“Tell me what you like about butch”, was the request from Bookish Butch.
Oh, this post is a doozy. I started writing, and I just couldn’t stop.
BB also asked, “What’s wrong with femme?”, and that’s another good question, though I must take an exception to her follow-up statement, “It’s just woman in French”. Femme, my online friends, may be the French word for woman, but femme is also an identity, a queer gender performance no less significant than butch. If you want to hear about my butch appreciation, you’ll also need to understand my femme appreciation, because for me, the two are deeply connected.
What I like about butch is the way it distills masculinity and expresses it in a way that is separated from the cisgendered male body… Which is such an academic response, I know, but it’s the best way I can summarize my feelings. What I like about butch is that it’s a label that summarizes the attributes I find most attractive in a partner. My butch is not always a gentleman, but she’s also never just another dude. She is tender and dapper and caring and competent, and she isn’t afraid to need me. Also, she looks amazing in a pinstriped suit.
My attraction to butches is integrated into my sexuality, which is a funny thing to explain to some (straight) people: They tend to think that because I declare myself to be queer, I want to get with every woman… And since the worst of these people see butches as freaks, they refuse to comprehend me when I say that I prefer masculine women.
I worked at a cafe at the university campus for years, and endured several awkward drunken moments at staff parties when my young, feminine, straight coworkers revealed that their feelings were hurt by the fact that I’d never hit on them. “Aren’t we sexy?”, a pair of them asked me, teetering dangerously on their high heels. Um… Yes, I’m sure you are, dearies, but you’re not my type. These women had met my girlfriends, had seen me flirt with customers (one of whom, I may mention, is now known to you as Oats: Being a barrista turned out to be a great investment), and to my mind should have had a pretty clear idea of my tastes. But despite the evidence before them, they were confused.
I encountered a similar attitude among the straight men I met in the trades, some of whom took the misguided notion that inclusion meant I should join in with their objectification of our more feminine female classmates and coworkers. “I’m not interested,” I told them, “Because A) that’s a fucked up and sexist as-all-get-out, and B) none of these women interest me.” I’m a killer of fantasies, I am. “If you like women who look like men,” a young guy at tradeschool asked me, “Why not be with men?” Because I’m queer and I prefer women, I told him.
It’s been a long road, to understand my attraction to butches, because when I was coming out, the butch identity was portrayed as an oppressive part of dyke history as opposed to a current articulation of gender. Like, queer women used to have to choose between the two narrow categories of butch and femme, and now we don’t have to, so anyone who is still doing that is suffering from internalized homophobia. Alternately, with the rise of an essentialist trans identity in queer communities, a butch was seen as someone with gender dysphoria who doesn’t have the guts to transition. Either way, there was no positive view of these women.
As a teenager and then through my early 20s, I struggled with this, because though I figured out that I was queer, I realized that I just wasn’t that attracted to what the mainstream defined as an attractive woman, nor the androgynal presentation that was cultivated among the dykes I knew. The trans guys didn’t really excite me that much either, reminding me too much of all the boys and men I was also dating. It was scary to consider my attraction to butches, because it seemed like they were outside the accepted genders both within and without queer communities.
Compounding my confusion was my attempt to understand my own gender. If I was willing to accept my attraction to butches, I thought to myself, that didn’t mean I should have to be femme by default. Yet I simply didn’t feel right when I was dressed in anything but feminine clothes, even as I also felt like I needed to wear baggy army pants and baseball hats in order to be accepted as queer. I’d seen Anna Camillieri read from Brazen Femme, but I still didn’t get it. Femme just seemed old-fashioned. Also, the identity was pushed on me by a couple of people I dated: They wanted me to be femme in order to articulate and support their butchness.
Understandably, I resented and resisted this, but unfortunately I also accepted it as the way things were, as though femme was meant to be an imposition, as though it was part of a dichotomy, as though butch and femme couldn’t exist without one another. Because of this, I thought I’d never date the butch of my dreams and I resisted even looking into femme identity.
What changed it all for me was reading Stone Butch Blues, and specifically the scene in which Jess, our protagonist, is horrified to learn that two butches she knows are dating… One another. It was amazing, to be inside her head as she processed her feelings of repulsion and began to negotiate her own essentialist notions of gender/sexuality. Prior to reading this book, I’d taken for granted my own open-mindedness, and while I didn’t think that two butches together was all that shocking, I suddenly began questioning my preconceived ideas about relationships and roles.
Slowly, I unpacked my reactionary resistance to being femme, and the ways in which I let that dictate my acceptance of loving butches. I never intended to become a femme partnered with a genderqueer butch, but that’s the way it has turned out. Oats and I found each other, after we’d each spent a long while struggling independently to come to our current understandings of our sexual and gender identities. Our struggles are pretty different, and yet they’ve provided us with some really important common ground. We’ve each got a hard-won sense of self that goes beyond the false dichotomies of gay/straight, man/woman, cis/trans, butch/femme, and from that comes a huge appreciation of the labels we choose for our identities.
Like Bookish Butch, I am comfortable with my labels, and I’m comfortable with people who don’t wear them. I support everyone’s right to label the hell out of their sexuality and their gender and their body or run around completely naked if they’d prefer! So when I say I’m femme, I mean it as a shorthand for the collection of interconnected gendered expressions and behaviours that make me who I am. There are many ways of being femme, and I am living but one of them. And when I say butch, I mean it as a shorthand for a summary of the attributes I find most attractive in a partner. Diverse as hell, these butches may be, and while I’ve got a special place in my heart for a particular artistic genderqueer sort of butch, I tend to crush out on them all.