I was visiting my parents at my childhood home in southern California when I found some notebooks I’d kept as a teenager. Rifling through the endless piles of paper, I found the usual angsty teen drivel, edgy doodles and bad poetry, but I also found a letter that I’d never sent. It was addressed to my parents, and it was a first draft of my coming out to them as a lesbian, written when I was probably 13 or 14.
"I promise you I’m still your daughter," I wrote, attempting to soften the blow. "I still wear skirts and dresses, and I still love makeup."
Reading this made me feel like laughing and crying at the same time. I had such empathy for my teenage self who thought that hyperfemininity was the way to win the approval of my parents and the world at large. Maybe it was, but it wasn’t sustainable.
For years now, my hair hasn’t been longer than a few inches below my neck and my default outfit consists of a button-down or T-shirt with jeans and sneakers or combat boots. I identify as a butch-y gender nonconforming (GNC) queer woman dating a very butch lesbian, and I’ve found that contrary to popular belief, being butch and/or GNC does not actually come with massive societal privileges. The concept of 'butch privilege' rests on the idea that if you are butch or GNC, you are impersonating and therefore equal to cis men. This supposedly gives you more power in relation to femmes, in social situations and in life in general. However, the opposite is frequently the case. I spoke with several other butch women to discuss the myth of butch privilege.
"From stares on the street to specific threats of violence – it's very hard not to sink into a feeling of not 'fitting' anywhere in the world."
One of these specific threats of violence occurred when a man threatened to kill her and tried to assault her in the post office near her house, an incident that inspired her song "My Mother". "This is just one story of so many I can’t remember them all," says Tabs. "For me misogyny and discrimination or threats of violence for being butch go hand in hand."
Twenty-eight-year-old London resident Brit Clayton, who identifies as a butch pansexual woman, says that she has felt alienated "pretty much every single time I’ve tried to use a public toilet for the last 10 years." This is in line with the experiences of many transgender and GNC people. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 12% of respondents reported being verbally harassed when accessing a restroom, and 59% avoided using a public restroom for fear of confrontation or other problems.
"I don’t automatically get included as 'one of the girls'… I get put in this 'other' box," says Clayton. "I’m still a woman, my butchness doesn’t negate that."
Ruby May Valentine, a 23-year-old Jewish lesbian from Tempe, Arizona, agreed that people will frequently use her presentation to invalidate her gender, a phenomenon which is not limited to cisgender heterosexual people. "I’ve definitely had my womanhood called into question for being butch and also a trans woman, even by other LGBT people," says Valentine. "They seem to think if trans women aren’t performing hyperfemininity then we’re not women, which is really tiring because it happens a lot."
As a butch of colour, I’ve definitely experienced a similar intersection of oppressions. Since I’ve started to present as butch, I "pass" as a man in public more often than not. This means that sometimes when I’m passing someone on the street at night, they will cross the street to avoid me – something that never happened when I was femme. I also get mistaken for a man far more often than my white counterparts, which also means that men will sometimes make misogynist comments to me about women, which they probably wouldn’t make if they were perceiving me as a woman. While this may seem like a protection from direct misogyny, it also means that I must adhere to a certain standard of masculinity during these interactions so that my safety isn’t compromised – especially in the bathroom. Even when these forms of oppression don’t necessarily overlap, I still experience greater minority stress than people who are either GNC or POC, but not both.
Ableism, misogyny and homophobia also frequently overlap, severely impacting disabled butches in their attempts to gain access to medical care. According to a 2009 report by Lambda Legal, over 70% of transgender and GNC people face healthcare discrimination, ranging from unawareness of health needs to a refusal of care.
For Noah Lowe, a 22-year-old disabled butch lesbian from Chicago, Illinois (and my partner), coming to understand their butchness has involved accepting some of the features that they have as a result of hyperandrogenism, such as body and facial hair. However, this is often misunderstood by medical providers. "The first time I saw a rheumatologist she made three separate notes in my chart about my hyperandrogenism while failing to mention the bone demineralisation in my wrists that showed up in my X-rays," says Lowe. "It’s taken until this year for me to actually have the chronic pain I’ve been living with for five years addressed properly because all my previous doctors have been more interested in treating me for features that I don’t want treated."
With so much discrimination from within and outside the queer community, self-care and self-affirmation are vital for butches. That’s part of the reason why Tabs started Butch Please, which centres and celebrates female masculinity. "I didn't feel at home anywhere on the London scene," she says. "I started the kind of club night I'd like to go to."
Valentine, Clayton and Lowe also stress the importance of finding community with butches in real life. "Spending time with other butches really does help the feelings of isolation and helps you realise you aren’t having these experiences in a vacuum," says Clayton.
She also adds that humour is a great way to cope. "I make a lot of jokes, I feel like that can be the best way to resist how they want to make you feel," says Clayton. "Make them look like the idiot, I refuse to let them make me feel less than."
Another effective way to cope can be through artistic expression, as is the case for Valentine and Tabs. "I draw a lot and it helps me to not focus on negative stuff so much because I have a tendency to overthink that stuff," says Valentine. "But I also just kinda remind myself that I am who I am and I don’t need to try to rationalise or justify my existence."
While Tabs admits that she "can sometimes forget to take extra care of [herself]," she says that telling her story through songwriting and singing always helps her. She’s also started gardening recently, and says that she "feel[s] more connected to everything" when she’s growing things. "This is my self-care," she says. "It reminds me that I do have a place in the world."
At the end of the day, being butch can be a source of empowerment, as it was for all the women I interviewed. "While it’s really hard to deal with the reactions from people in my life, it’s been better to accept in the long run that that’s what I look like and what my body is and there’s no need to change that," says Lowe. "Being butch4butch has also been kind of healing in that regard because I see women who look like me and I find them beautiful and attractive and handsome and hot. If I feel that way about other women with those features, I can be those things too."
Valentine, a fellow butch4butch, feels similarly. "A lot of people act like butchness is restrictive or archaic … when in my experience, finding my butchness has been one of the most freeing and healing things to ever happen to me," says Valentine. "I feel so much happier and [more] comfortable in my skin now, and for once in my life I’m actually happy with the way I look."
"It’s your life, you only have one," adds Clayton. "You can either spend your entire life trying to be miserable in order to appease someone else or you can say fuck it and be who you truly are. Sure, you might face some difficulties along the way, but they will be easier to navigate if you are your complete self."
In addition to self-preservation, being one’s authentic self can serve as inspiration for others, too. Tabs described a recent incident where a young butch dyke told her she would wait by the window every day just to watch her walk up the street with her dog. "Sometimes you have no idea who you're inspiring and giving strength to just by being you," says Tabs. "Never stop being yourself, and never stop fighting for other people's right to be themselves too."