When I was twenty, I had one burning desire: I wanted to be butch. I found the butches at my college irresistibly attractive: their slouched jeans, their white t-shirts. There was a je ne sais quoi about their baseball caps, perfectly frayed and cocked to one side. I was newly out, and I was in love with all of them.
So was everyone else.
At my school, even the butches dated butches. If you weren’t butch, you were a L.U.G (lesbian until graduation). Everyone knows that’s fun at a party, but it’s a recipe for heartbreak if you’re looking for love. So I bought my butch gear and shaved my head.
At best, I looked liked like a femme who had escaped a high security prison. Usually, I just looked like I was trying too hard.
I am still fascinated by butches today. I cast one in every story I write: the breathlessly stylish soft butch, with her tough glower and her heart of gold. I know I should write about femme women with a perchance for blushing and smiling too much—you know, something I understand—but butch has never lost its allure.
So interviewed three women who had succeeded where I had failed: Jesse MacGregor-Jones, author of Butch Sexology as well as many other books; androgynous model Skye Isono; and the blogger known as Middle Aged Butch, author of one of my favorite blogs, the Flannel Files.
First, a definition:
MacGregor-Jones describes butch “as a hybrid between male and female.” A butch woman is “masculine of center.”
Middle Aged Butch, says that “butch means tilting toward the masculine side of things including, for her, an interest in men’s clothing and traditional masculine activities, like “watching sports, fishing, shooting pool, bowling.”
On the other hand, actress and model Isono states that she “does not really identify as anything but androgynous.” She says, “I almost don’t believe I have a sex. I wear men’s clothing, have a dominate personality and take the masculine role in relationships but I don’t in anyway want to be a man. I wear make-up…and have my feminine moments.”
All three women mentioned that being butch (or androgynous in Isono’s case) felt natural. “It’s an attitude that you’re just born with, frankly,” MacGregor-Jones said. “By the time I was in the first grade I was crushing on girls, holding doors for them and picking flowers for them.”
Isono talked about growing up around a lot of boys. “I felt like I had to be tough and almost the man of the house for my mom,” she says.
Middle Aged Butch married a man in her twenties and came out in her thirties. Still, she says, “today, I get my hair clipped short and wear almost exclusively men’s clothes. I feel like I’m…still evolving, still becoming more of who I was meant to be.”
One of the things that drew me to butches when I was in college was their visibility. Butches are the face of the lesbian community.
“We simply cannot hide who we are,” MacGregor-Jones says.
Middle Aged Butch says, “When I walk down the street, no one has to wonder who I’m coming home to at night. If someone sees that and is inspired to just be herself, that’s a good thing.”
Surprisingly to me (who once thought that being butch would solve all my problems), butches face their share of trials within the lesbian community.
Isono stated that, “butches are the most judged of our community.” It is “majorly controversial” when butches date other butches, she says, and she wishes the community would be more accepting.
MacGregor-Jones mentioned that butches are stigmatized by “femmes…who only date other femmes and see [butches] as ‘men wannabees’ which is entirely off base.”
Of course, this brings us to the question every lesbian has fielded, at least once, from a drunk guy at a bar: what do lesbians do in bed? I asked how the butch/androgynous identity works in the bedroom. All three women, said that they took a dominant role. However, within that general parameter answers varied.
MacGregor-Jones said she only dated “high femmes,” and that she is very monogamous and not at all interested in flings.
Middle Aged Butch stated that she and her wife fell into the traditional butch-femme roles. However, she adds,“…that doesn’t mean that we don’t mix it up from time to time…She brings me home roses every once in awhile, and I adore the gesture. It’s the same with sex.”
Isono said that it could be difficult to start a relationship because her partners would either expect her to “be the man” or to feminize her, but that eventually her partners came to understand her for who she was.
All three were laudably discrete in their answers to my voyeuristic question. But fear not, the Amazon blurb for MacGregor-Jones’s best selling book Butch Sexology promises, “If you’re a femme who loves butches, this book will have you racing for your vibrator. If you’re a butch who loves femmes, this book will have you taking notes.” There is plenty of opportunity to expand your knowledge!
As for me, I’ve come to embrace my femininity. My senior year in college, another femme pulled me aside. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Out of college, femmes get a lot more mileage.” A month and a half after I graduated, I was at the local gay bar when a handsome black woman with a shaved head smiled at me.
Fifteen years later, our closet is still a 50/50 split: suits on one side, dresses on the other.
“I’m writing this article on butches,” I said to my wife, as she was getting ready for work. “You identify as butch, right?”
She straightened her tie and cocked her fedora to one side.
“Compared to you?” she asked. “Sure. Otherwise, I’m just comfortable.”
More at kareliastetzwaters.com
* Cover image by Shelly Bernstein. Available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/aur2899/952568082/sizes/o/in/photostream/ under Creative Commons License 2.0. Full terms of Creative Commons at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/