On misperceiving someone as femme or butch (again)

May 8, 2008  |  essays

A couple heated comments about my last post already, and I want to make a couple things clearer.

First:

I believe it is absolutely okay to not identify with the labels of butch or femme – or any label, for that matter. I think identity categories should be chosen by ourselves, not by others, and if a label is not chosen, it should not ever be imposed.

Period.

(Sometimes I feel like that should be written at the top and bottom of every post, just to make it clear. I want to write it in all caps, in bold, in italics, underlined: I support your identity, whatever it may be, even if it isn’t mine. And I also expect you to support mine.)

Also:

I’m not trying to say that, when someone is called butch or femme and does not identify that way, that that is not a misperception of your own personal identity – of course it is. That’s why the post was called “on misperceiving someone.”

It is insulting and difficult to be misperceived, to be misrepresented. As Daisy put it: “the person saying that doesn’t understand me, and like I’ve failed at gender expression.” I totally understand that – I hate being misperceived (as Daisy also points out, I said it bugs me when people told me “you’re not really butch”), but ultimately, that too is about the other person, not about my own identity. And just because one person misperceives me does not mean that I am not butch, if that is what I am choosing to call myself.

This clarification is important to me because I see many, many folks around me, many readers of this site, many of my friends, who tell me that they deeply want to identify as butch or femme, but are holding back for whatever reasons. Are suspicious of the identities, and are making their way down those paths of understanding how it will play out for them, in their own unique ways. I want to encourage that, when I can, share my knowledge of this identity process, and make it easier for someone else.

Now, on a related sidenote – being misperceived as butch or femme, or as not butch or not femme, is about the social policing of gender. The ways we, as a society and culture, enforce standards of gender on each other, on our friends and communities and lovers and strangers.

Miss Molly commented: “As much as we’d like to say there aren’t different rules in the queer community for butches and femmes, there are many of the double standards that exist for straight men and women.” Sure – there are standards out there, but they’re the same perceived cultural standards that enforce heterosexism and homophobia.

What I find most interesting here is who is doing the enforcing of these double standards. For example, I was in my favorite dyke watering hole not long ago and ordered a vodka cranberry with my usual bartender (who, at this point, calls me “dude” affectionately and shakes my hand when I walk in), and she actually leaned in close to me and said, “Are you sure? That’s awfully … sweet, you know.”

I cringed. Yes, I usually order beer and whiskey. Yes, the drink I ordered was “girly,” and my gender was insulted there, underneath that comment. But: this is about her, not about me. As I joke, sometimes: “I’m man enough to wear pink” – I’m also man enough (ahem, “man” enough, I should say) to order a cosmo or a midori sour or a vanilla vodka cranberry with a cherry if I want one. Yes, I know it’s a sweet drink. I’m aware of what I ordered, and I wouldn’t have ordered the drink if I didn’t want it.

Ultimately, that comment was about the bartender, and her ideas about how gender framework operates, not about me or how I operate. It is not her – or anyone’s – responsibility to police what they perceive to be my gender performance, and I’m at a point in my gender process and identity won’t let anyone else do it for me.

My point about that is this: Who is it that is making these “double standards?” Who enforces them? I read all sorts of things from all sorts of personal online diaries, articles, personal ads, queer media, books, gay culture – and everywhere I hear the same stories about butch and femme: those who don’t identify with butch and femme feel like they are being pushed to do so, and those who do feel like outcasts, like gender freaks who don’t fit in.

That’s a little heartbreaking to me, every time I get my Google alert with gender keywords in my inbox: yet another email full of “Femme women are noticeably less deviant and have a socially acceptable appearance,” and “a rigid and artificial dichotomy of male/butch/top/dominant and female/femme/bottom/submissive” and “the idea of ‘butch‘ and ‘femme’ is as frakked up as Albuquerque driving” and “all butches want to become men” and “I’m butch I suppose, but I’m no guy” and “all that boy/girl butch/femme crap – it’s not real!”

All over the lesbian/queer/dyke communities – my communities – I see people railing against this, from many perspectives. All I’m trying to do here is share my own stories and my own perceptions, illuminate the process a little bit, discuss it, open it up

I want to also echo Lady Brett’s comment: “If it does piss you off, it’s probably a matter of misperception. So, please, tell me. Give me the chance to fix it before you get offended.”

Yes. Please do tell me if I misperceive your identity. Tell anybody, when they misperceive any sort of identity of yours, not just in your gender identity. I’m not trying to blow off the misperception and to encourage you to just let them go on thinking you’re butch/femme/whatever – it is insulting! and, ultimately, inaccurate. Which makes us not feel seen, not feel acknowledged, not feel validated.

What I’m really getting at with that last post is the times when someone is misperceived, really in any way, and they are deeply insulted by it. There’s more to it than just “you don’t see me as I really am” – there’s this big set of implications because of those loaded words.

But again, I want to stress, I really believe that any misperception and insult is about the other person, not about me or my identity – and I do believe this goes both ways, being perceived as butch or not butch or femme or not femme or foreign or local or a hippie or a punk or bi or trans or anything that we don’t actually identify as.

Maybe I’m getting too Buddhist in my philosophies here. I was just reading Be the Person You Want to Find by Cheri Huber, and I’m feeling those philosophies seeping into my opinions on these subjects.

Identity categories are so personal, so intimate – and the theory around them is so slippery! I mean, if anyone can identify as anything, if social policing means nothing, then what is the real meaning of an identity label? Some theorists would say, ultimately, it’s all basically meaningless. I can get there, can understand those arguments – but I also know what it feels like to be inside of these identity categories, and to know precisely how it works for me, how it’s given me a beautiful structure in which to tinker and fuck around and play.

These topics are really difficult, and anytime I post something that gets heated and emotional, I always take the comments very seriously, and consider my points even harder. I am not claiming to speak for everyone here – man, that is one of the best things about blogs, is immediate discussion and feedback and comments like this. I’m only speaking from my own perspective about my own experience, with hopes that it occasionally is helpful to others. Speaking of the round-bellied-guy, I want to echo a quote from the Buddha that I’ve got hanging on my fridge, and was reminded of this week:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

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7 Comments


  1. I think the first post would have been clearer to me had I known your context of having lots of conversations with people who wonder if maybe they want to inhabit butch or femme but something is holding them back. But to me there sounded to be this twinge of "yes i validate your non butch/femme identity, but just wait until you discover how great it feels to clique up".

    Maybe some of them are "holding back" for good reasons, not because of mis-perceptions about those identities. I know I find parts of the butch/femme dynamic extremely attractive both personally and sexually, and there is an element of the butch/femme in my relationship, but I would feel extremely constricted if I had to be the femme to her butch 100% of the time. Some days I'm the femme to her butch and and sometimes we're both feeling a little butchy and some days I'm the apple to her pear or she's the strong to my scared or to the scratchy to my soft.

    I'm not saying that gender roles are static. But I think most of us would agree that some people find a better fit in these roles than others. Sometimes it's a matter of making your fit, but sometimes it's not.

    I love the way you write about your own gender journey, and I understand that the finding of the particular gender skin you inhabit has been so fantastic for you that you want to share it on every level. I love the enthusiasm, but sometimes it sounds a bit like gender proselytizing. Maybe that's what other people were reacting to in the last post as well.

    [ I agree - some people want to adopt these identities, some people don't. Some people find a better fit, as you said. Either way, it's a-okay with me, every time. I am not trying to push anyone into an identity, and I am not trying to say "wait until you discover how great it feels to clique up." Absolutely not.

    If someone is holding back from identifying, usually the context that they talk to me about that process is a little starry-eyed: how did you do that? How do *I* do that? I'm afraid of this and this? How do I hold onto this and not to that? etc. Usually, though not always. I do talk to folks who don't identify and reject labels, but we have very different conversations about these things.

    I can understand that it sounds a little like gender proselytizing, but that is never my intention. There are many, many ways to play with gender, and just because I found one particular way that works for me - for now - doesn't mean that I think everyone needs to do it the same way that I do. I'm not sure how I can make it more clear that that is NOT what I am trying to do. I'm really trying to actively avoid gender proselytizing. Maybe I really do need a disclaimer at the beginning of posts like these. - ss ]

  2. I mean, if anyone can identify as anything, if social policing means nothing, then what is the real meaning of an identity label? Some theorists would say, ultimately, it’s all basically meaningless. I can get there, can understand those arguments – but I also know what it feels like to be inside of these identity categories, and to know precisely how it works for me, how it’s given me a beautiful structure in which to tinker and fuck around and play.

    An ex of mine—(who probably still checks her referrer logs and will probably see this, so if you're reading this right now, sev, hi!)—has lots to say about the usefulness of labels and the purposes they serve. One of my favorite things ever that she said, and much better than I ever could, is this:

    "Labels, for at least some of us who embrace them, aren't supposed to be all-encompassing, strictly defining, or perfectly describing. They're just labels, not definitions — like an opaque jar labeled "coffee," which doesn't say if it's beans or grounds or already-brewed or coffee-flavoured candy, if it's dark, light, weak, strong, flavoured, sugared, fresh, or stale. It just says coffee, and if you want more details, you need to shake it, or open it, or taste it, or find the person who applied the label and ask them what they meant.

    "Why bother with labels at all, then? If they are such a poor approximation of who I really am, why do I use them? For me, labels are necessary because my sexuality is both personal and political. In the personal realm, I want my friends and lovers to know more about me than just what can be conveyed with a label. However, it is also important to me that I be visible as a non-mainstream citizen; I want people to remember that people like me exist. For this, I find simple, one-word labels to be useful. And, hopefully, some of these people who encounter a label they don't understand will stick around, ask questions, and get to know me."

    So. Yeah. What she said.

  3. (Sometimes I feel like that should be written at the top and bottom of every post, just to make it clear. I want to write it in all caps, in bold, in italics, underlined: I support your identity, whatever it may be, even if it isn’t mine. And I also expect you to support mine.)

    I think I need a disclaimer like that written on my forehead! These conversations are so important and so hard. I want to believe that there can be space where butch, femme and otherwise identified folks can be affirmed equally alongside people who eschew labels. But I haven't been able to find it or create it yet.

    [Oh man, I so hear you there. Maybe that's the tattoo I should get! haha, just kidding. Well kinda.

    It's so damn hard to talk about being validating to the butch/femme/identity labels side of things and still portray openness and validation to the folks who eschew labels. Mostly I feel like it's not my place to discuss the folks who eschew labels, because folks who have more to say about why that's important, what it feels like inside of that identity, and how they got there, should be doing that.

    Ultimately Sugarbutch is a personal writing project, and I'm writing from my personal expeirences and opinions.

    Where that does get important to me, though, is in being clear that I am not attempting to make everybody conform to what I believe, not trying to get everyone to pick a label, not trying to invalidate the experience or choice of rejecting labels. That feels so important to make clear, but it still feels like I get a lot of comments from people needing me to clarify that every time I attempt to discuss how butch & femme are valid choices. - ss]

  4. Well, ya know, a disclaimer isn't exactly a bad idea. One of my favorite wedding/engagement/portrait photographers does a LOT of boudoir sessions, and every single time she posts images from those sessions, she has a standard disclaimer about having gotten explicit permission to post the images. I think that's actually a good thing to do, because of the web's "long tail"…while a lot of us come to your site because we've been reading you just this side of forever, some people are coming to it new and don't necessarily have the context around how you've gotten to where you are, and how you think about these things. People may have come in from a random websearch, or a link from another blog, and those people HAVEN'T been here the whole time, walking the journey along with you.

    One thing that I think you easily forget sometimes, as do I, is that the rest of the world doesn't live in the same excessively self-examined bubble that we do. So, while we have very intentionally come BACK to roles and identities that, on the outside, look very "traditional"…there's still a lot of our lesbian culture that rejects those roles…and they don't have the context to know that we've gone through all the lesbian-feminist-culture-identification that they have…and that EMBRACING labels like "butch" and "femme" feels very delicate, tender, fragile and vulnerable to us…because not only are we already alienated from a straight world that we don't fit into, but now we run the risk of alienating ourselves from the community that we thought was our home.

    I want, like you, to believe that that bullshit doesn't exist in our community and that everyone else dissects this in the same obsessive way that we do. But I think perhaps they have lives or something. ;)

  5. colleen, the coffee example might be the best description of how i feel about identity labels ever.

    zoe – "I would feel extremely constricted if I had to be the femme to her butch 100% of the time."

    i think this goes back to adjectives vs. identity. because i identify as femme, i am femme no matter what i'm doing. to use your example, my being a femme does not mean i am always "the femme to her butch." example: the fact that i built half of me and jake's furniture never made me less femme or her less butch. it just is what it is, and i am what i am.

    but, then, that's why it's complicated. and one of the reasons i don't really fault people if they get my identity "wrong."

    in most cases being misperceived doesn't make me feel what sinclair mentioned: "you don’t see me as I really am." it simply makes me feel that "you don't see me as i see myself," which is fine – i am not good at binaries so there are very few cases in which i would claim one of us has to be right and the other wrong (exceptions being misperceptions of my very core values, because those are what everything about me is based upon). (hence the quotes on wrong above.)

    a sort of aside: i think it's fascinating and awesome when people tell me who/what/how they percieve me to be. especially when it is not the same as how i percieve myself. it tells me (taken with a nice grain of salt) what i'm projecting and whether it meshes with what i want to be projecting.

  6. i think one of the problems that you are trying to elucidate, sinclair, is the distinction between objecting to misidentification and recoiling at misidentification. "you misunderstand me" is much different than "you horrify, insult, and malign the very essence of my being by suggesting such a thing." what really burns is when the person being misidentified takes being lumped in with my gender identity as some kind of character assassination.

    those of us who do id as butch or femme are expected to educate, and not take it personally, and use a disclaimer so we're all very sure that this blog that is written by one person about her own experience only reflects the thoughts an opinions of this one person based on her experience. we're supposed to just assume we will be misunderstood and are admonished not to get all worked up about it. but as soon as a "normal" person is misidentified, well, all bets are off because obviously nobody should put up with being accused of being a freak…

    this is not to say i don't understand that there are varying levels of misunderstanding, some of which border on and cross over into disrespectful. we should all strive to be sensitive to other people's identities, and take corrections when they are offered, and not get snippy when someone says, "actually, i don't id that way…" but i think it is also worthwhile to do a little soul searching if your first instinct is to be horrified when someone assumes you're butch or femme when you're not. to me, it smacks of homophobia and a serious double standard.

  7. Hmm, I think I could have been clearer. I don't think you're a gender proselytizer. But sometimes it can feel that way to me, even though I know that validation is your middle name (somewhere between the stud and the sexsmith).

    But I just think that speaks to how fragile all of our identities are…that I hear you talk about yours and part me thinks "sign me up!" even though I know, from experience that it won't feel genuine to me. Or that someone says we're not butch or femme enough and that makes us all prickly too. Excuse the pop psychology, but maybe we are so sensitive about our identities because they give us a sense of belonging many of us lacked as queer youth.

    As a sidenote, I really don't mind at all being called Butch OR Femme (and I've been called both). Being identified either way gives me a rush because I generally take it as a way of acknowledging a public queer identity, which might be harder to cultivate outside those roles.

    (And Lady Brett, I agree that building furniture has nothing to do with being femme or not. I may not identify this way, but I think I get it a little more than that.)

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