I feel like I am a bit of a typical white, middle class, butch. Maybe not, but I feel like I’ve met me: I dress like a dude, take on what I consider masculine roles in relationships, and do ‘guy things’ like play video games or carry heavy objects. And then there’s that really feminine part of me, the soft-butch side that comes out when I can’t take something macho I’m trying to do seriously, or when my voice (already high) hits that pitch that (not ‘screams,’ but) sort of sweetly says ‘hello, I’m girly.’ When my soft butch side comes out, my students coo at me. It’s all very embarrassing.
But under a face which turns blotchy red in such moments, something my ex used to think was cute, I have been privately wishing that feminine part of me would die away. For the last year, I’ve silently hated her. This post is about when I decided to stop.
I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with a fiercely femme friend of mine about misogyny and masculine privilege in LGBTQ communities. About a month ago she sent me an article by Gabrielle Rivera titled Fat-Booty Butch Wears Leggings — Confuses World, Confronts Self. In it, Rivera dons a pair of leggings for the day and writes a post about her experience that addresses invisibility of femmes, butch privilege, and other well-thought-out and honest observations about queer folks and communities from the perspective of a butch/Queer Person of Color. Rivera rocked both the leggings and the post. (I highly recommend giving it a read.) What struck me most was how very much herself Rivera seemed to stay. Even as she engages a complex shift in the way in which her communities received and read her, she protests her invisibility – nothing about switching codes had erased her or her queerness. I wasn’t sure I would feel the same. I was so alienated from my feminine side that the idea of looking even a little bit feminine, just to touch her, seemed as though it might blank out my identity.
In the 90s I used the term ‘gender fuck’ to describe myself: masculine externally and feminine internally, I thought it hit just the right tone of “here I am.” Wearing ‘men’s clothes,’ just like I’d always wanted to as a little girl, was an affirmation of my existence and my identity. I felt confident, with no part of me diminished. But the masculine privilege I received began to overshadow this more vulnerable joy. The professional world, the academic world, both listened to me just a little bit more closely, with just that little bit more respect. These privileges, so firmly linked to my masculine performance, began to imprint on my self-worth.
In this mire, I met my ex. And four year later, a friend helped me to get out of our home and away from her abuse. One of the souvenirs of that time has been a sense memory of sexual violence, and it has kept me up at night, shivering and sweating in my bed. The first time I turned away from my partner’s unwanted touch it was with a movement that I can only describe as extremely feminine, and I hated myself for it. The softness of my voice, the meekness of my gesture to push her away (the ultimate futility of these responses, their reappearance the next time): images, memories that I have used to call myself weak. Some part of me kept saying, “I’m the butch, I’m the boy…” as though men aren’t sexually assaulted: an odd protest/form of denial, which I am loath to admit. I tried to hide behind my masculinity. Then, in blaming myself, I targeted my femininity.
Don’t underestimate a good hiding place. Blaming my feminine side wasn’t just about self-hatred, or misogyny (though, I realize how sticky my sense of gender became over the years): it allowed me to begin to forgive at least one part of myself, while simultaneously locking away the part of myself I most closely associate with the parts of my body my partner hurt. By the time I read Rivera’s article, I was ready to unlock some of that pain. Inspired and challenged, I decided to find out how I would feel dressing more femininely. So, I called my sister (she’s, as we often kid, the ‘straight version of me’) and said, “let’s switch outfits!”
We wanted to do it right – not imitate masculine or feminine performance. The last thing I wanted to do was disrespect the femmes in my life and I checked with several of them before proceeding. We wanted to honor the parts of ourselves that we spent less time nurturing. For my sister, that meant feeding what she called her ‘metro’ side. And with the help of my sister’s editing eye, I had an outfit I was interested in wearing. I wore a brown, longish skirt (it had pockets – my sister’s wardrobe rocks!) with brown high heels, a peach top, and a faux fur stole that I’d always admired when my sister wore it. She donned my favorite pair of black boots, and we were ready to go out Christmas shopping together.
At first I was taken aback by how flat the whole experience was. I didn’t quite recognize myself, but my discomfort was mostly physical: my sister’s “most wearable pair of heels” were excruciating after the first 5 minutes, and I hated – I mean hated – carrying her purse. I walked so slowly. If I was holding anything more than one item in my hand, everything became unmanageable. Aside from that, I enjoyed some of the anonymity I’d expected after reading Rivera’s piece, and felt… cute. I remember standing in a public restroom languishing in front of the mirror (taking my time without fear of being called out or unwillingly frightening/confusing someone) and fixing my outfit: I adjusted my collar, smoothed out my skirt, smiled. I wondered if other people thought I was cute too, and waited for someone to notice. I was primping – I always primp.
My sister, on the other hand, was getting a workout in my boots. She was dodging people in crowded shops and finally mentioned it. I remember laughing. “Do people really get out of your way when you’re walking?” I began to ask when I realized it was happening to me. I’d been so preoccupied by the extra time everything seemed to be taking that I hadn’t noticed people moving aside. And more, I’d been doing things I wouldn’t normally: handing my sister (*cough) her purse when I wanted to look at something, sitting down to cool my heels while she picked up our lunch. I know this is all small stuff, but it was really different for me.
Now, I am NOT making observations about “what it’s like to be femme” – I truly don’t know. I had an experience distinct to my butchness, and my whiteness, to my academic leanings and my Libra-esque desire to feel pretty at all times. Looking back, it’s as though the image of me in a skirt short-circuited the mechanisms in my head that assign gender to behavior – I suddenly started feeling like I deserved consideration. I cast off the masculine role I’d envisioned. ‘Protector’ or ‘provider:’ terms neatly lain over my ‘weak’ caretaker (you know, the one who’d ‘let’ my partner hurt me). But the role of “caretaker” isn’t masculine or feminine. It’s problematic, problematic as hell, but it’s not a gender expression. In a feminine silhouette, I saw myself providing for, and protecting me. I spoke to my inner femme and realized she was the same as my inner dude – she is me, and I owe her both apology and thanks.
It was my feminine side that had initially fought back against sexual abuse. Kind and fiercely protective, she hadn’t been abandoned by my masculine side or somehow been left to be victimized. She’d stayed to defend me. A part of me, she – I said “no” in the voice that could say it (and when I couldn’t refuse with my words or gestures, she – I sustained me). As the last thing I heard before my assaults, she was the first thing I blamed. I am still struggling with letting go of that self-blame. But I can say that I see the feminine part of me a little differently. She is so strong, as was the community of women that received me when I was ready to begin healing.
So, I wore a skirt for a day and made a choice: I choose not to underestimate the feminine in my life, not the feminine women and femmes who touch my life and inspire me, nor my own femininity. She, that feminine side behind my blushing face, is rather shy. I think I’m going to pay her more attention anyway. Though I’ll be leaving my sister’s heels at home.