ask me anything: about butch identity

April 29, 2008  |  essays

4. leo asked: i have a question about butch identity. you’ve written so eloquently about the concerns you faced in reconciling feminism and your gender identity, and especially about rejecting misogyny as a necessary element of masculinity. but you’ve also written that you wanted to throw up (i think?) when someone first called you butch. was that all about feminism? if not, what other feelings (positive or negative) and concerns have been central to the development of your sense of butch identity/female masculinity? did it frighten you at all, apart from the feminism issue, or was it love at first sight, or some combination?

I definitely had a love/hate relationship with what I perceived to be butch identity in the beginning. It appealed to me, but at the same time I saw such misogyny and disrespect coming out of these butches mouths – often the very objectification and trivialization of women that felt so reminiscient of the stories I heard in feminist classes and texts. But, at the same time, I wanted to be more masculine than I presented – I was just very torn about how that identity would be possible without the deep misogyny.

It was the first girl I was in love with – a femme, who, when we were discussing gender, whispered in my ear, “I think you’re butch.” And I did want to throw up a little, but also felt like I’d probably come right then & there if she put any single finger on me. The feeling of sickness and fear was about being seen, being visible, having tapped into something that I wanted so deeply that I was afraid to let anyone know I wanted it at all, for fear of failure I suppose. It wasn’t so much that I was afriad of the identity itself, but I was afraid that it wasn’t me or that I wanted something unreachable.

The feminism confliction with my butch identity was actually a very short-lived argument in my head. Of course I can be butch and be a feminist. Of course I can display and embody a sort of intentional, respectful masculinity. But then: how?

I did have to re-invent masculinity for myself – I actually used to make long lists of “masculine traits” or interests or hobbies, and I had a system of symbols (stars, circling, highlighting in different colors) that would denote different aspects of the identity – things I already was, things I wanted to be, things I rejected about masculinity in general, things that masculinity could be but that I didn’t want for myself.

In the beginning, I distinguished heavily – and still do – between ideas of “external gender” and “internal gender” (for lack of better terms, at the moment at least). External gender meaning what I put on my body, my clothes, my haircut, my physical communication, my physical presence. Internal gender, then, meaning emotional styles, interests, hobbies, personality – I don’t believe those things are or should be dictated by gender.

Gender theorists don’t believe that there’s any sort of “innate” gender, something that comes from inside – but that doesn’t seem to be how most people really experience gender. “I just know,” they say. “I just feel butch,” or “I just feel femme,” or “I just feel like a woman.” Theorists would say there’s no such thing as a woman, actually. But that experience doesn’t necessarily translate to praxis – putting theory into action.

I actually think there is some sort of “gender energy,” something that comes inside of someone that will tell you that’s a butch in a dress or that femme sure looks tough in those overalls, installing those 2x4s. I’m not sure how this is different than “internal gender” or innate gender, but I do think it is slightly different.

That’s a bit of a tangent. Back to your question:

Another reason why butch was difficult for me was because I had very few representations of butch, and what little I did have I basically flat-out rejected. Why would I want to emulate something, to be something, that I had no good model for? But somehow, I persisted in this, I recognized some sort of value in the identity – and some sort of me in the identity – even if I wasn’t sure how to identify it, or identify with it.

I think a huge part of this is because we, as a culture, still need a masculine revolution – a remaking of masculinity much as we’ve had a (successful!) remaking of femininity since the Second Wave feminist movement.

And honestly? It’s no small feat, and it sounds kind of pie-in-the-sky, or maybe cocky as hell, but that’s part of what I consider myself to be doing by claiming a butch identity: revolutionizing masculinity.

 

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9 Comments


  1. That's not cocky, Sin, it's correct. Re-inventing masculinity is exactly what you're doing. It's revolutionary, and wonderful.

  2. This was a really well written and beautifully honest reflection on butch identity. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Could you explain how the remaking of femininity has been “successful?”

  4. hey, thanks for such a thorough answer! i think there's so much there in the extraordinarily deep wanting/fear of failure dynamic. (is it a constitutive part of masculinity in our culture, i wonder? i know i've read somewhere about the asymmetry whereby it's possible to fail at being masculine, to be emasculated, but there's no feminine equivalent.) and then of course, you don't want to be something that is often oppressive or even downright creepy. so up with cockiness & revolutionizing masculinity!

  5. Thanks for sharing so much about your internal process of coming out as butch. I've learned a lot from you sharing about your thoughts, feelings, reactions and processes. cyn.

  6. Right on! I've been feeling a need for the same sort of liberation (if you will) for men, and have been finding allies in all neighborhoods of the sex/gender/identity galaxy.

    I feel that because men have the privilege in many situations, our oppression is sometimes overlooked. It's certainly more subtle.

    To me, we need not to struggle for the institutional power (we've got plenty), but the personal- the ability to step outside of the stereotypes, and craft our own identities. As a child, I was taught to be angry or happy, but sadness or tenderness was not something permitted.

    I also feel that it will be far bigger than a "men's movement", if we're going to be successful in changing the norms of our society. A huge step will come when individuals pushing for individual causes begin to realize a common cause, and begin to cooperate.

    THEN, we'll have change. (purrrrr)

  7. This was great! As much as you talk about the butch/femme dynamic, your writing about your own personal gender odyssey seems to be as much about the spaces between.

  8. I am a firm believer that there are no coincidences in life and finding your blog is helping me understand things that are going on in my own personal gender exploration. I can't count the number of times that someone has approached me and asked if I was "family" or "mo" or something else. Let me give a little background: I have close cropped hair, I wear jeans, tshirts, and boots most of the time, I do guy stuff, I have the mannerisms of, and act like, a guy, I have a tattoo of a snake on my arm. But I'm not a guy. I have been told by my TG friend that I'm butch. For the past few years my internal gender has shifted from feminine to more masculine and I guess it's coming out (no pun here!) a little more than I thought. I am just more comfortable with the masculine mannerisms. I have had so many questions about my sexuality that it's making me wonder just a bit that: is there something about me that I'm not seeing? am I so comfortable with my newfound gender identity that I portray it more on the outside? Also, when I'm out doing stuff, I get the nod from guys and the "look" from women. I've asked my TG friend to explain that further from a different point of view and he just comes back to the butch answer. Just some thoughts that bang around in my head on a daily basis, but reading your blog is a help on sorting out details while I travel the gender highway. Please keep writing, Sinclair.

  9. I’m still absorbing this, and reflecting on my own experiences. I’m relating to what Sinclair has written and also to what ‘stops on the gender highway’ has expressed.

    I’m gonna need to work on this, would make a good subject for my blog as well. Getting all our butch voices out there is a very good thing. It really helps to see that others are working out these details and that it is a process. We’re not fully baked over night, it takes time and that journey is very worthwhile.

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