual practices and preferences are parceled out and labeled like cuts of meat. Within the scene, “lesbian” is an almost empty term, and “identifying” requires a great deal more specificity and reduction, like: “I’m a high femme,” or “I’m a butch top,” or, most recently and frequently, “I’m a boi.”
It is tempting to pronounce the syllable “bwah,” as in “framboise,” but actually you just say it “boy,” the way, in a different lesbian era, you pronounced womyn “woman.” Throwing a y in woman was a linguistic attempt, however goofy, to overthrow the patriarchy, to identify the female gender as something independent, self-sustaining, and reformed. Being a boi is not about that. Boihood has nothing to do with earth mothers or sisterhood or herbal tea, and everything to do with being young, hip, “sex positive,” a little masculine, and ready to rock.
It’s no coincidence that the word is boi and not some version of man. Men have to deal with responsibilities, money, wives, careers, car insurance. Boys just get to have fun and, if they’re lucky, sex. “I never really wanted to grow up, which is what a lot of the boi identity is about,” says Lissa Doty, who is 37 but looks more like 24. She wears a baggy T-shirt and jeans and she has gelled her bleached hair into a stiff fin, like the raised spine of a Komodo dragon. “I want to go out and have a good time! I want to be able to go out to the bar at night and go to parties and go to the amusement park and play. That sense of play—that’s a big difference from being a butch. To me, butch is like adult. If you’re a butch, you’re a grown-up: You’re the man of the house.” Lissa is smart, well read, and well educated, and she is a courier for FedEx because, she says, “I want to have a job where at the end of the day I walk away and I don’t have to think about it.”
When Lissa came out in the eighties, militant feminism and, to a certain extent, lesbian separatism were at the forefront of dyke culture. “There was this whole movement of womyn’s land and womyn building houses on womyn’s land and insulating themselves from the rest of the world,” she says, smirking. “It was a whole different world from where we are now. It used to be if you flirted with somebody, that was it: You were set for life; U-Haul’s waiting out back. I don’t know if it’s the whole boi thing or if it’s a little sexual revolution that’s happened where you can go home and have a one-night stand just like the gay boys. Before, things were more serious: If you flirted with somebody, you better be getting her number and buying that house and getting those dogs. Otherwise, lesbian community is coming down on you. Now it’s more . . . playful.”
Being a boi means different things to different people—it’s a fluid identity, and that’s the whole point. Some women who call themselves bois are playing off “boy” in the gay-male S/M sense of the term, as in Daddy/Boy: The boy or boi is the submissive and, in the case of lesbians, has sex with dominant butches (tops). Some of the people who identify as bois are female-to-male transsexuals in various stages of the transition process, ranging from having had top surgery and taking testosterone (“T”) to simply adopting the pronoun he. Some, like Lissa, date other bois and think of themselves as “fags,” while others only date femmes. And others simply think being a boi means that they are young and cool and probably promiscuous. What all bois have in common is a lack of interest in embodying any kind of girliness, but they are too irreverent to adopt the heavy-duty, highly circumscribed butch role. To them, butch is an identity of the past, a relic from a world of Budweiser and motorcycles gone by.
“Guzzling beer and eating hot dogs and, like, football-watching guys—that’s what those women are, you know? Except they’re women,” says Sienna, a graceful boi in her mid-twenties with close-cropped kinky hair and a face that flashes back and forth between beautiful and handsome depending on her expression. She is a sometime runway model for Hermès and Miguel Adrover, but tonight she looks like a standard-issue Brooklyn hipster in her sneakers and cords. “A lot of butch women just think, I’m big, I’m butch. They feel like because they’re some big hunk of meat with abs, that’s all it takes. I just find other bois to be more open-minded and a little more educated and artsier, like they won’t be put in a box,” she says. “And I think non-monogamy is a part of it.”
Sienna lives and paints at the dUMBA Queer Performing Arts collective in Brooklyn, a place they describe on the Internet as “run by a loose-knit collective, usually made up of visual artists, media artists, writers, songsters, dance fanatics, flirty bohemians, political and cultural activists, and otherwise socially boisterous girls and boys.” They have sex parties and art shows, and above the bathroom door, instead of GIRLS or BOYS, it says TRANNIES.