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.)
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?”
“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.