Butch is a Bitch

So. Once again JB has written a post that I started to reply to and ended up with my own entry on the same topic instead. This time it’s about gender identity, butchness, and male pronouns.

So I’ve been thinking about this issue a bit myself, lately, and I see a problem here. It’s bugging me, so I’m gonna just put it out there and let the rest of JB’s awesome readers tell me where I’m wrong if they get as far as reading this, but…

Butch is not the same as trans.

Trans might not be the same as male.

There’s a whole school of thought that says female masculinity is linear: Very Femme (is there a word for this?) —> Femme —> Butchy-Femme —> Soft Butch —> Butch —> Stone Butch —> FtM Transgendered. Of course that leaves out  a whole lot of possible other identities, ignores androgyny and middlesex, and insists that Butchness is on a path to maleness. If I want to, I can place myself on that continuum, certainly, and I come a lot closer to the male end of the spectrum than my femme friends.  But there was something about JB’s post that didn’t sit right with me. Something about the assumption that someone who is more butch is more likely to prefer male pronouns.

Now maybe my thinking on this needs to change, I don’t know. I’m sort of expecting to get scolded for even bringing this up, but it’s been nagging at me and nagging at me, so obviously there is something here worth examining.

To me, anyway, butch is still a lesbian identity, not a straight male one. And lesbian is still, in my head, a female identity. FtM transgender, for what it’s worth, can be straight male, gay male, bi male, asexual male, and probably some other things, as well. But it’s a male identity.

Then there’s trans, which JB used in a conversation with me about me, as distinguished from FtM. Maybe that’s the best word we have for it. Trans, sitting in the meeting point of several gender identities, and not at ease with the biological one we were born with. It’s not quite the same thing as androgyny, although there has to be some overlap. But Annie Lennox and David Bowie are my icons of androgyny, and you know, when it comes right down to it, the whole world still sees them as a woman and a man.

Maybe I need to rethink my opposition to “ze” and “hir”, words which still bug the hell out of me but express transness more clearly than the existing pronoun choices. I want to be clear here, too: I’m not condemning butches and transmen who prefer male pronouns. To decide to use male pronouns for oneself is a perfectly legitimate choice. To call oneself a man, a boi, a butch, a woman, a grrl, a third gender, or to refuse to call oneself any of those things because none of them quite fit is also a legitimate choice.

What’s bugging me, then? Well, what’s bugging me is this implication that butch is not a female identity. Why not? You know what’s hot? Transgression. One of the hottest things I’ve ever seen was a very butch woman with just a tiny hint of dark blue eyeliner on, wearing a powder blue cashmere scarf with her motorcycle leathers.

Why can’t butch be a wholly female identity? I mean, sure, yes, butch takes on a lot of trappings of masculinity. But the thing that makes butchness something more than maleness is the fact that it’s a female masculinity. Isn’t it?

Unfortunately our language is very, very rigid when it comes to pronouns — there are two options: he or she. Male or female. I completely get why JB felt the need to qualify her description of her new paramour as an “estrogen-based being” after using male pronouns to describe him.

And I also get the real conflict lesbians in relationships with transmen face. Do you lose your lesbian identity if you are sleeping with someone who calls himself “he”?

And where, when I come to the end of it, am I?

Questions, questions everywhere, and oh, the boards did shrink.

Questions, questions everywhere, and not an answer, I think.


~ by Nezu on 16 March 2010.

9 Responses to “Butch is a Bitch”

  1. Very femme = ‘high femme’ or ‘ultra femme’.

    And oof, I get what you’re saying, but the description of butch as a female identity kind of makes me itch all over. I’m trying to think of a good metaphor for why. I guess it’s a bit like saying avacados are a fruit: technically true, but I sure wouldn’t put them in a fruit salad.

    (And this reaction is a little hilarious, given that I just threw up a whole post about butch femininity.)

    Butch as a path to maleness — Y’know, Bear Bergman talks about that very briefly in his Butch is a Noun introduction. I can’t remember his exact wording, but it ran something like ‘Butch is a path to FtM, except when it isn’t’. And I liked that, because butch is a subjective identity for everyone. For some people, yes, it is part of their journey towards discovering that, actually, they’re a guy in a girl’s body. For others it’s not a spectrum at all; it’s their own self-contained constellation, totally apart from other genders. (Bond talks a bit about that here.)

    Why can’t butch be a wholly female identity? I mean, sure, yes, butch takes on a lot of trappings of masculinity. But the thing that makes butchness something more than maleness is the fact that it’s a female masculinity. Isn’t it?

    Ye-es, maybe. And yet the idea of describing butch as ‘wholly female’ makes me feel like a big part of the identity is being missed. The quickest equivilent I can think of is describing bisexuality as ‘basically straight, but with a garnish of gay on top. But hey, still sexy!’ Sort of true, but twitch-inducing for any bisexual.

    You might be dead on the mark with your thoughts about trans and gender-neutral pronouns, though.

    • Shoot. Forgot to spellcheck. Ignore any glaring errors. >.>

    • Avocados… I wouldn’t put them in a fruit salad, true, but I’m allergic. Did you know that in Brazil avocado is made into ice cream and eaten with sugar as a dessert?

      Paths… I suppose the thing for me that’s twitching me the other way is the fact that ‘on the path’ isn’t the same as already at the destination. Somehow male pronouns feel like some kind of signpost or mile marker, something that says, “Welcome to Manhood, population just under 3.5 Billion.” But if butch is the same as male, then avocados are the same as strawberries.

      It comes back around to inadequate pronouns, I think, more than anything else. You’re dragging the writer in me kicking and screaming towards the new ones, but I honestly don’t see any better options.

      Bisexuals… Well, yes. Maybe. Maybe I am gay with a side of straight, and my friend R is straight with a side of gay. Or maybe we’re all just queer. And maybe I shouldn’t have used that word “wholly” there. But I think my question remains, isn’t butch a female identity, as opposed to a male one? If it’s really just the new word for FtM, then what is the word for people who are masculine but not male?

  2. As S. Bear Bergman says(or I paraphrase), “Butch is not a trans identity unless the butch in question says it is. Unless the trans-person in question says it isn’t.”
    Hi, generally-female-pronoun-using butch here; I think what might be missing here is the sense of play that I feel in my butch identity. though some butches take using -only- he or she or ze very seriously, there are at least a few of us who use these pronouns that aren’t adapted for us with a bit of tongue in cheek. I’m comfortable with whatever someone wants to use. I find that “she” tends to respect the body under the clothes, attitude and 1/2 litre of hair gel, and “he” tends to respect the masculinity (not, perse the maleness) that I put effort into projecting. “They/ze” respects the fact that I don’t fit easily in either stereotyped category, and using “he” or “she” in certain contexts has fun with those stereotypes and how I do or do not fit. It plays with the wiggle room in gender and in language that we all spend so much time and effort pretending to ignore.

    • In addition, and on a more serious note, I considered myself trans -before- I considered myself butch. For me, butch fits much better. It does mark a particular, not-trans-as-male constellation in the universe of gender for me, and I find myself much more at home being this way than I have in all the other genders I’ve tried to fit myself into. Its particular constraints and expectations don’t feel like that to me. I really feel that butch fits itself into me, specifically because it does value my female-ness and my masculinity.

      • Hmm, yeah I can see that. Like you had to pass through trans and discovered it didn’t quite fit before you found butch. I think, again, it comes down to a more genderqueer way of looking at identity. Although I’m also coming back to JB’s use of “trans” as a thing in itself separate from MtF or FtM, because I like that too. I’ve been aware of my inner boyness since I was a tiny thing, but butch is entirely new. It’s more like something I can put on or take off, in some ways, while the boy within remains the identity. The boy who is a girl who is a boy who is a girl. It’s like those Russian nesting dolls, and no matter how many I open there’s always one more.

    • Yes! Yes the sense of play, that’s the thing! The sense of not taking this quite so seriously. I think that’s what I love about Ivan, too, that sense that whatever you want to call her is totally fine by him. Makes me think of your comment on DK’s post about the Elvis-gel and lipstick combination, and my own encounter with the hot butch in the blue eyeliner. It’s that genderfuckery that makes butch something extra special, at least to me. Thanks for chiming in.

  3. I think this is an interesting post, because it’s not at all how I look at things, and not at all what I meant for my post to be!

    I don’t think of butch as being on a line at all. I think of butch as being a category, and within that category there are types. People might change from one type to another as they grow and change, but there is no “this person is a true butch,” which is the feeling I get you’re fighting with, here. It’s like saying I’m a tomboy; there are lots of different types of tomboy, so now someone knows what category I’m in, but not the specifics. Am I the type who wants to play soccer? Climb trees? Hang out with the guys? Dress as a tomboy but not really get too filthy? I see butch as the same thing. Okay, so someone’s butch. That gives me a general idea of what to expect, but not the specifics. What pronouns do they prefer? Are they chivalrous? Who are they attracted to? Do they enjoy having their breasts and genitalia touched, or do they not want that? “Butch” only tells me so much, and there isn’t a measuring scale for who makes the cut. I also consider it all transgendered. To my way of thinking, transgendered applies when the gender that was thrust upon you as a kid doesn’t fit. At that point, you’re transitioning from one gender to another — it might not be a gender that has an obvious label, but it’s not the one people tried to force on you, either.

    As for butch and it being a female identity, I said something about this in our discussion at my blog (it won’t let me respond to you directly anymore, so you’ll have to look at the comments!), but I’ll repeat here in case you didn’t see it. 😉 There’s a school of thought that butch (and femme) can only be female identities. There’s another that they can only be queer identities, but for any sex. And a third that they can be identities for anyone of any sex or sexual orientation. I, personally, agree with these last two: if we’re trying to separate gender and sex, and we say butch and femme are gender identities then I don’t think we can say butch or femme can then ONLY go with a particular sex. So in that case, I’d argue that it isn’t a solely female identity.

    In a slightly different sense, I’d argue that saying it must be a solely female identity — even if it’s only being used for females — puts restrictions on it. It means that anyone who isn’t comfortable being female can’t claim butch — or can claim it, but it’s now going to feel uncomfortable for them, just as the term ‘woman’ doesn’t feel comfortable and female pronouns don’t feel comfortable. I don’t think it’s right to tell a subsect of the population that they either have to be uncomfortable or find a different identity.

    To flip your argument around, what’s wrong with saying it’s not a solely female identity? With saying that people who are other-gendered, neither male nor female, can also use butch? While, from what I’ve seen, most butches consider themselves female, there are some who are uncomfortable enough with that word to want a different one. Why should we tell them they have to ID as female in order to be butch? Why can’t they be an estrogen-based-organism without using a word that makes them uncomfortable?

    As for where, at the end of it, you are — I’d say that if you feel butch, you’re butch. You’re just a different type of butch than the ones who aren’t comfortable using female pronouns. 😉


    • Reading the first part of your response, I’m wondering if this isn’t somehow my version of the anxiety you went through in coming to grips with claiming the term “femme” for yourself. There’s that sense that somehow, somewhere, there’s a yardstick being held up, and a standard I’m not sure I can meet. It’s interesting to me how much I looked at you when you were going through that and was all – why are you fretting? Of course you’re femme. There isn’t just one way to be femme! And here you are basically saying the same thing back to me: butch comes in a myriad of flavors. If you think you’re one of them, you are. Stop fretting.

      I definitely see what you’re saying about gender identity and sex not being colinear, and I agree. Actually that was kind of where I was trying to go with my argument that butch isn’t just a waypoint on some imaginary line from female to male. A person could identify as completely female and butch. Or he could identify as completely male and butch. Or ze could identify somewhere in the middle, and still be butch.

      For the last, boy am I starting to regret my use of the phrase “wholly female identity,” because I think it confused the issue. I’m not trying to say I think butch must be a wholly female identity, I’m asking if it can be, because everywhere I look, I see butch defined as “not female” and that seems too restrictive.

      I’d certainly never tell someone they had to identify as female to call themselves butch, but I think there should be room in the definition that would allow for a person to identify as both butch and female, too. That’s the definition I am having a hard time finding as I explore this culture, and that’s why my question.

      Anyway, thanks for the interesting fodder for thought. *grin*

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