Where the Bois Are

Play Boi Mansion: The Trans Am party at Meow Mix. Photo: Naomi Harris

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.

  In this issue…

Friends & Lovers
Gay women in New York quickly discover just how many degrees of sexual separation lie between their ex-girlfriends and their latest hookup.(August 18, 2003)      

Lesbian Bars
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In San Francisco, where Sienna lived a few years back, she dated “black women who drove Harleys and were college-educated and loved punk rock. That’s really hard to find out here.” She’s never been interested in girly girls. “I’m not into all that princess shit,” she says. “I’m from Alaska, where women are all just pretty tough, and I grew up hunting with all these like 60- or 70-year-old women. So to come down to New York City and see all these women who are identifying as butch and acting with all this bravado doesn’t mean jack shit to me. To me, a boi is someone who doesn’t have so much to prove. We’re not in the clean, pressed, buttoned-up world—you’d never see a boi cop. Basically we threw the term around in San Francisco, and the last couple years I’ve heard it more here. It’s new.”

So new that most people—most lesbians—over the age of 30 have no idea what a boi is. Deb Schwartz is a 37-year-old West Village butch who has been out for fifteen years and has, at various points, worked as an activist for groups like Fed-Up Queers and ACT UP and as an editor at Out magazine. “It’s just wild to me that there’s this whole phenomenon out there that is completely news to me,” she says. “Here I am, a bulldagger of a certain age, and when I first heard the term—recently—I had a conversation with an equally butch friend of mine and she was completely in the dark, too. What’s new is seeing these kids who really seem to be striving for a certain kind of juvenilia, not just masculinity. They really want to be kids. This hit me when I saw this girl—this boi, I guess—barreling out of a store in Chelsea in huge, oversize jeans, a backpack, and a baseball cap pulled down low. And she was running as if she were late for the school bus … Her whole aura was so completely rough-and-tumble 8-year-old that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had a slingshot in one pocket and a frog in the other.”

Most bois are in their twenties and have come of age in a time when women’s and gay rights seem like more of a given and less of an urgent struggle than they did to lesbians ten or twenty or more years older. So it makes sense that they—like young women in general—have the luxury to prioritize play and pleasure in a different way, and that worrying about things like male privilege seems old-school and uncool.

But there are other criticisms bois hurl at the butches and femmes who came before them (and co-exist with them still). “I’m so against the whole butch-femme dichotomy,” says Jules Rosskam, a good-looking 24-year-old boi who is a documentary filmmaker (her latest is about female-to-male transsexuals who have given birth) and the associate producer of Brooklyn-based Dyke TV. Rosskam started taking testosterone several months ago and will correct you if you refer to her as “she” (which creates an interesting reality: One of the three people in charge of Dyke TV is a he). Jules is “absolutely positive” about getting top surgery. “It’s just a question of getting $7,500,” she says. “I have the money technically, but it’s tied up. I just have to get my dad’s permission to use it.”

Despite the hormones and the impending surgery, Jules thinks that the idea that there are two distinct genders and nothing in between is constricting, unsophisticated, and outdated. She dates whoever she feels like dating, and she doesn’t much care for the question: “I just feel really defensive; I don’t like when people feel the need to put people into categories like that. It’s like when you ask me, Do you date femme women? What does that even mean? Who are you even talking about?”

There is, however, a particular camp of bois who date femmes exclusively and follow a locker-room code of ethics referenced by the phrase “bros before hos” or “bros before bitches,” which is to say they put the similarly masculine-identified women they hang out with in a different, higher category than the feminine women they have sex with. Kelly, a boi in her late twenties, recently sent an e-mail to a fellow boi, an Internet acquaintance, regarding a femme they both know from the scene, that reads: “I hope she’s not a big deal, that you’re just riding her or whatever. Do you want me to keep an eye on her? Bros up bitches down.”

This school of bois tends to adhere to almost cartoonishly unreconstructed fifties gender roles, but, obviously, they reposition themselves as the ones who wear the pants. Alix, a Williamsburg boi, said she wanted to meet at an East Village gay bar called Starlight for an interview on a Sunday night. After she didn’t show up, Alix sent an e-mail explaining her reasoning: “I didn’t see you but I’d be lying if I said I was there. It was raining and I need to know what I’m getting if I’m going out in the rain for some chick and she better be slammin’. And anyway, I should be the one calling the shots.”

Sarah*, a 28-year-old who moved here from San Francisco a little under a year ago to work in market analysis, says she has met “maybe 30” femmes over the Internet—on Craig’s List and Nerve and through the Village Voice personals—and occasionally she’ll say “boi seeks girl” instead of “butch seeks femme” just to mix it up, and because it’s the cooler term. But she’s not crazy about all its implications. “I’m not entirely comfortable because so many people I’ve met consider boi to mean transgendered or faggot,” by which she means butch-with-butch or boi-with-boi. “I definitely do not want my name attached to those definitions. I don’t understand the faggot culture … I think it’s disgusting,” she says, and her face crumples with distaste and confusion, and then she laughs.

Sarah has smooth, icy pale skin and green eyes. Her black hair has little patches of silver and is cut very short. She is wearing big jeans and a pinstripe shirt with rolled-up sleeves under a navy-blue vest, and she sits with her legs wide apart and her big arms crossed over her chest, making her body a sculpture of toughness. “What I like about women is femininity,” she says. “I’m interested in women who look like women, who have womanly gestures and smell and feel, and I don’t understand the appeal or the sense of two faggot dykes riding each other,” she says, and cracks up. “Femme-on-femme is stupid to me, too. It’s air. It’s air on air. It just seems like Cinemax fluff … long nails, you know. One thing I hear a lot of people say about lesbianism and gayness in general is that it’s narcissistic. I’ve heard so many people say that—and not just my mother. But in a butch-femme dynamic, it’s not mirror images.”

Sarah’s current dating M.O. is fairly lupine, an agenda that’s easy to advance with the help of the Internet, the sexual glutton’s new best friend. But her ultimate aspirations are quite a bit more conventional: One day she wants to give up this swinging bachelor’s life. “I’ve got this model of a household that’s probably sick to a lot of people that makes perfect sense to me,” she says. “What I want is to have a job, and have a life, and I want a partner with a job and a life to come home to, and a high standard of living, and I want us to have kids that go to school and do their homework and go on trips with their parents.” She smiles for a minute with the self-satisfaction of an athlete about to cream his opponent. “And, you know, at the end of a hard day, I would like to come home from work and have my wife suck my cock.”

The question for many women is why, given the chance to redraw the map of gender relations, anyone would choose to be that wife. Why is there such a thing as a femme? The most obvious answer is that it’s not actually a choice; that desire follows a logic all its own and nobody can really make rational sense of why they like whatever it is they like. But the more complicated explanation is really another question: Is there something subversive about playing the role of the doting wife when your husband is a woman?

Deborah is a pretty Jewish girl with long, curly brown hair and big hoop earrings who says she “never feels more proud than when I’m on a butch’s arm.” She wears a jean skirt and a striped top and eyeliner. “I don’t go out of my apartment without makeup on unless I’m going to the gym, and even then I’ve got my sunglasses on,” she says. Her apartment is small but has the spectacular advantage of facing Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker’s back garden. “I love Sex and the City,” Deborah says. “I have a horrible mold problem in this place, but I don’t want to move and give up facing the Parkers.”

Deborah is 34 and has been out as a femme dyke for fourteen years. “Everyone I’d ever seen was a goddamn bull dyke and I was like, I’m not that! That’s not me! After I met my first femme friend, I was like, Oh: I can be exactly who I am. And then I got a huge crush on a gentleman butch. Old-school. Shaved head. Hot. I thought my heart was going to stop.”

For Deborah, anything remotely short of butch-femme seems silly, icky, neutered. “One of my really good friends was like, ‘If I was going to be with a girl, I would want to be with a girl like you, Deb,’ ” she continues. “And I’m like, ‘You’re sweet, but a lot of the girls who are totally like me wouldn’t ever in a million years sleep with you.’ Ever. I don’t want to fuck myself. What kind of balance is that? And the whole b-o-i business, I’m like, what the fuck? What does that mean? In one respect I thought it meant a little bit butch of center, slightly more andro, with this whole tweezed-eyebrow business that makes me want to puke.” She laughs the laugh of the fed-up. “It’s gotten to the point where I see men on the street and go, Damn. If that were a woman? That’s how far I’ve been pushed in this city: I look at pictures of Johnny Depp longingly and think, If only you didn’t have a penis.”

New York is to San Francisco in the lesbian scene as New York is to Los Angeles in the entertainment scene: You can make a real go of it in Manhattan, but the unrivaled epicenter is California. On a warm night, Diana Cage, 34, the editor of the lesbian magazine On Our Backs (the title is a sexed-up play on the feminist publication Off Our Backs), and her friend Kim* are having dinner at an Italian restaurant around the corner from a San Francisco dyke bar (the San Francisco dyke bar) called the Lex.

Kim is feeling anxious about the evening, because later on, Clara*, the boi she is seeing, is supposed to meet up with them at the bar, and things have been very touch-and-go. “Clara’s biggest fear when we started dating was that I was going to try and fuck her. She’s obsessed with operating sexually as a male,” says Kim, a pretty, punky 24-year-old who resembles the actress Rachel Griffiths. “I find bois the most attractive. I like the young, andro look, but I’ve dated across the board—butches, femmes, trannies—and that really bothers Clara. All her girlfriends in the past have been pretty much straight.” Kim offers a rueful little laugh. “It also threatens her that I’m not totally vapid and vain … Her big relief was when she found out I wear a thong.”

“For bois it’s like in high school,” says Diana. “The girlfriend is not a person, she’s something that everybody’s intimidated by, and they’re all worried about how they look and maybe if they have a girlfriend that’s not cool and will their friends approve?”

Kim, looking increasingly forlorn, pushes her pasta around her plate. “This all ties into their kind of approach to women in general—they are so very predatory about it. It makes me kind of uncomfortable. Clara won’t just touch on it, like: That girl’s hot. She will talk and talk and talk about how she wants to get them home and fuck them.” She looks at Diana, concerned. “I’m nervous to see her now because I’m not dressed up … and then, all of a sudden, it’s like I’ve come full circle. It’s like I’m trying to please a guy.”

Names with an asterisk next to them have been changed.

Where the Bois Are