Coming Out to My Butch Mentor: A History Lesson

I had drinks with my butch mentor last night.  I came out to her as trans and told her about my plans to start testosterone, and she was not pleased.  This was my first encounter, really, with a lesbian who felt saddened and betrayed by my transition.  I usually have a healthy suspicion of lesbians and make sure to ascertain that we are on the same page about trans liberation before I open up to them.  But with this mentor, my desire for an older Daddy figure (our relation never did become sexualized) overrode the fact that she is a hardcore man-hating Marxist lesbian feminist (self-described).  What can I say?  I’m a sucker for queer Daddies.  There is much to recommend her — she is handsome, smart, and challenging, and she interacts with me in the mode of joking and teasing.  Temperamentally, we are extremely compatible.  She’s also an irrepressible fount of fatherly concern and advice, some of which has actually proved invaluable in my life.  Psychoanalyze me if you must; I have distant relations with my birth family and an unquenchable thirst for queer Daddies and mentors.

She is an informal adviser to a lot of grad students in academia, but our relation is qualitatively different.  Maybe it’s the overt acknowledgment of the Daddy / Kiddo roles (names we only half-jokingly call each other), maybe it’s the erotic undertones (which I, as a faggot, am perhaps the only one to sense), maybe it’s the butch mentorship (which she is more invested in).  I do feel a sort of transmasculine camaraderie with her, but I have also always felt that our genders and sexualities were SO different.  She, on the other hand, persisted in seeing me as a young butch no matter how often I would give her hints to the contrary (she also has premature Alzheimer’s, which makes it easy for her to forget things that don’t fit her frame of reference).  Last night, she brought me, as an offering, a cowboy shirt in a small men’s size that she had thrifted – a sort of hopeful symbol of butch continuity.

Coming out was bittersweet.  She was OK as long as she thought that I wanted to be male-identified in a female body, even though she didn’t really get it.  But she was taken aback when I told her that I wanted to start T.  “Where does mourning come in to this?” she asked after two beers.  “What is there to mourn?” I returned.  It came out that it was the camaraderie of struggling through masculine-identifications in female bodies.  “You’re just going to become some guy,” she said, the word “guy” dripping with disappointment and disdain.  “The incongruence is more interesting to me” (of genders and bodies that don’t match up).

I found this sweet, primarily because I have a deep affection for her, and we never talk about how we feel about each other; the rule of our interactions is that every nice comment has to be ensconced in a teasing or sarcastic barb.  She obviously identifies with me enough to have to mourn the loss of that identification, and that is touching to me.  It’s just that, for me, transmasculine camaraderie exceeds the divides of different sorts of bodies, whereas for her, it doesn’t.  As the conversation continued, we managed to suss out how deep historical changes in queer cultures subtended our feelings about with whom it was and wasn’t possible to enter into camaraderie.

The first history lesson was that of the total divide between gay and lesbian communities when she was coming out in the seventies.  As I tried to communicate to her my sense of being similar to gay men and being attracted to them, she pointed out that this kind of identification was never a possibility for her.  She grew up as a queer tomboy surrounded by gay men who ignored her entirely in favor of her cute, straight brother.  There was no queer recognition across the sexes in the decades before the eighties.  In the gay male community, women were utterly irrelevant, there was a near-complete ignorance of feminism, and, according to my mentor, every bad -ism was in full force.  Lesbian feminism, though it had its problems, could at least boast of a political consciousness and a social-structural analysis.

AIDS was what changed all this, bringing gay men and lesbians together in though activism and queer politics, and creating the possibility for cross-gender identifications and solidarities around a shared queerness.  As Women’s Studies programs became more established in universities, the eighties also produced a new generation of gay men nourished on academic feminism.  This is the world that I was born into, in which gay men were friends, allies, mentors, objects of identification and desire.  It was a profoundly different world than my mentor’s.

Then, in the nineties, trans liberation, the most sudden social movement to ever take flight, asked people to alter their understanding of a fundamental aspect of personhood – someone’s sex.  (My mentor was clearly still rattled by the trans wave).  For me, one of this movement’s most interesting effects has been a fundamental transformation in queer culture.  From the divided separate spheres of gay men and lesbians in the seventies, to the political solidarity of gays and lesbians in the eighties, trans has, in some spaces, led to a porosity between identity categories and a shifting of the shape of queer culture itself.  As former butches become trans men, some of whom date queer women and some of whom date queer men, and as genderqueers refuse to settle for female or male, queer sexualities, genders, and communities are entering into a state of flux.  The result is the existence of queer spaces like the one in which I found myself in New York city, in which the presence of queer cis women, genderqueers, queens, trans men, and cis fags make most people’s sex/gender/sexuality a matter of mere speculation.  Trans or cis, he or she, attracted to men, women, or some other category of person?  For most people there, at least one of these questions could not be answered with any degree of certainty.  This, I feel strongly, is my community, the one where I feel the most welcome and recognized.  By contrast, the gender exclusivity of womyn-only spaces feels creepy to me.  When someone like my mentor reminds me of the history of that exclusivity, I understand it better, but this doesn’t make me feel any more welcome.

Another characteristic of this transformed queer culture is that, though there remain tensions and conflicts between butch females and trans males, there is also the possibility of friendship and social interaction between them.  I know of some pretty tight butch female / trans male friends, as well as of friendship groups that include both butches and trans guys.  So for me, transitioning doesn’t impact my sense of camaraderie with my butch Daddy or mean that I am separating myself from her.  If she sees it as a loss and a betrayal, it is partly because she is a man-hater, and partly because of her generation’s limited interactions with trans men.  From our conversation, I get the sense that the trans men in her generation that she knows are straight or even married, not, queer folks with whom she feels camaraderie.  She has no concept of the existence of a community of trans men who are queer, strongly politically-identified, and in solidarity with other queers of various genders.

The most obvious difference, of course, is that whereas before, transitioning was a last resort for the desperate, it is now an option for anybody who cross-identifies.  As she put it, “Lots of people had dysphoria, but if you could suck it up, you sucked it up.  You didn’t transition unless you couldn’t suck it up any more.” I heard in her voice a certain resentment (or was this my own projection?) of those who transitioned whose dysphoria she imagined to be no worse than her own.

For all of the above reasons, had I been in her generation, I would have been a completely different type of person, and would likely not have transitioned.  And, as she put it, “I don’t know what I would do if I were part of your generation.”  This is not just because medical technologies are more available now.  The restructuring of queer culture has enabled types of affiliations, attractions, and identifications than could never have borne fruit before.  For me, this is liberatory.  For her, it is sad and unnerving.  She fears and mourns the loss of young “butches” like me, the “end” of the butch narrative and of butch gender variance in general, and, most of all, young queer women’s disaffiliation with the term “lesbian.”  Lesbian feminism, after all, was her movement.  It was her political passion, her intellectual analytic, and her deep “tribal” affiliation.  It is surely sad to experience the evacuation and supercession of one’s movement within one’s own lifetime.  I would be similarly saddened if trans liberation lost steam and became outdated twenty years from now, or if the mixed queer community I love transformed into something unrecognizable that no longer included me.

It was productive to recognize how broad social transformations had both made my transition possible and scripted my mentor’s disappointment.  Interestingly, talking to her gave me a new sense of pride in my current gender incoherence, making me wonder if I should stop my transition at some midpoint when I am plausible, but not seamlessly intelligible as a gay man.  But it also saddened me deeply.  It was the most intimate conversation we have ever had.  It made me sentimentally aware of both her care for me and my own gaping hunger for parenting.  But she also let me know that she felt betrayed, and thought that she would have to mourn our camaraderie.  This is not an intimacy that I was trying to distance myself from or that I am willing to let go of.  I am determined to maintain this odd mentorship of ours, across generations and identities.  I want to show her that our camaraderie need not end when I begin transitioning, that she can be a butch Daddy to a gay trans guy, and that, unbeknownst to her, that is what she always was anyhow.

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19 Responses to Coming Out to My Butch Mentor: A History Lesson

  1. Very interesting. Especially the historical analysis.

  2. Along these lines, I am always saddened when I hear people talk about the end of butches. It always makes me feel like, as a young butch, 1) that I am lonely, and 2) that I do not count, for whatever reason.

    “I heard in her voice a certain resentment (or was this my own projection?) of those who transitioned whose dysphoria she imagined to be no worse than her own.”

    My best friend is a (straight) transman. Oddly, this went the other way. He is older than me and I looked up to him. Sans the historical perspective (as he is 24 and I am 22), I think he was surprised when I “came out” as butch because he thought, perhaps, that because my gender dissonance was so invisible previously, that it was somehow less. I don’t actually know if he thinks that, but I know he was shocked and could not (and still cannot) stop saying that he “just never knew”. I wonder if he imagined my dysphoria to be much lesser than his own. I suspect that it is not as bad as his, because I am not transitioning, but that does not make it less valid or important.

  3. Faggot Boi says:

    Harrison, I think the historical-developmental narrative about either the end of butchness, which poses trans as both the cutting edge and the future, is troubling in its developmentalism. It makes it seem as if older butches are some sort of relic from the past while younger butches are living anachronisms. My conversation with my mentor, which made me acutely aware of this developmental narrative, has actually thrown a bit of a wrench into my transition plans, since I now feel that I must question my motives once again. There is certainly something to be said for bucking the narrative of trans futurity. Or for defining a butch modernity. Though it’s somewhat unfair for my mentor to place this burden on my shoulders, since I’ve never been butch and the “female masculinity” that I do inhabit feels so illegible without at least the pronoun “he”.

  4. Pingback: Neither Male Nor Female « Transfaggotry

  5. Kian says:

    I’m interested in knowing whether she acknowledged the fact that trans people were part of the queer community before an anti-trans bias took hold in feminism in the late 60s. This can’t be ignored any more than the anti-gay sentiments expressed by trans people for the last 30 years. The queer community was torn apart long before the trans revolution of the 90s, but if you think about it, we’re getting back to where we all started (Stonewall) when queers, gays and trans people were part of the same community.

    I hope that butch women and lesbians can eventually come to terms with the fact that trans people are just starting to find their bearing and trust that any decisions to transition are not due to homophobia, sexism or misogyny. Transitioning should be seen as a valid life choice and not one that is only necessary when all other options have failed. Personally I can’t wait until other queers see transitioning for what it really is – embracing every single part about one’s self.

    My best friend, though not a butch woman, expressed similar sentiments when I told her I was really a man inside. Last week, I saw her for the first time in ten years because she couldn’t handle my transition. She absolutely refused to believe that my decision to transition was not motivated by something other than very real gender dysphoria. This refusal led to us breaking ties and it still sits with me as one of the worst things in my life. I really hope your friend can acknowledge the biases that exist within the feminist and queer community against trans people to see that you are an individual person who independently came out as trans. You might have been given the confidence by hearing other trans peoples’ stories, but they didn’t make you trans any more than feminism made her butch.

  6. Faggot Boi says:

    Good point, Kian. I was thinking myself recently of how the mixed queer scene of the pre-Stonewall moment most closely resembled where we’re at now. It didn’t come into my mentor’s story. I think because she was telling her own story, and she was a kid pre-Stonewall, a teenager during the heyday of lesbian feminism.

    I was also thinking about how the most difficult thing about transition is having to deal with everybody else’s crazy emotions and projections around YOUR transition. Transition is acquiring this crazy politicized weight as a “betrayal” of one’s presumed community, a “going over to the other camp,” a passport to privilege, an act of hatred against women and women’s bodies, the following of a “fad,” copping out on the difficulties of being butch (never mind that some of us were never butch), anything other than a valid and healthy life choice. It is difficult since I am in the coming out phase now, and coming out as trans in no way resembles coming out as gay, since no one questions your motives when you say you are gay, implies that your reasons are not good enough and are in fact politically faulty, suggests that you are making a rash decision and need to think things over, or simply refuses to recognize your identity (well, I guess people do this, but it doesn’t have the same erasing effect). Sometimes, it really seems like too much, and I don’t know if it is even worth it. (sigh)

    I am fortunate that my close group of friends is very trans positive to begin with. I am learning that it is not a good idea to open up to friends outside of the inner circle, particularly about the difficulties of being trans, unless they have already proven their mettle as trans allies. I am willing to discuss with my mentor, because she is my parent figure. But facing the real or potential loss of friends, family, and community through transition is the scariest, worst, and most enraging part about it. It makes an already difficult decision and experience into something really overwhelming. I am really saddened and angry that you had to experience this with your best friend.

  7. Kian says:

    Yes, the physical and mental parts of transition are quite easy compared to the things that you mentioned in your second paragraph. If you’re not careful you end up spending all of your energy defending yourself rather than concentrating on the what matters. The first year is the toughest if that’s any consolation to you. If you can make it past this part, the rest is cake comparably.

  8. butchtastickyle says:

    I’m sorry and a bit ashamed to admit that during the early 90s, when it seemed so many butches were going into transition, I had biases and fears similar to your mentor. We questioned motivations, wondered if they were authentically trans and not just responding to what felt like a new trend. We weren’t very kind or generous or understanding. I think we were scared, as your mentor is, that we were being left behind. If these butch dykes became men, they wouldn’t need us anymore, but we felt like we still needed them. We saw our tribe and our cause being diminished.

    Please realize that my viewpoint has broadened quite a lot since then, to the point where I acknowledge myself as transgender, genderqueer and butch.. without feeling like I need to leave any tribe or turn my back on the community. Like you, I see the community in much broader terms, and would rather do away with a lot of the subgroups in favor of a more flexible structure. And I understand now that making choices on the road to becoming oneself isn’t a statement of criticism about a person who chooses differently.

  9. Pingback: Butchtastic » Blog Archive » Suburban Butch Dad Report, 7/2/2010

  10. z says:

    As someone who straddles a line between trans and dyke communities, and as someone who dates butches, I wanted to respond to what you wrote. You write, “As former butches become trans men… communities are entering into a state of flux.” I’m not sure what communities are in flux–I’ve only seen masculine dyke communities disappear. I came out as trans/genderqueer over ten years ago, and have witnessed butch communities empty out. I came out as trans because it didn’t seem possible to keep going as a masculine woman where I was (suburb of a small city) and on the internet there was this vibrant trans life and I could see a future there.

    I identify as genderqueer and trans, rather than butch today in part because of this–trans was a more viable identity and continues to be such for someone experiencing gender dysphoria. Transition is politicized, and individual choices do affect communities. If I had been able to transition ten years ago, I would have. I couldn’t, for age and money reasons, and later I wasn’t so sure I still wanted to. I use male pronouns only because I have for so long. I changed my name legally to a male name eight years ago. To change back would be to claim the identity of a teenager. I am the adult I have become, but not the adult I could have been.

    Coming out as trans meant communities online and later in cities, there was language and recognition and a new movement. Butch had none of that, just big old dykes on motorcycles whom I was scared to become. I’m in my mid-twenties, so please don’t try to play this off as a historical thing. Yes, there are people transitioning who never identified as butch. But the butch communities are emptying out. This is a historical fact. That is a loss for those communities that represent possibilities I didn’t feel I had and for your mentor who thought she had a kiddo like her.

  11. K says:

    I identify as both genderqueer and butch, and strongly emphasize that I do not identify as trans or with trans political-identity movements. I’ve seen many friends transition, their identities flex and fluctuate and change, their pronouns change from she to ze to he and back again (because yes, I know a fair number of ex-trans folk who have either decided to not transition or who have transitioned back to birth-assigned sex or somewhere in between). All the while, I remain, strong and confident in my identity: female-born, female-identified, masculine-presenting, butch, dyke, queer.
    I strongly identify with your mentor, not because I’m also the historical anachronism of man-hating, transphobic, second-wave feminist, lesbianism that you accuse her of embodying (after all I’m a child of the 1980s who came out in the mid-90s) but because it is increasingly difficult to be butch in the era of the transman. I am the last person to deny someone their identity, yet without asking, queer folk refer to me with gender-neutral or masculine pronouns (she, thanks). When I inquired about joining a gender variance working group at my house of worship, I was also given resources on being a transperson within that religion. When I refused those resources, on account that I was not, am not, trans, the kind transman in charge of the group explained to me that “gender variance” meant “transgendered” and that if I was not trans-identified, this was the wrong support group for me. This reminded me of the time that the recreation department in my hometown explained that the “youth” in Youth Baseball meant boys. Girls aren’t “youth;” butches aren’t “gender variant.”
    Except that girls ARE youth and butch IS a gender variation. The more that gender variance becomes coopted by the trans identity movements, the less space I have for MY gender variation. That is a loss. When a friend, with whom I had a butch heart-to-heart about a year ago, comes out as trans because hir almost-entire community of fellow butches has also changed identities to trans and ze feels extreme pressure to change hir name, hir pronouns, hir legal gender, I mourn for that friend. I do see it as not being strong enough to be butch. How else to explain the loss of community, the loss of identity potentials? Intersubjectivity, the ability to identify with someone across a social space, is incredibly important; this friend lost a butch intersubjectivity, and in that process, loss a butch identity.
    So I remain, increasingly isolated in a queer community that includes transfolk, femmes, cis, etc, etc. It is not just a loss of fellow butches, but the simultaneous redefinition of female-born masculinity towards trans that leaves my gender in a precarious position and subject to constant pressure. You may feel that the trans identity is questioned by others, but the butch identity, especially among we who are younger, is constantly questioned and positioned, by you and many others, as a historical anachronism. This only serves to perpetuate the tensions between butches and transmen that you see as emenating from our reactions to your transitions. It is hard to be queer, any kind of queer. I am not out to have an oppression pissing contest. I’m just really tired of transmen dumping on butches for feeling a loss for a female-identified masculine expression when we see people with whom we shared a particular expression of identity, as different as the core identities may have been, choose to transition.

  12. I posted a response to this several days ago, and it hasn’t shown up. Censorship or slacking in comment moderation? Hard to tell.

  13. Faggot Boi says:

    Sorry, my vacation house ended up not having internet access. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Faggot Boi says:

    K, I was merely trying to understand my mentor and her sense of mourning. I was not posing butch as an historical anachronism, an idea that I critique in my comment to T. B. Harrison on this post. I should also emphasize that it is my mentor herself who identifies as a man-hating lesbian feminist – these are her words, not my interpretation of her.

    I am sympathetic, in fact, to some butches’ sense of mourning and of loss. The project of remaking masculinity in a female body is an exciting one that I find utterly compelling, and I would never influence anyone to drop that project in favor of the project of transition unless transition was what they truly wanted. I happen, however, to be equally drawn to the project of remaking maleness itself. I therefore do not see it as a loss when someone transitions, merely a different shape of queerness.

    I also have never experienced or witnessed any “pressure” to transition or to identify as trans rather than female. Nor have I met anyone who claimed to transition out of peer pressure. I am skeptical of the idea that peer pressure is the major motivation for butches who transition. I do, however, find your idea of “intersubjectivity” quite compelling — this is where what you say ties into the historical analysis above. One’s gender identity is formed, in part, through the people that one identifies with, based on shared gender experiences. Intersubjectivity is an even better word that identification, because it suggests a going between two subjectivities (inter-subjectivity) rather than one person seeing another as the “same.” It also implies the possibility of reciprocity. So, although I have not experienced “pressure” to transition, I have experienced satisfying intersubjectivity with trans men, more so than with other sorts of peoples. I think that the increasing presence of trans men in queer communities is creating increasing possibilities for robust and vibrant trans intersubjectivities. Since intersubjectivity has identity-forming effects, intersubjectivity with trans men exerts a gravitational pull in the direction of trans identification. It makes sense that butches pose an alternative intersubjectivity which might exert a pull in the direction of female masculinity and that one would feel a sense of loss if it seemed that butch intersubjectivity was losing its pull.

    Increasingly, I understand your and my mentor’s sorrow. Being butch is not easy, it is an historical achievement which requires for its sustenance forms of communal sharing, recognition, and innovation. If these were to fall away, then butch identity, the butch narrative, and butch futurity would themselves enter into crisis. Gender variance has always existed, but what people understood to be the meaning and the future of their gender variance has been subject to enormous historical variation. I see it as liberating that different forms of transition have now also become viable futures for a gender variant person. We have a responsibility to not render female masculinity unviable in the process.

    The potential I see in the term “intersubjectivity,” however, is that it need not require the sameness of “identification”. I do believe in transmasculine intersubjectivity between butches and trans men. This, for me, is an important lesson from being trans – I am not automatically like other trans men because of the enormous variation in trans narratives nor am I automatically unlike all butches. I hope that intersubjectivity can be about respecting difference within sameness or finding sameness across difference rather than believing that someone falls off a cliff if they do or don’t transition.

  15. Faggot Boi says:

    Thank you, Z. It is interesting to me that butch never seemed like a possibility to you. I think that here, we can see a small but significant generational gap with some regional differences thrown in. I am 31 and trans never seemed like a possibility to me until I moved to a small Southern city at 23. Until then, I lived in a small Southern town, then a tiny Southern city and did not have regular internet access. When I moved to a small Southern city, butch at first seemed like the more dominant and accessible option, until many of those that I had previously identified as butch (they may or may not have ever identified this way) began transitioning during the first few years that I was here. That was when trans began to feel like a real possibility. I should add that there seemed to be far greater sexual possibilities for me in trans. I never met a female-identified butch with a marked preference for masculine partners. And yet I just kept meeting scores of gay and / or effeminate trans men who seemed to reflect my own gender much better.

    We become what we can become within a given field of social possibilities and meanings that are constantly changing. We can’t ride two horses with one butt, and so we must choose an identity, each of which leaves another possibility closed. And yet, every possibility does not always present itself to us in time. This is the tragedy of history.

  16. Faggot Boi says:

    Thank you, Kyle, for this thoughtful reflection. It is difficult to not feel threatened and diminished by other gender variant folk who have different identifications or who make different decisions than us, mainly because the straight world does not want any of us to exist – butch, trans, or genderqueer – and so we try to find our strength in one another. Increasingly, our strength has to be found across difference rather than within sameness, and herein lies the tension and the difficulty. The key, I think, is that every person must make their own decision, and that that decision need not be seen as a betrayal or denigration of our identity even if it does mean that we must laboriously construct community rather than assume that it flows from a shared identification.

  17. Pingback: Reflections on Feminism, Transition, Debt, and Continuity « Transfaggotry

  18. I am another person who realised that I could live with dysphoria for the rest of my life, and that I didn’t want to, that being the best happiest person I can be means having a less female body.

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