Coming out as a(n obvious) butch dyke when I was previously known as, and basically looked like, a heterosexual woman, was like my very own social experiment about the effects of sexual orientation and gender presentation.I've written previously about happy surprises that coming out brought to my life. I've talked less about the unhappy surprises; I'll hit some of those now.
Here are some ways my interactions with others changed when I came out:
As I said, I'm only listing the negative or neutral things here, and I'm making a lot of generalizations. So please don't take the list too literally.Still, it was incredibly trippy to feel like I had stayed the same, but all these elements of the social world had suddenly changed around me.
- I became less visible to straight men, maybe because I no longer had anything they wanted. A female professor of mine once told me that when she turned 60, men stopped looking at her altogether and that she became invisible. I wondered what that would feel like... I got to find out just a few years later. (BIG generalization here; not always true; some of my best friends in the world are straight men, etc.)
- Straight women still looked at me, but in a different way. Some of them seemed to think: How much of a woman are you, and how much of a man? What does this mean for how I should treat you? Others seemed to think: How can I possibly understand someone who wants out of the game? Some of them began to flirt with me.
- Republican friends/family said things like: I am progressive on social issues, but why does being gay have to be such a big deal? They began using words like "waiting" and "inevitable" to talk about equal rights.
- Assumptions were made about me: I am pro-choice; I love cats; I care about football; I like camping; I find femmes attractive. Want to guess how many of these five things are true? People's assumptions fit me about as well as men's fitted shirts tend to.
- Straight progressive friends began using the word "partner" to refer to their opposite-sex spouse in front of me.
- Couples who were friends with both my ex-husband and I stopped calling either of us--particularly me. Oddly, this seemed to be most true for lesbian couples, some members of which began treating me like a pariah for reasons that remain unclear to me.
- I got stared at sometimes in the market or at the post office or in class or on a hike. I couldn't figure out why. And then I remembered: I look gender-atypical, and some people care about this and/or find it interesting to look at.
- A certain, mercifully rare brand of bitchy gay man hated me upon meeting me--fiercely and without apparent reason.
- I was automatically given some kind of "progressive" cred among hipstery friends who had previously considered me a bit of a traditionalist (albeit a liberal one) before.
- Even when I didn't want to think about my sexuality, which was a lot of the time, my sexuality was made an issue.
- People no longer assumed family-ish things about me, such as: I would have kids someday, I would go home for Christmas.
- Many straight friends rarely asked me if I was seeing anyone (even though relationships had always been a frequent topic of conversation).
- One or two very good friends claimed not to care about my sexual orientation, but were visibly uncomfortable when I came out to them, and then mysteriously stopped being your friends, and I will never be 100% sure if my sexuality was the reason.
- I suddenly noticed the overwhelming presence of heterosexist assumptions basically... everywhere. Movies, books, everything. Supposedly gay people were 5-10% of the population, but it didn't feel like I was represented in 5-10% of media.
- I would try to be friendly to strangers, as was my custom, in the grocery store or whatever, and they were extremely rude to me. I did not know why. Of course, this happens occasionally to everyone, but it started happening more than ever before. I didn't know if people were getting meaner, or if my patently obvious homosexuality was the cause of their rudeness.
Do any of these hit home with you?
This is the second part of a two-part post written by my dear ex-husband (DXH). Before you read this, please check out the first part, below.
To be clear, this period of my life was not good. I was separated from and not talking to my wife (at the suggestion of her counselor), living on my friend’s couch with about a car trunk’s worth of belongings, starting a new job in a new profession, and incredibly isolated because nobody else knew about it.
I kept my back straight and shoulders square for two reasons. First and foremost, I knew that what ever I was going through, BDubs had it worse than I did.
She needed me. I promised to be there for her. As she has written about, though we had a great marriage, there were still problems and I just wanted her to be happy.
I was also proving something to myself. Years before I met BDubs, I let down somebody else to whom I owed support. I disappointed her and myself. It had deeply affected me. In fact, when BDubs called that first time, I literally thought, “Here is your chance.” This was my chance to stand tall during a crisis and to redeem myself to myself. I set out to do so.
In support of BDubs, I buried a lot of my emotions. I also buried myself in my new job because it gave me control over how I spent my time and did not highlight so clearly the fact the BDubs was not next to me. I kept such a tight grip on my emotions that I actually created a playlist called "Release" comprised of songs such as "Anybody Else but You" by the Moldy Peaches and "Troubled Mind" by Catie Curtis. I would listen to this list at night when it was quiet, away from work, and just cry. Then I would collect myself, go to bed, and start over the next day.
One of the places I found solace was a Yahoo group called “Men Married to Lesbians
.” It is a hard place that is full of men in severe pain. The intent is to be a place where men can go to try to figure out how to make a mixed-orientation marriage work. It is also a landing spot for men whose world has been turned upside down. One man came home on a Friday to his wife telling him that she was gay, having an affair, and was leaving him and the kids. She moved out on Saturday. On Sunday she sent an e-mail to all their friends and family explaining the situation. It made me feel lucky.
I admired the way that BDubs handled herself through this process. She was always honest and earnest. She went out of her way to be sensitive to me and was deeply respectful of our marriage. She was a most reluctant lesbian. She is a woman of the absolute highest integrity and I cannot tell you how much I respect what she has done over the past couple of years.
More than one of you has asked whether I regret marrying BDubs. I have never regretted it for a moment. There were dark moments when I was angry about the unfairness of it all. But I always felt lucky to know and to have been married to BDubs. Living with her was like getting a graduate degree in critical thinking. She pushed and challenged me in a way that I had not been before. We had some great times together and some tough times, but I definitely grew and improved as a person through it all. We did great things for each other. She taught be how to use a semicolon and I taught her how to do shots and listen to music that was not created by her parents' generation.
In writing this entry I thought a lot about how alone I felt in the process. I was very scared to lose my friendship with DBubs and there was not a blueprint for how to keep it. We ultimately decided to dissolve our marriage in order save our health and friendship. It is heartening to hear that others have been able to do the same and I look forward to some random couple finding this entry in a Google search and hope that it will give them a little light.
Here, I need to stop for a moment and say thank you to my wonderful, extraordinary DGF. I could sing her praises in a lot of different ways, but I want to focus on one. My DGF and BDubs are friends. Actual, legit, not bite-my-lip-forced, friends. I really admire the DGF in this way because I can see the myriad of ways in which this would be difficult, but she recognizes the importance of my ongoing relationship with BDubs and accepts it as a part of me. That takes a lot of trust and a textured view of relationships. I admire her for that.
In the years since our divorce, I have watched BDubs's shoulders relax as depression and anxiety have loosened their long grip. Earlier in her blog, she described being with a woman as natural, like she did not have to pretend or guess. That natural ease has really permeated many parts of her life now in a way that is profoundly related to her being able to square her sexuality.
Where she once moved through life with sheer determination and grit she is now moving with purpose and self-awareness. It is a beautiful thing to see.BW talking now: Thanks for reading this. Even though the DXH and I talked throughout the process, reading his story from beginning to end like this was newly powerful for me. I hope his perspective has been useful to you, too, and that you'll pass our story along to couples who might benefit from it.And from the bottom of my heart (and I do not use sentimental phrases lightly), thank you to my DXH for sharing what he went through. Writing about my own coming out was incredibly tough, and I know you went through something similar in writing this, DXH. Without you, I would not be who I am now, and I doubt I'd be half as happy as I am now, either. You are a brave, strong, courageous man, and I consider myself damn lucky to have gotten to be married to you back then, and to still be in your life now.
As regular BW readers know, I recently told my coming out story ("Coming Out Married") in five parts (links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V). When my DXH (that's Dear Ex-Husband, for the uninitiated) offered to tell his version of the story, I jumped at the chance. I think this side of the story--that of those to whom we come out, and whose lives are dramatically altered as a result--deserves to be told, and heard.My DXH's story will be posted in two installments. His story starts during the business trip I describe in Part III. (Oh, and he refers to me here as "B-Dubs," short for "BW.")
BDubs called and asked me if I had time to talk. Very uncharacteristically, I said, “not really” because work was overwhelming. But she persisted and I relented. After a little hedging, she said “I am not sure I am 100% straight.” Laying on our bed, I let those words sink in a little bit. I asked her what she meant and she said that she wasn’t sure, but she needed to tell me. In that moment, I straightened my back, squared my shoulders, and told her that it was going to be all right, that we were going to be all right. She was coming home the next day and we could talk then.
Then I hung up the phone. And cried. For about an hour.
In that moment, I did not take what she said to be fatal to our marriage, but it was profound and I could hear the pain and relief in her voice.
I did not know then that we would be separated within six weeks and divorced within the year (at least we would decide to be divorced. Paperwork was never our strong point).
When BDubs got home the next day we left the airport and grabbed a late meal at a diner. There, we began a relationship talk that would last about a year and continue through separation, dating, holidays, and isolation. The constants were that we loved each other, we would do our best to take care of each other, and that we trusted each other.
What was I thinking at the time? In the early going, I felt very clear that this would be a fairly quick and clear issue. In the beginning I, very logically and cleanly, divided the process onto two steps. First, we had to figure out BDub’s sexuality; then we could figure out the implications for our marriage. I figured it was no use to contemplate the implications until after you knew what the issue was. If she was a “5 percenter” then it may not be a big deal for us. Clear.
Clear and fanciful.
In short order, it became obvious that this was not going to be a clean and quick process. First, BDubs was very reluctant. She did not want us to get divorced and she was facing the prospect of a very scary change for her life. And so I found myself trying to get my wife to kiss a girl (but not in the typical male way).
Second, underlying this neat intellectual, two-part framework was a profound and dark fear that I was going to lose my best friend. I met that fear the first night she stayed over at somebody’s house. That somebody happens to be her current DGF. I think that might have been the worst day, or at least in the top five of worst days. The night before I had practically pushed her out the door with a charge to sleep with somebody else (as long as the somebody was a female). By the time she came home, I was a wreck. Out of my head pacing the apartment. I envisioned BDubs and this woman having morning coffee and contemplating how to break it to me that she was going to be moving out and I would lose everything I had.
And thus emotion eats intellect for lunch.
We had to separate. We had to figure this out, but neither of us could handle living together as it was happening. Our lease was up, and she moved to a place where we had been planning to move together, and I moved to my friend’s couch (the separation day and the initial splitting up of our house was torturous and also in the top five worst days). We settled into what we knew was going to be a longer process...It's BW talking now: Wow, right? Wow. Even now, years later, I get choked up when I think and read about this. I'll post the second half of his story in a day or two. Meanwhile, how about some comments from readers who have gone through something similar? Any men reading this who are, or were, married to lesbians?
I realized I don't know how to write this last part of my coming-out-married saga, because in some ways, I'm still going through it. Not that I'm struggling with my sexual identity, or that I wish I still lived with my DXH, or anything like that. But in a way, I think all of us who come out later in life feel as if we've lived a split existence, and I'm not sure this ever disappears completely.
I moved in with the DGF a couple of days ago, and the act of relocating spurred some tough memories for me. There is something about combining households, about figuring out whose toaster to use or whether to mix our books or where to put the spoons, that makes me think of all the moves I've made before, and all the moves I might make in the future.
My DXH and I have a good relationship. We are great friends, we trust one another deeply, and I am certain that we will always be important people in each others' lives. Part of this is because he is generous and forgiving. Part of this is because of our honest communication during my coming out process. And part of this is because we both understand sexual orientation and sexual attraction as things beyond our own willful control.
Even though we are good friends, we spend less time together than I would prefer, and sometimes I still miss him. How can I not? We spent ten years together--the vast majority of our adult lives. We helped shape each other into the people we are now. We learned together, made mistakes together. We navigated car purchases and family holidays. We fought, made up, lived in four different places, adopted a dog. I am thankful that I got to spend the years I did with him, and I am also thankful that I had the courage to be true to myself and come out as a lesbian and live on my own.
To people who meet me now, I'm an out-and-proud butch lesbian with a secure identity and a great DGF whom I love dearly. This is all accurate. But even though no one can see them, the remnants of that other life are still inside me. I still think about them, and they still affect who I am. I don't think this is a bad thing at all.
Since coming out, I've met dozens of other gay people, men and women both, who used to be in heterosexual marriages. Sometimes they treat their prior life as a shameful secret, and this seems to be particularly true of butch women. I don't know why this is. Maybe we're ashamed not to have known something so fundamental about ourselves. Maybe we'd like people to think we've always been as comfortable in our own skin as we are now. I can understand this impulse, but I think it's important that we tell our stories--whatever odd, convoluted tales they may be--so that other people can see them and know that they are not alone.
I'll conclude my own little coming out saga with a message to any lesbian or questioning women currently married to a man: If you are true to who you are, things will get better than they are right now. Not in some cheesy, perfect, your-life-will-suddenly-be-awesome way. But in a quieter, more gradual, process of self-definition. It might be a hard road (and I'll offer more advice for navigating that road in a future post). But just because you didn't get it right the first time doesn't mean you don't get another chance to be happy.
Note: This is the fourth installment in my coming out story. If you haven't checked out parts I, II, and III yet, you should read 'em below so that this makes more sense.
In the two months after I got back, my DXH and I talked ceaselessly about our relationship. We wanted to stay together, but we wanted to be honest with ourselves. We mulled over "mixed-orientation" marriages. We pondered polyamory. We read message boards about couples who had gone through this. Eventually, we decided to separate as a trial, and to give me a chance to figure things out. He moved about an hour away, but we kept the separation secret from nearly everyone who knew us (family included). And even the very few who knew we were separated didn't know why. I was deeply ashamed and didn't want anyone to know what we were going through—specifically, what I was going through.
Even now, it is hard to find words to describe how dark that year was. I remember very little of it. I remember endlessly long walks with my dog in the chill of November. I remember being depressed by the emptiness of the house that my DXH and I were supposed to live in together, but in which I now lived alone. I went to work, faked it, came home. I don't know if other people noticed anything different, but anyone who was really looking would have seen that I was just an uptight, anxious shadow of a human being. Every now and then, my DXH would come back and spend a couple of weeks living at home. It was fraught with all kinds of tensions, all forms of guilt and worry. I felt anxious when he was around, and destitute when he was not. Every time he left, I spent several hours crying. Each departure was worse than the one before it. I felt like my insides had been cut out of me.
At my DXH's urging, I started trying to date women. (One of my first relationships was with the wonderful woman who is now my DGF. But ours is another story, and I will tell it another time.) I was struck by how natural dating women felt. I didn't have to think about every little move I made; it just happened. Granted, I was awkward. Granted, I had no idea how to ask a woman out, or how long I was supposed to wait before calling her. Somewhat amazingly, the DXH coached me on these points. He wanted me to figure my sexual orientation out, while I was more reluctant--deeply afraid of what I would learn.
And yet, some things were clear. I was starting to dress in a way that was more natural for me. A few men's shirts and a sweater vest had wormed their way into my wardrobe, and I wore them with great enthusiasm. And kissing a woman to whom I was attracted made fireworks explode in my tiny BW brain. I'd always thought that this was something that only happened in the movies, or to hopeless romantic types--not to pillars of logical thought like yours truly! Uh-oh, I thought again. Uh-oh.
To be continued...
Around the time "Coming Out Married, Part II" (last post--see below!) ended, I was scheduled to leave for a month-long business trip hundreds of miles from home. My DXH wasn't coming, so I'd have plenty of time to stew about my sexual orientation. I was probably at least bisexual, I was now convinced, but beyond that, I was still confused.
I had very little extra time on my trip. But with what time I did have, I found myself trolling Craigslist W4W. Just to look... You know. To see what was out there. In the back of my head, I thought that I might be able to get the gay "out of my system" by having anonymous sex with some woman, which would let me return to my marriage and live a "normal" life happily ever after.
Guilt was becoming a heavy, constant burden. I hated myself for entertaining the idea of cheating on my DXH. I went so far as to answer an ad and arrange to meet a woman at a cafe. I remember sitting in the dark of my rented car and deciding whether to go in. What stopped me wasn't the fear that I might be a lesbian, but the sadness that flooded me when I thought about violating my marriage vows. That was the closest I came to physically cheating on my DXH. I didn't go into the cafe. Instead, I drove to the far end of the parking lot and sat in my car for over an hour. I thought over my options. On the one hand, I could stay married. On the other, I could kill myself. There only seemed to be two options. Killing myself seemed the better one. I decided it would be the least painful for him if I made it look like an accident. If he thought I'd died randomly, he'd eventually move on. I had promised my psychologist that I would call her if I was feeling suicidal. I did. We talked. I didn't do it, but thought I might do it the following day, or the one after that.
I began looking at flight schedules, trying to put off my return home for as long as possible, and convincing myself that this was necessary for work. Once I realized what my subconscious mind was up to, I knew I had to tell my DXH or I'd never come home. At the time, I thought I lacked the courage to kill myself. Now, I realize that not killing myself took much more courage.
In the end, I told him on the phone. I had to. I went to the top floor of a deserted shopping mall early one morning and sat in the empty food court with my cell phone shaking in my hands. After saying that I had something important to tell him, I think my exact words were, "I think I might not be entirely straight."
I will always be grateful for my DXH's first reaction. He thanked me for telling him, and said it must have been unbelievably hard to carry that around with me. He asked if I was a lesbian, and I told him, truthfully, that I didn't know. I thought I was probably bisexual. I fervently hoped I was bisexual. I told him it was probably just a realization I needed to have. Once I worked through it, I thought, we'd probably be okay. Two days later, I was on a plane, headed home.
To be continued...
(If you didn't read my last post, it's probably best to start with that one.)
...Where was I? So, anything sexual between me and the DXH* was getting less and less frequent. I was becoming extremely frustrated with myself. Why wasn't I interested? It wasn't because of the DXH--he was as great (and handsome!) as ever, plus ridiculously patient. He didn't want to push it--he just wanted me to feel better.
The following year, we moved to a new town, and I started a grad school program, which I had thought I'd enjoy, but hated--and hated myself for hating, which (of course) is a totally healthy outlook. This made me even more anxious, and I was convinced I'd made an irreversible, horrible mistake by starting this new (expensive) program. Things were dark. I'd stay up for hours, hating my work and plagued by guilt that I was a crappy wife. I stopped reading fiction (one of my great joys in life), and also stopped doing any kind of art (another great joy).
And then I met this woman.**
She was a barista at a coffee shop I frequented, and also taught community college math (how's that for an interesting combo?). She was seven years older than me, and for reasons I couldn't figure out, I was interested in everything about her. I told myself it was just a straight girl-crush, and that these things happened all the time; even the New York Times said so
. Still, there was the fact that when she walked into a room, I stopped breathing. There was the fact that for reasons that eluded me, I couldn't stop thinking about her hands.Well
, I thought... I might be just a teensy, tiny, miniscule bit bisexual-ish
. So what? Lots of people were partly bisexual, right? No big deal. I didn't act on it. She was married; I was married. We hung out a lot. Nothing happened. I don't think either of us really wanted it to.
But once I let that door in my mind crack open the slightest amount, my true sexual orientation elbowed its way in, little by little. My inability to control my thoughts drove me crazy. It was like a one-way ratchet: I could become more
interested in women, but not less
interested. I decided the solution was to stop it in its tracks, to not let it get worse. I hadn't breathed a word of my struggle to anyone at this point. Sexual thoughts about women? HELL no--I didn't let my mind go there. I buckled down. I studied more. I got a new occupation. I found a terrific therapist. (I made sure she was trained in LGBT stuff just in case that was contributing to my depression, which I highly
And then I met this other woman.
I'd actually known her before. She was a photographer from Brooklyn who had done some work I'd written about for an online magazine. Our paths crossed again when she had an opening at a gallery in the city where I live, and from that reconnection, we started spending time together occasionally, a couple hours in a used bookstore or chatting away at a coffee shop. Eventually I found myself thinking about her more frequently. Not this
again, I thought--I can't handle another one! I tried to stop myself from thinking about her romantically, but it was tough. She lived with her girlfriend, which was another layer of insulation against the possibility of anything untoward happening between us. Ah, but life is not so simple, is it?
One evening, this woman and I went out to a bar with some friends. My DXH was home with a cold and her girlfriend was out of town for the weekend. We all had a few pints of beer, and the others left early. This woman and I weren't 100% sober enough to drive yet, so we decided to walk off my Fat Tires and her Pilsner Urquells. I don't remember what we talked about, only that as we passed people on the street, I hoped they would think we were together. I felt guilty--not because I thought homosexuality was wrong, but because I was married
. Eventually, we came upon a park, where we sat and talked. The sprinklers came on. We didn't move. We talked some more. There was a moment of silence when I wanted more than anything in the world to kiss this woman. In that moment, I realized: Oh, so that's
what that's for. By "that," I mean some piece inside me--some indescribable component that had always been sitting there, unused, in my head and heart. It clicked into place and was suddenly a fully activated part of me. Uh-oh
, I thought. Uh-oh
. I don't know if this woman wanted to kiss me, too. I think she did. I guess I'll never know. I've replayed that night many times in my head, wondering what would have happened if I'd done it.
But the moment passed and was gone. I walked her to her car and left, full of wonder at this new realization, and full of regret for my inaction (plus, full of guilt for the regret--I was becoming a veritable expert on guilt by now). Later, I wanted to tell this woman how I felt, but I couldn't. Soon, she began to treat me coldly, and ground our burgeoning friendship to a halt. Much later, I realized that maybe she had been interested in me and decided to cut me off before anything happened. But at the time, I decided she hated me, which caused me a ton of pain. And I was also disturbed that this THING inside me had been unlocked. So... was I a lesbian
To be continued... Next up: Craigslist! Suicide! More!* Someone asked me if my DXH knows I'm posting all this, and is okay with it. Yes, and yes!
** BTW, I reserve the right to make up immaterial details.
I've been putting this off for a long time. But a few evenings ago, something about the alignment of the rain and the fall chill and the smell of damp earth outside made me realize that it's time to start writing about my personal coming out story. I'm going to do so in four or five separate installments.
As my regular readers know, I used to be married to a man. This shocks people who meet me now, but I made for a somewhat convincing straight woman. I loved my husband dearly, and had few doubts about marrying him even though I was relatively young (23-24). Back then, I didn't think that I might be gay. Sure, there were signs, but the idea of kissing another woman actually kind of grossed me out. (Looking back, I think this was because I didn't know any soft butchy women, which turned out to be my type.)
Beginning right after I got engaged to the DXH (that's "dear ex-husband" for the uninitiated), I started to feel like there was something deeply and irrevocably wrong with me. There were days when I would retreat to my bedroom and cry for hours. I had no idea why. I only knew I felt hopeless. I had felt for a while like there was a thin film around my whole body, separating me from other people like the cell membranes I learned about in high school biology. I figured this was fairly normal for us introspective types, but I saw a doctor (a general practitioner) about the sudden crying. He prescribed Effexor; I took it; the tears subsided. I figured a therapist would be a waste of time and money, so I didn't bother to look for one.
Despite my occasional depressed days, I was overjoyed to marry the DXH, and the wedding was one of the happiest days of my life. We were surrounded by friends and family, and I felt like I was becoming part of this neat club known as "married life." People gave us advice, congratulations, and a new set of dishes. I felt like I was part of this big tradition, and I was especially pleased at how great it felt to be following in my parents' footsteps, and how proud they seemed of me. I didn't have doubts about my love for this guy, so I didn't have doubts about marrying him.
The bad stuff started slowly. Effexor seemed to be worsening my feeling of separation from other people. (Someone I was working with died abruptly and I couldn't cry!) Tired of my dulled emotions, I quit the Effexor cold turkey. (This was before all that research came out about Effexor withdrawal and suicide.) Two days later, I was sitting on the bathroom floor, overcome by incredibly strong self-harming impulses. Thankfully, the DXH came home before anything happened, and nursed me through the next couple of days. [Note: never go off of meds without a doctor's supervision.]
Things settled a bit. Some days I would grow despondent and not know why, but much of the time I was okay. My emotions eventually sharpened back to their pre-medication state, but as this happened, the depression returned too, and so did my terrible conviction that there was something wrong with me.
The DXH and I had never had what I'd call a raucous sex life, but at least in the beginning, it had been pretty good. Sex wasn't as earth-shattering as the movies promised, but it was an enjoyable enough form of intimacy. (Sometimes I felt kind of disembodied, almost like my brain was watching itself and thinking, "Hmm. That's interesting. Now you are having sex." I thought this was normal.) But in the two years after we got married, I became completely uninterested in physical intimacy. We first chalked this up to the Effexor (which extinguished my sex drive), then to my birth control pills...
...To be continued. Next up: more sex, plus BW's first female crushes.
Most of the girls where I grew up started wearing make-up in middle school. By the start of high school, I still wasn't on the bandwagon. I didn't understand why girls were expected to wear make-up, since boys didn't have to--and goodness knows there were dozens of boys at my high school whose goth-pale or acne-addled complexions would have been improved by a touch of foundation. But since no one expected them to paint over their
faces' imperfections, I was inclined to exhibit my own just as freely.
Understanding that I was a pretty logical kid, my mom chalked up my aversion to makeup (as well as to carrying a purse) as old-fashioned, practical minimalism. As my overloaded tie rack now reveals, this was off the mark, but given the evidence available at the time, it was not an unreasonable hypothesis. Although my mom didn't want me to be Barbielicious or anything, she sometimes commented on my lack of interest in makeup--or, as she put it, in "putting on a little color." E.g. (pleadingly): "Don't you want to put on a little color
Playing to my "minimalism," my mom would try to give me makeup survival tips. "Instead of carrying around separate blush, you can just put a dab of lipstick on each cheek and rub it in," she might advise conspiratorially. Or: "In a pinch, you can always use mascara to darken your eyebrows."
I was highly doubtful that I would ever be in a "pinch" involving insufficiently dark eyebrows. But gamely, I gave both strategies a shot. I wore makeup on and off for several years. Putting it on always felt like putting on a costume, but I could look at myself in the mirror and see that I was pulling off a conventionally feminine look. I figured that this was how all women felt--that it was one of those burdens that she-creatures have to bear, like menstruation or writing thank-you notes.
When I was married to my DXH, every time I applied what seemed to me a LOT of makeup, I'd ask him if he thought it was okay.DXH
: Is what okay?BW
: My makeup. Too much?DXH
[looking at me; tilting head]: You're wearing makeup?BW
: Obviously, YES. And possibly way too much of it.DXH
[squinting]: I literally cannot tell that you're wearing any makeup.BW
: I don't believe you. I look like a clown.DXH
: Sweetie, what seems to you like a LOT of makeup is not exactly what the rest of the world considers a LOT of makeup.BW
: Oh. Well, now I just feel stupid.DXH
: Sorry. In that case, you look like a two-dollar whore.
As a kid, I tried to humor my mom's suggestions to look more feminine, which often involved compromise on both our parts. Because I threw a huge fit at the prospect of putting on a skirt, my mom tried to persuade me that culottes
(thanks to Bee Listy
for the correct spelling) were JUST like shorts. "Then why can't I just wear SHORTS?" I'd ask, incredulous. (My mom and I are still very close, by the way--which is proof that, despite occasional frustrations on both sides, a butch dyke NPR-loving daughter and a conservative, Fox-News-loving parent can still find enough common ground to want to spend time together.)
It wasn't that I objected to the style
of the culottes (though I should have). Nor were they physically uncomfortable; they felt like well-ventilated shorts. But there was something I hated
about other people seeing me in a skirt. It felt wrong, uncomfortable, humiliating. Some butches say that in childhood, they "felt like a boy," and didn't want people to see them in the "wrong" clothes. But I didn't feel like a boy; I felt like a girl who wanted to wear pants and a tie and have everyone think I looked dandy that way. From a very young age, I wanted sex and gender to get a divorce.
(A brief aside: This is what I mean when I say that there's something "visceral" about masculinity. My DGF doesn't like me to use the word "masculinity." She says it's too tied to maleness, and that part of the fun of being a butch woman is turning maleness on its head by co-opting its trappings. But for me, "masculinity" refers to a style of dress and way of being that is not tied to biological sex--although for the rest of the world, there happens to be a very strong correlation. For me, maybe masculinity is more of an aesthetic?)
Anyhow, the other day, for the first time in years, I slapped on a touch of makeup, just to see what it felt like. And you know what? A bit of lipstick and some eyeliner looked kind of kickass with my masculine glasses, haircut, and clothing. It was enough of a pain that I don't plan to do it again anytime soon. But it was pretty funny that after so many years of resisting makeup, it finally didn't feel "wrong."
It makes perfect sense, though, doesn't it? Since I'm at a point where I feel free to dress as masculine as I want to, a tube of lipstick isn't a threat to my core being. It's just--well--a little color.
For some queer women, “butch” means short hair and sensible shoes. For others, it means sexual dominance. For still others, it’s an attitude or a way of life. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous take on pornography, the collective wisdom on defining butchness can be boiled down no further than: “I know it when I see it.” So why bother to identify as “butch” at all if there are so many possible definitions?
My DGF argues that it’s pointless to label one's self (ironic that she’s dating someone whose blog does exactly that, eh?), but I disagree. When I first came out, I was scared of the word "butch." I thought it meant that I wanted to be a man (I don’t), or that I could fix cars (I can’t), or that I’m attracted to femmes (I’m not). But since then, I’ve come to embrace the word "butch." Here are five reasons why:
1. Identifying as butch made me feel less deviant
. Instead of seeing myself as "failing" at being a woman, I could see myself "succeeding" at being a different kind
of woman. I could finally put a name to my collection of “defects”: wearing cargo pants, feeling like an alien every time I opened a women’s magazine, or finding it inexplicably crucial that I learn to tie a tie. Viewed through this lens, countless moments of frustration and discomfort suddenly made sense. Before identifying as butch, I had a collection of random dots; when I connected them, they finally made a picture.
2. I wasn’t alone
. Putting a name to my masculine-of-center femininity allowed me to identify others with similar traits--most importantly, to find others whose experiences echoed mine. In some fundamental respect, there were people like me
. Even before I had butch buddies
of my own, simply knowing that other butches existed made me feel less alone.
3. It helped develop my fashion sense
. Wearing women’s clothes made me feel like I was in drag. This was part of the "defectiveness" I mention above; I just wasn't "doing" attractiveness properly. But "butch" put a name to my style and
categorized me as a possible recipient of others' sexual interest (though not my DXH's) even if I dressed as I wanted to
! Clothes became a source of fun rather than frustration once I realized I could be myself and
look attractive in some recognized "sense" (albeit not a conventional one). These days, I even enjoy shopping with my girlier female friends for their
clothes, because I feel zero pressure to look like them.
4. It helped me define my attraction to others
. I spent a long time believing that if I wasn’t attracted to “feminine” women, I couldn’t be a lesbian. If Rachel Maddow made me swoon, but Rachel McAdams left me cold, I was attracted to masculine people... So, I reasoned, I was actually straight. (This reasoning may strike some of you as silly, but I performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince myself I wasn’t gay.) Recognizing “butch” as a category showed me that there was a common denominator among the objects of my attraction. Yes, I was attracted to women--specifically, women of a certain type. This helped me come to terms with my sexual orientation.
5. It gave me a useful vocabulary
. "Butch" is a great shorthand to express the idea of "a chick who looks sort of, but not really, like a dude," which was frequently something I wanted to express. The term also came with useful attendant vocabulary, such as "bro date" (hanging out with a platonic buddy who also sort of, but not really, looks like a dude), "boi" (a queer woman who looks like a gay male high schooler) and "soft butch" (somewhere between androgynous and butch, which I studiously practiced through online use of the phrase, "soft butch seeks same").
Theoretically, I didn't need to identify as "butch" to accomplish any of this. And maybe if I had been more confident, I wouldn't have. But we are social creatures, and the word "butch" validated aspects of me that had never felt valid. Ironically, putting a label on myself was pretty darn liberating.