I was having drinks with a friend the other night, and as often seems to be the case with lesbians these days, we fell into a discussion about the relative prevalence of trans men now as compared to, say, 10 or 15 years ago.
My friend’s question was: why now? Why are there so many trans men, particularly young ones, at this moment in time? My first response was a version of the “backlog” argument I made a few years ago on this blog: trans men have always been around; it’s just that a more extensive physical transition was less available until recently, so many of them chose to live as butch lesbians. My friend didn’t buy it. Her arguments were: (1) It’s still expensive to transition, so it’s not like it’s that “available” now compared to 10 years ago, and (2) There have always been people born as women who identified as men and lived as men.
She’s right about both, I suppose--although I'm certain that hormones, trans-positive therapists, etc., are a lot more prevalent than they used to be. (Maybe are we wrong and there aren't more trans men, just more trans visibility? But I don't think we're wrong.)
Or, perhaps it is not about scientific or hormonal or surgical availability; perhaps it is about cultural availability. Perhaps it used to be the case that someone born a woman who identified as masculine didn’t used to have models for what a transition was like, or a community that would be accepting, or—and this is crucial—the internet as a trove of resources and potential connections. Perhaps this lack of “cultural availability” made it more difficult, because even though transitioning is hard now, maybe it was a lot more isolating back then. I feel like it had to have been. So I guess that's still a "backlog" argument, but a different kind of backlog argument.
Another possible explanation is that there has been a resurgence of gender essentialism—maybe it just seems way more comfortable and plausible to live as a gender-conforming man than as a gender nonconforming woman. As my friend told me, “Lesbians have never been in fashion.” True enough (although we have our flashes of hip visibility every now and again—see, e.g., Rachel Maddow on the cover of Rolling Stone). But it’s not like trans men are “in fashion” in a mainstream sense either—I’m hard-pressed to think of trans men with Maddow-level visibility. Then again, trans men are men, and often pass as cis men to everyone around them—and men have always been in fashion. So maybe if you don’t have a strong sense that you were born in the wrong body (I know that many people do—I’m talking about those who don’t), but you know you’re masculine, it’s psychologically more comfortable to be a guy.
I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer to my friend’s question, and I thought it was kind of an uninteresting question in the moment (duh—the backlog thing + scientific advances). But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a good question. Why now?
Happy Butch Wednesday! A few days ago, I received this email from a reader, and decided to share my answer on the blog. Here's the email (edited for length):
I came across your blog last night when I googled "can I be a transgender women and butch."
I'm a transgender woman at the beginning of my transition to be true to myself. I started HRT a month ago during Pride. I smile when I say that because I am proud. I've spent the last several years trying to learn who I really am and where I want to go. I have some of the dysphoria most trans people talk about but sometimes I wonder why I'm not more bothered by it. I know that may sound crazy but what bothers me more is trying to understand why I feel like a woman but want to retain some form of masculinity. I prefer to wear the women's version of a masculine look. I'm athletic and a tomboy. My sexual preference is women. Can I actually be a butch lesbian and transgender? Is what I feel and the way I want to present myself accepted in the butch community? I feel like people will ask why I'm transitioning if I want to be masculine. I honestly feel like a woman.
I'm no expert on transgender identity, and I hope some of my trans readers will weigh in and share their thoughts in the comments. But personally, I think the answer is an emphatic yes. Of course you can be a MTF butch, because trans women are women, and there are all kinds of women, and butch is one of these kinds. It makes perfect sense to me!
You bring up some really good points, and I'll respond to as many as I can. The stickiest question, perhaps, is whether you will be "accepted" within the butch community. My responses are threefold:
The boundaries of the butch community, such as it is, seem more porous than ever. I've even gotten angry emails from people when I've defined butches as masculine women. These readers pointed out that I was excluding trans men, who might still identify as butches, just not as butch women. And, of course, there are plenty of nonbinary people who identify as butch, women who identify as genderqueer and not butch, genderqueer people who identify as butch but not as women--the list goes on.
One result of this increasing porousness is that it can feel confusing and/or threatening to people w hoID as butch women. After all, a hallmark of butch womanness is masculinity. What does it mean if another woman starts taking testosterone, stops identifying as female, gains muscle mass and a square jaw, and still identifies as butch? A woman who also identifies as butch may then feel less masculine in comparison. In effect, she feels she has been "feminized" in comparison to her butch counterparts. And many butches do not like to feel feminized, so it creates all this policing--e.g., "Well, that person who takes T isn't really butch--they're in a different category now." I understand this policing, and I understand the person who doesn't want to abandon their butch identity simply because they're on testosterone or no longer use female pronouns. This is part of the reason there's sometimes tension between trans men and butch women .
So this all means you're stepping into a bit of a quagmire. On the whole, I suspect that if they're concerned about trans people identifying as butches, most butch women are thinking about the FTM phenomenon, not the MTF phenomenon. There's this idea that butch women are disappearing. (Personally, I love the idea that even if we are "losing" butch women, we are also gaining them!)
If you do meet resistance from butches, I suspect that it will have to do with some of your biologically "masculine" traits. Statistically speaking, you are likely to be taller, deeper-voiced, slimmer-hipped, etc., than most cis women. Butches might be jealous. Or they might read you as a cis man, even accidentally. Even though you're a masculine woman, you might have to find ways to accentuate your femininity to be read in the way you prefer. I don't mean that you need to wear a skirt or do something else dysphoria-inducing--certainly not! I just mean that until they see the strap of your sportsbra outlined beneath your T-shirt, other butches might not know how to read you.
Dating may (or may not) be a little challenging. I don't know what your plans are for bottom surgery--you need to do what's right for you. I'm going to assume that at this point, you have the genitals you did at birth: presumably, a penis. When it comes to dating, Surprise Penis is not the best kind of penis. The decision about how and when to out yourself as trans to anyone you're naked with is personal (I'm trying to get a trans woman friend of mine to guest post about exactly this). But I will say that suddenly encountering a penis where one does not expect to encounter a penis has the potential to be threatening or traumatizing to the person you're with. Disclosing your trans status can be a burden, but whether it's fair or not, people who see you as a cis woman, and with whom you're intimate, will expect you to do it well before naked time. More on that in a future post.
You also mentioned that people might wonder why you're transitioning at all if you want to be masculine. You're right--they might! But you answered this yourself: "I honestly feel like a woman." It's kind of similar, actually, to when people ask people who date butches, "Why don't you just date a man?" The answer, in short, is that female masculinity and male masculinity are different--which seems to be something you feel, too, having experienced both first-hand. Female masculinity seems to feel really comfortable to you, and it's really great that you've figured that out. I'm sure it wasn't easy.
In sum, you sound awesome and interesting and like you're well on your way. I'm excited for you and wish I could give you a hug and a fist bump. You're in for a wild ride--stay true to yourself, and try to ignore people who don't understand you or tell you that you "can't" be a certain way. Welcome to the butch community!
Trans issues have popped up on Butch Wonders quite a bit in the past, so when a super-smart English professor I knew came out as trans, I shamelessly pounced on the chance to ask him all kinds of questions about his process and identity.
BW: How long have you "known" that you're trans? What does it mean to know?
Allen: I've known that I was not quite cisgendered for several years, and I've felt trans off and on for several years, but more solidly during the last six months.
BW: Can you give an example of something that makes you feel non-cisgendered? After all, I've always hated and felt totally uncomfortable in "girly" things. It just feels not-me. Is that what you mean by feeling non-cisgendered, or is it different?
Allen: Those feelings of discomfort with "girly things" are part of it for me, but it also includes dysphoric feelings about my body, such as feeling really psychologically uncomfortable with my female chest and even more minor things like my female-looking neck, female hairline, etc. I have also never liked to be called a girl, woman, or even "tomboy," since "tomboy" suggests that one is not a real boy! So all of these things are part of my feelings of not being cisgendered.
BW: I hate the word "tomboy," too. To me, it always suggested that my "boyishness" was a phase I'd grow out of! I resented that, even as a kid, because I knew that there was something in me that other people saw as boyish, and I knew that it wasn't going to change. Okay, so say more about the feelings and knowledge of being trans.
Allen: I use those words--felt/feel trans or male--instead of "know," because to me, the transition process centers on feeling more than knowledge. For me, it's not an issue of "knowing" I'm trans, but one of being ready and willing to feel my feelings.
BW: How do you know you're not just taking advantage of "male privilege," since in most places it's easier to be a gender-conforming male than a non-gender-conforming female?
Allen: Because when I'm allowing myself to feel male and when others view me as and call me male, I just feel happier and feel I'm more able to express myself and let go of hesitation and self-consciousness and depression, even when I'm only in the company of loving, supportive people like my wife and my mom. Male privilege doesn't come into play with such people, yet I am much happier being male even in such small company.
BW: So, with these people like your wife and your mom, what does it mean to be treated "like a man?" Can you give an example?
Allen: That’s a great question. They don't treat me especially differently, actually; I think the main things that make me feel male and make me feel good in such circumstances are that they don’t call me girl terms and that as male I'm able to feel happier inside my own head, which causes interactions to automatically feel better. An example of the first is that my mom has always called my wife and me "the girls," but now she is trying her hardest to not do this. And my wife calls me "hubby" instead of "wife," which is validating.
BW: Do you still ID as butch? Do you ID as a straight man?
Allen: No, I don't identify as butch anymore. To me personally, "butch" implies being something other than a guy, and I feel like a guy. I'd probably just lean towards calling myself a guy, or a trans guy. I like those terms. I'd be more likely to identify as a straight man than as butch, but "straight man" feels a bit confining. I am about 99.8 percent straight, but the associations that go along with that term—e.g., uptight, not queer or trans, "bro"—don't feel so great to me.
BW: What's the other .2%? Attraction to guys (since you're a guy)?
Allen: Well, yes; in my lifetime I've had genuine crushes on two men! But nothing ever happened with that.
BW: It seems like few trans men date butches, though I can think of plenty of trans men who date men (either cisgendered or trans), as well as plenty of trans men who date feminine-presenting women. Why so few butch-trans male couples? Or am I wrong about this?
Allen: Yeah, I can't think of any transmen dating butch women, that I know of. But maybe there are some! I don’t think I have any answers here.
BW: I suspect there are some out there somewhere. (Any BW readers want to chime in?) So as you were dealing with all this gender identity stuff, how did your wife respond?
Allen: We've been together for more than nine years, so I've talked with her about my gender feelings for the entire time I've been exploring my identity. So it is certainly not a surprise to her that I'm trans. She is very supportive and happy for me, which I'm grateful for, and she is excited for my future happiness and our future in a potentially better relationship! After all, if both people in a relationship are able to be fulfilled and comfortable, doesn't the relationship end up better for it?
BW: I would certainly think so!
Allen: Also, she's had relationships in the past with cisgendered men, women, and transmen, so she can certainly be attracted to maleness. While she feels disappointed about not being able to refer to her "wife" and thus be recognized by others as queer, and while she's sometimes nervous about how my personality may change on T (I don't think it'll change radically), she is supportive and hopeful.
BW: How are you going to decide whether to get surgeries? Is that a hard decision?
Allen: It's an easy decision to get top surgery, which I'm getting on August 5! Or rather, the decision is easy at this point, after I've debated, analyzed, and overthought about transitioning for at least eight years! I decided to get top surgery because I am mentally uncomfortable about my chest every single day of every month and year.
BW: Uncomfortable how?
Allen: The look and feel of my chest bothers me intensely. I feel a deep, intense, and excited longing to have a male chest. To me, it sounds better than any Christmas present I could imagine! As for lower surgery, I'm not even thinking about that right now. I have always thought I will not get lower surgery, due to the cost, pain, risk, and my current lack of desire for it (partly due to the less than perfect results of FTM lower surgeries). But we'll see how my feelings develop over the years.
BW: Are you worried about any changes in your social life?
Allen: I'm worried about cisgender guys saying sexist things while hanging out with me (which I've not yet experienced but have heard a lot about from other transguys). I think that would be depressing, and it could be challenging for me to challenge them and "call them on it," but I would do my best, since anyone who spouts sexist ideas or attitudes should be called on it.
BW: Any medical worries?
Allen: Medically, I'm most worried about increased risk of heart disease and cancer of female reproductive organs. However, these are not gigantic risks, because I read a scientific study on somewhat long-term HRT in trans people which suggested that FTM heart disease risk is not really higher than that of cisgender men, and I have a healthy lifestyle. And like many transmen, I plan to have surgery to take out my ovaries and uterus in several years, if I still feel like I want and need to be on T long-term. This prevents cancers of those organs and also reduces internal hormone "battles."
BW: You've referred in the past to having "access to the male parts" of yourself. Which are male non-physical parts, and which are female? And doesn’t almost any answer assume that women "are" a certain way and men "are" a certain, different way?
Allen: This is a very complicated question to answer. I'm not sure it can really be explained. The short version is that my deepest spirit feels male.
BW: I think I understand that. Because even though I have a ton in common with lots of trans men, reject many socially "feminine" things, etc., men remain "other" to me. I guess a lot of women remain "other" too. But I have no desire, for example, to exist in all-male social spaces as a man. I don't know if I ID strongly with one gender or the other, really. But being called "she" is much more comfortable to me than "he." My own deepest spirit feels female, I suppose, though in a different way from stereotypical femaleness. I am very aware, on a basic level, of feeling "other."
Allen: I'm not sure that I feel much of a female part of my inner being. To quantify it, I feel like 80% of myself feels male, and the other 20% might be genderless. Obviously there are many stereotypical activities, mannerisms, etc. that could be labeled as female or feminine, like certain ways that I sometimes sit on a couch, for example. Or being emotional. These things don't feel very female to me, when I do them; they just feel human. So I won't even get into any such stereotypes any further right here.
BW: Are you afraid of getting a hairy chest? I totally would be.
Allen: Haha. No. I think that a hairy chest would feel foreign to me at first, but then, it would occur very gradually. Especially after I get top surgery, I think a hairy chest would be OK. Sometimes it seems weird to me that I am currently relatively hairless (since I've only just recently started T), so perhaps more body hair would actually feel less weird.
BW: You've said that you prefer to be treated as male. In social situations, does being "treated male" mean being treated with more respect? If men and women were treated identically in social situations, do you still think you'd want to be male?
Allen: Yes, I would still feel male and want to be male regardless of social equality issues, since I feel much better, happier, and more like myself as male even in private social situations, even in groups of women. Especially in groups of women.
BW: Like when, for example?
Allen: A few years ago, I was part of a lesbian book group that met monthly. I always felt a little "off" or like a misfit in this group, and I always felt angsty when I would prepare to go to the group: I'd have this urge to dress not just in a T-shirt, which is what I wear on 100% of my days off, but something more decidedly masculine like a button-up shirt. I really chafed against blending in with the other women. They were very friendly and cool people, but still. I felt frustrated when I would sit with them in the book group.
BW: That is so interesting! I'm guessing that plenty of them were butch or masculine-identified women. But you still felt a desire to define yourself oppositionally to the others in the group.
Allen: I felt that in portraying myself as a woman (since the group was only for women), I was not revealing my real self and was thus invisible. This is a horrible, depressing feeling that I think no one should have to experience. So now, presenting as male in social or work situations, I feel happy and visible, and instead of the dulling and quieting feeling of invisibility, which just made me feel like not talking a whole lot, I feel a positive energy that inspires me to talk more, put myself out there more, and let others get to know me more.
BW: Are you afraid of not being treated or seen as "one of the butches?" (This comes from your earlier statement that you don’t ID as butch—I’m not suggesting that trans men can’t be butch.)
Allen: No, I’m not afraid of not being seen or treated as "one of the butches." I don't identify as butch and am extremely far from wanting to identify as a woman, so I would feel more validated and comfortable if I were not viewed as a butch woman. I actually don't think things will change much for me in this regard, as I have never felt like "one of the butches." I've never had any close butch friends and have never been part of a butch group of friends. This is kind of sad, since I wanted this for many years. But I found that butch women who wanted to be friends with me were almost nonexistent, and many butches were in cliques that I couldn't manage to work my way into.
BW: You're awesome! I want to be your butch friend! I have a few close butch friends, but never a group of butch friends. In part, I've felt like butches en masse can sometimes be a little "bro"-ish. (I'm not saying this is how butches are, just describing my own experience.) Particularly since I don't date femmes, I tend to feel like a bit of an outsider.
Allen: I can relate to that; I have also felt that groups of butches were like that! I've already made a number of FTM friends and am surprised at how much we relate and how easy I find it to talk with them and how much I DO want to be one of them. I guess that's a sign that I'm doing the right thing in transitioning! Most of the transguys I've met are less "bro" and more "regular guys" and seem to have less of a "macho" front. I don't know if this is just reflective of the types of guys who choose to go to the FTM support group where I've met friends, or what!
BW: That's super interesting. I've never been around big groups of FTMs, but have been in mixed butch/FTM groups, which to me didn't feel significantly different from all-butch groups. But in any case, it sounds like you have an awesome support group! How are your female-ID'd butch friends reacting? My background for asking is this: I had a close friend transition, and although I was super proud of him, it was weird being seen in public with him as a man and a woman, rather than as two gender nonconforming women. We had been existing in the world in a similar way (as people who "didn't belong"), then all of a sudden, he was seen as a "regular" person—just a normal dude. But I was still a gender nonconforming "other;" he fit in and I didn't! Does this make any sense?
Allen: Yes, that does make sense. Well, as I said, I have never had any close butch friends, none that I hang out with regularly. But the ones I know, like on Facebook, have been very supportive of me, as far as I can tell. I value that a lot. Yes, I do get to fit in—at a stranger's first glance, anyway—more than a visibly genderqueer person or butch woman would. Actually, for many years now, strangers in public have tended to perceive me as male about 90% of the time, judging by the frequency at which I was "sir-ed" and so forth. So I think strangers often view(ed) me as a "regular guy," even when I was pre-T, so this will not be much of a change, actually.
Allen: One example that comes to mind is when I was walking to the BART train after attending the Trans March in San Francisco last week. There were two couples ahead of me, further down the block, who had a "dykey" appearance. A couple of homeless guys called out some mildly insulting remark about "lesbians" to them, which I thought was awful and scary. The men hardly looked at me. Really the only thought I had here was that I felt sorry for those folks ahead of me and glad that I could blend in.
BW: That reminds me of a time my butch-appearing partner and I were walking back from dinner with a friend and got yelled at by some guy who called us "batty men" (an offensive slang term for gay men). I wanted to tell him, "You’re mean--and wrong!" It was odd to be gay-bashed incorrectly. But I did think about how encounters like this would be easier if I/we looked like a more conventional couple.
Allen: Yeah, it just happens to be that I feel most myself when I appear to be kind of a conventional dude. By chance. So I can sometimes avoid people viewing me as unusual. But this is a side effect of my transition and my clothing choices, not a reason for them.
BW: Do you expect that being a man will affect your career as a professor positively or negatively?
Allen: I don't expect it to affect my career much either way. The hiring process at state-funded colleges, the only places I want to work, is very regularized and doesn’t allow (in theory) for any discrimination or personal preferences of the hiring committees. However, many English departments are predominantly female these days, so, ironically, I could potentially add some diversity by being male!
BW: Okay, one more question: Is it the case that you were always "really" male, or that you have decided that you would be more comfortable "becoming" male?
Allen: I feel mostly male on the inside—in my mind, heart, and spirit—so I am already male, rather than becoming male, in those ways. I am becoming male on the outside, and I'm thus giving more life and sustenance to my mind, heart, and spirit, which are in the process of becoming less hidden and quiet and more alive and visible and strong.
BW: Good for you! I think it's awesome that you have the courage to be seen the way you want to be seen, and to live life as your true, authentic self. Thank you for taking the time to chat, particularly about something so important and personal.
Starting in 2004, the Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Research Foundation (LGQRF), has been keeping track of queer sub-populations in the U.S. They have ALL kinds of quantitative data, both about self-identity and lifestyle. They don't list "butch" as a self-selected category, but do collapse several indicative variables together, including sporting activities, reading habits, car ownership, occupation, and more, and end up with a startlingly accurate picture of the butch population throughout the U.S.
If you're like me, you're a little hesitant--after all, there a thousand ways to measure the "butchest" towns and cities: butches as a percentage of the queer population, butches as a percentage of the general population, or degree of butchness (that is, how "butch" are the butches there, even if there aren't very many of them?). The GLQRF actually breaks it down in seven different ways, but I'm just going to highlight the top 5 in the categories I think are the most interesting. (The GLQRF lists 50 in each, and that's just waaaay too many for me to include here.)
Butches as a percentage of the queer population
1. Sudbury, Massachusetts
2. La Honda, California
3. Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
4. New York, New York
5. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Butches as a percentage of the general population
1. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
2. Northampton, Massachusetts
3. Oakland, California
4. Provo, Utah
5. Abilene, Texas
Butchest Butches (without regard to # or % of butches)
1. Tracy, California
2. Highlands Ranch, Colorado
3. Friday Harbor, Washington
4. Mitchell, Nebraska
5. Lafayette, Louisiana
Least Butch Butches (without regard to # or % of butches)
1. Seaside Heights, New Jersey
2. Sunnyvale, California
3. Scarsdale, New York
4. Los Angeles, California
5. Frankfort, Kentucky
Most Attractive Butches
1. Portland, Oregon
2. Galena, Illinois
3. Greenville, South Carolina
4. North Decatur, Georgia
5. Eliot, Maine
1. YOU, if you're still reading this. April Fool's! Heehee. Hope you enjoyed scouring the fictitious stats above. I just made 'em up! Have a terrific day. Love, BW
Remember that post I wrote two days ago about Sunnie Kahle, the eight-year-old-girl who was kicked out of her Christian school for "looking like a boy?" My MOM was the one who told me about the story; I think she saw a little of her daughter in Sunnie. And my mom took ACTION! She wrote a letter to Sunnie's principal, and gave me permission to share it with you all:
Dear Ms. Bowman,
Two days ago I read the Yahoo article about Sunnie Kahle, the 8-year old who was, until recently, a student in your school and who was, in essence, asked to behave more like a girl. That article hasn’t left my mind, so I decided to write to you. I can’t begin to tell you how appalled and saddened I am by your position on this. As a mother, grandmother, teacher, and most importantly, a Christian, I am surprised that you actually believe this is a Christian stand or that Christ would approve of such actions and comments. It is this kind of thinking that contributes to both non-Christians and Christians from staying away from the church – they don’t want to be a part of a religious community that is so arrogant and judgmental.
My understanding of Christ’s teaching is that, rather than judging others, we should be trying to live our own lives as Christ lived. Do you really think He would turn this young girl away because of her clothing or because her hair was too short or because she wasn’t feminine enough? If you really believe that, then you and I pray to a different God.
So what is it that concerns you, really? Are you simply afraid she might be “gay?” I understand your worry – the very thought makes us “old- school” Christians quite uncomfortable. My daughter was a tomboy as a young girl, much like Sunnie. She donned short hair and jeans and played on various sports teams. Now a woman in her 30’s, my daughter is one of the kindest, most caring, gentle spirits I have ever known. She is bright and courageous. She holds steadfast to a strong moral foundation and her faith in God.
And, it turns out, she’s gay. Trust me when I say, it wasn’t easy for any of us, and especially not for her. It didn’t change her love for God, nor God’s love for her. But it certainly gave God a chance to teach me a thing or two about His love. It required us to really trust that God doesn’t make mistakes, and that he has a purpose for everyone’s life, and that He loves everyone. I suspect God needed me to learn that the outside of a person – that is, their clothes, their hair, their sexual preference - was the wrapping to his gift. The gift, the real blessing, is to be found in each individual’s soul. The soul HE created.
I hope you come to see that this young lady, Sunnie Kahle, is just as special and unique, as much a blessing in our lives, as any other child, because she is God’s child. To try to change her spirit, to “fix” God’s perfection – my heart breaks for you. I hope you reconsider your stand and find peace in a new decision.