Passing, Privilege, & Butch/Femme

In response to what Belle wrote about privilege, guilt, and butch/femme:

I can’t speak (write) for all butches, and I do get that some of us have awful things to say about femmes and passing and privilege. I don’t know what to tell you about all of that, except that I think that it’s bullshit. It comes from a misogynistic bullying place where the one who is bullied and oppressed turns around and bullies the femme who is littler than you.

This is male privilege. This is the heteronormative hierarchy.

I don’t feel “more oppressed” than any given femme, and I resent that game of who has more hardship than whom. Division and in-fighting are ways that our marginalized communities stay broken apart instead of banded together. C’mon, remember Lord of the Rings?

Yes, butches are more visible, and therefore, in some situations, easier targets. But femmes are targets, too, and discriminated against. Hell, there are so few of us who even fall into this butch/femme dynamic – why make enemies of each other?

This past week I appeared as a guest on the Diana Cage Show on Sirius OutQ radio, and she’d had a whole segment of conversation before my part (where I performed some poetry and chatted about breakups, smut, and femmes, what else) where she was talking about “butch training,” I shit you not.

“Who trained you?” she asked me.

“I don’t think I was ‘trained’ … do all butches get trained?” I was confused.

“Oh yeah,” she answered.

“What about femmes?”

“Oh, no, they don’t need to be trained.”

Oh man, did my mind boggle. I don’t think she’s right about that, but let’s say, for a minute, that she is. In what do we need training? Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to be trained? Had I already been, and didn’t know it? Who had trained me?

“I’m not sure I was trained …” I said skeptically.

“Yeah, true, you’re a chivalrous butch. An old-school butch,” she said, as if this meant maybe I didn’t need ‘training’ after all?

“Yeah, I am. And a feminist, hardcore.” But I kept thinking. “Maybe my first big love trained me,” I said. She was the first femme I knew and she whispered in my ear, I think you’re butch, and I came a little and threw up at the same time. I watched how she wished her girlfriends would treat her and tried to be that.

And when I thought about it more later, I think it was my mother, my parents, who probably most deserve credit for “training” me in the ways that I take care of myself and others. Isn’t that what we’re speaking of? How we love, how we care, how we expect the partnership dynamic to work? And, fundamentally, if I may interpolate here, I think the “training” refers to those butches who often have grown up tomboys, one-of-the-guys, with a socialized masculinity. Those butches that treat femmes – and women – and, hell, people – with disrespect and dishonor, and I think it has everything to do with the “tough guise” of masculinity.

My point is, this is often the same type of butch (as much as I shudder to sub-categorize) I’ve heard this “femme privilege” argument come from, too. And I resent it, deeply. It saddens and angers me. I don’t know how to encourage a more wholistic, human range of experience in that type of butch (again, I shudder), wish I did.

But. This is what I have to say to Belle, or to any femme who endours that forced guilt about femme privilege:

Yes, passing is sometimes a privilege, but not always. Just like my visibility is sometimes a privilege, but not always. Tell me about times it was a privilege for you, and times it wasn’t, and then ask me about my stories, too. Tell me what it’s like to walk in your shoes. Let me learn from your experience. It’s hard sometimes to be a queer in this heterodominant society, and it’s hard to be a butch or femme in a lesbian community rooted in androgyny and which associates gender oppression with gender expression.

Fuck, can’t we share this burdon? Can’t we pass this weight around, let it be a little lighter between us? I mean, I know I’m a hippie-feminist-do-gooder-pacifist and all, but I believe in the power of community, deeply.

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.

9 thoughts on “Passing, Privilege, & Butch/Femme”

  1. dylan says:

    Thank you for writing this Sinclair. These were exactly my thoughts when I read the post as well. I think that people who are picked on often come to pick upon the very people who will/can/do love them the most. It's very sad and all too common in butch/femme relationships. I don't think any one oppression is worse than another… as long as someone I love is hurting, I'm hurting too.

    As far as butch training, I think I did pick up on things from other butches, imitate them until I could make them my own… I grew up as a tomboy but I didn't feel trained, I don't treat femmes like that, I don't think it's OK to cultivate a masculinity that hurts and oppresses others. I think the true training came from my deep love for my mother and from loving women, all the mistakes I made and still make, and all the lessons I learned as a result.

  2. Thank you Sinclair, I love that you are elaborating on this topic.

    I feel invisible in the lesbian community because I am not seen for who I am. I was so uncomfortable the first time I walked into Henrietta's. I felt like I was being alienated just because I look straight.

    That said, I know how privileged I am for simply looking like I do. I have complete respect for butches who have to deal with the bullshit from close-minded people.

    I just had a hard time with the realization that butches would take out their frustration on the femmes who love them. It did not make any sense to me.

  3. Jan says:

    I love our community.

    I am attracted to soft butches.

    Does there have to be anything beyond those two statements? Let the rest of the world eat at itself. We should stand together.


  4. Dosia says:

    Hiya, I'm new to your blog (due to the blog awards — good luck!) but I want to thank you for writing what you did. I'm a femme, truly through no choice but it's just the way I am. And I endure so much harassment from men — they look at me, they flirt with me, they treat me automatically like I'm there for their pleasure. If I try to be quiet and hang back in a situation, it only seems to egg them on. I stopped dressing sexy and cute and the attention toned down a bit, but my sex life with my partner did too.

    And I say, why do I have to be trapped in this crazy world? Why doesn't my wedding ring mean "hands off" to anyone, male or female? (though of course if a smokin' hot butch came up to me and flirted, I'd be all kinds of appreciative — but they all think I'm straight…!) Why does being sexy for my spouse mean being "available" for everyone else, too? I would change, but doesn't that mean abandoning my true self? The stress is unbelievable, and the effect is that I actively avoid ever speaking to straight men directly. Not what I'd call a privilege!

  5. Really appreciated this post, as well as the one that followed it. Also loved what Jan had to say….loving our community, standing together.

    Wanted to share what I feel is one of the most powerful quotes from my favorite author/activist/feminist, Audre Lorde…..

    “There is no hierarchy of oppression…I know I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that, freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you…”

    [Excellent quote, thank you! – ss]

  6. Kathrin says:

    I know that I am a few years late and more than a dollar short with my response, but… goes.

    People often assume that I am straight because I don’t fit their stereotype. I probably don’t live in the most queer/PoC friendly part of Philadelphia (but I do love my 12 x 12 ft closet) and I often get questions about my bumper stickers.

    Marriage Equality
    Equal Rights not Special Rights

    A few weeks ago my downstairs woman’s son asked me out. His response to my telling him I am queer… “naww dawg”

    This morning another woman in my complex asked me if I believed in the number stickers on my car and how such a pretty girl like me could be gay.

    I often balk at people who say that being able to pass as straight is a privilege. I think passing sometimes makes it a bit harder to fully be, be who I am.

    On some level I think that is just as relevant for those who identify as butch. We are constantly bombarded with labels and boxes, and are constrained by people’s misconceptions and stereotypes of what we should and shouldn’t do, act like or say.

    I feel like a bit of a voyeur, but I am really enjoying this extremely thought provoking space you have created.

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