The Exact Right Word: National Coming Out Day and Chosen Identities

For #nationalcomingoutday, here are some words I use to describe myself and some identities that I have actively cultivated:

white
butch
queer
writer
survivor
genderqueer
masculine of center
poet
teacher
bookworm
introvert
HSP
hedonist
working artist
social activist
able bodied
Pacific Northwestern American
Daddy
Master
cock-centric
college educated
2nd generation woo
Buddhist
foodie

For a while, I kept a list of words in the back of my journal, making a note to myself anytime I heard myself say, “I’m a _____.” I would write it down and think about it, pondering if I really am that thing or if it was a passing moment of identifying as such. Some of the words that came out of that are survivor, introvert, and hedonist, as well as the more often-used social justice ones, like butch and queer and dyke and gendequeer.

There are some other words—like lesbian, dyke, and trans—that are almost the right word, and which I sometimes use and sometimes identify with, but that aren’t always precisely right.

There are a few more that are complex and I hesitate to list, like yogi and tantrika, because while I do practice yoga and tantra, I haven’t quite been able to reconcile the cultural appropriation that surrounds me with those activities enough to be comfortable to use the identity labels to refer to myself. (So for now, I go with 2nd generation woo.)

There are a few more that I aspire to, but don’t quite have yet … like gardener and runner, which are identities in progress but not quite integrated. I do have a garden (finally!!), but I frequently forget about it. And I did run two 5k races in the past two years (hurrah!) but again, that habit doesn’t feel consistent, and isn’t quite an identity yet, just an occasional burst of interest.

And what’s the word for someone who tends to be depressed, or who struggles with depression? I don’t quite want to say neurodivergent or depressive, those seem too intense. Something a little more mild that says that I tend toward internalizing emotions rather than externalizing, and tend toward feeling down rather than feeling up (anxious). Or maybe this is a case where I have to reclaim a word, or use something that seems overly harsh and is misunderstood (like depressive).

There’s a lot to think about on National Coming Out Day … I’m particularly interested in identities, and what we call ourselves, and how we claim our power in these words and communities, but I also recognize that for many people, being associated with the identities that have marginalized them feels an awful lot like being marginalized all over again.

I believe that we should find the precise right words that are big enough to contain all the multitudes of us, and not sacrifice our selves to fit into labels which constrict. I believe the identity should conform to us, that we shouldn’t conform to it. And I believe that labels and identities and words that describe ourselves should always be the starting place, not the ending place, of the conversation—a place of opportunity to know more and ask questions and listen, not a place to fill in our own assumptions and determine the truths of others.

I’ll leave you of the Mark Twain quote: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.”

What identities do you claim? What words do you use to define yourself?

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?

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?

Word of the Day: Antevasin

I’m not one who tends to read bestsellers. In fact, when I do pick up—and like—a bestseller such that I actually want to carry it around with me and read it, I am often way embarrassed to be seen reading it on the subway. As if I am one of those people who only read popular books.

But of course, sometimes bestsellers are bestsellers for a reason: they are very, very good. I would argue for the Harry Potter series, and for The Time Traveler’s Wife (though against the Twilight series).

What made me pick up Eat, Pray, Love by Elisabeth Gilbert, aside from my sister‘s strong recommendation, was her talk on creativity from the TED lecture series.

I’ve probably watched this four times now, and a new part of it sinks in every time. This really jives with many of my conceptions about creativity works, and I really appreciate the shared responsibility of creation. YES.

So I picked up Eat, Pray, Love. And … it’s beautiful. Seriously. I hesitate to call it One Of My Favorite Books because who knows, I haven’t finished it yet, maybe it’s just speaking to me at a particular time about a particular thing and everything is just so resonant and perfect right now.

Like this:

Maybe the best thing to do with favourite films and books is to leave them be: to achieve such an exalted position means that they entered your life at exactly the right time, in precisely the right place, and those conditions can never be re-created. Sometimes we want to revisit them in order to check whether they were really as good as we remember them being, but this has to be a suspect impulse, because it presupposes is that we have more reason to trust our critical judgement as we get older, whereas I am beginning to believe that the reverse is true. —Nick Hornby, Shakespeare Wrote For Money

I had it out from the library, and I ordered my own copy from paperbackswap.com (my current guilty pleasure, though I suck at getting to the post office to do the mailing-out part). I’m looking forward to reading it again, and marking it up.

Yesterday, I came across this:

So I saw it during my last week at the Ashram, I was reading through an old text about Yoga, when I found a description of ancient spiritual seekers. A Sanskrit word appeared in the paragraph: ANTEVASIN. It means, ‘one who lives at the border.’ In ancient times this was a literal description. It indicated a person who had left the bustling center of worldly life to go live at the edge of the forest where the spiritual masters dwelled. The antevasin was not of the villagers anymore-not a householder with a conventional life. But neither was he yet a transcendent-not one of those sages who live deep in the unexplored woods, fully realized. The antevasin was an in-betweener. he was a border-dweller. He lived in sight of both worlds, but he looked toward the unknown. And he was a scholar.

—Eat, Love, Pray by Elisabeth Gilbert, p203

And oh my god that word is just so … potent. Perfect. I immediately saw it as an elaborate cursive tattoo over my collarbone or on my upper arm. That’s my word.

Then I started thinking: this is everybody’s word. That’s why this book is a crazy insane-o bestseller. Everybody thinks they live on the borders. Nobody thinks they fit in. And, sure enough, when I searched for “antevasin” online, many of the results are from personal blogs saying, “I recently read a book that described the word and I felt like it was describing me,” and “In one of the many books I am reading at present I came across a word and an idea that really resonate.” (Funny how they don’t necessarily identify the book. Or perhaps it’s just obvious enough that they don’t have to.)

Maybe not everybody thinks they are at the borders, not fitting in. Maybe there are some people, like my girlfriend claims, who know they are the status quo and average and buying in to pop culture and like it that way. I guess it’s mostly just that “my people”—the queers and the misfits and the artists and the writers and the thinkers—are the ones who surround me, and of course we all tend to have this deep, deep belief that we never fit in, that we probably never will, and that we’re straddling multiple worlds, being border-dwellers.

But I guess my question is … if the majority of us are the ones who think we don’t fit, aren’t the ones who ‘fit’ actually in the minority, making them, by definition, not fit?

And also … how do we truly, deeply, believe that we do in fact fit, perhaps not into a problematic hierarchical oppressive society like this one, but in our own communities, in our own subcultures, in our own families, in our own lives, in the larger universal human family? I really do believe that we all belong, we are all valid, we are all just where we are meant to be: right here.

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?

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: 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.

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.

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.

Lesbian stereotypes, reclaiming language, and activism

Yet another case in point: Butch, skinhead, wife-beating, pint drinkers? “Butch, femme, dyke – what kind of lesbian are you? Jeni Quirke explores the negativity surrounding lesbian stereotypes.”

Hey, sounds like a pretty good idea, exploring negative lesbian stereotypes, yeah? Right away, I’m skeptical of her inclusion of “butch” in that title, but I’m curious. Let’s read.

[L]esbians and bisexual women are also guilty of holding stereotypical generalisations and assumptions about each other based on appearance and personality. The words ‘dyke’, ‘baby-dyke’, ‘lipstick lesbian’, ‘pretend lesbian’ and ‘political lezza’ are too often thrown about the lesbian community, at work, in the pub or even from a friend to a friend in a jokey and cheeky way.

So why is this still happening, in a supposedly very tolerant and gay friendly society? It’s quite straightforward for all involved – stereotypes[.] … [W]hy do lesbian and bisexual women also carelessly use the terms ‘butch’, ‘femme’, ‘dyke’[?] … Is it internalised homophobia? … most women don’t even realise they have it or are displaying it.

So, when words to describe lesbian identity categories – such as dyke, baby dyke, and lipstick lesbian – are used by heterosexual or gay men who are excluded from and based in ignorant assumptions about the group, it is because of stereotyping, but if lesbians actually use these terms, it is from a place of internalized homophobia.

The use of words such as ‘dyke’, ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ from a lesbian individual or group are almost always meant in a negative way. Often, the only positive times you will hear the words spoken will be from a lesbian who is referring to herself, such as ‘Yeah I’m a butch dyke, but so what? It’s who I am.’ For the individual and for onlookers this proud and defensive statement will seem a very noble and bold thing to say. This it is, but it could also encourage the use of such stereotypes by heterosexual and non-heterosexual people.

So here she’s saying, when I define myself and call myself what I want to be called, when I reclaim the words for myself, it appears to be “very noble and bold,” but really it’s encouraging stereotypes. Who cares if it’s empowering to me in a development of my own gender identity, in putting myself in a historical and cultural context where I recognize the gendered struggles of my foremothers and forefathers and and forebabas and forepapis, really it’s just an invitation to oppress me. Not buying it.

If we are using offensive terms to one another in our own community, then what chance is there that straight people and gay men will stop using them? Are we re-enforcing the terms? And if so why are we doing this to each other and to ourselves? … Possibly the thought that ‘stereotypical’ lesbians such as ‘butch dykes’ are re-enforcing people’s generalisations and giving lesbians a bad name. … Could it be that society on the whole has become addicted and accustomed to using labels or labelling[?]

So now this author claims that butch dykes are giving lesbians a bad name and reinforcing stereotypical lesbianism. Oh, I recognize this tune.

And also, a word about labels: where we are in our cultural identity history, right now, in the West in the early 21st century, we reject labels. Pretty much entirely. Constantly, people are saying “don’t box me in,” “don’t restrict me,” “I’m bigger than that box,” “I’m more than a label,” et cetera. We are not addicted and accustomed to labels. I absolutely think it’s true that labels can be restrictive and limiting when applied without any leniency, and I think it’s true that culturally, we used to have more of a sense of defining people by their gender, age, race, economic status, ethnicity, family history, class, social status, religious beliefs, et cetera – by all of the factors of social hierarchy. But this is precisely what the various activist movements of the 20th century have been working to change, and in many ways, it absolutely has changed. Labels are generally now seen as bad and restrictive.

The well-known and common female stereotypes such as femme , butch and dyke are only there so other people and sometimes even ourselves use to categorise all the ‘types’ or ‘breeds’ of lesbians neatly away into a fileable drawer. [Emphasis added.]

Oh, now I’m just sad. The only reason butch exists is so others – or “sometimes even ourselves,” (implying, of course, how sad that is, that our internalized homophobia is so bad that we limit ourselves so awfully) – can categorize us?

Goddammit, this is just so inaccurate. There is a long history of butch, femme, and genderqueer WARRIORS who are changing laws, making strives, marching in protests, fighting for rights, being visible, working hard, raising kids, making families, contributing to thriving communities, loving, living, and being ourselves.

And now, this perspective of the author of this article becomes even more transparent: the things she is saying here are flat-out gender-phobic. Probably out of ignorance, rather than intentionally malicious, but still. This author clearly cannot imagine that any femme, butch, or dyke would ever be authentically empowered by these labels (as opposed to falsely empowered through internalized homophobia) or claiming them out of some sort of intentional, conscious, educated, contextualized narrative of queer culture, life, identity, and empowerment.

I haven’t even started about the power of reclaiming words, here, which this author completely discounts as even remotely possible. Yes, the word “dyke,” for example, has been used by outsiders to marginalize and oppress people within that group. But part of the process of legitimizing that identity is to take the words that have been used to oppress us and revision them to be valuable, which, by proxy, revisions the identity as valuable as well. This also deflates the potential of the insult: if the word no longer has any negative connotations, and someone shouts “dyke!” from across the street, we can recognize that he’s a) being blatantly and ridiculously homophobic, b) attempting to insult us, and c) stupid and ignorant if he thinks homophobia is acceptable. It’s much easier for this type of encounter not to sting, and not to be taken seriously, when we are used to throwing around the words that are attempted to be used as insults.

Aside from that, there’s the linguistics of it all: “lesbian” sounds like the technical term, like dentifrice instead of toothpaste. It sounds like something you could contract or pick up, it’s long – three syllables – and fairly awkward in the mouth. “Dyke,” however, is short, powerful, with strong, shit-kicking consonants that pops on the tongue. Stronger, tougher, thicker, more powerful.

The author of this article closes with this:

We should all join and work together to end other people’s preconceptions, generalisations and stereotypes by not doing it in and to our own community.

Yes, I agree in part – we should end preconceptions, generalizations, and stereotypes. But what this author is describing is not “doing it in and to our own community” necessarily. People – everyone, women and lesbians and yes, even dykes – have our own agency, our own ability to define for ourselves who we are and what we are doing with it. To speak from outside of a community who uses this language intentionally about the choice of using this language is belittling and offensive, implying that I couldn’t possibly know what I’m doing by using this language.

And I know some of you are thinking, “well, Sinclair, you’re a bit different than the average butch, after all,” but ya know what? I haven’t found that to be true. I have found that most butches I know are incredibly intentional about their identities, and have beautiful things to say about what it’s like to navigate the world as a butch-looking woman, often even if they don’t identify with the label, culture, or politics. Same with the femmes. Butch and femme are no longer default identities to which one gets shoved into the minute one comes out as a lesbian. Queer, dyke, butch, femme – those words are marginalized, othered, looked down upon in many ways. It takes work to come to them, work to claim them, and work to keep them functioning.

This author, like the majority of folks out there – lesbian communities notwithstanding, unfortunately – are missing some key elements and understandings of the history of gender radicalism, what it means to reclaim language, and what it means to adopt these identities. Articles like this really get my boxers in a twist because they appear to be a conscious, intentional analysis of what’s difficult or challenging within the lesbian communities, but in fact, they are reinforcing gender misunderstandings and further marginalizing those of us who do play with gender intentionally, celebrationally, and beautifully.

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.