Early Butch:
From Fairy Butch to Rachel Maddow

Former Curve magazine editors-in-chief Merryn Johns and Diane Anderson-Minshall have a conversation about a pivotal Curve cover story.

At the dawn of the world’s best-known lesbian publication, the one commodity that was in
short supply was images. Images of us! Luckily, aspiring lesbian photographers such as Chloe Atkins were
in the Bay Area taking iconic photos of lesbians in ascent.

Fairy Butch, photo by Chloe Atkins

Chloe Atkins first connected with Deneuve and Curve and Franco Stevens when she was a Bay Area shutterbug.

“In the 1990s I was trying to make a living as a freelance photographer in San Francisco, so I was taking my portfolio around and showing art directors of all the magazines, ad agencies, and anyone else who might be interested,” recalls Chloe.

“I took the most photographs at the LGBT nightclubs, especially those produced by DJ Page Hodel. I also worked for several magazines, and occasionally could pick up an advertising gig or whatever else was out there.”

One of the first regular butch presences in Deneuve/Curve was Fairy Butch, who had her own sex advice column. “Fairy Butch had a periodic cabaret event in the Mission/Potrero Hill neighborhood called In Bed With Fairy Butch, where Fairy Butch used to interview different people,” recalls Chloe.

Curve Magazine, March 1998

The shoot produced an ebullient portrait of the subject who appeared to be all-knowing and fun. What’s remarkable about Chloe’s photo of Fairy Butch is that she offers up an image of an identity that is both trustworthy and fun, with bleach-blonde hair, hands in the pockets of her dinner suit, laughing. And so readers felt encouraged to write in about their most intimate questions and concerns. Such as:

“My partner and I have been together for almost ten years, which seems incredible since we’re both in our early 30s. We have a very satisfying sex life, but I have one issue. My partner has a fantasy that she’d like me to fulfill. She’d love for me to give her a blowjob while she wears a strap-on. She tells me it’s about the role-playing aspect and she’d love to know how it feels. I love my butch and would like to oblige this fantasy, but I’m stumped. I have no idea what to do. She was my first sexual experience ever, which she knows. What would be the best way to do this for her without coming off as looking, or feeling, ridiculous and stupid?”

— Loving Partner in Pittsburgh

And of course Fairy Butch replied with “Love” and “Darling” and gave her best butch advice for the bedroom and beyond, as she did in every column. Which is to be expected of a laughing butch in a dinner suit.

Jenni Olson, Photo by Chloe Atkins

Chloe went on to photograph many women, producing a book titled Girls’ Night Out, in which she captured the diversity of our community at play, and the expressive style which she saw among the women who attended the LGBT nightclubs of the time, some of whom she’d photograph later in her studio.

Chloe also photographed filmmaker Jenni Olson, rock icon Melissa Etheridge—and a 21-year-old Rachel Maddow who at the time appears to have presented as a very soft butch baby dyke. Perhaps it’s the short hair, glasses, and the leather jacket. It’s a very different Maddow than who we’ve been watching since 2008 on her self-titled MSNBC show. On air, as anchor, she wears a suit and lots of television studio makeup. But nevertheless, viewers, as with Fairy Butch, expect her to give it to them straight up.

“What I remember about Rachel Maddow is that she was very relaxed in front of my camera and therefore easily photogenic,” recalls Chloe. “I didn’t think of Rachel as particularly butch.”

And so this is a time to bring up the mutability or any given gender expression during the course of a life. It might be a thing; it might not; and it might change.

Deneuve Magazine, April 1995

Chloe eventually moved to Oakland and gave up photography around 2002. At that time, digital photography took over and was prohibitively expensive for some photographers. The initial cost for a digital camera was higher than for a comparable film camera, and at that time, images, especially black and white, lost a lot of grain and detail that had made photography appealing in the first place.

But we are so glad that Chloe Atkins and her camera were there for the early days of Curve’s image-making odyssey.