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My Butch Career: An Interview With Esther Newton

The scholar and activist on resisting gender conformity, coming out in the nineteen-seventies, and fighting for world liberation.

I interviewed Esther Newton about her new memoir, My Butch Career on June 20, 2019. Newton earned her PhD in 1968 and published Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1972), the first major anthropological study of a gay-identified community in America. Though she researched drag queen culture and desired women sexually, Newton resisted the norms of nineteen-sixties and -seventies femininity. Here, Newton discusses the vulnerability she associated with femininity, the risks of gender nonconformity in relation to her academic career, and her gradual entry into activism. Our interview ends with Newton’s advice to today’s gender non-conformers.

Theresa Smalec [TS]: Let’s start with your father’s commitment to communism and your own relationships to left-wing movements. Where did those commitments come from?

Esther Newton [EN]: I think it’s in my DNA. It’s not just from my father, the communism. It’s also from my mother, whose feminism was descendent from nineteenth-century women’s movements. And because my mother’s progressive views were completely opposite to her father’s values, she was defiantly attracted to communism. She also was attracted to Jewish men. Do you want me to talk about my parents’ relationship to communism?

TS: Yeah.

EN: His family were basically atheists. And he became a very militant atheist. My father joined the Communist Party in the nineteen-thirties, as my mother did. They met in Chicago. They fell in love and had an affair. Then she found out he was married, so she got out of that and went to New York. There she met a Hungarian photographer — I presume also with the Party. He was also Jewish. Then she had an affair with William H. Miller, who she met in the Communist Party. So, she was pretty dedicated. In fact, at the University of Chicago, she was the editor of the….

TS: The Upsurge.

Esther’s paternal grandfather, Louis Bash, was quartermaster general for the U.S. Army. Bash forced his daughter Virginia to withdraw from the University of Chicago weeks before her graduation upon reading in the Chicago Tribune that she’d been arrested at civil rights protests and that she edited a communist newspaper. Virginia further rebelled by marrying Saul Newton, a Jewish Canadian immigrant who legally adopted her daughter Esther, giving her his surname. ]

EN: […] My parents both boasted that they’d never crossed a picket line. I know a lot of people, including my wife, who grew up in very different circumstances. She grew up in a Republican household. A lot of people rebelled against their parents, but I never rebelled against my parents’ politics. Their values were always my values, and still are to this day — social justice.

TS: Saul Newton fought in World War II, correct?

EN: He fought in the Spanish Civil War first. With the communists, against Franco. He was really on the old side to enlist in World War II, but he convinced them to take him. He wanted to fight the fascists. Hitler and Franco were anti-communist, and he was militantly pro-communist. […]

TS: So, you were initially raised by your mom and then Saul came back into your lives when you were eight?

EN: I was more like six. They got married right after the war and he moved right in.

TS: You write that you were intensely jealous of Saul, but loved his masculinity. Could you talk about that conflicted triangle between your mom, your dad, and yourself?

EN: […] His coming was tremendously disruptive. I’d had this intense relationship with my mother, and things were never the same after he really interfered with that. Maybe it would have been easier with an easier personality for a dad, but that was not him.

TS: But financially, he clearly showed his love for you, right?

EN: Yes. Absolutely. So, that’s the thing. Eventually, when my mother and I moved to California, my grandmother had some money. There would have been enough money to send me to college, but my mother wanted me to stay close and go to Berkeley. And I did not want that. Saul stepped in and really supported me in some critical moments. But his marriage to my mother was totally disruptive, and their divorce was drastically horrible. She went into a deep, deep depression.

TS: She literally shut you out of her room. You were only eight at the time, correct?

EN: Correct.

TS: It’s really hard to shut out an eight-year-old.

EN: (Laughing). I guess. It wasn’t [hard] for her. She was definitely upset about it. She went to therapy for a time. But when you’re that depressed, you can’t just pull up your socks, you know?

TS: Why did the divorce have such a big impact on your independent and feminist mother?

EN: Well, she told me later that Saul was the love of her life. She was definitely hetero. Even I grew up with that idea that a man is supposed to be powerful, smarter than you, and other archaic ideas. Saul was dynamic and caring, and I guess we liked that.

TS: You write about your childhood friend Frankie, how he betrayed you by inviting his friends into what you thought was a private friendship: “The guys had made me understand that they were the boys and I was just a body they wanted to use. After this, I knew I was not and would never become a boy, but that didn’t make me a girl. That way meant weakness, shame. And so, I became an anti-girl, a girl refusenik, caught between genders.” Can you talk about that resistance to vulnerability, and how it shaped your fledgling masculinity?

EN: Well, first of all — I was in love with my mother. I don’t know how else to put it. It was so intense between us before Saul came between us. That had a heavy influence on my eroticism and personality. […] I was an only child — that was another factor. There wasn’t a little peer group to soften the blows. Every blow was hard. I put walls around myself, to protect myself. But who knows? Maybe I was born with more testosterone. It’s probably very complicated, one’s gender identity. There was a combination of things that I associated with femininity. That whole incident with my friend Frankie, where he betrayed me with his friends. I had no idea he would do that. They wanted to do whatever they wanted to do, to which I did not consent. Even so, that incident left me with permanent shame; somehow it was my fault. But that, too, was like, “Oh, being a boy. That’s where it’s at!” I think a lot of girls learn that when they’re growing up: “You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t do the other thing, because that’s for boys.”

TS: Yet you did many things that were traditionally only for men. When you went to college and graduate school, did you have any savvy about how to get through as a woman and a lesbian?

EN: I was always good academically, so that part was okay. I knew I could do it, and I did it. But socially, my education was very deficient. All I knew about being a lesbian was what I’d read in The Well of Loneliness. And she didn’t get to go to college. [Laughter]. I still hoped that maybe I would turn out heterosexual. Even in graduate school, I was still kind of open to that.

TS: It was politically dangerous to be “out” at that time, right?

EN: Oh, yeah. I was almost expelled. People I knew were expelled for “bad morals.” There was no “coming out” back then. “Coming out” meant you said to yourself, “Okay, I’m homosexual.” That was the first stage. The second stage was coming out into the gay community. There was no public coming out like there has been for the last thirty years since Stonewall. That didn’t exist.

TS: You went on a date with a friend, and at the end of the date, he said, “I think I might be homosexual.” And you said that you thought you might be, too.

EN: That’s right.

TS: Was that your first act of “coming out” in academia? I mean, there was Betty Silver earlier, but that was largely nonverbal.

EN: Betty Silver, a fellow student, brought me out in the sense of my first sexual experience. It was her, and then nothing! Although I did make friends with one other lesbian. We drank with each other and kind of understood each other. That meant a lot, actually. Then, when I went to graduate school, I got involved with a couple of local black women, who thought I was cute. That led to part of my Master’s thesis — not that I said anything about our relationships. Women always stirred my imagination, but I still thought, “Maybe I’ll grow out of this.” And when Cal came out to me, that began the trajectory that I’m on now, at 78.

TS: Did you ever tell any of your professors, like David Schneider, who you were advised to work with because “he liked weirdos,” meaning that he liked interesting students?

EN: Not then, I didn’t. Years later, I did. He did not even suspect it! Amazing, because he was so astute in so many ways. No, in my six years of post-graduate education, I never came out to a single straight person. No matter how friendly I was with them, or how good they were on my committee. You couldn’t do that.

TS: And nobody suspected after reading your dissertation?

EN: I think some people suspected, but you couldn’t really inquire as to why somebody was interested in this or that. Why did someone want to go to Uganda? If they didn’t offer that information, you couldn’t ask. It was seen as personal. And I used that to the hilt. There were definitely people who did not want me to get a PhD with that thesis. They might have suspected that I was a lesbian, but also, there was this whole complicated thing about how Anthropology was supposed to be about the “natives,” and certainly not about Americans.

TS: In June 1969, you had just finished your first year as an assistant professor at CUNY, and feared participating in gay protests related to Stonewall because your job was at stake. What factors ultimately led you to become active in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement?

EN: Well, I couldn’t get involved in gay stuff because academia was very heteronormative at the time. I did join a feminist conscious raising group called “Upper West Side Witch,” which stood for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. I think that was an issue in my firing from CUNY. I eventually came out to that feminist group, and they were very accepting and supportive. It meant a lot. I was too scared to walk in the very first Pride parade, in 1970, but I did attend some Gay Liberation Front meetings. That fit with my general left-wing view, because GLF wasn’t interested in gay marriage or having children. They were interested in World Liberation! Then, I got involved with a painter named Louise Fishman; she was very immersed in the gay activism that sprang up after Stonewall. We were together in 1971, and I went on my first Pride March. That totally affected the rest of my life. I came out professionally in 1974 and started thinking about teaching and forming some sort of Gay Studies program.

TS: You were at SUNY Purchase by then?

EN: Yes. I was kind of pushed by my students. After Stonewall, if they came to my office and said “I am gay” or “I am lesbian,” I initially nodded acceptingly. Later, it became, “Yes, I am, too. But just in my office,” They were like, “Why don’t you come out? It would make such a difference to students!” And I thought, “Yeah, I guess that’s right.” But I had tenure by then.

TS: That’s important.

EN: Very important! If I had been fired a second time —

TS: And so, after CUNY, you stayed at SUNY Purchase for 35 years?

EN: Yeah. Unfortunately. [Laughing] I’d wanted to be part of that program, but there came a time when I really wanted to get out. A lot of people who could get out, did. I couldn’t because of the kind of work I did. Nobody wanted it at the time. […]

TS: Do you have plans for the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall in New York?

EN: Karla Jay invited me to be part of the Heritage of Pride Parade, and Heritage of Pride offered to make Stonewall and GLF veterans Grand Marshals of the march. I was really tempted, but decided not to do it because my health is not that great. I still want to do things, like that NYU lecture you attended, so I have to pick and choose.

TS: What advice would you give today to young people who are not gender conforming?

EN: One thing I always tell my students that it’s very important for non-conforming people to do well in school, because you’re going to need the cultural capital more than kids who do conform to gender norms. The other thing is to seek out other people who may be like you. I would not want any child to go through what people of my generation went through—the isolation, the self-hatred, all of that.

TS: There are moments in your book that strike me as extremely sad, yet you say the anger is what got you through.

EN: I did write that, yes.

TS: What about this line: “What they had in common as parents besides left-wing politics was the commandment, ‘Don’t make demands.’ I was always expected to fend for myself and deal with my fears on my own time.” Did you learn at some point that it was okay to make demands?

EN: Well, it’s still not easy for me. The anger and all those defenses, “I can do everything myself,” really get in the way of loving relationships. Even in terms of professional life, I’ve had to reflect on those things and try to bring out other things in myself that are more compatible. I’ve always had a very strong life force. I think I’ve come through things that would have defeated other people.

TS: The ability to overcome is a constant theme of your book. […]

EN: I think the most important thing was that at critical moments of my life, somebody was there to help. That makes all the difference. […]

TS: Is it still rare for a butch woman to have a professional career?

EN: [Laughter] It’s easier, but you still have to wonder, “What am I going to wear on that job interview?” What I’d really love to do is have more interviews and reviews in progressive publications, because that’s a big part of my identity.

Theresa Smalec is an associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Bronx Community College/CUNY. Her book, Ron Vawter’s Life in Performance (Seagull Books, University of Chicago Press), is available for pre-order.

Esther Newton, a retired professor of women’s studies and anthropology, has written many books and essays on LGBT themes from a progressive perspective.

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