A queer friend in graduate school told me about being questioned about the absence of butches and the visibility of trans masculinity in queer community. The question came from a lesbian professor at a private university.
“Where have all the butches gone?” First, I refute you thus: I am butch and I'm here, responding. Second, I would prefer to unravel the question than answer it.
There is a saying, “Nothing can be said about the Tao.” To say one thing is to exclude another. Merely to use the word “butch” excludes some of the people who are invested. To decide against using the word excludes some other people who are certainly also invested here too. To take any action toward concrete knowledge excludes other possibilities and truths. I am tempted to refer to those involved as stakeholders- people whose identities and truths may be included or excluded by our definitions and decisions. I prefer this approach because it suggests that we consider everyone with a sincere interest rather than everyone who has the correct identity.
The act of defining an identity excludes other possible definitions. To give up the desire for linguistic precision allows for a more comprehensive explanation of the concept of butch than any conventional define-defend-conclude style of discourse ever could. I am not going to define masculinity or butch or genderqueer or any other terms here. My attachment to these concepts is too great and too dearly held. I want to let go. I’m now convinced the best and healthiest and most liberating thing I can do is to take up the identity question more lightly than ever.
I identify as a woman, the same gender I was assigned at birth. Yet when I looked up the words "woman-identified-butch,” most everything I found was transphobic towards trans men, trans women, or trans* everyone. Seeking other butch women online brought me to a bottomless stinking cesspool of transphobic hate and self-loathing. If there is any singular phenomenon causing queer people to no longer identify as butch, it may very well be the stench of transphobia.
The truth is I myself do not personally know many butch-identified people at all, and sometimes I think I’m only holding on to the word for sentimental reasons. It’s one of those words I’ve looked at so many times that I’ve lost the sense for whether it is even spelled correctly, let alone means anything.
As opposed to naming an identity, living in the world with my actual masculinity is something I've grappled with my entire life, and yet also done effortlessly or even sometimes accidentally. I aim for self-acceptance rather than self-loathing or self-esteem, both of which have their flaws. Self-loathing is miserable, self-esteem was attractive at first and got me through some hard times but falls apart when it comes time to take risks or make mistakes or learn new things. When I get my self-acceptance right, my masculine self-expression includes adoring women, being feminist, and being at peace in my body. Where my self-acceptance can sometimes get derailed is when I’m someplace like the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference and I have this alarm bell going off in my head, screaming “no.” Some part of my brain becomes obsessed with reminding me I’m not a trans man and I’m not really an outside-the-binary genderqueer either, so what am I doing here or anywhere, ever. Not to mention it becomes challenging to interact socially and behave somewhat human when a fire alarm is sounding in your head at top volume. So I spent as much if not more time sitting by myself or with loved ones near the conference as I spent in the conference.
A similar yet more nauseous alarm often sounds “fuck no, not like that, never like that” when I read butch/femme anthologies, or blogs, or pretty much any lesbian narratives about being butch. Yet somehow still I keep the word, always insisting I can be butch in my own way. All these alarms are aggravating! It is noise pollution that no one else can hear. But I kind of have to just hear them and continue to insist I belong somewhere in every queer, lesbian and trans masculine community anyway.
But back to our professor and the disappearing butch: The only real points I would want to make to her are that gender is informed by class and that there are some observable changes to masculinity in the larger culture that inform queer masculinity too.
In an alternate universe, the same professor might similarly find herself wondering where all the cowboys have gone. I'm skeptical about the idea that there ever were many working class butches on this professor’s college campus, or for that matter, many men who express that same kind of masculinity. I wonder if she feels lonely or is trying to imagine whom she would want to date if she were her student’s age. I wonder if she sees nerdy butch college students as butch, or if I’m guessing accurately and she is actually looking for working class masculinity in all the wrong places. Where I grew up, masculinity included going to work, paying the bills, then spending the weekend fixing your busted car and drinking beer or doing yard work. I hated the incredible conservatism I grew up around but I can’t deny the influence of the men who were directly in front of me during my formative years.
Though he has changed these habits now, during my childhood my father used to drink himself to sleep in front of the TV every night and work on one of those jug-sized gallo wines all weekend. He liked to spend time alone and believed that filtered cigarettes were as pointless as decaffeinated coffee. He taught me gun safety and handling when I was tiny and even now at 77 he takes me to the firing range sometimes. Don’t mistake this for a sentimental relationship, I learned misogyny and homophobia from him too and we still keep our distance. Do the daughters of men like this usually end up at private liberal arts colleges in the classes of lesbian professors? If you aren’t finding any butches, maybe your school needs to provide more scholarships, maybe you are looking in the wrong place, and maybe your butch template is outdated.
Butches do not exist in a vacuum, just being born and expressing masculinity the same way as we did in the past forever and ever into the future. Part of the reason masculinity in the larger culture has changed is that a lot of it is so profoundly unhealthy and destructive. A lot of it is embedded patriarchy and misogyny, and there’s been some improvement in those areas. Obama made it OK for a big manly world leader to be an affectionate dad and even relax a little around gayness. When I have the opportunity to spend time with straight black men and boys in my education work environment, I can see the impact of his influence everywhere. And for a few decades now, some white men, in some places, are learning from feminism and don't express their masculinity the same way our fathers did. I’m not saying feminism won here, just acknowledging some small victories. Some of those wealthy white third wave straight women got their husbands to push the stroller and change diapers, and it’s something. On top of that, lots of liberal white men are constantly being infantilized in movies and TV where hyper competent women care for them in exchange for being taught how to laugh. And there are all the man-child movies too. Bottom line is the John Wayne shit I was raised with doesn't fly in all circles anymore, and no one’s masculinity exists in a bubble, let alone butch masculinity.
I imagine that butches grow into our masculinity in our own ways, but in some ways similarly to how boys and men do, by mirroring the men who we see in our lives, the media, and in the larger culture. We reflect the aspects of masculinity expressed by the men we admire, or maybe more often, the men we wished would be around. My relationships with cis and trans men provide a constant stream of what to do and what not to do, in terms of expressing masculinity. There’s a feedback loop in my relationships with men, and I’m pretty sure some guys I’ve been really close with have had their masculinity informed by mine as well. And there is a part of me that relates to straight cis men much more closely than I often care to admit, how about that for some dirty laundry.
I have done some hard work to leave the macho baggage behind. Lately I want to talk about my feelings all the time! In fact I’m doing it right now! I'm not the least bit concerned this makes me less masculine. The reason I bring this up is because I'm slightly concerned that when people bemoan the disappearing butch, they might be looking for some unhealthy qualities in a kind of nostalgic utopianism about how butches used to be. I don't long for the substance abuse or bar fights or pissing contests or competing with men. I don't aspire to stoicism or have shit to prove. I refuse to romanticize anyone being stone as much as I refuse to pathologize it. And I've never been cool, detached or tough, and what a relief it was to stop trying. I’m thinking of a dyke I used to know who got nerve damage in her hand from punching a wall. I’m thinking of my own swollen knuckles the time I punched a trash can on a subway platform ten years ago. That’s not butch, it’s idiotic, but thankfully it motivated me to get some much-needed therapy. I am in no way nostalgic for all that rage seething beneath the hardened exterior. It was miserable. It may have made me appear more butch on the surface but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, nor would I wish for more of it to be in our community.
Yet it’s actually a good thing this professor asked her question. The queer theory or activist style answer might be to send her to do her own research and overcome her ignorance. My first draft of this response included resources and shout-outs to Bklyn Boihood and Cathy Opie and Butch Voices. But doing research all by oneself doesn't always help. Maybe it was actually wiser to ask for help from my queer comrade, however clumsy the question might be. Real learning is often a social activity.
Obviously I am more interested in this conversation as a lens for my own journey with gender. The butch/trans border lives and breathes in my body. I will defend this professor’s right to question that blurry border with good intentions, if that is indeed what she is attempting to do. If we are to be a healthy community, we need to have a dialogue. I don't want to live with an elephant in the room. I want to have this conversation with all the people who are stakeholders.
I want her to be able to ask this crappy, tedious question and not have it shut down with a stack of books and websites. I believe it is possible to have this conversation without being transphobic, but there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. We must take care not to end up in the Gendercator.
On one hand, there has to be a better way to respond to the persistent question of the supposedly disappearing butch. On the other hand, there has to be a better way to value masculinity in women than being a transphobic fucking idiot.
It occurs to me the professor is asking this question because she feels grief and loss over the changes to lesbian culture and the blurring of its identity boundaries. That blurring is something that makes me freer, so if it is causing her a problem, maybe I should ignore her and live my life. But freeing as the blur is, it’s still not entirely unproblematic for me either. Her question makes me angry and sympathetic at the same time. And I could just respond by pointing to the excellent essay by Amy Fox in Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme but I’d rather go on engaging myself here. (If there is any hope for us all, it lies with butches like Amy Fox.)
I could not help but wonder if our professor goes around asking this question of all her young students in our stakeholder group. And what impact questions like this might have. If people don't feel comfortably butch, they shouldn't feel any obligation to identify with it. Please don't pressure young queer people to fit into a model that isn't working for them! Formal authority has an amplifying affect. When you are a professor and go around your campus asking why there are no more butches, it has an impact on young queer people who trust and respect you. It might even make them feel inadequate. Then they get resentful of the pressure you are putting on them to live up to some imaginary ideal/outdated butch standard just because they have a little bit of masculinity in their complex identity. I doubt you would ask tender young cis men to be more masculine or anything other than what they are. It would be painful for any human to have their gender evaluated, but if feels like betrayal when it comes from a trusted queer professor. And then later your students graduate and move to Brooklyn and I get to feel alienated at the big gay party because my butchness triggers some paradigm of gender failure that you enforced with your not-so-innocent questions, then they act all weird and uncomfortable around me. No thank you.
So now let’s acknowledge an increase in visibility for trans masculinity. Part of what I think has changed with the increased visibility is not a decrease in the number of butches but arguably a shift in the surrounding environment. Where before our gender was observed in the context of femme genders and against het genders, now the context also includes trans men. Where before we were perceived as the “real” lesbians now we are perceived as the ”not real” trans men. Both of those constructions suck ass. I can’t think of any examples of where “realness” is used without dehumanizing somebody through comparison.
The context changes and the community struggles to evolve (or fall apart, or just yell about how we are not all one community, or turn cynical and claim there has never been a community.) Some queers deserve some credit for creating a lot of space and acknowledgement for trans masculinity. At the same time, we are struggling to evolve in another way with our massive transphobia and misogyny towards trans women. And even in evolving towards being more inclusive of trans men, we also sometimes get sloppy and started attaching male pronouns and conventional trans narratives to everyone presenting as masculine. That's a mistake and it sometimes feels erasing, at least it is to me when I’m the one being mistaken... but I’m not offended, I understand why it happens. Like most other movements, our evolution is erratic and thriving in some areas but stunted in others. The people on the receiving end are usually those with the compound marginalized identities, and when the fuck will we ever learn?
The idea that butches are pressured to transition should be given some air and light. Instead of dismissing it as transphobic nonsense, which it very well may be, I still want to sit with it for a while. I need to consider if I am experiencing internal or external pressure to transition, or both. Usually this conversation leads someplace where my agency is taken away and I am somehow the property of vigilant lesbians who deep down actually believe I would transition in a heartbeat if they let me get away with it. Or that trans guys are pressuring me simply by going around with all that annoying hard-won self-acceptance and comfort in their own skin.
Let’s take our question to one of the experts for a moment. "Now there is a visible community of transgender men. There are now fewer masculine women as the shift is away from that "in between" position. Female masculinity is seen as a step towards transitioning and the transition is seen as a way to resolve the discomfort of female masculinity for some. A young person coming out now has much more images of trans men to choose from, and there is less stigma around that choice." This is J. Halberstam being interviewed in Diva magazine.
I am so impressed by this authoritative declaration of facts! But unfortunately I was not called for the gender census and was not aware that we know for a fact that there are fewer masculine women these days. I see masculine of center people all the time because I live in Brooklyn and work in Newark. I see studs most everywhere, so with the evidence before my eyes I must question the idea that there are fewer of us masculine women. While it is indeed true that there are now more images, and ways to access information about physical transition and more trans narratives and more unconventional trans narratives, we probably cannot ever know just how many people are in an actual identity at a given time.
I don’t experience pressure from trans men to transition and I do not have any illusions that passing would resolve the stress of being a masculine woman. (Besides, that stress forged me.) On the contrary, what I actually experience is a form of adult peer pressure. Here is how it works: Certain gender identities are celebrated in the community. Celebrating queer genders can be deeply subversive, fun, sexy and empowering. But we don’t always get celebration right. We are all at least somewhat traumatized by oppression and that can totally fuck with our capacity to look, notice, and see each other. We end up with this sloppy validation where the celebration starts to smell like popularity and favoritism instead of affirmation or inclusion. All the celebration starts to feel like tediously repetitive self-congratulation and tramples right over some of the folks it supposedly aims to include.
We get sloppy when we assume any masculine-presenting person is trans. This happens to me occasionally when it's assumed that I am on my way to some other identity, when I get weird back-handed compliments about how I'd make a hot guy. I've gotten that one from gay men, both cis and trans. It's OK, I know it is meant well, but it's a sloppy celebration of trans masculinity that erases the fact that I'm a woman… a fact that isn't temporary or transitory. So occasionally an effort to respect trans masculinity is disrespectful to me as a butch. I do not hold this against trans men, but our community needs to take some responsibility for not automatically assuming my masculinity means that I’m trans. We need to improve on just listening and noticing each other better all around.
On the contrary to a celebration of trans masculinity, I’ve observed an increasingly popular and very specific narrative around glitter and fabulousness expressed by trans masculine people and any and all other queers. Having a sparkly gender on a boyish identity is constantly being admired, photographed, blogged about, and equated with being queer. This celebration sets an expectation that really stresses me out! I can no more play with being glittery and feminine now than I could play with ribbons or be girly as a child. I am not going to playfully undermine my masculinity in order to meet some new standard for belonging. I’m not boyish or effeminate or dapper or dandy, either. And I love my radical faeries but I am not one. The new peer pressure feels entirely too similar to what I experienced as a kid, like constant disappointment in my perceived drabness/lack of femininity. It feels like my mom urging me to wear more color or teachers telling me to smile.
I imagine that when one identifies as a man it might get tiresome to be expected to constantly undermine one's own masculinity with glitter or nail polish in order to be understood as having good gender politics. I imagine that it would be a huge pain in the ass to be in queer community space as a man because sometimes I can barely stand it as a butch. This is not to assume that all trans masculine people ID as men, but only to point out that trans men per se are not being celebrated and neither is masculinity per se. What is being celebrated is a very particular way of presenting oneself as beyond the binary. Sometimes I imagine this is what it is like to be femme, to show up with your femininity but not be recognized because you are not dressed sufficiently slutty or because you are not subverting or undermining or playing with femininity but actually living in it.
My freedom doesn't resemble boyish wonder, or flamboyant in-between gender worlds, but it is no less my freedom. It looks like being grown up and masculine, every single day and not only in queer community but also in corporate environments, schools and non-profits, just being a butch woman.
So "radical queers" need to stop demanding conformity in exchange for recognition. We probably want so much to belong to something that we mistake sameness for community. That's a tragic error, because healthy communities affirm difference.
I think the pressure of these queer expectations comes from a misplaced desire to celebrate ourselves, to feel good about ourselves and so on. We screw things up because we are going for self-esteem rather than self-affirmation. So then what does my own self-affirming gender freedom even look like? Not like the emotionally crippled masculinity I grew up with, and not like the mushy white liberal masculinity in our pop culture. Not the retro butch tuxedo situation, much as I respect that as groundbreaking. Again I have to come back to just being free to be butch the way I like it, accept it, then I won’t need to look to others to celebrate my gender, I won’t need to hate myself, I won’t have to swing on that pendulum at all anymore.
We need to do a better job with noticing one another. We need to get out of our own heads and struggles with identity to actually see the people right in front of us. Beyond just asking for everyone’s pronouns, I often wonder what it would be like if we were actually attending to each other and what it will mean to be in community together. We could do each other a real service towards liberation to just calm down and notice.
I need options. I need to live in this body and this identity before I can speak to anyone’s anxiety about lesbian gender identity expression. I may seek physical changes to make my body into a place I can enjoy more and occupy whole-heartedly or with some degree of ease. Ease! It took me a long time to think I had any claim to that, with all the body dysphoria in our drinking water. I may alter my body to remain a masculine female who can live with herself. Not to transition to anywhere but to remain standing right here. Even at risk of queer people in my community thinking they knew it all along about me. Even at risk of straight people having less of a sense of what to make of me. Even at risk of confirming some fears that all the butches are disappearing.
What I chose to do with my body is up to me. I won't have lesbians read me as a self-mutilating betrayer and trans people/cis men/radical queers read me as a man or an incompletely transitioned guy. Or maybe I will have all that, since I have certainly had it all before. In fact, people can believe any or all of those things but it doesn’t stick. If people can’t find me on the map they may need to put it down and navigate the actual landscape. But I will help with that navigation since I want to be seen and understood as much as anyone else does.
I feel so relieved that it is possible for me to make physical changes. I am so grateful it is possible even if I never do it. It makes me feel better about being butch. It makes it easier for me to relate to the disappearing butch questions with compassion. There are trans men who choose no hormones and no surgery, and have no less right to their identity for this choice. Conversely I'm a butch woman who may very well choose hormones and/or top surgery, and I am no less a butch for these decisions. Identity doesn’t lie with these physical interventions any more than with the words we choose.
Either way I’m still just straddling the line on this imaginary border. And thinking about how the blurry border, and these discussions, and offensive questions, all arose as a consequence of people trying to have their own visible, nameable identity and understand others through a visible, namable identity. People want to be seen for what we are, and feel human and connected and understood. Much as I obviously love a lengthy discourse on gender, I think we can actually accomplish the connection and understanding through being more attentive in community and by loosening up on the boundary definitions. The words can point to the truth about us but they can never actually be the truth.