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.