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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Social Problems with "Butch"

Many years ago (Maybe ten years ago?  I feel like everything is ten years ago, though.) there was a list of notable butches that made the rounds.  It included, if I remember right, one or two trans women... and about three trans men.  Out of those three trans men, stuck on a list of all perceived-women (a couple of nonbinary folx were also put on this list but it was clear they were added "as women"), only one of them identified as "butch."  The other two were extremely upset... neither had been consulted on whether or not they would be comfortable on a list like this, and were added without regard to the social conditions that separate "butch woman" and "trans man."

Yesterday there was a big to-do where somebody who doesn't know what the hell she's talking about ranted, in a nutshell, that trans men who reject the term "butch" are being homophobic.  And although I haven't heard that particular iteration of this before, it's not that uncommon for queer women and especially lesbians to view trans men as lesbians who rejected the community, as lost butches, or some variation on that.  One of the reason TERFs are "kinder" to trans men than they are to trans women is because they often view us as misguided members of their own community.

They're all wrong, but I wanted to talk a little about why they're wrong (and, in fact, some vestigial ways in which they're "right").

First, I want to talk about the word "butch."

Just a note, my own experiences are obviously not universal, and many things I thought were a given ("ten years ago we said this while today we say this instead") are regional and based on specific communities.  So if you don't have the same experience... no sweat.  I'm not trying to take your preferred language from you, but I wanted to point out some things about how we talk about it that aren't universally correct.

One of those things is the idea that "butch" automatically refers only to women.  "Butch" as a synonym for masculine has been used in a lot of communities, including non-queer ones.  "Butch" and "femme" are still used by lesbians, but it wasn't that long ago they were also used to a wide extent by and in reference to gay men.  I mention this because I see some of the backlash against this tirade against trans men rejecting "butch" coming from gay trans men who seem to believe them being gay means they can't possibly be "butch."  Also worth noting, I have never identified as a lesbian, but I did identify as "butch" when I was a woman.

On a personal level, the only problem I really have with being considered "butch"--just considering my own history and the fact that "butch" is not actually inherently gendered at all--is that I consider myself more on the androgynous side.  For me it's an extension of people who "pump up" my masculinity, behaving as though I'm a paragon of butch masculinity when I prefer to be considered a patchwork quilt of gendered elements.

But that's on a personal level, though.  A trans man who considers himself fully masculine may also avoid considering himself "butch..." because there's a strong social element to that term.

Litmus tests for homophobia in trans people need to be treated differently than those for cis people.

I think I kind of get what the above person meant with this bizarre statement.  Maybe.  Rejecting a term just because it is associated with lesbians?!  I mean, when cis hetero people avoid certain labels and other stuff because they're associated with queer people, it's often homophobic.

But you really need to look at trans folx' rejection of these terms with a lot of nuance and recognition of why we would feel that way.  A heterosexual trans person may very well have had to deal with people trying to coerce them into not transitioning in favor of "just being gay" for years.  Many, many people would prefer us be gay or lesbian cis people than be trans people of any sexual orientation, and so homosexuality becomes something we're pressured to accept for ourselves, even if we know it's not accurate.  And use of terms "flipping" our sexual orientations is something heavily weaponized by cis people who are uncomfortable with us... often even those who don't think they are.

When I came out as trans, I also came out as gay.  I changed that later (something I may talk about a different time), but I was a trans man, only into men, trying to navigate a queer community that really would rather I consider myself a straight ally.  In fact, the word "ally" became a low-key insulting term people used to describe me in order to erase my transness and therefore my gayness as well.  Even after people started using the correct pronouns, they were calling me a "Kinsey 0" (a term used for an exclusively heterosexual person).

Obviously nobody who knows what they're talking about is going to call me "heterophobic," but heterosexual trans people get the same stuff, just with the accusation of somehow being homophobic for it.  So they're constantly having people undermine their genders by casually and persistently excluding them from the language that would typically be used to describe a heterosexual cis person.  Essentially, the people who hem and haw about why trans men rejecting "butch" is homophobic would never say the same thing about a cis man... in fact, they probably wouldn't call a cis man "butch" in the first place.

I would never claim that trans people can't be homophobic, but not using a term to describe ourselves certainly is not.

Finally, on "butch flight."

There's a concept out there called "butch flight."  This is a perception (one used mostly by bigoted radical feminists) in which they believe that once upon a time the lesbian community was loaded to the brim with happy butch women.  Then, suddenly, they all started hating their womanhood in the early 2000s and decided it would be easier to be men, so they all transitioned, and now butch women are an endangered community.

This is a concept with a lot of... issues.

Like I said, I identified as butch as a woman, but I was still straight.  Generally I'm not being targeted because I wasn't going to be a butch lesbian, I'd at best be a butch bisexual (I just physically like guys too much to ever want to exclusively be with women).  So they aren't really crying over the "loss" of me, but I can still see the threads of this as somebody who keeps contact with a lot of trans men of varying sexual orientations.

First off, it's entirely not true the way it's stated.  Transition from female to male is much harder than people believe it is... we don't get immediate and unconditional male privilege like so many people think we do, we wind up having to face loads of medical gatekeepers, often hundreds to thousands of dollars out of pocket for healthcare (and our existence is considered a pre-existing condition, relevant if this AHCA crap passes), changing names and documents, having gaps in our employment histories, and so much more.  Most of these don't apply to butch lesbians, and those that do apply do so in very different ways.

But I am--and this is a very unpopular opinion among trans folx and queer folx these days so please don't treat it as if it's our consensus--very much on the side of nurture and culture when it comes to gender and sexual orientation (something I, sadly enough, have in common with a lot of these bigoted feminists).  So the idea that there are cultural things in place that sway us back and forth between having more butch lesbians and more trans men isn't inherently gross to me.  But it's important to consider why this would be, if it is the case.

See, long ago I heard of this concept where people believed butch lesbians had privilege over femme lesbians.  This was based on the fact that a number of butch lesbians were emulating toxic masculinity, and that femme lesbians can feel underrepresented and pushed out due to a lack of immediately visible queerness.  People associate lesbianism with masculinity, even though lesbianism is not inherently masculine.

At the same time there's a contempt for butch women.  In my local community, butch women were treated terrible.  They were treated like they were ugly, disgusting, and giving the community a bad name.  Whenever people had a choice in groups to put someone forward as a representative of lesbians, they always picked one of a couple particularly feminine, traditionally attractive women.  My community had more butches than femmes, but everybody--including the butches--wanted straight people to associate them with the femmes.  They were the ones always getting dates, getting elected into campus board positions, and taken seriously.  This is not "femme privilege."  There were a lot of other issues there that I don't really have time to get into (related to that aforementioned "emulating toxic masculinity" bit).

But if this is really a case of trans men being people who left the lesbian community because they couldn't deal with being butch... could you really blame them?  Why--if you have a choice--would you stick to a community where people call you ugly and disgusting and a bad representative all the time both in and outside your community?

Again, I've been a butch woman and perceived as a butch woman for many years after that, including some stints knowing I wasn't but acting in that role anyway because I had no other choice.  There was a special level of bullshit in those experiences.  Being butch led to people not only rejecting me, but shouting slurs at me.  Once I had somebody demand I be fired because I was butch.  And no, that's not why I'm a man, but it wasn't pretty, either.  I guess if it were just people on the outside of the community doing it, one could argue that this was people abandoning queerness for homophobic reasons.  But we get this shit in the community, too, sometimes moreso depending on what the local dynamic is like.

Anyway, that's all I have to say about that for now.  I may elaborate on stuff like nature/nurture or something later, but for now, happy trails!
-- Jackson