Archive for July, 2011

This post was prompted by the controversy that has unfolded over the last week or so around the organization Butch Voices. If you are not familiar with the particulars, you can catch up here:

Concerns about “Masculine of Center”

I understand the desire for an umbrella term* to cover the various gender identifiers that Butch Voices is trying to include. And I understand that it would be impossible to come up with something that will entirely please everyone. But I think their adoption of “masculine of center” into their mission statement fails on a few counts.

First, a mission statement is not where you shortcut things. A mission statement is where you spell out exactly who you are and what is important to you. You say the words “butch” and “stud” and “aggressive.” You own them; you don’t lump them under a generalized term, and you don’t relegate them to history.

Beyond that, I think “masculine of center” as an umbrella is loaded and problematic. I realize it’s gaining popularity as a term used by individuals to describe themselves, and while I would love for people to really examine the term critically if they haven’t already, people are going to use whatever feels comfortable to them. But I am worried about the institutionalization of the term, its canonization if you will, as the broader description of these various gender identities.

While it may not be the intention of anyone who uses the term, “masculine of center” reduces gender expression down to a simple gradiation, with pure femininity on one end and pure masculinity on the other. It is a somewhat antiquated way to think of gender. It basically replicates the current binary gender system but with the concession that your biological sex does not determine which side of the gender line you are allowed to occupy.

I suspect that its similarity to the dominant gender paradigm may be part of the appeal of “masculine of center.” It feels familiar and immediately understandable. But that’s because it fits pretty well with how we’ve been taught to think of gender — and a lot of other things really. People may describe their politics as “left of center.” Back in the mid-90s, “butch of center” was a not-uncommon descriptor in lesbian personal ads, at least where I was looking (“femme of center” was also used, but not as often). We are accustomed to defining ourselves (and others) based on our perceived location along an axis.

And here we are on that dreaded continuum. Any time you use a structure like this, there is an implicit (or sometimes explicit) rating or ranking, that leaves some gender expressions as “more” and some as “less”. Thus, differences in expression of masculinity are quantitative rather than qualitative. That is, it becomes about different amounts of masculinity, rather than different kinds. Some are on top of the masculinity scale and some are on the bottom.

Again, I’m not saying that it is the intention of the folks at BV rate or rank or even delineate amounts of masculinity. I am saying, though, that the baggage that inevitably comes with an expression like “masculine of center” makes it unsuitable for use by BV as an umbrella term, and it concerns me that those in power seem either not to realize this or not to care.

And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that not all butches identify with the word masculine itself. Many do, maybe even most, but enough don’t that an organization calling itself Butch Voices should at least take that into consideration.

Other concerns about Butch Voices

While it is impossible to know all the particulars when events are shrouded in secrecy, there are obvious indications of a significant structural problem at BV. I am acquainted with a few female-identified butches who have been involved with BV in varying capacities in the past and none of them was at all surprised by this recent turn of events. Clearly many female-identified butches at BV feel like there are issues around sexism/misogyny (among other points) that aren’t being addressed. And it is just as clear, based on the recent ouster, who holds the power in the organization.

This line from the official statement written by Butch Voices Board President Krys Freeman is extremely telling:

Anyone knowledgeable about BUTCH Voices’ missions or initiatives can see that we have, and will continue to, work hard to include female identified, woman identified, and feminist Butches in all that we do…

It explicitly casts female-identified butches as outsiders that BV is “working” to include. Apart from the absurdity of a large group of butches, probably a majority of butches, being outsiders in an organization called Butch Voices, recent events would suggest that these efforts to “include” female-identified butches are not very effective. Of course, mere inclusion shouldn’t really be the goal anyway. For Butch Voices to be the organization it claims to be, true power-sharing would have to happen. Female-identified butches would have to have equal footing in the organizational power structure, rather than be outsiders the organization is trying to include – on its own terms.

Maybe BV will use this incident as an opportunity for growth, but thus far they have given me little reason to hope. Founder Joe LeBlanc writes:

We have made mistakes, and we will make mistakes in the future.  We’re human like that.  We expect the community to hold us accountable, as we hold each other accountable. 

Of course, holding BV accountable is impossible when everything is obscured behind meaningless generalities and confidentiality agreements. How can the community hold them accountable if they haven’t acknowledged what those mistakes were or given any indication of how they plan to address them. Instead they have dismissed the allegations of ageism and misogyny as “dirty laundry” and “personal conflicts.”  BV’s reaction to this has felt like an organization trying to make a problem go away, rather than an organization trying to fix a problem.

A final rant

I have no objection to “masculine of center” (MoC) being added to the list of identities that Butch Voices serves, however much I may personally dislike the term, because there are people who use that identifier for themselves. But I do have a few, somewhat ranty, final thoughts on BV presuming to fold butch (and the other identities as well, but since butch is the one I use, it is the one I feel qualified to speak on) into MoC.

Joe LeBlanc writes:

As an organization, we decided that “masculine of center” lacked the stigma and wounds that so many of us associate with having been called terms like “butch” or “aggressive” or “stud” in a derogatory manner.  We stand by this and believe that the term can and will only begin to carry wounds and stigmatize others if we allow it to; if our personal biases recreate cycles of oppression and “othering.”

Shall we stop calling ourselves queers as well? That word has a far more extensive history as an insult than butch. How about dyke? Words like “butch” are the names we have called ourselves for generations. They are words of strength and defiance and conviction. They are words full of history and no, not all of it is good, but all of it is ours.

They are powerful words, words of struggle and survival. They are words that don’t hide or gloss over or sanitize who we are. They are unapologetic. They are words that proclaim an existence outside of gender binaries. I am butch, and that is so much more than just a gradiation of masculinity. I am butch and it is a living, vibrant, vital identity, not some relic of a bygone era.

If the BV board finds “butch” to be such a stigmatized term that they want to cover it over with “masculine of center” (a profoundly imperfect term in its own right), fine. But they should start with the name of the organization itself and leave the word “butch” to those of us who wear it with honor and with pride. Anything else is shameless hypocrisy.

* Specifically, I understand the desire for an umbrella term or acronym to use as a convenience. I understand that it can be clumsy and space-consuming to try to list all the identities each time you want to reference them. I do not, however, understand or agree that an umbrella term is needed to replace existing terms because of some sort of perceived tainting.

** I stole this line from a very smart femme I know

The Flame

Posted: July 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

As a way to mark the 25th anniversary of when I came out, I am going to write a periodic series of posts that look at points in time during those 25 years. This one is about an Ann Arbor gay bar called The Flame, that I frequented in my college days.

Nothing about The Flame was inviting; it wasn’t intended to be. It was a decades-old dive, designed to keep curious, and possibly unsuspecting, eyes away rather than draw them in. The front window area was lined with half-dead spider plants and tattered flyers, all cast in a murky orange neon glow. Inside, the space was long and narrow, with very little room to navigate around the tables and booths. The dim and smoky interior was illuminated only by the neon behind the bar, and light from the jukebox and pinball machine.

The Flame didn’t serve food. It didn’t have a dance floor. It was a seedy place for alcohol and secrets and maybe a little shame. My activist friends said it was scary, that it was hostile to women. Their opinions were based on rumor and reputation though. I doubt any of them ever set foot onto its booze-soaked floor and I never confessed to them that I had.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the cramped confines were filled with college guys (I can probably count on one hand the number of women I ever saw in there). One Friday evening I noticed a man in a business suit, leaning alone against the pinball machine, clutching his drink tightly with both hands. He was in his mid-30s, small, and so visibly nervous I worried he’d pass out. I realized that I might be witnessing his very first visit to a gay bar, possibly the very first steps of his coming out process. He hadn’t even remembered to take off his wedding ring.

He didn’t speak to anyone, and in fact no one seemed to take notice of him. I wanted to tell him that I saw him, that I understood what a huge deal this was, that everything would be okay. But I was painfully shy, and really, some 21-year-old dyke congratulating him on his coming out was likely not what he was looking for anyway. I watched him until he walked toward the back of the bar and disappeared into the crush of bodies. I hope things worked out okay for him.

I preferred weeknights at The Flame. On weeknights it wasn’t where guys went to get picked up. It felt like the sort of place you go when you don’t have anywhere to go, when you don’t belong anywhere. The bar was usually quiet, sometimes almost somber, and frequented by a motley group of regulars who sat alone and rarely spoke.  The very first time I walked into The Flame my eyes fell upon a bearded, white-haired man wearing a sea captain’s hat. The Captain sat at his post at the end of the bar most weeknights.

One of the other regulars was a butch, the only person I met in Ann Arbor who explicitly identified that way. She was middle-aged, hardened and bitter. She was blue-collar and undereducated in a white-collar college town, and she had spent most of her adult life in a lesbian community where butches and femmes were considered, at best, embarrassing relics of a less enlightened era. She had reason to be bitter.

I understood, though could not have articulated, that she and I were the same — despite being nothing alike. I was young and a college student, and I didn’t yet identify as butch (honestly, I didn’t even realize that I could). But I recognized an ache inside her that existed in me too, a particular longing neither of us really had the means to satisfy. We were the same, and we both knew it. It’s why we couldn’t stand each other.

We were both infatuated with the same woman. She was the person who introduced me to The Flame in the first place and that’s where she had initially met the butch. She was the closest thing to a femme either of us could find, so the butch and I saw each other only with the wary eyes of an adversary. Though dancing was not allowed at the bar, the femme would dance alone in a tiny patch of open floor in front of the jukebox. The bartender had a soft spot for her, so usually he didn’t say anything unless one of the patrons complained. My rival and I lingered nearby, watching her turn and sway gently to the music with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. On rare occasions one of us would gather up the nerve to join her for a slow dance.

I scarcely ever said three words to the butch, but we were civil. Suspicious and resentful, but civil. For each of us, the other’s presence loomed uncomfortably over our interactions with the woman we both wanted. I remember standing in the femme’s apartment, asking her to go out with me on an actual date and I remember a huge bouquet of flowers from the butch sitting there on the table when I did it. She turned me down. In the end, she turned us both down.

I continued to hang out at The Flame, both with the femme and by myself, until I graduated. I wasn’t there often enough to be a regular, but I went often enough that I could walk in, slide a few quarters in the jukebox, play some pinball, and sorta feel like I belonged.

The Unspeakable Butch

Posted: July 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

“How are you ladies doing today?”

I die a quiet death, over and over. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I only die a quiet death when it happens while I’m on a date or otherwise out in the world with femmes and/or butches. The rest of the time it just bugs me.

It shouldn’t be hard to default to the same sort of gender neutral language that would be used for a male/female grouping instead of actively (and sometimes incorrectly) gendering those to whom you are speaking. It would be a simple change with no new terminology to learn.

I tell myself that it’s not a big deal, and I suppose it isn’t. Except that it sort of is. Every time I’m referred to as a lady, I’m reminded that I don’t really exist in the day-to-day spoken world. There is no verbal space for me to occupy. While femmes are often rendered invisible in the mainstream, butches are unspeakable.

I have more sympathy for those who get caught in the Sir/Ma’am guess-and-correct cycle; they’re doing their best with the limited vocabulary available. Both “Sir” and “Ma’am” typically feel foreign to me (outside of some specific contexts in which Sir works just fine, thank you very much) and mostly I just wish whoever is speaking to me would stick to whatever they said first, rather than flailing back and forth trying to get it right — because there isn’t a “right.” But there’s no way for them to know that, so although it’s still bugsome, it doesn’t bother me like the gratuitous “ladies.”

It isn’t, for me, about wanting to pass as male. I’m not trying to pass*, though I admit I kind of like it when it happens because it means I am being read as masculine. But ideally I would like the latter without the former. (And I am not unmindful that within a dating or relationship context, my passing or not passing impacts how the femme I am with is being read as well.) I just want there to be some allowance for my existence in the language of the public realm.


*[Unsurprisingly, I pass more readily in winter than in summer because a coat will hide the obviously female aspects of my body. And I pass more often when my hair is short than when I let it grow out. But strangely, hair color seems to be a bigger determining factor than either of the others. I was read as male a lot more frequently — regardless of season and haircut — when I was dying my hair. Now that I have succumbed to the premature grey, I almost never get called “sir”.]

First compressions

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

One of the compression shirts I am considering.

I’m thinking about buying a compression shirt. You know, the kind they market for men who have boobs, but every one of the product reviews talks about the great back support. I’ve never had one before, or tried binding of any sort, and I’m conflicted about it.

I’m not trying to pass as a man; it’s just that I’m kinda girth-y and I have a hell of a time finding shirts that fit right. They’re either too tight across the chest/belly or the shoulder seams come down to my biceps. Consequently my wardrobe consists largely of button-front shirts that recall elementary school and wearing one of Dad’s old shirts as a craft smock.

Sometimes I think that maybe I’m simply not a good shopper and if I were more competent this wouldn’t be an issue. I see pictures of other butches, sometimes even girth-y ones, who manage to dress without looking like they’re ready for the Elmer’s glue and spray-painted macaroni. So obviously it can be done and I just need to figure out how. But then I think, “Hey idiot, maybe they are binding.” Oh, yeah.

The main issue, besides the nagging sense that it may not compress me enough anyway, is that I am reforming my old body-loathing ways as best I can (there will be lots more on this in future posts), and I worry that a compression shirt would represent a step backward.

But maybe it’s not body-loathing if I am doing it for a really pragmatic reason: so shirts fit me better. Maybe I am accepting that the way my body is now is pretty much the way it’s going to be; I have been within 10 lbs, plus or minus, of where I am now for much of the last 10 years.

Maybe it’s not body-loathing if I don’t plan on wearing it all the time. In one – possibly rationalized – sense, it’s not all that different than wearing a soft pack. I don’t soft pack very often, but for particular occasions, or if I want a certain look or feel then I do. A compression shirt is a lot like that really … you know, if you disregard all the cultural baggage around body size and shape. Well, and also if you disregard the part where I have resented my boobs since I was 9 years old and my mother called me in from where I had been playing in the yard with my sister and a neighbor kid, and told me I needed to start wearing a bra (thanks Ma, that didn’t make me self-conscious AT ALL).

Despite that, I don’t think wanting a compression shirt is as much about body-loathing as it is about wardrobe-loathing. And in the end, I’m probably going to do it; I’m just not quite done over-thinking it yet.