identity politics

What Gender Is

… and the beginnings (continuings) of My Gender Manifesto.A little bit of conversation about femme (specificially) and gender (in general) is happening over in this last post, and I have some things to add, especially about a comment on “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets.”

Essin’ Em said: “I hate the phrase “a butch in the streets, femme in the sheets” because it places value on each…is there something wrong with being a Femme in the sheets?”

And, duh, you probably already know my response, at least to begin with. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being a femme in the sheets, let’s just make that clear.

I love femmes in my sheets. My favorite. Rawr.


That’s not quite what this phrase is saying, or means, in my opinion. The implication that a “butch in the streets” would be a femme in bed is implying – and correct me if I’m wrong here! – that the butch was a bottom. Someone who didn’t have the gruff masculine throw-down take-charge style that is assumed to come with the butch gender identity.

Which comes from the assumption that all butches are tops.

Which comes from the heterosexual gender hierarchy, which tells us that men are the agressors, women are submissive. Men are in charge, women are passive. Men take, women receive. Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.

But, see, these things are actually different. Being butch is a gender, and being a bottom is sexuality (a sexual orientation? What is that category?). And to assume that all butches are tops or all femmes are bottoms is to buy into That Infamous Heteronormative (and misogynist!) Paradigm.

With me so far?

And, it’s just not true! Femmes are tops AND bottoms AND switches! Butches are tops AND bottoms AND switches! And, there are tops and bottoms and switches who do not consider themselves either butch, or femme. One thing does not necessarily constitute the other.

This is absolutely one of those places where butch and femme should – and MUST, in my opinion – deviate from heteronormativity. Come on, we’ve gone through the sexual revolution and the gender revolution, for pussy’s sake. We can differentiate between biological sex, between-the-sheets sex, and gender.

I’m not sure “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets” would EVER be an accurate description of anyone, unless their gender actually changed while “in the sheets.” And I’m not sure how that would happen … would they put on lingerie? A dress? Heels? I might prostelitize that that person had a cross-dressing fetish, rather than becoming femme in the sheets – but perhaps that’s the same thing? I’m not sure about that.

And this leads me to another interesting point. What is gender, anyway? What is butch, what is femme? How to define these ever-elusive, ever-complex terms? And, as bird and I were saying just last night, how do we make these terms expansive, rather than limiting?

Here’s what I think.

Gender is about my physical body: how I appear, the clothes I wear, the accessories I choose. And, it’s part of the way that I communicate physically, and thus becomes a big part of my sexual life, which is all about my body communicating with another’s body.

My hobbies, interests, values, activities, and personality are not dictated by my gender. I refuse to let them be. Those are dictated by ME. My unique spirit, whatever hippie shit you want to use to describe my “essence.”

This was one of the hardest, hardest things for me, in coming out as butch, after I came out as queer. Because I’d grown up in a very feminist household that devalued gender, wrote it off as compulsory and constrictive. And, yes, absolutely, it has been that – women forced to wear skirts, men forced to keep their hair short, etc. But this is not where we are anymore.

There is still work to be done, don’t get me wrong – and, in fact, for me, this is the work, right here.

I can pick and choose what aspects of gender that I want to adopt. Some of them work; some of them do not.

I, for example, am really interested in processing, emotional intelligence, gender theory, feminism, psychology, sociology, how people relate to other people, group dynamics … and those have, at times, been interpreted to being “feminine” traits, yes? And reading, cooking, preparing nutritous meals, home decorating/interior design, organizing, collecting.

And when I came out as butch (which was a long process for me, it took about 4 years, much longer than it took me to come out as queer), I went through a long time period where I was really struggling with what it meant to adopt a butchness, to be butch at all. I loved the suave masculinity of collared button-down shirts, boy jeans, polos, tee shirts with cigarette packs rolled into the sleeve, vests, fedoras, pinstripe suits, wing-tip shoes, motorcycle boots … and I wanted it. I wanted to BE that. But I didn’t know how to BE that without being the rest of masculinity, too – the “tough guise” of machismo, of violence, of emotional miscommunication, of misogyny.

I guess I figured it out: I separated gender from personality.

Butch is a masculine presentation of the body.

Just as femme is a feminine presentation of the body.

And there is a whoooooole lot of room there, within “presentation,” in my opinion. I know butches who wear lacy thongs, I know femmes who have short hair. I know butches who wear heels and skirtsuits, I know femmes who rarely wear much more than sweatpants or jeans.

My test, then, I suppose, for the butch/femme sphere, is the Dress-Up Test. If I am getting fancied up, do I put on a suit and tie, or a dress? And some of us, of course, would say “it depends” — well sure, that’s a gender too. I guess that’s what I might call genderqueer, though we don’t really have much of a label for it. Somebody should create one. Hint, hint.

There are certain things that gender does dictate when it comes to action or personality, but that seems to be primarily set around chivalry, which is really that physical communication aspect of sex and relationships.

Ahem. For example:

I hold my hand out for a femme who is walking in heels next to me when we go down stairs, because I want her to have something solid to hold onto in those high heels. I switch sides of the sidewalk when I notice a grate or something she can’t walk over. I open the door for her because I don’t want her to ding up her fingernails that she spent two hours perfecting. I take her coat because her dress is tight and if she lifts her arms up above her shoulders it could actually damage the dress.

I am aware of the ways that her gender – her physical body – interacts with the world, and I want to enhance that presentation, cradle her, protect her, celebrate her ways of showing off her beautiful, sexual, powerful self.

Just like she does for me.

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.

15 thoughts on “What Gender Is”

  1. lady brett says:

    1) definitely gender and sexual expression(?) are very different. I may have realized this because of the one really femme girl i've had a crush on. She was just so top-y (mmm), and i guess it turns out that's more important to me.2) "My hobbies, interests, values, activities, and personality are not dictated by my gender….This was one of the hardest, hardest things for me, in coming out as butch"Brilliantly stated. This is very much something i am still wrestling with. (oh…is 'wrestling' too butch? ;)But the other way around. I'm very much my daddy's little girl – i learned how to use all his power tools, and i'm not very communicative, and all these 'boy' traits and hobbies i have. But i have recently discovered that i like to be the girl on someone's arm, and more recently that i like wearing dresses.It's not quite that i hadn't thought of this, but seeing it stated so eloquently is like a lightbulb going off. Thanks.3) While i'm pretty anti-smoking, that tee shirt with cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve thing is so sexy.4) eek, this is getting long…maybe i should just post about it.

  2. birdonthewirenyc says:

    you have a wonderful brain.

  3. tongue-tied says:

    i agree w/bird, you DO have a wonderful brain! imho, butch & femme & top & bottom & all that jazz, they are ALL expressions of self, and they can ALL be true in just one person. i think it's a bit of mindfuckery to get too caught up in compartmentalizing behavior & expression into labels. labels serve best only when they challenge your own ideas of who you are, not when they confine you to an opinion-driven demographic.frankly, it matters much more to me to be a sensitive, passionate lover expressing my sexuality as authentically as i can with people who honor and respect and accept me. my presence is my entrance way more than what i might have to say about who i am.

  4. sinclair says:

    aw, thanks ladies :)brett: I support you in wrestling all you want, girl. I have so been smacked down by femmes during wrestling matches (one even busted my lip, it looked very tough).

  5. sinclair says:

    tongue-tied: we were posting at the same time :) I missed your comment when I replied to the others. yes, I agree, they are all present within onesself. but I also think some people are more one or the other – like a Kinsey scale for gender. although, I also think the linear one-dimensional line is too limiting, and gender (and sexuality, etc) is more of a circle, or even sphere. (but I digress.)

  6. Ms. Avarice says:

    I've decided that "sugarbutch" is a gender and that it is yours, and also that mindfuckery is my new favorite word.

  7. sinclair says:

    I used to claim sugarbutch as my gender – I don't anymore. a lover called me that first, and I liked it – but I used it because I was afraid to call myself butch, afraid that it limited me too strongly into the macho/masculine category of things, when I wanted to be sweeter than that. but I don't think butch is that limited anymore, and I'm much more comfortable with it than with sugarbutch. I am firmly of the belief that people should self-define their gender however they feel comfortable. I'd like to encourage more people to choose butch and femme, because of the ways it really works for me and because of the ways I think they are forced into limitations/constrictions by an unnecessary binary dualism, but I definitely understand when people say it doesn't fit them.

  8. sexcakes says:

    nail on the head, sinclair. the language has long been more limited than the people when it comes to gender/sexuality territory. the difficulty for me is functioning without the terminology, because everybody else wants to know what name to give of the most interesting relationships i had was with a very femme girl i knew in school. she wore skirts the whole time and had a very egalitarian attitude to sex. she was the first and only girl i fucked without any power exchange…

  9. Essin' Em says:

    I come home from camping to all these interesting posts!Thank you for this…As a recently identifying femme who is so confused about all these stereotypes about what butches and femmes "should be" it's nice to know that other people realize that there is a huge spectrum of presentations even within the spectrum of presentations. I'm a femme that is sometimes high femme and sometimes not so much and likes being spanked and fucked, but also likes topping my partners sometimes. I'm a femme in the sheets because I am a femme. Sometimes that means being a "pillow princess" (and being tied up and forced to climax for hours…you can see why I might like it) and sometimes that means watching my fist slide in and out of my parter. I'm still a femme – thanks for validating me.And holy crap, I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog :)

  10. Eileen says:

    This post takes something I struggled with for a long time and comes at it from a different direction, and it’s really a treat to read it and see similar separations happening with different aspects of personality, sexuality, gender, etc.

    You wrote that you separated gender from personality, and also touched on separatingbutch/femmer from top/bottom. I ended up at similar conclusions (separating gender and power) while trying to figure out why the common rejection of strap-on sex by het kinky femdoms bugged me so much. Erm, if you care to read what I came up with, it’s here.

    I love your blog. I’m trying to figure out this whole genderqueer/butch thing myself, so reading someone farther down the way than me helps tremendously. Thanks :)

  11. victor/victoria says:

    this is so, so interesting.

    i think i would call being a top or bottom a ‘sexual identity.’

    i’m glad you separated out gender from personality traits. i don’t feel that i am feminine at all – sometimes i feel genderqueer, sometimes i feel very much like a boy even to the point of wanting to transition. but i’ve always been very in touch with people and emotions, i hate sports, i love animals, and all sorts of other things that have been constructed as ‘female/feminine.’

    i do think physical presentation has a lot to do with gender, but i also would like to think there’s more to it than that… but what, i don’t know.

  12. junebug93 says:

    I have a bunch of gender hangups. Primarily that I'm biologically female, self identify as female, and yet in some ways want to be treated like a boy. I like carrying large boxes, would resent the idea of someone holding the door open for me so I wouldn't damage my nails (which are usually worn and paint-stained), and in general hate the idea that being female makes me more fragile.

    Reading your posts, though, questioned many things that I thought I believed and knew about. Made me think that maybe the submissive/dominant aspects of some relationships (or stories of relationships) may not be sexist provided those involved chose those roles, want those roles. (I think that's where you're coming from?)

    I probably won't be able to actually write a coherent response without thinking about this a whole lot more. Thanks for the intellect and the insight =].

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