Invisibility Series: Butch Lesbians

October 14, 2014 in inQueery

ButchSliderThis article was originally supposed to focus on butch lesbians being read as heterosexual men in public spaces. However, the more I researched this specific subset of the lesbian community, the less I found on that topic.

This is not to say that butch lesbians are never assumed to be heterosexual men; they are. But from blogs to websites to photo projects, this issue just doesn’t seem to be the main one butch lesbians and those who love them are talking about.

The main discussion appears to center around sexual preference and gender identity/expression and how those two concepts are intertwined when maybe they shouldn’t be.

Sexual preference is your sexual orientation – who you are attracted to, romantically, physically, or otherwise. Gender identity is a person’s private sense and experience of their own gender, and gender expression is how they may or may not convey that identity. So “butch lesbian” can be someone who gender identifies as female, gender expresses as more masculine, and is still sexually attracted to women.

In my admittedly newly-researched opinion, this makes them invisible in a different way than simply being read as heterosexual men. To me, butch lesbians seem invisible because of how heterosexual society and even the LGBT community doesn’t accurately see them for who they are.

In her article “’Where Have All the Butches Gone?’”, Roey Thorpe discusses this issue. She points out that older generations of lesbians are frustrated with their perceived loss of butch lesbians. Thorpe has a theory about this: “One of the mistakes that we made as lesbian feminists was combining sexual orientation and gender expression into an androgynous dyke ideal…” she writes. “… our attempt to consolidate gender identity and expression with sexual orientation has led us to a fundamental misunderstanding of the trans experience.”

Thorpe’s opinion is that butch lesbians haven’t disappeared, but that some of them were mislabeled female-to-male transgender people in the first place. Since the LGBT community is constantly evolving and gaining new freedoms, this idea has some merit. Perhaps trans men in earlier decades didn’t know where they fit, so they claimed ‘butch lesbian’ as the closest accurate label, and now that being transgender is more common, they’ve made the gender switch and claim trans as their identity? And perhaps this has unfortunately led to some misconceptions about butch lesbians, like how they’re “disappearing”?

Another article entitled “Thoughts on Being A Butch”, briefly addresses the issue of butch lesbians being mistaken for men, but this is not the focus of that article, either. The focus is on the personal gender presentation and identity of the author. She claims butch lesbian as her identity:

“While I knew I would never be a feminine woman, I never felt quite right giving up my female identity completely. Eventually I realized that I could be both a woman and very masculine.”

However, the author has felt invisible as a butch lesbian: “I am read as male in most places. Even in the queer community, I feel a pressure to identify as trans at times.”

So in heterosexual society, butch lesbians can be read as men, and in the LGBT community, they can feel pressure to identify as transgender. This begs the question, why can’t they simply be read as they are: masculine women who are sexually attracted to other women?

“It’s easier for people to understand, I think,” writes the author of “Thoughts on Being a Butch”.

True. Though the LGBT community has made massive strides in bucking heteronormative ideas about sexuality and identity, gender identity/expression remains a tough nut to crack. Gender is something we’re assigned before we’re even born, it’s something we’re taught through the toys we’re allowed to play with, the language we’re instructed to use, and the clothes we’re bought before we can choose our own. And in a society that assaults women with visual representations of how they should look on everything from television commercials to billboards to magazine covers, women who fall outside that appearance ideal can get, well, disappeared.

“They don’t see me as a real woman….” writes the author of “Thoughts on Being a Butch”.

This is the problem – society, whether it’s heterosexual or LGBT, doesn’t see butch lesbians for who they are – real women with the same ideas, thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, and fears as other women, but who choose a different gender expression for themselves.

The solution is simple, people: it’s time to open our eyes, and not to the billboards and magazines, but to the real butch lesbian who’s proudly walking down the street in front of you, holding her girlfriend’s hand, defying everything those magazines expect and demanding that we see her.

For more information, feel free to visit these entertaining links:

Meg Allen Studio: Photographing the Butch Women of San Francisco
The Butch Project
Butch Wonders Blog
WikiHow: How to Be a Butch Lesbian
Twitter: #whatbutchlookslike

Aurora Smith is a Guest Contributor at InQueery.