Butch as a personality type

Butch and femme are a very misunderstood topic, even among lesbians. I think that’s because only a small number of lesbians are these types—we come in all different kinds besides these, so lots of lesbians don’t know what these are. I have started getting annoyed at the number of times I see butch and femme being used as superficial masculine or feminine presentations that can be taken off or put on like an outfit. Butch does not mean “the one with the shorter hair” and it doesn’t mean you happen to have put on a flannel shirt today. Neither does femme mean that you happen to have put on lipstick today.

Being butch is a lifelong personality trait. A butch begins life as a tomboy and is immediately obvious as being different. She grows into a lesbian who looks blatantly gay and can’t hide it no matter what she does. It’s not just about her clothing or haircut. She’d still look butch if she tried to wear women’s clothing. That might make her look even more butch. It’s because she has an unmistakable personality, that comes with ways of thinking and relating and certain mannerisms that are automatic to her that she cannot turn off. This is really hard to explain to people. When people try to explain it, it always ends up sounding vague. I asked a friend of mine if she would try to explain what it means to her to be butch. She thought about it for a while and wrote this:

“What does ‘butch’ mean to me?
How do I define something that is innate, that is as much a part of me as hair and eye color, as automatic as my heartbeat or breathing?
It is not something I ‘put on’ every day, like a watch or a ring, nor can I take it off. It cannot be hidden with a dress or a skirt, or a hairstyle–in fact, those things make my butchness even more blatantly obvious.
I want to ‘get this right,’ I want to define myself in such a way that there is little, or nothing, to question. I think that starts with ‘what I am not.’
First and foremost, I am a masculine woman, I am not ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body.’ I have never felt that way. While I knew from a child that I was not like other girls, I never attributed those differences to being male. I was a girl who liked ‘boy’ things, the clothes, the toys, the play that focused on ‘boy’ games. Yes, that made me different from other girls, but frankly, not all other girls, and the differences only became apparent when they moved on to the things most girls become interested in–their appearances, their crushes, their standings in the various cliques in school.
I did not move on. I kept the clothes and the sports, traded my toys for a junker of an International Scout truck that was nearly as old as I was, and developed full-blown crushes, but on other girls. I didn’t find this odd or disturbing, it just ‘was,’ but I also was fortunate, because the girls liked me back. I was not scary to talk to like their boy crushes, they could lean-in while I smiled and joked and put them at ease while we practiced our flirting without the fear of rejection. It was win-win.
There was no internet, no resources for gay kids when I was growing up, we learned like most teens learned about anything–on the street. I first heard the term ‘baby butch’ when it was bestowed on me on my first (illegal) night in a gay bar, by a drag queen hiding me from the cops who’d come in to ‘check out’ the place. I’d never heard the term, of course I hadn’t, I didn’t know I was actually gay until the year before. There was, back then, still the distinction of butch and femme, though the lines were only just starting to blur between the two.
I am a butch, all grown up now, and not much different from the baby butch I was years ago. There is no ‘performing’ on my part, I am not ‘playing a role’ and I never have. I have no doubt of who I am, what I am. I am a woman who loves women and, over time, I have learned that women are as diverse as snowflakes, that even if a woman loves women, it does not mean that she will love a butch. For some women, or maybe more than some, we are ‘too gay,’ ‘too masculine.’ ‘Too much like men.’ And so, we are dismissed out-of-hand.
No one seems to like labels, though there are plenty to hand around. Personally, you can label me a butch, gladly, because I’m too damn old to care if that offends anyone, and maybe a little happy if it does. There is also a label for a woman who loves butches, who actively seeks them out, and that is ‘Femme.'”
*     *      *
There is a line from Stone Butch Blues that I want to mention. Jess is trying to explain to Theresa that she is different from other lesbians. She calls herself a he-she, a word that I personally don’t like at all, but it explains how she feels. She says “They don’t call the Saturday night butches he-shes. It means something. It’s a way we’re different. It doesn’t just mean we’re lesbians.” (p. 147–148.)
There is a difference between Jess and a “Saturday-night butch.” The Saturday-night butch goes to the lesbian bar wearing a suit, but doesn’t necessarily look masculine in her day-to-day life. Jess has something about her that she can’t turn off. She can’t just put on a different outfit, what’s different about her would still be visible. That’s what I mean by having a butch personality.
Any woman can put on a suit, or go around without makeup, and that doesn’t make her butch. Butch doesn’t just mean “not performing artificial aspects of femininity.” It’s a lesbian personality type and a lived experience.
Some butches call themselves “outside the gender binary” because their “gender” is not what people expect from women. I understand what they mean by that, but I don’t feel comfortable explaining it that way myself. Butches are women, they have a rare, but still legitimate, female personality type, and they do not need to identify outside of womanhood.
Regardless of how she explains herself, a butch always needs to be with a woman who understands her. A woman who is embarrassed about the way she looks or who thinks she is “too blatant” or “too gay” and should “tone it down” is not a suitable partner. She needs to find someone like me, who finds her natural self sexy and irresistible and who is proud of her just the way she is.

Badass lesbians living as men in the 19th century

[Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis, 1919, vol. 2 “Sexual Inversion” (p 246–250).]

Cases have been recorded of inverted women who spent the greater part of their lives in men’s clothing and been generally regarded as men. I may cite the case of Lucy Ann Slater, alias the Rev. Joseph Lobdell, recorded by Wise (Alienist and Neurologist, 1883). She was masculine in character, features and attire. In early life she married and had a child, but had no affection for her husband, who eventually left her. As usual in such cases, her masculine habits appeared in early childhood. She was expert with the rifle, lived the life of a trapper and hunter among the Indians, and was known as the “Female Hunter of Long Eddy.” She published a book regarding those experiences. I have not been able to see it, but it is said to be quaint and well written. She regarded herself as practically a man, and became attached to a young woman of good education, who had also been deserted by her husband. The affection was strong and emotional, and, of course, without deception. It was interrupted by her recognition and imprisonment as a vagabond, but on the petition of her “wife” she was released. “I may be a woman in one sense,” she said, “but I have peculiar organs which make me more a man than a woman.” She alluded to an enlarged clitoris which she could erect, she said, as a turtle protrudes its head, but there was no question of its use in coitus. She was ultimately brought to the asylum with paroxysmal attacks of exaltation and erotomania (without self-abuse apparently) and corresponding periods of depression, and she died with progressive dementia. I may also mention the case (briefly recorded in the Lancet, February 22, 1884) of a person called John Coulter, who was employed for twelve years as a laborer by the Belfast Harbor Commissioners. When death resulted from injuries caused in falling down stairs, it was found that this person was a woman. She was fifty years of age, and had apparently spent the greater part of her life as a man. When employed in early life as a man-servant on a farm, she had married her mistress’s daughter. The pair were married for twenty-nine years, but during the last six years lived apart, owing to the “husband’s” dissipated habits. No one ever suspected her sex. She was of masculine appearance and good muscular development. The “wife” took charge of the body and buried it.

A more recent case of the same kind is that of “Murray Hall,” who died in New York in 1901. Her real name was Mary Anderson, and she was born at Govan, in Scotland. Early left an orphan, on the death of her only brother she put on his clothes and went to Edinburgh, working as a man. Her secret was discovered during an illness, and she finally went to America, where she lived as a man for thirty years, making money, and becoming somewhat notorious as a Tammany politician, a rather riotous “man about town.” The secret was not discovered till her death, when it was a complete revelation, even to her adopted daughter. She married twice; the first marriage ended in separation, but the second marriage seemed to have been happy, for it lasted twenty years, when the “wife” died. She associated much with pretty girls, and was very jealous of them. She seems to have been slight and not very masculine in general build, with a squeaky voice, but her ways, attitude, and habits were all essentially masculine. She associated with politicians, drank somewhat to excess, though not heavily, swore a great deal, smoked and chewed tobacco, sang ribald songs; could run, dance, and fight like a man, and had divested herself of every trace of feminine daintiness. She wore clothes that were always rather too large in order to hide her form, baggy trousers, and an overcoat even in summer. She is said to have died of cancer of the breast. (I quote from an account, which appears to be reliable, contained in the Weekly Scotsman, February 9, 1901).

Another case, described in the London papers, is that of Catharine Coome, who for forty years successfully personated a man and adopted masculine habits generally. She married a lady’s maid, which whom she lived for fourteen years. Having latterly adopted a life of fraud, her case gained publicity as that of the “man-woman.”

In 1901 the death on board ship was recorded of Miss Caroline hall, of Boston, a water-color painter who had long resided in Milan. Three years previously she discarded female dress and lived as “husband” to a young Italian lady, also an artist, whom she had already known for seven years. She called herself “Mr. Hall” and appeared to be a thoroughly normal young man, able to shoot with a rifle and fond of manly sports. The officers of the ship stated that she smoked and drank heartily, joked with the other male passengers, and was hail-fellow-well-met with everyone. Death was due to advanced tuberculosis of the lungs, hastened by excessive drinking and smoking.

Ellen Glenn, alias Ellis Glenn, a notorious swindler, who came prominently before the public in Chicago during 1905, was another “man-woman,” of large and masculine type. She preferred to dress as a man and had many love escapades with women. “She can fiddle as well as anyone in the State,” said a man who knew her, “can box like a pugilist, and can dance and play cards.”

In Seville, a few years ago, an elderly policeman, who had been in attendance on successive governors of that city for thirty years, was badly injured in a street accident. He was taken to the hospital and the doctor there discovered that the “policeman” was a woman. She went by the name of Fernando Mackenzie and during the whole of her long service no suspicion whatever was aroused as to her sex. She was French by birth, born in Paris in 1836, but her father was English and her mother Spanish. She assumed her male disguise when she was a girl and served her time in the French army, then emigrated to Spain, at the age of 35, and contrived to enter the Madrid police force disguised as a man. She married there and pretended that her wife’s child was her own son. She removed to Seville, still serving as a policeman, and was engaged there as cook and orderly at the governor’s palace. She served seven successive governors. In consequence of the discovery of her sex she has been discharged from the police without the pension due to her; her wife had died two years previously, and “Fernando” spent all she possessed on the woman’s funeral. Mackenzie had a soft voice, a refined face with delicate features, and was neatly dressed in male attire. When asked how she escaped detection so long, she replied that she always lived quietly in her own house with her wife and did her duty by her employers so that no one meddled with her.

In Chicago in 1906 much attention was attracted to the case of “Nicholai de Raylan,” confidential secretary to the Russian Consul, who at death (of tuberculosis) at the age of 33 was found to be a woman. She was born in Russia and was in many respects very feminine, small and slight in build, but was regarded as a man, and even as very “manly,” by both men and women who knew her intimately. She was always very neat in dress, fastidious in regard to shirts and ties, and wore a long-waisted coat to disguise the lines of her figure. She was married twice in America, being divorced by the first wife, after a union lasting ten years, on the ground of cruelty and misconduct with chorus girls. The second wife, a chorus girl who had been previously married and had a child, was devoted to her “husband.” Both wives were firmly convinced that their husband was a man and ridiculed the idea that “he” could be a woman. I am informed that De Raylan wore a very elaborately constructed artificial penis. In her will she made careful arrangements to prevent detection of sex after death, but these were frustrated, as she died in a hospital.

In St. Louis, in 1909, the case was brought forward of a young woman of 22, who had posed as a man for nine years. Her masculine career began at the age of 13 after the Galveston flood which swept away all her family. She was saved and left Texas dressed as a boy. She worked in livery stables, in a plough factory, and as a bill-poster. At one time she was the adopted son of the family in which she lived and had no difficulty in deceiving her sisters by adoption as to her sex. On coming to St. Louis in 1902 she made chairs and baskets at the American Rattan Works, associating with fellow-workmen on a footing of masculine equality. One day a workman noticed the extreme smallness and dexterity of her hands. “Gee, Bill, you should have been a girl.” “How do you know I’m not?” she retorted. In such ways her ready wit and good humor always disarmed suspicion as to her sex. She shunned no difficulties in her work or in her sports, we are told, and never avoided the severest tests. “She drank, she swore, she courted girls, she worked as hard as her fellows, she fished and camped; she told stories with the best of them, and she did not flinch when the talk grew strong. She even chewed tobacco.” Girls began to fall in love with the good-looking boy at an early period, and she frequently boasted of her feminine conquests; with one girl who worshipped her there was a question of marriage. On account of lack of education she was restricted to manual labor, and she often chose hard work. At one time she became a boiler-maker’s apprentice, wielding a hammer and driving in hot rivets. Here she was very popular and became local secretary of the international Brotherhood of Boiler-makers. In physical development she was now somewhat of an athlete. “She could outrun any of her friends on a spring; she could kick higher, play baseball, and throw the ball overhand like a man, and she was fond of football. As a wrestler she could throw most of the club members.” The physician who examined her for an insurance policy remarked: “You are a fine specimen of physical manhood, young fellow. Take good care of yourself.” Finally, in a moment of weakness, she admitted her sex and returned to the garments of womanhood.

In London, in 1912, a servant-girl of 23 was charged in the Acton Police Court with being “disorderly and masquerading,” having assumed man’s clothes and living with another girl, taller and more handsome than herself, as husband and wife. She had had slight brain trouble as a child, and was very intelligent, with a too active brain; in her spare time she had written stories for magazines. The two girls became attached through doing Christian social work together in their spare time, and resolved to live as husband and wife to prevent any young man from coming forward. The “husband” became a plumber’s mate, and displayed some skill at fisticuffs when at length discovered by the “wife’s” brother. Hence her appearance in the Police Court. Both girls were sent back to their friends, and situations found for them as day-servants. But as they remained devoted to each other arrangements were made for them to live together.

Another case that may be mentioned is that of Cora Anderson, “the man-woman of Milwaukee,” who posed for thirteen years as a man, and during that period lived with two women as her wives without her disguise being penetrated. (Her “Confessions” were published in the Day Book of Chicago during May, 1914.)

It would be easy to bring forward other cases. A few instances of marriage between women will be found in the Alienist and Neurologist, Nov., 1902, p. 497. In all such cases more or less fraud has been exercised. I know of one case, probably unique, in which the ceremony was gone through without any deception on any side; a congenitally inverted Englishwoman of distinguished intellectual ability, now dead, was attached to the wife of a clergyman, who, in full cognizance of all the facts of the case, privately married the two ladies in his own church.

When they still retain female garments, these usually show some traits of masculine simplicity, and there is nearly always a disdain for the petty feminine artifices of the toilet. Even when this is not obvious, there are all sorts of instinctive gestures and habits which may suggest to female acquaintances the remark that such a person “ought to have been a man.” The brusque, energetic movements, the attitude of the arms, the direct speech, the inflexions of the voice, the masculine straightforwardness and sense of honor, and especially the attitude toward men, free from any suggestion either of shyness or audacity, will often suggest the underlying psychic abnormality to a keen observer.

In the habits not only is there frequently a pronounced taste for smoking cigarettes, often found in quite feminine women, but also a decided taste and toleration for cigars. There is also a dislike and sometimes incapacity for needle-work and other domestic occupations, while there is often some capacity for athletics.

A case study on sexual inversion from 1919

[Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis, 1919, vol. 2 “Sexual Inversion” (p 235–244).

Case study of a sexual invert (homosexual) named “Miss D.” The date of birth is not provided, but from details in her narrative I can tell she is at least 35 years old at the time of the interview, which was published in 1919, so she may have been born in the 1870s or 1880s.]

Miss D., actively engaged in the practice of her profession, aged 40. Heredity good, nervous system sound, general health on the whole satisfactory. Development feminine but manner and movements somewhat boyish. Menstruation scanty and painless. Hips normal, nates small, sexual organs showing some approximation toward infantile type with large labia minora and probably small vagina. Tendency to development of hair on body and especially lower limbs. The narrative is given in her own words:—

“Ever since I can remember anything at all I could never think of myself as a girl and I was in perpetual trouble, with this as the real reason. When I was 5 or 6 years old I began to say to myself that, whatever anyone said, if I was not a boy at any rate I was not a girl. This has been my unchanged conviction all through my life.

“When I was little, nothing ever made me doubt it, in spite of external appearance. I regarded the conformation of my body as a mysterious accident. I could not see why it should have anything to do with the matter. The things that really affected the question were my own likes and dislikes, and the fact that I was not allowed to follow them. I was to like the things which belonged to me as a girl,—frocks and toys and games which I did not like at all. I fancy I was more strongly ‘boyish’ than the ordinary little boy. When I could only crawl my absorbing interest was hammers and carpet-nails. Before I could walk I begged to be put on horses’ backs, so that I seem to have been born with the love of tools and animals which has never left me.

“I did not play with dolls, though my little sister did. I was often reproached for not playing her games. I always chose boys’ toys,—tops and guns and horses; I hated being kept indoors and was always longing to get out. By the time I was 7 it seemed to me that everything I liked was called wrong for a girl. I left off telling my elders what I did like. They confused and wearied me by their talk of boys and girls. I did not believe them and could hardly imagine that they believed themselves. By the time I was 8 or 9 I used to wonder whether they were dupes, or liars, or hypocrites, or all three. I never believed or trusted a grown person in consequence. I led my younger brothers in everything. I was not at all a happy little child and often cried and was made irritable; I was so confused by the talk about boys and girls. I was held up as an evil example to other little girls who virtuously despised me.

“When I was about 9 years old I went to a day school and began to have a better time. From 9 to 13 I practically shaped my own life. I learned very little at school, and openly hated it, but I read a great deal at home and got plenty of ideas. I lived, however, mainly out of doors whenever I could get out. I spent all my pocket money on tools, rabbits, pigeons and many other animals. I became an ardent pigeon-catcher, not to say thief, though I did not knowingly steal.

“My brothers were as devoted to the animals as I was. The men were supposed to look after them, but we alone did so. We observed, mated, separated, and bred them with considerable skill. We had no language to express ourselves, but one of our own. We were absolutely innocent, and sweetly sympathetic with every beast. I don’t think we ever connected their affairs with those of human beings, but as I do not remember the time when I did not know all about the actual facts of sex and reproduction, I presume I learned it all in that way, and life never had any surprises for me in that direction. Though I saw many sights that a child should not have seen, while running about wild, I never gave them a thought; all animals great and small from rabbits to men had the same customs, all natural and right. My initiation here was, in my eyes, as nearly perfect as a child’s should be. I never asked grown people questions. I thought all those in charge of me coarse and untruthful and I disliked all ugly things and suggestions.

“Every half-holiday I went out with the boys from my brothers’ school. They always liked me to play with them, and, though not pleasant-tongued boys, were always civil and polite to me. I organized games and fortifications that they would never have imagined for themselves, led storming parties, and instituted some rather dangerous games of a fighting kind. I taught my brothers to throw stones. Sometimes I led adventures such as breaking into empty houses. I liked being out after dark.

“In the winter I made and rigged boats and went sailing them, and I went rafting and pole-leaping. I became a very good jumper and climber, could go up a rope, bowl overhand, throw like a boy, and whistle three different ways. I collected beetles and butterflies and went shrimping and learned to fish. I had very little money to spend, but I picked things up and I made all traps, nets, cages, etc., myself. I learned from every working-man I could get hold of the use of all ordinary carpenters’ tools, and how to weld hot iron, pave, lay bricks and turf, and so on.

“When I was about 11 my parents got more mortified at my behavior and perpetually threatened me with a boarding-school. I was told for months how it would take the nonsense out of me—‘shape me,’ ‘turn me into a young lady.’ My going was finally announced to me as a punishment to me for being what I was.

“Certainly, the horror of going to this school and the cruel and unsympathetic way that I was sent there gave me a shock that I never got over. The only thing that reconciled me to going was my intense indignation with those who sent me. I appealed to be allowed to learn Latin and boys’ subjects, but was laughed at.

“I was so helpless that I knew I could not run away without being caught, or I would have run away anywhere from home and school. I never cried or fretted, but burnt with anger and went like a trapped rabbit.

“In no words can I describe the severity of the nervous shock, or the suffering of my first year at school. The school was noted for its severity and I heard that at one period the elder girls ran away so often that they wore a uniform dress. I knew two who had run away. The teachers in my time were ignorant, self-indulgent women who cared nothing for the girls or their education and made much money out of them. There was a suspicious reformatory atmosphere, and my money was taken from me and my letters read.

“I was intensely shy. I hated the other girls. There were no refinements anywhere; I had no privacy in my room, which was always overcrowded; we had no hot water, no baths, improper food, and no education. We were not allowed to wear enough clean linen, and for five years I never felt clean.

“I never had one moment to myself, was not allowed to read anything, had even not enough lesson books, was taught nothing to speak of except a little inferior music and drawing. I never got enough exercise, and was always tired and dull, and could not keep my digestion in order. My pride and self-respect were degraded in innumerable ways, I suffered agonies of disgust, and the whole thing was a dreary penal servitude.

“I did not complain. I made friends with a few of the girls. Some of the older girls were attracted to me. Some talked of men and love affairs to me, but I was not greatly interested. No one ever spoke of any other matters of sex to me or in my hearing, but most of the girls were shy with me and I with them.

“In about two years’ time the teachers got to like me and thought me one of their nicest girls. I certainly influenced them and got them to allow the girls more privileges.

“I lay great stress upon the physical privations and disgust that I felt during these years. The mental starvation was not quite so great because it was impossible for them to crush my mind as they did my body. That it all materially aided to arrest the development of my body I am certain.

It is difficult to estimate sexual influences of which as a child I was practically unaware. I certainly admired the liveliest and cleverest girls and made friends with them and disliked the common, lumpy, un-educated type that made two-thirds of my companions. The lively girls liked me, and I made several nice friends whom I have kept ever since. One girl of about 15 took a violent liking for me and figuratively speaking licked the dust from my shoes. I would never take any notice of her. When I was nearly 16 one of my teachers began to notice me and be very kind to me. She was twenty years older than I was. She seemed to pity my loneliness and took me out for walks and sketching, and encouraged me to talk and think. It was the first time in my life that anyone had every sympathized with me or tried to understand me and it was a most beautiful thing to me. I felt like an orphan child who had suddenly acquired a mother, and through her I began to feel less antagonistic to grown people and to feel the first respect I had ever felt for what they said. She petted me into a state of comparative docility and made the other teachers like and trust me. My love for her was perfectly pure, and I thought of hers as simply maternal. She never roused the least feeling in me that I can think of as sexual. I liked her to touch me and she sometimes held me in her arms or let me sit on her lap. At bedtime she used to come and say good-night and kiss me upon the mouth. I think now that what she did was injudicious to a degree, and I wish I could believe it was as purely unselfish and kind as it seemed to me then. After I had left school I wrote to her and visited her during a few years. Once she wrote to me that if I could give her employment she would come and live with me. Once when she was ill with neurasthenia her friends asked me to go to the seaside with her, which I did. Here she behaved in an extraordinary way, becoming violently jealous over me with another elderly friend of mine who was there. I could hardly believe my senses and was so astonished and disgusted that I never went near her again. She also accused me of not being ‘loyal’ to her; to this day I have no idea what she meant. She then wrote and asked me what was wrong between us, and I replied that after the words she had had with me my confidence in her was at an end. It gave me no particular pang as I had by this time outgrown the simple gratitude of my childish days and not replaced it by any stronger feeling. All my life I have had the profoundest repugnance to having any ‘words’ with other women.

“I was much less interested in sex matters than other children of my age. I was altogether less precocious, though I knew more, I imagine, than other girls. Nevertheless, by the time I was 15 social matters had begun to interest me greatly. It is difficult to say how this happened, as I was forbidden all books and newspapers (except in my holidays when I had generally a reading orgy, though not the books I needed or wanted.) I had abundant opportunities for speculation, but no materials for any profitable thinking.

“Dreaming was forced upon me. I dreamed fairy-tales by night and social dreams by day. In the nightdreams, sometimes in the daydreams, I was always the prince or the pirate, rescuing beauty in distress, or killing the unworthy. I had one dream which I dreamed over and over again and enjoyed and still sometimes dream. In this I was always hunting and fighting, often in the dark; there was usually a woman or a princess, whom I admired, somewhere in the background, but I have never really seen her. Sometimes I was a stowaway on board ship or an Indian hunter or a backwoodsman making a logcabin for my wife or rather some companion. My daythoughts were not about the women round about me, or even about the one who was so kind to me; they were almost impersonal. I went on, at any rate, from myself to what I thought the really ideal and build up a very beautiful vision of solid human friendship in which there was everything that was strong and wholesome on either side, but very little of sex. To imagine this in its fullness I had to imagine all social, family and educational conditions vastly different from anything I had come across. From this my thoughts ran largely on social matters. In whatever direction my thoughts ran I always surveyed them from the point of view of a boy. I was trying to wait patiently till I could escape from slavery and starvation, and trying to keep the open mind I have spoken of, though I never opened a book of poetry, or a novel, or a history, but I slipped naturally back into my non-girl’s attitude and read it through my own eyes. All my surface-life was a sham, and only through books, which were few, did I ever see the world naturally. A consideration of social matters led me to feel very sorry for women, whom I regarded as made by a deliberate process of manufacture into the fools I thought they were, and by the same process that I myself was being made one. I felt more and more that men were to be envied and women pitied. I lay stress on this for it started in me a deliberate interest in women as women. I began to feel protective and kindly toward women and children and to excuse women their responsibility for calamities such as my school-career. I never imagined that men required, or would have thanked me for, any sort of sympathy. But it came about in these ways, and without the least help that I can trace, that by the time I was 19 years of age I was keenly interested in all kinds of questions: pity for downtrodden women, suffrage questions, marriage laws, questions of liberty, freedom of thought, care of the poor, views of Nature and Man and God. All these things filled my mind to the exclusion of individual men and women. A soon as I left school I made a headlong plunge into books where these things were treated; I had the answers to everything to find after a long period of enforced starvation. I had to work for my knowledge. No books or ideas came near me but what I went in search of. Another thing that helped me to take an expansive view of life at this time was my intense love of Nature. All birds and animals affected me by their beauty and grace, and I have always kept a profound sympathy with them as well as some subtle understanding which enables me to tame them, at times remarkably. I not only loved all other creatures, but I believed that men and women were the most beautiful things in the universe and I would rather look at them (unclothed) than on any other thing, as my greatest pleasure. I was prepared to like them because they were beautiful. When the time came for me to leave school I rather dreaded it, chiefly because I dreaded my life at home. I had a great longing at this time to run away and try my fortune anywhere; possibly if I had been stronger I might have done so. But I was in very poor health through the physical crushing I had had, and in very poor spirits through this and my mental repression. I still knew myself a prisoner and I was bitterly disappointed and ashamed at having no education. I afterward had myself taught arithmetic and other things.

“The next period of my life which covered about six years was not less important to my development, and was a time of extreme misery to me. It found me, on leaving school, almost a child. This time between 18 and 24 should, I think, count as my proper period of puberty, which probably in most children occupies the end years of their school-life.

“It was at this time that I began to make a good many friends of my own and to become aware of psychical and sexual attractions. I had never come across any theories on the subject, but I decided that I must belong to a third sex of some kind. I used to wonder if I was like the neuter bees! I knew physical and psychical sex feeling and yet I seemed to know it quite otherwise from other men and women. I asked myself if I could endure living a woman’s life, bearing children and doing my duty to them. I asked myself what hiatus there could be between my bodily structure and my feelings, and also what was the meaning of the strong physical feelings which had me in their grip without choice of my own. [Experiences of physical sex sensations first began about 16 in sleep; masturbation was accidentally discovered at the age of 19, abandoned at 28, and then at 34 deliberately resumed as a method of purely physical relief.]  These three things simply would not be reconciled and I said to myself that I must find a way of living in which there was as little sex of any kind as possible. There was something that I simply lacked; that I never doubted. Curiously enough, I thought that the ultimate explanation might be that there were men’s minds in women’s bodies, but I was more concerned in finding a way of life than in asking riddles without answers.

“I thought that one day when I had money and opportunity I would dress in men’s clothes and go to another country, in order that I might be unhampered by sex considerations and conventions. I determined to live an honorable, upright, but simple life.

“I had no idea at first that homosexual attractions in women existed; afterward observations on the lower animals put the idea into my head. I made no preparation in my mind for any sexual life, though I thought it would be a dreary business repressing my body all my days.

“My relations with other women were entirely pure. My attitude toward my sexual physical feelings was one of reserve and repression, and I think the growing conviction of my radical deficiency somewhere, would have made intimate affection for anyone with any demonstration in it, a kind of impropriety for which I had no taste.

“However, between 21 and 24 other things happened to me.

“During these few years I saw plenty of men and plenty of women. As regards the men I liked them very well, but I never thought the man would turn up with whom I should care to live. Several men were very friendly with me and three in particular used to write me letters and give me much of their confidence. I invited two of them to visit at my house. All these men talked to me with freedom and even told me about their sexual ideas and doings. One asked me to believe that he was leading a good life; the other two owned that they were not. One discussed the question of homosexuality with me; he has never married. I liked one of them a good deal, being attracted by his softness and gentleness and almost feminine voice. It was hoped that I would take to him and he very cautiously made love to me. I allowed him to kiss me a few times and wrote him a few responsive letters, wondering what I liked in him. Someone then commented on the acquaintance and said ‘marriage,’ and I woke up to the fact that I did not really want him at all. I think he found the friendship too insipid and was glad to be out of it. All these men were a trifle feminine in characteristics, and two played no games. I thought it odd that they should all express admiration for the very boyish qualities in me that other people disliked. A fourth man, something of the same type, told another friend that he always felt surprised at how freely he was able to talk to me, but that he never could feel that I was a woman. Two of these were brilliantly clever men; two were artists.

“At the same period, or earlier, I made a number of women friends, and of course saw more of them. I chose out some of some chose me; I think I attracted them as much as, or even more than, they attracted me. I do not quite remember if this was so, though I can say for certain that it was so at school. There were three or four bright, clever, young women whom I got to know then with whom I was great friends. We were interested in books, social theories, politics, art. Sometimes I visited them or we went on exploring expeditions to many country places or towns. They all in the end either had love affairs or married. I know that in spite of all our free conversations they never talked to me as they did to each other; we were always a little shy with each other. But I got very fond of at least four of them. I admired them and when I was tired and worried I often thought how easily, if I had been a man, I could have married and settled down with one or the other. I used to think it would be delightful to have a woman to work for and take care of. My attraction to these women was very strong, but I don’t think they knew it. I seldom even kissed them, but I should often have cheerfully given them a good hugging and kissing if I had thought it a right or proper thing to do. I never wanted them to kiss me half so much as I wanted to kiss them. In these years I felt this with every woman I admired.

“Occasionally, I experienced slight erections when close to other women. I am sure that no deliberate thought of mine caused them, and as I had them at other times, too, when I was not expecting them, I think it may have been accidental. What I felt with my mind and what I felt with my body always at this time seemed apart. I cannot accurately describe the interest and attraction that women then were to me. I only know I never felt anything like it for men. All my feelings of desire to do kindness, to give presents, to be liked and respected and all such natural small matters, referred to women, not to men, and at this time, both openly and to myself, I said unhesitatingly that I liked women best. It must be remembered that at this time a dislike for men was being fostered in me by those who wanted me to marry, and this must have counted for more than I now remember.

“As regards my physical sexual feelings, which were well established during these few years, I don’t think I often indulged in any erotic imaginations worth estimating, but so far as I did at all, I always imagined myself as a man loving a woman. I cannot recall ever imagining the opposite, but I seldom imagined anything at all, and I suppose ultimate sex sensations know no sex.

“But as time went on and my physical and psychical feelings met, at any rate in my own mind, I became fully aware of the meaning of love and even of homosexual possibilities.

“I should probably have thought more of this side of things except that during this time I was so worried by the difficulty of living in my home under the perpetual friction of comparison with other people. My life was a sham; I was an actor never off the boards. I had to play at being a something I was not from morning till night, and I had no cessation of the long fatigue I had had at school; in addition I had sex to deal with actively and consciously.

“Looking back on these twenty-four years of my life I only look back on a round of misery. The nervous strain was enormous and so was the moral strain. Instead of a child I felt myself, whenever I desired to please anyone else, a performing monkey. My pleasures were stolen or I was snubbed for taking them. I was not taught and was called a fool. My hand was against everybody’s. How it was that with my high spirits and vivid imagination I did not grow up a moral imbecile full of perverted instincts I do not know. I describe myself as a docile child, but I was full of temptations to be otherwise. There were times when I was silent before people, but if I had had a knife in my hand I could have stuck it into them. If it had been desired to make me a thoroughly perverted being I can imagine no better way than the attempt to mould me by force into a particular pattern of girl.

“Looking at my instincts in my first childhood and my mental confusion over myself, I do not believe the most sympathetic and scientific treatment would have turned me into an average girl, but I see no reason why proper physical conditions should not have induced a better physical development and that in its turn have led to tastes more approximate to those of the normal woman. That I do not even now desire to be a normal woman is not to the point.

“Instead of any such help, I suffered during the time that should have been puberty from a profound mental and physical shock which was extended over several years, and in addition I suffered from the outrage of every fine and wholesome feeling I had. These things by checking my physical development gave, I am perfectly convinced, a traumatic impetus to my general abnormality, and this was further kept up by demanding of me (at the dawn of my real sexual activity, and when still practically a child) an interest in men and marriage which I was no more capable of feeling than any ordinary boy or girl of 15. If you had taken a boy of 13 and given him all my conditions, bound him hand and foot, when you became afraid of him petted him into docility, and then placed him in the world and, while urging normal sexuality upon him on one hand, made him disgusted with it on the other, what would have been the probable result?

“Looking back, I can only say I think the results in my own case were marvelously good, and that I was saved from worse by my own innocence and by the physical backwardness which nature, probably in mercy, bestowed upon me.

“I find it difficult to sum up the way in which I affect other women and they me. I can only record my conviction that I do affect a large number, whether abnormally or not I don’t know, but I attract them and it would be easy for some of them to become very fond of me if I gave them a chance. They are also, I am certain, more shy with me than they are with other women.

“I find it difficult also to sum up their effect on me. I only know that some women attract me and some tempt me physically, and have done ever since I was about 22 or 23. I know that psychically I have always been more interested in women than men, but have not considered them the best companions or confidants. I feel protective towards them, never feel jealous of them, and hate having differences with them. And I feel always that I am not one of them. If there had been any period in my life when health and temptation and money and opportunity had made homosexual relations easy I cannot say how I should have resisted. I think that I have never had any such relations simply because I have in a way been safeguarded from them. For a long time I thought I must do without all actual sexual relations and acted up to that. If I had thought any relations right and possible I think I should have striven for heterosexual experiences because of the respect that I had cultivated, indeed I think always had, for the normal and natural. If I had thought it right to indulge any sort of gratification which was within my reach I think I might probably have chosen the homosexual as being perhaps more satisfying and more convenient. I always wanted love and friendship first; later I should have been glad of something to satisfy my sex hunger too, but by that time I could have done without it, or I thought so.”

At a period rather later than that dealt with in this narrative, the subject of it became strongly attracted to a man who was of somewhat feminine and abnormal disposition. But on consideration she decided it would not be wise to marry him.

A wonderful zine written by ten FtM detransitioners

The zine Blood and Visions: Womyn Reconciling With Being Female is a collection of writing from ten women who have experienced dysphoria and/or transition, and who have stopped transition or decided not to pursue transition. Most of them currently identify as lesbian and most of them identified as trans men or genderqueer for a time.

I heard about this zine from the bloggers I follow on WordPress, so thank you for the recommendation! I would like to pay it forward and recommend it again. Reading this writing was very moving and I will read it over and over again.

The writing is based on personal experience and thoughtful analysis of some of the themes present in the lives of women who transition, such as not conforming to social standards of what a woman is, the humiliation and shame of being female in a patriarchy, trauma and dissociation from the body—often due to male violence, internalized homophobia, and self-hatred. They have also shared some things they have found helpful in returning to being able to live in their bodies and accept themselves as gender-non-conforming women. The writing is very poetic at times, in the sense that each sentence is packed with powerful truth and emotion. It is to be read slowly and carefully, while taking in the impact of every sentence and every word.

A lot of these women received little social support for being dykes but lots and lots of support for being genderqueer or trans men. They saw no representation of butch and/or masculine women anywhere and didn’t realize other women like them existed. Transition seemed like a way to join a socially recognizable gender category, one in which they would be respected as human beings, and “fix” the problem of being female. Some of the writers lived as trans men for a few years; others barely started to transition before deciding not to.

The reasons for not continuing to transition were often because they didn’t truly want to fit in with men and be seen as male. Fitting in with men and not being found out as a biological female often meant participating in misogyny. Sometimes it meant being a female survivor of rape in an all male environment and hearing rape jokes and feeling unable to speak out against them from a “male” perspective. Some of the women began to detransition when they discovered that transition did not help with dysphoria, and when they found other methods that helped more. It sounds like none of these women is completely free of dysphoria—one even stated that she is still not even coping—but there are things that help a woman who is dissociating from her body, such as meditation, exercise, psychotherapy, political analysis of gender, meeting other women in similar situations, and learning to direct her anger at the culture who did this to her instead of directing her anger at herself.

There was a question asked in the book but not resolved. I don’t think there is any answer to this, but I am interested in this question, too. Why is it that some butch dykes identify as female while others transition to male? They are in similar situations, it seems. I suppose the difference lies in the amount of dysphoria that she feels. A butch dyke might love her female body and feel at home in it even though she faces discrimination and hatred from her society, while a FtM transitioner does not feel at home in her female body. It’s hard to know why this happens to one woman and not another. More positive representation of butch and/or masculine women would certainly help both groups though. Women deserve to know that lots of us are not Barbie dolls and that we can be strong and powerful and love other women.

There was one piece that gave advice to radical feminists on behalf of FtM detransitioners. Radical feminists tend to love hearing from detransitioners but we also sometimes treat them as tokens or sources of information rather than as comrades. Some radfems will pick and choose quotes from a detransitioner just to support her own ideology while not behaving respectfully toward the woman she is quoting. We can be condescending by calling a sex-change operation “mutilation” even if the woman doesn’t see it that way, or by saying detransitioners “regret” their transition even though they may not. None of the women who wrote for this book said they regretted their transition or wished to reverse it. They simply found a new way forward that is different from what they previously had envisioned. Detransition is not a return to what they were before or a move backwards, but is a new way forward and a new journey.

One of my favourite quotes in the zine is by Crash [blogs here] who wrote this stunning paragraph:

“What happened? Why did we stop after finding such relief? What we had forced down rose back up again and again. The attempted murder of our former selves proved uncompleted and we could only turn away from her for so long. The dyke inside would not die and she was stronger than medically sanctioned endocrine disruption, the latest in many attempts to erase and take her power.” (16)

I have read this quote over and over and over. There is so much here in this little paragraph. The idea of finding relief in transition but then also finding that the dyke within “would not die” is so powerful! I am savouring these words and finding that they make me proud and awed and full of love for lesbiankind. We lesbians are strong and powerful—more powerful than we realize and certainly more powerful than men believe.

Reading this zine made me feel similar to the way I feel when reading Stone Butch Blues. It is heartbreaking but somehow beautiful, too—it captures the terrible experience of being female in a patriarchy in a profound way, and it speaks to the lesbophobia that still crushes many of us, but it also speaks to the incredible resilience that women have. How I wish that all women could grow up knowing their appearance and personality are just fine the way they are, and that they can be any kind of woman they want to be.

Everyone interested in lesbians, FtMs, and detransition should buy this zine. You’ll be very glad you read these women’s words.

Reading Stone Butch Blues in 2015

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Stone Butch Blues is a book that touched my heart very deeply. I bring it up every now and again because it’s part of my knowledge of the lesbian and FtM experience. Once you get to know the protagonist, Jess, she’ll never leave your heart. A commenter recently asked if this book was pro-transition. My answer is that this book cannot be categorized in terms of the current transgender cult. Feinberg wrote about a time when gender-non-conforming gays and lesbians were simply trying to survive from day to day. There were no Twitter wars or accusations of TERF back then. I would say that Stone Butch Blues is way more real and honest than the trans activism going on now. This book has been described as “so real it hurts” and I agree with that. Feinberg wrote about everyday life, love and survival in a really authentic way. I have reviewed this book before on a previous blog and unfortunately, I did not keep a copy of the review so now I’m writing it again. If some of this sounds familiar to you, you probably read my last one!

The protagonist, Jess Goldberg, is a butch lesbian who is a lot like the author. She was a different kind of girl right from the beginning. People would ask “is it a boy or a girl” all the time because they couldn’t figure her out.

“I didn’t want to be different. I longed to be everything grownups wanted, so they would love me. I followed all their rules, tried my best to please. But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown. No one ever offered a name for what was wrong with me. That’s what made me afraid it was really bad. I only came to recognize its melody through this constant refrain: “Is that a boy or a girl?” p.13

The story begins in the 1960s, a time when both homosexuality and cross dressing were illegal. Jess is sent to a psych ward and a charm school to try to train her out of being a tomboy and into being a lady. It doesn’t work. She leaves home at sixteen. Her parents don’t really want her, she is raped at school and doesn’t feel she can ever go back there, and so she decides it’s time to leave home and work full time. She sleeps on friends’ couches and works in a factory.

Jess discovers a gay bar for the first time and finds the lesbian family she’s been looking for. In this era there is a strict butch/femme code where lesbians have to play a role that is based on masculinity or femininity. The older butches take her out to buy her first suit and tie and teach her to toughen up. It doesn’t take long before she realizes why this toughening up is necessary. Gays, lesbians and cross dressers are all considered perverts and freaks and they are fair game for beatings and violence. Much of this violence comes from the police, who show up regularly at the gay bar to harass and arrest the patrons. The police terrorize them and torture them while at the station and they come back traumatized. Jess does “toughen up” in the sense that she locks away her emotions and she becomes a stone butch. (A stone butch is a lesbian who will pleasure her partner but cannot herself be touched.) Jess is traumatized on many occasions and survives because of the love of her lesbian and gay family.

Jess is a working class woman and this novel is as much about the struggles of the working class as it is about gender and sexuality. She works in various factories throughout her life and always takes a unionized job when she can. The author, Leslie Feinberg, said before her death that she wanted to be remembered as a revolutionary communist. The character Jess gets involved with her union and finds out how union men always put men first. Women’s issues are always going to be addressed after the next strike. Despite this treatment, she never crosses a picket line and remains in solidarity with her union comrades.

Eventually Jess does transition from female to male. The first time she hears about transition is when her and her lesbian family are suffering prolonged unemployment and are desperate to do something to change their fate. One day a group of butches try on fashion wigs to see if they can try to be feminine, but it doesn’t work at all. They just cannot perform femininity, it is alien to them. Then they start talking about sex-change operations to become men. It suits them better since they are masculine women. Jess never feels like she is a woman. Because she is a butch people generally call her a “he-she” and women call security when they see her in the washroom. When she hears about the women’s liberation movement she doesn’t think it applies to her. Jess never says she really feels like she is male, she just doesn’t feel female. This attitude was deliberately taught to her by everyone in society. She has been sent to a psych ward and a charm school and beaten and arrested for not being a proper woman. She gets the message loud and clear: women must be feminine, so she obviously can’t be one of them. When she first talks about transition to her girlfriend, she says “Honey, I can’t survive as a he-she much longer. I can’t keep taking the system head-on this way. I’m not gonna make it. We were talking about maybe starting on hormones, male hormones. I was thinking I might try to pass as a guy.” Her partner, Theresa, shouts at her one day “You’re a woman!” and Jess answers, “I’m a he-she. That’s different.” And then: “I’ve got to do something. I’ve been fighting to defend who I am all my life. I’m tired. I just don’t know how to survive. I just don’t know any other way.” When Theresa says she doesn’t want to be with a man, Jess says, “I’d still be a butch, even on hormones.”

I think it’s really obvious that Jess does not identify as a man. Rather, she is being backed up into a corner and can think of no other way out of her desperate situation other than pretending to be a man. Her real “gender identity” is butch lesbian, not man. But being a butch lesbian in a hostile world is killing her and she doesn’t think she’ll survive unless something changes. She takes the hormones and has the surgery. As I’ve written about here, she finds safety at first being seen as a man, because people treat her better than they did when they saw her as a butch lesbian. But over time, it gets harder and harder being seen as male when she is not. She is constantly trying to hide her secret by not talking about her life or getting close to anyone. Eventually she stops taking testosterone, but her body is forever changed. She’s now an even more masculine woman than before, and still passes for a man much of the time.

One of the most poignant moments during her life as a trans man is when she gets a vaginal infection. The only medical clinic she feels comfortable going to is a women’s clinic. Probably because men are violent upon finding out that this man is really a woman, but she faces no violence from women. In the waiting room at the women’s clinic other patients read her as male and inform her that she doesn’t belong there. The doctor reads her as male and she tries to convince the doctor that she really does have a vaginal infection but she cannot allow the doctor to examine her because she has so much trauma around her genitals. At this point in her life she has been raped many times and she will not expose her vulnerability to anyone. She is lucky that the doctor writes a prescription for antibiotics anyway, even though she believes her patient is probably male.

When I think about this situation in terms of current trans activism, I realize how stupid and counterproductive trans activism has become. What Jess really needs is for the world to accept her as a “he-she,” that is, a gender-non-conforming woman. She needs the world to know that some women wear suits and shave their heads, and the world needs to get over that. To pretend that she LITERALLY IS MALE while trying to get treated for a vaginal infection would be daft. It would only confuse the doctor even more. The truth of the situation is that she is a butch lesbian who has taken testosterone and had her breasts removed. She is still female and needs medical treatment as a female. Pretending otherwise does not help her or support her in any way. I am 100% in favour of any trans activism that focuses on the reality of gender-non-conforming people and helping them be accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are.

After Jess de-transitions, she is a very masculine woman who is either read as male or as a “freak” depending on who is looking. The violence continues. Jess has to fight for her life every once in a while when someone tries to punish her for being in between male and female. Sometimes she loses her job because she needs weeks to recover from an injury. Sometimes she loses everything she has and has to start all over again, sleeping in a movie theatre and saving up for another apartment. She is lonely for a long time, not fitting in with men nor with women. There is a really beautiful moment when she meets a new friend named Ruth, a trans woman, and Ruth prepares her a lovely dinner. Jess has been eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for a long time and has been living in poverty and loneliness. Ruth prepares a salad with flowers in it, and vegetables with herbs and homemade bread with butter. Jess has been starving for so many things—starving for food, for colours, for understanding and love. Ruth understands that Jess is trans and loves her for it. Jess finally feels seen and heard after a long time being invisible. When Jess sees and smells the homecooked meal it brings tears to her eyes. In fact, she is already moved to tears when she sees the colours in the salad. Leslie Feinberg has a gift for showing the full depth of love in the small gestures of kindness that people give each other.

I highly recommend this book for several reasons. The writing is superb; it shows the injustices faced by the gender-non-conforming, through their own eyes; it shows the triumph of being yourself even when you’re punished for it; it shows an important part of gay and lesbian history, with a focus on lesbians; it shows the beauty and tragedy of the human experience through acts of violence and acts of love. This novel is essential on any lesbian or trans reading list. I’ve read it several times and it gives me multiple emotional reactions. It makes me cry tears of anger at the injustices and trauma, it makes me proud of all the lesbians and gender-benders who have survived before me and it makes me want to continue the fight on behalf of the gender-non-conforming. It makes me proud of my own partner, who is a butch lesbian non-transitioner, and who is very precious to me. And I have to admit it makes me sexually aroused, not just because there are sex scenes, which there are, but because dykes being their fabulous selves is sexy as hell, no matter what they’re doing. I will also mention that there is a lot of violence in the book, including sexual violence. It helps to have a box of tissues handy while reading.

One of the reasons why there was a strict butch/femme code at this time in history is because gender roles were so strict that people couldn’t think any other way. These days lots of lesbians wouldn’t fit into either one of these labels, we tend to be rather androgynous or somewhere in between masculine and feminine. We have much more freedom to present ourselves in a way that makes sense to us without trying to fit into a pre-defined identity. What we’re seeing in trans activism today is instead of trying to break down the gender boxes even further and allow people to be themselves, we have to put everybody into a specific box and modify their bodies to make sure they completely conform. This is like going back to the pre-Stonewall era, only with more technology. It sure isn’t a step forwards.

Unfortunately Leslie Feinberg has passed away, but I would have loved to have heard her thoughts on current trans activism if I could. I know that she considered herself a trans warrior and used both female and gender-neutral pronouns. She considered herself a butch lesbian. She didn’t consider herself male. I remember her as a role model, a revolutionary communist, a brilliant mind and a loving heart. I very much appreciate her contribution to the world.

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