Is it difficult to keep your identity “in line” with your life?
Even among the lesbian community, butch lesbians face a fair amount of scrutiny. With the newly gained acceptance of transgender individuals (both male-to-female and female-to-male) in society, many butch women feel pressured to identify as a “trans man” without necessarily feeling that way.
I have even experienced this in my own life, although I do not identify as butch. I have had previous partners who felt that they were “unable” to correct people who referred to them as “sir”, and partners who questioned whether they desired to transition – simply based on the fact that society viewed them as wanting to be men.
Why is it that, in the age of acceptance and understanding, butch women are such a mystery to the rest of us?
Certainly, I’ve met my fair share of lesbians who expressed a genuine interest in transitioning, but it’s important to realize that your “gender identity” and your “gender expression” are not the same thing. Just as “drag queens” are not the same as “trans women”, different too are “butch women” and “trans men”.
In the past, trans men may have been forced to label themselves as “butch lesbians” as there was no readily-available identifier available to them. While it’s wonderful that they are now gaining more acceptance and visibility, it is having the unfortunate side effect of making butch lesbians who wish to maintain their female identity intact without feeling pressured to dress in a feminine manner or present themselves as “men in women’s bodies”.
This puts butch women in a particularly invisible spot when compared to other lesbians. While once women weren’t considered “really gay” unless they expressed themselves as butch, now lesbians are not considered “really women” unless they choose to dress “like women”.
In a community where we already face so much invisibility from the outside, this can be extremely painful when it comes from those within the community.
The difference between gender identity and gender expression
There is a world of difference between how you choose to identify yourself and how you choose to express yourself. There is definitely a world of room for “grey areas” in both labels, but the most important thing to remember is that you cannot assign a label to someone else – no matter how well you think you know them. They know themselves better, I promise.
Gender identity refers to who you believe yourself to be on the outside. It’s definitely not a clear-cut black and white, as we are seeing a new influx of those who identify as “genderqueer” and “androgynous”. This isn’t a flaw in the person – it’s a flaw in the system that tries to push us into an individual label for its own convenience.
Once, the only labels to choose from were “cis-male”, “cis-female”, “trans-male”, and “trans-female”.
Now we also have “genderqueer”, “androgynous”, and “non-binary” – all of which mean essentially the same thing, but perhaps to different extents. The individual label that a person uses should be based solely on their own choices.
Gender expression, on the other hand, refers to how you choose to be portrayed by your outward appearance. Remember in your childhood when you were taught “it’s what’s on the inside that counts?” Well, this is a good place to practice that. Just because someone chooses to wrap themselves in clothes traditionally attributed to the opposite gender does not automatically mean that they wish to identify as the opposite gender.
What can you do to be a better ally?
It’s important that you ask, rather than assume, as to what your masculine-presenting friend or lover chooses to be identified as. If she chooses to refer to herself with female pronouns, a female name, and only masculine clothing, chances are, she wishes to remain female – but it’s always a good idea to ask.
If, on the other hand, your friend or lover chooses to refer to themselves with gender-neutral terms (such as they, or any pronouns they have created for themselves), it’s best to honor those choices.
There is also a tendency of some genderqueer individuals to refer to themselves in both male and female terms, depending on their outward expression at the time. This can be a bit confusing for the allies in their lives, but chances are they will be able to tell if you’re making an honest effort to honor their wishes – and they will appreciate this effort.
Lastly, there is the category of “butch lesbians” who truly wish to identify as men. They may be unaware that this is a legitimate option, as they may have faced hesitation in the past, or they may be uncertain of their commitment to their transition. Some people decide to never surgically transition – and it’s important for you to realize that they are still as “real” as those who do choose to go under the knife. The decision to transition is deeply personal, and truthfully, their anatomy is really none of your business unless you are sleeping with them. (And, even if you are sleeping with them, you would be out of line to try to impose your own labels onto them. It’s their body, not yours.)
Some notes for those who still identify as “butch lesbians” and not trans men
Don’t be afraid to correct someone if they refer to you with male pronouns or other terms. This is your body – you should not settle for anyone else’s definition of who you are. That is for you alone to decide.
Don’t feel pressured to transition if it’s not something you really want. Transitioning is a long process that can be quite expensive and potentially traumatic. The decision to undergo a transition is yours and yours alone.
Don’t feel that you have to hide your femininity in order to keep your “butch” identity intact. Just because you identify as butch doesn’t mean that you can’t be feminine as well. You shouldn’t allow your label to define you so deeply that you lose who you are.
Don’t ever compromise your sense of self in order to satisfy someone else’s requests. They’re not the one that has to live in your body – you are.
Do speak to your partner about how you feel. If she doesn’t identify as butch, she likely doesn’t understand the struggles you go through with your label and your identity.
Inform her – you will grow closer through this experience.
Do adequately weigh your options before making any “permanent” decisions. This is a huge undertaking, and butch women are in a particularly unique situation.
Do feel that you are allowed to change your identity. There is nothing set in stone, and (within reason) you have the ability to change things at any point in time. What works for you now may not work for you in ten years – you should take inventory of your life on a regular basis to see if your identity still matches.
Do understand that you are not alone. Every person’s situation is different, at least slightly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find someone to help you answer the tough questions. Find your own personal support group, and discuss your issues with them.
Do value yourself. The true butch lesbian is certainly a rare creature – celebrate it! You are magical in your own rights. Don’t let anyone dull your shine.
What does this mean for the lesbians in their lives?
I have been friends with many lesbians whose partners have transitioned – and the decision whether to stay together or split up vary from couple to couple. In my personal opinion, your choice to stay with your partner should have more to do with your connection than with your own labels.
It’s also important to realize that the only person who must deal with their identity is themselves. If your partner is in the process of transitioning (whether hormonally, anatomically, both, or neither) – you are of course not required to stay by their side. Everyone is entitled to their own preferences, and if you are only attracted to the female anatomy, it can be difficult to come to terms with the idea of your partner no longer having those female characteristics.
However, just as important as it is for you to maintain your preferences, there is their right to maintain the identity that works best for them. Sometimes these identities change, either due to a new understanding or due to the general fluidity of the human condition. If you find yourself truly unwilling to accept their newly disclosed identity, it may be best for both of you if you part ways. It’s not fair to your partner to be confined to the label that you would “prefer” they fit.
Overall, the subject of gender identity and gender expression is deeply personal for those involved. It will take a fair amount of communication between you and your partner in order to understand where your relationship stands. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to accept their partner for the person they are inside, regardless of whether it matched their outward appearance or not. One should never be pressured into making someone else “more comfortable” through exclusion of their innermost feelings.