Meg Allen, a queer photographer from San Francisco, has made over 200 photo’s of butch women. I posted some of her photographs here before. In an interview with She Wired, she explains why she started with this photo collection. I hope she will get the opportunity to make an exhibition one day, one that travels the world and visits my country too 🙂 Butch is such an unknown concept in Holland and as we all know, it’s quite hard to explain to outsiders what Butch means or why we individually choose to identify as butch. I would love to take my friends there and show them that I am not an exception, but part of a big mondial community of women, who don’t fit in the binary gender system and who learned to be proud of what they are, just as I did.
A former girlfriend of mine took her own life in January two years ago. She planned everything meticulously. I heard she was happy the last weeks of her life, that she seemed to do better than the time before that. In retrospect, her family knew she must have been released from the burden of having to live on. She knew she would end it and the darkness would stop. She was not a religious person, but she was not afraid of death, it could only be better then having to live the way she had to live.
She was a survivor. That’s what they call victims of abuse. It has this heroism in it. It must have been a word they invented in the West, they love heroes here. Victim is a word that sounds too helpless. People love the lucky to be alive story, the two that survived the aircrash, the one that escaped the fire, the one that got away from the pedophile. Victims are not loved. They are forgotten. They hide.
She hid a big part of herself away, the shame, the pain, the memories. Not really memories, since she was a very small child when it happened. Flash-backs, nightmares, those were her memories. Nothing coherent. Nothing the law could use to find and punish her abuser. She read the stories of other victims. The laughable punishments that were given to the abusers, if they were ever caught and tried in court. She could never go through that even if she had the logic memories the law wanted of her.
She allowed me in her life. Not all the time. There were times when she hid away in her room for everybody. When she was not there, only her body was present, a body that had shut down too,for the most part. I saw her many times like that, she trusted me to check up on her, sometimes it was just to see if she was still alive.
I couldn’t save her, I knew that. I knew many women who had been abused and was not naive. I could just be her safe harbor, nothing more. I counted myself stronger than I was, as butches do too often, I cared for her, I comforted her and told her everything would be ok. She asked me many times if it was not too much for me, her family talked with me and asked the same, they cared for me, they cared for her. My friends told me it was not a good relationship for me, I told them I was fine, I could do this.
I betrayed her in the end. I betrayed her even before, because I could not admit to myself I wanted out of the relationship. It suffocated me, the dependency on me was too much for me to handle, but I didn’t talk about it with her. She could have dealt with it, but I didn’t say anything. Instead, I went away to my women’s summer camp, like I did every year. That summer I couldn’t wait to get away from home and I knew why. I needed air. Air to breath.
I didn’t go back to her after my summer holiday, we broke up over the phone after I told her I had met another woman on camp and had fallen in love with her. She never spoke with me again. I never saw her again.
She took her life half a year later. I didn’t go the her funeral. My betrayal had hurt her family deeply, they had to deal with her grief after our breakup. Her mother asked me why I hadn’t talked about my feelings, about my doubts and I had chosen to end it in a disrespectful way. There was no defense. I always thought myself to be an honest person, but realizing I hadn’t spoken about my doubts, fears and feelings with the people around me, showed me that I was not very honest at all.
I can’t get away with it just by saying: it’s a butch thing, because it’s a bad excuse. My silence was not strength, it was weakness. I hurt more people with that, than the truth could ever have done. I’m sorry for that, even though it’s too late to say it to some of them.
Everyone who views the posts on my blog now and then should have noticed that I like butch fashion and butch style. I frequently post pictures of butches in summer, winter, autumn style or home made combinations of styles. I post pictures of big butches, thinner butches, butches of color, white butches, old butches, young butches and yet to post: butches with disabilities. I love our variety and although some lesbians would say that butches look all alike and heterosexuals think we all look like men, we are as varied as the clouds in the sky. What we have in common is that we are defying genderroles, we transgress the binary, we battle with their beauty norms, we make people uneasy by what we are. Because for most of them it always comes down to what you are: man or woman. Right? So we, in the way we dress, cut our hair, hold our body, walk, talk, drink a beer, lift weights in the gym, drive our bike, flirt with femmes or fudges or other butches, we definitely confuse the world, we make people angry and sometimes even violent towards us, all just because we choose not to fit in. So when I see other butches I feel this immediate connection. I know in real life I probably wouldn’t even like all of them, but that doesn’t matter, it’s the recognition of the other one’s struggle that makes me feel connected to them.
I’m convinced that butch has to do with an inner thing, as I described in my post Labels are not for cans (2) I identify as a butch and that means I’m not conforming to the gender performance society prescribed for me as a woman. I can see in my society that this is confusing for many people. A certain kind of genderbending is allowed: the” androgynous malnourished sultry #youlookveryshanetoday ” look (quote by Mary Lyn Bernard) is shown all over the internet.
Tomboys and androgynous women maybe look like they don’t fit neatly in their genderrole , but nobody would ask them if they are transgender, as happens to me quite often. They are still seen and recognized as women and that way they don’t pose a threat to our binary system. Since skinny is extremely popular among white heterosexual and lesbian mainstream public, tomboys and androgynous women are thé thing in the media.
I remember an article I read on Qwear about butch versus tomboy style, that had some interesting opinions. I personally agreed with this one from A.D. who said: ” The way I understand dominant definitions of tomboi/y style are highly influenced by race; for me, “tomboy style” should be renamed “skinny white FAAB tumblr queer masculine of center fashion” AKA the cuties of tumblr AKA everyone who gets reblogged AKA not me. However, butch/stud style are less race-specific, at least in the way I understand the fashion specificities”.
There are lots of interesting articles on the internet about the differences between butch and androgynous/tomboy. Autostraddle posted this article about Rachel Maddows and butchness and the homophobic way society deals with female masculinity. (2010 but a great article still!) . I don’t mind that there are lots of lesbian women who prefer skinny androgyny over a masculine butch. I dó mind that a lot of lesbian women are conforming themselves to heterosexist beautynorms and heteronormative patriarchal views on sex and gender. It makes the gap between butches (and radical femmes too) and ‘normal’ lesbians bigger. When being gay or lesbian is seen as more normal in a society, the pressure within these communities on non-conforming ones is getting bigger. If you look in a gay magazine, you can see that femininity within the gay community is not very popular. As a man, you have to be muscled and powerful and tough. You don’t want to be called a faggot. The same goes for lesbians. Lesbian magazines are filled with long-haired thin women. Even if they are wearing a suit, still visibly female. No hairy legs in sight.
I’m not afraid the identity butch will totally disappear. It will change, as it has changed already a lot since the original butch identity in the 50’s. I am worried though. There is nothing more dangerous then society’s sneaky ways of pressuring people into normality. I pray to the goddess we can keep our diversity and we won’t succumb to society’s standards on being female or male. We are butch dykes and we will always be here!
Coming out as a lesbian was relatively easy for me (labels are not just for cans 1) . After I had my first relationships with women, I realized that the lesbian identity was more important to me then for most of the lesbians I came across. I wánted to put the label on myself. I didn’t like it when other people said things like: ‘it doesn’t matter who’s a lesbian or who is heterosexual, we’re all the same!; your sexuality is in your bedroom, nothing to do with others; we’re all just human; she’s a lesbian and that doesn’t matter at all!
The last thing was said out loud on a family party by an aunt of my former girlfriend, as sort of a introduction into the family. I was too flabbergasted to say anything at that time, but those words touched the core of what I felt: what the f*ck, it does matter! I didn’t want to fit in and it felt like they all just wanted me to fit in again: ok, you came out as a lesbian, the world didn’t change because of that, so you can just come in again and settle down. It changed me. Radically. I didn’t want to come in again. It changed my whole thinking process, my view on the world, my view on people. It changed the way I viewed myself. For the first time in my life, I had to think about ME. That was not a good experience in the beginning. I had no language for the things that were in my head and I knew nobody who spoke the language. I started to experience the binary, even though I didn’t know that word by then. I remember at that time I had a conversation with my girlfriend and a friend and I said, quite innocently “but I don’t feel like a woman, I’m not a woman”. They were shocked. My girlfriend wanted to know if I felt like a man. I told her I didn’t feel like a man either. I just knew I was not like ‘the’ women I saw in society and failed the words to explain to her what I meant. I felt torn. What was I if I was not a woman or a man? Or did the issues I had been having for years with my breasts mean that I was a man ‘inside’? I felt like a mix between Max and Ivan from the L-world and as they were the only ones in the lesbian universe I could relate to what did that mean?
In the middle of my, should I call it, identity crisis, I traveled in the summer of 2011 to Femø for the third time. I was much looking forward to the camp, because I would meet my friends there, and just as important, there would be more lesbians like me and I could feel at home there more then anywhere else. I knew I had changed since the first year I came there, one of my friends told me even my body looked different, just as if the changes in my head were changing my body. She thought I looked more at ease with myself. Indeed, a lot of my uneasiness had gone since I had started to wear my binder and had started wearing clothes I felt good in, but I looked more confident then I felt inside.
I guess the Godess felt it was time to intervene 🙂 and she sent a proud feminist femme on my path that year. We fell in love on the last day. It was catastrophic, since there were other girlfriends involved, drama had to happen and choices had to be made. But it couldn’t be otherwise, we had to be together, our desire was too big and we were selfish, as people often are when it comes to love.
Our long-distance relationship lasted one and a half years. The word butch got a new meaning for me, they had called me butch at camp for years, but I never really knew what it meant, until I met someone who made me FEEL a butch. This special dynamic was something completely new for me. I learned there was more then society had made me believe: there was more then just being a man or a woman and there was more then being a heterosexual or a lesbian. I cried when I read the first book she gave me: Stone Butch Blues from Leslie Feinberg. I think that was the moment I decided to out myself as a butch…
There is no clear definition of butch, every butch (and femme) I know would need at least one page to try and define it. There would be lots of similarities, but differences too. Most of them would say that butch is a feeling and cannot be properly explained in words. It’s not acting or performing or playing a role. Starting to identify as butch is a process and not every butch will choose to out herself as one, I know women who definitely are butch, but they don’t want to label themselves as such or they don’t even know it exists (like me). Coming out as a butch has been more important to me then coming out as a lesbian, especially in the society we live in. It made me think and read about sex and gender, feminism, radicalism. It made me aware of the strictness of genderroles and gendernorms in our society and the inflexibility of a heteronormative society. I feel defiant walking the streets, knowing I refuse to fit in in their system of silent oppression and the only thing that makes me walk upright is because I learned to put that label on myself and be proud of it. For my survival. For the survival of all who want to transgress their gender.
This is Casey Legler, famous for modeling men’s clothes. She identifies as butch, woman, queer, gay. An article written by her was published yesterday in the Guardian. About gender, being different, non-conforming. A bit complicated language sometimes, but I like very much what she says ( especially about the history of fierceness and her references to other fierce women). I totally agree with her that the whole gender discussion is too narrow minded. Created and sustained by the capitalist western world. That the most important thing to show is that being different, being the other is not something to be ashamed of, that non-conforming is something to be proud of.
And of course I love that she identifies as a butch…
“I am a model. I model men’s clothes. The biological roulette made me female. I was the first woman to be signed to the men’s board at Ford Models.
I was invited earlier this week to speak at a conference for business executives at a “trend school” – the topic: gender. I declined – not for lack of desire to share my experience, strength and hope in some helpful way. But I was rather offended by the notion of being so removed from reality as to require a school for trends, and repulsed at the blatant attempt to co-opt and commodify culture for business profit over participation and engagement with it. I also knew that there would be no room for me to break the news: this is not about gender.
So, corpor“ate America, this article is for you.
The contemporary cultural landscape supports a larger interpretation than the one we currently have, of female-masculinity and masculine-femininity. To believe otherwise is to be deceived by a myopic view which is influenced by capitalist gain and profit.
The first thing I want to get out of the way is to ask you to look at this list: Gertrude Stein, Greta Garbo, Jenny Shimizu, Tilda Swinton, Jack Halberstam, Stella Tennant, Judith Butler, Erika Linder … it goes on. If you do not know who everyone on the list is, go look them up, your life will be larger for it. You should, after that, realise that this is not a question of “trend”. There is a historical tradition you should know about and it is certainly not about gender. It is about being fierce.
The cultural context further supports this wider angled discourse on the acceptance of difference (or lack thereof) beyond the specifics of female-masculinity and masculine-feminity and posits the isolated focus on gender as incorrect. Russia, Edith Windsor and Bethann Hardison are three examples – the first being a terrifying contemporary example of institutionalised homophobia and homogeneity; the second, our own attempt here in the US to de-institutionalise homophobia via gay marriage; and the last being a fashion legend calling into question the enduring racism within fashion. The fashion industry is on its way to being the better for it.
We are only too familiar with the mainstream’s difficulty in celebrating difference (when it’s not being entirely destructive to it). Corporations and the traditional media have not yet learned how to resolve this: in the public discourse the celebration is often sanitised and white-washed (sometimes literally) for profit – and by this I do mean corporate profit.
And why should you care about this? Because we have in our societies children and teenagers and we are responsible for their wellbeing. This is on us. And why do I specifically care about this? Why am I bothering to write this? Because I’m gay. I’m butch. I’m a woman. I’m queer. I’m 36. I’m 6ft 2in. And caring for “otherness” matters to me. Gay youth is still terrorised for being different in some parts of the world – Russia is a horrifying example of this. But look, too, at what still happens here in the US. Children are made to feel shame, they are made to feel ugly, they are ostracised and bullied, or worse – and here in New York I see them on the streets – 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQI identified.
If images of me out there in the world make it that much easier for another kid, and the kids around them or their parents, to get on with the more important business of figuring out who they are and how they can uniquely contribute to the stream of life, then my job is done. The clincher: while unique in my contribution, I am not alone in expanding the landscape – Brittney Griner, JD Samson, Venus X, A$AP Rocky, OFWGKTA – are all examples of non-conformity and also of excellence.
This is about making space, making room and making things better. To limit this conversation to the (albeit salacious) red herring of gender is dangerous, careless and nothing short of ignorant – it takes for granted the intelligence and wellbeing of our communities (offering only an uneducated, uninteresting and sensationalist conversation to boot). It shames those who are gender-conformative and perpetuates a construct of homogeneity and belonging that is nothing short of destructive for our youth. It offers a false sense of privilege and ignorance to those who “fit” the norm (or trend) while potentially destroying those who don’t and ignoring those who are able to survive outside of it.
I will not let this become just the other side to the same coin of oppression, a false emancipation at the cost of others.
This is too important and deserves closer examination and care. Lives depend on it.”
If the word for you is butch, remember, your history is one of strength and survival, and it is largely silent. Do not hide this word under your tongue. Do not whisper it or sweep it under the basement stairs. Let it fill up your chest and widen your shoulders. Wear it like a sleeve tattoo, like a medal of valour.
you can be the hero of my country song
drive up in your truck
and take me for a ride
you can buy me beers
i’ll buy you tequila shots
you can open the door for me
i’ll wear that black skirt you like
you can slide your hand
up my thigh in the diner
i can feed you orange slices in bed
you can bite that soft spot behind my left ear
i can make you scream
like you swore you wouldn’t
you can feel free
to leave marks across my ass
we can piss my whole family off
making out on easter morning
we can send your dad off hunting
and your mom to bed with a headache
by just showing up
i can bind your breasts
clip the ace bandage
so the pins won’t stick
i can kiss your nipples hard
when you release them
you can hold my hand
when cops spit at us
i can hold your hand
when men swear at us
i can weild a knife
you can throw some mean punches
we can go down with a hell of a fight
if we have to
you can sing me alan jackson
i can sing you willie nelson
we can turn the radio up
and laugh about all those times
our folks were broke
i can smoke
and you can tell me not to
i can love the way you wear your jeans
you can love how i sweat
through the armpits of all my dresses
you can wash the dishes
i can forget to do the laundry
you can teach me how to shoot
i can teach you to steal and not get caught
you can bring me daisies
i’ll bring you gardenias
c’mon let’s go
i know the words already
you gotta help me sing
Three weeks ago I stepped back into the heteronormative patriarchy after one week of being among mainly lesbian feminist women in the safety of a women only camp. I think a lot of what that meant for me, to be there. I try to feel what it means for me, what it does to me, if it changes me as a person to be among peers, to feel included in a society as who I am, to feel safe and understood. More then other years I try to put those feelings into words, because I think it’s important for myself to understand why certain things are happening to me every year and why it feels so good to be there.
Since some years I go to this women only space, with a feminist basis, but I have to say, I don’t believe in the utopian ‘ we lesbian sisters ‘. Lesbians are a very divers group of people and are as narrow-minded, sexist, racist, ignorant as all other human beings. They are not all feminists, even though they sleep with women and share their lives with women. And if they are feminists, that still doesn’t mean they fight the same enemies, agree on the same problems, want the same changes in society.
But even though I know all these things, it still is the place where I get a taste how it would be if we would live in another form of society. I can feel how this community affects me as a person: to be not the other one, the odd one, the one people look at. It affects me because I become more soft, gentler, more emotional and vulnerable, more open, more peaceful. I realized afterwards that my butchness changed during the time I was there. It’s hard to explain, but I think my ‘tough’ butch identity is something I need in the other world to stand up against the ‘normal’. It helps me to feel strong, to know I’m part of some sort of brother-or sisterhood, one that most people have no idea exist, that there are more who refuse to fit in, in our own way and that we all struggle together. I refuse to be vulnerable in the other world, I save my vulnerability for my lover and my closest friends and stand strong otherwise.
That’s something that changes in a place where I am among mostly people who also don’t fit in, who choose not to fit in. It changes because I don’t have to breech myself every time I step into the bathroom (well, in camp it’s the bathroom tent) afraid that some ‘woman’ will question me being there. It changes because I don’t feel the need to hide my body (or certain parts) and feel more comfortable with my body there then anywhere else. It changes because I can talk freely about genderissues, feminism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, lesbian normativity, racism and most of all it changes because I know that I’m not the only one who gets upset by having to live in this fucked up world.
This beautiful community takes me out of my shell, every time again.This year I realized I got back into that shell the minute I set foot onto the ferry taking me away from the island. I wrapped the warm cloak of my butch identity around me and went home. Knowing I could always return there to leave the cloak behind if I wanted to.