One of the questions I posed to you a couple week ago was, "How do you define 'butch?' Does butch necessarily mean 'female?'"
At first, I was surprised so few people answered this one. But it's tough (I've talked about the difficulty of defining "butch" before). So, kudos to those of you who took a stab at this one. At the end, I riff a little about my own definition.
Answer #1: (from Mainely Butch, who posted it on her site):
Butch is fierce, strong and rough, yet gentle. Butch is no-nonsense, yet silly sometimes. Butch is a generally tough exterior, yet a sort of teddy bear on the inside. Butch is that feeling that you need to fix everything…even when you know you can’t. Butch is not crying in public…at least trying not to! Butch is steeling emotions on the surface, and dealing with them when you are alone. Butch is getting up and doing what needs to be done even when you are sore, hurting and really don’t want to do it, but you do it anyway – because you are Butch. Butch is never letting them see you sweat. Butch is shopping in the men’s department and anguishing over which dressing room you’ll be banned from. Butch is avoiding public bathrooms as much as physically possible and using them at great risk of possible violence. Butch is brushing off (and secretly smiling) all of the “sirs” and “young man” comments that those in the unknowing world dish out to us. Butch is standing up for what is right, even if it means getting our asses kicked. Butch is good. Butch is true. Butch is flexible and giving. Butch is whatever defines you, or how you define it for yourself.
To me, butch means a nontraditional female who may be rougher, larger, or carry some other traits that are considered "masculine," whether she overtly identifies as masculine or not. She may have been a tomboy as a girl, and she may have been either picked on or encouraged for wearing swim trunks, climbing trees, fighting, or otherwise playing the way boys are understood to play, while seriously distrusting the inherent message being conveyed when adults would point her towards dolls, dresses, curtsies, flutterings of the eyelashes, and any other cutesie-poo behaviors ("Why can't you be just like Shirley Temple?!").
As this 'boyish' child matures, she may try to fit in and become feminine at the urging of society, but, especially if she is gay, it likely does not work out easily or to her satisfaction; hence you now have an adult butch woman in whatever manifestation that takes, be it celebratory and accepted in the queer community; shunned upon and difficult in localities (or times) lacking that community; grudgingly and with a distaste for labels but just accepting "I am what I am"; or perhaps placed within a neat "butch-femme" courtship dynamic which allows her to take on traditional male roles in a relationship thus not feeling lost from societal norms.
The above is not a prescriptive definition; it is only a description of how "Butch" seems through the window of my life.
Prior to the blossoming of gay culture and butch lesbian acceptance (or at least to its availability to me) I would silently insist that I knew a butch woman when I saw one. My third grade teacher. Alice from the Brady Bunch. Even Jodie Foster in Freaky Friday -- I recognized this girl actress to be akin to me. To me it seems like many of those butches in the past, though beloved, might often have felt put upon to act the stooge, being clumsy or "not good at sewing" or "exasperated with men." I now believe the stooge act to have been necessitated by the times, and that these women, gay or not, had a lot of secrets and were probably tougher than most Dads I knew.
Butch, as I see it, is not a style, a flavor, a haircut, a dating tactic, or even an attitude. It's the visible reflection of the way that girls who became gay women (or trans men) struggled and learned to do so on their own terms, rejecting the pre-packaged notions of femininity offered to them in their youths as the required counterpart of masculinity. It is an attempt to be a whole person, even if that whole person does not "fit in" to what is expected of one's gender.
Now, with the growing acceptance of butches (slow be it coming), the definitions will shift from Butch as a reaction to society, to Butch as a choice, even a label. The shift of acceptance should be celebrated and differences encouraged. We must never reject someone [just] because their labeling system does not match our own.
I define butch as a part of sexual orientation (not that you can't do butch on butch but it is still sexual I hope). If you identify as butch, you are butch.
That said, I like to think I know butch when I see it. This is what I look for:
To the masculine of center, as well as any where in the spectrum from bio-male to FtM transexual, to FtM transgender, to hard Butch (passing for male) to soft Butch Male ID, to Boi (male ID) to butch female ID, to tomboi femme. There is in some way an over lapping of of masculine and feminine.
Back to BW:
I thought these answers were all thought-provoking. Before I started this blog, "butch" always meant female to me. After all, if it didn't, then wouldn't a lot of straight cis men be "butch?" What would that mean for those of us in the queer community? I like the idea that "butch" separates me from being a man--for me, it's a way of being a woman--a particular type of woman that I know and love and recognize.
But I soon learned that my thinking was too narrow: there are plenty of non-gender-binary folks who ID as butch. And this makes complete intuitive sense to me. Which leads me to think that when I say "butch," I'm talking chiefly about a non-"male" form of masculinity--that is, about socially "masculine" attributes divorced from identification exclusively as a man.
At the same time, can I tell someone who IDs exclusively as male that he is not "butch?" I don't feel that I have that right, any more than I have the right to tell a woman in a skirt and heels that she is not "butch."
If I lack any right to "police" butchness, then isn't the label "butch" only about understanding one's self, not about understanding others? And isn't this ultimately true about all labels? (If my white octogenarian grandfather chooses to ID as a young Chinese-American lesbian, who would I be to stop him? At some point, does this just get silly?)
At the same time, if every straight cis guy started saying the word "butch" instead of the word "masculine" or "dude" or however he describes himself, I'd probably turn to a different term to describe myself (internally and to others). This leads me to think that the term "butch" is not just to describe myself; it's also relational--a way to explain to myself and others what my "ethos" is--how I exist in the world.
Whether you're butch or not, dear readers, how do you define it? Do any of the definitions above appeal to you? Do any bother you? What does "butch" mean in terms of sex, sexual orientation, and/or gender?
A number of you have asked what you can do for your butches to let them know how special they are. Here are some sweet everyday gestures that say "I love you." Though the list was written with butches in mind, most of these apply to pretty much any object of your affections. (And thanks to the excellent BW Facebook fans who contributed some of the ideas on this list!)
#1: Love Notes
I don't usually pack my DGF's lunch, but when I do, I like writing a little note or silly poem for her. My mom used to do that in my school lunches when I was a kid, and the idea stuck with me. It just makes a girl feel special.
You can also leave a note around the house for her (e.g., fridge; bathroom mirror), or send her an email in the middle of the day mentioning something you love about her. If you go to sleep after her, leave a note for her to find in the morning. If you get up earlier, leave one she'll find later that day.
Many butches say they love when their DGF cooks them a meal. Whether it's beef bourguignon or peanut butter and jelly, there's something special about being cooked for. (I swear, even coffee tastes better when my DGF makes it for me.) One butch wrote, "I get a special little tingle when I come home to the smell of fresh baking." +1.
Not a kitchen wonder? Check out some food blogs, starting with A Butch in the Kitchen (pictured above, right is her latest creation, low-calorie blueberry scones--yum!). You can also have a picnic in the middle of the living room, complete with blanket, bread, cheese, and music.
For many of us, being pampered is awesome. This might take the form of a foot rub (with eucalyptus lotion, mmm), a back massage, a bubble bath (for one or for two...), or a scalp massage.
Of course, while I love all of these things (as did most butches I asked), not every butch is cool with feeling passive, so know your boi or grrl before plunging in.
Pampering can also take other forms: making a batch of hot buttered rum and sipping it together by the fireplace, insisting she play one more round of Angry Birds while you bathe the dog, or doing a chore she usually does but dislikes (hm, I bet my DGF would love if I dealt with the recycling for once).
This post is about gestures you can perform, not stuff you can buy. Still, a small, thoughtful gift can be a gesture in itself--especially if it's something you make for her.
Some cool stuff to give your sweetie:
#5: Adventures, etc.
More than anything, we want to do (1) stuff we love doing with (2) the woman we love. Sometimes those two things don't mix--so mixing them is a surefire hit.
Offer to go somewhere with her that you'd usually turn down (and don't complain while you're there). Does she love action movies, but you hate 'em? Take her to "Skyfall." Does she like arcades, but you think they're dull? Take her to an afternoon of video games and air hockey. Dates like this are a big deal; they tell her you're willing to do things you don't normally like just because she enjoys them.
Other ideas for adventures include high-adrenaline stuff (like skydiving or off-road quad biking), activities that will make her feel like a kid (think laser tag, paintball, sledding, or batting cages), or something sexy (e.g., go on a blind date: tell her where to be, both show up separately, then hit on her!). (Some smash-hit sexy ideas if you guys have the butch/femme thing going: new lingerie for her to see you in; a lace bra/garter belt set; a sexy lap dance; picking her up from the airport in a trench coat and stiletto boots. Are you a butch-butch couple? Awesome: two pairs of silk boxers!)
The bottom line? No one knows your DGF better than you do. Especially if you're not naturally observant, pay attention! Make mental notes about what she likes, stockpile your ideas, and brainstorm ways to make her feel special. Even if your idea isn't a home run, she'll love the effort. One reader put it perfectly: "Simply having the woman you are with think that you are amazing just as you are and precisely as you are is the best gift of all."
What have you done to make your butch feel special? What has she done that's made you feel special?
My Turn: Letter to a Younger BW
After reading your excellent letters to your 2003 self, I decided to try writing one of my own. It was more of a challenge than I expected.
Dear BW of 2003,
I could tell you a whole lot of things that might make life easier for you, but I'm not going to. Why? Because I like the person we have become, and are becoming, and the experiences you'll have over the next 10 years are part of what made me(/you) this way.
So I'll just give you a little advice. Some of these are just the you of 2013 being selfish, because she/I/you would looove for some things to be rendered instantly easier. But mostly, they're just principles that you'll do well to keep in mind.
Since 10 is a nice, even number and we like nice, even numbers, I'll end there. I bet that aside from the stock tip, you'll find this letter frustratingly vague. Sorry, kid--you'll have to figure it all out yourself.
BW of 2013
Notes to a Future Self
Last week, I posed five writing prompts to BW readers. (I'm still taking answers, so feel free to send yours in.) One of those was: "Write a letter from your 2013 self to your 2003 self." Here are five of my favorites:
I know you're reading this at age 31 but I know you still feel young and dumb, sometimes. I want, no, need to let you in on a few choice secrets. First, you have a lot of growing to do. You may feel like you are stagnant and the gears have stopped turning in your identity formation. I'm here, 10 years down the road, to urge you to hang on and keep your mind open. You're in for some heartbreak, which will make you question everything but you'll survive and only get better with age. Also, bear in mind that within the next decade, you'll become so comfortable with the you who you are that you won't give a tinker's damn what other folks think of how you present or label yourself. You'll be a fine person, who has expanded beyond terms like tomboy and lesbian and will embrace new aspects of self like boi, genderqueer and butch while never neglecting what it is to be female.
In short, you will create a pretty balanced synthesis where you can appreciate your masculine and feminine qualities. You don't need to be afraid that you'll be unappreciated or unloved because you rock that short haircut and tie. You won't bow to societal pressures to conform, get married, wear attire that doesn't mesh with who you are, etc. You'll be a work in progress, even in 2013 but you will be a happy butch, who exudes confidence and class... and you will not be alone.
Dear Self from 2003,
Do yourself a favor and come out of the closet now. You know you're gay and so do your friends. I know you're scared that your family won't be fine with it but they will be as long as you are happy. Also never leave any of your girlfriends for someone else. It's lame and will rob you of true happiness. Keep trying to lose weight... it definitely pays off. Never give up!!! Life out if the closet is so much better than the life you have now.
Me from 2013
The third letter is from Whitney, who chose to send it in in video form. I totally love this--click here to check it out.
Kiss a girl. One of those long lingering soft kisses that you can feel right down to your toes. When you are done don't feel guilty and don't feel ashamed; but most of all don't be afraid.
Your life begins here. YOUR LIFE. Not the life you just assumed you should have. The life that you were conditioned to believe was the proper, moral thing for a good girl to do. This kiss will allow you to start really living.
What you want is important and it matters. You will feel for the first time that you have found what you've been searching for. The thing that lingers just outside of your reach. Finally understand why you have always felt so different from other girls.
Love yourself for who you are. Start to look how you feel inside. Dress how you've always wanted to. Be comfortable in your own skin. Take advice from Dr. Seuss "Be who you are and say what you mean because those that matter don't mind and those that mind don't matter."
With this one simple act, do for yourself what years of therapy will not be able to do for you. Understand your relationship with your husband, then let him go. Give yourself the opportunity to experience real romantic love for the first time.
Trust in your family to understand and to be there for you no matter what. Believe that they love you and feel that your happiness is all that matters in the end.
Be brave. Be true to yourself. I'm not saying it will be easy. The sacrifices will be many. Some of them easy to take, while others will leave you heart broken and change you forever. But I promise you will never regret any of it for a second. The rewards far outweigh the hardships. Everything that you have ever imagined for yourself is what's at stake.
Kiss that girl! Then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Hi there, Laura.
I know it's a pretty confusing time for you after just breaking up with Jade. I know you think you're a little bi-girl, but let's be honest; we both know you're gay; don't pretend any more--it will be so much easier. You will meet people in your new secondary school who will find you with other girlfriends, will bully you and you shouldn't let it get to you like it did to me. The bullying got quite bad for me and I let it get to me but ignore them, actually in a few years the main ones have themselves come out.
Don't get all worried you won't suit short hair. It looks awesome on you! In the next few years you'll notice you meet some amazing people, especially in 2012, you will meet an amazing woman who makes you very happy. Don't let her go... ever.
I know you want to be with the guys and you've always acted like one but let's face it, you've always checked out the same girls they have without wanting to admit to yourself. Rugby is awesome. Just because you like to wear men's clothes doesn't mean you're weird. Keep smiling; it does get better. It gets a lot better and you are happy in the future. Life is good when you admit you're into women. Oh... you look damn good in a shirt and tie and don't you ever forget it.
Your future self.
I'll share some more of my favorite answers from readers to these and other questions in the next couple of weeks. Readers' answers are making me wonder what I would tell my 10-years-younger self. Would I tell her not to marry my DXH? I'm not sure. It broke my heart and sent me reeling for years... but on the other hand, I learned a lot from being married to him, and we had some absolutely wonderful times. In a very real sense, he and I grew up together. Plus, if I'd come out earlier, would I have ever met my hilarious, gorgeous, terrific DGF?
It's hard for me to think about what I'd want my 10-years-younger self to know. Even the things I learned the hard way sculpted me into the person I am now... so maybe that's good. Or maybe it's just cognitive dissonance.
What do YOU wish you would have known ten years ago?
I'm excited to share this guest post from a BW reader who's working as a Peace Corps volunteer. I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did! For reasons that this piece makes clear, she's chosen to remain anonymous.
Discovering the Lesbian Underground in Rural South America
Peace Corps is a two-year commitment to do development work in impoverished countries. I am an Agricultural Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in South America. My site is a very rural, impoverished, and conservative village in a conservative country.
I generally present myself as androgynous. Short hair, comfortable clothing, and a slim build make this easy. I didn’t tell my Peace Corps recruiter about my sexual orientation, but I scoured the internet trying to find information on queer life in the small, culturally isolated country to which I was assigned (and on the experiences of queer PCVs worldwide). To my dismay, I found little information. The Peace Corps welcomes queer PCVs, but warns that in many countries they will have to stay closeted—sometimes to work smoothly with host country counterparts, but frequently for the safety of the PVC.
In my village, miles away from paved roads, surrounded by banana and pineapple crops, I am very deeply in the closet. I still dress androgynously, but I have not, and likely will not, tell anyone in my community the direction in which my romantic interests generally lie – the señoras trying to match me up with their sons don’t know how much of an uphill battle they face. Due to my unfeminine hair and clothing, I also receive far fewer cat calls and less sexual harassment than other female volunteers.
After working with men in the community to rebuild a wall of my house, someone joked that a "man" would be moving in: me. This comment from a community member made me anxious, and led me to worry about every interaction—to an unhealthy extent. Indeed, my self-censorship has been one of the most stressful parts of being here. I am fearful that they will “guess,” but I actually haven’t altered much. I don't change my appearance or flirt with men, though I certainly don’t flirt with women in my site either. My second year, I’ve loosened up because I know the people in the village, and they know me. For example, when señoras would ask me if I had a boyfriend I used to say, “not right now,” but now I say, “I don’t need a boyfriend.” It’s a small, but significant, difference.
One of my queer volunteer friends says that this is a country of “open secrets:” Secrets everyone knows, but tacitly agrees not to talk about. It makes me wonder, am I living an open secret too? Is it possible everyone in my site knows and are electing to keep quiet?
One of the biggest personal changes I have experienced here is the role my sexual identity plays in my sense of self. Like many people in their mid-twenties from accepting backgrounds, I never viewed my orientation as a big deal. However, here in rural South America, I needed to hide this part of myself for the first time in my life… so it has become more important. I am open with other volunteers and the Peace Corps support staff in-country, but I miss being in an active queer community.
Once every month or two, I travel to the country’s capital to get mail and to socialize with other PCVs. If possible, we visit one of the few gay bars in the whole country. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually full of gay men. However, after a conversation with a posse of local gay men looking out for me, we got directions, scrawled on the back of a napkin, to a rumored lesbian bar. It was months before we found the place. When we finally did, we discovered that we had to get past the guards, ring the bell, and wait for someone to come unlock the door. They’re only open one night a week, but have information regarding human rights campaigns, queer film festivals, and Pride activities. Despite their limited hours, it was nice to know that such a locale existed.
However, I still needed a queer community closer to where I live, and as luck would have it, I stumbled across one! There is a town an hour and a half away, and during my first few months, I traveled there frequently to buy supplies to build my house. A PCV there introduced me to a friend of hers (I’ll call her B), a female firefighter. This PCV told me that B was a lesbian and told B the same thing about me. A few months later, B invited me to a secret, underground drag show! Out here, in the middle of nowhere, there was a community! The event was invitation only, with the location announced a few hours ahead of time. Secrecy was a big priority. Drag queens from all over the country performed, and under a blanket of stars, the rest of us queers watched. It was great! But the most valuable part of the experience was finding out that there is a network, even out here in the rural countryside. However, it’s distressing that such a high level of secrecy is necessary.
Now I find myself dating B’s ex (I guess lesbians are the same world over). This chapter is unfolding day by day…Our interactions are full of cultural misunderstandings and poorly translated endearments. (Also, how on earth does one discuss strap-ons in a country without toy shops?) She is closeted even to those in her family who would be accepting. I worry that I overestimate the level of acceptance around her, and thereby put her in danger. Her internalized homophobia and self-hatred is another challenge altogether.
I am pleased to have been admitted into the secret lesbian underground of this country. I’ve never met any established lesbian couples, but supposedly several pairs live together, frequently raising children from their past relationships. One of the pairs was comparatively wealthy and lived somewhat more openly, and the other pairs just quietly lived together as “housemates.” I never heard of couples in the countryside, only in town. I also met people who had been part of the lesbian community but ended up marrying men. For some of them, marrying was one of the few avenues of independence they had. Outside of the capital, most people don’t leave their parents’ house till they get married.
I can be an example of a happy, queer, woman within the underground lesbian community. Their eyes went wide when I mentioned that my mother once asked my (ex)girlfriend which of the states with legalized same-sex marriage we would be moving to. I’m not sure what blew their minds more, the fact that marriage was an option for us, or that my mother treated our relationship legitimately. I introduced terms like “family” and “gaydar,” and exposed the underground to television shows like The L Word and Modern Family. Seeing queer people on TV just like any other telanovela was a very significant, empowering experience, especially for my girlfriend. It’s been powerful for me as well: by seeing it from the outside, I truly appreciate the strength of the queer community in the US.
Clearly I can only base this off of the lesbians I know, but but at least in this country, there seems to be less gender nonconformity than in the US or other South American countries. But maybe that’s because all the lesbians I know are from the countryside (the town is in the middle of nowhere. The only real “city” is the capital.
Lesbians here either never find each other (sad but true), or find one other lesbian or gay man who introduces them to her or his friends (like what happened to me). Some of the most important work I’ve done my last few months in the site, has been introducing a few teenagers (males) who came out to me to the community in the town. Additionally, I introduced the community in town to the resources and clubs in the capital.
My Peace Corps experience has changed me in many unexpected ways, including strengthening my identity as a queer person. But more importantly, it has highlighted something else to me, the fact that who I am is not just for me alone. I'm a member of a beautiful community, not just underground in a small country and not just causally out in my hometown: it’s a community that's everywhere, worldwide, where I'd most and least expect it. When I pack my bags, say my goodbyes, and leave this country, I'm taking that lesson with me.
Many thanks to the guest poster for sharing her story. She also wanted me to pass along this link for LGBT Peace Corps Alumni.
Do you have an experience worth sharing? I welcome guest post submissions; email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.