Posts Tagged ‘butch identity’

Reconciling the Identities of Feminist & Butch Top

June 10, 2012  |  essays  |  4 Comments

Queer Memoir: Butch/Stud Through the Years was fucking EPIC on Friday night, and I’m so honored and thrilled to have been there and to be a part of it. There was the story of the kid’s game “hide and go get it” in Kentucky! There was the revelation of belonging somewhere and that “here take a sticker” moment—”because even though you’re in New York City, you might still be isolated.” There were discussions about feminist topping! There was deep appreciation for butch friends and community and support! There was a fucking marriage proposal!

This is the piece I read, slightly updated from the December 2009 version, about reconciling the identities of feminist and butch top, and what it means to be a masculine person who is also dominant. It is relevant as ever and I still struggle with the intersection of these identities. I have a lot more to say about it, and reading this piece again made me think about what I’d add and what more there is to say, so I’m working on it. Meanwhile, here’s the text of what I read.


A few years ago, a girl I dated wanted me to slap her. To hit her face. She asked for it specifically, I still remember the conversation on the subway and the precise way that she looked over at me and said, I want you to hit me. Something big swelled in me and I wanted to, I wanted to feel the sting of impact on my palm and see her recoil, to do it again before she was ready, to push something so sensational onto her experience that she was jolted to the edges of her skin and had to feel, to feel herself, to feel me, to be fully present.

This girl and I had already done some other light percussion play, using my hand, or even a paddle, me hitting her ass and thighs, the fleshy parts that I couldn’t possibly do damage to beyond some light bruising. She liked it, we both did. It made sense to escalate, at the time, to something new; we were deepening both our romantic relationship – our trust in each other – and our power dynamic, and it was time to push a little, to see where we could go.

I was terrified. After she asked, after we talked about it extensively, I even tried, a few times, when we were in bed and she said, hit me, now, please, and I couldn’t, I’d bring my hand up and chicken out.

I was terrified of what it would mean for me, as a masculine person, as a butch, to be more dominating in bed. To like it. To like to cause someone pain. To like to cause a woman pain. To hit someone in the face. To hit a woman in the face, to sexualize that act and that power dynamic specifically.

I was paralyzed by that terror – I wanted to do it, the idea, the very thought of it, the discussions with her, turned me on, the girl I was dating wanted me to do it, but I couldn’t.

Beyond wanting to do it, this was the kind of sex act that was in the sex life I was dreaming of having. This was what haunted my fantasies and what I looked for in porn that I watched and erotica that I read. And I was on a very serious quest to figure out how to have the sex that I wanted. I’d just gotten out of a bed-death relationship. I was committed to studying sex hard, to figuring out: what I wanted, how to get what I wanted, how to build a relationship with that as an element, how to maintain something sane and hot over a long period of time. That’s precisely why I started Sugarbutch.

I now know that I’m a sadist, and a top. That means I like to dominate. And already there are conclusions being drawn by some of you out there who think well of course you like to dominate, you’re masculine, and that’s prescribed for you or in other words you misogynistic asshole, I already knew you were one of “those” butches who needs to make up for your inadequacies by dominating women. Because that’s what we think, isn’t it? Maybe not consciously, but a little bit, somewhere in our brains, we associate these particular identity alignments – butch equals masculine equals top equals dominating equals men’s prescribed gender role. We’re relieved when they line up how we think they will, or maybe we are challenged and uncomfortable – though perhaps in a stimulated way – when they misalign.

There’s something supposedly anti-feminist about wanting to dominate. There’s something in the feminist rhetoric which says we are all equal especially in bed, so that means I-do-you-you-do-me, or that means we have sex neither above nor below each other, and with no reproduced heteronormative misogynistic patriarchal power dynamic.

But I didn’t want that. I’d had that, with other girlfriends, but it didn’t keep things hot enough to sustain a relationship. And secretly, I wanted to top and control and hit and demean and humiliate and restrain and force and take.

Power dynamic theory—stick with me for just a paragraph here—has many similarities to gender theory. Like the gender identities of butch and femme are not reproductions but pastiche copies at best of prescribed societal gender roles, putting on and taking off power roles in power sex play is a pastiche reproduction of power in our lives, of which there are thousands of examples of interaction on a daily basis. And when we can put on and take off these roles intentionally, the act of adopting becomes further proof that the power positioning in our lives is not inherent, or “real,” or immobile, or prescribed, or “normal,” but part of a hierarchical society of social power that can be deconstructed. In that, we can more easily have more power and control in the beneficial ways, and less power and control in destructive ways, as we play with it and engage with it.

As in my experience with coming to a butch gender identity, when I finally came to a power identity that really deeply aligned with something inside me that just clicked and make sense, I felt like I was coming home to myself in a way I hadn’t experienced previously. Through my personality and tendencies and psychology I have my own set of quirks and workings and functions, and for whatever reason, it makes a lot of sense to me to let out some of my power and control issues in the bedroom by being dominating. It is deeply satisfying the way a glorious meal or a delicious book is satisfying, one of my life’s greatest pleasures. I’m not sure I understand why I like what I like, but what I like does not harm others, and is consensual, and I know myself well enough to accept what I like as what I like – and to let that be a simple truth.

How did this change for me? What happened between the time when I was terrified to slap a girl in the face and today, now, where I am fairly comfortable in my identity as a top, and even as a sadist, as someone who enjoys causing extreme sensation (aka hurting) someone else?

Little by little, I had lovers who pushed me, lovers who were more experienced as bottoms than I was as a top, lovers who wanted more from me and who could take more than I was able to give who made enough space for me to walk into a bigger version of myself and occupy it, try it on.

I did come to a reconciliation with my feminist self and my top self. Phrases like men should not hurt women or rather masculine people should not hurt feminine people, or even more broadly that people should not hit each other and violence is bad bad bad … I had accepted those phrases as Ultimate Truths, and I started to understand deeper the ways that sensation was not violence, and hitting was a way to be sparked into the present moment, to release whatever our musculature was holding onto, and to deepen trust between people and in a relationship.

I didn’t realize how little trust I had in others until I started playing deeper with BDSM. Because I would tell myself, it’s okay, she wants to do it, but then I would think, does she really? Maybe she wants to because I want to. Maybe she wants to because society tells her she should want to. Maybe she wants to for fucked-up reasons, like she thinks it’s okay for her to feel humiliated and less than me because of her own internalized misogyny … but that was me not trusting that what she said was true. That she wanted me to hit her face. And that was me, further controlling both myself, her, and our relationship, in unhealthy ways, because I didn’t trust her.

This was an issue of agency, in feminist terms – my not trusting my lover to communicate with me what she wanted, to explain to me how far I could go, and my not trusting that she would let me know if I was going too far or too hard, either with her physical communication or her words or both, was me not trusting in the agency of my lover. I have to trust that she will tell me, she will let me know, if I am going too far. And I have to listen, apologize, understand what I did, and trust that she will accept that it was an accident, a mistake, and that I’ll do whatever she needs to feel safe again.

When I started playing out my control issues in BDSM, in the bedroom, in sex play, the control issues I had in my relationships began to heal.

In learning my way into being a top, I had many, many conversations about consent and intention and communication, I talked to my lovers when things broke down or didn’t seem to work and I learned more about my own tendencies when things went well. I figured out that sometimes, it was really hard for me to be with someone who bottomed so well, and who I trusted so deeply, that I did harder, scarier, bigger things with them that took me even deeper into my topping and dominance and sadism and power, and sometimes that meant I needed to be comforted afterward, to be told I liked that, and that wasn’t too much, and you didn’t hurt me, and that was what I wanted and thank you. Hearing those things is always a relief.

(I give good aftercare too, of course. But top aftercare is less common in the BDSM world – we don’t frequently talk about the toll it takes for the dominant to dominate.)

I practiced, a lot, to be bold and trusting through my topping. I tried scary things and it turned out they weren’t so scary, they were in fact incredibly hot. I got to know myself, and I learned more about the things I wanted to play with, and I talked to smart people whose experiences were similar to what I was going through and who assured me it was possible to come out the other side of it a masculine, queer, butch, sadistic, feminist top.

Queer Memoir: Butch/Stud Through the Years in NYC Next Week

May 29, 2012  |  miscellany  |  No Comments

Since I haven’t been able to get a calendar update up on Sugarbutch the last two months in a row (!), I’m throwing up this event info individually instead so you can know what I’m up to.

Much of my college workshop traveling is done, but I’ll still be traveling a bit this summer, attending a few different leather gatherings and heading to Atlanta and hopefully Chicago to do readings for Say Please.

There are some great events in New York City that I’m taking part in, too! Hope to see you there.

Queer Memoir: Butch/Stud Through the Years
Friday June 8th, 8 PM
Queers for Economic Justice
147 W. 24th St., 4th Floor,
New York, NY 10011
5-10 bucks no one turned away
RSVP/More info/Updates on facebook

Queer Memoir: New York’s award-winning LGBT storytelling series is breaking their usual “no shows in the summer” tradition in order to produce this special event. We’ll be hearing stories from butch/stud identified people of different queer generations, including a special reading from West Coast’s Jeanne Cordova and her award-winning memoir, When We Were Outlaws.

With
JEANNE CORDOVA
LEA ROBINSON
SINCLAIR SEXSMITH
RYANN MAKENZI HOLMES
JAY TOOLE
HOSTED BY KELLI DUNHAM

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March 7, 2012  |  journal entries  |  Enter your password to view comments.

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“10 Hottest Butches of 2011″ & the End of the Butch Lab Project

January 6, 2012  |  on butches  |  3 Comments

So this happened:

What? Thank you, brand new Advocate website SheWired! I’m honored you noticed my little Top Hot Butches project and I’m thrilled to be mentioned in this list. It’s a great list, too—check it out.

I’ve been debating for months how to tell you that the Butch Lab project is over. I have started mock interviews with myself about it, I’ve written rants in my journal. I want to put up a splash page over there, but to be honest—ha—it doesn’t get enough visitors for that to be actually noticed.

And that’s why the project is stopping. It never really got off the ground.

That could be because I didn’t throw enough energy over there, and if I had the time and energy to maintain another blog, maybe it’d grow into something. I can’t really expect it to jump into some big deal thing right away—but I guess I did, given the intensity of Top Hot Butches. Butch Lab never got the media attention, and that’s in part because Top Hot Butches had all that controversy and oh my god don’t we queers love controversy, especially when we know better than whoever is doing the stupid thing of insulting someone’s identity. The thing is, I took all of that feedback, scoured it, and spent months working on Butch Lab, incorporating all the feedback, and then it felt like it launched to silence. Sure, there have been many loving & supportive emails and many great comments about what the site has meant and how great it’s been to see all the mini-interviews (all of that is archived under on butches here on Sugarbutch, fyi), but it wasn’t really enough.

Beyond that, my life has moved more and more offline, teaching classes and leading workshops and organizing in-person events, and I just don’t have the time in front of the computer to hype butch-related things that perhaps I would’ve had a few years ago.

So, for all of these reasons, Butch Lab is closing. It’ll be up through the domain’s expiration in fall 2012, and I’ll be leaving Top Hot Butches up. When I made that decision, I wanted to continue doing the Symposium (writing prompts about butch identity and a blog carnival/roundup) and the mini-interviews, though I haven’t done that yet. I’d like to, perhaps I still will. I’ll add it to my 2012 Sugarbutch goals and see what I can do to make it happen.

Thanks, everyone, for being so supportive of both of those projects. Time to move on to more things, I guess.

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December 14, 2011  |  journal entries, on butches  |  Enter your password to view comments.

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Ask Me Anything! No Really

September 28, 2011  |  advice  |  No Comments

I’m starting to write a new column on SexIs Magazine, this time it’s an advice column called Mr. Sexsmith Says. The first one came out today, about stone identity and butches, and they’ll be published every other week.

I have a pretty decent stack of index cards from my workshops, as well as some unanswered questions from emails and from the Ask Me Anything Sugarbutch anniversary thread, so I already do have a lot of fodder for this new column.

However! I still get questions pretty frequently, and now that I have a place to put them, I invite you to ask me about things you’d like to know. No seriously, ask away. I can’t promise to answer all of them—I have no idea if I’ll get two or two hundred, so you know, I’ll have to do some experimenting here—but I will do my best.

So now there’s a sugarbutch.net/ask-me-anything URL, and a place specifically to submit questions. Please feel free to ask away.

A Little Bit About Butch Voices, Butch Nation, and “Masculine of Center”

August 11, 2011  |  essays, on butches  |  20 Comments

So, a group of folks who were on the Butch Voices board have broken off and created a new organization, Butch Nation. If you keep up with this kind of drama news, you probably have heard about it. See the press release Butch Nation released, Butch Voices press about it, Sasha T. Goldberg’s letter about what happened, and an interview with Krys Freeman on Velvetpark.

I’ve been asked for my thoughts on what’s going on by a few folks. To be honest, I’m not sure what I think exactly. My understanding, based on reading those links above (and more), is that it is a) partially a personal rift, based on who knows what, and b) partially an issue of semantics, about the terms “masculine of center” and “butch” specifically. I can’t really speak to what’s happened personally between the groups—I don’t know, I wasn’t there, and for the most part, I’m not that interested. I mean, my wish is for us all to get along, but people have different ideas about how to run things, and it’s ever possible for rifts to arise when working closely with anyone (in fact, it’s nearly inevitable).

So I don’t know what to say about that part. But I can speak to the semantics, and my opinion about these (incredibly loaded) terms.

(While fully acknowledging that words are powerful, and the right word is incredibly important, and identity is complicated, I also think it isn’t worth the community rifts, and I’m not eager to get involved in the nitpicking of the argument. Still, I’m putting forth my two cents.)

The word “masculine of center:”

My understanding is that the Butch Voices revised mission statement includes this word as an umbrella term, to encompass a myriad of identities. Also from the mission statement: “Masculine of center (MoC) is a term, coined by B. Cole of the Brown Boi Project, that recognizes the breadth and depth of identity for lesbian/queer/ womyn who tilt toward the masculine side of the gender scale and includes a wide range of identities such as butch, stud, aggressive/AG, dom, macha, tomboi, trans-masculine etc.”

The term is meant to be more inclusive than a term like “butch,” which is loaded for many people, and which has historically been predominantly adopted by white folks.

This isn’t the first term to come around that has attempted to encompass these many masculine queer identities—remember transmasculine? That was a hot one for a year or so there, but was declared too problematic to keep using, particularly in the ways that it wasn’t inclusive enough of trans women.

Maybe this begs the question of whether or not an umbrella term is necessary at all. As someone who writes about this stuff frequently, my opinion is that yes, it is important to have a term. Not only that, but it’s important to see the connections between us, to look at the places where we overlap, and to use those to build bridges and build stronger community activism and connection around our shared oppression. Because all of us within these individual identities, we may or may not date the same type of person, we may or may not have the same spiritual beliefs, we may or may not identify as feminist, we may or may not wear the same type of underwear, but there is something that unites us: our masculinity.

(I would argue that our masculinity is intentional, though I know there’s some disagreements about that. I’ve also heard, lately, people arguing that they are “butch women,” and therefore “not masculine,” but I’d like to challenge that there is a fundamental difference between male and masculine, and that a woman can be masculine and still be women.)

Having something to unite us is powerful, and most of the words that this world has come up with to use as an umbrella term haven’t been far-fetched and uniting enough. Is this term? I don’t know. Personally, I like the term “masculine of center.” I wouldn’t use it in a sentence to describe myself, like I wouldn’t introduce myself by saying, “I identify as masculine of center,” but I would absolutely say that I identify as butch and that I believe butch falls under that umbrella, just like it is a sort of trans-ish identity, sometimes, for me, as well. I wouldn’t correct someone if they said I was masculine of center. I also don’t tend to identify myself as a “lesbian,” I’m much more likely to call myself a dyke, or, even more so, queer, but I wouldn’t correct someone if they called me that. It’s not my identity word of choice, but it is accurate.

Holding so tight to one singular identity word and no others gets us into such rigid places. When one word and only one word is an accurate description of one’s self, then of course a larger umbrella term will feel bad. And of course one will only feel good about being connected to and associated with other people who identify with that term. The problem is, I think, that the term itself is just a starting place. It’s just the thing that starts these deeper, elevated conversations, the invitation to say, “Okay, what does that mean for you? How did you come to that word, that identity? How does that identity play out in your daily life?”

Because, like Dacia reminded me when we talked about this last week, the map is not the territory. Even if we have mapped something out with language, what matters is the application to our daily, minute-by-minute lives. And what matters is, to me, the connections that we make, the interconnectivity we find with others who are struggling through similar issues that we are, and what we do about it to move ourselves forward.

I know identity politics are incredibly loaded—fuck, the words I call myself have been vastly important to me, I’m not trying to belittle that struggle. It is huge. The act of naming one’s self, especially in the face of oppression and marginalization, is complicated and powerful. I just hope that we can have more looseness in some of these discussions, as they go forward.

One more thing about masculine of center … I’ve read a few places, in response to this Butch Voices/Butch Nation stuff, that the word “masculine of center” reinforces the binary, and that gender is more complex than a linear spectrum, etc etc.

Funny, I never think of “masculine of center” as implying a linear, 2D scale, with masculine on one side and feminine on the other. All sorts of shapes have centers, and I tend to think of the gender map as a 3D circle, a galaxy even (though that is much harder to map), or perhaps a shorthand of a 2D circle if I’m trying to simplify it a little more.

I ran across this on Tumblr not too long ago, and it’s stuck with me:

From the creator:

Because it’s already established, I have put F, standing for Feminine gender, as red, and M, standing for Masculine gender, as blue. Going nicely with the pansexual flag colours, I have put O for Other gender (though part of me feels I should have put Third gender) as yellow. … Each gender/colour fades down to centre, where I have put A for Agender. …

With this wheel, you can say “I am somewhere between masculine and other, but it’s not a really gendered gender” and it makes sense, because you point at light green (which looks like turquoise, but this was the best wheel I found). You can say “If I’m anything, I’m feminine” and it makes sense, because you point at light pink.

And bigender? Sometimes *here* and sometimes *here*. Genderqueer is anything that isn’t red or blue, I think.

I think there are more genders than just this, but I also think it’s a pretty good place to start. Definitely a vast improvement from the linear spectrum, and I like the idea of all those gradient colors.

So my point, if I have one, is that I like the word “masculine of center,” and I think it’s useful for trying to unite many, many folks who struggle with a masculine identity in the queer worlds. As I’m continuing to be a part of building a better understanding of female masculinity and butch identity in this world, I think it is incredibly important to be talking to other people who have overlapping or complimentary experiences to my own, and to swap theories and survival tactics, to share war stories over beers, to have some respite before we go back and fight the good fights.

I believe the folks behind Butch Voices are doing an incredible job at being inclusive, open, and transparent in their vastly difficult task of bringing together dozens of identities to connect and unite in these conferences. I haven’t been to the national conference yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it next week, and as someone who has spoken quite a bit with Joe LeBlanc and other BV core members, and who was part of the Butch Voices NYC committee last year, and who this year has been volunteering as part of the national web team, I have some knowledge of how this organization is being run, and it seems professional, open, and excellent.

That’s not to say that, if I knew more of the details about what’s going on, I might not have some critical feedback, but it seems clear that they are doing their best, and I’m impressed with what’s happening.

I hope this conversation will continue next week, and I imagine it will. Perhaps as I learn more I’ll have more to share with you all about what I think and what’s going on. Meanwhile, I feel open and curious about these conversations, and interested in finding out more ways to have better, and deeper, connection, and elevated discussions around all of our identities, singular and collectively.

What’s Happening in August

August 4, 2011  |  miscellany  |  2 Comments

Holy crap, there’s a lot going on this month.

Events with Mr. Sexsmith

Tuesday, August 16th, 8-10pm Cock Confidence workshop Camouflage sex toy shop in Santa Cruz, CA

Wednesday, August 17th, 8-10pm Cock Confidence workshop Good Vibrations, San Francisco, CA

Date TBA Cock Confidence workshop at the Butch Voices conference Oakland, CA

Date TBA Owning Your Birthday Suit: Embodiment for Masculine of Center Folks, co-presented with Amy Butcher, at the Butch Voices conference Oakland, CA

Sunday, August 21 Spoken word performance at the Butch Voices conference. More information TBA Oakland, CA

Events in New York City You Shouldn’t Miss

Thursday, August 4 , 8pm Red Umbrella Diaries, www.redumbrellaproject.com Happy Ending, 302 Broome Street between Forsyth and Eldridge, Manhattan, NY

Friday, August 5, 9:30pm BUTCH BURLESQUE: AN EVENING OF SWAGGER. Co-curated and hosted by Victoria Libertore and Lea Robinson. Lineup: Moe Angelos (Five Lesbian Brothers), Crystal Balls, Drae Campbell (Miss LEZ 2011), Molly Equalty Dykeman, Luscious von Dykester with music by Tina Richerson, Jessica Lurie Alto AND Butch Burlesque students making their debut: Kestryl Cael, Prince Kim & Slapshot N. Tickle.

Come see these butches and friends strut their stuff with the bravado and swagger only Dixon Place is hot enough to handle. Hot, queer women flirtin’, titilatin’ and takin’ it off with the originality and swagga only a butch can pull off. As Jace Everett says, “We wanna do bad things with you.”

HOT! Festival at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, between Rivington and Delancey. Tickets: $15 in advance/ $18 at the door. Student/Senior $12 in advance/$15 at the door.

Sunday, August 14th, 10pm The Femme Show comes to NYC! Guest Artists: The Crimson Kitty and others TBA.

The Femme Show is queer art for queer people, with a variety of diverse perspectives on queer femininity that can be thoughtful, sad, funny, sexy, and fun. On their August East Coast tour, a stellar cast will bring The Femme Show’s unique perspective on femininity, gender, queerness and sexuality to cities throughout the Northeast. Now in it’s fifth year, The Femme Show uses dance, burlesque, drag, spoken word, puppets, and more to give audiences new ways and new reasons to think about gender, femininity, and desire.

Wow Cafe Theater, 59-61 East 4th Street, the Fourth Floor, $12 at the door

Saturday, August 27th, 10pm Submit Party, submitparty.com, a BDSM play party for women and trans folks only Brooklyn, NY. For exact location call 718.789.4053 or
email [email protected]

I am now booking fall events for colleges and traveling nationally. I’m heading to Dark Odyssey Summer Camp in September, and looking to visit Chicago, Milwaukee, Seattle, and others in the near future. My schedule is kept up on mrsexsmith.com/appearances if you want to see if I’m coming your way.

If you’re interested in bringing me to your town or college, check out what S. Bear Bergman wrote: Bear’s Guide to Getting the Artists You Want. It’s got some great tips for how to fundraise and make an offer to bring the people you admire to come do some custom work just for you & your friends. (Hint, hint.)

Last but not least, here’s my 2011 workshop offerings in a PDF so it is easy to download, you can also download my one sheet PDF or high res photos in my press kit). Get in touch if you’re interested in booking me, you can contact me directly—mrsexsmith(at)gmail—or my booking company, PhinLi, at bookings(at)phinli.com.

Gender Celebration Blog Carnival: Living Gender

July 15, 2011  |  journal entries, on butches  |  6 Comments

Ellie Lumpesse has been curating a Gender Celebration Blog Carnival, and today’s my day to participate. The topic is “living gender.”

You can check out a few of the other participants, if you like: Curvaceous Dee wrote about what makes her a woman; Sexpert Jane Blow wrote about her perceived gender; Eusimto wrote about gender anarchy; Dangerous Lilly wrote about labels and being politically correct. Still to come are neamhspleachas and Ellie.

I hope this Gender Celebration Carnival will keep going! I think it could drum up some great conversation.

I don’t know when it happened exactly.

One day I just woke up and felt good in my skin. I went to my closet and felt good about the choices of clothing I had to offer. I dressed and looked in the mirror and I felt good about my reflection. I saw a photograph of myself and I smiled, and saw me.

It wasn’t always that way.

I didn’t used to recognize myself in photographs. I didn’t used to feel good about the pieces of clothing I would pull on to pull together an outfit. But somewhere along the way, things started shifting, and improved.

I probably can’t even put my finger on it. Not an exact date or time.

I remember when I threw out most of my clothes that were purchased in the girl’s department, going through my closet and my drawers with each piece: where did this one come from? This one? This one? and sifting them all into neat piles. I remember bringing home bags full of button-downs and polo shirts from the thrift store to try to rebuild some new version of me, some version that had swagger and dated girls and knew how to fuck. I remember buying three-packs of undershirts and three-packs of briefs and trying to figure out from the packaging what size I would be.

I remember trying on various versions of these in photo sets, self-portraits I would take of myself on my bed, against a wall, with an upturned lamp pointed at my face. Sometimes with a timer, sometimes from arm’s length. I have found folders and folders of these photos recently, with titles like “playing butch dressup” and “self butch” and “new clothes” and “wife beater a-shirt.” There were others: “lipstick” and “cat costume” and “corset” and “cleavage,” all carefully labeled in folders, back in the digital day before Picasa and iPhoto would keep everything organized for you.

But it wasn’t all about clothes and presentation.

They say there are many components to gender: chromosomes, genitals, hormones, external presentation, internal sense of self, and yes, of course, socialization and performance. Gender is not all of any of these things, it is not all performance, it is not all socialized. Some of it is innate. Some of it is about genitals. I believe there are many factors.

Gender is also about energy.

I remember studying some classmates in college: the way they sat, the way they held their pens, the way they slung their bookbags over their shoulders and defiantly walked out of the classroom door, shoulders back head high chin up. A little daring, a little rebellious. They sat with their legs open, taking up lots of space. I mimicked them. I practiced sliding low in a chair and splaying my knees.

I noticed that these people got lower grades than I did for doing the same work, because they were perceived to be not paying attention.

And then, when I started mimicking them daily, when my mimery became mine and became a slightly altered version of a copy of a copy of a copy, I started getting ignored by those same professors, started getting glossed over when my hand was up, started wondering why I wasn’t perceived as the straight-A front row apple-for-the-teacher student that I was.

Oh. Right. My gender.

But it wasn’t always like that. It was easier to recognize a straight-A student as a girl, apparently. My board shorts and polo shirts were not proper enough to be seen as part of academia, but my brain hadn’t changed. Curiouser and curiouser.

(That was workable, however. All it took was a few office hours visits with those professors and my participation in class looked much different.)

The other thing that changed was the girls. Suddenly I was visible, a catch, someone dateable. I had three dates in a week, once, in college, and my mind was a little bit boggled. (I didn’t sleep with any of them, or rather, none of them slept with me, but hey, at least I was getting out there! At least I was being noticed!)

I got a Facebook message from the mom of one of my childhood friends recently that said, “You look exactly the same.” I’m not sure what she meant by that, because to me I look so completely different. But I think she was trying to express some gender validation, some gender celebration, telling me that though my external appearance may seem radically different, that there was a similarity, a thread running through all of my life experiences that was me, at the core.

What I want to tell you is that now, I recognize myself in the mirror. Now, I don’t get up and obsess about gender before I even put on my clothes. Now, I get my hair cut every three weeks and keep it shorn tight in the back and on the sides. Now, I don’t debate if it’s a cliche to keep my hair short, I don’t wonder if perhaps I should grow it back out because lesbians should have options, I keep it short because I know I want to. I keep briefs in my underwear drawer because I know all the options, and those are what I like. I collect ties and cufflinks. I shop unapologetically in the men’s department and I don’t even know my sizes translated into women’s anymore: I’m 8 1/2, 34/30, M, 16. I feel handsome and beautiful and attractive and at peace with my body—at least, most of the time. It has taken time, I’m 32, but I don’t think about my own gender, and wonder what it would be like, living daily, if it felt comfortable, anymore.

Unsolicited Advice to a New Butch (aka The Butch Poem)

June 14, 2011  |  on butches, poetry  |  48 Comments

There is more to you than this identity. It makes everything make more sense, and without it you might be lost, but with it you are only ever on one path. You contain more multitudes than that.

Dance. Cook. Read. Make peace with your body. Look at the stars.

Don’t make everything about you. Willingly admit you are wrong, even if sometimes you know you are right. Eagerly say “I’m sorry.” Easily say “I love you,” but learn to recognize your own worth. Keep the borders of your kingdom well-watched and flexible. Keep your muscles flexible. Climb mountains. Pick wild flowers, even though they wilt. Because they wilt. Don’t let people make you wilt. That’s doesn’t have to have anything do with you. Listen to their stories. Remember that we yell because we do not feel heard.

Make a list of ways you feel heard.

Learn how to partner dance so you can make your partner look beautiful, spinning and open-mouth laughing on the dance floor. Cook. Read. Make peace with your body.

Elevate the discussions over brunch with your buddies and use them to try out your date outfits. Downgrade your tee shirts to workouts and loungewear and upgrade your presentation. Make a list of places you can wear your very best suit that are not weddings or funerals. If you don’t have a suit, invest in a suit. There’s a reason it’s a classic. It’s okay to get it at a thrift store. It’s okay to stop shopping at thrift stores now that you know how to use money. Practice rocking a tie on special occasions. Make a list of special occasions. Thursdays can count as special occasions.

Remember that your lover craves your skin and friction and kisses not despite but because of your masculinity.

Dance. Practice cooking at least one impressive date meal and, if you like watching them put something you made in their mouth, teach yourself more. Read. Make peace with your body.   

Get a traffic cop vest, because you are stuck directing and deflecting in the middle of the intersection between male and female, and though the fifty-car pileups have mostly ceased, though they have cleaned the rubble from the ditches, though the seasons have faded the bloodstains on the concrete, you are still there, in the middle, while a pickup truck brushes past close enough to touch the hairs on your calf and a Mazda full of machismo is threatening you from the window.

Know you can survive this. Your body crosses borders most of them never question.

Dance. Cook. Read books like Stone Butch Blues and Dagger and Butch is a Noun and learn where you came from. Learn who else is out there in the world with you. Suspend your own stories and practice seeing another’s perspective. Make peace with your body.

Learn to recognize femmes, even if you don’t date them. They recognize you. When a girl on the subway gives you The Eyes, she’s a femme. When the only straight girl in the dyke bar says she likes your tie, she’s a femme. When your waitress jumps in on your conversation with your buddies to ask “so what’s a good drag king troupe?”, she’s a femme.

But two femmes in bed are not just waiting for a butch to come along (necessarily), so don’t laugh when someone tells misogynistic jokes in bad taste. Be a gentleman. Practice the art of consensual chivalry, always be on time, and remember: it’s better to have a cock and not need it than to need a cock and not have it. Always be prepared. 

When the girl you thought you’d spend your life with leaves you, know you can survive this. Pour the whiskey down the drain, keep your stovetop spotless, and delete her number from your phone. Move your best friend up to her speed dial spot and call just to say hi. Cultivate your friendships before your breakups so you are not alone.

You are becoming more like yourself than you’ve ever been. Trust in your own deepest experience. Trust in your own evolutions.

Dance. Cook. Read. Make peace with the supposed conflict between your breasts, your inner folds, your monthly bleeding, and your cufflinks, your swagger, your monthly boy-cut #4 and the razor-shave on your neck. You possess this innate ability to contemplate apparent opposites and hold them both; to dance with two seemingly contradictory things simultaneously—a talent most people can never perfect. But you can. And you are not alone. These mentors, this legacy, this lineage, this heritage, this style—this is where you fit, this is where you are not dismissed, this is where you finally get kissed exactly how you’ve always wished.

This is the process of blooming into whatever multitudes you are at the core of your being.

Look at the stars. Remind yourself how small we all are, how big your life is, how many paths you are exploring. You can do more than survive this—you can thrive in this.