"The game is basically surviving as a being a butch woman"
I recently came across this documentary called 'The Butch Mystique' from 2003. It's a wonderful film in which 9 Black butch lesbians speak about their experiences, thoughts and feelings. I urge you to watch it. If you are a butch, you will feel like I did - relieved and excited to hear others voicing your experiences. You will feel less alone for a few minutes. If you are straight or queer, but not butch, you will certainly learn something about the butch experience. The perspective of Black butches is also something we can all stand to hear from. Being misread as a male is an issue all butches have, but in part 2, we hear what it's like to be misread as a Black male.
Watching this made me think about my own experiences, both with straight people and other lgbt people who do not share my experiences. Here are a few of them.
Am I trans? No. I have decided that some time ago. Butch women are women. I am a woman. Certainly though, my gender presentation is an integral part of my identity. I am read as male in most places. Even in the queer community, I feel a pressure to identify as trans at times. It's easier for people to understand, I think. Even myself. For some time when I was younger I played with it. I wore a packy, I bound my breasts (I really hate my breasts existence, even still I'm not comfortable with them), I took on a male name. Maybe I was a supposed to be a straight man? While I knew I would never be a feminine woman, I never felt quite right giving up my female identity completely. Eventually I realized that I could be both a woman and very masculine. Listening to the difference between the older and younger women in the documentary was interesting to me. I felt my identity as butch kind of disappearing recently. It was interesting to me to hear a younger woman talking about 'butch' as a title being for the older generation. It's clear that the name may not be used as often, but maybe butch isn't going away.
It's clear to me though, that sexual identity and gender identity are related in many people. Butch lesbians are a good example of this. While the gender and sexuality spectrums are not the same, they overlap in some people. As far as my experience, straight butch women are not really a thing. I have met many straight women who don't buy into the performance of gender, many who are more masculine than most, but I have never met anyone who I would consider a 'straight butch' (I reserve the right to change my mind if I ever meet one*). I have never met a straight woman who is butch like I am and like I recognize in this film. This is clearly a lesbian phenomenon as far as I can see. It cannot simply be that butches are just very close to trans men on the gender spectrum, just not quite there. That cannot be so, since we know that trans men come in all sexuality, but butch as I am and as is portrayed in this film, it seems, is a lesbian specific identity. It seems to me that butch is a lesbian identity which is inherently also on the trans spectrum somewhere.
Because of this, it is entirely possible to be homophobic by being transphobic. I feel my lesbian identity being assaulted when I hear an assault against a trans person. After all, I basically look like a non-passing trans man every day. In fact, often I can and do pass as a man. Frankly, it's safer to pass than not. Any trans person will tell you that and it is the same for me. So if I can get away with it by lowering my voice or not speaking much, sometimes I will. I had an entire 20 minute lowered-voice conversation with a cab driver once on my way to my mom's and had him tell me my mother should be proud of such a 'great son' at the end of it. I have no way of knowing whether he would have thought the same if he knew I was a woman but I didn't feel like finding out that day.
Another thought I had while watching this was that I, like some of these women, feel like I am in a small minority. It's not often that I find myself in a room with another butch. Queer people are everywhere, but those that share my unique experiences are far between for me, it seems. It was so refreshing to hear. The bathroom issues, the faked and forced femininity for family, the violence. The violence from men. The pain and hurt it causes that we don't acknowledge enough. The pain in this woman's face when she was speaking about men's reactions to her was so apparent and familiar to me. It crushed me because I recognized it as my truth as well.
Butches are subject to hatred and violence from men because we don't perform for them. Seriously. That is how much men expect women to please them. If you refuse too much, some will literally fight you. We stand in the furthest spot from pleasing them that they can think of - we are almost men. My experience has been one of three reactions from men. The first is the best and the one we all want to achieve: a normal dude with no hangups treats me like a normal person. The other two are not as positive. Either they hate me or they want to be my best friend because I am one of the guys, but as a woman, I can help them with other women or other such bullshit. While it's nice to be joked around with and treated well, I am well aware of the differences between how they treat me and how they treat other women. They don't see me as a real woman and that plays into so many lesbian stereotypes I can't even.
On the subject of stereotypes, I am aware that I embody them. So many lesbian stereotypes are basically about the freaky, ugly wanna-be-men butches. Lesbians all look like men, lesbians love power tools, lesbians all cut their hair short, lesbians are ugly (read: lesbians do not perform femininity for men - this is a big problem for them). I have heard from certain members of the lgbt community that "if i didn't insist on looking like such a dyke, I would experience less oppression". That is pretty close to a direct quote from one example, but I have heard this sentiment from many people both straight and lgbt.
The fact that I am the 'freak' the straight people latched onto to deride and mock lesbians means that I am bad for the cause to some people. I tend to rage pretty strongly against this line of thinking whenever I hear it winding up, but the reason I rage so hard is that this thought is already a part of my internal dialogue! I rage when I hear this because do you think I don't fucking know that? Of course if I looked and acted more like the 'ideal' straight white person that I would experience fewer problems. I don;t know if many butches talk about this, but the pressure to be anything but me is so strong. It seems so easy to just grow out your hair, wear clothes from the women's department, but it's not. I play with trying out women's things sometimes, maybe I should try and wear eyeliner? I could try that. Maybe I would look a tiny bit more like a woman and people would believe I was a woman? It wouldn't be much and I would still be me right? That eyeliner is gathering dust in my medicine cabinet right now. I'm just not cut out to be feminine.
I can't change. Even if I tried. Even if I wanted to.
* ETA: It is important to consider here that while at times, butch is used as an adjective, meaning something like masculinity, butch in the lesbian community is the name of a subcultural identity which has its own specific meaning as a lesbian identity in addition to simply being 'very masculine'. It has been noted that some lesbians find the use of the identifier butch by those of other groups to be appropriative and while I hadn't thought of that while writing this piece initially, I agree completely with that view. So when I say that "I have never met anyone who I would consider a 'straight butch'" I mean literally "who I would consider" in the sense of masculinity insofar as it pertains to my line of thinking regarding the trans spectrum and butch lesbians and not to say that I believe there is or should be considered such a thing as a straight (or any other group) butch identity.