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.


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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