Ask Mr. Sexsmith Anything: What words compliment a butch lover?

coaching-buttonDear Mr. Sexsmith,

My butch lover refers to me as gorgeous, luscious, beautiful… [but] I just don’t think those kind of descriptive words work for her. What would you suggest? Thanks!

— Sho

Dear Sho,

My personal favorites?

Handsome.
Strong.
Sexy.
Gorgeous.
Hunky.
Powerful.

Some more ideas?

Striking. Charming. Dazzling. Gentleman. Stud(ly). Rough. Tough. Hero(ic). Attractive. Big.

And, do delve a little deeper:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling someone masculine gorgeous or beautiful or any of those words. (I don’t know if I’d use “luscious” … not sure what it is exactly, maybe it implies curviness to me, and it wouldn’t resonate if someone used that for me. But I can think of some very luscious butches who would probably like that word used to describe them, so don’t take my preference as the norm.) I think we separate complimentary words by gender, and while many people have certain resonances with certain words regardless of their gender identity—and I think those should be respected, and it doesn’t really matter if the words someone likes happen to all fall in one generally gendered category or not—I think it’s good to take a look at why some of them resonate over others, and whether that’s personal preference or cultural habit.

I remember reading somewhere that “men want to be powerful, women want to be beautiful,” and while I think there’s some heteronormative/patriarchal/misogynistic deconstruction that should probably happen around that idea, I also think it is largely true and reproduced in this culture. And, I think we tend to compliment along those lines when we’re talking about complimenting someone feminine verses complimenting someone masculine. So first of all, women are powerful and beautiful, men are beautiful and powerful, genderqueer and trans and butch and femme folks are powerful and beautiful, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being both. In fact, I think it’s a radical act a) to recognize that our gender roles operate by trying to keep men striving for power and women striving for beauty, which reinforces the kyriarchy, and b) to intentionally break those gender roles by complimenting people for the incredible, sparkly, dazzling things that we notice them doing, by which we are touched and changed.

I think this topic of complimentary words warrants a fascinating conversation between partners. E.g., “Hey, when I use words like attractive and sexy and beautiful when I describe you, do you like that? What kinds of words do you like to be called? Are there words that I call you that sometimes bug you? Isn’t it interesting that certain words are reserved for femininity and others for masculinity? Would it feel strange if I called you pretty/strong/luscious/my hero?”

Brainstorm. Make a list. Do some google searches. Ask around to your friends next time you’re out and about and see what kind of lists they make of compliments for their girlfriends/boifriends/partners. Go back to your partner and try out some of those words, see what the response is. Maybe they just don’t like their body to be talked about or commented upon, even if you are in awe of their gorgeousness and want to tell them so every day. Maybe they like certain words to be used and they just don’t know why, but it makes more sense and resonates deeper. That’s okay. Listen to each other.

I like to use words that have the intended effect, and if I intend one thing and they take it another way, it isn’t actually effective, even if I intend it to be so. And regardless of gender identity, I like to call people what they want to be called.

Would y’all like to weigh in on other complimentary words for butches (or for anyone, for that matter)? What words do you call your butch lover? What words have you found that butches like to be called? What compliments stick?

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

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 Are Some Sex Positive Words for Women?

Looks like this came from the Dallas Slut Walk—but I’m not sure of its exact origin. I found it on Tumblr.

Since I feel like we’ve been pretty good at actually creating some language after having a need for a word that means something specific in the past, that I’ve incorporated into my vocabulary, I wonder if y’all would like to brainstorm some words with me.

Seriously, what words to we have to describe women in a sex-positive way? Slut, whore, cunt, pussy, seductress, mistress, vixen, cougar … they all have some sense of sexual manipulation in them. I would argue that some of those words are AWESOME, and that there’s been some serious reclamation done with many of them. But still, I want to know: when you meet a woman who owns her own sexuality, who plays with it how she wants to, who has unashamed sex and unabashed desire, what do you call her?

That there is not even a word for that type of woman in our language says something.

So, poet and armchair linguist that I am, if there is not the exact right word for something, I say we make one. Or we reclaim one. What can we use for this?

For the record, it looks like Toronto was the first city to do a Slut Walk, and there is a Slut Walk NYC Saturday, August 20 at 1pm, kicking off at Union Square. There are quite a few in other cities on the list too, if you want to get involved. I’m going to be at the Butch Voices conference in Oakland that weekend, but Kristen already has it on her calendar.

Define: Masculine of Center

I’ve been throwing this phrase around a lot lately, but I realize I haven’t actually defined it or credited it. For me, it came out of working with and attending the Butch Voices Regional Conferences this year, as we used it frequently to describe the myriad of masculine identities we were seeking to gather and discuss.

According to Butch Voices:

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.

In contrast to transmasculine, which was the last catch-all masculine identity label that made the rounds, masculine of center doesn’t necessarily imply a linear progression or hierarchy, I even think of it as a circle, kind of like a color wheel where the center point is gender-less or genderfluid or all genders and all the various kinds of gender expression and identity dance around it. And while “masculine of center” is definitely in contrast to “feminine of center,” it isn’t necessarily in opposition, as they play off of each other, interdependent and interwoven.

Seems like a useful term, to me, to describe the breadth of masculine identities to which I sometimes want to refer. What do you think?

Define: Outsider Complex

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” —Hafiz

I haven’t found an official psychological definition of the Outsider Complex, but I think it does exist in those circles. Maybe the phrase seems common sense enough that nobody feels the need to define it somewhere. You can tell what I mean by it already, right? The occasionally overwhelming obsession of being an outsider, which sometimes means either putting oneself in a position of being an outsider (be that consciously or unconsciously) and often lamenting “not fitting in” or not being part of the status quo.

Well, let me tell you something: the status is not quo. It seems like just about every marginalized group has their own sense of the Outsider Complex, but I think queers are susceptible to it in our own ways. Especially genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers who grew up in a place that insisted, over and over and over, that fitting in, climbing the social or corporate ladder, following along on the assembly line, is the only way to live one’s life.

And as usual, I believe that if we can name something, define it, study it’s parameters, that when it comes up in our own lives, it will feel easier to deal with, because we have some sort of Big Emotional Reaction and we can point our finger and say, “Outsider complex,” take a breath, and have some sort of context for what’s happening. I believe that making the process conscious will improve it.

I’ve been talking about the Outsider Complex a lot lately. Everybody’s got their own version of it, I think—even most straight white Christian republican cis guys, I would argue, still get their own healthy dose of it, perhaps it’s just an inevitable side-product of this individualist culture. But it’s been coming up for me because Kristen’s version of it and my version are very different. And sometimes, that has created some tension between us, because I just didn’t get where she was coming from.

See, I grew up in Southeast Alaska. If you’ve been following along with my column Mr. Sexsmith’s Other Girlfriend, you know all about it; I’ve been writing about my relationships with places a lot over there. Not only did I grow up very much outside of suburbia, American cities, and even American farmland, I also grew up with hippie parents who don’t buy much into pop culture, I grew up vegetarian, I grew up with a lot of pagan influences. Combine that with my particularly unique name, and just those factors alone gave me a sense that I was different from the time I was little. But instead of feeling like that was a problem, I saw it as a badge of uniqueness. I like being different. I like being outside of mainstream culture.

So yeah, I do have an outsider complex, but it acts a bit differently than other people’s—in particular, than Kristen’s—and different than what I observe in the queer communities as a whole. Generally, I think the outside complex works more as a badge of shame, thinking ourselves inferior because we don’t fit it.

For many of us, hitting puberty and discovering that there’s something “different” about ourselves, even if we don’t quite pinpoint our gayness or butchness or transness until later, was the turning point, the place of no return, before which we were “one of the gang” and just going along like all the “normal” kids, and perhaps we have this deep-set feeling that if we could just get back to that, everything would be alright.

Perhaps that too is partially a loss of innocence process, where we learn something new and we can’t ever go back to when we didn’t know it, even if we wish we could.

Some of this Outsider Complex can also be growing up queer without any sort of queer influence. No older queers, no peers, no mentors, nobody who even said words like lesbian or gay or queer or kinky or butch or femme or trans or whatever. I think that’s changing, more and more, what with that little revolutional technological thing called the Internet, and with the advances in the gay rights and gender movements in the recent years, so perhaps kids today (oh my god did I just say that? I’m old) are growing up with much less of a sense of the Outsider Complex, just by their very different exposure to queer culture.

I continue to see this manifested, though, in so many ways with queers who are adults now, who have been out for a decade or more, who do take part in some sort of queer community: there’s still this sense of isolation, of being different than, of being not fully accepted or not fully understood for who you are or what you love.

I even think it is sometimes used by us in martyr-type ways: oh look how much of an outsider I am, oh look how different I am than everyone else, you couldn’t possibly understand me, woe is me woe is me. In the worst case scenario, perhaps.

It’s something personally I haven’t quite struggled with. And I don’t say that with any sort of hierarchy or judgment attached to it, one is not better than the other, it is just the way it is. Certainly I have my own complexes and issues, regardless of whether I have this one.

So to witness it in others is curious. What’s going on there? I want to ask. And when I see it in others, it breaks my heart a little. How would I ever explain how deeply you do belong? How common it is, to feel this way? How many thousands and thousands of other queers and kinksters and butches and femmes and whatevers just like you there are out there?

Maybe it’s because I spent years reading Wild Geese every single day, memorizing it, reminding myself, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.” Maybe it’s because I was never indoctrinated into Christianity and have never believed in hating myself. Maybe I’m just really lucky, I don’t know.

So tell me, readers, Redhead Army Sugarbutch Fans, queers of all spots and stripes: Does this make sense? Do you witness this outsider complex in queer worlds? Is this something that you experience? How? Have you been able to address it and get past it? Or is it something you struggle with ongoing?

Define: Spectrum Banging

I’m not sure exactly where the term spectrum banging came from—my friends and I used it in college, I have a feeling someone made it up. Google doesn’t seem to use it the way I do.

I find it a useful concept, though, and use it frequently. Spectrum banging is when you go from one end of the spectrum to the other so fast and furiously that you bang yourself against the other end.

For example, you date someone who is a little bit loony tunes, and that ends badly, and the next person you date is a completely uptight and prim-and-proper. Spectrum banging.

Or, you come out of the closet and come to your queer identity in college, suddenly away from your birth family unit and able to explore yourself, and you completely cover your dorm room in rainbows, and exclusively go to gay bars, exclusively watch gay movies, exclusively listen to gay music, etc etc. Spectrum banging.

I’ve used this in lots of other examples, too, not just sexuality or dating. I was just discussing it last night in some of the aftercare and fallout from d/s, and the ways my own triggers cause me to spectrum bang and have really strong reactions (that are sometimes too strong).

I tend to be pretty resistant of the concept of spectrums in general—I think things are usually more multi-faceted than a binary, usually at least three if not a whole galaxy. But often the reaction to something is specifically a spectrum, and we tend toward the opposite, perhaps so far unable to see the other possible paths or responses.

Sometimes, there is a sense that where you “should” be on the spectrum is somewhere in the balanced middle—but that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes banging the spectrum can result in the spectrum becoming bigger (or 3D, or some other format), and perhaps that “banging” is actually where you—or your friend or ex or whomever—will end up. What spectrum banging refers to is often a phase, sure, but it is also sometimes a real transition, so be careful about the judgment attached to this phrase.

Is this term useful for you? Got an example of this you can think of?

Define: Sovereignty

A few weeks ago, Miss Calico tweeted about the craziest thing in her feedreader. For obvious reasons, neither she nor I would call most of the sex stuff that I’m sure we both read on a daily basis “crazy,” so what does that leave really? LOLcats? Perez Hilton?

Well … one of my indulgences, which I’ve mentioned before, is that little stepchild genre of self-help (which I stand by is a combination of spirituality, psychology, and philosophy, some of my favorite topics), and there are of course an abundance of blogs writing on those kinds of subjects. Most of them never stick around in my reader for more than a few weeks. I get bored, I get the idea, I move on.

A recent addition to my little indulgence via RSS has been The Fluent Self by Havi Brooks. The Fluent Self might be the “craziest thing” in my reader. I mean, she co-owns her company with her duck, Selma, and often talks about being the pirate queen of her pirate crew. So you have to be the kind of person who appreciates someone else’s slightly wacky reality in order to connect with what she’s doing.

Havi mentioned “sovereignty” in an entry the other day, and then again today, and it’s so relevant to my emotional work, I’ve got to write on it for a while.

Sovereignty […] is the quality of owning your space. It’s feeling so safe being you, that you can’t be shaken from yourself. […]

Your most important job? Take care of yourself. Because when I’m looking out for my physical and emotional well-being, I can do my best work. And when I’m depleted and exhausted, it sucks for everyone. My external systems — just like my internal practices — keep me grounded so that I can keep working on the sovereignty thing. It all comes back to taking care of yourself. And safety. And finding ways to access that canopy of peace.

Sovereignty cassarole. And more about shoes. By Havi Brooks on The Fluent Self

I love discovering words to explain emotional states that I’m working on. If there’s a word for it, it feels like it’s a real thing, like it’s a little button I can push to dispense that particular kind of strength or flexibility or whatever that I’m working on. I mentioned “grace” recently, too, and the new definition of that word that I came across (also in a self-help book). If I’m having a strong reaction to something, having the shorthand of “have some sovereignty here” or “just need a little grace, a little grace, a little grace,” is really helpful. It’s the ability to take a whole big giant concept and distill it into a single word, which makes the mantra easier to grasp in moments of need.

This state of sovereignty is one I’ve been working on extensively. I don’t know why exactly (though I have some guesses), but for whatever reason, I have been really prone to giving that up – to letting others make choices for me, to allowing myself to be imprinted upon, to be taken over. I didn’t know I was doing this. If you asked me five years ago, I would have probably said I had no idea what you were talking about and of course I don’t do that. But, sigh, that’s what Saturn Return is for, after all.

Later, Havi writes, one of the things that helps stay in this state of sovereignty is to know your triggers. “For me and my HSP self, it’s loudness that sets me off.” She’s mentioned this before lately, as she’s currently battling jackhammers, and I was thinking about this just the other day. I went with Kristen and my sister to a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and they were having some technical difficulties, so it was more of a wait than usual, and they had the music completely cranked up so loud I could barely hear Kristen sitting next to me, and I started to panic a little. I wanted to leave. Suddenly I felt so claustrophobic and anxious and like I would rather be anywhere else. This feeling calmed down and left as soon as they turned it off – but it just got me thinking, and made me remember, that when my senses are assaulted, I don’t deal well. There are times when it’s okay, I guess, I like going dancing in clubs, I like concerts (though not all concerts – ask me about the AC/DC story sometime). My senses are just so often under assult here in New York City, it’s hard for me not to have that panicked assaulted feeling constantly. Earphones help. Books help. Using my commute and transportation as a meditation helps. I guess I just have to keep building in self-care around this overload of the senses, and try to get some systems – internal and external – in place to keep myself grounded and unshaken – in sovereignty.

Definitions of Butch & Femme

Way back in April, for Sugarbutch’s third anniversary, I offered up an “ask me anything” thread where readers could ask any burning questions that they’d like for me to answer. Given that I’m writing so much these days my pencils are worn down to nubs, and that this summer has been a challenge, I’m behind on answering many of those questions.

Here’s one that I’ve thought about since I read it.

What are your working definitions of “butch” and “femme”?

I know that’s a tricky and possibly annoying question; I ask because I’m currently moving into the recovery phase of a recent gender panic/gender identity crisis. I’m in the process of moving to a more masculine gender presentation and (hopefully?) social role (thank God), and my girlfriend is femme (and I pretty much only like femmes), but then I don’t feel like my gender issues and vibes are very similar to those of the butches I know, and… I’m just really confused.

– Daisy

I do have somewhat of a working definition of these terms: usually I say, in the broadest sense, butch and femme are intentional reclamations and recreations of gender. There’s more to it than that, of course, and these identities are policed by all sorts of social and gender forces. But that’s a start.

But that’s just my brief two cents. I want to know: what are your interpretations of these butch and femme? What are your working definitions?

Say you run into someone who has no knowledge of what being part of butch/femme culture and what identifying as butch or femme means (which, I don’t know about you but, is very frequent for me). Or someone who has only come across these terms as pejorative? What do you tell them?

Or, think about it this way: living in New York City has taught me the strong value of the elevator pitch. Everybody’s busy, everybody’s got somewhere else to be, someone else to talk to, which is more interesting than you. So you’ve got to hook them in with something strong and solid.

So what’s your butch/femme elevator pitch? How do you explain the basics in one sentence?

I’ll have to keep thinking about mine. I’ll chime in in the comments.

Consider it “The Sugarbutch Hot 100”

So, now that the trans discussion is calming down a little bit, I’m starting to get a slew of feedback about calling the *other* people on this list “butch.” Either saying, these people are not butch, they are femme, or saying it is non-consensual to label people as butch on a list.

I hear you.

This is because of the name, “Top Hot Butches,” which implies that EVERYONE on this list is “A BUTCH.” And that is just not true. Come on people, of course that’s not true! That is why the subtitle included also androgyny, genderqueer, stud, AG, and trans men. A lot of people have a very specific vision of what “A BUTCH” is, myself included!, and many of the people on this list do not fit that.

I fully understand that “butch” is a specific gender identity, that it is not necessarily the same as androgynous or tomboy or genderqueer or stud or AG or trans man, that nobody else should have the right to pin a particular gender identity on anyone. That concept itself is a very firm, basic, and important foundation to the gender activism work that I do.

And I’d like to get back, for a minute, to the original intention of this list, which is to showcase a big part of the lesbian and queer communities which is often completely invisible in mainstream lesbian culture: masculinity, and gender diversity. A mainstream lesbian publication would actually call Joan Jett or Jenny Shimizu or Katherine Moennig butch, despite that there are many, many of us who are working to construct butch as something alltogether different, and that we would scoff at their excessive use of eye makeup. But still: masculinity and gender diversity in lesbian and queer culture is underrespresented, while femininity is still held as the standard of hotness.

This is what the Top Hot Butches list was seeking to address.

I’ve been viewing “Top Hot Butches” as a brand name more than a gender identity descriptor of the list. And I know that you can’t really use “butch” as a brand name in this way, because the word is defined as a gender identity descriptor, and if I redefine it as a brand name but the entire rest of the fucking world is recognizing it as a gender identity descriptor, my own redefining of it is kind of useless.

But still: It wasn’t until last night that I realized the distinction, in this specific project, between brand name and gender identity descriptor. Someone made a comment, saying, “Would there have been anything like this furor if – without changing anything else about the descriptors, explanations or rules – the list had been entitled ” The Sugarbutch Hot List”?”

And the answer is, probably not. I mean, “butch” would still be in the title of the project, so certainly that would still be a problem, but “Sugarbutch” is much more of a brand name, and it would’ve been much easier to distinguish that I am not attempting to call everyone on the list butch, trans men included!, and that I was simply compiling a list of hot people.

I considered calling it something like “the Sugarbutch Hot 100” before I did the project, but not very seriously. I thought it would be too small in scope, I didn’t necessarily want it to be part of Sugarbutch, I wanted it to be a separate project. I didn’t think it would matter. I want Sugarbutch to be my personal online writing project, though I’ve been joking for a while that I’m building the Sugarbutch Empire. Hell, maybe it would’ve been better for the “brand” to be associated in this way. Another reason I wanted to separate it a little was because it was catchy – “Top Hot Butches” would get a lot more attention than “the Sugarbutch Hot List” and look at that, it has. I guess you could say I’m taking baby steps toward taking my work a bit more mainstream, and this was one of the ways I decided to do that. That is going to be a very hard transition, if I do it at all, especially judging by this past week.

So: there’s some finer points of gender and identity theory that are being brought up in response, to which I want to say, people, chill out. This is a Hot List, and those are by definition inviting controversy. Bottom line is, I am not attempting to claim that everyone on this list is butch.

I’m still thinking about changing the title. I know the “brand” intention is unclear in the name “Top Hot Butches.” And the internet is oh-so-fluid, after all.

One last thought though … would I have wanted to avoid all this furor and conversation and rallying and fine-tuning? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want to have missed out on everything that’s happened in the last couple days. It’s been a learning process for me, and I am glad to have gone through it. Though I have learned that the next time someone says, “well, this could be controversial,” I will probably rethink it in some way, rather than say, “BRING IT.”

Define: Unthought Known

The “unthought known” is a phrase that I first heard through my therapist, when we were talking about trauma and memory specifically. But immediately, I recognized it as extremely useful to identity development, especially in that many of us feel that we’ve always been this way (whatever way “this” might be – queer, kinky, gendered), but never really knew that we were.

That’s basically the definition – something you’ve always known but have never thought about, have never really known that you know.

I remember going through these realizations multiple times as I developed a feminist identity, then a queer sexuality, then a butch gender. As soon as I had those moments which really “clicked,” I was almost confused as to why I hadn’t gotten to this sooner. It was so familiar on a cellular, deep-gut level, and yet it was never how I’d been previously.

One of my former writing mentors used to say, art is a way to get to know what you don’t know that you already know, and I think that’s related – or, maybe more specifically, art is one of the techniques that we can use in order to get the unthought known to become the thought known, as sometimes the creative process can take us to new places and uncover connections to things that are already inside of us, but that are not quite conscious.

I did some research online trying to find more references to it, and there is not a whole lot. It’s a psychology term that was coined in 1987. I did find one interesting essay – Embeddedness, Reflection, Mindfulness and the Unthought Known by Michael Robbins – which is worth reading. Only 4 pages, and it discusses some very interesting concepts related to the unthought known and mindfulness.

What then is the “unthought known”? Christopher Bollas first coined this provocative phrase in 1987 (Bollas, 1987). Basically it refers to what we “know” but for a variety of reasons may not be able to think about, have “forgotten”, “act out”, or have an “intuitive sense for” but cannot yet put into words. In psychoanalytic terms, it refers to the boundary between the “unconscious” and the “conscious” mind, i.e. the “preconscious mind.” In systems-centered terms, it refers to the boundary between what we know apprehensively, without words, and what we know, or will allow ourselves to know, comprehensively with words. (In many ways, although the methods are very different, the psychoanalytic goal of “making the unconscious conscious” is equivalent to the systems-centered goal of making the boundary permeable between apprehensive and comprehensive knowledge.) [… W]e conceptualize the unthought known as what we already know but don’t yet know that we know.

Embeddedness, Reflection, Mindfulness and the Unthought Known by Michael Robbins

I find it really useful to think about in terms of gender and sexuality, since so much of those identity concepts are deeply, deeply embedded but often completely subconscious. What do you think? Are there particular things in your life that have been “unthought knowns”? How did you get them to be thought knowns? What was your identity development process around them?

Sadism, and the Study of Pain

i have noticed elsewhere online that you have added ’sadistic’ to your lineup of adjectives. i was very interested in your explanation of how you came to claim those words as part of your identity (forgive me if this is not accurate), and would be interested in hearing a similar description of how you came to claim sadistic as well.

Yes, I have added “sadistic” in a couple of my taglines or bios or descriptions recently, and it is an identity label that I claim, at least to a degree. I think the identity of “sadist” is understood much less – outside of kink communities and circles – than the other identity tags I use (queer, butch, top), and it can be incredibly off-putting for folks who don’t understand it.

There’s just so much stigma around it – you like to give others pain? You enjoy that, you get off on it, it turns you on? That’s seen as, well, kind of fucked up by a lot of people.

And it kind of is fucked up, if that’s the way you’re looking at it. But the details of how sadism works a lot more complicated than that – at least, it is for me.

It’s taken me a long time to come to claim a bit more of a sadistic identity, and it’s still something that I say with a little bit of reservation or even shame, partly because I don’t want it to come on too strongly and freak someone out.

First: playing with sadism, for me, must be consensual and intentional. I do not enjoy being cruel in general, and actually it is sometimes very difficult for me to treat someone I love with humiliation or damage, to hit them, to slap someone in the face. I’ve had to go through the feelings of top guilt and, to a greater extend, sadist guilt, when I started exploring this. Those feelings aren’t completely gone, but I know what I’m doing more now and I have more confidence in my perspective and standpoint, so I don’t have as much guilt about it.

I remember precisely when I realized I was a sadist: it was 2002, and I was in a Body Electric workshop called Power, Surrender, and Intimacy. (This is going to get a little bit sacred sex/spiritual, just to warn you.) We had been discussing power, dominance, and sadism – and receiving that with surrender, submission, and masochism – and had been doing exercises all relating to tapping into those feelings. We were in the middle of a ritual (I won’t go into details) when someone had a very strong reaction, and began crying. I was going through my own experience and starting to really feel myself come into some power and dominance in a new way, and I was flooded with the witness of her release. It was a solo ritual, so we weren’t working together or touching, and she probably wasn’t even aware of me, she just started sobbing, loudly, in her own world of release, and I felt the energy as the grief and emotion flooded through her, I was so attuned to the shifts of energy in the room, and started realizing that I was incredibly turned on by her release. It was beautiful – pure and unhindered, just letting go of some really deep things that she’d been carrying and holding on to for who knows how long. I wanted to coax her through it, support her, and in my mind I was soothing her, cradling, holding the space around her so that she herself could have room to be safe and release. I loved the feeling of doing that for someone (even though I wasn’t really doing that for her, I was just imagining the scenario where I would do that) and I got such a rush and release myself from witnessing someone else get into that space of deep release, deep surrender, and then come back, smiling and whole.

So there’s a lot of psychology to it for me: we carry around all sorts of grief, pain, shame, anger, rage, distrust, disassociation, and guilt, especially about our physical bodies and our sexualities. And one of the ways that BDSM and power play and pain play taps into that is through acknowledgment and, ultimately, release – which is why we can feel renewed, refreshed, energized after a deep scene.

We also just don’t have very good tools for release and replenishment available to us. We’re not exactly taught how to remake ourselves and let go of some of our deep grief, and I believe this kind of emotional release is one of those ways.

Aside from the psychology, I also like pain. And as much as I talk about being a sadist, I have spent many years as a masochist also – I’ve been beaten, flogged, caned, whipped, pierced, cut, and slapped; I’ve had 13 piercings (only one of which I wear anymore); I’ve had some experience submitting and surrendering, and using pain as a way to get more present in my body, and then to let go.

There’s a degree to which, though, at this point, I feel like I’ve had enough of that kind of release, I seek something else now. I know how to get myself into a state of deep body release, mostly through yoga or meditation or masturbation or running, and I wanted to explore other things related to that kind of bodily release – namely, guiding it in others. I get more out of the experience of taking someone through it than I do going through it myself, these days. I don’t expect that to be permanent, but I don’t expect it to change either – for now, I know I’m a top who really likes to play with my sadistic side, and that really works for me.

So, after this series of revelations and after some further investigation, and being very sure that I wanted to get deeper into this kind of play, I began studying it more intentionally: how to get someone into that state, how to keep them safe when they’re there, how to encourage the release (but not overwhelmingly so), and how to bring them back from it.

There’s also that moment … how do I describe it. Where put your hand in water and you can’t tell if it’s super hot or super cold – how our senses cross-fire sometimes when sensation is so deep and heavy and stimulating that we can’t tell if it’s pain or pleasure.

I love playing with that line, partly because it is a way to practice pain without suffering – a way to practice pain without being hurt, but to experience it as a release, change, and growth. I think pain play can do a lot of that, too, and it is very interesting to me, as someone who is interested in algology (the study of pain), and someone who studies the cessation of suffering, how to encourage these moments of transformation where pain becomes pleasure, useful, and a methodology of study.

What I’m saying is: sadism is the intentional use of pain, discomfort, and other dark emotions to find deep release, move energy, and renew the self. As someone who is deeply interested in dark emotions, the messy stuff, the hard stuff, and personal transformation and self-awareness, this is a tool that I find incredibly useful.

Gendered Sources of Physical Power: Beauty vs Strength

I don’t know exactly where I first heard it, but somewhere I read once: men want to feel powerful, and women want to feel beautiful.

Now: calm your “oh my god social construction of genderrrrr!” self and let’s start with some further clarification. Women feeling beautiful, in this expression, is also actually a source of power; and men feeling powerful, here, actually means “feeling physically strong.” At least mostly. Agreed?

So really, it’s saying that men want to feel strong, and women want to feel beautiful. These are two – of many – major sources of power based in the physical body.

I know this is a cliche. I probably read it in the context of gender deconstruction and the socialization process of gender. I know this goes along with conventional, normative, often damaging gender role assumptions that value men for their physical strength and women for their physical beauty.

And as much as I am aware that those concepts are socially constructed, I also have seen the ways that they are played out and real for many, many people. So maybe we’ve internalized the values of the culture. This is one of the problems with social constructionism in general – if something is created socially, then in theory it can be uncreated socially, right? But just because something is done socially – rather than biologically, say – doesn’t make it any less real or “authentic” or deeply ingrained in many of us.

And this gendered source of physical power is amplified, I think, in butch/femme culture, where we go inside these roles with purpose to explode them, exploring the socialization and de-essentializing traits said to be inherent in biology. Is it as easy as explaining that we are continuing to internalize the compulsory mutually exclusive gender paradigm? I don’t know, maybe. Certainly that probably accounts for (to pick a completely arbitrary number) 45% of it. But there is something else in there, something deep-seated underneath in me that swoons and grows and stretches its wings and feels so greatly alive when she whispers, “you are so strong, so strong” like she did last night.

And I remembered all the times I gazed in awe at her beauty (every time I see her) and remember the ways she swoons to be seen, femme and whole and holy, and I wondered if I should be saying more about strength and less about her physical attractiveness. Am I just buying into what the culture tells us we should be or say or value?

[ Yet – oh I do tell her I value her other qualities (don’t I? Yes). The depth of her calm understanding and respect feels like such a gift each time I encounter it. I fear it could so easily go the other way, yet she has the connection to the world at her core which means she values others’ experiences. And she’s strong enough in herself to know that my feelings are not about her, and to accept that with grace and clarity. And then there’s her wonderful good moods, her energy, her interest in keeping the spark lit behind her eyes. Her deep ability to feel, to observe, to respond. Her analytic skills, and how she can dissect things into pieces (while still respecting the whole!) and look at how it all fits together. There is much more to her than her beauty, heaven knows I know this. ]

And yet: in the deeply intimate moments, this is what comes out of my mouth: pretty girl, pretty girl. you are so gorgeous. I love the curves of you – here, and here. your skin glows so beautiful in the morning light.

And in that moment last night, when she commented on my strength, my heart swelled and burst like a wave cresting, and the inner cavern of my chest was smooth as a sandy beach, just for a minute, perfectly even, soft, made up of a thousand tiny grains, the breakdown of everywhere I’ve ever been.

I don’t know why it matters so much that I am seen as strong. But it does, it does.

Define: The Do-Be-Do-Be-Do Complex

I’m going to go ahead & swipe this phrase from a friend of mine, who I’ve heard use it a few times (though whom I haven’t heard if it’s okay to make reference to, so I’ll just thank him anonymously for now).

The Do-Be-Do-Be-Do Complex referrs to getting involved in relationships where (especially in retrospect) you were drawn to the person because you wanted to be like them, not necessarily do them.

For example, as a baby butch, I dated a butch for a while, and I think it was more about my own fascination with butchness than it was my own orientation toward wanting to partner with and/or date and/or sleep with butches.

The Do-Be-Do-Be-Do Complex is, I think, especially applicable to butches and femmes, though I’m sure it extends to other identities.

Is this a useful phrase? Have you gone through phases of dating the folks you wanted to be instead of who you were, perhaps, ultimately attracted to?

Define: “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets”

I ran across the phrase “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets” (again) the other day, and it bothered me (again, still). So I started thinking:

It generally means – and correct me if I’m wrong – that this supposed “butch in the streets,” once taken to bed, liked to or wanted to get fucked.

This is operating on an identity alignment assumption: that butches are tops.

This notion comes from old-fashioned sexism: that if you are a man – or masculine – that therefore you are dominant. Period always end of story.

But come on – we know this is not always the case. We know butches can be – gasp! – bottoms.

It may be statistically most likely (even if by a small margin) that masculine folks are tops, it may be a stereotype (which, let’s be honest, often exist for a reason), it may be quite possible. But it is an assumption based on identity and presentation, not based on an individual’s personality and interests and unique manifestation in this body, on this planet, at this time, in this life.

Don’t let sexist stereotypes dictate how you see another person. Can we please move beyond that? Can we please work a little harder to obliterate these sexist assumptions in our own radical, progressive communities?

Define: Courtly

Back in September, I asked for a word for someone who accepts chivalry. We had a lively discussion in the comments about what that person would be called.

It’s a very specific skill, really. Not everybody knows how to move when someone else is pulling out your chair, slipping your jacket onto your shoulders, how to navigate a door being opened for you, how to wait until the car door is unlocked. It takes a lot of consciousness about what is happening around you, and between you and the chivalrous person.

Many folks liked “gracious” as a word to describe those who receive chivalry, but I feel like it’s not specific enough. It has another definition and commonplace usage in our culture, so the word wouldn’t stand out as being used with this intentional meaning in conversation.

Which is why I really like the word “courtly.” (Thanks to Femme Gender for suggesting it!)

Court·ly: adjective.
Receiving chivalry and politeness with graceous skill.
Example: “That sub boy I went out with last night was really courtly, it was fun to have the foreplay start with chivalry.”

Court·li·er: noun.
A person who receives chivalry with politeness with graceous skill.
Example: “When the courtlier rises from the table, it is customary for the chivalrer to also rise.”

Here’s why I like this word:

  1. Courtly is uncommon in daily speech, so it stands out. If used in conversation with someone who isn’t familiar with it as a term for receiving chivalry, it will be different enough for that person to be able to ask, “what do you mean, ‘courtly’?”
  2.  It has an archaic quality, yes; it reminds us of the royal courts (and reminds me specifically of the historical stories of British knights and kings and queens). But I like that, especially because many people see chivalry as archaic as well, so they kind of match. Plus, I think there is some reclamation of these terms that has to be done and explained in order to use them consciously.
  3. Definitions of the term “courtly” relate mostly to manners, elegance, refinement, and politeness, which isn’t specifically what I mean, but it’s definitely related. Much of chivalry is about manners and awareness, and I think being courtly is too.
  4. It also relates to the term “courtship,” that dance that we do when we’re interested in another person, courting each other into a relationship. I like the connection of chivalry and courtliness to courting and courtship.

This also pulls a little on the idea of chivalry as consensual – I think it’s important to have enough awareness over chivalrous acts that you stop opening doors, holding umbrellas, rising when the courtlier stands at a table, if the person in question does not like to be treated that way.

“Hey, I’m not courtly,” s/he can say. “I don’t like being treated that way. No offense, but knock it off.”

Having a word for the position of accepting it, aside from the acknowledgement that accepting chivalry is a skill that, for most of us, must be studied, acknowledges that some folks may prefer not to be in that position, may prefer not to be courtly.

Define: Identity Alignment Assumptions

An identity alignment assumption is the assumption that one’s identity categories align with what is either a stereotype or a dominant compulsory cultural norm.

In modern western cultures, for example, it is assumed that men are aggressors and women are passive, that men are in charge and women give in. This is of course not true in every instance, but it has become a prevalent cultural norm, and – in some circles more than others – socially policed to assure that those alignments will be adhered to.

This particular cultural norm translates into a common identity alignment assumption in queer communities to presume that a femme is a bottom and a butch is a top.

It’s also a common identity alignment assumption that lesbians are feminists, that queers are democrats or liberals, that sex bloggers are slutty … ah, the list goes on & on.

Any particular identity alignment assumptions that have been especially challenging for you in your life? Any that you commonly assume, which still surprise you when they end up not being true? Share in the comments.

Marriage is so gay*

Last week, I dreamt of my future wife.

That’s a strange thing to write down and admit, actually, especially publically; but I thought exactly that when I woke: that was my future wife. I still know exactly how she tasted, smelled, how her waist felt in my arms.

I’m not sure how I feel about marriage, really. My mom has always said I should wait until I’m 30 to get married, and thinks too many people get married too young. I don’t really think the government should have anything to do with my personal relationships, and I don’t think the government should value certain kinds of relationships over others – one man + one woman? What about a triad, a lesbian couple, co-habiting straight men? Who cares how people make a household work, as long as they do?

But: I do believe in commitment, in stating publically that you love someone, in gathering friends & family in a ceremony that celebrates and affirms the difficulty, the support, the community around a relationship.

Since I came to be aware of the inequalities of queer relationships in the eyes of the law in, oh, I don’t know, high school? middle school?, it has just been a given that I couldn’t “actually” get married.

“Whatever,” I told myself. “Like I would get married anyway. Like I want The Church + The State involved in My Relationship.”

And the activist circles I ran in were skeptical of marriage as The Gay Rights Issue: “There is so much to be done!” we argued. “Marriage is such an issue of privilege. What about hate crime legislation, discrimination policies for the workplace, queer homeless youth, AIDS, suicide rates, the drinking/drug problems in the queer communities? What about foster kids and adoption and simply BEING KILLED because of gender and sexual orientation? What about cissexism and trans advocacy?”

Unfortunately, the momentum of queer activism isn’t necessarily in the radical queer youth & college students – it’s with the money. And mostly-white mostly-middle-class homos have already decided what The Gay Issue is: marriage.

It’s a symbol, really: not just a symbol for normalcy, but a symbol for a relationship. And that’s what is at the heart of this movement, the heart of the difference in sexual orientation: the right and ability to choose whom we love, with whom we partner.

While my personal beliefs are still a bit more radical than that, I’ve studied the history of social change enough to know that chnage happens gradually, in pockets, a little bit at a time. I also feel like gay marriage activism is a limited scope – like aiming for the mountaintop instead of the sky – because it still defines marriage as two people, right, we’re still talking about working within the monogamy system here. So while many of our poly friends are going “rah rah gay marriage! And PS, what about us?” the gay marriage activits are kind of saying, “Shhh, we can’t talk about your issues right now.”

But then again, it’s easier to go little-by-little than to overhaul the whole system. It’s a classic social change model conflict – after observing a system of oppression, do we a) work from within it to attempt to change it, or b) throw it out completely and start over? My radicalism wants marriage to be thrown out. I mean really, what good is it? But I feel the same way about other institutions that seem to matter to some feminist theorists and reclaimists, such as Christianity. I don’t personally have any investment in the system of Christianity, so I can’t imagine going inside of it to fix and change the oppression and hierarchical marginalizing structures that are in place – but others do have that investment, and are doing the work to include women in clergy, to research the history of more women saints, of queer history in the church, etc. Lesbian and feminist priests and nuns and churchgoers – what they find in the practice must be worth the work of reclaiming and rebuilding, for them.

Actually, I can draw a parallel here: for me, it is language. I am a poet at heart and never cannot be. People ask me why I use language they deem offensive – dyke, fag, pussy, cunt, slut, butch, femme, queer – and I try to explain it is because I love these words. As if they were delicate glass boxes filled with mud, I pick them up from being buried in the compost heap and wash them, dig the dirt from their creases, make their silver shine, make them see-through again. I am invested in the system of language, even though within it -built into the very makeup – is a hierarchy that says certain people are better, best.

Which brings me to my next point: words. Of course “marriage” is not the same thing as “civil union” or “domestic partnership” – the words are different. “Beautiful” is not the same thing as “cute” or “gorgeous” or “attractive” or “stunning” or “elegant” or “handsome,” right? Those all have slightly different connotations, even if their definitions are overlapping and very similar.

I am a poet. I’ve worked hard to say that sentence. I eat words for breakfast and fall asleep with book after book open on my pillow. I theorize language and meaning and definitions and semantics, revive words that are suffering, influse love and equality and value where I can.

It doesn’t matter how many rights there are in a “civil union” or “domestic partnership,” they will never be marriage, because they are not the same word.

Period.

Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

It is the difference between fire, and a firefly.

Words are not some static, fixed thing. They are living, they have lives and evolutions, they are manifestations of the culture from where they come, in which they are used. We can change them. They do change and evolve and grow to suit the needs of culture – they reflect a culture, but they also shape a culture. A new concept, term, or phrase can define a movement, a change, activism.

Researching all this information about the state of gay marriage in my country recently has really got me thinking about my own future. I don’t come from a very traditional family, I’ve never thought I would have a very traditional wedding – bridesmaids, groomsmen, white dress, any of that. I’ve received some amazing, beautiful, moving photographs from queers over the last few days, and I find a part of me is craving to have some beautiful party, some celebration, where my love and I can costume up and wear cool clothes and be surrounded by our friends looking dashing.

So I have some ideas forming about what I’d do for my own ceremony. No real dealbreakers, just ideas that I like. Although I am really attached to the idea that our first dance would be choreographed – let’s hope my future wife knows how to swing. (Let’s also hope next time I’ll dream her phone number or URL, so I’ll figure out how to contact her.)


* I hate this common use of “gay” and not infrequently call people on it when I hear them say it. But the tension in this sentence – calling marriage “gay” – cracks me up. Kind of like the bumper sticker I saw at Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver, BC many years ago, which read, “Straight people are so gay.” Hah!

8 Against 8: 8 bloggers – 8 days – as much money as we can raise to defeat Proposition 8 in California. Vote no on Prop 8!

upon returning, a small complaint

I was out of town last week, and now have returned from the other coast, the coast where the sun sets correctly into the water rather than over land, where I was in the Pacific Northwest primarily visiting my very large extended family for five days. I have all sorts of ideas about family and heritage and where I come from, about having kids and having a traditional structure, about how much my sisters and I are the freaks of the family.

Also strange to be referred to as niece, daughter, sister, granddaughter. Those words have never felt so ill-fitting. At some point I went to the bathroom and the door was labeled LADIES and I nearly stopped right there and turned around.

I am not a “lady,” not really. It’s not that I’m necessarily offended by it – I feel lucky to be part of groups of ladies at times, I love that I’m in women’s circles and women’s groups and women’s friendships, but even that word – woman – I’ve never quite felt right about it. I never refer to myself as such.

It’s not that I’m offended by it, it just doesn’t fit. Like too-big clothes or trying to put a hippie in black goth lipstick.

I have a friend who tells childhood stories that always start, “When I was a little girl …” and it struck me when I noticed it that I never refer to myself that way. I’ll say “kid,” as in “when I was a kid.” These days, I say “guy” – “I’m that kind of guy” – when referring to myself. Sometimes I use dyke or queer or butch I suppose, but I don’t ever use woman, lady, girl, or even sister, daughter, niece.

Still, it’s not that I’m transitioning – I’m not – and it’s not that I don’t identify with the lesbian/feminist communities – I do. Maybe I’m too much the poet, too much the semantics theorist, but some of these words just don’t fit.

I suppose this is just one of those frustrating gender binary things, and yet another of the reasons why butch is a trans identity of sorts. And yet another reason why I am still, continuously, inspired to keep doing this work, to understanding gender and creating new language to adequately describe myself and others, to contributing to the community and lifting each other up.

So there was a wedding in the Pacific Northwest, which is what prompted the large paternal family reunion. There are few events that are more gendered than a wedding. I thought it was going to be a small family wedding, as a few of the others had been, but the 20-something family members were actually in the minority and the community of friends and colleagues were abundant. At the church, I got sneered at by the small-town strangers. I was a bit flamboyantly dressed – pink button down, black argyle vest, no tie (I didn’t think it was going to be so formal!). But certainly I was not the only one dressed up, it was a freakin’ wedding!

Just served to remind me that I’m an outsider. I forget that, in New York City, where I don’t generally get noticed walking down the street unless I have a particularly good hair day. I fit in, I don’t stand out really.

The throwing the bouquet / throwing the garter felt like very strong gender-defining moments in the evening. No way in hell I was going to go out there and catch the bouquet – and actually I’m not sure I have ever been to a wedding where one was thrown, now that I think about it. But I did get out there when it was time to throw the garter. I couldn’t stay, though – I was too much on display in a room-full of too many people who had been giving me too many bad looks throughout the day.

I was little more than The Dyke From New York City all weekend.

I’m lucky, I suppose, is what I should take away from that experience – if I lived there, I would not dress as I do, would not have the fun I do with my hair and pink button-downs and vests and ties and belt buckles and cufflinks and jackets. I’m glad I have that opportunity, that I live in a place that not only accepts it, but encourages and, at times, demands it.

I didn’t expect it to be the reason, but really, I came to New York City so I could learn how to dress. Nothing has taught me fashion or style like this place.

Sometimes it is so uncomfortable to not conform to gender roles.

PS: I’m tremendously behind on email and correspondance, forgive me as I catch up.

On Pronouns, Mine

I’ve had almost half a dozen people ask me in the past few weeks about my pronoun of choice, so here’s the deal.

When referring to me as Sinclair Sexsmith, I go by the masculine honorific – by Mr. Sexsmith. That, I do feel strongly about. Pronouns have generally then followed, so I am often referred to as “he” and “him.” That’s fine, and I think the masculine character that I have cultivated here as my alter-ego fits quite well with masculine pronouns. I didn’t expect it to happen and I didn’t quite plan it, and I don’t know if I ever would have asked for my friends or lovers to play with male pronouns in my personal life, and I very much like it, more than I thought I would.

But, female pronouns in referring to me as Sinclair are also totally fine. In fact, in some ways, I like that some people refer to me with male pronouns and some with female pronouns, because I firmly am occupying both spaces. In some ways I like the gender neutral pronoun options like ze and hir (pronounced “here”). The Gender Intelligence Agency introduced the pronouns pe (pronounced “pay” not “pee”) and per, short for person, which I quite like but which is proving incredibly awkward in speech. Maybe I’ll try to write a story with them in it sometime, just to try it out, get more used to it.

Problem with pe and per is that it doesn’t have a third possessive adjective version of the pronoun – the “his/her/its” version. I guess that would be per, again? To borrow wikipedia’s structure, it looks like:

Pe laughed.
I called per.
Per eyes gleamed.
That is pers.
Pe likes perself.

Yeah, I like the philosophy behind that. But looking at the fifteen different gender-neutral pronouns that wikipedia lists as potential options, I hesitate to think that we need more of them. I guess we keep making them because the others don’t quite work, yeah? I kinda wish there was more consensus, but some part of that has to come about organically, about what gets put into use in daily life for a significant piece of a community.

In my offline life, I do not go by male pronouns, at all. As things go on, that is becoming more strange, actually – my sister referred to me recently as her sister, and I thought, oh yeah, I’m a sister to someone. I’m a daughter. Someday I’ll be an aunt, a mother. I think lesbian dad is rubbing off on me that way, in that I don’t know if I’ll ever be “mama.”

I do go by sir, sometimes boy, and other masculine words like that in a sexualized context … but there really aren’t very many of those words for butch tops in bed. But that’s a slightly different post.

So yeah, did I make that clear? Either pronoun of the main two pronouns are fine, neither of them fit exactly – but please do use the masculine honorific (and thanks to jesse james for finding that word for me).

Define: Need a Word For Receiving Chivalry

Now that I’m on the subject of definitions, I have a request. I need a word for something.

Sometimes the English language fails us; we really don’t have enough words for the precision of things. (For example, I’d love to differentiate between the “I’m sorry” that means empathy vs the “I’m sorry” that is an apology, especially since those two things are widely different and it makes it difficult to communite your true intention when language falls short. But that’s a sidenote.)

I’ve been thinking about chivalry lately – which is not rare – and in a few discussions recently I’ve been kicking around the idea of someone who receives chivalry, and how that too is a skill.

Some women don’t much care for chivalry, and some do; those who do have a different kind of interaction with it, an appreciation and understanding that definitely alters the dynamic of the exchange. It’s actually kind of complicated to allow someone to pull out your chair, take your coat or help it on, to take their hand or arm or elbow. Those are skills, too: how to receive chivalry.

I think we need a word for this. It has been suggested to me that perhaps we can use the same word – as in, “That femme is chivalrous, she knows how to accept chivalry from me” – but that doesn’t quite convey what I’m trying to say. I keep thinking of other forms of nouns for two people in a give/take relationship – gifter/giftee, inviter/invitee – but that doesn’t quite make sense with the structure of the word “chivalrous” and “chivalry.” Makes me wish I knew more about the origins and structure of language.

Got ideas?

Define: Cisgender

In the recent past, gender activists have tended to use the term “bio” to define non-trans folks. As in, bio-male, bio-women, bio-guys.

But let’s think about this a minute eh? There’s nothing non-biological about trans folks.

The words cisgender and cissexual are becoming more and more prevalent for describing non-trans folks – folks whose subconscious/internal sense of your own gender identity generally matches that of your biological sex.

The word has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis, meaning “on the same side” as in the cis-trans distinction in chemistry.

Julia Serano has been significantly altering my own perception about cis/trans issues, particularly within feminism. Though I haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and I will be writing up a review of it eventually. I also recommend Serano’s recent article Rethinking Sexism: How Trans Women Challenge Feminism from AlterNet on August 5, 2008 (beware, many comments are hard to read – attacking, misunderstood, incensing). Serano was one of the speakers at the Femme Conference, and it’s clear her work is really cutting-edge of the gender activism and theory, and I’m really excited to read more of her philosophies.

I’ve got a thousand things to say about cis privilege and the social construction theories that have been prevalent in gender studies thusfar. Sadly, I haven’t finished writing that up yet. But I hope to, eventually.

See also: The Cisgender Privilege Checklist over at Questioning Transphobia.

if I had a red pen

If I had a red pen that worked on internet web pages, I would go around and circle all the places where “Sugarbutch Chronicles” appears as “SugarButch Chronicles” or “Sugar Butch Chronicles.”

It’s a little thing, and it really doesn’t matter that much, what matters the most is that someone has seen this little space on the web of mine and likes it enough to link back to it in their own little space on the web. I’m always touched when I find Sugarbutch linked from a new place. So I’d never email somebody and be picky enough to say, “Hey, thanks for linking me, but will you change your capitalization?”

(I love how you can see the paper texture here, how the ink is just a little bit smeared. And that the word is “gender,” of course. So hot.)

But I always, always write this site name as “Sugarbutch,” so I’m not sure why people change it. The heading, the page title, the blog title, any comment I leave – it’s all one word. I admit, it’s a pet peeve of mine. I’m a grammarphile, after all. An English major. It’s not just the bad grammar that bugs me, but also the not calling things the way they want to be called, and lack of attention to detail.

Maybe other sugarbutches write the word differently and have different philosophies about why they capitalize or don’t capitalize the letter B. I don’t claim to have made up the term, but when I started using it, I’d never heard anyone else use it before me.

The way I see it, sugarbutch is a compound word. Part of why it is important that it is a compound word, why the B in butch is lowercase, is because the poetic meter of the phrase is a dactyl: the emphasis, when said, is on the first of the three syllables: SU-gar-butch CHRO-ni-cles. Adding a capital B gives the impression that it should be cretic: SU-gar-BUTCH CHRON-i-CLES, or, worse yet, that the “sugar” and the “butch” are separated completely: SU-gar BUTCH.

There’s a reason for the lowercase b, is what I’m saying.

(Thanks to the Movie Screenshot blog for the stills from Secretary.)

The red pen scenes always remind me of watching the film Secretary with The Ex. After she saw it for the first time, a few weeks later – it may’ve been our anniversary, or some such event, because I was definitely dressed up, and had brought flowers – she gave me two small gifts: one was very nicely wrapped small box, and in it was chewed up gum and pencil shavings. The other was a red Sharpie with ribbons tied around it.

Just remembering that moment where I opened the box makes something stir in my pelvis, some sort of heat of power. Sometimes she really knew how to play with me, how to get me going. It was so exciting, in the beginning.

When I opened these gifts I was in her office – she was the president of the queer student government group on my college campus, of course she was – and I locked her door, punished her, and fucked her on her desk long enough for us both to miss our next classes.

In the aftermath, we were tidying up, laughing, trying to listen to see how many people were in the adjoining lounge to figure out whether or not they knew we were in the office, and she took my hand and said, “Since I moved into this office I wanted to be fucked on this desk … thank you.”

One of my favorite moments of sex with her. Jeez, it’s so good in the honeymoon phase, isn’t it?

Define: Transmasculine

I’ve been adopting the word “transmasculine” to use to describe, generally, folks who were assigned female at birth who are male-identified, masculine, and/or masculinely presenting, in some way. I tend to stumble over this in these writings here – “butches and other masculine-identified females” or “butches and trans guys and bois and other girls who are boyish,” et cetera – and ugh, it gets messy to describe it that way.

So let’s start using the term “transmasculine,” okay?

I’ve been hearing it knocked around in the gender/queer communities more and more lately, but it’s from the TransMasculine Community Network that I am adopting this definition:

Transmasculine refers to any person who was assigned female at birth but feels this is an incomplete or incorrect description of their gender.

That’s quite broad – considering the “masculine” element in the word, I would probably say it’s more used as in, “an incomplete or incorrect description of their gender and they have some leanings toward the masculinity areas of the gender galaxy,” but in some ways I do like how inclusive their definition is. Regardless, I tend to use it to mean those of us butches, bois, trans guys, faggy femmes, and all sorts of other genderqueers. I’ve found myself using it in a few different articles I’m working on, so I wanted to be sure to introduce a definition.

I imagine the idea of butch as a trans identity is not so hard to grasp, and I’ve written about femme as a trans identity. The inclusion of the word “trans” as part of it feels touchy to me, because while I do agree that “trans” could – and probably should – be used as a great umbrella term for many gender descriptions, it also calls to mind for many an adherence to a strict gender binary – that if you are masculine, and female bodied, that you must be “actually” trans, not butch or masculinely female, as those spaces sometimes feel discounted. But that’s not how I intend to use it here.

Actually, I think I used to use “butch” in this way – as a catch-all phrase for anyone born female who leans toward masculine performance. But as my gender studies have gone on, I’ve come to accept and use a concept like transmasculine (for which I hadn’t had a term until now) as much more accurate, as I see “butch” as actually a very specific sub-set of being transmasculine. For me, butch is very much tied together with chivalry, a classic style of masculinity, feminism, and a sort of romance.

I of course think people should define these terms for themselves, but the more I do get involved in the genderqueer/transmasculine discussions, the more I see commonalities in those of us who identify as butch, and I see why some bois or other transmasculine folks don’t necessarily see that as their identity. I think in the past I’ve been much more inclined to say things like, “there is room for you in ‘butch’!” And it’s not that I take that back – certainly, if your lips tingle a little at the idea of calling yourself butch and claiming a butch identity, there is room for you in that identity and I think you should go for it, try it on, see if you like it, if it fits – but I’m seeing the ways that butch is actually more specific than I used to think it was.

Fascinating, how these things evolve. There’s so much to still create and discover and uncover and remake and expose about how gender works, what it means, our relationship to it. Man, I love this work.

On misperceiving someone as femme or butch

I often have conversations with folks who say that they have been perceived femme or butch, and they really don’t like it. That tweaks me a bit, for various reasons, not the least of which is that I spent years flat out telling people, “I identify as butch,” and I would still get the response, “oh, you’re not that butch,” or “you’re not really butch.”

These identities are deeply socially constructed and policed, on all sides – those of us who do claim them, those of us who don’t. They’re loaded, complex, and largely misperceived.

Calling someone femme or butch is not necessarily intended to be insulting – sometimes, it is meant with much love and praise. But if you don’t identify as such, it can feel insulting, regardless of the intention.

This happened again recently, and it got me thinking: here’s why it doesn’t have to feel insulting, regardless of the intention.

1. This is about them, not you

Maybe you don’t identify as “femme” or “butch” at all, maybe you see those labels as confining to who you are and how you want to express yourself. Great! Good for you. Celebrate your whole self, in any way you like, you betcha.

[Hopefully you simultaneously realize that it’s possible for others to find liberation and freedom inside of those categories, too, and that you don’t force your philosophy of rejecting gender identities onto others. But that still never means that you have to work within that framework.]

This other person calling you these things may simply be working within the framework where they see everyone on the feminine side of the gender galaxy as femme, and everyone on the masculine side as butch.

But ultimately that is not about you – that’s about their framework. That doesn’t make your framework wrong, and that doesn’t make your perspective, presentation, or philosophies any less valid.

This is about them, and their worldview, not about you and yours.

2. Misconception of the terms

My gender-activisty self gets my boxers in a twist, because being called femme or butch is NOT AN INSULT.

These words are loaded – I get that. And sometimes, it can actually be intended as an insult – but we don’t have to take it that way.

But think about what we perceive someone else to be implying when they call us butch or femme. Where is that coming from? Who is filling that in?

It’s like someone calling you a dyke or a fag or a queer. The person slinging the insult could mean deviant, sinner, immoral, freak, but those of us who have reclaimed these words can look beyond that to laugh it off and say, “yep, that’s me. Gotta problem with that?” (Clearly, they do have a problem with that. But that’s not your problem, it’s theirs.)

Same with butch and femme: these words have deeper, personal meaning to some people, and it’s possible to take the time to go inside of the words and figure out what they hold, figure out their power and their detriments. If we knew more about the way these words worked from the inside, perhaps we would get to a place when calling someone – who doesn’t identify as one of these terms (more on that in a second) – femme or butch doesn’t make us bristle and cringe.

Because it doesn’t have to.

Here’s my basic thoughts on what we think it means when someone calls us femme or butch:

a) Femme does not mean whiny, controlling, manipulative, vulnerable, stupid, weak. Butch does not mean insensitive, thick-headed, macho, violent, emotionally stunted, controlling. Those are sexist misconceptions, and we don’t have to use those categories that way.

b) Just because you look one way one day, doesn’t mean you can’t look a different way another day. Gender is fluid, identity categories are fluid. Unless you’re chosing to identify as one of these categories, no one else can put you into these categories for you.

So, maybe this person calling you “femme” actually does mean that they think you’re weak, controlling, etc – well, then, so what? They are inaccurate on two accounts – i) that’s not what femme means, and ii) that’s not who you are (I am assuming).

They might be implying that they think you’re a high-maintenance bitch, or a thick-headed lug, but that doesn’t mean that you are. That’s just a downright insult couched in genderphobia, and you can call them on their ignorance, not take it so personally, and move on with your life.

3. Identity vs Adjective

We severely lack language to describe gender, and since we largely perceive gender to be a spectrum of masculine/feminine, butch/femme, male/female, calling someone femme or butch is simply an adjective – a way to describe which side of the binary gender scale they are perceived to fall on.

(I wish we had names for all the gender galaxy quadrants and solar systems and orbits and such, but they’re almost too big, too multi-faceted, to categorize and map. Goodness knows that won’t stop me from trying …)

In my opinion, identity categories can only be chosen by those they are describing. I think this applies in various socially charged identities – race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality.

The only time someone calls me butch and it is an identity, not an adjective, is when I myself have chosen butch as a way to describe me.

Again, the speaker here could actually mean it as an identity – but that’s about them, not about me.

Often, describing someone as femme or butch is a simple observation of their physical style – short hair vs long hair, slacks vs a skirt, heels vs boots. (Sometimes it’s much more suble, of course, as someone wearing short hair, slacks, and boots can be seen as femme.)

Usually, I’ve found the use of this word as an adjective is not entirely inaccurate (at least, not at that particular moment). The problem is that it is implying all these other things about behavior and gender performance that are then perceived to be ongoing and permanent within that person, and that’s just not true.

This is precisely the reason why I use the words to describe someone that they chose for themselves, and if I don’t know how they identify, I don’t assume.

So, in conclusion:

It really doesn’t have to be an insult, and using those terms as an insult is, in my opinion, a sexist misunderstanding.

Just because someone else doesn’t understand these categories, doesn’t mean that you don’t – even if you reject them. No need to take it personally, no need to educate them in their misconception – just let it go, don’t let it bother you, move on.

Butch Flight, Dress-Up Test, Gender Galaxy, and Other Definitions

I’ve added a Definitions page, for a brief introduction to some definitions of terms I often use in my analytical/theoretical discussions of sex, gender, & relationships:

“Butch flight” – The concept refers to the dwindling number of butches in the queer communities, specifically in regards to that butches are now transitioning to be men, FTMs, transgender, or genderqueer. This is actually highly controversial and many people say “there’s no such thing as butch flight.” The concept can become quickly transphobic, and I think that is generally why the denial enters in. In my observation, it’s quite obvious how few butches there are in the community, and how even fewer masculine-looking lesbians identify as butch. It’s hard for me to say accurately, since I an ten years young in this community, but from my understanding, these numbers are decreasing. That’s the only thing I really mean by butch flight.

Dress-up Test – I’ve written about this in the past. For many years I had no way to define butch & femme, and relied upon what I called the Dress-up Test to gague whether which way someone leaned: if, when you dress up, you opt toward button-downs and slacks, you probably lean butch. If, when you dress up, you opt for heels and skirts, you probably lean femme. Yes, gender is more than just your clothes – it’s also your physical communication, the way your body interacts with the world. But the dress-up test is a good place to start.

Gender Galaxy – People often talk about the “gender spectrum” – mostly as in, “I’m not man or woman, I’m somewhere in between on the gender spectrum.” Looking at gender linearly, with male and female on either end, still leaves gender operating within a binary, with a grey area in between. The idea of a gender galaxy gives much more room to many more identifications. I heard this term kicked around by a few friends in college, but was reminded by Red and looked it up for myself; it appears that the term originated from the article Expanding Gender and Expanding the Law: Toward a Social and Legal Conceptualization of Gender that is More Inclusive of Transgender People by Dylan Vade, published in 2005 in the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law. Actually, just a few months ago, when I was doing reasearch on this, there were less than 10 results on Google – now there are 200. Glad to see this term being picked up!

GGG – A term Dan Savage uses in his sex advice column (and brilliant podcast) Savage Love. Highly highly recommended. As I’ve mentioned before, GGG “stands for ‘good, giving, and game,’ which is what we should all strive to be for our sex partners. Think ‘good in bed,’ ‘giving equal time and equal pleasure,’ and ‘game for anything — within reason.'”

Head on over to that Definitions page to make comments, add your own definitions, or request any terms that you’d like to see defined.