Pop Theory: The Butch in 2012


Last week’s column about the “cotton ceiling” theory and cis and trans gender relations made me think about another topic close to my heart: my love of butches, the species of lesbian who has been on the extinction list for at least a decade.

Over at Velvetpark, for which I serve as Editorial Director, our most popular piece to date in our ten year existence has been a piece by my friend Julia Watson called “Why I Love Butch Women, And Other Endangered Species,” written in 2009 and still commented upon to this very day by our readership. In it, Julia perfectly captures the sex appeal of the butch:

I love the confidence, and if you throw in the occasional moment of aw-shucks bashfulness, that melts me to my core. I love the smirk. But that confidence thing, that phantom butch phallus thing – that slays me. And I’m not just talking about sexual head space; I’m talking about a particular kind of masculine energy residing in a female mind and body, and the way that turns traditional conceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman upside down. I’m talking about the underlying strength of character required to live and present as a butch woman not only in mainstream society, but also in a gay community that all too often fails to appreciate them. I’m talking about the power that comes with unabashedly just being who you are, even when it’s not the popular thing to do.

Whether she knew it or not, Julia described the erotics of the butch in a similar way to how pioneering queer theorist and historian Gayle Rubin did in her 1992 essay “Of Calamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries.” The interplay “of masculine traits with a female anatomy is a fundamental characteristic of ‘butch’ and is a highly charged, eroticized, and consequential lesbian signal.”

I always wanted Julia to write a follow-up, a desire born out of my own love for butches as well as derived from my personal observation that there don’t seem to be many butches — or queer women who identify as “butch” — out in the world anymore.

Butch flight? A passé or unfashionable (gender) style or identity?

A friend of a friend has a daughter, age 9, who has for most of her childhood wanted to become a boy. Her parents, being progressive NYC types and sexually queer in their own right, are fully supportive of her desire to feel at home in her body, and have begun to seek counselling and community support for a potential transition. The friend reached out to my friend to ask if she had any “masculine women” friends to perhaps mentor his daughter — to show her that being masculine is OK, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean that one needs to chemically alter her body. In other words, the parents are trying to make space for their child to express “masculine” gender traits (and culturally deemed “masculine” habits) in her female body as she is living it now, without hormones (natural or artificial, as she’s not even reached puberty yet). As human creatures, we biologically tend toward energy conservation (this is what habit is), even on a cognitive level. In the context of this discussion, I see this translate as our desire to view the world in dichotomies — it’s just easier, right? Black/white, man/woman, right/wrong. I think this desire for simplicity, conscious or not, effectively shapes how we act. We crave ease; living in the “in-between” is believed to be not desired or not desirable. It is hard. (This is why people like Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg and Mx. Vivian Bond will forever be admired in my eyes.)

The aforementioned 9-year-old is being given the space to live in the in-between and to better get a sense of her body before beginning her transition, a unique experience, I feel, compared to that had by many trans-youth today, especially the ones documented in last month’s New York magazine feature, “S/He.” By finding a butch mentor (for lack of a more fitting term), this child is being shown that a body can express and inhabit various traits and social codes, masculine and feminine. They’re also implicitly acknowledging that gender is never fixed, it is never a constant for anyone, cis or trans. (Just think, cis gender women, how your femininity has changed throughout the years, given puberty or just via your own self-fashioning.)

“Butches vary in how they relate to their female bodies,” Rubin explains, and, depending upon their own socio-economic, racial, and ethnic reality, butches are able to “adopt and transmute the many available codes of masculinity.”

But even Rubin wonders what “venerable lesbian forebears might be considered transsexuals; if testosterone had been available, some would undoubtedly have seized the opportunity to take it.”

Was butch always just a stop along the way? One that became an even shorter stop with the rapid medical and technological advancements in the last in recent history? In a world that begs for simple dichotomies, is there any space for the butch?

The “butch” has metamorphosized in the lesbian cultural imaginary throughout the 20th century — see Cara Dawn Moody’s anthro-inspired genealogy of the butch for a decade-by-decade breakdown How would you define the place of the butch in today’s queer subculture, lesbians? And, a follow-up question:

What is the butch experience in 2012?

(And, please, oh god please, do not point to Biebians as your example of a type of butch.)

This is a question that I cannot address from experience, as I don’t identify as butch (but am an admirer of the species).

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