My name is eL. I am a butch, queer genderqueer (oof, that's a mouthful) and my preferred pronouns are they/them/their. I blog occasionally and tweet often, and I've guest blogged on Butch Wonders before, like I'm doing today. I recently had a fun twitter back-and-forth with BW after reading her recent blog post on butch-butch relationships. In the past, I contributed to this post and this post on the topic of butch-butch love.
I have had relationships with three people who were solidly butch-identified when we dated, plus one who felt she "looked butch on the outside, but felt femme on the inside." I have also dated femmes. Four, to be exact. I would say only one counted as a "relationship." I have also dated a few people who didn't really identify either way, and I am dating one of those fabulous people now.
So, how does it feel different to date people of varying identities? How does perception of yours elf and other people change based on who you're dating? Well, for me at this moment, there are a host of complicating factors.
To answer the initial question BW asked me ("Notice any big diffs in dating not-butch, either re: how you feel or re: how others treat you?"): Yes, I do. So here are some of the differences--the differences for me--I certainly don't speak for anyone who is not me.
When I date femmes, I feel generally more protective. I fall into a bit more of the security guard role. I suppose it helps that I am tall, broad-shouldered, and "look intimidating." Though I certainly don't *feel* intimidating much of the time. In most relationships, I have been read as "more butch" than folks I've been with based solely on my height and frame. This is fine with me, but also hilarious, as I am certainly not the butchest butch that has ever butched. I don't even drive a stick shift!
When I date butches, there seems to be more of a tradeoff. If the butch I'm dating is much smaller than me and doesn't have a Napoleon complex, I do feel like I take on a bit more of the protector or "more butch" role. If the butch holds their own (as far as acting from a place of confidence), then not so much. This really varies person-to-person. When I date non-butches or non-femmes, it varies even more. Regardless, I still feel quite butch and secure in that/my identity.
My current girlfriend is struggling a bit with my neutral pronouns. She uses them just fine, but is frustrated with what term to use to refer to me in the context of our relationship. As far as I can find, there are no gender neutral relationship terms that are equivalent in meaning and generalized understanding and seriousness to "girlfriend" or "boyfriend." Prior to dating her, I didn't really think much about what folks called me. (Most said "girlfriend," one called me her "Mister," and another called me her "Beau.")
My girlfriend and I generally get read as more "lesbian" so far than I've been read as in a bit. In the past, I think people didn't read me as lesbian as often when I dated other butches. I dated one butch, in particular, and we were often read as gay men. Otherwise, I'm not sure how I was read, only that people would assume that I wasn't with the person I was with because we were both "butch." When I dated femmes, once in a while, we were read as a straight couple.
I feel lucky in that my girlfriend is pretty darn attracted to butches, and has been. Seems to be an important part of her identity, and I dig that. If my girlfriend wasn't openly into butches, I might feel differently. Do I have to "tone down" the butch? Something like that. But, I don't. I am just unapologetically me right now, which, I'll admit can be pretty awkward at times. Butches + nursing bras = certainly not my favorite thing and has evoked much frustration and drama including exclaiming things such as, "I don't even wear bras like this! Ugh!" (I usually wear sports bras and/or the occasional binder.)
Overall, I feel more comfortable dating butches and folks somewhere in the grey area. This is due to past not-so-positive experiences dating femmes. I have had femmes judge me as "too butch," I have had femmes hit on by men in front of me and not rebuff them - I have, unfortunately, had some disappointing experiences dating femmes. I have found butches. as a whole, to be more accepting of my own butch identity. I have also found that I have stronger chemistry with lesbians / queer folks that lean more butch / masculine on the spectrum of gender.
I think the best way to not have stress regarding how you're being read is to be confident in your identity. Own who you are. Own your challenges, own your changes. Be confidently you and keep putting that message out. Stay strong, be yourself. Folks will get it.
I'm writing this post to help me think through a reaction I've felt recently. I don't fully understand it, so bear with me. I've written a bunch about trans issues in the past--for example, explaining how dysphoria can be experienced by non-trans people, the differences between butch women and trans men, discussing some infuriating anti-trans sentiments in the lesbian community and the tension between butch women and trans men, and giving advice to a reader trying to figure out whether he or she was trans. I'm interested in trans issues not only because equality and respect for trans individuals is fundamentally important to the queer community at large, but also because understanding people's transphobic impulses can tell us a great deal about how we understand sex and gender.
So here's what's been bothering me. Lately, I've met a number of people who identify as butch women (and sometimes, but not always, as genderqueer), and who exclusively use feminine pronouns (she, her, hers), and who also modify their bodies in various ways consistent with popular understandings of masculinity: specifically, taking moderate amounts of testosterone, which (particularly if paired with certain kinds of physical activity) can result in major masculinization of the jawline/shoulders/etc. So as a result, many of these women look way more "masculine" than a woman who does not take supplemental testosterone. The fact that this is a trend does not bother me; people should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies. What bothers me is my own reaction. There's a little piece of me that feels like they are "cheating" or "having it both ways" by taking testosterone but not being trans. My internal reaction is super disturbing to me, because on an intellectual and spiritual level, there is literally no reason for me to feel even a little bit uncomfortable! It makes no sense. My own reaction is intolerant, wrong, and inconsistent with my values.
So here's what I think is going on. On most people's idea of what a "woman" is, I am pretty far on the masculine end of the spectrum. I like being a masculine woman; it is who I am. And I would like to think that my satisfaction with my own identity is wholly internal. But, of course, this is impossible; we are social animals, after all. When I see a trans man, I am not "threatened" or bothered in the least, even viscerally. He's in a different category from me. He is a man. But the women I am describing take male hormones and identify as women. They put themselves in the same category as me: masculine woman. But since they are taking testosterone and making their bodies and presentations more masculine, I feel less masculine in comparison to other people in my "masculine women" category. Maybe my discomfort comes from this perceived threat to my masculinity. If so, this is interesting but disturbing, in part because I like to think of my own identity as self-contained--as stemming from me, not from my relationship to the rest of society. Except, of course, that I don't exist in a vacuum.
As you can tell, I haven't thought this through completely, but I wonder if anyone else has felt anything like this. I talk to butch women occasionally who say that they feel "pressure" to transition. I can honestly say that no one has ever pressured me to become trans (although occasionally people assume that I must be "at least thinking about it," since so many of the masculine women they used to know have become men). There is not much personal allure for me in the idea of existing as a man. I like being a woman. But I guess I also like being a masculine one, and I guess that that masculinity is more precarious than I would sometimes like to acknowledge.
Back in 2012, I wrote a post called "Why Aren't all Butches Trans?" It continues to get comments, and a couple days ago, a reader asked a question that I thought deserved a separate blog entry.
In the post, I write, "A butch woman's masculinity is not different in degree from that of a butch man or FTM; it is different in kind." In response, a reader wrote: That is a very helpful statement, but I think "kind" needs to be expanded upon. Can you say how you might define "kind"? Would it be something like the difference between a different breed of animal eg. a cocker spaniel or labrador? Or the difference between a different species of animal eg. dog or cat? Or something else?
It's a good question! Here's what I mean by "kind."
Masculinity exists as a thing--a social construct we can understand and identify in the abstract. Even when it's not attached to a particular person, we have a social understanding of certain things as masculine. If you showed a random person a lacy pink tank top and a blue flannel shirt and asked, "Which one is more masculine?" most people would point to the flannel shirt, even if neither shirt is being worn by anyone. (Mind you, I'm not saying that there IS, in any normative or "real" sense, such a thing as masculinity or femininity--merely that these are widely-understood social ideas.)
Still with me? Okay, let's take a concrete example: water. Even if we don't know what container the water is occupying, we understand what "water" is, right? Now consider a river; consider a lake. Rivers and lakes are containers for water, but the water has a different "feel" in each one. We wouldn't argue that one of those is the "real" container, or that one is more "watery" than the other. Nor would we think it was weird if someone said that they preferred rivers to lakes, or vice versa. We get that they're different forms of water.
So, too, with masculinity. A trans man and a butch woman might both contain masculinity, just like a river and a lake might both contain water. They share a common characteristic, but because of who they are, they each take on an inherently different form.
To take the analogy a little further, there are all kinds of lakes and rivers. There are lagoons, ponds, streams, reservoirs, tributaries. And there are bodies of water that--just like bodies of people--defy or combine or challenge or embrace the conventional definitions.
In the queer community, we talk a lot about "gender dysphoria," often when talking about various trans identities. For example, a pre-op trans man might look at his breasts and think, "I'm a man! These don't belong on me!"
But I've heard the word "dysphoria" used in many other ways, and I've gotten a ton of questions from readers about it: Can a butch feel dysphoria if she's forced to wear a dress? Can a heterosexual person feel dysphoria if she's dating someone of the same sex? Are trans people the only ones who experience dysphoria? Are they the only ones who experience "gender dysphoria?"
The American Heritage dictionary on my shelf at work doesn't even include the word "dysphoria" [what???]. But the dictionary on my computer defines it as: a state of unease of generalized dissatisfaction with life. The opposite of euphoria. I think of "euphoria" as a state of extreme joy. So dysphoria is a state of extreme non-joy? I think the key is "unease." A dysphoric feeling is a feeling that something is not quite right--that it's not aligning how it's "supposed" to.
Gender dysphoria is a more specific. WebMD says that it's a: condition in which a male or female feels a strong identification with the opposite sex. Not conforming to the social features related to one's biological gender is not in itself a disorder. Rather, a person with gender dysphoria experiences great discomfort regarding his or her actual anatomic gender. And while WebMD has its flaws, everything I searched in academic and professional medical journals says about the same thing.
So under that definition, when my butch buddy C (pictured right) donned a gown for the Ada Initiative (the sports bra peeking out is a nice touch, don't you think?), she was experiencing some kind of, like, wardrobe dysphoria--as in, help! this doesn't belong in my closet!--but not actual gender dysphoria? That's how I understand it.
Yet, there's something about her discomfort that is decidedly related to her gender. I mean, I'd experience some kind of fashion-related unease if I was forced to wear Crocs with a suit (or, TBH, Crocs with anything). But it's different kind of "this isn't right on me." And that something has to do with gender presentation.
This makes sense if you don't think of gender as an either-or phenomenon. C associates her lovely purple dress (heehee... I chuckle every time I look at that picture) with femaleness, and identifies herself as female. But as a different kind of female. One who doesn't wear a dress. And while it's certainly not the same as the gender dysphoria a trans person experiences, it has at least a few elements of similarity, doesn't it? Does it make more sense to think of this as a kind of "gender dysphoria" if we think of "butch" as a gender? I feel like doing this still minimizes the distinct gender dysphoria felt by trans individuals, though.
I don't know anything about dysphoria as a medical phenomenon, but I do know something about social psychology, and there's a related phenomenon in social psychology called "cognitive dissonance," which is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by a person who has two contradictory ideas/experiences happening at once. Like, suppose you think littering is morally irresponsible, yet when you ate lunch outside yesterday and your napkin blew away, you didn't go pick it up. This is so hard for the brain to deal with that we invent little ways to make things compatible (e.g., "it's just a napkin," or "there's trash pick-up around here every afternoon"). Is that just dissonance? Or is it also a kind of dysphoria? To me, it doesn't have the "unease" that I associate with dysphoria.
I don't see gender as a "spectrum;" I see it as a field with lots of different spaces in it: overlapping, related to each other, messy, contradictory. Some people might be comfortable standing in only one place on the field. Others might be comfortable in a whole lot of places. If I only like to hang out in the "butch" spot, and I'm wearing a dress, which I see as non-butch, and I feel uncomfortable as a result of this misalignment, what is it, precisely, that I am feeling? I don't think it's gender dysphoria, exactly, but I think it's some very specific type of gender-related discomfort or dissonance. And for me, at least, it's a similar feeling as if someone calls me "sir." I think: nope, you didn't get me right. You're not seeing me as I want to be seen. I want to be seen as female, but as a certain kind of female. A non-"deviant," but specific genre of female--which, sure, incorporates a lot of elements society considers "masculine."
I bet I have a lot of readers of all different identities who want to weigh in on this one. I'll be super interested to read your comments.
To be butch is to be able to pass as lots of things, and at the same time to fail people's little "passing" tests constantly. It's a weird space to be in--a little vortex of contradictions. Here are all the things I, personally, often do not pass as (whether or not I want to).
Things I frequently can't pass as:
1. Female. "Can I help you, sir?"
2. Male. "Can I help you, ma'am?"
3. Cool. Every time I go to SF or NYC, I am reminded of how uncool and unhip I really am. I don't even have any tats or interesting piercings!
4. Boring. Because some people seem to think that all lesbians know where the cool clubs are... Little do they know that my idea of "partying" is to curl up on the couch, trying to prevent my DGF from trouncing me in Words With Friends. Sometimes I "party" HARD.
5. Under 35. I'm starting to get grey hair.
6. Over 35. Because surely someone with my education who is over age 35 would be more established in a career, right?
7. Butch. As in, "You're butchish, but you're not really butch."
8. Cisgender. Because some people who are trying really hard to be trans*-inclusive assume that all gender-nonconformists are on a trans* spectrum.
9. Working or lower-middle class. Even though it's the class background with which I identify, I traded in 90% of my street cred for fancy degrees.
10. Upper middle class. Certain mannerisms and ways of being are imprinted on you at an early age, and you'll never feel like you really belong in certain places... or at least, I won't.
11. Non-genderqueer. Seriously, I had someone say last year, "I identify you as genderqueer." I was like, "Um, congratulations, but you don't get to identify me!"
12. A responsible dog parent. Because my dog literally screams when we are walking away from another dog and she wants to stay to play/fight/sniff.
Name me one thing you can't always pass as.