Gender is a landscape not a line **

Posted: July 31, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

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

  1. Bren says:

    “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.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel the exact same way. I’m proud to claim the title “butch” and I refuse to be told that this is a word that I should feel any shame about.

    • CH says:

      Well said! I am really deeply concerned that the bottom line with the current BV controversy is that BV was never intended to be an organization inclusive of women. Yes, women! Not just those who are female-identified or with female bodies, but butches who are women. Somehow, somewhere along the way, “woman” became passe, an out-dated identity, something to be slightly squimish about. Butch has always had the currency of masculinity, but it’s the part about being women that tends to get minimized, mis-identified, or outright erased.

      I am not a butch, but I am in this discussion as more than an ally. I have a stake in it because I am a woman, a queer woman, and a lesbian, as are so many of the beloved butches in my life.


  2. staci says:

    “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.”

    Thank you! I am not butch but I am an ally and more importantly, I’m family. This whole mess has me heartsick right now. My partner, a proud Latina butch, has been having a very rough time lately in feeling isolated in her identity. She says she feels like an endangered species and I believe her. It upsets me to see her lonely and infuriates me to see Butch being appropriated by those who are ashamed to even identify as such. As much as I know that hearing about all this will upset her (we were just discussing Butch Voices yesterday), I will be sharing your post with her because right now she needs community and butch solidarity. I, for one, am standing with Butch Nation.

  3. Butch Enough says:

    Thank you all for reading my blog and taking the time to comment. (And thanks Heart for the “Gender is a landscape” line that I stole for the title of the post.)

    Staci, I understand why your partner has felt like an endangered species but I have been very encouraged to recently find many young butches online, and some, like Bren who commented above, who have a genuine interest in and appreciation for the history of our community. While I think it’s certainly true that there are many people who would have identified as butch 15 years ago who identify as something different now, I also feel certain that the butch identity has a strong and exciting future.

  4. […] (For a beautifully written piece on this discussion from a butch perspective, please read this post at Butch Enough.) […]

  5. Caro says:

    Hear! Hear! As a woman-identified butch of rather too many years I remember being somewhat marginalised by femininst acquaintances and, these days, it sometimes feels as though my own space is now being hijacked. Diversity is wonderful, tolerance a sign of good manners, but, equality is a right.

  6. Anne says:

    Love this piece, well written and from the heart – I would rather say i was butch than MoC – Im butch and Im a woman – why cant I be both? Surely there is room for all of us out there.

    Thank you

  7. BE, have no idea who you are, but am loving your analytical posts about the differences
    between BV and Butch Nation, your feminism, thoughts on sexism, male and female identified butches–all so reflect my thinking.
    Your dream butch org. offers a template I will bring to BN. Love it all and we’re already doing much of it, especially #1 thru 3. We will build this dream one stone upon another! Any chance you can be my co-panelist at the Sunday workshop, “Exploring Our Masculinities While Keeping our Feminisms” in Oakland this weekend?

  8. Charlie says:

    Well, then, what term works well to incorporate those of us who are not so post-gendered yet, and are trans*, stud, butch, anything on the masculine side of androgyny?

  9. Critter says:

    I can completely understand the need to open up the phrase “butch” for people who identify outside of masculinity, for instance “low femme,” “light femme” and bois often identify as butch as well. Traditionally, the phrase “butch” does denote a certain amount of masculinity, Butch being traditionally a male’s name, that was originally given to AFAB people within the gay community, particularly lesbians, to denote a certain gender expression or gender role within the relationship.
    Nowadays, I think the word butch has actually become more inclusive, and I think the phrase “masculine of center” does not necessarily exclude femininity, it just emphasizes masculinity, as the word butch itself seem to do without even having to explain the word (again, Butch was, and still is, a male name…. I had a male gym teacher whose name was Butch, and well, as you might imagine, he probably felt pressure to live up to the name, he was quite butch).
    I also understand where you’re coming from when you say that gender is a landscape, and not a binary (or at least, from my perspective, not exclusively). And yet, our culture and many cultures in the world DO recognize gender in a binary way. Before culture contact, many cultures had mysteriously somehow all drawn similar conclusions about femininity and masculinity. We can reduce this simply to patriarchy imposing a gender hierarchy within the framework of a binary, and while patriarchy certainly plays its nasty role, we would do well to remember that patriarchy exists in cultures with more than two genders as well, and that there have been societies that were more equitable, or ever favorable, for women within cultures with only two recognized genders.
    In our mission to expand gender beyond the binary in rejection of its absurdly restrictive simplicity, I would urge us to not in a bout of tragic irony resort to oversimplifying matters ourselves.
    The fact is that for a lot of people, the concept of a gender-spectrum between two genders helps to articulate an internal feeling they are having, for instance, bigender and androgyne people often use the phrases “masculine-of-center” and “feminine-of-center” to explain their particular sense of mixture of masculine and feminine traits. Genderfluid people sometimes use the same language to help themselves explain to others how they are feeling on any given day. These same people might swap pronouns on a day to day basis. Should we do away with pronouns altogether as well?
    I wonder if by trying to obliterate the gender binary, whether we are throwing out the baby with the bath water. Perhaps instead of denying that the binary is a lived experience for many people, maybe we should be expanding the concept to include the binary as one axis intersecting with many others, as well as perhaps some expressions of gender that don’t fall on an axis (such as agender, or genderfuck). The fact of the matter is, an individual doesn’t live in an isolated nucleus separate from other people. All gender is a social construct. If womanhood, and butch, and femme, and boi, and man get to be real gender identities, then so should masculine/feminine-of-center, queer, and two-spirit. These are all words that we construct within the framework of the culture and language we have at our disposal, not one of these is superior to the other, because ALL of it has been created within a limited structure in the first place. For the same reason, “dyke” is not superior to “queer” in any way. Both have been used to insult, and both have been reclaimed to different degrees, at different points in time and in different places. Where I live, in my community, and in my generation, “queer” is less offensive to many people than “fag” or “dyke.” This is probably a simple matter of regional variance and subtle cultural differences in different places in the west. It is unfortunate that anyone thinks they have a right to decide which words are officially better than others, when you don’t live where I live and experience the verbal abuse we face here.
    We are all just trying to express our gender within the framework of our imperfect societies, and our imperfect communities, while at the same time trying to change our communities and cultures for the better. Perhaps one day the concept of gender won’t even exist at all anymore. Perhaps someday it will, but the words people use to describe gender will be completely unintelligible to people of today. Who knows?
    All I know is that we can be inclusive of all gender expressions without policing what words people can use to describe their own gender. “Butch” as an expression of a femme-of-center person is equally permissible as identifying as masculine-of-center, or not identifying with the binary at all. But it would be absurd to tell the butch community whether they can use the word masculine or masculine-of-center to describe themselves.

  10. Critter says:

    *but while patriarchy certainly plays its nasty role….

    Sorry about the grammar error there, that might have been confusing.

  11. Critter says:

    To be clear, I don’t think Butch Voices was right to limit the butch community they were creating to only people who felt some resonance with the word “masculinity.”
    I do, however, feel that you went a bit too far in policing the words “masculine-of-center” under any context, the feeling of attachment to the gender binary itself, and the word “queer.”
    I understand that the binary has been very restrictive for a lot of people, including myself, and that it deserves criticism in a constructive way… but I do feel uncomfortable with anyone trying to dictate how much a person’s level of attachment to any of these words or concepts is “correct” so to speak.

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