InQueery: One Butch Voice

Posted on March 13, 2011 by


The following is the opening address from yours truly at the Butch Voices Fredericton Conference, which was held on March 1, 2011. The Butch Voices Conference was actually the culmination of a series of workshops on gender identity which began on Feb. 1 with Nobody Passes, Darling on the subject of [not] passing; on Feb. 15 with Gender Queers; and culminating in a workshop on specifically on Butch Identity on March 1.

Please excuse the length of this post, but it is re-published here in full for those interested in butch identity who couldn’t attend but may benefit.  This address is my opinion only, for which I accept full responsibility, and does not necessarily reflect the views of FQ or the Queer Theory Collective. This address is about one butch voice, my own, and there were many others that were presented at the conference.

We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: Reclaiming Butch History and Culture for Ourselves

by Shaun Bartone

I first got the idea of doing a butch voices conference after seeing them go off so well in the States in places like LA and NYC. I was surprised that they were so successful.  I had witnessed the death of ‘butch’ when I lived in western Massachusetts back in the  early 2000s. Many of the former butches and transitioning FtMs wanted to distance themselves from butch identity. Butch was old-fashioned; butch had too much baggage, butch was what we did before we had medical transitioning. Funny, because the feminist movement had the same effect on butches thirty years ago. The feminist lesbians pushed butches away because they were too masculine, because they signified masculine dominance within the lesbian community, and thus patriarchy. Only now the anti-butch crowd rejected butch because it was not masculine enough. Too masculine or not masculine enough, either way, butches couldn’t win. Butch had become such a problem, for me and for everyone else, that I renounced butch identity myself. I had to find a label that wasn’t a throw-back to the butch-lesbian culture of the 50s, that wasn’t saddled with all the baggage of the gender wars in the 90s. I spent a good part of the early new century trying to find a name for my in-between gender. In 2002 I attended a gender queer support group in NYC. So for a while I took the label gender queer. I had thought butch was dead. Then seemingly out of the blue, the Butch Voices Conference happened and seemed to be a revival of butch. I hadn’t seen this coming.

Meanwhile I had moved to Fredericton in 2008. I started Travesty Café in 2010. I booked Ivan Coyote to come to Fredericton for a reading at Travesty Café in March 2011, sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets. Ivan had been a butch idol of mine for years. I read her book of short stories, “One Man’s Trash”  back in 2002 when it was released. As I got to know Ivan and her work more, I was impressed with her embodiment with a public butch identity. I was thrilled when I actually moved to Canada and came closer to the opportunity to actually meet her. She had agreed to come to Fredericton for a reading, as part of an East Coast tour for her new book, “Missing Her.” But then, things happened, Ivan got a post as a writer in residence at the University of Winnipeg, so she had to cancel the reading.

Years ago back in NYC I met another butch idol of mine in person, Leslie Feinberg. I had read Stone Butch Blues back in 1993 when that book was first published. I had already come out as a lesbian, but I still felt unsettled in terms of my gender identity. It was Stone Butch Blues that helped me put a name on my gender identity. I proudly took the name butch. Leslie’s book spoke about the anguish of living a life between genders, of being a social outcast, even among queers. It helped solidify my masculine identity, that it was ok for me to be the kind of masculine that I was: masculine on a female body.

I thought that when I saw Leslie in person, I would be ever more in awe of her amazing talents and integrity as a butch leader. Actually, I wasn’t. I discovered ways that I disagreed with her, and ways that believe it or not she really was human. I’m sure I’d feel the same way about Ivan if she were here today.

It was from Stone Butch Blues that I learned that butch identity had a history, that it went back to the early 20th century at least. Stone Butch Blues was about butch-femme communities in the 60s in Buffalo, NY. I also read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, which was a history of butch-femme communities from the 1930s to the 1960s, again in Buffalo.

More recent studies focus on butch identity after the feminist movement in the 80s and 90s. Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity was published in 1998. That was a brilliant book that described butch identity in literature, film and television, and drag kings. Jack Halberstam’s book tried to take apart and put back together the complex relationship of having a masculine gender on a female body.

Butch has been many things over the last 80 years or so. There was a period in the 50s when lesbians had to be either butch or femme; you couldn’t be “something else.” During the 70s, the lesbian feminists pushed out the butches because they were too masculine, because ‘butch’ reinforced masculine and therefore patriarchal stereotypes. There was a period again in the 80s where butch became the unspoken norm, where every lesbian had to be butch in some way. Lesbians who were more feminine were marginalized in the lesbian community. Then in the 90s and early 2000s, it was reversed. Femininity of various kinds became became the norm in the lesbian community, and butches were pushed out because they were too masculine. Then in the 2000s, with the advent of the transgender and transsexual movements, people who formerly identified as butch but who were transitioning FtMs rejected the butch label as old-fashioned, as too tied to lesbian identity and history. Whereas butch had been rejected by the lesbians as too masculine, butch was rejected by FtMs as not masculine enough. Then it seemed like nobody wanted to be butch any more. It was an identity that had become a pariah.

That was how it was in the States, but apparently things were somewhat different up here in Canada. I’m still getting to know some of the LGBT history up here. It seems like butch was a more subtle code of identity here. It seems that there was a period when every lesbian was supposed to be butch or masculine in some way, but it was never called butch. What Canadians called butch women, we called them dykes in the States. So I see lots of women who look butch to me, but when I ask them, they tell me they’re not butch. The Canadian codes for butch, femme, and dyke are still something that I’m becoming familiar with.

It seems like in Canada, butch refers to a role that lesbians act out with each other in relationships. It seems that butches play the traditional role of “husband” in the relationship. It seems not to be as strongly associated with a gender style, such as cross-dressing. Actually, I consider myself to be a cross-dresser, because I put men’s clothes on my female body, although in mind and spirit, I’m a man. Like Leslie Feinberg, I proudly call myself a drag king.

In the States, historically, butch was both a role and a gender. In more recent decades, after the feminist movement, butch was less associated with femme and playing a role in a relationship. It became almost entirely a gender expression. A butch was a butch regardless of whether s/he was with a femme. S/he was butch because she looked butch, that is, she dressed the part in men’s clothes, because s/he acted butch, s/he swaggered when she walked, s/he was the strong silent type or s/he talked loud. And because s/he felt butch, s/he copped a masculine attitude, took a tough view of the world.

In the latest incarnation, butch has been associated with gender queers, people who are differently gendered. There are now trans butches, butches who are transgender, who don’t identify with their social assignment to the female sex. They may or may not alter their bodies in some way to align their physical sex with their gender identity.

But my own butch identity has been through many trials and tribulations. For a while in my 30s, it was hot to be butch. It was the latest lesbian fad. Then in my 40s when so many butches were transitioning, all of a sudden, butch was a joke. Sure there was always competition among butches about who was the most masculine, but we were all more or less on the same playing field. But once you could medically change your body to being an FtM or trans man, butch just couldn’t cut it anymore. Obviously, FtMs were more masculine than butches.

Gender queers challenged the idea of identifying with a female body. So I did too. I noodled around for a long time with the idea of not identifying with my female body. For several years I attempted to obtain hormones and surgery for a sex change. That never happened and at this point I’m glad it didn’t. But I found myself on the outside of two communities: I was a refugee from the lesbian community, who didn’t want me because I was too masculine, and I was a escapee from the trans community, who didn’t want me because I never physically transitioned. I was alone. I no longer had a queer community to belong to. I had to leave western Massachusetts because the hostility between these two groups was getting vicious and I was caught in the middle. I left the States and came to Fredericton. Back to square one.

I decided not to transition because, ultimately, I liked my female body; I identified with my female body. That was the thing that always kept me on this side of the fence. I liked being female. But in my mind I had transitioned to being a man. For me, there was no need to make a physical change. So I began calling myself a female man. I thought it was a bold move. I wanted to announce to the world that I had both a female body and a an identity as a man. I insisted that ‘Man’ goes on a female body. I chose masculine pronouns because I wanted people to see that I was putting a masculine identity on a female body. I wanted you to see that they didn’t match. Not everything has to line up and make sense in the conventional way. I don’t have to have a male identity with a male name on a male body signified by male ID cards, license, passport, etc. I want you to see both the masculine identity and the female body. Like Jack Halberstam, I want you to see the all the complicated ways that a man’s identity fits on a female body

I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t depend on a community to support my identity. I had to stand on my own two feet and do it by myself. I had to be secure in my own gender identity, regardless of whatever the latest fad was in the queer community.

Then, while I was here in Fredericton, Butch Voices started in 2009. I couldn’t believe it. It was like butch was risen from the grave. All of a sudden, there were people in NY, LA Portland and Dallas who were re-claiming butch identity. All the big butch celebrities were key speakers at these conferences: Ivan Coyote and S. Bear Bergman, in particular. So it seemed like natural that after Ivan had agreed to do a reading in Fredericton in 2011, that we would roll that into a Butch Voices Conference of our own. Right here in Fredericton. In fact, this is the very first Butch Voices Conference in a Canadian city.

But then, Ivan cancelled. No national celebrity. I decided to push on, regardless. I announced Butch Voices in FQ. The editor of the Salon page of the Telegraph Journal called me up and wanted to know about Butch Voices. I told him what we had scheduled. “But are there any nationally known speakers?” No, I had to tell him, no celebrities. It’s just us. So they didn’t run the story. They wanted celebrities, not ordinary people living extraordinary lives.

And we’re not running a three day conference with bookings at a hotel, multiple workshops, keynote speakers and a whole evening of butch performance. But this is not the United States and there are not 330 million people here. No we’re doing this in a small, local, Fredericton kind of way. It’s just about us and our lives. It’s about me feeling like its finally ok to call myself butch again. I’m not waiting for some butch celebrity to come here to tell me that it’s cool to be butch again. It’s about being here within my own community and validating my own life story. I’m butch because that’s what fits me best. And I’m glad that there’s a history and a culture of butch that I can look back on for inspiration. But this conference is not about butch celebrities. We can’t wait for someone to come here and validate that we exist. We have to claim our own identities ourselves. Fredericton can’t wait for some big shot to come here from Halifax, Toronto or Vancouver to tell us that we rate as a gay community. Fredericton’s queer community has to stand up for itself. Butch Voices Fredericton is just about us and our lives. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Posted in: InQueery