I've been hearing a lot about the "disappearing butch"—the idea that those of us in the queer community who identify as butch are becoming fewer. I don't know if this is so, but there's enough conversation around it that it seems a possibility. I've heard two reasons cited, and I have very different reactions to each:
(1) Butches are transitioning from being female-identified butches to being trans men.
(2) The term "butch," particularly for younger people, is falling out of vogue.
As to the first reason—as I've written before, I think it’s a little silly. Not because it's not true, but because it misses the point. Gender transitions have become much easier socially and logistically for many people in the past decade, so it's only natural that there's a "backlog" of people who present as butch women, but would have transitioned earlier if they could have, and some of whom are transitioning now. There's also greater awareness among youth that trans* identities are even a "thing." If you feel like you are a man, or want to be a man, you don't have to "settle" for being a butch woman because it's the closest available approximation. So naturally, the proportions are in flux. Shouldn't we be happy people are increasingly able to embrace and express their true identities? (Answer: yes.)
Admittedly, I *do* worry that with the increased availability of transitioning, some young female butches (like middle- and high-school-age) might assume that they are trans* simply because they don’t fit into existing gender categories. That is, if everything they like is "boyish" and they see no alternative role models for what femaleness can look like, they might assume that they are "really" meant to be a boy. I know I would have thought that about myself in elementary school, had I even known that people could transition. I was much more like a "typical" boy than a "typical" girl, and it's really hard being an atypical version of a gender in a society that really embraces the idea of a gender binary. Still, maybe my concern about the lack of visible models for gender non-normativity is overblown. (And, to be clear, I'm not suggesting its easy to be a trans kid these days—far from it.)
The second point is more intriguing to me. If it's true that younger people are embracing terms like "genderqueer" or "non-binary" or even "masculine-of-center," it just seems like the menu of gender identities is expanding. It also strikes me that many of these are not mutually exclusive. Can you be a genderqueer, masculine-of-center butch? I don't see why not. Personally, I don't identify as genderqueer, and it irritates me when people assume I do. (It's as if they're saying that someone who looks like ME couldn't possibly be 100% woman.) But I don't see why people shouldn't identify any way they want to, using as many or as few categories as they feel apply to them.
To some extent, though, we might wonder if the issue is partly a semantic one. That is, do the same people who would have called themselves "butch" a generation ago call themselves "tomboy" or "boi" or "genderqueer" now, without ALSO considering themselves butch? I think there might be something to this.
Part of it is simply each generation's desire to define itself anew--to see itself as special and unprecedented (which, of course, it both is and is not). Butch identity might feel "old school." It also might not seem to encompass the more "feminine" end of the "masculine-of-center" spectrum. Think about all the dykes who look vaguely like Justin Bieber, or who have more of a stereotypical gay male aesthetic than a stereotypical straight male aesthetic. There's definitely an ethos there that they might not feel fits squarely under the label "butch" (even if many of us might think of them as butches).
I've also encountered plenty of people who don't identify as butch because they believe that the term has connotations that are too negative (e.g., macho/misogynistic/unstylish) or too specific (e.g., only dates femmes) to apply to them. To the extent that either phenomenon is going on, it's lousy. I hate the negative connotations that people sometimes attach to butchness. Butches at their best are chivalrous and respect ALL types of women (and men). Sure, some butches are a-holes. But some of every group are a-holes, and I highly doubt butches deviate from the average in this regard--only that when they do, it takes on a recognizable form that (sadly) contributes to a yucky stereotype.
I also don't think "butch" is as specific a term as some people make it out to be. Some butches hate power tools. Some butches date other butches. Ideally, I think "butch" can be a nice, broad umbrella term that encompasses ALL of us who look sort of like guys, ALL of us who are occasionally told we're in the wrong restroom, and ALL of us who are unapologetically gender nonconforming. I really like the idea of an umbrella term, because there are few enough of us who fall into the "masculine woman" category that it's useful to have at least one term that encompasses the myriad characteristics and experiences we have in common.
When I asked on the BW Facebook page whether the "disappearing butch" is a real phenomenon, the huge number of answers made it clear I'm not the only one who's been thinking about this! Here are some of the responses I received:
Regardless of what's actually going on, it's clear that the queer community is in flux (as, perhaps, it always has been!), and that this is an issue near and dear to many people's hearts, butch and non-butch alike.
What do YOU think? Are butches "disappearing?"