identity politics

The Red Tie Night, Six Years Ago

I ran across some photos this week of me and jesse james and georgia from almost exactly six years ago – I remember that night vividly. Aside from georgia’s very grabable curly hair, spaghetti strap tank top, and long string of gin+tonics (that I kept drinking for her), my gang of friends – including jesse james, and Maverick – decided we’d go out “in drag” that night, which meant slacks, button-downs, binding our breasts, ties.

(Interesting how men’s business wear is drag for masculinity, and women’s lingerie is drag for femininity – clearly some cultural values coming through there eh?)

I took many photos that night as we got ready to go – even the preparations were significant, the rituals of masculinity, hair slicked back, knotting and re-knotting my tie. It was one of the first times I wore a tie and packed out in public; in the photos I’m wearing a black shirt, black slacks, and red tie. I’m not even sure where I got that tie, now that I think about it. It just seems like I’ve always owned it. A red tie, solid – my favorite.

Interesting how, then, it was drag, it was rare, it was deliberate performance – I was so self-conscious going out like that, I felt stared at, noticed, in a new way. And I was, particularly by georgia’s attention, the clear lust in her eyes and fingertips as I lit her cigarettes and held her drinks and attempted to kiss her (with little luck – she had a girlfriend back then).

Looking at these photographs from six years ago, though, I catch a glimpse of the gender I grew into – I don’t always recognize myself in photos from that time, but in those … yeah, I think, that’s me.

It took such a long time for me to come to comfortably sit in this butch identity, for me to (if we’ll continue the metaphor) navigate the gender galaxy, and find a comfortable orbit around an identity label. Some of us don’t ever settle into that – some of us are radical little spaceships that explore treasures from all sorts of different worlds and words that we orbit. I guess the trick is, in my opinion, to simply find the routes that are the best to navigate (not necessarily the easiest, but the most satisfying), the orbits where there is plenty of oxygen, the alliances that create treaties and share resources and have excellent adventures.

We basically have to make our own gender galaxy maps. And while some gender mapmaking tools – queer theory, gender theory, postmodern theory, queer literature, smut and the language of lesbian desires – while some tools help immensely, I still couldn’t quite escape the praxis, the application of the theory, because of the ways that the social constraints and social policing affected my own process deeply.

The same friends who went out with me on that infamous red tie night – jesse james & Maverick – were very influential, and I had a lot of criticism about how they performed their own flavors of female masculinity. I don’t remember a lot of discussions about the label/term/identity of ‘butch’ specifically, but we definitely knocked the term around sometimes – mostly I remember saying, “I don’t know. If I’m butch, then am I all these other things that come along with compulsory masculinity – like misogyny?”

I remember one particular time when jesse james and Maverick were joking about attending a community class for and about femmes – identity, privilege, passing, visibility. And they kept speaking of it like it was a place to go pick up chicks – I eventually snapped at them: That’s a special place for femmes! That’s not a convenient pick-up ground! You’re like the boys who heh-heh-heh and sign up for women studies.

[I know it says “women studies” and not “women’s studies,” and that’s deliberate. The apostrophe implies that these studies belong to women, that it is women who study them. When it’s women studies, singular, then the implication is that it is the study of women. This is how my undergraduate Women Studies department operated & how I still describe that particular academic discipline.]

I’m not sure if they got it; maybe they did. I quickly gained the reputation as the hard-core feminist of the gang, and jesse james especially loved to push my buttons about it, to get a rise out of me, to make me laugh, to frustrate me with a scenario. They used to tease me endlessly.

But looking back at it, it was an integral part of my gender identity development. Because feminism, and deep respect for women, and deep rejection of the “oppressive male gaze” and gendered hierarchy, came first, I was terrified of objectifying women, of disrespecting women – and, most importantly, of adopting misogyny as part of a masculine identity. And I kept wondering, over and over: If I reject misogyny as part of masculinity, part of “butch,” then what’s left? Masculinity is, in so many ways, simply defined as not-woman; what else does that identity hold? And what does it mean for me to adopt it, to become it, to be it?

My solution, at least temporarily, was that I could look butch – hence the ties and button-downs and packing – but that I would maintain my hard-core feminist values, my inner emotional landscapes, my interests and personality traits. I didn’t know how far I could take this new idea of a masculine gender. For years, my friends & peers would say, “well, yeah, but you’re not really butch.” I didn’t like that, but I didn’t know how to only pick and choose the traits that I wanted, intentionally, within masculinity. I didn’t know it would mean to have be butch in other ways – for example, emotionally.

Even still, this puzzles me. There is something inward about gender, a sort of “gender energy,” internal traits that run through displays of female masculinity – but I still struggle with articulating that. It starts to run into the grey areas of where gender overlaps with personality, and I start feeling cautionary, not wanting gender to dictate things like hobbies and interests.

I’d like to figure this out, though. It’s on my list of Things to Explore Further.

Incidentally, jesse james – formerly known as The Closet Musician here on Sugarbutch – was known as Ice (from Iceman) back then; Maverick and Ice even had flight suits for Halloween one year. Then we had Mitchell, who joined our gang on occasion, and there were the femmes, Pepper (Maverick’s girlfriend and, later, wife) and Lola (who I was madly head-over-heels about). Who knew all those nicknames were such fabulous practice for anonymous writing?

I never had a nickname that stuck, I always wanted one. Perhaps that’s part of why I created Sinclair all these years later.

Donate to RAINN & let ‘em know I sent you – add “GBBMC2008: Mr. Sinclair Sexsmith” in the information box. (Why?)

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.

12 thoughts on “The Red Tie Night, Six Years Ago”

  1. I continue to learn so much from you. This was really touching.

  2. Shannon says:

    So well said.. it is an ambiguity that endlessly fascinates me.

  3. Essin' Em says:

    Random thoughts:

    *I've done drag as a lumber jack, interestingly enough.

    *J's performance for the drag show was really interesting (being genderqueer, then what is drag?) – it involved both a dress and boxers and someone playing the Gender Police.

    *Red ties = hot

    *I feel that the Butch identity, in my understanding, IS a feminist identity and reject misogyny , but clearly, this is up for debate. Excellent thing to think about.

    *If I had to choose one person I've met who I felt embodied "Butch" the best, I'd choo-choo-choose you. So whoever the fuck said you're not really Butch can just suck my ovaries.

  4. Man, i was some kind of punk, huh? I was rowdy on purpose (I know you know that). So much of my behavior in that group was a gender search. We were all searching, I think. I was scared to look butch and purposefully overcompensated by acting out my understanding of masculine behavior. As the security boundary of our little click grew for me, so did my ideas of expression. After many a talks with you, I finally cut my hair short (and quite smoking, removing both masks at once) and eventually it felt safer to be softer.
    I should just write about this on my blog. Wonderful post though – it’s a beautiful concept to trace our gender identities and expressions back as far as we can.
    And you know that I still try to offend you on purpose just to see your stern, serious face crack into that smile of yours… and it’s even cuter when you really, really try not to laugh, and then explode with that one big “HA!” of yours.
    p.s. I also remember trying to give you nicknames for which you quickly denied! Diddy-Dawg ring a bell? Some names just stand alone too well to be nicked.

  5. Colleen says:

    Oh, Sin. This was lovely. Makes me kinda kick myself in the pants as I remember that I wanted to write my own "how I came to femme" story, because parts of it (especially the parts around "but can't I still be a feminist?") were things I went through, from the other side.

  6. cyn says:

    beautiful post, thank you. i love your insight and ability to articulate your insight in writing – because i love to read. cyn.

  7. gorek says:

    You should question your acceptance of "chick lit" as a category if you're interested in the day to day workings of misogyny.

    (And you're missing out if you don't listen to "pop music"! I'd question that category as well.)

    [Oh, I accept "chick lit" as a category – it's just not my favorite genre. I do recognize that it has value for some. – ss]

  8. gorek says:

    Oh I know you accept the category. That’s the problem. I’m suggesting the category is sexist.

    [Sure, I can see how an argument can be made that that category is sexist. And for the record, I do listen to pop music on occasion … just last night I spent entirely too long looking at videos of David Cook on YouTube. That I’ve listed “chick lit” and “pop music” as part of my Turn Offs doesn’t mean that I don’t think the category is problematic, or that I completely reject all music that could be considered pop/popular. That list is just meant to be a statement of personal preference. As much as I am interested in the “day to day workings of misogyny,” I unfortunately don’t have time to go in depth into every possible way to explore it … but that’s why I read other opinions and articles. Thanks for that link to the Huffpo article, by the way. – ss]

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