Post-trans invisibility and the reality of identity overlap

I follow the Rodeoh blog on tumblr, which features a wide array of people modeling their brand of underwear. I follow it mainly because pretty much everyone who is interested in that brand (because it caters to afab bodies) is a lesbian, queer woman, transmasculine, FTM, etc, all of which I have a lot of love for and want to see images of even though I’m not that interested in the product.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that almost all of the people featured who have facial hair and mastectomies are lifting up their shirts specifically to show off their mastectomy scars (in kind of a pointed way) in the photos.   It’s mostly the people who I think would pass almost 100% of the time as male otherwise. It’s really interesting to me — they went through this process to ostensibly seem less female, publicly or to themselves, but in the context of modeling for an almost entirely queer/gay female audience, specifically signal their afab bodies, or evidence of a history of transition, etc. 

The reason this gives me something to think about is basically that that seems perfectly natural to me, despite what the trans/queer narratives I’ve been fed in my time spent in those communities told me: that Trans Men Are Men, and that furthermore what that MEANS is that they have absolutely NO connections to lesbian and queer female community anymore. For some, that’s true. For others, it’s just not. It’s totally ideological and not based in reality. Afab trans people and lesbian communities have pretty much always been interconnected – in fact, some of the older butches I know identify as trans and butch lesbians in equal measure and seem to have no idea that people my age think that’s incredibly evil. It’s just… a reality. Why else would there be so many femmes who don’t call themselves lesbians but basically are except for respect for some of their partners?

I think that for many, passing as male is one thing, but not being recognized by your own people is another. I have a lot of detransitioned friends who speak of it often, and in my limited experience I can definitely verify. Even at my “peak” of disidentification, my biggest fear was being seen as a cis man to other women, to lesbians, to trans people, etc. Passing for male is a really dissociative, isolating experience, and nobody ever really tells you that before it happens more often than it doesn’t. 

I really think that transition would be so much less fucked up for so many people who have felt fucked up by it (emotionally I mean, physically it would be the same toll) if we were allowed to keep our connections to our pasts and our people even though it doesn’t fit an ideological narrative. Way more than because I want to make sure people know they can always come home if it feels right, this is the reason I keep an open heart to people who do not define themselves in the ways that I define myself. We have a common struggle at the end of the day. I want to see and recognize anyone who wants to be seen and recognized.

questioning dysphoria

In an attempt to keep all my thoughts together, I’m going to also import some older posts of mine and expand on them a bit here. The first draft of this post was originally posted to a personal account. 

Why do so many butches and gender nonconforming women experience dysphoria, especially top dysphoria, if its not because we inherently want to be men? Using myself as an example, the one thing that gave me the most pause against getting top op is my lack of desire to be read as a man more often. I have no interest whatsoever in passing, except on occasion for safety reasons or during particularly terrible bouts of self hatred. For me, being seen as male is a dissociative and isolating experience. So, I’ve had to do quite a bit of self reflection on this over time. What does my body mean to me? What do breasts mean culturally, what do no breasts mean culturally?

Everything that is assigned to having breasts in our subconscious is antithetical to how I see myself as a butch. I don’t mean that this is something that is true; having breasts IS NOT antithetical to anything, let alone being a butch lesbian. Outside of cultural messaging, they don’t have meaning! They just are. But every image we’ve ever seen of them is sexualized for male consumption. To a great degree that is their meaning culturally – for example, how its OK to have big Victorias Secret billboards, but women cant breastfeed in public. Even as a completely flat chested child, I was jealous that male cousins could run outside in the heat with no shirt on and I had to sweat. When I got a bit older, puberty meant boys snapping bras and adult men ogling. It meant death of freedom, it meant a deep humiliation I could not yet understand.

Like being hypersexual or shutting down sexually after assault, I think that young girls “playing into” sexualizing their female attributes vs young girls wanting to reject their female attributes are two sides of the same coin, because girls’ socialization is… pretty inherently traumatic. The physical and psychological affects of a hourglass forming corset vs a binder are actually very similar. Its always the body that has to be “fixed,” to be escaped. I’ve heard butches talk about how they feel like their bodies are mismatched collages – masculine here, feminine there. It is not uncommon for women to mentally cut themselves into pieces rather than seeing ourselves as one whole life sustaining body that is you.

Another aspect is for those of us who have always been visibly “different” – people staring before you realized why, finding out you’re a lesbian by being called one from a car, adults asking if you’re a girl or a boy before you are old enough to understand the question, never being able to look quite right when you try to blend in as feminine – how do you not internalize that into your body? Something is wrong with me, something is wrong with my body, everyone can see it. That is incredibly formative. You can’t possibly not be psychologically affected by it, even if you’re old enough to know why its happening, but especially if its been happening since early childhood. How do you avoid feeling alienated from the vessel that alienates everyone else so much?

For me, its been incredibly helpful to process over time what my shape means and what it doesn’t mean. Reconceptualizing what living in a female body means is hard work and it involves healing from trauma that i’ve only been recently able to tackle! But my god, has it been worth it. Talking with other butches and other women at large and seeing our commonalities is a healing thing in & of itself – its so crazy for me to think that I used to think I had to make myself disappear in order to keep living when in reality there are so many women like me, and I am like so many women.

BUTCH FLIGHT (drippy slime text)

Its the kind of phrase that’s bound to raise hackles, and I understand that it causes a lot of rift and I should use a less loaded phrase, but I also think that its 2017 and nobody uses it anymore anyway so like, retro. Whatever. It gets across what I want to talk about and its the cultural concept of womanhood being somehow off limits to people who look like me. Plus, it would make a great band name.

Growing up and coming out, I did not know any butches. It sounds funny, but somehow, I did not know you could be a gender nonconforming adult female. I knew that there were “masculine” adult women, but somehow my young undeveloped brain could NOT wrap itself around the concept of actually living one’s ENTIRE life like that, without changing some aspect of who you are completely. Don’t tomboys grow out of it? Don’t you just sort of become an appropriately feminine adult woman somehow? Or if you can’t, don’t you just become some kind of isolated cave dweller before drinking yourself to death? There’s no model for us, no map.

I am too young to feel like I lost butch community to disidentification — for me, its just what everyone did, myself included. I think, in a way, it is even worse for butches who are a bit older than I am, who lived in that liminal space between “everyone like this is butch” and “everyone like this is trans,” who actually had butch community and then watched it wither away, friends and loved ones disappearing from their social groups and into a new life path. I have a friend who used to run a butch group a few years back. She’s the only one left from that entire social group in the city who hasn’t transitioned. The gravity of that statement always hits me like bricks.

Last year, I facilitated a workshop on detransition and re-identifying as a woman after a period of not doing so, and of course touched on the pressures from institutions and social groups alike on young lesbians, gender nonconforming women and especially butches to reject “female”ness. I found that the most common thing we all had in common was that being around other butches, even reading the words of butches, and knowing in a very real way that butch womanhood was a thing that you could actually LIVE in, was the biggest reason for reconciling with being female, clearing the haze and finding yourself among women.

After that weekend I immediately got to work on organizing a butch group in my city, to keep us together and talking to one another, to feel real, see women who don’t look like how women are “supposed” to look, of all ages. I swore to never, ever stop talking about being butch. No, not everyone is going to find authenticity in a female identity, not everyone is going to find healing in naming yourself in that way. But we have to know its an option. We have to keep laying tracks, and keeping this path well-lit. I imagine my friend’s experience of having her whole butch group transition made her feel like “the last of her kind,” and I’m so glad that’s not true. I’m incredibly grateful to her and so many others for tending the butch path for her whole life, its not easy work.  It took me a long time (relative to my age) to find it, myself, but that’s okay. There aren’t any one way streets, and the path back home is always there, well tended by the women before you, waiting for the women who come after. And they will always come.

on being stone

The concept of “stone butch” is sort of taboo, or at least shrouded in mystery. Part of that can definitely be ascribed to the fact that we (stone butches) ourselves don’t talk about it much, not even with each other, maybe especially not with each other. That, and when you google it, its all in the sort of graphic exotifying language that nobody would ever use to talk about someone they knew firsthand, let alone their own sex life. Its the way I might write about a weird bug. Coldly. Details focused on its alien body behavior, vagueness when it comes to what its like to BE that bug.

Even within lesbian communities, stone is not well understood. Isn’t that antithetical to the kinds of pleasure we’re famous for being able to give each other, isn’t that antithetical to feminist ideals of reciprocity?

Not to me.

Before realizing that I was allowed to not have the kind of sex that seemed right to other people (even as a lesbian), sex was a misery. In fact, I avoided it for years.  Even at my absolute best, I was always at least “one foot out the door” mentally, ready to dissociate at any second. I couldn’t connect and was so busy feeling uncomfortable in my body that I couldn’t even properly pay attention to the bodies of those  I’d been with. I thought it meant I was asexual, or just too fucked up to ever have a positive experience with sex.

Alongside communicating/connecting with my girlfriend (now fiancee), allowing myself to respect my own boundaries and desires changed things for me – because suddenly I was having the most intimate experiences of my life. The big cliche about “giving pleasure gives me pleasure” is true, but its more than that, too. For me, the center of my sexuality is sourced in my hands and the pressure of body against body. My fingers and palms can read this tactile body language more easily than my eyes can read words on a page.

Without the constant anxiety of not knowing whether my boundaries were wrong, or to be crossed, or expected to be “melted” immediately… I’m able to be present and really connect. When people talk about what it means to be stone, its hard not to frame it as sex not being “reciprocal,” and even I have used that language sometimes, but the truth is I don’t conceptualize reciprocity as “the same actions to each other,” but of mutual pleasure. And believe me, we have that in spades.

I kind of think that being stone is the butch body’s way of rewiring itself AROUND trauma, dysphoria, pain, socialization, boundaries etc., so that you can have a sensory processing map that allows for intimacy, rather than just doing enough to get by in a relationship or throwing it all out and saying “well, I’m too fucked up for (whatever reason).” Its honestly kind of amazing that we can do this. You’ll hear me saying this a lot, but women are amazing.

I have a fraught and troubled relationship with my body, AND I experience desire and intimacy with my partner. Mutuality is what we make of it.

what butch means to me

In an attempt to keep all my thoughts together, I’m going to also import some older posts of mine and expand on them a bit here. The first draft of this post was originally posted to  butchfemmeculture.

Since I’ve started talking about and bonding over butch identity more openly, I’ve had dozens of people ask me if I could help them figure out if they were butch. To a lesser degree, I also have a lot of people ask me what butch even IS. Even the coordinator  of the women’s center I run my discussion group out of asked me. “Oh, god,” I wanted to say. “You know I’m 24, right!” I won’t pretend I know better than anyone else, except for what it means to me. I’ve found that it resonates with butches and the women who love us, too.

When people come to me and want to work out their feelings about their relationship to butch, I don’t ask questions like, have you ever been mistaken for a man, are you attracted to femmes, is your hair short, do you have a strong build, are you dysphoric, do you wear flannel shirts and solid men’s shoes. These are all things associated with butchness, and certainly with good reason, but they aren’t the definition. This isn’t about what you put on your body. Neither is it a wishy washy identity thing – it’s something you can’t take off or put on, just something you can choose to own or not. I am butch no matter what I do. “Butch is a noun,” and all that.

Think about the last time you saw a butch in public. Like, a real live butch stranger, existing and living out there. How did you feel? Did your heart light up for a moment, hoping she’d see you? If you’ve had the pleasure to be around other butches already, do you feel camaraderie? Does hard and rough unfold just a little at the edges before you go back out into the world? When you read butch words, butch history, do you feel rooted and real? Does it make you feel like you can live?

To me, butch feels like pulling on your most weather worn boots that have, over time, totally aligned to the shape of your feet. Sometimes I forget what it was like to break them in. Sometimes I forget how lost you feel before you’ve found your home. If I can raise the lantern to the path behind me, I’d very much like to do that, for anyone still stumbling through the dark.

When I tried to disappear my butch self, it was miserable – and everyone could see through it anyway. When I came home, I found myself. I found myself in womanhood. I found myself in lesbianism. I found a paper trail of proof that I exist, have existed throughout history, will continue to exist, that I don’t have to stuff my unwilling and untamed body into a falsehood of femininity or the dissociative state of manhood. Suddenly, I had roots. Suddenly, my feet were on the ground – armored by these old boots that have seen me through so much. We have always been around. We will always be around. There is a future with me in it, just as I am.

“WOMEN CAN LOOK LIKE THIS” – June 2017

For my inaugural post, I want to share with you a handful of members of a group I started for sharing butch feelings, experiences, and goings on with each other. Its called, appropriately, butch feelings club. I asked if anyone wanted to share their favorite representations of themselves for this blog!

Sidenote, I’m just starting out on WordPress, so if there’s a way to make the mosaic picture sizes more evenly distributed, I haven’t figured it out yet. Heh. Click on them to enlarge though!

Check out all these happy, proud butches.