What is “butch”, anyway?

Right off the bat, let’s be clear: when it comes to identity of any ilk, whether gender, sexual, cultural, political, social, or any other categorization a human wishes to adopt, there is no single answer that is right or wrong, real or synthetic, valid or invalid, except the one (or many) that each individual accepts or applies to themselves. So this post is a musing of my mind, perhaps snarky, maybe confused, likely rambling, certainly incomplete. But this post is NOT and is NEVER intended to be a one-size-fits-no one-forcing-of-my-opinion-on-anyone-else.

Also, let me acknowledge that what’s real and central for me in my butch identity may not be recognizable as butch to anyone else. I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating because it is critical that everyone reading this understands that I am in no way invalidating anyone else’s identity or gender experience or expression by exploring what mine is.

Perhaps these observations aren’t terribly novel; many have written personal accounts, editorial comments and learned articles on this elusive identity definition. I doubt that my small contribution to this body of blather will add much depth or clarity to the questions or answers. My only aim is to share a small insight on my own experience with my butch identity.

So, with that preface, here we go…

— — — — —

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of comments on Twitter and Facebook and even some blog posts that attempt to capture the essence of what “butch” is, as if it is a monolith without discernible topography. In most comments by those who don’t ID as butch, everything butch is, in one stroke, classed as uniformly masculine, eschewing all femininity, aggressive, arrogant bordering on misogynistic, and universally mechanically inclined. From those who do ID as some form or degree of butch, there is nothing uniform or universal, except possibly the use of the label of convenience: butch.

What sparked this drizzle of thought today, more than other days when I’ve seen or heard similar comments, I can’t precisely pinpoint. But I did see a fragment of thought posted to a Facebook timeline of an online acquaintance, musing on whether a butch can use eyeliner and remain consistent with being “butch”. One comment said that ‘butch’ is both internal and external, but didn’t elaborate on the dichotomy. Several other comments rejected the idea out of hand, as if it wasn’t even a real question–of course butches can’t wear eyeliner.

The absurdity of the inquiry struck me and nagged at my thoughts all morning. Why is this a question? Who, besides the applicable butch, cares if that butch chooses to wear eyeliner. And how, precisely, is the act of wearing anything (clothing, makeup, accessories, attitude) linked to the validity of one’s identity for anyone other than the butch in question?

Are you beginning to sense my theme?

Let me be explicit: identity is uniquely personal and can ONLY be defined by the individual claiming that identity, and its validity, authenticity and dimension can ONLY be assessed by that individual.

It is perfectly true that some bulk characteristics can be attributed to most members of any given group or demographic. Indeed, ‘demographic’ means the parameters defining any given subset of a population. However, demography is a gross measure, not designed to capture the granular detail needed to define something so personal and esoteric as gender identity.

Nor is the average, mean or median of any bell curve the truest description of any point on that curve. Just because a point lies on an extreme does not mean that it is an invalid point. Nor does appearing in the ambiguous middle mean that such point is typical of every other point on the curve. The bell curve excels at measuring frequency and giving viewers a means to divide data into standard deviations from an imposed midpoint. But the bell curve is a very poor tool for discovering or facilitating precise (or even gross) definition of any point on the curve.

Rather, the community or group of individuals comprising the population sets the gross standard for that population. Essentially, they share a loose set of traits or characteristics that outline the group classification. The curve is then formed by the individually-adopted granular definitions of that gross identity. So, by definition (in my mind, at least), every individual identifying to that population is helping to define it and that individual’s personal definition within that umbrella is automatically valid.

It’s the difference between wearing a coat and the coat wearing you.

Instead of all coats being a static, uniform size, cut & color so that only those who fit that parameter can be coat-wearers, there are lots of sizes, styles, cuts, colors and variations of coats and we each choose the one (or many) that fits us best. We all get to wear a coat if we choose to, but the fact that mine is denim and yours is wool doesn’t mean that mine isn’t a coat and yours is. It just means that we each have different coats. We’re both coat-wearers.

Similarly, just because someone’s personal definition of butch encompasses use of makeup, wearing of so-called feminine clothing, or anything else that may seem incongruous with “butch” to an outside observer, doesn’t mean that that person is wrong or mistaken or misled in their personal identity or that that identity is in any way invalid. Whether or not an individual’s use of any object or affectation is consistent with the butch identity can’t be answered by anyone not wearing that particular butch identity.

My personal experience of being butch is, like many other facets of my life, different from what many of my butch-identified friends have described to me of their own experiences. I claimed the label very late in my personal development. Though my outward appearance has always been rather inconsistent with binary, heteronormative convention for someone assigned female, I have also had an internal identity that was also inconsistent with these conventions. It is something I learned very early in life to both embrace and yearn to change, but which I ultimately learned to live with.

Later, as my sense of self grew more defined, I became content with an uneasy truce between myself and society’s expectations, settling into the assumptions of others that I was just weird and awkward and and nonconforming. Since I didn’t make any effort to crash the ‘normal’ party and never really attempted to date, people seemed to accept my other-ness without much fuss and bother, allowing me to move through life without forcing me to fit perfectly into the female label and without forcing me to claim any particular degree of female-ness or femininity. (But, to be sure, never letting me forget just how “other” I was.)

It wasn’t until long after I’d graduated law school and started work that I took the time to examine my own definition of myself, my gender, my sexuality, my life philosophy. (All of them at once, of course, because why should I make things easy on myself and work on just one at a time?) As I made this examination and embarked on a journey of self discovery and improvement, it became clear to me that the flat, unadorned “female” designation was insufficient to describe my gender, though “male” didn’t feel right, either. Lacking any vocabulary other than male/female, I found it very difficult to express my gender experience.

It wasn’t any one book, article, blog or conversation that let me see that I had the power to define my gender in other than absolute binary terms. It was a progression of all these things, together with my own introspection. But as soon as I freed myself to do so, there was no other better-fitting choice for me than “butch”.

For me, butch as my gender is the balancing point of multiple markers of identity, both internal and outward. Inside, butch looks and feels like a collection of contrasting pairs of characteristics, mostly in balance: Masculine, not necessarily male. Resilient and sensitive in nearly equal measure. Preferring logic to emotion, yet with infinite emotional capacity. Assertive but not really aggressive. Thoughtful and contemplative without brooding. Decisive yet accommodating. Able to appreciate the contributions and worth of all people, regardless if they are identified or assigned a specific gender, race, ethnicity, nationality or personal ideology. And also having a deep respect for all life and valuing the inherent beauty of diversity.

Outwardly, my personal flavor of butch has evolved quite a lot in the last five years, most markedly in the last three years. When I was much younger, I cared little about fashion and style, focusing only on whether the clothes I wore were clean, fit comfortably and didn’t embarrass me among my immediate peer group. I was most definitely a jeans and sweatshirts kind of person, struggling on those occasions when more formal attire was required. My gestures and mannerisms were much more reserved and tentative, too.

As my autonomy, self-awareness and means have increased, so has my sense of fashion in relation to my gender expression. Today, my outward expression of my inward butch manifests in a nearly stylish, somewhat fashionable aggregation of traditionally “men’s” clothing choices (jeans, dress shirts, boots or dress shoes and bow ties, mixing formal and casual) and traditionally “masculine” gestures and mannerisms.

This last bit is harder to describe than clothes. Put it this way: I’m louder, more decisive, more confident in myself and more definite in my opinions than is conventionally acceptable for someone wishing to be considered genteel. Yet I am simultaneously more courteous and deferential, and less presumptive of my own priority than those traditionally viewed as “manly”.

Put another way, I don’t assume that all the space I occupy is uniquely dedicated to me and I am careful to leave room for others. This, in my experience, differentiates my living masculinity from the vast majority of cis males whom I’ve encountered, who give no outward sign of consideration for others’ comfort in or access to the spaces they occupy.

My personal definition of Butch doesn’t encompass much that is conventionally female or feminine–although, as I write this, I’m wearing a light pink dress shirt and purple bow tie. The colors might arguably be “feminine”, but the cut of the shirt and the way I wear it make them consistent with my butch identity. The silver rings on my middle fingers, the heavy steel watch on my wrist, the buckskin oxfords (not brogues) on my feet over the crazy-patterned dress socks, all are ostensibly “men’s” accessories, but are owned and worn with my own butch flair.

And in terms of aptitude and activity preferences, I’m equally mixed among things typically (and inexplicably) attributed to binary genders. I can use power tools, but would prefer to hire an expert for jobs bigger than minor maintenance. I love football, but I’m not much for dance. Yet I can out-craft any little ol’ granny…glass, metal, wire jewelry, anyone? I appreciate art and music. I also geek out on sci-fi movies and electronic gadgets.

Just as I contended above that self-selection to the identity makes the identity valid for that person, I equally contend that self-selection of appearance or performance characteristics or activity preferences makes them valid for that identity.

So, ultimately, my answer to the original question of whether a Butch can wear eyeliner and remain consistent with what “butch” is, is a resounding yes. Yes, if it is a choice that butch makes in expressing their personal flavor of butch, then eyeliner is eminently butch for that person. What outside observers think is irrelevant to what makes “butch” butch for that butch.

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7 comments so far

  1. […] Check out this great piece from my friend Searching4Self. What is “butch”, anyway?. […]

  2. MainelyButch on

    Reblogged this on MainelyButch: Private Label and commented:
    This is a great piece by SuddenAwareness. and I quote: “For me, butch as my gender is the balancing point of multiple markers of identity, both internal and outward. Inside, butch looks and feels like a collection of contrasting pairs of characteristics, mostly in balance: Masculine, not necessarily male. Resilient and sensitive in nearly equal measure. Preferring logic to emotion, yet with infinite emotional capacity. Assertive but not really aggressive. “

  3. Jonathan on

    “As I made this examination and embarked on a journey of self discovery and improvement, it became clear to me that the flat, unadorned “female” designation was insufficient to describe my gender, though “male” didn’t feel right, either. Lacking any vocabulary other than male/female, I found it very difficult to express my gender experience.”

    Ah, yes, very much this. Though in my case “femme” was the word I needed.

  4. Jamie Ray on

    What you say it true, and even if it has been said before, it needs to be said over and over by each person in their own way.

    There is no point in policing people’s identities or how they interpret them. Whether it be lesbians who don’t look like lesbians (whatever lesbians are supposed to look like) or what butch women can wear or “should avoid” or whether someone is “too masculine identified” to be butch, or not “trans enough” to be transgender, it is not anyone’s job to tell them that they are not who they say they are.

    In my experience, having seen this in many manifestations, I think that the people who police – who say that they are the real McCoy and you are an imposter – they are the ones who are insecure about their identity. I’ve seen way too many holier than thou dykes scurry off and get married to men – they were doing what they thought was politically correct – but it wasn’t authentic and eventually they didn’t fight nature anymore. But they bruised a lot of other people by hewing to ideals they eventually rejected.

    So if a butch wants to wear some make-up, or a cisgendered man wants to wear some make-up, it doesn’t change who they are. It all comes off with a clean cloth and some lotion.

  5. […] an integrity thing.  I have received my first negative comment on one of my posts, https://suddenawareness.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/what-is-butch-anyway/ The post is about my personal take on my own identity. And I took great pains in that post to […]


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