Updated: Aug 23
ESTHER NEWTON is a trailblazer. From her work as a Term Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, to her pioneering Lesbian and Gay Studies, she has shifted the boundaries. If you don’t know Esther and her work now is the time, her recently published memoir “My Butch Career”, is a fascinating insight into her extraordinary life, loves and achievements, we highly recommend reading it.
Tell us about your early family life?
I lived in New York City until I was eleven. Went to a private progressive elementary school and since both my parents worked, I took the subway by myself and was trained early in self-reliance. My parents divorced when I was eight years old which upset me a lot. In 1951 my mother and I moved to California to live with my grandmother. My family circumstances were unconventional.
What was it like coming out in your generation, and how far do you think we have come for today’s generation?
It was horrible. Our love and lust were illegal in all fifty states. There was no internet and the subject of homosexuality was banned from mass media so the only way to find out you were not alone was reading the Well of Loneliness and sleazy paperbacks — and thank goodness for them! I had a breakdown in high school and was almost sent to a mental hospital.
Now kids have lots of access to information, but I think that some high schools and families can make queer kids almost as afraid as we were for their safety and their futures.
When did you first discovered your passion in LGBTQ anthropology and why did you choose that over your passion for women?
I started doing anthropology of gay men, drag queen culture, to be specific, in graduate school not long after I came out (again) into the gay community. I was totally closeted. Even my faculty advisor did not realize I was a lesbian, nor did any of my straight friends. Back in college I had come out first in lesbian bars but concluded that I could not be gay and pursue an academic career, so I tried to be straight. When that did not work, I discovered that if you could keep your gay life secret you could still become a scholar.
Who has been your greatest inspiration in life and why?
There is no one person. When you are seventy-eight years old you have lived through so many different environments and stages. But what I do know is that without people to inspire you, you don’t continue to grow. And I have been lucky to know many creative and determined people who believed in me and showed me new ways to explore.
When you decided to write your memoir, “My Butch Career”, with a blank page in front of you, how hard was it to choose what pieces of your life you were going to write about?
There wasn’t a blank page because I had so many journals from the period that my memoir covers. I even had my father’s written memories upon which to base the father chapter. The problem was more how to find a coherent narrative line and how to edit because when it is your life you think every sneeze and every mishap is so important. And they may not move along the story you are trying to tell. Are there any people in your life that you wanted to include in your memoir, but felt you couldn’t, in order to protect their privacy?
No. Writers are pretty ruthless. But I did use pseudonyms for all the French women in my memoir at the request of my French ex, whom I still love dearly.
What is the most important thing you would like readers to take away from reading your memoir?
Be yourself, no matter the obstacles and limitations. Respect our LGBT history or you won’t know where you come from. And a shout out to all beautiful and stubborn butches and femmes.
What do you feel is your greatest personal achievement?
Modeling the value of courage and knowledge to younger generations.
Do you have any burning desires you still wish to achieve and, if so, what are they?
Your flame is turned down quite a bit at my age. I might like to write a sequel.
What do you think is the most powerful thing any woman can do to further our fight for equality in today’s political climate?
There’s no one way, there are many ways. Running for president, fighting abortion bans, doing something to support social justice for the poor, for women, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, teaching, writing, speaking out for action against climate change.
Do you have any particularly outstanding moments of celebrating Pride over the years, and if so, what are they?
Two of the most exciting moments were being there for the Lavender Menace demonstration against homophobia in the feminist movement in 1970 and the early 1990s Dyke Marches in New York City. How important do you think it is for the LGBTQ community to share their stories, what difference do they make and how would you inspire someone to share their story?
Vitally important. Lesbians, in particular, lack money and power and have a huge visibility problem. I see this now in the Stonewall celebrations, lesbians pushed to the side or ignored all too often. Every single lesbian should share her story in whatever way she can.
What is your favorite inspirational quote or mantra?
We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It.
Click here to order your copy of My Butch Career www.dukeupress.edu/my-butch-career
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For more information about Esther Newton please visit www.esther-newton.com/about
All photographs courtesy of Esther Newton