identity politics

"Queer butch" does not equal "lesbian"

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but: I am a performance poet. I write, and perform around New York City usually a few times a month; I’m involved in a writing group and a book group. I take this pursuit very seriously.So, as such, I have a bio that I use to describe myself; the first line describes me as a “queer butch writer,” specifically.

A few weeks back, I was asked to be a judge for a state-wide performance poetry competition for high school students that is happening this Thursday. I’m not going into the details (not that you probably couldn’t find it, or that this won’t totally reveal myself) but that they are high school students is relevant, because the coordinators for this event asked me, after receiving my bio, to “tone down” the language so as not to be potentially misunderstood, potentially inviting problems from the “upstate and rural” New Yorkers who are “not as tolerant as we are down in the city.”

One woman actually said, I kid you not, “I mean, I don’t have a problem with it – I have LOTS of gay friends.” Which, though she was trying to comfort me, is a really horrible thing to say. Of course! It is never YOU who is oppressing ME specifically – it’s all those other people, ruining the fun for everyone.

Plus: she is implying that, if I called myself a queer butch, and IF someone was offended for whatever reason, there would be reason to be afraid. That that person would be RIGHT to be offended. That they could create a LEGITIMATE complaint that would potentially damage the organization.

If that’s not true, the organization would be strong enough to stand up and say, no, actually, this isn’t a problem, there is nothing wrong with someone calling themselves a queer butch, and if you have a problem, that’s your fucken problem.

But: I really want to participate in this. I really want to go, network, be a visible queer butch for these high school kids.So I agreed to change the word “queer” and emailed my revised bio back, leaving in the word “butch” – i.e. “self-defined butch lesbian writer” – explaining that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, that I’ve worked hard to claim this word and that I feel it is integral and important to my identity and my self-definition.

But, no go: “we are still really afraid that [the word butch] has the potential to be misinterpreted by some of the attendees. We completely understand that the word has significant and special meaning for you, but we’re afraid that it won’t mean the same thing to others and that it might have the potential for causing a backlash from a parent or teacher.”

I sat on it over the weekend, and toyed with ways I could be subversive and still participate in this competition. Wear a work shirt that says “butch” on the patch. Get “butch” tattooed on my foreheard. Include “marginalized freak lesbian writer” in my bio.

“Queer butch” does not equal “lesbian” — and that is exactly the point. Exactly one of the reasons why I call myself those words. POWER.

And? It’s a POETRY competition. This entire event is all about words, and they are asking (telling?) me to change mine. To choose words that are less scary so their homophobic uptight audience and participants don’t have to be shaken in their little privileged suburban worlds. That is the entire point of my poetry, of my artistic fucken mission even.

I suppose, under all the frustration and hurt cracking feeling in my chest, this is reminding me why I do this kind of work, why I want to be visibly queer, why I want to use words like butch and dyke and cunt and queer, words that have power. This is exactly why I need to go to that competition, to walk in and LOOK like a queer butch dyke and then talk and sound like an articulate, emotional, thoughtful POET.

Because I seek to be a bridge. I want to become suspended between worlds, create new pathways over which to travel.

And, actually? THAT – being a bridge – may even be my more powerful, stronger artistic mission than what I just mentioned about shaking things up. Those two things do go together, I think, despite seeming to contradict, and I seek to do them both.

I’m working on a formal letter, conceding the point because I want to participate but officially stating my position in protest, but meanwhile, I have agreed to let my bio be changed to describe myself as a “lesbian writer.”

I hope they won’t be disappointed when I, a queer butch, show up.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

4 thoughts on “"Queer butch" does not equal "lesbian"”

  1. Dylan says:

    Being a bridge is so important. For me, sometimes I've found that appearing more normative helps my message be received better, or to a crowd that had I walked in looking more butch might not have listened. Just as you said it will be great to walk in a look like a queer butch dyke and then read poetry people can connect with despite an outward image that they might not. I think everything about presentation should be played with. It's not selling yourself out to adjust and alter your image. You are STILL going to be true to who you are.I agree though, queer butch is not the same as lesbian. At all. I never identify as lesbian and don't feel comfortable calling myself that. Maybe if more people like me would wear the label with pride in a more subversive and transcending way, I would. Maybe you will be that change for these high school students.

  2. Morgan says:

    I am truly astounded that they won't be flexible on this. They have a responsibility to present the concept of 'butch' and iron out people's misconceptions. You can't challenge ideas and preconceptions by altering the message. I told NYC earlier that she should not have to adjust herself to other people's perceptions, just so they can understand it in their language. If they cannot understand your language, hiding it or changing it just means you're not communicating. Your purpose is to communicate exactly as you are, to the best of your ability, and hope that the languages meet somewhere in the middle – opening up ground for exploration.It is really very surprising that they are censoring you rather than challenging the idea and letting you communicate your thoughts on it. Maybe you could open with a short speech on what they asked you to do? You could ask around the room, "who would've been offended by the term 'queer butch'?"

  3. Molly says:

    I really hope that in your letter, you mention the bit about "It's not ME who is oppressing you, it's THEM out THERE," (though in different wording) because I think that's a really important aspect of what happened.

  4. My response when I asked if I would kiss my partner in front of her mother: "If you don't want a pair of dykes in your house, don't invite them." It's ridiculous to honor you and your writing (which comes fromwho you are), then dishonor you by asking you to hide any part of it.

    But what do I know?

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