Against the Freezing of the Category “Lesbian”

Jack called me out in a comment recently for my tendency to associate butch with female, lesbian, and “she”, pointing out that some butches do identify as trans and some, in addition, take male pronouns.   In another context, a self-described old school butch asked me not to make generalizations about how “butches don’t know how to be gay” (that is, have attractions to other masculine folks), protesting that she had fucked other butches as well as gay cis-males in the 80s, when it was not kosher to do so.  So I have been trying to challenge myself lately on my preconceptions about butch-kind.  To get a little autobiographical here, my tendency to make strong assertions about how I am through with butches, followed by a series of generalizations about butches is the product of my rancor at a series of disappointing experiences with pursuing, dating, and fucking butches.  Both my resolution to swear off butches and my conclusion that I am not the right sexual object for them have led me to magnify the differences between my kind and butch-kind.

I was reminded of other reasons I have for making certain assumptions about the category “butch” today when, while browsing facebook pages, I ran across the Butches Unlimited facebook group. Everything about this page is repellent and exclusionary to me, from the wink, wink, nudge, nudge sharing of the secret, “Pssst…butches are women, pass it on!” to the motto, “The pronoun SHE is all good with ME!” to the assurance, “We love being women, we love our female bodies, and we love YOUR female bodies”.

My gut reaction, on finding this group was first, to vomit and second, to retrench my butch stereotypes (actually, this group was worse than me – at least I don’t assume that butches LOVE being women and LOVE their female bodies!).  Now, I am not someone who would identify as either butch or lesbian regardless of how expansive these terms could be, but I’m interested in how reading such group descriptions makes me feel even more alienated from “butch” – as a way in which folks might misrecognize me, as a potential sexual partner, and even as a person with whom I might build a friendship.  How could I fully trust a category of masculine people that celebrates, in such an obviously reactionary way, womanhood, female bodies, lesbianism, and the pronoun “she”?

The whole group is a reactionary effort to separate butch from trans, an effort which many trans men perpetuate.  The policing of “he” and “she” as a matter of trans non-lesbian vs. butch lesbian politicizes the taking of one pronoun or the other as a matter of “choosing a camp” or “going over to the opposing camp”, in the words of a transgender butch friend of mine who used male pronouns in NYC for about two years, then switched back to female pronouns.  According to my friend, when he was using male pronouns, he was excluded from lesbian spaces as a presumed “man” co-opting women’s space.  In trans male spaces, on the other hand, he was disturbed by his presumptive inclusion in group rituals of misogyny, shit-talking about lesbians, and building group identity around differences from lesbians.  In all queer spaces, he was asked when (not if) he was going to start testosterone and have top surgery.  Since, for my friend, male pronouns were an expression of social masculinity, not of an intention to change his body nor of an identification as male rather than female, as trans rather than butch, or as anything other than a masculine butch lesbian, he found himself misrecognized, precisely by those who were most likely to respect his pronoun usage.  She therefore “abandoned camp” and returned to female pronouns, retaining her identifications as trans, butch, and lesbian, but losing several FTM friends in the process.

Of course, one could argue that my friend simply got it wrong, since “he” is a sign that communicates that one is guy-identified, does not belong in womyn-only spaces, and by definition, cannot be a lesbian.  (Indeed, these are all common understandings of “he” that make it an attractive pronoun for a faggot like me).  But shouldn’t a pronoun be available to anyone whose internal sense of femininity or masculinity requires it?  What I find toxic is the vicious circle through which the differences between trans and lesbian become retrenched and policed, leaving some uncomfortably torn and the rest suspiciously peering over the hedges at the other side.  When I read the Butches Unlimited group description, I do begin to feel that butches are inherently suspicious members of the “enemy camp”, a feeling that could lead me to write blog entries that further enforce a separation between butch and trans.  And yet, I had such a lovely time the other day with my transgender butch friend, shopping for briefs (boys’ for me, men’s for her) and unraveling the nuances of pronouns.

This is a call to challenge the contemporary freezing of the category “lesbian” and its evacuation of all but the most stereotypical meanings.  One thing that I find obnoxious in contemporary (young) queer communities is the abandonment of “lesbian” for “queer”, where “lesbian” means out-of-date, Second Wave, transphobic, unfashionable, Michigan Womyn’s Festival, and relationship-oriented and “queer” means young, hip, pseudo-political, fashion-conscious, trans-positive, and yes, relationship-oriented.  I’m not bashing “queer” here.  To the contrary, I’m angered by how the contemporary exodus from “lesbian” has the effect of diluting “queer” to being little more than an expression of in-group, “cool” status.  In the process, young queer communities imagine themselves as a self-birthed historical novelty, with no ties to lesbian history and no debt to the women’s movement.  So here’s an attempt at a (re)definition:

“Queer” is the reflection of a counter-normative ethos, importantly linked to expressions of gender and sexuality.  “Queer” can also be a simple descriptor of sexuality to be used by those whose sexuality cannot be described by the labels “gay”, “straight”, “lesbian”, and “bi”.  I, for instance, identify with the counter-normative ethos of “queer”, but my sexuality is primarily “gay”, not queer, since it is exclusively focused on the masculine-masculine connection.

“Lesbian” is a capacious description for the sexual and community practices of females who are attracted to other females.  I reject the idea that “lesbian” means womyn-loving womyn who LOVE their own female bodies as well as those of their lovers.  This is only one highly politicized and transphobic articulation of lesbian identity, which has also historically included butch people who may not have identified as women or loved their female bodies.  The fact that some segments of the lesbian community have attempted to reject butches and to police the category of “lesbian” so as to exclude them does not mean that we should give the category over to their definition of it.  What we need to acknowledge is that there has always been a desire for masculinity inherent in lesbian practice.  Any attempt to redefine “lesbian” so as to exclude this desire is falsifying and ahistorical.

Therefore, if you are a female primarily attracted to other females, guess what?  You are a lesbian, no matter how young, cool, trans-positive, and “political” you think you are.  You may be a queer lesbian, but you are a lesbian nonetheless.  So own it, claim it, and prove that “lesbian” doesn’t have to mean transphobic womyn-loving-womyn. My aforementioned transgender butch friend is a lesbian, so you can be one too.

Now, there is a point, within transgender butchness, where lesbian identification may need to be rejected to make space for trans maleness.  It makes sense that a former butch lesbian who identifies as a man and uses male pronouns could no longer identify as a lesbian.  It also makes sense that a butch who uses male pronouns but does not identify as a man could still identify as a lesbian.  It also makes sense that a butch who identifies as a man, uses male pronouns, and maybe even physically transitions into maleness could still identify as butch, in order to describe where he learned his masculinity and the community and history to which he feels connected.  It also makes sense that a trans guy who was never a lesbian and was never butch would not identify as lesbian or butch.

What I want is for the gender deviant in question to be able to exercise self-determination in making their own identification and having that identification respected.  When a butch is cast out of lesbianism because s/he is trans or borderline trans, “lesbian” is being falsely defined as the opposite of trans, and the butch’s power to decide his/her identification is being taken away.  Likewise, when a trans guy is in the position of having to explain to people that he is not lesbian, it is important not to turn this into a case of hating the thing that one is mistakenly identified with, as in the commonly heard phrase, “I’m not a fucking lesbian!”.  Lesbian-bashing as a means to prove that one is really trans, not lesbian is not okay.  It further solidifies “lesbian” as the opposite of trans and makes life more difficult for transgender butch lesbians.

So let’s acknowledge that “lesbian” is at least as broad a category as “trans guy”.  There are huge differences among lesbians, in terms of politics, generations, styles, genders, and sexualities, just as there are huge differences among trans guys.   The terms are, in fact, incommensurable in that “lesbian” describes a historical community and a sexual orientation, whereas “trans guy” describes a gender trajectory and has absolutely nothing to say about someone’s politics, sexuality, or community identification.  And “queer” does not solve the problem, since it is often little more than an anti-historical generational and status division.

The point is that “lesbian” and “trans” are not two solid camps oppositionally facing one another.  There are important differences between them, but there are also signiificant differences between trans guys who transition in order to inhabit social masculinity and who transition because of body dysphoria, between gay trans guys and straight trans guys, and between trans guys who identify as trans and trans guys who simply identify as men.  Likewise, there are important differences between transphobic, trans-positive, and transgender lesbians.  The internal differences within each category may, in fact, be as vast as the space between the categories, so let’s make alliances based on affinities (for underwear shopping, for instance) rather than labels.

Comments and discussion welcome.

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14 Responses to Against the Freezing of the Category “Lesbian”

  1. This is incredibly dense, so I am going to do my best to have a coherent response. Two things, I suppose, jump out to me immediately.

    As a butch, The Butches Unlimited group grosses me out. It strikes me as weirdly transphobic, and frankly, it kind of surprises me that gender variant people of any hue would ever seek to distance themselves from trans people. But upon reflection, that just seems like horrible naivete on my part, as how many times have I listened to presumably straight female athletes (who are read as tomboys) hate on lesbians, gay men, and especially butches, who are “so different from them”? And furthermore, I’ve listened to trans-men say that they “hated butches”. So perhaps I should be a little more cynical on that front. Furthermore, I have an incredibly complicated relationship with both my femaleness and my female body, and yet, I don’t consider myself trans. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I don’t.

    I am one of those young ‘uns who identifies as queer. But I also identify as lesbian, butch, genderqueer, bi, and probably will identify as a whole bunch of other things. I definitely agree with this:

    “One thing that I find obnoxious in contemporary (young) queer communities is the abandonment of “lesbian” for “queer”, where “lesbian” means out-of-date, Second Wave, transphobic, unfashionable, Michigan Womyn’s Festival, and relationship-oriented and “queer” means young, hip, pseudo-political, fashion-conscious, trans-positive, and yes, relationship-oriented.”

    I find it deeply obnoxious. Queer, lesbian, and bisexual all fit me. I am bi because I have sexual attractions to men and women. I am a lesbian because I believe it more accurately describes my past relationships, my desire for future relationships, and because I am clearly entrenched in that community and history. That last reason also resonates with why I choose the word butch for myself. As for queer, I believe I am queer because, as you said, my sexual desires and my gender are all non-normative. I feel that many of my peers see that so many words fit them and instead of embracing them all, because they are not mutually exclusive, they reject all labels and language and think that queer is an umbrella term that somehow signifies that they are “special”, that they are not like “those other lesbians” or “gay men” or whatever community it is that they are rejecting.

    There is more in here that I am thinking about, but I think I need more time to think about it.

  2. yondergen says:

    “signiificant differences between trans guys who transition in order to inhabit social masculinity and who transition because of body dysphoria”
    That, to me, is the most interesting sentence in a really strong post. I’ve never thought about transition for social masculinity before. All you ever hear is from those people with body dysphoria (foremost) who choose to transition in one form or another. May I assume that you are considering transition/transitioning with social msculinity foremost? I generally consider myself a butch-of-trans(or at least proto-trans)-experience. A large part of coming into butch as someone who had considered medical transition as a young teen was an unnamed acknowledgement of that form of social masculinity. Sort of trading one for another and, for myself, generally finding that to be “enough”, at least for now.
    The post definitely made a light come on in my head.

  3. Faggot Boi says:

    Hi Yondergen,

    I struggled for a while with thinking that transition was out of reach for me, since I didn’t have the kind of intense body dysphoria from a young age, the “wrong body” experience, and the sense of being male from a young age that you hear about in many trans narratives. If I decide to transition, the social masculinity and general social legibility as a gay man that it would give me would be primary reasons. Of course, I also have a complicated relationship to my own body, which includes fantasies of it as a male body, and the sense that it is prepubescent and genderless (my body is extremely androgynous and small-chested), accompanied by shame and the feeling that I am ready to go through puberty and emerge a man. At other times, I feel satisfied with my appearance, and only wish that the world would see me as a faggot. What is consistent, however, is the sense that I would like my body to be more masculinized and I need to no longer have PMS (I have actually been diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which I have found to be a VERY BAD companion to gender dysphoria!). Talking with a friend of mine (see “New Transition Possibility”), who began to take T for similar reasons (minus the PMDD and the faggotry) made a similar light bulb go off in my head. It made me think that transition (in some degree) need not be a response to intense body dysphoria, but could potentially be more about preferential masculinization and social masculinity. This all sounds very logical, but I still have many questions about what a “good” reason to transition is. And I can’t help feeling that there exists some kind of moral obligation (but where does this morality come from?) to not transition until not transitioning becomes intolerable.

  4. Bond says:

    Great post. Hell yes.

  5. Jack says:

    Just curious, how might you consider the sexuality of a trans-identified trans guy who does not consider himself straight, dating a woman who also does not consider herself straight? I think this otherwise awesome post sometimes elides the genderqueerness of trans-identified guys and how it relates to their sexuality. I, for example, consider myself male, but I cringe at the label “man” for some reason. Yet, I don’t see myself as female or a woman, but at least somewhat female-bodied. On a spectrum, I am a lot more toward the male end. And i would never consider myself straight even though I date a woman. Perhaps it is that both my partner and I have identified, in some way, as lesbians in the past and have a social history and community that falls under the “LGBTQ” umbrella. But I think there’s something more to identifying my sexuality as queer. Precisely as you state at one point in your post, queer can be an identification for a sexuality that can not be neatly packed into straight, lesbian, gay or bi. Would you then agree that someone can be male-identified, date someone who is female-identified and not be straight?
    I also think that there is more to butch. I’m not all that unlike my butch friend who uses female pronouns and also dates women. We have similar feelings about our gender, but I have chosen to take on male pronouns and take a small dose of T. She primarily uses female pronouns, may or may not take T and responds to male pronouns among her circle of queer friends. We both see ourselves as queer and not as lesbian because we don’t see ourselves in relationships that can be characterized as ‘womyn-loving-womyn’. There is a difference between us and someone who is butch and is proud to be and represent herself as a woman. I simultaneously see myself as trans, butch and queer. I support the reclaiming of ‘lesbian’ but neither my butch friend, my femme partner or I are willing to identify that way.
    I think you do a great job of unpacking the conceptualization of gender, but I’m not sure that I’m quite there with you on the conceptualization of sexuality.

  6. Jack says:

    Just to summarize and clarify my previous comment—- Even though you state otherwise at one point in this post, I think you shrink the queer category too much. I found problematic this sentence in the comments section of your previous post: “Now that I think about it, the FTMs I know who were butch before they transitioned are now straight… that is, I don’t know how they identify, but they date feminine women, give off “straight” gender signs, and are read unproblematically as straight men. ” I think that because you’re invested in being recognized as ‘gay’ rather than ‘queer’ you tend to read these FTMs as ‘straight’ even though they may not identify as such. I’m invested in being recognized as ‘queer’ rather than ‘straight’ so I want the queer category to be wider. I think that your use of the term “heterogender” as a marker of sexuality dichotomously narrows sexuality to sameness or difference. Is this really want we want to do?

  7. Faggot Boi says:

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for the great questions. I would have no problem conceding your queerness, since your sex/gender/sexuality do not line up according to a heterosexual matrix. I think “queer” is a necessary descriptor for a lot of genderqueer and trans-identified folks who are unable to fit within a sex/gender binary, and therefore, unable to use binary descriptors of sexuality (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual). This, however, is another point where we have to concede the HUGE differences between trans guys, since I have heard non-trans identified men who were assigned female at birth and who identify simply as men say that it is transphobic to consider a male transexual who is attracted to women “queer” simply because of his medical history, since this assumes he is somehow essentially different from other men. This is all part of the debate over whether trans men should be considered “the same” as or “different” from other men. I have tended to assume the queerness of trans men in the past, regardless of their sexual orientation, and am now trying to undo this assumption. For instance, in a conversation with a stealth transexual-identified friend of mine about queer twins, I mentioned another stealth transexual who has an identical twin sister who is straight and cis-sexed. My friend called me out by saying that X was the “straightest guy on the planet” (he is a churchgoing married middle-class man with a child and does not participate in queer communities, associate with other FTMs, or talk about his medical history), and I immediately felt that I had made a transphobic remark by identifying him as queer.

    So now, I try to NOT assume the queerness of trans men who date women, especially transitioned trans men, since I am aware that my knowledge that they are trans might not be public knowledge, and publicly calling them “queer” might, in fact, be an inappropriate disclosure of their private medical histories. If, upon getting to know them, it turns out that they identify as something other than male men (genderqueer, two-spirit, trans…) and/or they date people who identify as something other than women, then I am happy to call them “queer”, but I would be wary of assuming this based on my knowledge of their medical history. Perhaps, in the comment to which you refer, I should have referred to the FTMs in question as “heterogender oriented” rather than “straight”, since I don’t know whether or not they identify as queer, and “heterogender-oriented” makes room for that possibility. What it boils down to, I think, is the extent to which trans men consider their transition history an important part of their queer identity, and the extent to which they consider it a corrective medical step that they had to take.

    I stand by “heterogender” as a way of specifying sexual orientation toward a gender. This fits, for instance, for some queer-identified femmes who are attracted primarily to masculinity but not exclusively to maleness (i.e. they date transmasculine folks and cis-men). So they are not “heterosexual” — someone’s sex does not define their attraction — but their gender does. To be consistent, I suppose I would say I am queer and trans-identified with a homogender orientation, but that is too unwieldy, so I just say I’m a gay trans guy. I think that sexual attractions are often dichotomous (many butches are heterogender-oriented; my attractions are also dichotomous, since I don’t want to date those on the female/feminine end of the spectrum), and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being heterogender-oriented doesn’t mean that someone is straight; that’s why it’s different from being heterosexual.

  8. Faggot Boi says:

    Also, I think it is easy to understand why someone who doesn’t identify as a woman wouldn’t identify as a lesbian. My intention, in this post, was to argue for identifying as a lesbian or a butch should be a decision that a transmasculine person could make on their own, not one that would be made or unmade for them based on their gender presentation, pronoun, or use of testosterone. My ire against the abandonment of the category lesbian for queer was focused mainly on female-identified folks (not the same as female-bodied folks), and even straight-up cis-women who abandon “lesbian” for reasons of coolness, not gender.

  9. Hi, I am one of the womyn-loving lesbians you speak of. I agree with some of what you say, but my response is much too long for a single comment. Do you have an email address I could write to you at? Alternatively, I think you have access to my email address with this comment, if you don’t care to publish your own here. Thank you.

  10. Faggot Boi says:

    Hi Undercover Punk,

    My email address is faggtboi@gmail.com if you want to correspond privately.

  11. Kian says:

    I see this differently. When a female-assigned trans person is cast out of lesbianism because he is trans, it is because he is not female-identified, not because lesbian is the opposite of trans. When a female-assigned trans person insists on calling himself a lesbian, it reinforces the notion that attraction to women plus female-assigned equals lesbian. It also reinforces the notion that butch women and trans men have a lot in common, when in fact, they don’t, save the coincidence of having been assigned female at birth. I welcome the day when trans men get turned away from lesbians and women spaces, as this will mean that trans women will finally be allowed to join their sisters. Until then, I proudly denounce any overlap between trans men and butches and hope that this tiny rant doesn’t piss people off too much.

  12. yondergen says:

    Kian:
    “I know what butch is. Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is. Butch is not a trans identity unless the butch in questions says it is, in which case it is, unless the tranny in question says it isn’t, in which case it’s not. There is no such thing as butch flight, no matter what the femmes or elders say, unless saying that invalidates the opinion of femmes in a sexist fashion or the opinions of elders in an ageist fashion. Or if they’re right. But they are not, because butch and transgender are the same thing with different names, except that butch is not a trans identity, unless it is; see above.”

  13. Jack says:

    I realize that we’ve gone off on a tangent. I do agree with the main argument. you make in the post. That said, I wanted to make two more comments:

    I agree with what you’re saying about transgutys. I suppose we should just not assume that a trans guy attracted to women is either straight or queer.

    I’m sorry, I don’t like the term heterogender. I just don’t think it’s useful. It seems to imply a ‘male’ and a ‘female’ gender, and it’s an arbitrary line. Where does your attraction stop being ‘homogender’ and become ‘hetergender’? If I look at my partner on the not-so-unusual day that she’s wearing a pink argyle sweater and skinny hipster jeans with her short, boyish haircut (instead of a dress) is my attraction ‘homogender’ or ‘heterogender’? I see what you’re trying to accomplish with the category, but I just can’t get on board.

  14. Faggot Boi says:

    Heterogender orientation describes butches who are attracted predominantly to women who are not masculine in the way that a butch, boi, or genderqueer is masculine, or to femmes who are attracted predominantly to masculine or male people and not to feminine women. The fact that, however much gender variety there might be within the class of people to which these folks are attracted, they still will not go beyond a certain gender line implies to me that there is a certain binary cut-off beyond which gender variation ceases to be attractive for heterogender-oriented people. I am not saying that hetero and homo gender are the only types of sexual orientation or that one of them must be yours. There are also tops who are attracted only to bottoms, whatever their gender. This is an example of a specific desire, but one not organized according to gender. And there are people only attracted to the in-between genders, whether they occur on male or female bodies.

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