I’m thinking of my lower Manhattan neighbors Harriet and Mary from the early 1990s.

Mary dressed in a very masculine manner and drove a cab. She and the traditionally feminine Harriet socialized in a couple different lesbian bars.

I was a member of Queer Nation at the time and very curious about gender ideas, which I had been reading about in an academic sense.

Over coffee and ice cream one day I asked Mary what she thought about it. How did she define her gender?

“I’m a Butch, honey,” she said. “That’s all you need to know.”

Mary was in her late 50s then and is no longer living, so I don’t know how she would think today. But I’m pretty sure by identifying as a Butch first, rather than as a man or a woman first, she was saying something about non-binary, even if she didn’t know the vocabulary.

Mary and Harriet were part of a very special subculture that in some ways has faded out of existence. The bars they used to go to are gone. Their contemporaries are elderly or no longer with us. But the lives they lived are still echoing down to us.

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