things to think about

today i am thinking about: MY GENDER IS NOT YR GENDER
June 23, 2009, 3:52 pm
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I am all for community projects. I am all for people trying to do something awesome for their community. Sometimes I feel myself refuse to put things out there because I feel like I haven’t sufficiently “vetted” them — what if this person found it problematic? What if that person found it problematic? What if I’m being white supremacist? Classist? Just a jerk? I feel difficult about the ways in which queer communities, especially, shut stuff down sometimes completely rather than work within projects to make them better in that way that means there is 1 person organizing something and 15 people sitting around bitching about how imperfect that person’s efforts are without doing anything to try and fix it or making their own thing or doing anything more productive than sitting back and critiquing the imperfection of the person who at least has the nerve to try.

Which brings me to, Sinclair Sexsmith‘s project about, well, I’ll quote:

Top Hot Butches: The 100 hottest butch, masculine, androgynous, genderqueer, transmasculine, studs, AGs, dykes, queers, and transguys. [...]I am using [butch] instead of another term – like androgynous, genderqueer, or transmasculine – because I, personally, want more butch reclamation and visiblity, because I think butch identity is more widely varied in range of expression and identity than is usually represented, because I think it is the most accessible and recognizable word representing some sort of female masculinity, because I want to encourage its reclamation and intentional display, because it is sharp and satisfying as a title, and because it is slightly controversial and will stir up interest.

I mean, I am all for some visibility of butch people. I am all for visibility of people who come under the rubric of “female masculinity.” I am all for putting a bunch of hot people up on the internet.

There are obvious problems with this — namely, the inclusion of trans guys on this list — that I actually feel have been covered pretty well on this Feministing thread. There is a hot discussion going on on Twitter at #tophotbutches. Sinclair quotes S. Bear Bergman:

I know what butch is. Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is. Butch is not a trans identity unless the butch in questions says it is, in which case it is, unless the tranny in question says it isn’t, in which case it’s not. There is no such thing as butch flight, no matter what the femmes or elders say, unless saying that invalidates the opinion of femmes in a sexist fashion or the opinions of elders in an ageist fashion. Or if they’re right. But they are not, because butch and transgender are the same thing with different names, except that butch is not a trans identity, unless it is; see above.

- S. Bear Bergman, from “I Know What Butch Is,” the first chapter from hir book Butch Is A Noun.

So I want to leave for a minute the idea of whether trans guys have a place on this list in some large and categoric way and instead talk about something else: the importance of self-identification.

I would think, in a list about transgressive gender, the right of everyone to self-identify is SUPREMELY important. On some level, all these gender wars that my generation of queers has been having has a lot to do with the difficulty of finding a world where we all really do retain ultimate control of our identity. What does it mean to have everyone tell you you are a boy but you want to be seen a girl, only maybe you don’t want to get surgery on yr crotch? What does it mean if everyone tells you you’re a girl, and you agree, only you want to wear a moustache and ties and seersucker suits and fuck your dates with a cock you identify as yours even if you put it in a drawer at the end of the day? What if all these categories strike you as frustrating and ridiculous and damning and you want to come up with some other word for who you are? For how you want to be seen?

The liberation I am fighting for is a liberation where I don’t feel like a crazy anomaly. Where I am not second-guessing myself for wanting to put myself together the way I want at any given time. So why is it ok, in the name of more gender options, to start throwing people in categories they don’t belong to? Just because some people think “butch identity is more widely varied in range of expression and identity than is usually represented” — is that really true? Even if people don’t take that word on themselves? Aren’t we, as queers, supposed to understand the importance of self-identification?

So I definitely have problems with the lumping of trans guys into this project. But I have problems with the lumping of a lot of people into this project. Does everyone here identify as butch? Does everyone here feel they have a place with this word? Just because you are picking a transgressive word to lump everyone in doesn’t in fact mean that the lumping is itself transgressive. What does it mean to put other people into an identity they are not necessarily selecting because it’s convenient, because it’s controversial, and because you think it is more important than the identity they have themselves selected?

I admit it: I have a hard time with the word “butch” for myself. Some of that is my own butch-phobia and shitty messages I got when I was younger. Some of that is my own worries about my credibility as butch or that people won’t believe me as butch, something that I think Sinclair’s statement is even trying to address. Some of that is just feeling like that is not me — that I need some other word, and I have made those other words. Erasing those other words doesn’t feel good to me. It’s not as if I have never heard the word “butch” or that I am some exotic variant. It’s just not a word for me.

In the interest of how this post started, here’s what I think. I could see this project working if everyone on the list did identify as butch. I could see this project working if it wasn’t assigning people to a category without their permission. I could see this project working if it was named something different, something bigger — and yes, I know, the words are ugly sometimes, and that’s part of our challenge. I am curious what Sinclair says about the criticism coming from the community about the inclusion of trans guys, and this general elision of people into the word “butch.”

S. Bear Bergman hits it on the head — some trans guys do have a place on the butch spectrum. Some trans guys don’t have a place on the butch spectrum. But to be a trans guy doesn’t make you butch. To be a female-assigned person who identifies as female and likes to wear a tie doesn’t make you butch. Claiming butch makes you butch. Isn’t that what we’re all fighting for?

12 Comments so far
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“butch identity is more widely varied in range of expression and identity than is usually represented”

i didn’t even remember seeing this quote on the site, but reading it just now threw a big rock at my head. if this quote is part of why sinclair made the site, then why are so many of the people on the hot 100 SO.STEREOTYPICALLY.BUTCH.LOOKING? i am sure part (most?) of that was the selection process – throwing it to the internet populous (and a specific populous at that) and letting them select.

i think you are closer to hitting the nail on the head about what is making a lot of people uncomfortable about the list. what if every transguy on there identified as butch? would that make the list more or less problematic?

Comment by tony

Your analysis hits my thoughts while perusing this list, like an arrow on target. It’s all about whether this is consensual gendering or not. If people didn’t agree to be on this list and called “butches” then when you boil it down, it’s basically another form of gender coercion.

Sure, it might not be as bad as gender coercion as practiced by the stricter gender police of the world. It’s not the scalpel of a surgeon carving up an infant’s genitals, or an angry father raising his belt as he yells “you’re a boy, dammit, so act like a boy!” I think we can take it as a given that Sinclair, as a butch-identified person who talks about moving through the world as a butch, understands more about the nuance and hue and texture of many different genders and options in the world than most people. So it is bound to be a more careful process in some ways.

However, it’s still wrong in principle. It’s still done without consent. It’s still plastering a word onto the faces, lives, and bodies of people who may really not that word slapped on them. In principle, is it that much difference than pointing at a trans woman who happens to be in a public place, and yelling “It’s a MAAAAN, Baby!” All of these assumptions start with “well, I know what X looks like, and I suspect that this person is X, and I don’t think they would or should mind being called X.” That’s a lot of assumptions. Assumptions that we can recognize Gender X on sight. Assumptions that it’s ok to call someone X just because we like X.

“Well, I know a man when I see one. And being a man is a good thing, it’s not an insult.” Now substitute the word “butch.” Yeah, we may live in a more progressive, transgressive community than the people who murder trans folks. But gender coercion is still wrong, whether you’re doing it with a hammer to the head, a scalpel, or much more softly with a web page.

Comment by Holly

Also, Sinclair’s disclaimer? It is weak sauce. Serious weak sauce. It basically says “look, I’m invested in this word. I know maybe I am using it non-consensually on some of these people, and oh I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but it sounds good as a title, and I am trying to promote that word because it’s important to me.”

You know what? Who cares if it’s important to you. What matters is whether the people who you’re pasting that word onto think it’s important for THEM. If there’s one person on that list who recoils at the idea of being labeled “butch” — and honestly, I hope like Sinclair that through some happy coincidence that there isn’t — then this excuse is a failure. Because you’ve coerced that person’s gender into your box for your own political agenda. No matter how noble it is, that’s still wrong.

Another way to look at it, yet again — what if it were the word “faggot” that was being reclaimed? Sure, I support that. But I would not support taking a set of 100 people, including Calpernia Addams and Candis Cayne and a bunch of gay dudes who may or may not like that word, and writing “hot faggots” on the top of that list, because well there are all sorts of people you COULD consider fags. Also, not OK.

Comment by Holly

I agree, and this echoes the discomfort I felt while paging through the list, while looking at the many very hot androgynous or masculine women. The descriptor “butch” is very much something that a person has to claim for themselves. Many of the women on the list identify in other ways, and I am happy with that diversity in how women can identify themselves – one-size-fits-all definitions of gender just rankle me whether they’re about female femininity or female masculinity.

In the LGBTQ communities we care very much about how people self-identify. It’s a right that we cherish. Simply labelling so many people prominent people butch – because Sinclair likes it, and wants to bring butch back – is wrong if they don’t identify as butch. Part of my awkwardness in addressing this though is that Sinclair seems to identify her (him?)self as a very genderqueer butch – I suspect that’s why Sinclair felt justified in including people who may not identify at all with that specific term when it’s applied to female-bodied people. But not everyone identifies the way Sinclair does.

There are so many hot, hot, hot butch women out there. I think more research (like beyond the internet…) could have turned up more butch-identified butches. Then I would actually be able to have fun with objectification!

Comment by Jaya

Just realized I didn’t address enough in my previous comment the other issue in the list, because I got sidelined thinking about how self-identified women define gender for themselves. But there is also the inclusion of transmen, which I think is inappropriate.

To an extent I think this mirrors a cisgendered prejudice that many lesbians have that transmen are not “really” men or they “don’t count” somehow. I often see signs for women’s nights that are advertised to women and transmen – pointedly excluding transwomen and redefining trans masculinity as female masculinity. Maybe there is a continuum of female masculinity but I think there is certainly a break when someone decides to identify as a man, that continuing that identification is no longer appropriate. It’s not that men can’t be butch – but that this particular list is specifically about female butchness.

Comment by Jaya

I think you really hit the nail on the head at the end there. If this is a celebration of female butchness, men shouldn’t be on it. If it is a celebration of queer butchness, it should have cast a much wider net.

In re: your other comment: I think even though Sinclair does ID as a very genderqueer butch, that doesn’t give S — or anyone! — the right to define other people’s genders. Butch is a useful shorthand, sure, but it is also a specific thing that a lot of people have difficulties with. I wonder if it is not unlike when people use “gay” to refer to everyone LGBTI — it really ends up eliding all kinds of differences in the service of simplicity for the speaker.

Comment by glitzkreig bop

yes, i think it ultimately comes down to self identification.

but, i also think this whole debacle also begs the question of how much of “some trans guys do have a place on the butch spectrum” is a result of “the butch spectrum” appropriating the language of “trans” to fit their own very different experiences and needs?

Comment by shayn

I feel difficult about this because of some of the hard things I have about gender self-identification means that if there’s a trans guy who says it’s his word, isn’t that enough?

I also feel difficult because I am not sure where there is appropriation of the trans narrative by butches and where there is a real overlap. I can think of a lot of cases of clear appropriation and a lot more where there just is similarities and because of the newness of transmasculine narratives, the language gets used…which is, maybe, appropriation. I am curious to know more about what you think about this.

Comment by glitzkreig bop

I don’t actually see significant amounts of similarity in the narratives of butches at large and the narratives of trans men at large, but is not narratives that i’m worried about anyway. I don’t think you can appropriate a narrative. It’s words, and identity descriptors in particular. Self-identification and label appropriation seem to have a contentious relationship and i don’t think there’s any way to parse them out without obscuring the nuance and complexity of people’s lives.

We all recognize that there is a line somewhere though. For me “(some)trans men are not men” (as various people have said in the comments on sugarbutch and feministing) is way over that line; “(some) trans men are butches” is a tiny bit over that line.

From where i stand ‘trans man’ was pretty much the last linguistic bastion of men with transexual experiences or histories, after ‘transgendered’, ‘transmasculine’, and even ‘trans guy’ all seem to have been appropriated into some fuzzy ambiguous territory that can include butches and genderqueers and people who aren’t sure what their gender is but are sure they’re not men or male. So, it half kills my soul and half makes me want to laugh to see trans men conflated with butches or see people say “lots of trans men don’t identify as men”.

Perhaps it’s some kind of inevitable slippage. I’m not sure. Maybe it has something to do with the PR problem that butchness has suffered from. If that’s the case, i wish Sinclair lots of luck. I hope that his project to promote butch as hip and sexy will help slow that down.

Comment by shayn

I hope in the forthcoming response to criticism that Sinclair has received, there’s some explanation of why there were 13 identified trans men on the site and one single identified trans woman – and what that reflects about the site as a whole. Or why the first order of business in the Butch Reclamation Project is to create yet another yardstick for queer desirability that is still largely white, thin, able-bodied, and cisgendered. Is this really expansive, to broaden the umbrella of butch by assigning the title to people without their knowledge or consent, and to define that identity as one primarily located in how very hottttt one is? I don’t see how that is the case.

Comment by mickey

(1) i’m sitting here adoring interesting interesting.

(2) for an extended period of time.

(3) a few things that seem to me to be related here, mostly ones that i’m trying to think through whether and how they make differences…

– ‘butch’ as noun/identity vs. ‘butch’ as adjective/style/description. i’ve certainly known folks who were very comfortable with being described as butch, but never with being identified as a butch. trying to think if i’ve known anyone the other way around…

i’m trying to decide what i’d feel about a list of “butch folks who aren’t cisgendered men” as opposed to ‘butches’. or a list of “masculine folks…”. the difference between those two, in my head, anyway, has to do with the specific queerness of butch & fem as opposed to masculine & feminine. though i wonder if sinclair understands the distiction that way, or would agree that there is one.

– the whole question of queer histories gets messy in a very similar way to this project of sinclair’s. the main difference is that here the folks involved are alive enough and in shared community spaces enough to argue back if they want to. i mean, however anne bonny, anne lister, claude cahun, or marcel moore defined their genders, it wasn’t in the terms that most often get used about them today, and when it is, by chance, the term’s meaning has usually changed in the meantime.

i’m a bit ambivalent about whether that’s always a problem, or always a big problem. clearly there’s toxic labeling, but there’s also a usefulness to being able to think about folks as part of the same category as oneself – it often helps make clear the differences within the category, which i think is always a good thing.

– shayn writes: but, i also think this whole debacle also begs the question of how much of “some trans guys do have a place on the butch spectrum” is a result of “the butch spectrum” appropriating the language of “trans” to fit their own very different experiences and needs?

i think with this it’s important to remember that borrowing (of styles, rhetoric, narratives, &c) has gone on vigorously in both directions between trans(masculine) folks and non-trans butch folks for as long as the categories have been around. and that that’s how culture works.

and especially with complicatedly and partially overlapping and intermixing identities like these, where power and cultural/subcultural privilege can flow in all kinds of different directions, i’m reeeeal sceptical about the use of calling things ‘appropriation’ without getting very very specific…

– expanding a bit on what mickey wrote: hotlists – yuck! how basically assimilationist and icky can you get, even without being disrespectful of other people’s gender?

Comment by rozele

I honestly don’t see that linguistic/rhetorical/narrative borrowing happening in both directions. It seems pretty unidirectional from where i stand. Maybe there’s some stylistic or aesthetic crossover in the other direction, but i’m not so concerned with that. In my experience in the trans male community, “overlapping and intermixing” with butch identity is an overstatement. I see guys who are quicker or slower to emphasize or disavow their historical relationships (or lack thereof) to the term ‘butch’ or to the butch community, but that’s hardly intermixing on the level of personal identity. And, no, this is not a representative sample of anyone who might have a non-normative gender story, but i think that again points to most of the complicating coming from one direction.

Calling this all a flowing, complicated mess of identity and being content to leave it at that seems, to me, just a way of obscuring the actual language appropriation that’s gone on for the last few decades. I’m not old enough to remember when ‘transgender’ meant living as the (binary) gender to which you were not assigned at birth without any medical intervention – instead of the ambiguous umbrella space that it occupies now. But, i am old enough to remember when ‘trans man’ was a term reserved for male-identified men, and not people who identify as ‘trans’ or ‘butch’ or masculine genderqueerish or whoever else is using it now. I don’t know what to call that if not appropriation.

And believe me, i’m the last person who wants to enforce clear cut, simple genders or gender stories on everyone. I sure as hell don’t have one. I just think that we need to be super careful about using identity language for ourselves when it doesn’t quite fit (or if we have to follow it with a string of rationalizing disclaimers), because it fucks over other people. If male-identified men with transexual experiences and/or histories no longer have a word that describes them as a group, then they no longer have a way to advocate for needs that are specific to that experience. They can’t say, for instance, “Trans men aren’t butches. We’re men.” if then a handful of people will inevitably answer “well, i’m a trans man AND a butch!” or “i’m a trans man, but i don’t identify as a man”. The power of self-definition is then severely diminished for a whole group of people.

Comment by shayn

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