How is it that, as I approach half a century on the planet as a butch-identified woman, I still struggle with the constraints of masculinity?
Thirty years ago, I went to an all women's college where I was steeped in feminist thought and critiques of hegemonic masculinity. I read Butler, Halberstam, Connell, and other feminist, gender, and queer theorists. I even started a group more than 20 years ago for butches and transmen to explore issues, such as male privilege, sexism, and internalized misogyny. I get it -- the gender binary and masculinity are social constructs that hurt us all.
But can we acknowledge, at least for a moment, the absurdity that any of us should be bound by normative conceptions of masculinity, while also acknowledging their deep and pervasive hold? So this is my confession -- my confession about buying into traditional notions of masculinity and my journey towards trying to queer them.
There just aren't a lot of butch role models, and, as Adrienne "Aj" Davis notes, in her wonderful piece, To be Black, Intellectual and Butch, many of us are left with the task of being our own role models or muddling our way through this thing called "butchness." Maybe it's the absence of butch role models that leads me, like others, to fall back on traditional forms of masculinity. Even though I have always known better -- somewhere along the way, my butch identity got wrapped in ideas that were unhealthy for me and those close to me, like: I shouldn't cry or be emotionally expressive, I shouldn't be vulnerable or emotionally available, I should avoid asking for help at all costs, I should not seek medical care unless death seemed imminent, I should work my guts out, and I should never ask for directions. Being butch meant being brave and tough. Ridiculous. I know. And beyond being ridiculous, a set-up for a life far harder and less fulfilling than it needs to be.
Ironically, for me, it was "female trouble" (endometriosis) resulting in debilitating pain that essentially made it impossible for me to continue to "go it alone." To be clear, I probably would not have sought medical care or reached out for help if my medical crisis hadn't been so severe that I couldn't work or if my partner hadn't issued an ultimatum. As it turns out, being forced to stop, get help, and start taking care of myself was just about the best thing that could have happened; and, it has made me question those parts of my butch identity which were contributing to my illness and continue to diminish my life. I've even joined with others to take the conversation about the constraints of masculinity online by starting a Facebook group called the Emo Masculinities Collective.
With some really excellent guidance, I'm learning to release those old ways of being. And I am discovering who I really am when I set aside those traditional and toxic notions of masculinity. It turns out that I am a tenderhearted, sensitive butch, who cries at sunsets and stops to stare at the flowers growing out of the sidewalk, a butch who can't kill so much as an insect or watch violence on t.v. Although I still like motorcycles, weight lifting, and pickup trucks, I also like poetry, meditation, and prayer. I'm learning that there is courage in vulnerability and that asking for help is a sign of strength. By letting go of those conventional norms of masculinity, my heart has opened to a world full of pain, but also to a world of tremendous joy and beauty.
There, I've said it. I'm not tough... not even a little a bit. I'm not giving up my suits and ties, but you may find me drying my eyes with my handkerchief. How queer is that?