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.
I identify as a ‘gentle butch’. On the butch spectrum you can find me somewhere between soft butch and stone butch. I lack the machismo and swagger to identify as boi or stud, but am to masculine of center and too gender dysphoric to appreciate the label ‘soft butch’. Finding and embracing that specific identity took me a long time. The gentle side is a part of me that I can handle in my own community, because I feel safe there. Being regarded as gentle in the outside world is something completely different. I try not to appear ‘soft’, especially not with men around, it makes me feel vulnerable and vulnerability is not something I want to show. I look more tough then I am. A trait that a lot of butches share I guess. It’s a barrier we have build in the outside world, for survival. And for me it works pretty well, I manage to look confident out there and that keeps me safe.
I realize people have got to know me, before they see that my outside image is indeed an image. That’s fine for me, only people who want to really get to know me take the trouble to look beyond that. I have friends who have the ability to make me feel safe with showing my gentleness, my emotions, my tenderness. You know, the ones where you can’t hide your feelings even if you want too, because they touch something inside you. I keep those people close, because I need them to let me be the person I want to hide away the most. My soft part is still not a part of me that I appreciate very much, because living in a capitalist patriarchy means that being soft can get you in trouble. Showing emotions or being to involved is not something that is appreciated. Especially as a woman showing your emotions in a job will label you as soft, unstable, emotional and will make you immediately unqualified for the position of any leading jobs. In my job as a care worker in a home for physically less able people, I have been experiencing the ongoing dehumanization of clients and employees for years. The economic crisis has severe effects on people who have the least (why never on people who have the most?) and every change in policy by government or management effects them greatly. Employees get told to ‘care from a distance’ , a newly introduced motto to make sure that they don’t get in the way of the management and don’t get too involved with the well being of the clients. This motto gets me in trouble all the time: I care too much, I am too outspoken, too assertive, too challenging, now and then too emotional. My manager expects me to provide care from a distance (they’re not your friends!) and that will make me a good professional. I have my own view of being a good professional worker and I know that view is shared by all my co-workers and by many more people who work in health and care. It makes me feel incredibly vulnerable and hurt, because being blamed for being a person who cares to much (in their view) and being not tough enough feels like a personal attack. And as a gentle butch, it touches me even more. I refuse to ‘toughen up’, just because society is getting harder and less social and solidarity has been thrown in the bin.
The idea of ‘butch lesbian’ identity is much under attack in the present day. Such an integral part of lesbianism and lesbian history is being stolen, side-lined, rewritten and so being made invisible.
Claude Cahun was a French, Jewish, artist and photographer who explored themes of lesbian identity as part of her work.
Cahun worked in a European age incorporating the aftermath of revolution, fascism and World War. At the time radical political, social and cultural solutions and challenges were sought from art in defiance of the perceived bourgeois mainstream. Such art aimed to confront moral, religious and state conventions. However while many of Cahun’s fellow male ‘revolutionary avant-gardes’ still produced work that either ignored or objectified women while typically promoting heterosexuality, Cahun focused on challenging constructions of ‘femininity’ while highlighting her lesbian sexuality.
As the modernist art of the era privileged the male ‘genius’ painter, Cahun employed photography, both…
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Photographer Meg Allen celebrates “those who choose to exist and identify outside the gender binary” . And Wow, what amazing pictures she made of the diversity of butches (or boi, genderqueer, stud) in San Francisco.
These are just some of her pics: look at all her photo’s on her own page: Meg Allen Studio
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.
I came out as a lesbian when I was 33. I came out as a butch when I was 38. Coming out as a lesbian was not such a big thing. Well, there was some drama, but not about the fact that I was a lesbian. It had more to do with the life I had been leading for 15 years and the drastic decisions I had to make to quit my routine and change my life. It involved a dramatic breakup, financial complications I had no idea of by then and learning that my best friends are my best friends for a reason. The time that followed was wonderful and sometimes hard. I was so happy to be out as a lesbian I could shout it out loud from the highest building in town. It felt I could just drop all pretense. I realize now the most important thing was that I could stop being a ‘woman’. I didn’t recognize the process I was to enter yet, but the relief I felt was obvious. My girlfriend was the perfect partner to come out with. She was intelligent, open-minded, communicative and a stimulating, motivating person. We were very different though in our identification process. She didn’t define herself as a lesbian, she just said she had fallen in love with me and I happened to be a woman. I think she saw herself more as a bisexual, but she didn’t like to label herself. We quickly settled together in the country. The only lesbian couple in a little village. A very nice, welcoming village. I loved my girlfriend, the people and the place we lived in, but still, after some years, I started to get restless. Our relationship had settled into a mostly cuddling stage, which resulted in me getting more uncertain about my body. The confidence I had felt at the beginning of our relationship had vanished. I got moody and I realized that my lesbian life was nothing different then my former life. I thought: ‘Is this it? is this thé lesbian life? I wanted to talk with other lesbian women, I wanted to be with other lesbian women, I knew I couldn’t settle for a life buried away in the country, but I didn’t want to end my relationship either. Finally I decided to join a lesbian talking group in a bigger city nearby and I started going out regularly to lesbian bars and party’s, with a friend. My girlfriend stimulated me in everything I did. She knew I was not happy and we talked a lot about our life. About what I wanted. We talked about breaking up, but I couldn’t choose. Not yet. We decided together on an open relationship, to see if that would work. I started a short affair with another woman. The only thing I gained from that was that I got my confidence back, since my confidence had everything to do with desire, being a passionate lover and giving pleasure.
In the summer of 2008 I went on my own to the international women’s camp on Femoe in Denmark. There I felt again what I had realized years before when I made love to a woman for the first time: this is it, this is where I belong. I heard the first time the word ‘butch’. They called mé a butch. I had no idea what they were talking about. But I recognized the other women who were like me. We hung out together, we had fun together, we played soccer and partied until the morning. I went home after a week as a changed person. It was hard for my girlfriend. I drifted away, had a lot of contact with my foreign friends and talked less with her. I dared to talk about my breast issue with my friends and on their advice, started to wear a binder. For the first time in my adult life I could look in the mirror and feel confident with what I saw. My appearance changed, I cut my hair more short and started wearing fitted men’s shirts.
After months of talking my girlfriend and I decided to separate. In a way, it was her decision to let me go. I wouldn’t have gone it if she had not been that unselfish. We still loved each other, but wanted other things in life and we both knew it. The fact that I had fallen in love with a woman and I wanted to live with a woman, meant I was labelled a lesbian. But this was simply not enough for me. I had so many questions: What was behind that word? What did it mean to be a lesbian? What did it mean to be a woman? Why did I feel more comfortable with my new appearance? The search for my identity meant I had to go my own way and find the answers. So I moved out.
On the first afternoon in a new city, with my cardboard boxes stacked up in my new place, I went to the Irish pub, ordered a single malt whisky and felt stupidly happy with the start of my new life.
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.