There are probably many books that need to be written exploring the complexities of the relationship between a traditionally feminine, heterosexual mother and her little butch lesbian (or transgender male? or tomboy?) offspring.
In my case, my mother was a beautiful woman who was naturally feminine. She didn’t seem to have to work at it, and she certainly wasn’t one of those heterosexual women who function as the Gender Presentation Police.
There’s a story my Mom told about me, and I have no way of knowing whether it was apocryphal or true. She said that when I was little she dressed me in a lovely dress and Mary Janes and set me out on the front lawn to enjoy my lunch of a sandwich and orange juice. A while later, she found that the neighborhood boys had ripped up my sandwich, poured the OJ over my head, and tossed me into a backed up sewer in front of the house. “So,” she would explain, “I dressed her in dungarees and sneakers and told her to ‘go get ’em,’ which she did!”
Did this really happen, or was she trying to make up an explanation, a nice 1950’s excuse, for my boyish presentation that would make it seem less outré? I honestly don’t know.
While Mom was feminine and straight, my heterosexual sister one time commented that our Mom “raised butch daughters.” In fact, on at least one occasion my sister was heard to boast that she was more butch than I was.
I wasn’t very close to my mother as a child. It was only many years later, when I finally came out to her, that the walls between us began to crumble. She said, “I was never that close to you because you just never made sense to me, but when I found out you were gay, I sat down and thought through all of my experiences with you, and suddenly, you made perfect sense!”
To her credit, she also changed her political party from Republican to Democrat, commenting that she could not support a political group that would deny full and equal rights to one of her children.
Overall, I feel that I lucked out in the Mother Department, in terms of her ability to accept me as I was. I feel great empathy for butch women who have to grow up in a home that’s as cruelly judgmental as the outside world.
“What made this young woman ‘nice,’ and what was so ‘not nice’ about me?”
As a preschooler, my preferred playmates were boys. I didn’t have much use for girls my age, who seemed inordinately preoccupied with caring for or showing off their dollies. I hated dolls. Worse. I hated and feared dolls. Especially the ones with the eyes that would fly open when the doll was lifted up. Those glassy, dead eyes, staring at me — I still shudder at the memory.
When I was six, my mother bought me a Patty Play Pal doll, which was an almost life-sized concoction of plastic, again with those fly-open glassy eyes. I detested the thing. I took off her clothes and put her downstairs in the darkest corner of the musty root cellar, which had a door with an outside latch, hoping that shame at her nakedness would keep her there. Apparently my mother thoughtfully brought her back upstairs and redressed her, but I was convinced that the damned doll was walking around, re-dressing itself, and perching itself in my room with its arms reaching toward me and that damned smirk plastered across her face, like something out of the scariest episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
By the time I reached school age, I was ready to accept girls as friends and companions for play, but it seemed as though each time I singled out a girl who seemed promising as a potential friend, she would retreat from knowing me after a short time. The excuse I was usually given was that the girl’s mother didn’t want her to play with me. This happened repeatedly, and I just accepted that it was the case without consciously wondering what made me such an inappropriate friend or playmate (although I’m sure that this constant negative judgment had its effects on my personality).
It wasn’t until years later, in my mid-teens, that something similar happened, and I finally began to wonder what it was all about. That summer I was attending a writing camp, and I struck up a friendship with another girl in the program. This was a church-sponsored, church-run summer camp, and the wife of the minister in charge of the program took me aside. She said to me that she wanted me to “be careful” because my new friend “isn’t like you — she’s a nice girl.”
A Nice Girl. What made this young woman “nice,” and what was so “not nice” about me? At the time I was a straight-A, honor-roll student, winning academic awards right and left and heading toward graduation as valedictorian of my class. I was a community-oriented person who volunteered time to teach Sunday School, tutor students in math, collect money for charities, and waitress at church suppers. I didn’t drink or do drugs or have sex. I played team sports (badly). I was kind to children and animals. What the hell wasn’t “nice” about me?
Here’s an experiment you can do. Go to Google, type in “a nice girl,” and then click on Images. See if you can discern what makes all those women “nice girls.”
Unlike those Googled girls, I wasn’t traditionally feminine. I was a 4-H’er who raised farm animals and preferred barnyard couture to frillier attire. I was honest and plain spoken. I was probably a bit rough around the edges, but “not nice”? No, it wasn’t that I wasn’t a “nice” person, I just wasn’t a feminine young woman. I was a baby butch, long before I had doped out my sexual orientation.
Stop for a moment and imagine what that meant — my sexual proclivities or my gender expression tendencies were apparent to everyone’s mother long before I had a clue what they were. My sexual orientation matured in this acid bath of negative attitudes.
Throughout my childhood I was given the message, over and over, that there was something about me that was wrong, that was not as it should be, something that made me undesirable as a friend or playmate. At the time, I wasn’t self-aware enough to have any hope of doping out what was “wrong with me.” I just knew that for some reason I was intrinsically bad, detestable, wrong. It wasn’t a very nice way to grow up. It certainly didn’t foster self-esteem, confidence, or a healthy ego, but it also didn’t induce me to become more traditionally feminine. I think that, based on my own experiences, harping on a child’s gender presentation does no good and much harm.
And here’s the saddest fact of all. It wasn’t until I was 59 that I met a woman who could accept, love and celebrate me for every bit of who I was. It wasn’t until I was 60 that I met a partner’s mother who didn’t take her daughter aside to whisper something like, “Well, okay, so you’re a lesbian, but did you have to pick someone so butch?”
“I do not see myself, exactly, as a woman — at least not a typically feminine woman. However, I also do not, most emphatically, identify as a man.”
I am not a transsexual person (that is, a person wishing to transition from one gender to another), although some might consider me to be transgender, which used to be a somewhat broader adjective. Here’s the GLAAD Media Reference Guide’s definition of transgender:
An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
In my case, my gender expression differs from the typical idea of how a female-at-birth person should express her gender. (I should note that the term transgender has morphed over time, so that today, many use it interchangeably with transsexual.)
Perhaps a better description than transgender would be gender non-conforming, which I quite definitely am. GLADD describes this as:
A term used to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity. Please note that not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender; nor are all transgender people gender non-conforming. Many people have gender expressions that are not entirely conventional – that fact alone does not make them transgender. Many transgender men and women have gender expressions that are conventionally masculine or feminine. Simply being transgender does not make someone gender non-conforming. The term is not a synonym for transgender or transsexual and should only be used if someone self-identifies as gender non-conforming.
While my gender expression differs from what our society considers appropriate for a woman, I have no desire to alter my body either hormonally or surgically.
In considering these issues of gender and gender expression, some people see gender as binary — you are male or you are female, period. If you are a female who feels like a male, you should transition to be a male who expresses his gender in a traditionally masculine manner.
Others see gender or gender expression as more complicated. There are people who think that a more masculine female or more feminine male can be fine just the way they are, with or without surgery or hormones. Some feel that they can be a combination of genders or an entirely new or different gender.
Still other people identify as gender-fluid, meaning that their gender identity and/or presentation may vary over time.
While my identity is not now particularly gender-fluid1, I do not see myself, exactly, as a woman — at least not a typically feminine woman. However, I also do not, most emphatically, identify as a man. I have no desire to take testosterone, wear oversized belt buckles, or have a penis. The only transsexual urge I’ve ever had is the recurrent thought that it might be nice not to have breasts — or to have much smaller ones. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many butch lesbians are ambivalent about their breasts, but that doesn’t make them, necessarily, transsexual.
In my case, my “butch-ness” is tied up with my lesbianism, but I’ve known butch women — some of them very butch — who were straight or asexual in their sexual orientation. So it is inaccurate to think that being a butch is the exclusive domain of lesbians.
I first thought about the issue of sexual orientation when I was a precocious four-year-old. I was out with my mother and brother, cruising around town in her Henry J, when I saw a billboard advertising a menthol cigarette — Salems or Newports. The billboard showed a man and woman, side by side, laughing and talking (and smoking) with another woman across from them. I thought, “No, that’s wrong. The two women should be together and the man should be over there.” It was my first realization that I was, as far as I was concerned, living in Backwards World, a place where people instinctively did things that were the opposite of what seemed right to me.
It was probably more than a few years later that I first recognized the desire to grow up and someday “live in a little house in the woods with a nice woman,” but even before my sexual orientation made itself known, my gender was more problematic for me.
I remember (again around age four) contemplating whether or not I wanted to be a boy. I decided that I wanted to be able to wear boys’ clothes and to do boys’ activities, but I didn’t really want to be a boy. At the time, my rationale was that standing up to pee, as boys did, was dumb. Better to sit down and relax while urinating. I really didn’t see that I had any use for what I then thought of as a “ding-dong.”
This is an important point, for it may begin to explain why I identify as a butch lesbian rather than as a pre-transition heterosexual transgender man. I have read of a trans man who felt somehow cheated, as a kid, that he didn’t have a penis, like his brother had. I, in contrast, had decided that it wasn’t anything I’d want.
However, I always hated having to dress in girls’ clothing. It felt like embarrassingly — even humiliatingly — gender-inappropriate drag to me. I was most comfortable and happy wearing the kinds of clothes that boys wore. It was so much easier to run, jump and play in pants and sturdy shoes and shirts. Female garb, to me, meant spending all my time trying to keep my skirt down, resisting the urge to scratch at the welts caused by elastic and crinoline, and trying not to fall over in the silly girlie shoes I was given.
Also, boys’ clothing had pockets, whereas girls’ clothing eschewed them. The non-existent or non-functional pockets on girls’ clothes were, as far as I was concerned, adequate reason to reject them entirely. Where to carry a book or a pocket watch or a jackknife or money or — well, anything? The supposed solution to this problem, the purse, came to represent everything I hated about feminine attire.
For the first ten years I was out, I kept my hair long. Back then my rationale (or fear) was that if I cut it short, no one would ever take me for a woman. My long hair caused all kinds of comic moments with women I dated. When I finally cut my hair, my sister commented, “You could have done this years ago and saved us all a world of confusion.” ↩
“…Personally, I didn’t spend my life fighting for the right to be mistaken for a heterosexual woman….”
I define myself as a butch, lesbian woman. It has taken years (I’m now 63) for me to become comfortable about who and what I am, and I am writing this blog to explore both my identity and my journey.
Before I go any further, there’s something important that I need to say: I do not speak for all — or even any other — butch lesbians or stud lesbians or boi lesbians or sporty dykes or any other kind of lesbians or genderqueer people. The only thing I can share are my own experiences, my own opinions and perspectives. If that’s useful or interesting to others, fine. If not, then I may just be talking to myself — not for the first time!
Why do I call this blog, “Butch Backlash”? As lesbians have been increasingly portrayed in movies and TV series, more and more the women portrayed are people with whom I have extremely little in common. In TV-land (in most network shows or even in “Queer as Folk” or “The L Word”) a “butch lesbian” is a fairly feminine creature in dress and mannerisms who is perhaps a bit bossy (bitchy? strident? aggressive?), athletic or occasionally forgoes earrings. The only place I’ve seen real, down-and-dirty butch dykes is on the Netflix show, “Orange is the New Black.”
I heard years ago, before Chaz Bono transitioned, that in California, it wasn’t unusual for someone to say to a butch lesbian, “If you’re going to be like that, why don’t you just transition?” That made me feel like a dinosaur on the verge of extinction. It also made me angry.
I feel as though lesbians are being offered the opportunity to assimilate into heterosexual culture. The deal is that we can be lesbians and love other women as long as we look like heterosexual women — as long as we dress in a feminine manner, wearing feminine clothing, make-up and jewelry. There’s nothing wrong with a highly assimilated lesbian, but personally, I didn’t spend my life fighting for the right to be mistaken for a heterosexual woman — I’ve been trying to open up the acceptable gender presentations of all people, regardless of sex, gender or sexual orientation.
As stereotyped as butch lesbians may be (as being both physically unappealing and embodying the worst characteristics of chauvinistic men), I think that heterosexual butch women find it hard, too. Our society doesn’t want to admit that masculine-of-center women exist or have value!
When I see an image or article like the one above, it reminds me that a natural woman, just being herself, not trying to be other than she is, can be perceived as either unfeminine or “not trying hard enough.” If femininity were completely “natural” for females, would we need to put any effort into it?
Some women are more or less naturally feminine or masculine. What the hell is wrong with that? We don’t run around with a saw and stretching devices to make all women the exact same height. What’s wrong with the diversity in energy and self-expression with which nature blessed us?
And another thing. I do not believe that masculine energy in women expresses itself in the exact same way that it does in men. Yes, there are women who transition because they want to be men. But there are women who have no desire to be men, and yet who enjoy and want to be allowed to express their female masculine energy, either on occasion or all the time. What’s wrong with that?
It’s time that we began to talk about this in a way that recognizes that “masculine of center” women — lesbians or not — are human beings worthy of dignity and respect.