“Borders between gender categories, then, are zones of overlap, not lines” (Hale, 1998:323).
The borders Jacob Hale was referring to in this quote, are those between trans man and butch lesbian in particular. Hale argued that, rather than clear lines of separation, there was much shared territory to be found between these categories, and in those spaces were potential new categories of their own, in these overlapping border zones.
In my recent 2017 research on lesbian and queer masculinities in the UK, conducted in the Sociology Department here at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK, I investigated some of these border zones, exploring how they are inhabited today, and by whom. The survey invited responses from those aged over eighteen, resident in the UK, who identified broadly with lesbian or queer masculinity. Within that frame, further choices of identity categories were presented, including: butch – which was one of the most popular categories ticked by respondents; stud; masculine of centre; gender non-conforming; non-binary and transmasculine for example. In total there were two hundred and forty seven responses, from that total, two hundred and seven chose to answer a question on whether or not they identified as or with the term ‘woman’; for seventy six of those respondents there was not a simple answer to that question.
While there is perhaps greater awareness, in particular amongst younger generations, of the fluidity of sex, gender and sexuality (Renold et al, 2017), this has arguably not translated into more porous boundaries. Questions still continue to be struggled with over where perimeters are drawn and who belongs where. In addition, some identities are still presented as contingent on not being another, as well as not being an ‘other’, identity. This has been the case recently with invocations, in public discourse, of trans rights by self-identified butch lesbians, calling for recognition for the former based on a difference and separation from the latter.
In November 2017 Ruth Hunt, the Chief Executive of Stonewall, the national LGBT human rights organisation in the UK, stated in Huffington Post that butch lesbians are all woman. Rightly defending trans rights, she did so with reference to the differences between trans people and butch lesbians like her.
“I have never – regardless of the way I present who I am – questioned my gender identity. Dressing ‘like a boy’, wearing a suit, having short hair, is my way of being a woman” (Hunt, 2017).
Similarly, Tabs, the founder of “Butch, Please” in the UK, organiser of successful London club nights and other cultural events, shared a video interview for Pink News about her identity and experiences, arguing that for her, butch is not masculine, but another form of femininity, and another way of being a woman. “Why can’t you see me as a woman?” she challenges, aiming this riposte at those who ask her why she wants to be a man, or dresses like a man.
Accounts such as these, in the public domain, present a very clear division between trans and butch, but for some people this may not always be so simple. For some this demarcation is in between lesbian and queer, between female and woman, between gender and sex; traversing territories that may also, arguably, be well-worn by fellow travellers identifying as trans men, transmasculine or transgendered masculine individuals. Perhaps Jacob Hale’s great cartographic work is yet to be realised, perhaps there are still not enough wide open spaces for border zone dwellers to speak their lives, let alone live them comfortably and congruently.
The individuals who responded to my survey used a variety of terms to describe themselves and their masculinity, such as: masculine of centre (a term coined by B Cole in 2010, founder of the Brown Boi Project), transmasculine, butch, stud, geeky butch, boi, faggy butch, gender non-conforming, soft butch, tomboi or tomboy for example and some mentioned using or being happier with male pronouns – ‘he’ and ‘him’, explaining a dissonance or unrecognition when addressed as a lady, ‘miss’ or ‘madam’. Similarly, several found the term ‘lesbian’ too female for them, with its connotations of same-gender attraction or women-loving-women (Radicalesbians, 1970) definitions; they did not reject it, due to their politics, but several said that they preferred terms like ‘queer’ or ‘gay’ for these reasons.
For some, the border between trans and butch was one they mapped themselves and, in many cases, they felt that act of self-definition was the main difference, in a landscape of numerous shared experiences. This echoes earlier observations in 1996 by Zachary I Nataf in Lesbians Talk Transgender, as well as in the, now classic, theses asserted by Halberstam (1998). The point is that what separates trans and butch might not, in fact, be feelings of identity, sex or gender dysphoria, but a line in the sand – which is whatever people need, can, or are willing to do to make a home in their body. Some people choose to transition, and may pursue a tapestry of various surgeries, and/or hormones and legal recognition as trans men, and will self-identify as trans, and some do not. The former are trans men, the latter are not.
But, those who hold this line do not always do so because they are innately wedded to womanhood or femaleness, sometimes far from it; and this needs to be more widely acknowledged, not least because of the consequences it brings, in terms of harassment, of course, but also in terms of alienation, of a sense of not fitting in with communities on offer, neither lesbian nor trans. The individuals who took part in my survey were no strangers to hostilities, they were stared at or ejected from public toilets, harassed on the street, assumed to be men or boys, and, also, sometimes, assumed to be trans. While they did not identify as trans, or as trans men, they often did not identify as women either, or as female.
This alienation from ‘woman’ was due to a variety of reasons; several butches in my survey spoke about a longstanding lack of identification with femininity, often reported has having been the case since early childhood, plus an indifference to or discomfort with their female body, a lack of interest in feminine clothes or styles and a feeling of difference from women they saw around them who presented as feminine. This perception of difference was not just an inner feeling, they were usually visibly different from the majority of women, and so this was noticed by others, sometimes with violent repercussions.
While many butch lesbians will be familiar with being mistaken for a man, for some people this is not so much a case of mistaken identity; for some butches this is a case of their gender being read correctly, and their physical sex being assumed incorrectly. This is why the term ‘misgendered’ is arguably inaccurate, because, for many who identify with and present as masculine, their gender is being read perfectly well by others, the error is to assume that only males can be masculine, and that therefore anyone who presents as masculine, must be male. Perhaps it would be more accurate then, to start using the phrase – ‘mis-sexed’. This point also serves to shine a light on problems with that other commonly (mis)used term: gender dysphoria. For those butches who identify as masculine and identify with masculinity, there is arguably no gender dysphoria, because their gender is not something they themselves question.
What is in question, for some, although not all, might be the extent to which their body matches the current cultural expectations for what a masculine body is supposed to look like. As men’s fashion and cosmetics industries continue down the well-worn road of objectification and self-loathing that has been the business model of women’s products for decades, it is no wonder that this current context is one where most men worry that they cannot match up to the increasingly harmful ideals of the masculine body beautiful. It can be even more challenging, therefore, for masculine identified females bombarded with such adverts, many of which fetishise and scrutinise the semi-naked male body as a symbol of masculinity.
In conclusion then, it is important to acknowledge that for some butches and masculine of centre individuals their gender identity is a million miles from feminine and their presentation is one way of being butch and not another way of being a woman. There are as many ways of being butch as there are butches. Butch can be a fabulous way to be a woman; it can be a flamboyant way to be feminine. But what if butch masculinity could also be one way of being masculine?
Cole, B (2011) ‘Masculine of Centre, Seeks Her Refined Femme’ in: Coyote, Ivan E. & Sharman, Zena (eds.) Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, pp. 127-137.
Halberstam, Jack (1998) ‘Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Vol. 4(2), pp. 287-310.
Hale Jacob C. (1998) ‘Consuming the Living, Dis(re)membering the Dead in the Butch/FTM Borderlands’. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Vol. 4(2), pp. 311-348.
Nataf Zachary I. (1996) Lesbians Talk Transgender. London: Scarlet Press.
Radicalesbians (1970) ‘The Woman Identified Woman’ in: Hoagland Sarah Lucia & Penelope Julia (1988) (eds.) For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology. London: Onlywomen Press, pp. 17-22.
Renold Emma, Bragg Sara, Carolyn Jackson & Ringrose Jessica (2017) How Gender Matters to Children and Young People Living in England. Cardiff University, University of Brighton, University of Lancaster and University College London, Institute of Education. ISBN 978-1-908469-13-7.
Finn Mackay is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of West of England.
Image: Rosie Charlotte Mackay