For some queer women, “butch” means short hair and sensible shoes. For others, it means sexual dominance. For still others, it’s an attitude or a way of life. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous take on pornography, the collective wisdom on defining butchness can be boiled down no further than: “I know it when I see it.” So why bother to identify as “butch” at all if there are so many possible definitions?
My DGF argues that it’s pointless to label one's self (ironic that she’s dating someone whose blog does exactly that, eh?), but I disagree. When I first came out, I was scared of the word "butch." I thought it meant that I wanted to be a man (I don’t), or that I could fix cars (I can’t), or that I’m attracted to femmes (I’m not). But since then, I’ve come to embrace the word "butch." Here are five reasons why:
1. Identifying as butch made me feel less deviant. Instead of seeing myself as "failing" at being a woman, I could see myself "succeeding" at being a different kind of woman. I could finally put a name to my collection of “defects”: wearing cargo pants, feeling like an alien every time I opened a women’s magazine, or finding it inexplicably crucial that I learn to tie a tie. Viewed through this lens, countless moments of frustration and discomfort suddenly made sense. Before identifying as butch, I had a collection of random dots; when I connected them, they finally made a picture.
2. I wasn’t alone. Putting a name to my masculine-of-center femininity allowed me to identify others with similar traits--most importantly, to find others whose experiences echoed mine. In some fundamental respect, there were people like me. Even before I had butch buddies of my own, simply knowing that other butches existed made me feel less alone.
3. It helped develop my fashion sense. Wearing women’s clothes made me feel like I was in drag. This was part of the "defectiveness" I mention above; I just wasn't "doing" attractiveness properly. But "butch" put a name to my style and categorized me as a possible recipient of others' sexual interest (though not my DXH's) even if I dressed as I wanted to! Clothes became a source of fun rather than frustration once I realized I could be myself and look attractive in some recognized "sense" (albeit not a conventional one). These days, I even enjoy shopping with my girlier female friends for their clothes, because I feel zero pressure to look like them.
4. It helped me define my attraction to others. I spent a long time believing that if I wasn’t attracted to “feminine” women, I couldn’t be a lesbian. If Rachel Maddow made me swoon, but Rachel McAdams left me cold, I was attracted to masculine people... So, I reasoned, I was actually straight. (This reasoning may strike some of you as silly, but I performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince myself I wasn’t gay.) Recognizing “butch” as a category showed me that there was a common denominator among the objects of my attraction. Yes, I was attracted to women--specifically, women of a certain type. This helped me come to terms with my sexual orientation.
5. It gave me a useful vocabulary. "Butch" is a great shorthand to express the idea of "a chick who looks sort of, but not really, like a dude," which was frequently something I wanted to express. The term also came with useful attendant vocabulary, such as "bro date" (hanging out with a platonic buddy who also sort of, but not really, looks like a dude), "boi" (a queer woman who looks like a gay male high schooler) and "soft butch" (somewhere between androgynous and butch, which I studiously practiced through online use of the phrase, "soft butch seeks same").
Theoretically, I didn't need to identify as "butch" to accomplish any of this. And maybe if I had been more confident, I wouldn't have. But we are social creatures, and the word "butch" validated aspects of me that had never felt valid. Ironically, putting a label on myself was pretty darn liberating.