The Day I Re-Learned How to Love My Femininity: This Butch’s Experiment in Healing by _Melody F.


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.

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Categories: Gender and Sexuality, LGBTQ, power, Sexual Violence

Tags: , , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Thanks for this insightful and in-process statement. One thing is sure, these are not simple matters. I wonder how we all would feel about being women in a society where being a woman was not equated with weakness and powerlessness. Sighhhhh….

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  2. Love this post and thank you for the introduction to Gabrielle Rivera. To both of you I say: right on, write in!

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  3. Wow! Wow! Thank you so much for this brave and honest post! I felt very sad reading about your abusive relationship, but so happy when I read about your relationship with your sister. How wonderful to have such support when you began your experiment (+ a wardrobe of cool clothes?!) You are so lucky. Hug yourself for writing a great post and hug your sister for being such a great person.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve always had a problem with the butch/femme dichotomy – like so many other dichotomies in our world. I have a trans friend who describes herself as “in between.” It’s very hard to choose to reject the male/female split, although I took a UU workshop with someone once who described her/himself as “two spirit.” Both-And: maybe the inclusiveness we need in this world.

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  5. I think there are gender differences. But if we define ourselves by what’s in the mirror, we lose the ability to soar in our imagination, in our gardens, in our writings, and even in our research. I say dump all those questions of gender orientation, and just be who you are, so unique, so precious, so infinite in potential, there can be no boundary whatever to the expression of your gifts.

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    • Hi Sarah,
      I was self-conscious when writing this entry about low literal I was in feeling challenged by Rivera. I mean, some people can just take lessons and ideas into their heads… I guess I’ve always been very physical. And, this could very well be the Libra in me, but I’ve always enjoyed talking to mirrors. Interestingly, one of the ways I came to understand the effect abuse had on me was in realizing that I had begun to avoid looking at myself in mirrors – the reality of my unhappiness was too clearly expressed by my body, and I found facing it unbearable. I often think about my healing process as one of coming back into my body.
      I’m interested in my body – how it moves through the world, its feel, its size and shape, the way it is received. A lot of my memories have to do with the conflict between what someone expects of my gender and the way I perform it. As a little girl, that meant not understanding why my mother was ashamed when people looked at me and commented about what a cute son she had. Now, it often means being read as a white man and then suddenly not – an uncomfortable combination of privilege and awkwardness, which I feel most strongly in restrooms (which is why that moment played such a big part in my experiment).
      Although much of this experience for me was about trying to interrupt my internal sense of gender binary, my understanding of my own gender and gender performance, and my experience of that gender as queer, is inextricable from the way I live in this world. I think that’s ok. I like being butch, and playing in the butch/fem dichotomy. Though, I think I understand what you mean about our limitless potential… and I hope my post speaks to how sticky this play can get.

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      • Love your idea of “being at play in the butch/fem dichotomy” ~ that’s so creatve. The mirror is your masculine side, your inner being is the feminie ~ why? Because the male procreates outside himself and the female ptocreates inside herself.

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  6. “A Butch Named Melody” — now that’s the title of a poem if I ever hear one! The poem would have to end with Melody on almost solid footing, and smiling. It sounds like that is where you are now, and I am so glad. Sexual abuse is sexual abuse, no matter where it comes from, or where it is directed. And it hurts like hell. That you have the inner strength to get past that part of your life, and build a new persona, speaks volumes of the strength of your character. I am so glad you are letting the full range of “you” show through — she sounds like quite an extraordinary person.

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  7. Beautiful post! I have struggled with accepting my femininity, and am finding that the process of trying to have a child is teaching me to embrace the power of the female for the very first time. In the past, I equated strong with male, and now I’m learning how to bridge the two. It’s taken some older strong women painters in my life to also teach me that. They are my guides.

    I’ve observed what you said, about people making way for your path in more feminine clothes. In my gym clothes, no one moves out of the way. But in a skirt with leggings and boots, they always do. I love watching those non-verbals of fashion, and how people perceive you just from a change in posture or stride.

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  8. Thank you for this thoughtful post. And for the link to Gabrielle Rivera’s post. As a bisexual feminist of the second wave I’ve always felt confused by butch/femme distinctions, although I’m sure I present myself as some of both. Dealing with the internalized butch and femme parts of yourself seems a wonderfully healing process. I’ve dealt with different parts of myself than these, but what I’ve seen is that bringing split-off parts of myself into harmony unleashes greater energy that I can then bring to my life and to my activism for a more just world. Blessings on your process.

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    • Hi Nancy, I think you touched on my experience quite strongly – a release of energy brought on by decompartmentalizing aspects of myself, which interestingly, did not decrease my butchness or feeling of satisfaction in presenting masculine. I’m not sure I understand the distinction all the time either (thus with all the stickiness). Thank you, and all the responders, for your blessing on my process.

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  9. This was an interesting article. To me butch is merely a woman who has refused to sell her body to men, who has refused to collude with her own oppression. There is no such thing as butch privilege, since femme women largely pass visually as straight, and in public are awarded this free pass. Many femme women complain that they might not be seen as lesbians out in public, that they might be lumped into being thought straight by butch lesbians. There is some truth to this. It’s why lesbian only spaces are so useful, because then you know without a doubt that all women butch, femme, not either actually are lesbians. That’s the whole point.

    As a life long lesbian never feminine conforming or slave-like acting woman, I see women’s refusal to sell themselves on the consumerist male gaze as rebellion, as a resistance movement against forced servitude and male pleasing demeanors. And it has very little to do with clothing. Even when I have worn dresses in the past, people still did not read me as female, because I didn’t play act the role of second class citizens. Butch lesbians stand the ground, we are the ground warriors, the freedom fighters, we take the blows so other women don’t have to. We are visible proud lesbians.

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    • Hi Turtle Woman,
      I suppose our experience is quite different. You appear to have found strength in your butchess, and I laud that. While I, as a butch, found that being somewhat more free of one oppressive gaze did not free me from internalizing negative messages about my gender. In fact, it helped produce collusion in me – through privilege received, as well as my own sticky conformity with notions of feminine as weak. Eventually, I found myself subservient not to a cis-man, but to another cis-woman’s self-hatred. That is to say, this stuff is complicated. It requires healing, acknowledgement of women-identified experiences, and respect.
      I appreciate your sense of butches as the ‘ground warrior’ in the LGBT movement, which resonates with other stories I have heard told about our history. Another fierce femme in my life shared with me another vision of this war sighting Jewel Gomez’s essay “Femme Butch Feminist.” In words that honor fighting femmes and incite others to action, Gomez writes “…men and women might mistake us for ‘just girls’ when they see our makeup and fashions, but we were/are actually guerrilla warriors, fighting undercover in the war to save women from the continuing campaign to make us irrelevant fluff.” I choose to honor the guerrilla warriors in my life. Also, I think that dismissing ‘passing privilege’ of femmes discounts oppression experienced by all feminine-presenting people, which is very real and unfortunately pervasive in a number of different communities.

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