In the company of lesbians of my generation and older, I frequently hear conversation about how much things have changed since we were young. And invariably, someone asks: Where have all the butches gone?
The question is driven in part by nostalgia, and in part by discomfort with what seems to have been a shift in the way young lesbians think about gender.
And the first question often leads to others: Why are all the butches becoming men? Why can’t they understand that gender is a social construct, and that women don’t have to conform to a feminine ideal? Isn’t that what we were fighting for — a world in which women could wear tool belts and neckties and do anything we damn well please, without the constraints of gender?
At its very core, this was the vision of the feminist movement, and lesbians more than anyone understood how transformative this could be.
Years ago, I asked the same questions, but today, this conversation makes me uncomfortable. Because I am of this older generation, I have seen things change — and not change — for a long time.
I have, in my life, loved many butches. My relationships and affairs have almost always been with masculine women and, more recently, with trans men as well.
In my experience, for as long as I have found myself in intimate circumstances with butches/studs/masculine-identified women — from way back when I was too young to be in the bars where I was meeting and going home with them — a curious thing happens. Once there is enough trust established, I become witness to a moment of confession. The confession goes something like this: "I don’t know how to explain this, but I don’t exactly feel like a woman. I mean, I’m butch, and that’s close, but honestly, I’m not sure what I am."
Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many proud butch women who are exactly that: women. In today’s terminology, their gender expression is masculine, and their gender identity is female. They wear their tool belts proudly, and I am happy to admire the show. For them, a butch identity resolves the issue — if people have a problem with it, it’s their sexism or homophobia rearing its head.
But that experience is not everyone’s, and it never has been. Butches may look a lot alike on the outside, but they aren’t the same on the inside.
In the mid 1990s, as a grad student, I wrote about the lesbian history of Detroit. I interviewed 48 women who had lived as lesbians between 1930 and 1970. When I met them, these women were mostly in their sixties and seventies. Of the 48, four — almost 10% — said that if they were young today, they would transition their gender and become men.
This didn’t surprise me, really, because of all those late-night confessions I’d already heard. I knew that for many, "butch" was the closest they could come to a word that would describe the experience of being a masculine person in a woman’s body. But for these folks, while "butch" was better than "woman" or “lesbian,” it still fell short. You’ve probably heard butches who say that they don’t use the term "butch lesbian," but prefer simply "butch." This isn’t a denial of sexual orientation, but a claiming of a complicated gender identity.
One of the mistakes that we made as lesbian feminists is that we combined sexual orientation and gender expression into an androgynous dyke ideal: short hair, no makeup, able to fix a car or bake bread with equal ease, frequently accused of being in the wrong public restroom (much to our outrage).
How did you know you were a lesbian? You got thrown out of Girl Scouts and hated Barbie, and never felt comfortable in a dress and heels. But as well-intentioned as we may have been, plenty of lesbians never fit that ideal. Not just trans men but also lesbians like me, who pored over Glamour magazine and loved anything that sparkled. The orientation fit, but my attempts at correct dyke behavior were a miserable failure.
In short, the gender of who we love has always been a separate question from our own gender expression, and our attempt to consolidate gender identity and expression with sexual orientation has led us to a fundamental misunderstanding of the trans experience.