_A reader wrote to me recently about my series on butch/butch relationships, complaining that the couples I featured were "androgynous" and "not really butch." This perplexed me. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who wants to identify as "butch" is butch. I'm not in the business of policing identity--God knows there's enough identity-policing out there without adding my own picayune, self-serving biases to the mix.
And yet, sometimes my "free-to-be-you-and-me" approach feels too facile. As I said in a radio interview a few months ago, theoretically anyone can identify as anything. I mean, my grandmother could "identify" as a young black man, right? So at some point, can't self-identification strain reality? Should everyone be obligated to support and acknowledge a self-identification that we think is patently absurd? Or maybe there is there no such thing as absurd self-identification, if we believe identity is about defining one's self, not about subscribing to the labels other people mete out.
When it comes to identity, "butch" is tough to pinpoint. I hear people talk about butch in at least three different main ways: being "butch on the inside," "acting butch," and "looking butch." I'll take each in turn.
What does it mean to be butch "on the inside?" To be masculine? To have a "tough" attitude? To have the desire to act like a gentleman? If this is the case, then aren't a lot of cis men "butch?" But we don't usually think of typical straight guys as butch… so does "butch" mean to identify as female and have these characteristics? This makes an intuitive kind of sense, but excludes trans men and people who identify as genderqueer, which doesn't seem accurate, either. Hm.
So how about "acting butch?" Does it mean acting "like a man?" Acting "masculine?" This seems roughly accurate at first. But doesn't defining butchness this way embrace cultural norms of how "men act" and "women act," implicitly accepting sexist ideas of men's and women's behavior? And even if we choose to define butchness this way (for, say, the sake of convenience or simplicity), do negative traits associated with cis men, like expressions of misogyny, count? It's also difficult to figure out how to balance certain behaviors against one another. My DGF is the one who kills the spiders and changes the lightbulbs. But she's also the one who vacuums. Do I average out all her behaviors, assigning positive and negative point values and summing them up: -2 for vacuuming; +3 for spiders? This seems absurd (and talk about reinforcing gender normative ideas--yuck).
Appearance, perhaps, is the easiest of the three dimensions I introduced above, and is also the one that comes to mind most readily, probably because it is the one that differentiates us most from the other people in our surroundings on a day-to-day basis. If someone who identifies as a woman (or at least, not as a man) wears clothes, a haircut, etc., that most people associate with men, we might say that she "looks butch." Of course, this is separate from whether she identifies as butch. Not to mention, this still excludes trans men. Then again, if a trans man desires to be seen as a man, is he "butch?" And if he is, then why don't we think about cis men as being butches? Isn't categorizing the trans man differently from cis men disrespectful of his identity? And if he does identify, and is counted, as butch, are butch women "less butch" than the trans man, because they (may) appear less masculine? This is not a particularly comfortable idea, and may contribute to tension between trans men and butch women.
Is appearance a necessary component of butchness? If someone identifies as female, has long hair, wears dresses and makeup every day, and feels comfortable with this self-presentation, can she call herself "butch" because she "feels butch?" Of course, she can... But as a woman who deals with flak for looking and dressing "like a guy," the idea of a gender-normative-looking woman calling herself "butch" makes me bristle. Arguably, it shouldn't. Arguably, it's none of my business to judge the accuracy of her identity. And yet, hypocritically, I would find it difficult to consider her butch.
Despite these complications, I continue to not only to identify as butch, but to think of it as a useful term. It puts a name to some of the ways I deviate from mainstream gender norms in behavior, attitude, and appearance. Calling myself "butch" helps me own who I am. It offers a way to navigate my everyday life as a woman that other people perceive as masculine. It is a way of trying to understand, and trying to be understood. It says, "I am not flawed. I am just another, valid species of woman or gender or person of which you might not know. But I exist. And what's more, I am not alone. There are others like me." I experience an intangible flash of recognition and affinity when I encounter someone else I perceive to be butch. I look up to older butches, and I feel a maternal (paternal?) desire to help out the younger ones.
I know that "butch" is hotly contested territory. And I know that there are good, smart, sociopolitical reasons for this contestation. But I guess that--occasional bouts of hypocrisy notwithstanding--the further I venture into butchhood, the less interested I become in defining it for anyone but myself.