butch/femme: flavours of strength

I had a conversation with my friend GT several months ago, and for some reason it just popped back into mind the other day. She’s a strongly butch-identified gal, and as we were enjoying a dinner in a loud pub somewhere, we got to talking about dyke genders. She expressed how much she admires the strength of femmes. I asked her what she meant by that, and I couldn’t help but grin when she explained.

She said – and I am paraphrasing, so please forgive me, GT, if I get this wrong – that she sees femme women as strong precisely because femininity is socially constructed as weak, and it takes strength of character to adopt or express one’s femininity in a visible way and constantly have to deal with people who misunderstand its meaning. Basically she admired the strength it takes to stand up to classic sexism at every turn in a simple effort to express one’s authentic gender. She extended this to admiring the strength it takes to live with being a target for men’s sexual harassment and assault, and additionally, the strength it takes to withstand the isolation and invisibility of being frequently read as straight both by the world at large and, at times, by fellow queers too. On top of all that, she specifically admired femme women who take up dominance and power, because society discourages those two things from ever coming together (unless it’s all about pleasing a man, of course). In essence she admired what she sees as the strength to live one’s gender without shame in a society that throws so much negativity on it.

The whole thing made me laugh because I have often expressed my admiration of butch women in extremely parallel ways. I’d never heard anyone speak about the mirror opposite version, but in a way it made sense that we’d each be sitting there looking across the table at the other and conveying completely complementary opinions. It sort of illustrated to me how it is that there remains such a consistent level of erotic tension between people who do the complementary genders of butch and femme. Don’t get me wrong – I totally understand that there are many other gender combinations that have their own delicious eroticism. In no way am I trying to construct butch/femme as the One True Way to experience an erotic connection. (It’s certainly not the only way I experience them.) But it tickled me to see us both waxing poetic about our reasons for loving the other’s gender, and in such similar terms.

My admiration of butch goes along similar lines. I see butch women as strong because every time they do something or wear something that expresses their gender, they’re flying in the face of everything society tells them they, as women, should be doing. Every buzz of a razor against their scalp, every purchase of boxer briefs, every adjustment of a tie, every way they can conceive of to accurately convey “this is who I am,” is a fuck-you to a world that creates an extremely rigid model of what women can and cannot look like. That world constructs any hint of masculinity in a woman – body hair, facial hair, fat, swagger, square shoulders, physical strength, wide jaw, short hair, and all the clothing and other markers that accentuate those characteristics – to be horrendously ugly, the antithesis of attractive, the worst kind of shameful. To adopt butch gender and still manage to find oneself sexy despite all the messages out there that scream the contrary – to me this is courage.

Butch women walk around in bodies and genders that are excruciatingly visible, whether they’re in a safe place or not. This makes them the easiest target for homophobia. While I, as a usually-fairly-femme woman, pass as straight whether I want to or not, butch women are seen as dykes whether they want to be or not, and that means that anyone who has a hate-on for queers will notice them first. I don’t often get noticed unless I’m holding hands with such a delightful creature (and that invisibility presents its own form of oppression, as GT pointed out, but I digress). Among the butch women I know, many have been disproportionately targeted for homophobic violence, whether verbal or physical.

On top of all that, when butch women spend time among queers – and straight folks too, no doubt – they’re expected to be invulnerable because of the way our culture constructs masculinity. So in addition to dealing with all the bullshit aimed at them because of how bad it is to be masculine and female, the world wants to pile all society’s expectations of classic sexist masculinity on them. They’re expected to carry heavy things and fix cars and never cry and never get fucked and never be vulnerable and so on, and so forth. Again, I’m well aware that lots of queers don’t attribute this sort of package deal to the butch… but it’s definitely there, and butches who explode those boundaries are at times met with disgust even among their own. So my particular admiration goes toward butch women who manage the hybrid existence of masculinity and vulnerability, strength and softness. In essence, I greatly admire the butch bottom (and all butch women who open up in one way or another) for having the courage to be exactly what she is in all its complexity.

What really got me about our conversation, though, was the moment when I realized that all we were doing was admiring one another for being ourselves, each in the best way we know how.


P.S. The CBC was on as I wrote this, a call-in show about people’s experiences with tools, specifically stories about “overcoming tool terror.” One of the guests, Lori Mitchell, is involved with a company called Tomboy Tools, which makes tools designed especially for women. (Some of them are pink, but thankfully not all of them are.) About three seconds after I posted it, a woman called into the show and identified herself as a butch lesbian. She went on to rant about how a man once made all sorts of assumptions about how she must know how to use power tools because she’s butch. “It’s not like I was born with this knowledge somehow ingrained!” she wailed. Mitchell said, “It’s all those stereotypes! Why didn’t he assume, I dunno, that you knew how to decorate cakes?!” What an à-propos illustration of exactly what I’m talking about!

8 thoughts on “butch/femme: flavours of strength

  1. ah, thank you.

    this part: it made sense that we’d each be sitting there looking across the table at the other and conveying completely complementary opinions. It sort of illustrated to me how it is that there remains such a consistent level of erotic tension between people who do the complementary genders of butch and femme. — yes yes yes. and of course, this combination is not the One True Way, but it (obviously) works for me … and it’s really great to feel like somebody ‘gets’ it, and, thus, me – thanks for that.

  2. I heard that interview with the Tomboy Tools gal, and while I loved the way she was making power tools and DIY repairs and renos more accessible to women who might not otherwise pick up a screw gun or mitre saw, I was dismayed when I heard that her smaller-hand-friendly ergonomically designed custom power tools were PINK. *sigh* WHY DO THINGS THAT ARE USED BY WOMEN NEED TO BE PINK!?!?! I don’t see DeWalt or Black and Decker or any other tool manufacturer coming out with blue-for-manly-men tools. And why, fer jeeeeziz sake, does society cling to the pink and blue binary? AUGH!!! simmer simmer.

  3. Awesome : ) You know, it’s funny because I frequently get the comment: “You’re so brave!” because of my transition. I have a hard time accepting that compliment because I always think it takes so much courage to be a woman in a patriarchal society and that if I were truly as brave as they thought I was, maybe I would try to carry on trying to be me in a female body.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I admire women in general for that bravery that they need. Having spent 34 years as a woman, I know how hard it is to go through life not being taken seriously, continuously silenced by various subtle and not-so-subtle social processes, “otherised” in everything from daily speech to the films and TV to educational texts.

    Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent but your post reminded me of these thoughts I’ve been having and I thought I’d share. I’ve never ID’s as either butch or femme but I respect all these forms of IDing and presenting, each with it’s own set of challenges, just like IDing as genderqueer or genderneutral.

  4. Yeah. So satisfying to read this post. I love being genderqueer … but it took me many years having to learn to say “piss off” and mean it without being mean. Teach us to care, teach us not to care, teach us to sit still, and all of that.

    I wonder if my snowflake will remain invariant. Only one way to find out …

  5. Sinclair – Thanks for posting! Now, if only I could get into that password-protected post of yours that keeps sending people here… I’m wildly curious.

    GT – You’re very welcome. Thanks, in turn, for the inspiration.

    Motobootboy – Yeah, the pink thing about made me retch. I think all power tools should come in colours other than black, yellow and red, just because I firmly believe that “utilitarian” does not have to mean “boring” and I happen to like using items that are appealing to look at. But it’s not like they designed tools in eggplant and burnt sienna here… we are talking about pink, with all its loaded gender significance. Hardly a coincidence given their company mandate. This isn’t a design thing, it’s a gender thing, and it does buy right into a binary. I’m sure many women must love them, but I really wish they’d make pink one of many varieties rather than one of two. Simmer indeed.

    Jacky – Yeah, the question of who’s braver does come up when discussions of butch vs FTM come up. It’s a bit of an artificial opposition in that some butch women pass as men whether they want to or not, and some trans guys don’t no matter how hard they try, and lots of people in both groups (and others, such as genderqueer and intersex folks) experience varying degrees of being read accurately and inaccurately depending on any number of factors. Really the question of bravery comes up based on how society perceives you, and what punishments they mete out or rewards they bestow as a result of that perception, rather than based on what identity label one chooses for oneself and what means one pursues to embody that identity.

    Medici – Happy to satisfy. 🙂 There is definitely an art to saying “piss off” without being mean. Ivan Coyote spoke about that on stage at Toronto Pride this past weekend – s/he laid out a number of the responses s/he’s given to the question “are you a boy or a girl?” over the years, but concluded that the most powerful one was to say, more or less, “I’m a mainly estrogen-based creature. How about you?” no matter what the apparent gender of the person asking the original question. Not mean, but boy did it ever pack a punch, in Ivan’s story at least. Fun idea. So what’s the snowflake conclusion? Weren’t you green last time?

  6. Ha. I’m butch, and I admire femme strength and courage for exactly the same reasons your friend related. In terms of the parallels of your admiration, I’m especially amused by the femme top/butch bottom admiration — but it’s true, that is a fine example of going against the grain. And as far as the double-bind of butch gender (“So in addition to dealing with all the bullshit aimed at them because of how bad it is to be masculine and female, the world wants to pile all society’s expectations of classic sexist masculinity on them”) I’ve never thought about it that way, but that is a good point.

  7. Fantastic! I have had similar thoughts and conversations with friends and this dynamic is one that is endlessly interesting to me. Honestly, I just appreciate any opportunity in which queer-identified people take to express their gratitude and affection for the myriad gender presentations of our communities. Sometimes it feels like the rest of the world thinks we’re freaks and then we just duplicate that same system of castigation, judgment and negativity within ourselves. Thank you for your finely articulated sentiments here!

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