Black butches on the show, including Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and (formerly on the show) Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) represent a much longer history of non-traditional Black genders that may or may not be captured by the term “butch” at its own bale of butches including Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) who represents a tall, strapping, princess-saving heroic knightly butch, and Arya Stark (Maise Williams) a renegade princess turned sword fighter and monk.
For more comic butches, think Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) of who plays a gloriously mean, bully butch athletic coach competing with the Glee club for school funds.
While as recently as a decade ago, many butches could still be found in their natural habitats–dyke bars and softball teams–and while some could even be spotted in the wild, in recent years, their numbers have declined leading some scientists to predict their eventual disappearance. And, only six years ago, South African runner, Caster Semenya was subjected to a clearly racist “gender test” when her unapologetically athletic appearance led to suspicions about her masculinity, drug use and so on.
Indeed, like the passenger pigeon or Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise that died in 2012, the butch seemed like a category whose time had passed–a relic, a fossil, a victim of cultural climate change and an irredeemable symbol of past times that a new generation was eager to forget. And in the world cup winning women’s soccer squad there are several visibly butch players and plenty that are openly gay. Bechdel answers adroitly:“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body.
“Ring of Keys” tells the story of an encounter between the young Alison and the adult butch who walked into the diner where Alison and her closeted father were eating.
As novelistic descriptions by Leslie Feinberg and others of just such ghostly encounters between adult, abject butches and the young proto-butches who want to find their likenesses in the world demonstrate, in the past, the butch adult would have been more likely to spark terror and fear in the young queer’s heart than adoration, acceptance and identification.
What the young Alison feels for the anonymous butch who crosses her path has no words, cannot be culled from any archive of feelings, gay or straight, and so is captured in that open mouthed, soundless wonder that punctuates the song.
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