Recognizing yourself

In her graphic novel Fun Home, Alison Bechdel recalls being in a diner with her father when she was a kid and seeing a butch lesbian for the first time. She says she didn’t know that there were women who wore men’s clothes and had men’s haircuts. I love the way she describes her feelings about this. She says “like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy.” (p118.)

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The phrase “like a traveler in a foreign country” speaks to how it feels to be a gender-defiant kid surrounded by people who seem to be comfortable with the expectations placed on them. It’s like everyone seems to naturally understand a social system that doesn’t make any sense to you. When you’re just a kid and you understand that you’re different you can’t really articulate why. You just have a vague feeling that something about you is wrong and that you don’t fit. Then when you see someone for the first time who looks the way you feel you should be, all of a sudden you have this moment, “Ah! That’s what I am!” It’s not possible to articulate something as sophisticated as “I don’t identify with the social construct of femininity” when you’re only 8 or 10 years old. But if you see someone who embodies your feelings, you recognize yourself for the first time—like looking into a mirror.

Alison Bechdel was a kid who loved masculinity—she loved men’s clothes and drew pictures of men because she liked the way they looked. She didn’t have an erotic interest in men—she just had an appreciation for the masculine look. Bechdel also recalls being called “butch” by her older cousins, and although no one explained what the word meant, she instinctively knew it described her because it was “the opposite of sissy.” (p96-97) None of the other women around her were the same way, and when she finally saw a real live masculine woman she “recognized her with a surge of joy.”

Her dad noticed her noticing the woman and said “Is that what you want to look like?” (p118) His words told her that the correct answer to the question was no. To avoid embarrassment, she told him no, but the real answer was yes. It’s obvious why this was a defining moment for her. In the span of a few seconds she realized what her future would hold and also that her dad was disapproving of it. This is a pretty normal experience for a kid who is going to grow up to be gay.

I’ve been watching a lot of “How I knew I was FtM” videos on YouTube. Nearly 100% of them are attracted to women (homosexual!) and they describe vague feelings of “feeling like a boy” or “not being comfortable” with who they are. Usually they also talk about sex stereotypes like “I didn’t like wearing dresses.” Then they describe going on YouTube and finding FtM videos and recognizing themselves for the first time. Just like when Bechdel’s vague feelings about herself crystallized when she saw a butch lesbian, these women’s vague feelings crystallize when they see FtM videos. What FtMs describe feeling is indistinguishable from the feelings of other gender defiant lesbians. The only difference is the belief system—the interpretation. “These feelings mean I’m an lesbian” has turned into “these feelings mean I’m trans.”

In an interview with the New York Times magazine, Bechdel was asked about the transgender question:

“In “Fun Home,” you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered?”

She answered:

“I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.”

The idea of being a “man trapped in a woman’s body” is an oversimplification of a feeling that is common to lesbians. It’s also a rather sexist and homophobic way of looking at it. To suggest that being “not a sissy” and wanting a female partner makes you intrinsically male is to suggest that these are qualities that cannot exist on women. It’s to suggest that woman are all sissies, therefore if you’re not a sissy, you’re not a woman.

Sissy means sister, effeminate, timid, and cowardly. This is a sexist word that implies that women are timid and cowardly. Women aren’t cowardly at all—we withstand abuse and sexism all day long and we tough it out and keep going. If you want to know who is cowardly—just take a look at who is having tears and tantrums over the slightest thing not going their way, and getting all butthurt and angry when their privilege and entitlement are threatened. That would be men.

Note that Bechdel understood her lesbianism as being “a man trapped in a female body” only before she had “more of a political awareness.” Women come to understand their feelings as lesbian, rather than male, when they interact with the lesbian community and see themselves reflected in other lesbians.

This post wouldn’t be complete without addressing the issue of “men’s clothing” and “men’s haircuts.” The reason there are clothing and haircuts that are considered masculine is because our culture assigns certain things to men and women. This is called gender role—the collection of social signals that people give to signify their femininity or masculinity. Without a collective understanding of what femininity and masculinity are, we couldn’t give these social signals. Gender role doesn’t exist without stereotypes. We are taught our gender role through socialization and culture and if we deviate from the norm someone will punish us in order to make us get back in line.

I use the word “masculine” to describe butch women because our language is limited and that is the only way I can describe the butch personality in a simple, recognizable word. But truthfully, any look or personality a woman has is a woman’s look or personality. If a woman likes to wear short hair and suits, then short hair is a woman’s haircut and suits are a woman’s clothing. Butch women are women, with female personalities, even though their personalities are considered “masculine” by our sexist culture. Any personality a woman has is a woman’s personality.

Some people define “butch” as a woman who can’t hide her nonconformity. If you did manage to somehow wrestle her into a dress, (which is unlikely), she’d look like she was in drag. This doesn’t mean she’s not a woman. When a woman can’t perform femininity, that’s not proof that she’s not a woman, it’s proof that femininity is a bullshit concept that doesn’t apply to real women. Femininity is a cultural construct that is enforced on women to keep them pretty and pleasing and caring for men and children so that men can be free to run the world and enjoy their privilege. Of course lesbians aren’t going to identify with a concept that reinforces heterosexuality and women’s place as men’s subordinate. DUH.

Women need to be able to recognize themselves in the world. When women can only see themselves presented as one-dimensional Barbie dolls, that is gas-lighting abuse. The representation of women in Western popular culture is damaging to all women, but it particularly hurts gender-defiant lesbians because they are farthest away from what the culture tells us women are. They don’t see themselves anywhere so they feel like “travelers in a foreign country.” (It doesn’t help either when women are wondering whether they are lesbians and the only “lesbians” they can find in popular culture are straight women who kiss each other to amuse their boyfriends.)

The only way women can truly recognize themselves is by telling each other the truth about who we are, and projecting that truth in our own ways. Women are brave, strong, powerful, creative, and intelligent. We are not the sex dolls that men imagine us to be.

So what happened to Alison Bechdel, the kid who felt like a boy and would have gone down the transgender route if it had been available? Did she die of suicide because she couldn’t transition? Hell no! She became a happy butch lesbian, followed her passion for cartooning and writing, became a huge success, and even won a genius grant, all while being herself and dressing how she pleases.

“I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.”

Smart, strong, successful, and inspiring—as women are.

Bechdel

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38 thoughts on “Recognizing yourself

  1. A very smart woman, sadly I don’t know her name, was asked why, if she claimed to love women, she dressed in men’s clothes and had a man’s haircut. She responded simply that she didn’t think that men should get to claim all the best stuff for themselves.

    Liked by 9 people

  2. This is intensely good. The stuff about women being brave, tough it out and keep on going is so true. “Gender role doesn’t exist without stereotypes.” This is it. In a nut shell. The dernier cri on the transgender genderism pseudo-philosophy hocus pocus. 😍

    And on things get “assigned” to masculine or feminine: I was doing puzzles on my iPad of paintings. One was a medieval painting, it’s a tile flip puzzle so the pieces are square and all turned around. There’s all these legs in stockings. There’s all these delicate faces, there’s all these hems of gowns. Some turned out to be cloaks. There’s chests with curved lines of pleated cloth that look not like breasts but like the bodices in 18th and late 19th century paintings. And people wearing bright orange. And guess what? All of the figures were men. Stockings, gowns, bodices, orange. They were assigned to men back then. And now assigned to us.

    Liked by 9 people

    • Yes, this, this! Men’s Western fashions have been growing more and more boring and uniform and joyless, overall, since the early 1800s. (If I ever meet that tosser Beau Brummell, I am going to give him such an earful.) Before that, men of the monied classes were at least as decorative as women and often more. Yet bozos now react “Pooftas, hurr hurr” about pictures of men who could whip their asses at all the violent shit they admire so much and be educated and cultured at the same time.

      This part of PSF’s post made me smile – I’m the opposite of Alison Bechdel there: not only heterosexual, but with very few exceptions, the look and styles of modern men leave me cold. 🙂

      Liked by 5 people

      • Yes yes YES! Very well put. “Just as decorative”. And my particular hobbyhorse on this topic, being “theatrical” now often held to be both feminine and THE feminine thing that gay men are :-/ is in fact an 18th-century aristocratic men thing. And yep they could do all the violent shit, still be cultured and do the violent shit with a sword! ⚔ #TheatricalWeapon 😆

        Agree about the men’s look being uniform and joyless. Also longhair is now a men thing. It just is. Because I said so. Movie Smoke Signals, the main character comes back to the truck on their road trip having just taken his hair out of the braids. You might like that bit. 😉

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  3. When i was a kid, looking ‘normal’, i had vague ideas that being a male might be for the best. Looking back, i assume this was because of the priveleges they had and also, at the back of my mind realising my attraction to women which was certainly forbidden back then, and trying to square this in my mind

    As i grew older, i became a keep fit fanatic with body to match. Illness made me gain weight and i started to look more butch then. I disapproved of this new look as it was looked upon negatively. It’s only on seeing lesbians like Lea Delaria and her happiness in her own skin that has allowed me to recognise being butch isn’t a detractor. It is just the male narrative telling us we have to look a certain way in order to participate fully in society. Gender Policing. Never once, as an adult did i question my womanhood or lesbianism. Just society’s interpretation of this appearance of mine. I tend to identify more with feminine looking women with certain qualities that i possess too as there still isn’t much representation of butch or masculine women in society, those ones that i actually prefer the look of, though more concerned with personality than looks these days. kd lang. Hot looking! Yeah!

    Liked by 7 people

  4. You touched on some fine nuances here! I think many here would agree with me when I say, “you need to be publishing your stuff.”

    I’m so glad that I grew up when I did in a family that, for all its’ faults, was quite diverse. I remember knowing my cousin was a lesbian as a child but not having the words to express it. When I told my mom I thought my cousin was boyish, my mom seemed upset and I couldn’t understand why. For me, it was simply a statement of fact. I also got to see my older brother grow his hair long and paint his finger nails black to emulate his rock heroes at the time. My associations with guys rocking out in long hair and dresses and girls with badass pixie cuts was that it was all very cool and rebellious.

    I’ve always been fascinated by people who seem to defy society’s norms. I’ve always been comfortable trying on different styles based on how I feel that day. To me, there will never be anything that pairs better with a floral dress than a pixie cut and combat boots. Now I’m rambling, feeling nostalgic for the 90’s.

    Also, THANK YOU for posting about female cartoonists! I crave seeing these representations!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. You just have a vague feeling that something about you is wrong and that you don’t fit. Then when you see someone for the first time who looks the way you feel you should be, all of a sudden you have this moment, “Ah! That’s what I am!”

    Certainly one (small) part of why I developed a framework that made transition necessary was that I’ve only ever had this experience with people of the opposite sex—never saw myself reflected in anyone of the same sex, including trans or gender nonconforming people. Actually I still, as an adult, can’t think of anyone with my sex chromosomes who I’d consider a “mirror”/”role model”, but it’s much less important now obviously.

    This shouldn’t have meant anything, but in a society where one’s sex is of great social importance definitely did contribute to the feeling of being utterly alone and not able to simply exist in the body I was born with.

    Also I’m sorry for always using your blog to process personal issues and dysphoria lol >_> You’re a good writer and always very thought-provoking, so I end up thinking more seriously about my own experiences, but I can definitely move these somewhere more private if you don’t want to see them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • There is no problem with self-reflective comments. I’m glad that my writing encourages you to reflect! That’s one of the reasons that people are trans, because they only see their personality on people of the opposite sex. Seeing role models of your own sex who have your personality traits is incredibly important in accepting yourself.

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      • Agree with that for sure! I think it’s especially important for children and adolescents to see different ways of being and understand them as normal.

        And you may ask if you like. it’s been difficult for me to judge, both due to not really feeling attraction for people until I am emotionally involved with them, and due to ingrained beliefs about what sexual orientations are “acceptable” that I’ve never quite managed to lose. I tended to reflexively identify as asexual but at this point would say attracted mostly to men, but not exclusively.

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    • I don’t see myself reflected in anyone. Nobody, ever. Role models, what are they? It’s not the body or the social role(s) but personality, for me. Not that I’m a special snowflake, God forbid. But other paths are of no interest.

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        • Merci! It does feel odd, never really belonging in any group, but I doubt it’s all that rare. It could be just part of being an introvert, or part of female socialisation, who knows? It’s part of why I picked this screen name – depaysément means the sense of not living in one’s home country. Which I feel everywhere except Home.

          Liked by 3 people

        • I think that the feeling of being misunderstood, not normal, and not like anybody else, is a really common human feeling, which happens to peak in adolescence.

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        • Totally agree! Some of us end up going “meh” at the thought of having to fit, and quietly do what we like, others smother themselves trying to fit, and some go all RESPECT MAH IDENTITY and want everyone to bend to them.

          Liked by 3 people

        • Yes, agreed as well. I think it’s at least common for many people to seek “mirrors” in childhood and adolescence, in order to try to figure out their place in society and learn how to relate to others. As an adult I obviously am no longer actively looking for mirrors, but not having them seems to have had a negative impact on development of a sense of self and the kind of resilience talked about in the next comment. So yeah, feelings of not belonging anywhere, also feelings of not being a real person or having a genuine personality and not knowing how to interact with others. All of which can be worked through but unfortunately not without putting a burden on others most of the time. Might just be a personality difference though tbh. I’ve always been a closeted extravert >_>

          Liked by 1 person

        • If it’s any comfort, the feeling of oddness and “what the hell am I doing here” does ease with age, and not feeling sexual attraction until you’re more emotionally involved with someone is normal, however much this pornsick society claims otherwise. (Imo it’s not only normal, but healthy.)

          Liked by 3 people

  6. So to continue along those lines, therapists who are treating transgender-identified patients should be exploring ways to help their patients develop the type of resilience needed to be their own role model. People look for their same characteristics on other people because we develop a sense of self in relation to those around us and because we’re always wondering if we’re normal. But what if a person could learn to just look into themselves to find out who they are and accept that and not care if anyone else is the same? That seems to be what Dépaysment has done, and we should be interested in finding out how that is done, for people who haven’t figured it out. I’m a fairly confident person but I still have my insecurities and I certainly look up to older lesbians and want approval from them as well as from my peers.

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    • It is tricky. I think I fell into it more than anything else. I never liked many other kids at school, least of all at high school (which covers all the secondary school years here) so fitting in wasn’t the urgent wish it might have been. I’ve been lonely, still am in some ways, but am not comfortable enough with people socially, even though that isn’t apparent, to want to spend too much time in groups. Not that I’m free of wanting the dreaded Validation!!!, or at least to share my stuff with friends, to some degree – I wouldn’t be writing a blog-with-comments otherwise. tl:dr I think it’s circumstances and habit and personality, and knowing the one thing I want and am waiting for is the thing that’s different. If not fitting is the price, so be it, I’ve never seen an alternative that is either attractive or available without changing who Imam entirely.

      Oh look, another all about me comment. :/

      Liked by 2 people

  7. She is a true inspiration to all butch lesbians like me for plenty of reasons. I do recognize myself in her experience. I, too, would likely had transitioned, if I had had that option as easily available/shoved down our throats as now. This is why I’m so worried and upset about the transgender cult. It’s killing us off in our youth.

    She’s also very inspirational to me as a comic author. Even though my stories are different from hers, Fun Home is a poignant, powerful autobiography and Dykes To Watch Out For is pure genius. I wish all lesbians could read both these masterpieces: they’re chock-full of awesome representations of lesbians, and lesbian readers most certainly would recognize themselves in so many facets of so many characters.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I used to read the comic when it was free and online. I would litter the comment section with my thoughts 🙂 It was so refreshing, I felt like I had sisters who understood me, at least online. Real life can be pretty isolating, if you’re a butch. I was so sorry when she took offline her comics, went to paper and completely stopped updating on the Web, that I promised myself I would never do that hahaha

        Liked by 2 people

  8. You’ve inspired me to look for Bechdel’s work now! This post reminds me of a tumblr, now defunct, that posted photos of butches from an artist’s series every Sunday. So many good-looking women – as is Bechdel. This post also had me remembering Bev Jo asserting that without cultural conditioning, butch would be the natural state of women. I don’t agree with everything she says, but that assertion has stayed with me as something worth pondering.

    I appreciate this blog so much! So many interesting and varied things to think about. Your writing is intelligent and down-to-earth at the same time. That is your gift, PS.

    Liked by 2 people

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