Rev. Emily C. Heath

Claiming Butch Identity

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | January 05, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: butch, gender, gender nonconformity, transmasculine

"So, are you going to transition?"

butch-pride.jpgIt's the question I get a lot these days. Although I've been a butch since I came out at 18 (and, arguably, for years before that... see my toddler pictures), it has only been in the past few years that I have gotten that question.

I moved to Massachusetts from the South in 2008 and suddenly I was no longer a butch to queer folks, but instead some variation of transman. Many of the new people I met heard the androgynous nickname I use, which is actually just my last name, and assumed I had either already transitioned or was about to do so.

I want to be clear that I am, as much as an ally can be, incredibly trans supportive. I have lobbied at the state house for trans rights. I know guys who have had transitioned and had gender confirmation surgery and it was the best possible choice for them. I support them and love them and affirm them and honor the fact that they have risked everything to be their authentic selves. However, that doesn't mean that transitioning is the right choice for me.

It shouldn't be that one has to defend their gender, but recently I've been challenged on this by people who feel I should transition, and I feel the need to explain why I choose not to do so.

First and foremost, I am not male. I may have genderqueer tendencies, and I may enjoy playing in the middle of the two binary genders. It may make me masculine, but that is different than being male. The two are not intrinsically linked.

For me transition would be a false claiming of an identity that is not mine. I will admit, I have thought about it. I have processed it, talked with dozens of others, and weighed the pros and cons. I decided that if it felt right I would do it. But, in the end, it didn't. Indeed, for me personally the only reason to transition would be to gain male privilege and greater acceptance. For me, that's the wrong reason to do it and an insult to transmen who transition for other, heroic reasons.

I decided that no one is going to force me out of a female biological body because I do not fit the societal definition of what it means to be sexed female. Instead, I claim this space and my body. I choose, as I do in golf, to "play it as it lies" and to live into my full butchness in this body I was born into. I choose not to change myself for the comfort of others or to make things intellectually easier for them.

But sometimes I feel frustrated. This may sound like sour grapes, but sometimes it feels like butches are the forgotten remnant of the queer community. There are trans pride flags, scholarships, and celebrations. There was even a documentary made about a FTM minister in my denomination. I think all of those things are great. Really great. But, where is the same recognition for butches who also live with non-binary genders every day?

This is not about transmen getting too much. This is about transmen finally starting to get the good things they deserve, and the hope that butches one day will as well.

As a theologian I believe that we are all created by God to be our true selves. So long as someone is being their true self, whether butch, trans, or otherwise, I support them. But as a community we owe it to all of God's children to recognize their struggles and their identity. This is true regardless of whether they have ever stood with a needle to inject hormones or gone under the knife for surgery. If you are doing what you can to be yourself, that in itself is worthy of praise. My hope is one day both identities will be celebrated enthusiastically. But before that we will have to look at our own issues with our discomfort with non-binary gender. It's a long road, and it's one that both cisgender, transgender, and genderqueer folks together are going to have to advocate.

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Once again, a beautifully written article!!

I think that the basic goal of feminism and the LGBTIQ movement is to acquire agency over our bodies and our future. This means that we should be able to construct our own identities without the need to fit into any neat category created for us. Once we are free of all the baggage our gendered society has given us, we can truly and honestly express ourselves as we truly are.

Regarding "butches", I do not know if I completely understand your criticism. Are you defining "butch" as a lesbian who defies the gender binary but feels no desire to transition? Or, are you referring to the butch/femme dynamic that was common among the lesbian community before the rise of second wave feminism? Can you clarify?

"Or, are you referring to the butch/femme dynamic that was common among the lesbian community before the rise of second wave feminism?"
So glad the butch/femme dynamic is alive and well! in every part of the country that I travel to...

@Emily, thank you so much for writing this. Of course you should be who you are and not who anyone else imagines you 'should' be. I'm also very thankful you wrote this in such a way as to not make it into an "butch vs. trans" conflict. I fully support butch women as complete in and of themselves and not as some silly cliche about people who are too chicken to transition or are too 'old school.' There are, seemingly, a lot of conflicts and defensiveness between butches, transmasculine genderqueer people and trans men. This is a shame because each group should be able to live their lives without being ratted on or ratting on others. And that someone can need to medically transition (or not) without belittling the differing choices and needs of others.

Excellent article. You nailed it on the head: if you're not male, there's no reason to transition. Being male (in this case) would be a prerequisite to consider transition, but not a conclusion. No one is required to transition even if they do have a gender identity other than their birth sex.

The term transgender is meant to include anyone who has a gender identity or expression which transgresses what is societally mandated for your birth sex. So a butch identity can be considered transgendered. It's been only in the last few years that we've been using "transgender" and "transsexual" interchangably which has conflated the terms. So you can be transgender without being transsexual. But you also aren't required to consider yourself transgendered just because you're butch.

It took me a very long time to sort out the difference between being a butch dyke and trans. And anyone who is faced with the same question has to be given the freedom to deal with it at their own pace and come to their own conclusions.

You are so right Rory. Primaryrequirement for transgender is that it is for self identification only. No other person can decide if you are transgender. An effeminate gay man is an effeminant gay man unless he decides he is transgender. A butch lesbian is a butch lesbian unless she declares herself otherwise. And they and we all are allowed to change our self identification.

The same applies to a transsexual. Only the transsexual knows if he or she is transsexual. And that definition is open to change once they complete all they desire as part of transition, regardless whether GRS is part of the transition.

I know quite a few heterosexual male men that live full time as women, and even have the breasts of a woman. Many identify as crossdressers. Some as Non-Op transsexuals. Others I do not know about as I do not ask their status. I just treat them as they present. The ones I do know about, I know about because they offered the information.

I myself have been asked when I plan to "have the surgery". I do not identify as transsexual, only as "gender bender" and "transgender". I have transitioned, but transitioned to a non-traditional gender expression person.

Precisely. Which is why something feels inauthentic or perhaps just incomplete here. Being male while physically female is a prerequisite to considering transitioning. So why did the author consider transitioning if the prerequisite wasn't met?

That's a good question, Sarah. But it would be unfair for anyone to answer it other than the author of the article.

Sarah, I would describe it this way. I felt masculine, but not male. Some see that alone as reason to transition, which is their choice. But, for me, it was not the right option. I ask that you not call my own path and decision making process "inauthentic".

What are your thoughts on the use of the term trans versus intersex?

Hi Westwood. The two terms describe different situations entirely, though some people with both identities overlap. Intersex is a medical term for those with the biological characteristics of both sexes. Transgender is more about gender identity.

Bravo again Heath. Know that many femmes are behind you even though they too, feel that they cannot publicly support butches, due to the name-calling that is loud and strong.
We thank god for those of you who are true to yourself, and transition when that is right for you, and don't transition when that is right for you.
And we thank you for being brave and speaking out publicly.

Tony Soprano | January 5, 2011 10:40 PM

You go, Rev! What a eloquent and thoughtful essay.

David Brian Holt | January 5, 2011 10:56 PM

OK, I admit I'm certainly no expert on lesbian culture. But it seems like this dynamic was more common before the 1980s than after it. I think even Leslie Feinberg talks about how these labels had more meaning in the 1950s and 60s than they do today.

There does seem to be something about these labels in the lesbian community that really don't have a corollary in the gay male community. The terms "top" and "bottom" used by gay males doesn't seem to carry the same significance as "butch" and "femme" do in the lesbian community. Among gay males, they signify sexual behavior, albeit with a strong connection to gender role expectations (you commonly see the terms "butch top" and "femme bottom"). But these terms are also used contrary to gender expectations ("muscle bottom" and the like). Among the lesbian community, the terms "butch" and "femme" seem to signify, at least to me, a term that describes a whole culture with its own spaces, vocabulary, history and etc.

What do you think? :)

David, the gay male community also had their equivalent of butch/femme...often called butch and nellie. But that got really repressed post-Stonewall--so much so that there are few traces of that culture left in the major coastal areas.

I think there was a backlash against butch/femme that caused many people to feel ashamed/unsafe/repressive of that kind of gender expression in the 60's and 70's. So maybe that's why you're thinking of it as "before" a certain time because there was a tendency toward more of an androgynous or "practical feminine" lesbian gender presentation for a while. The second movie in If These Walls Could Talk addresses that conflict. But butch/femme is not dead by any means.

"Top" and "bottom" don't necessarily have anything to do with "butch" and "femme". Partners who assume "top", "bottom" (or "switch") roles, may neither present as "butch" nor "femme" or may present as ANY combination thereof.

Hooray for being who you are, Reverend Emily. No one should have to explain that. Janice Joplin said, "don't compromise yourself, it's all you've got." Good words for anyone to live by.

@David - Butch and femme identity are both alive and well. There was a time when butch/femme culture was shunned in the lesbian community because it was falsely assumed to be heteronormative. In recent years, though, both identities have been reclaiming their space.

I think one thing that is important to note is that a butch need not be with a femme, nor a femme with a butch. A butch can date another butch, for instance. Also, old ideas about who is the more dominant, etc. are no longer applicable. What matters is that the person is able to be who they are with whom they want.

Sorry, please feel free to delete my comment that was redundant and not as well stated! I should read all comments before jumping in next time :)

Really good article and glad this is getting voiced. And I'm saying that from the transmen perspective.

There is really the same problem expereinced by different people depending on the environment they're in. In a more lesbian-aware place, transmen will get asked "Why not just be butch?" and in a more trans-aware place, butch lesbians will get asked "why not transition?". And both show a complete lack of understanding, which sadly is common in the lgbt world nearly as much as outside it.

Thinking a butch lesbian wants to be a man, is as rediculous as thinking a transman is transitioning out of some denial about being a lesbian (Try telling that to the many transmen who are only interested in other men!).

It comes down to the confusion between 4 things:
Gender: which is a spectrum from masculine to femenine (or vice versa)
Sex: which is a biological definition, usually on one of two poles (male & female), but with a scattering of other points, and many running over toward the other pole.
Sexual Orientation: another spectum, and a totally seperate issue from ther others
Society-constructed gender stereotypes: The whole "men fix the car, women do the sewing" thing.. which CAN get self-adopted by choice , but is usually perpetuated by habit/what they were taught/peer pressure

People need to come to terms with these being four totally seperate things which can show up in any combination.. or even have fluidity within a person. A lot of progress has been made in most people understanding that gender and orientation are sepeate things, and that sex and gender stereotpes are seperate thing, but there's a lot more road to tread before most peopel you meet will have a complete understanding of how the 4 interact and differ.

And while these sort of things can be explained to people (at least until having to keep explaining drives you insane), I think there's another part of this thats much harder to solve. That sometimes, even with your best try at observation and deduction, you just genuinly can't tell if an certain individual is butch or transman. Or some misinterpreted clue sends you guessing the wrong way. People may attempt to carefully tiptoe aroudn the issue hunting for clues, the same way you would if you were preeeety sure a womans pregnant but afraid to mention it in case it's just a conspiracy of weight and how her clothes fit.

I do hope that people become more aware of the differences between Butch and Trans and that these are two very seperate things, but I don't think that'll stop even the most aware people from sometimes getting it wrong.

And while recognition is on the cards, I want to give a mention to all the lesbian transwomen.. whether they be femme, butch, or neither (because they're as varied as non-trans women too).

Oh and thank you for making it clear that transmen don't transition to gain male privilage.

And sorry.. this got really long but I can't bare to shorten it.

Your information is out of date, I'm afraid. It is now scientifically well-established that being transsexual is a neurological intersex condition.

I'm sorry, but just because you say your theory is well established, Desiree, doesn't make it so. You know damn well that there are other theories, and that many experts do not subscribe to yours.

So to blithely dismiss other information, and present yours as if it were gospel, is disingenuous.

Oh really? Can you name even one legitimate expert who, in light of the current evidence, denies that transsexuality is a neurological condition rather than a psychological disorder?

I think your own use of the term "disorder" is a bit loaded, Desiree. Just like the whole "nature vs. nurture" bit with homosexuality, there are those who see it as genetic/biological/neurological and there are those who see it as a normal variant psychology. I'm not making an argument for either one here, I'm just saying that it's possible to view something as psychologically-based without seeing it as a disorder. It's like someone having a different personality. It doesn't make it wrong or abnormal; just different. I think there are some scientists or advocates for trans people who may see it that way.

If you really want to convince somebody of a claim, you can always cite multiple reputable sources that agree with that claim. If a bunch of organizations like the APA have all released statements saying being transgender is a neurological thing, then just point Rory over to them and your point is proven.

I don't want to detract from the point Reverend Emily is making, Desiree. The fact is, however, that transsexualism does exist. I think the Reverend makes that point very well. There is a lot of revulsion expressed toward transsexual people. That can even be found among people who see themselves as gender queer or transgender. Transgender, because who can describe what that is? The term is so vague. I just recall an exchange with a crossdresser I had who had a very pretty picture of him/herself posted on a profile page where this person insisted I had OCD.

When you make your claim about "experts" you are opening pandora's box and welcoming autogynephiles like Ann Lawrence and the people at the CAMH/Northwestern who have given her the soapbox she stands on. All of these people cite various "neurological" influences. Eric Vilain is starting to look into chromosomal mosaicism, which is fairly common among humans. All this is glossed over by the "transgender" writers who seem to be like ostriches with their heads in the sand. I think Rory was making a veiled reference to these people, who have done enormous harm to transsexual people who will never be taken seriously and will have any rights they have, now, imperiled through the political influence of these charlatans who rely on data obtained in the most invasive ways and there Rube Goldberg contraptions.

There are plenty of other researchers who see things much differently than the CAMH/Northwestern crowd who are pretty much silenced. Robert Moses, Stanley Ecker and Milton Diamond to name a few. I don't think one has to resort to the Swaab BSTc studies to realize that for a good many people who are transsexual sense of self and the body are closely involved with each other.

The mere mention of Harry Benjamin is enough to bring ridicule down on a person. It is very unfortunate that his name was hijack by a bunch rigid fundamentalist people with transsexual backgrounds. There has, however, been a political move to erase the understanding he had of transsexualism. Few people understand that there were clinics all over the country known as "gender identity clinics" that have been shut down for a long time. Gender identity is a term associated with John Money. Paul McHugh took over the program at Johns Hopkins, which had been run by Money who set up the first gender identity clinic, there.

There is a lot of controversy involved with the way Money ran some of his programs at Johns Hopkins. Things changed abruptly when McHugh came on board. The CAMH/Northwestern theories are most compatible with McHugh's right wing Catholic prejudices, his political agenda, and his efforts to obscure a lot of controversial work that had been going on at the Johns Hopkins for a while.

The assertion Josh makes about sex being "polar" is at the root of a lot of the problem. There are many cases where sex does not exist at one pole or the other. Money's work at the Johns Hopkins served to obscure this fact, through normalizing medical treatments designed to reinforce a sex of rearing based on sex changing genital surgeries and then conditioning his patients to accept the gender assigned to them. There were many unhappy people, however. This is a big problem for hospitals that perform such treatments. The Virginia inmate who is suing the DOC there for 25 million gives you some sort of idea of the problems involved for McHugh if some of these people live with a gender identity that has been imposed on them that cause a great deal of unhappiness and, often enough, trauma.

Another huge problem for recognition of transsexualism and intersex is defining sex for legal purposes. It is very difficult to define sex in many cases. Changing sex creates the kind of problems seen that Nikki Araguz is facing with the state of Texas. The ambiguous circumstances surrounding her birth add to the dilemma for the right wingers like McHugh who want to see marriage defined as between one "man" and "one woman".

Transsexualism is very complex. There are all kinds of human sex variations people live with when they encounter the world around them. I don't think there is any kind of magic bullet sort of etiology, which I think is a good thing. 43% of Harry Benjamin's transsexual patients were hypogonadal, however. That fact seems to provide overwhelming evidence that there is neurological involvement for at least a very large percentage of transsexual people. The way things like that are interpreted is perverted by researchers who refuse to acknowledge the fact of actual sex diversity and insist on clinging to the dichotomous fallacy that sex is polar and anything that comes along to prove that isn't the case is disordered.

I follow what Anne Fausto-Sterling says when quoting Elizabeth Grosz which is that sex and gender, biology/environment are and interactive phenomenon. I know it is possible to change sexual aspects of the body and a person's nature. I think the problems arise when people are simply regarded as two distinctly separate sexes, however. We are not created like completely separate positive and negative electrical charges. Biology is much more complicated.

I don't have the time for this. I didn't want to hijack Reverend Emily's thread. The question of transsexualism was brought into it. Just as Reverend Emily does not want to be confused for being something she is not, neither do I. Butch Lesbians, Femme Gay Men, Intersex people and men and women of transsexual all exist. None of us is disordered. We're all just a natural part of nature which is very diverse and make life beautiful and fascinating.

Thank you all for your comments on this, and the emerging ideas on all sides. I appreciate it. But, since this article is not about intersex issues, but about butch identity, could this discussion be continued elsewhere? I'm very aware that the original post was about butches not getting the space to discuss our own identity, and now it sort of feels like the discussion is once again being moved away from us.

No apologies needed. I do enjoy the discussion, and your contributions.

I get carried away and forget where I am. I wish the comments that were made previous to mine weren't brought up in this discussion.

I've known a lot of butch women who are married in heterosexual relationships as well as women who are lesbian and butch. I hope you don't mind me adding that. I hope you don't think I'm conflating butch identity with intersex or equating intersex with transsexualism, either.

The discussion came up due to your own comment which erroneously stated that intersex and transgender are "different situations entirely".

@Desiree - that was a tangential comment in the comments about a question someone asked. As I explained, the two identities can overlap. But, since this is not an article about the issue, this really isn't the place for this.

And absolutely wonderful article, and so soreley needed to take the dusty air out of the room of LGBT discussion where Butch issues often are overlooked, airily dismissed or simply ignored....and I am saying this as a Femme....bless you for writing this.

First, I think your post was wonderful and well put. I know a number of MBTs who have felt pressure to ID as butch women, in many cases from the women who identify as lesbian with whom they have a relationship. Pressure to conform with one or another stereotype happens all over.

With specific regard to the distinction between trans and intersex, I believe that trans is a *kind* of intersex - one in which genetic predispositions and ontologial development result in an individual with a somewhat "normal" genital tract development, but with a brain with some sex-related wiring matching up with that of the "opposite" sex.

One genetic predisposition found for WBTs has to do with a "long androgen receptor" gene. One found for MBTs is a gene that allows the production of amino acids that process testosterone more efficiently. Having different genetic bases hypothetically explains the apparent incidence disparity estimate of 1/10,000 for MBT, and 1/30,000 for MBT.

The ontlogical development is where other differences crop up - some develop along the other brain blueprint "more" than others.

As a result, someone who identifies as very butch, but still a woman, might have a similar genetic situation, but a different ontological path, than one who identifies as MBT. And there should be a gray area, too, where some might feel themselves more or less "on the fence" about transition.

The bottom line, though, is wherever one finds oneself in terms of gender identity, it's all good - no one is better or worse than any other one.

We don't yet hae all the whys and wherefores on the science end of things, but between the BSTc studies, and the separate Australian genetic studies from 2008, the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together.

Thank you for this article! There is also the femme's perspective. I have always desired a female body beneath, and reified by, masculinity. No touches of femininity please. I used to live in Northampton, MA where I knew students at Smith (and Mt. Holyoke nearby) who were demeaned for being butch and not "going all the way."

Butch is not a way-station en route to male. The beauty of being a butch-loving femme is that my role is to appreciate, desire and validate that masculinity which rests precariously on a visibly queer butch. And in turn I am desired and appreciated for my queer femininity which is not merging into heterosexuality.

This is a really good article and I honestly thank you for it.

I find it terribly disrespectful for people to ask things such as "when are you going to transition?" or some-such. It's presumptive at best.

Everyone is best off being themselves.
On this we can agree, though we may very well disagree on most other things.
Rock on.

I can promise you that for each time someone asks you if you're going to transition, I've been asked ten times why I did.

This thread is neither about gender theory nor intersex issues... why is it this discussion even needs to happen here? Nor is the OP in any way dismissing any biological issues. I wish people would respect the OP's original intent. :(

Agreed. And since Rev Heath has specifically asked for the thread to stay on topic, feel free to report any off-topic comments.

As an older butch who is in a butch butch relationship, thank you for your article. It voices something my partner and I have talked a lot about. I have never felt male, but at times have passed for a man because it was easier in the real world to do that temporarily.
The reaction to butches has been similar for generations - we have always been on the edges. I am ashamed to say I did it to older butches in the 70's when I was first coming out and everyone was androgenous. Butches were considered old school and not PC. Then I realized I wasn't androgenous -I was Butch.
It's like a diagram from math- when you have 3 overlapping circles butch, femme and trans. People in the area where they overlaps are going to have a very fluid life.

Thanks again

"I decided that no one is going to force me out of a female biological body because I do not fit the societal definition of what it means to be sexed female. Instead, I claim this space and my body. I choose, as I do in golf, to "play it as it lies" and to live into my full butchness in this body I was born into. I choose not to change myself for the comfort of others or to make things intellectually easier for them."

BRAVA! Beautifully written! And may I add what a PLEASURE to read the experience and perspective of a butch lesbian woman here at TBP :)

Because this is what the OP is about... a butch lesbian woman.

It has been maddening/frustrating and silencing many times whenever the butch or femme lesbian women discussion is presented by members of the greater umbrella queer LGBTQ community, all to often become DERAILED.

Thanks so much for this article! I have never felt wrong in my body the way that many transfolk describe -- I love being female-bodied and identifying as a woman, and I have never loathed my body's sex. What I loathe and cannot stand dealing with is the femme costume -- having to wear girly pants (with no decent pockets!), girly shirts (made of lighter material that doesn't stand up to my day-to-day treatment), girly underwear (I have to make an exception for the over-the-shoulder boulder holders, but I wear the least femme varieties I can find), and girly accessories make me feel viscerally ill, after years and years of trying to get used to being femme. I have always looked like I was in drag when I dressed femme.

So I wear men's clothes! I cut my hair short! And I cope with being "sir"red by being amused rather than offended. But even my own /mother/ asked me (not in so many words, but in discomfort and implication) if I was on my way to transition. I had to explain to her that I was butch, but was perfectly happy as a woman. It was funny and disturbing at the same time.

I'm grateful there are other butches out there, talking about this. I know that sometimes, butch is a stepping-stone to FTM transition. But sometimes, a butch is just a butch!

As a trans man, there is nothing I like better than butch women who are willing to go against the notion that masculinity equals male. The sad part is that we have to prove how politically supportive we are before we are allowed to defend our identities. It's bullshit. I look forward to the day when one doesn't have to delineate the multiple ways in which you advocate for the trans community in order to claim your butch space and vice-versa.

Thank you so much. Pro-butch does NOT mean anti-trans or anti-FTM. It hurts my heart to know that butch is not recognized as its own valid identity by some in the community.

As a lifetime lover of butches, I completely support butches getting their own awesome recognition simply for being addition to, not instead of, those that transition. I've been lucky enough to live in large urban areas (SF and DC) where butch brunches have started. Again, not an anti-trans space, all are welcome, as long as one identifies as butch. And no, I have not lurked outside to check out all the hotness. Yet. :)

Thanks again for writing down one of the conversations I've been having for the last ten plus years. You rock.

My radical mom taught me well. I tend to not make assumptions based on what I think I am perceiving, instead I just ask people directly. I am better informed and more respectful that way.

For lots of other reasons as well, including that my visual and social cues are formed from a different culture. And another reason is that I believe that peoples' self perception and self definition trumps all else anyway.

We are all on a journey as we age and mature. The more time we take to understand and support each other in our own communities and subcommunities, the more power we have to unify and gain more civil rights.

I appreciate the clarity with which you write, and I appreciate your perspective. Interesting ensuing discussions. Interesting, time-stamped discussions. I like to remember that we are just passing through phases of social history. In 10-20 years, this will seem like an outdated paradigm, just like my mom's days seem like that now...and hopefully we keep learning from each other...oh and shaping the world...

Signed a femme admirer :)

Preciocilla | January 6, 2011 8:29 PM

The pressure on butch women to transition is a MAJOR problem (and has been for years), so I am very appreciative of this kind, HONEST conversation. Many will insist that any mention of this is anti-trans, which unfortunately usually prevents respectful dialogue. Thanks for this!

I cannot believe how many of the comments are discussing trans identity and definition in a post where we were asked to consider butch identity. I think the point of this post is proven in the comments!

Lynn Miller | January 6, 2011 9:26 PM

What a wonderful article. Thank you, Emily, for your courage and your leadership. I've missed your earlier essays, but will read them soon. I'm so glad you are here and speaking out. I want to believe we will all learn and grow from your words.

Wow. That was amazingly well put! I love butchies!!!

I, for one, love butch lesbians.

Not to denigrate any other expression or choice -- but I would be sad to see too much of a reduction in the numbers of dapper, handsome, hot butch lesbians.

Heath, great article.

Here's a flip side. Everyone always thought I was butch...but knew that wasn't right...but I couldn't figure out what *was* right. Then I figured it out. I was a transman. Then when I went to transition, I got all sorts of hassle. "Why was I joining the enemy" blah, blah, blah. All from people whose interest in my identity was really about their identity: i.e. they were lesbians who liked dating what they saw as butches and not men and they wanted to be able to date me. I transitioned anyway. I gained male privilege (which isn't fun when you understand what it is), and lost an entire community. Since I've transitioned ten years ago, I haven't dated once. Because I want to date people who see me for what I am (a man) and not for what I'm not (some sort of extra-butch lesbian). So transition certainly has it's downsides--though I wouldn't change my decision, because body dysphoria is no fun at all.

Numerous times now, I have heard that butches are getting pressure to transition. And that is terrible. If you get pressure from transmen, I apologize. There is no reason to pressure someone else into doing something in order to make one feel more secure in their own identity. That is selfish and irresponsible. I, for one, honor my butch sisters.

Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that, having been in the Army with a butch culture that has an unbroken tie to pre-Stonewall butch culture. Where butch was a serious identity. I think this particular sort of assault on butchness really stems from the 90s rise of queer theory/culture wherein being butch (or femme) is not an identity but a performance that one put on or take off at will--and so when someone sees a butch who isn't playing or performing, people assume they must be transexual.

Butches have been attacked from various angles ever since there have been butches, pre-Stonewall by society, post-Stonewall by lesbian-feminists and society...and post queer-theory by queers who dismantle the identity by making it only a performance, like donning a jacket (and still lesbian-feminists and society). It hurts my heart that some transmen might be joining the long parade of people who have worked to erase butches.

Heath, just so you know, I (also in Massachusetts now) stand in solidarity with you. And not because I want to date you. But because I honor *you.* For who you are. For your courage to be true to yourself. For the ways in which you make society a little bit better for everyone being who you are. You are fabulous!

"There was a time when butch/femme culture was shunned in the lesbian community because it was falsely assumed to be heteronormative. In recent years, though, both identities have been reclaiming their space."

I believe that this statement could use a little MORE attention and highlighted. I am constantly amazed w/the greater queer community labeling butch/femme as "heteronormative".

This points out TWO things to me:
1- equating butch lesbians as male.
2- how little visible lesbian sexuality is given space, to actually speak for themselves w/in the larger queer community.

Your OP makes the specific point of there being very little butch lesbian visibility. Many of the comments here are proof of EXACTLY that point, in dismissing the butch lesbian, female body positive message you have so beautifully written.

Great article. This is the flip side of trans guys being regularly asked "why not just be a butch lesbian?" (assuming, wrongly, that we must be attracted to women and be masculine - neither of which is uniformly true). People, even LGBTQIAA-aware people, often just don't get that we're different, that trans guys aren't some extreme form of butch.

Thanks for taking it in stride and not wavering in your support of us and our freedom to live our lives. What do you think we as trans men can do to help promote positive awareness of butch women and butch identities?

Aunti Laura | January 8, 2011 1:20 PM

Thank you so much for this article, it really shows the pressure placed on women in our lesbian community, that butches are men and not women, just men in waiting. Butches are women. period.

I feel strongly that when women transition to men, they are not longer part of the lesbian community and should seek their support and community in that of men. You cannot have it both ways. If you are a man, you cannot hang out with me and my lesbian friends at a lesbian event. If you are a man, you are not a lesbian.

When I go to women's events, I want to be there with women. I respectfully ask that transmen accept their own transition and the price of being their authentic selves is losing their part in the women's community.

Well said, Heath! You go, girl!

I would say the situation we should all be fighting for is that butch women should not be pressured to transition, trans men should not be pressured to not transition, and people who are unsure of their identities should be encouraged and enabled to find themselves.

Louisiana Elle | January 9, 2011 2:33 PM

Thank you for this article. A group of us were discussing this in depth yesterday and how we feel that the "butch" lesbian is disappearing as time continues.

Thanks for this article. It's interesting how people boil down gender to one or two minimalistic characteristics at a time. I once had a classmate, upon hearing about a trans man who was attracted to men and loved cock, exclaim "Why didn't he just stay a woman, then?" He could only conceive of the impact transitioning would have on the gender of one's partner, as if being a straight woman and a gay man are essentially the same thing, and as if dating a gay man or a straight man is the same experience.

From a butch trans woman experience, I can say it's very common to hear "Why didn't you just stay a man?" -- the same inability to distinguish between butch women and men that you discuss. I find it quite hilarious how I or other butch trans women sometimes are seen as cis butch women (or pre-transition trans men) and are asked the same intrusive questions suggesting we should transition that you are talking about.

thank you for such an articulate and genuinely wholehearted set of words that describe a tricky experience and environment to navigate.

I enjoyed reading this thoughtful article, which very eloquently described out an issue that I wish people would understand a little better. So thank you for writing about this.

I have read and shook my head at the bias embraced by those who don't live the life, as in walking in the shoes that fit, but rather feel they must make their say about how others are and should express themselves...

I am biofemale, I am lesbian, I am Butch. I prefer the term bigendered, to transgendered. I will stay the way I am, because I know...who I am.
I also know that I am part of a very small percentage of the trans-population, there are times when my brain tells my body I am male...dysphoria and all... but, I am NOT a man. I do not what to be a man.
I want to be a lesbian, who expresses my naturally produced testosterone levels in a masculine way... toward another female who wants to enjoy that from me and who wants to express hereself in a feminine way toward me, that I will enjoy.

The way I am.. works just fine as is... no 'trans' of any kind is needed.

(and mostly for the fun of it)
I also add to the discussion and possible confusion, that I dress fem most of the time, I like the term Lipstick Butch, I was tagged with that lable (in affection) before I ever heard or found it on the internet... does my manner of dressing change my status as a Butch? NO it does not... I act the same, I feel the same, love the same.

"Butch" is a state of mind and being... and maybe you just have to be IT to really understand it.
And maybe it just takes the right Femme, to really appreciate it.

Thank you all for the thoughtful comments. I did want to bring up one point. A lot of the comments assumed that a butch automatically considers themselves a woman. Certainly there are butches for whom that is a strong part of their identity. But there are also some who see butch as a gender in itself. For those butches, referring to them as "girls" or "women" could feel very uncomfortable. What I am really asking in this article is how do we open up space for people for whom the binary genders no longer feel relevant?

Rev. Heath,
That is part of what I wanted to get across. A large portion of my day is spent in the mindset of MALE.. even tho I chose to dress as a female, other than at home, (as that manner of expression is very personal to me). Yeah, sometimes I feel like a dude in drag and I wince/chuckle inside when addressed as 'Maam'...but that is ok...I do what works for me.

My close friends and family address me with male pronouns... I know that I am VERY blessed that I have family and friends (tho few in number) who accept me for who I really am. Oddly enough they are ALL cis-gendered/straight orientation.

I don't exisit in this world to shock other people. So I only bother to explain my way of being, to those who I know need the infomation and in places like this. (..and I have lost friends and chances of friendship, because of the explaination). I hope others who don't fit the rubber stamp lables of the world around us will be encouraged by what I can share.

I feel gratitude for those in my life that accept me and hope to be able to help others find the same acceptance I have enjoyed, in their own lives. And through it all, I want to honor God and give God the credit for all the good in my life. Thank you Rev. for the opportunity to do so.

I am very glad to see the survival and perhaps resurgence of butch identity clearly stated, both by the OP and by some other commenters. I am a trans woman, but I’m only going to address that tangentially, in order to explore something about my partner’s being “butch.” As I transitioned, I went from a relatively butch self-expression to a relatively femme, and correspondingly, my partner went from a relatively femme to a relatively butch. I let my hair grow; she cut hers. Where once she would have taken my arm as we strolled along, now I take hers. She decides how we navigate the choices as we stroll, she decides when we have sex, she drives the car, and usually she pays the bill at restaurants. She works the farm; I clean the house. Where I might smile politely, preserving peace and swallowing my disappointment, she becomes proactive and fixes the problem at the roots. Under stress I might whine, but she will become angry.

As I began my transition, she began hers, and part of this for her was a sudden questioning of her sex identity – as she took on “masculine” traits she began to wonder if she wanted or needed to transition. I was a bit surprised; having struggled with my own body-identity most of my life, here she was starting in on it overnight! Perhaps she felt some initial anxiety about openly displaying masculine traits in a female body. After a bit she realized that she felt like a woman and was genuinely comfortable with that. Her own “butchness” only became evident in relation to my femme; and that is how we settled on the term “futch,” meaning femme-butch. I’m not sure what work this word does for other people, but it seems to handle her identity quite nicely. She didn’t do that much to change herself, but she nonetheless changed dramatically, by virtue of the changing dynamics of our relationship. Her inner “feminine” and female core did not change, but the new qualities of our relationship highlighted her mostly pre-existing butch elements. And at first this was uncomfortable, not only because it made her doubt her sex identity, but also because her “inner male” was underdeveloped; she found that she hated that part of herself for awhile, and had to “grow it up,” much as I have had to do with my female self. I am so grateful that she has been willing to do this work, because it has allowed our relationship to change to continue to fit us as I transitioned. And also because I really respond, sexually and emotionally, to being loved in a butch way; I am as in love with her as futch as I ever was with her before, or more so, since I am much more at home with myself. How brave and authentic she is!

This discussion has largely quieted down on this awesome, thought-provoking post, I did want to bring up a point I didn't see anyone else bring up.

You said:
"For me, that's the wrong reason to do it and an insult to transmen who transition for other, heroic reasons."

I don't view my transition as heroic, and I don't think the reasons I used to decide to pursue it were anything more than morally neutral and pragmatic. I have never felt the need to justify the choice I made--I also have never felt that my need to transition was more pure than someone who wasn't a "knew from a very young age and had intense social and body dysphoria" sort of trans person. That all said--

I think something trans men and butches (of any assigned gender) have in common is that people will judge and make assumptions about our lives and choices in peculiarly similar ways. Much like you've done in this elegant essay, I think the appropriate way to handle that is to stress the mental and bodily autonomy of each person--and the need for supportive communities and lives lived without the discrimination we all face.

I lost most of my lesbian friends when I transitioned--which is just a historical fact at this point. I feel a certain kinship to butches because no community should be using either set of people (here, "trans men" and "butches") as some sort of point-making wedge issue. We are people, not rhetorical devices.

Thank you,