This is where it all started. One snapback is all it takes.
“My sister read your blog,” my mother remarked to me a couple years ago, referring to a series of guest posts that I had been writing for Bitch magazine. She was teasing me, but she relayed something that my aunt had apparently told her in earnest: “She showed [her husband] and he said he’s afraid of you now, since you’re such a ‘militant butch lesbian.’”
Now, I am all of five feet tall and pudgy. With my penchant for pastels and bright complementary colors, I look more like a giant Easter egg than like whatever it was my aunt and uncle were picturing when they read the word “butch.” My blog posts weren’t even about being butch. I probably used the word once, but that was enough to set straight imaginations ablaze with terrifying images of…I don’t even know. Then again, maybe I do look scary. Maybe that’s why strange men laugh or snarl at me and call me a “fucking dyke” in the street and on the bus.
It isn’t only men and straight people who make me feel a bit like a monster. Don’t get me wrong—it’s mostly men and straight people. But there are also little recurring experiences that sometimes make me feel unwelcome even among other queer women. Back when I was a senior at Wellesley, I took a seminar on queer theory. During class discussion one day, one of my peers chimed in brightly with, “I’m really glad we’re beyond the whole butch/femme thing and everyone is just sort of androgynous.” The observation applied specifically to the lesbian culture on campus, and more generally to the culture of young lesbians as my classmate understood it at the time.
The remark has stuck with me vividly because I keep encountering a similar sentiment among certain circles of fellow queer millennials. Specifically there is, among some young lesbians and other queer women, a distinct hostility to butchness. Butch identity is often viewed as passé, as a relic of some bygone era when lesbian gender expressions and relationships were trying to ape heterosexuality. Sometimes it is regarded as downright damaging or oppressive, as if butchness is inherently an imitation of manhood.
I do think that there is a conversation to be had about internalized misogyny and transphobia within queer communities. These forces combine to produce the dual attitude that, in order to be authentically genderqueer or trans, AFAB people must be “masculine” and AMAB people must be “feminine.” AFAB “masculinity” does carry a certain amount of cachet in some LGBT spaces, in the form of not having to defend or justify one’s place in the queer community. It’s not necessarily “privilege” in any meaningful sense, but it is a real phenomenon.
With that acknowledged, however, the butch hate that I encounter among other queer women is more often than not a reflection of internalized misogyny. It mirrors the overwhelming hostility to butchness endemic to straight culture. Gender expression is so heavily and openly policed, especially for girls and women, that simply remarking on it feels redundant. But no matter how many times we draw attention to this gender policing and to how much it hurts us, collectively we just can’t seem to stop.
Because of that constant gender policing, growing up as a little baby butchling was often confusing and painful. Now, I am very much a social constructivist; I do not buy into the “born this way” notion. I do not think that butchness is somehow stamped into my DNA, and I certainly don’t believe that I have a “masculine” brain or that any such thing exists. But the seeds of my identity were definitely sown early, even if in many ways my girlhood didn’t follow a “typical” transmasculine narrative wherein I always felt some inborn aversion to femininity. I mean, I actually liked dresses and jewelry just fine when I was little. There was an awkward stretch of my adolescence when I was really into long suede skirts and earth-toned capes. You know how sometimes, as a young lesbian, you get a little bit confused between the kind of woman you want to be and the kind of woman you want to be with? Well, when I was fifteen I hadn’t quite worked out that I wanted to date some kind of bohemian Earth-mama Hobbit witch.
As the careworn mantra goes, “All gender is drag.” Drag, of course, is a performance. You don’t just put on an outfit, you construct an entire character, informed by what your audience expects to see. That expectation is crucial. Gender lies in how you declare yourself and in what society expects from and parses within your performance. It isn’t somehow located in your dress or behavior itself. There are no inherently “masculine” or “feminine” traits. But we’re born into a culture that acts as though there are and so, well before I consistently dressed the part, as it were, I was read as a “tomboy.” I embraced the label—as I now embrace “butch”—because humans have an irrepressible need to name ourselves. I got made fun of, I felt like an outsider, but I had an identity. I was a pretty physical child; I liked playing sports, mainly because they provided ample opportunity to hurl myself repeatedly into the ground or at another person’s legs. I was and am assertive, vocal, and even—dare I say—aggressive in ways that would be totally normal and therefore invisible in a man, but that are hypervisible and distinctly “mannish” in a woman. A fat, abrasive man is just a fat, abrasive man. A fat, abrasive woman can be a lot of things, none of them flattering. At best, a shrew. At worst, a dyke.
A fat, abrasive dyke is exactly what I was destined to become, and so in high school my “tomboy” identity rapidly started to wear thin. Tomboys are supposed to “grow out of it.” They’re supposed to hit puberty and then discover boys and heterosexuality and settle into “normal” behavior and relationships. I didn’t metamorphose into anything except a lonely lesbian. And so I’m going to say something right here, in the middle of this heartfelt essay, that’s going to seem like a complete non-sequitur: Thank God for Girl Scout Camp.
You see, in mainstream media there are no role models for butch lesbians. When you’re a kid (and an adult, and a human in general), media is vitally important to your understanding of what is good, and right, and possible. In popular media, butch women are monsters. We’re portrayed as objects of revulsion, mockery, and pity. As an adolescent I didn’t have Autostraddle or Tumblr, I hadn’t heard of Alison Bechdel, I hadn’t read Stone Butch Blues or Female Masculinity. I didn’t have a butch mom, or aunt, or family friend to look up to. I had movies and television and I had Girl Scout Camp. Every summer from when I was about six to when I was eighteen, I spent a few weeks at an overnight camp where it seemed as though 99% of the staff were lesbians. I was a counselor there myself during the summer between high school and college. Thanks to this seasonal community, I grew up with butch women who taught me and took care of me, women whom I admired and wanted to emulate. Without Camp, it would have been that much harder to envision a livable future for myself.
And then I went to college, and I did read Stone Butch Blues and Female Masculinity and Zami and a million other things because during my first semester I took a course called “Gay Writing from Sappho to Stonewall.” There was a vibrant and visible LGBT community on campus. I found friends and comrades and a girlfriend. But every now and then I bumped up against the attitude that I’ve mentioned, the idea that butchness is an assimilationist relic. Sometimes I still do. Sometimes, despite myself, I still get a sense of unease, an anxious feeling that my gender is somehow bad or wrong.
And so here I am. One of those fat, hairy, angry butch lesbians whom everyone seems to hate. Too “radical” for men and straight people, too “normative” for some queer people.
The idea that butchness is somehow normative or assimilationist, or in itself oppressive, is just wrong. There is no other way to put it. My gender presentation, as I’ve elucidated, doesn’t earn me any brownie points with men or with straight people. It doesn’t afford me any power. It makes me a target. The fact is that all women are targets of gender policing. We’re punished when we don’t conform to femininity, because we’ve stepped outside of our “place.” We’re punished when we are feminine, because femininity is understood as inferiority. When I get uneasy about being butch, it’s because I’m anxious about whether I’m performing gender in a way that hurts other women. How do I avoid that if I’m “masculine,” being that masculinity is defined by its diametric opposition to femininity?
After agonizing over the matter and consulting and commiserating with other butch women, I’ve come to realize that butchness doesn’t need to be understood as “masculinity” at all. Its form and substance don’t have to be defined by its opposition to femininity.
Sometimes I like to think of butchness as a kind of satire. Not as a parody–not as a clownish imitation of manhood–but as part of a purposeful endeavor to dismantle the popular conception of masculinity and the hegemony that it represents. Flannel and bowties and buzzcuts and muscle shirts and mean un-made-up mugs are not inherently “masculine.” And so butchness works to deconstruct maleness and masculinity by co-opting behaviors and aesthetics that men have tried to monopolize. Butch is a trickster gender—and so, in a similar way, is femme. Lesbian gender expressions do not emulate heteropatriarchy, they subvert it. Femme removes femininity from the discursive shadow of masculinity and thereby strips from it any connotation of subordination or inferiority. Butch takes markers of “masculinity” and divests them of their association with maleness or manhood. Butchness works against the gender binary—the masculine/feminine paradigm—and reclaims for women the full breadth of possibilities when it comes to gender expression.
Other times, honestly, I just don’t like to think about my gender as a conscious political undertaking at all. I know that “the personal is political.” I know that no action or belief can possibly be apolitical because every social institution on every scale is steeped in ideology. But sometimes I just get so tired. Sometimes I want to just be. Understanding that my gender has nothing to do with maleness or men helps with that. I’m not a man. I’m not trying to be like a man. I’m not aligned with men in any way. I’m just…well, butch. Butch is a legible identity in itself.
Certainly my own butchness is not predicated on seeing myself as more logical or confident or competent than other women. It isn’t defined by a rejection of femininity and all things “feminine.” I’m emotional. I cry when I’m angry and coo over baby animals. My assertiveness is ultimately limp-wristed. I like pastels and flowers and glitter. My closet is full of men’s button-downs and I don’t own a skirt but I do have a drawer full of beautiful velvet scarves and jeweled brooches. I am a particular sub-subspecies of dandy butch that I refer to as “sparklebutch” in the privacy of my own head. There are as many ways to be butch as there are women and facets of masculinity for us to steal and repurpose. While I’ve touched upon the isolation and pain that come with being a butch woman in a heteropatriarchal society, I don’t want to give the impression that there is anything tragic about my gender identity. My gender is deliberate and playful. I love it. I’m proud to be butch. If nothing else I hope that, somewhere, another girl finding her way toward butchness might read this and feel proud too.