identity politics

Butch Enough: Butch Lab Symposium #1

The problem with butch identity—well, any identity category of social, sexual, political, geographical, or other significance really—is permission. If you get past the problem of stereotyping, of course, and how stereotypes are based on fact but simplified, sprayed down with fake plastic snow and called a tree when in fact they don’t grow or move or change or catch breezes or encourage nesting.

The problem with butch identity is permission. Who gives you permission to be butch? Are you butch “enough?” I questioned myself. I wasn’t sure I bought in to what I saw reproduced around me. So I sought out mentors: S. Bear Bergman, Ivan E. Coyote, Patrick Califia, Karlyn Lotney, Jack Halberstam. People whose writings I could adore secretly in the dark and examine with a microscope, searching for myself hidden between the lines.

“You’re not that butch,” others would say to me. “Oh don’t say that,” they’d shush me with pursed lips after I dropped That Word into casual conversation. As if I’d just called myself something insulting, something demeaning. A bad word. Butch is a bad word, one of those locked and loaded words used against us by classmate and teacher alike. Such a different, awkward, not-right way to be, according to the eyes of the world.

But I didn’t see it that way. From the minute a girl—a femme—I was madly, stupidly, unrequitedly in love with leaned in and whispered, “I think you’re butch,” I knew it was tattooed on all the walls of my heart and when they split this body open they’ll find those five simple letters ink-stamped over every organ. Butch heart. Butch lungs. Butch stomach and trachea and diaphragm and sternum.

I saw it as an honor.

(I still do.)

And so I started reading, and I saw it as a lineage, connecting me to dozens of other writers and thinkers, radical activists and dapper dressers, people I could look up to for style, advice, insight.

But still: Was I enough? Was I “faking” it? Was I an imposter? Goddess knows that’s the most dangerous thing to be.

My experiences told me no, this is real, but my head took convincing. I craved permission. A card to carry, a gold stamp: certified, verified, “real” butch. I tagged along, hanging on my mentor’s every room for approval, validation. I consumed like I’d been starved of knowledge of my own people—which I had.

Ultimately, it wasn’t anyone else who gave me permission: it was me. I splashed around enough to know that while I didn’t have the answers, no one else did either. They only had guidelines, ideas, what had worked and what hadn’t, the stories of their own piecemeal patchwork lives. But boy, did we have questions.

Questions like: What is butch? What does it mean to me? I savor these questions like a fine rich dessert. I turn them over and over in my mouth with my tongue. And as much as I crave their answering, I crave the questions they raise even more.

So here’s what butch is, for me: Permission. Permission to be myself, that little solid stardust shiny nugget I feel somewhere in my core, like a diamond lodged between L5 and L4 of the lumbar spine vertebrae. Permission to wear what I like, to love who I desire, to play how I crave, to decorate and adorn my body how I choose. To experience all the things this world has to offer, without guilt or obligation, but with curiosity and an open heart and experimental hands. Permission to be right where I’m at, regardless of whether that’s where I was yesterday. Permission to explore and seek pleasure, to connect and create friction, to question and make change. Permission to be exactly who I am, doing exactly what I’m doing, to have bright burning faith that everything I do works toward the greatest liberation for everyone, as much as possible, all the time, in all ways.

And just in case you need it: I give you permission, too.

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 “Butch Enough: Butch Lab Symposium #1”

  1. L says:

    you have no idea how often you hit on..well, just everything you tagged this post as.

    “But I didn’t see it that way. From the minute a girl—a femme—I was madly, stupidly, unrequitedly in love with leaned in and whispered, “I think you’re butch,” I knew it was tattooed on all the walls of my heart and when they split this body open they’ll find those five simple letters ink-stamped over every organ. Butch heart. Butch lungs. Butch stomach and trachea and diaphragm and sternum.”

    YES. Just..YES. Thank you.

  2. Amelia says:

    As a butch-loving femme, I adore your articulation of the part of your permission-granting process that involved the fabulous interplay of butch-on-femme identity construction. My wife and I were talking about the way being seen as desirable in one’s butch expression after decades of negative feedback about same creates a virtuous circle for many nascent butches, including her.

    Congratulations once again on the launch of this clear labor of love. I can’t wait to see much more on this and other butch topics through your new project. Perhaps as a future symposia topic there can be a call to thoughts of how much of the definitional process for butch-identified folk involved other people – other queers, the external world, romantic and sexual relationships, etc?

  3. Kyle says:

    Oh, my friend, so many times I read what you write and recognize your words in my marrow. It’s what got me reading you in the first place, because you were a touchstone for me, you were my validation. I was getting validation of my butchness from my girlfriend, and that was wonderful, but like you, I still needed something else, and I wasn’t sure what it was. Then I started reading you, your stories about sex and relationships and love and identity and gender. I recognized myself in what you were writing, and that felt like permission to be myself more fully and to claim the label ‘butch’ (among others ;-) ).

    You’re right, none of us has all the answers and we certainly have more than enough questions. Those questions, that desire to know more, learn more, learn from each other, that’s part of being butch to me. It’s not a static thing, but definitely a work in progress, or as you put it, experimental work.

    I love that, I love being a work in progress and I love experimenting with new words and ideas and techniques.

    I love that we’re creating a community who recognizes that identity is something we can claim for ourselves. That Butch or Femme or Man or Woman or any of the other words, can have multiple, interesting meanings. We don’t have to be stuck with someone else’s definition or bias.

  4. Lenore says:

    I second Amelia’s idea — I think that the way in which we all (butch/femme/everything else) form our identities in conversation with others is fascinating.

    Also, I just submitted Colorado’s new supreme court justice Monica Marquez to the Butch Lab inspiration list — posting this link here so everyone can read about how great she is.

  5. Rae says:

    I haven’t commented on any of your posts before, but was moved to tears by this one and decided to take the plunge. As a femme-of-center dyke who has struggled to claim any piece of her self on her own terms, I’ve found myself alternately inspired and thinned by collective definitions and the agreements about those words I inherited when I began tuning into the conversation & coming out at 20. What better to inherit at such a moment than a set of words that mean things already? A word like ‘butch,’ a word like ‘femme’ – these bytes make it possible to speak. There’s comfort in the fact there are words available for use – and yet, when the thing they stand for is in a state of motion, those words can feel like an infinity we’re trying to approach (who is ever ‘femme enough’ or butch enough?’) rather than like a reachable point.

    I think we’re all ‘faking it.’ That every person who is actually pushing the world forward must share this fear. We’re all completely authentic, struggling, glowing, radiantly wordless real people – compelled to the work we’ve inherited and invented, using tools that are never as accurate or complete as we are, words that are just as imperfect as any alive thing. I think that’s the sensation of that kind of work – that it feels something like faking it, because it’s so f*ing real by comparison to so much else.

    Your most excellent blog reminds me every time I stop in that individuals and their hearts do countless acts of service for the world. I am reminded of “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same…,” and am really looking forward to the day when ‘permission’ is what ‘femme’ means for me when I use it to name myself.

    Thanks for this post. It touched something that really needed to be touched in this girl. And thanks for sharing, always.

  6. Jolie says:

    Ahh. Yes.

    “Permission to be myself, that little solid stardust shiny nugget I feel somewhere in my core, like a diamond lodged between L5 and L4 of the lumbar spine vertebrae.”

    That’s one of those sentences that made me take a long, deep breath and nod my head.

    Precisely what femme means to me. Exactly why, though I’m the spectrum’s polar opposite, I identify so strongly with my butch brothers and sisters. Because your visible freedom reinforces my less-than-visible freedom to be myself.

    Thanks to you and your fabulous intern(s) for bringing us Butch Lab, and this post. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the reading I’ve done through the Symposium.

  7. Bren says:

    Thank you for this. The fear of “not being butch enough” is something I struggle with on a near-daily basis. I have to remind myself that personal identity is not a contest and, if you feel butch and ID as butch, then you’re butch, end of story.

  8. I hate that word “enough” and I hope queer culture can kick it to the curb once and for all very soon. I know I do it, it’s a constant struggle to be aware of my judgments, words and actions. Thank you for combating this tendency to compare ourselves to others and look down on those who are not enough.

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