A few readers (see comments on 4/1's post, as well as on Facebook) were disheartened by my joke. They pointed out that by making fun of the idea that I would enjoy wearing a dress, I was implicitly making fun of the idea that any butch would enjoy wearing a dress. I sincerely hope that most readers didn't take it that way--I didn't mean to suggest that a butch can't wear a dress, or that a "real" butch wouldn't do so.
In any case, these comments made me consider identity, inclusion, and femininity some more. A few thoughts:
1. I have no interest in policing identity... But is this good?
I am not in the business of policing butchness. I don't care if you wear dangly earrings, high heels, and skirts every day and call yourself butch. I don't care if you wear men's clothes from head to toe and call yourself femme. Anyone can "identify" as anything; as I see it, identification is up to the person identifying herself. Yeah, I might suspect that a woman in a dress doesn't identify as butch, since I'm personally acquainted with few butches who'd voluntarily wear a dress. But if a person tells me she's butch, then as far as I'm concerned, she's butch.
Of course, if anyone can identify as anything, so at some point, doesn't this become a little absurd? If my white 80-year-old grandmother wants to identify as a young gay man, should she be "allowed" to?
As far as I'm concerned, sure. It would be hard for me to swallow, since I have pre-existing notions and biases about what young gay men look like (and they don't look like her). I also imagine that my grandmother would face certain barriers to entry in the young gay male community. Is this fair? Should she? Should they have to respect who she says she is "inside?"
Personally, I hope I'd respect her identity. By "respect," I mean that I hope I'd genuinely see her the way sees herself and wants to be seen by others. At the same time...
2. It's hard to be sensitive to all incarnations of an identity, especially if it's an identity you claim, and others claiming the identity don't share traits you consider central to it.
It's easier to talk about respecting other people's identities in the abstract, when when we're not talking about our own identities.
Suppose I decided to attend a social group for butches. Suppose I showed up in jeans and a flannel button-down, but everyone else had long hair and was wearing dresses, high heels, and makeup. Even if everyone identified as butch, I'd feel left out. This is because for me (me personally, not in any objective sense), physical appearance is part of butchness. In the past, I've felt like an outcast for not conforming to traditional notions of femininity. So if the other women in the group looked like what mainstream society says women are "supposed" to look like, one of my big reasons for seeking butch community wouldn't be satisfied. If I felt excluded enough, I might even want to start a group tailored to the traits around which I sought community. (When people do this, they are sometimes accused of creating factions within the LGBTQ community. Which, maybe they are. I'm not convinced this is a bad thing in principle, but it can make people feel excluded, which feels crappy and can lead to more tension.)
As I've argued before, I believe a similar dynamic underlies tensions that can exist between female-identified butches and trans men. Female-identified butches face certain kinds of marginalization for not looking "like women"--for not appearing to conform to the social expectations of the gender with which they identify. But (many) trans men look "like men" to the wider world, and thus appear to conform to the expectations of the gender with which they identify. To the extent that female-identified butches seek community based on that type of nonconformity, and/or identify as butch based on it, they may feel like there's something crucial they don't share with trans men. I'm guessing that this feeling of dissimilarity is the root of much identity "policing" (which doesn't mean I agree with it).
3. Rejecting traditional trappings of "femininity" and socially-loaded words like "pretty" feels really empowering to many butches.
The part of Sunday's April Fool's post that was the most amusing for me to write was:
I've been doing this whole "gender queer nonconformist" thing for so long that I forgot that it feels awesome to just be pretty. Wearing a dress means that people see me on the outside and think I look as good as I feel on the inside. And when it comes down to it, isn't this kind of interactive reality with other people more important than the reality we create in our own brains?
To me, this was funny because it was as if, after spending all this time and energy accepting myself as I am and eschewing mainstream notions of femininity, I was suddenly doing a 180 and talking about how good it felt to conform to society's notions of what "pretty" means.
I suspect that the reason so many butches were horrified, then amused, at my last post, is because many of us hate dresses and can't imagine changing their minds about wearing them. Many of us grew up feeling like traditional ideas about "being feminine" were crammed down our throats. Saying things like, "I'll never wear a dress again" is empowering!
But if wearing a dress is who you are, regardless of your motivations for wearing it, I say go for it. I don't care. As you may know, I don't see masculinity and femininity as a "spectrum," such that increases in one entail decreases in the other, and vice versa. Can you wear a dress and still call yourself butch? Of course. But you may encounter surprise and skepticism from others, since so many self-identified butches (myself included) have trouble imagining genuinely wanting to wear a dress, and/or genuinely wanting people to see us as "pretty." Indeed, part of the reason I identify as butch is that it helps me embrace my lack of desire for these things.
One of my favorite things about writing this blog is that there's so much interesting feedback from readers: positive, negative, and everything in between. I really appreciate your willingness to leap into the conversation that my "Me in a Dress" post sparked, and I look forward to reading your thoughts about this post as well.