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.
I got an interesting email from a BW reader several weeks ago. I promised him a response, and with his permission decided to share his question and my answer with the rest of you.
I am a straight man ..not bi or bi-curious. I love women. I have always been attracted to tomboys but now that I'm grown I have discovered that is my preference. I turn my head faster when I see a sexy stud opposed to high heels and a dress. I also feel the conversation or potential relationship is better. I am also amazed sometimes of the perfect bodies when those baggy clothes come off. The sex is simply better.
When it comes to relationships, I don't know what to do. The stud I was interested in/having relations with... We enjoy each other's company and sex. But she has a girlfriend, obviously. So I'm confused, probably like she is. Do you think she was just using me? And if so, why? We really mesh but she definitely doesn't want anyone to know... And I promised her that. So, yes, I would love to be in a relationship with a stud... Not that I'm trying to change her. I would not mind if she had a girlfriend... As long as I was her guy. Do I sound crazy or what?
Dear Confused Carl,
You don't sound crazy. Sure, most straight guys' heads are turned by skirts and heels, but yours isn't! I bet lots of men attracted to "non-feminine" women aren't willing to say so, because they fear others' questions and judgment, or because they think it makes them less masculine (which it doesn't!). My last post talked about the difference between masculinity in women and masculinity in men. It's not weird to me that you would be attracted to one but not to the other. Masculine women are women--and they happen to be your favorite kind. So, cool.
Butchy and masculine-of-center bisexual (and even straight!) women DO exist. Some of the bi ones only date women, in part because men aren't usually attracted to them. But this doesn't mean that they wouldn't date a cis man if the right one (like you!) came along. So it might take a little extra effort on your part--for example, dating online, going to bi mixers, or letting your friends know your preference so that they can "keep an eye out" for you. But don't give up hope! A straight guy into masculine women doesn't come along every day, and the right woman will be sooo excited to meet you!
And then, of course, there's your specific situation, which is trickier. You may be right that "your" stud is confused... but she may simply be bi. I can't tell from your email whether she wants you to keep your relationship a secret because you're a man or because she is dating someone else. The fact that she is with someone else, though, and doesn't want people to know about your relationship, means that unless something changes, you two aren't going anywhere. If you're okay with being the guy "on the side," fine. But remember that unless all parties know what's going on and are okay with it, it's cheating. This fact doesn't change just because you're a guy.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the sense from your email that you're not exactly thrilled with the current situation. You might consider talking with her about this. I have no idea whether she's using you (as you fear) or whether she's genuinely confused. But it doesn't sound like the status quo is working for you--and if it's not, you need to find out what's going on with her. My advice would be to tell her what you've told me. Tell her you don't want her to feel pressure about her sexual orientation, and that you like being with her as a human being and need to know what you mean to her.
You write, "I would not mind if she had a girlfriend... As long as I was her guy." This statement confused me. Are you talking about a polyamorous relationship? About regular sex on the side? It kind of sounds like you'd be cool with the latter, except that's what you have right now and you don't sound totally happy about it. What do you want?
I don't want you to settle for this "on the side" business, though, if what you really want is a full-on, even monogamous, relationship with a studly woman. If this is so, know that you can get it. It might take a while to find, but it is possible, and you don't have to "settle" for what you have now if it doesn't make you happy.
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.