Olive Yang, butch hero

I was very pleased to come across this article about an Asian butch lesbian named Olive Yang, who spend her life as a cross-dressing warlord.

From the New York Times:

“MUSE, Myanmar — She was born to royalty in British colonial Burma, but rejected that life to become a cross-dressing warlord whose C.I.A.-supplied army established opium trade routes across the Golden Triangle. By the time of her death, last week at 90, she had led hundreds of men, endured prison and torture, generated gossip for her relationship with a film actress and, finally, helped forge a truce between ethnic rebels and the government.

Olive Yang grew up as one of 11 children in an ethnic Chinese family of hereditary rulers of what was then the semiautonomous Shan state of Kokang. According to relatives, she wore boys’ clothes, refused to bind her feet and frequently fell in love with her brothers’ romantic interests.

Concerned about their unconventional daughter, her parents arranged for her to marry a younger cousin. Shortly after she became pregnant, archives show, she left her husband to pursue a life among opium-trafficking bandits. Her son, Duan Jipu — named for the American jeeps Ms. Yang had seen in the Chinese city of Kunming during World War II — was raised by other family members.

Ms. Yang’s pursuit of a career as a militia leader and opium smuggler grew in part out of her desperation to escape traditional gender roles, her relatives said.”

Now, I’m not trying to say that leading the illegal drug trade is heroic, but defying traditional gender roles is. I am proud of this woman for escaping from a marriage she didn’t want and dressing how she wanted and pursuing relationships with women. Her bravery reminds me of Joan of Arc. Long live gender rebels!


K.D. Lang: still a role model for being yourself—plus some rambling about FtM

K.D. Lang is a Canadian country singer who rose to fame in the 1980s. She is also a butch lesbian who has always dressed the way she wanted to regardless of what anyone thought about it. She is known as much for her short haircut and men’s suits as for her beautiful singing voice and hit songs. Even today she remains popular and active as a musician and is still a fantastic role model for gender-non-conforming people.

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In a late-1980s interview with Arsenio Hall, at around 9 and a half minutes, he asks her about her androgynous appearance and she answers with confidence and poise.

Hall : I read articles about you and they always use words like “gender-bending” or sometimes they say androgynous. Is that a bad word?

Lang: No, I think that because of the way I am, obviously it’s…. particularly it’s different for a country female. I don’t think it’s strange for a musician to be somewhat androgynous but I think that it’s just my natural way of, I think, somewhat consciously rebellious, but I think it’s also my natural way of presenting myself, but I think if I were to change, if I were to compromise my comfort and my integrity just for the formulization of what an artist should be or what a woman should present herself like I think that would be detrimental to my music and I don’t think it would be fair to my audience or to myself.

The audience applauds this and she beams at them.

I am just over the moon hearing her state that this is the way she is and that being any other way would not be fair to herself or to anyone else. The word formulize means to reduce to a formula. This is an absolutely perfect way to express what’s going on here. There is a social formula of what we think a woman should be. We think a woman should be pretty and thin with long hair, makeup and dresses. The idea that makeup and dresses are a woman is a reduction of womanhood to a formula. K.D. recognizes that trying to fit herself into this formula would compromise her integrity and be detrimental to her music. This formula does not represent who she is as a woman. What a fantastic role model for the gender-non-conforming girls who are now being told they really are men! Nobody should try to fit themselves into a formula of what they are taught that men and women are. We should be ourselves, exactly as we are.

Let’s talk about what happens when a gender-non-conforming person does try to fit into the formula that other people expect.

In her novel Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg’s main character, Jess, who closely resembles the author, transitions from female to male. She is a butch lesbian who takes hormones and gets her breasts surgically removed and lives as a male for a while. While living as a male she can feel free to express her personality without being bullied because people expect her personality from a man. She’s also safer from male violence as long as she passes as male because other men are nicer to her when they think she is one of them. But she can never get really close to anyone, because she cannot be honest about her life. When men try to become friends with her, she has to push them away because if they get to know her at all it will come out that she is actually female, and then she won’t be safe in men’s spaces anymore. Her whole life has been spent hanging out in gay bars and dating lesbians so what would she talk about if she was friends with someone who believed her to be male? She can’t say anything about her life to them. It’s hard to make women friends too, because when women perceive her as a man, they keep a safe distance from her the way they would with any other man. Then she has a hard time meeting any romantic partners. She has two choices, either reveal that she is a lesbian and try to find other lesbians even while living as a man most of the time, or date straight women is if she were male and constantly have to carry a concealed dildo in case she has to fake having a penis. Either of these options are pretty dicey operations because they are destined to fail eventually and it’s like living her life walking on a tightrope. Either way she is lying to people. She feels alone and she feels like no one can really see her. Eventually she stops taking testosterone because it’s no longer a satisfactory way to live. It is more satisfying to be exactly who she is—a butch woman.

Trying to hide your real sex from other people is the constant maintenance of a lie. Even though your sex isn’t everything about you, it is something significant, and it affects how your life will play out. It affects how you are socialized and how you move through the world. It is just like trying to hide any other part of yourself. I have never tried to hide my sex, but I have hidden my sexual orientation before and I know what that’s like. Just as Jess from Stone Butch Blues felt like no one could really see her, when I hid my sexual orientation I felt like no one could really see me. It was the time I went away from home for five weeks to take a course. I lived with a group of other women, all straight. I did not want to reveal that I was a lesbian because I was worried they’d be uncomfortable living with me. So whenever the topic of love and relationships came up I was silent. I never talked to them on more than a surface level. I was distant and secretive. After five weeks of this I felt like a ghost walking around. No one could see me, I was invisible, and I was in a deep depression.

The only way to be happy and fulfilled in life is to be honest about who you are, and to allow people to know the real you, whether they like the real you or not. If people don’t like you, fine, we don’t all have to like each other. But if the real you is hidden from everybody and a safely guarded secret that you keep inside, then you’ll be invisible and alone. There is no way people can like you if they don’t know you. This hiding of the self leads to mental health problems.

I am well aware that lots of people transition but come out to people as trans, and this obviously removes a lot of the problems that Jess from Stone Butch Blues went through. However, if you are a FtM and honest to people that you are female, then you are not actually passing as male, are you? So then why take testosterone and have surgery at all? Why not just express your personality while leaving your body intact? There is a reason why people think of FtM transitioners as lesbians. If you are female and taking testosterone and dating other women, then we all know that you’re a lesbian with a beard. You know, I am a so-called “TERF” and I am 100% okay with women with beards. I’m not afraid of you and I don’t hate you. I just want you to be honest about who you are because life is better that way. It’s okay to be a female with a manly appearance. You don’t have to claim that you “really are male.”

When I see that interview with K. D. Lang and she confidently says that it wouldn’t be fair to herself or to her audience if she was trying to be somebody she wasn’t, and that it would also be detrimental to her music, that resonates with me enormously. And look at how everyone reacts: they all clap, and she beams with pride. The thing is, if you are honest about who you are, even if you are different, people will admire you. There will always be a few haters who hate, but who cares? Let them hate, it’s their problem and you don’t need them. Even if you have a personality that is typically associated with the opposite sex, you still have a right to express your personality and be who you are. You don’t have to change or hide. You are not wrong. Our bodies are not wrong. It can be scary to be a different kind of woman than people expect you to be, but it’s worth it in the end to be the real you. Just look at K.D. Lang—she is a talented and handsome genderbender with a lifelong successful music career. Being herself has worked out very well.