I’ve been told several times in the last few weeks that I’m a dying breed. I’m a butch dyke of 35, living in
But gender is a funny thing: It’s all relative. I thought being a dyke had taught me that lesson — I notice who’s more butch, who’s more femme, and a million permutations thereof. But the boom in testosterone-taking ex-butches has revealed how butch itself is a relative category. The more tranny boys there are, the more not taking testosterone seems like an expression of some unacknowledged allegiance to femininity. No, I don’t feel any connection to the word woman, but feeling awkward in the women’s bathroom doesn’t mean I feel like I was born to use the men’s room — especially when, testosterone or no, I will always have to sit to pee. I can’t bring myself to think that making my body adhere to the man category is the answer when, after over ten years of queer life, the gender binary (woman = feminine, man = masculine; woman ≠ man) strikes me as comically clumsy — naïve and absurdly autocratic.
Don’t panic: I’m not going to argue that all FTMs take us back to overly simplistic ideas of gender. Such generalizations are useless and don’t ultimately advance the ideal of gender chaos. But the physical trappings of manhood — except one or two that testosterone can’t give — have not been the things I have aspired to or identified with. I may walk and fuck a lot like a man, but mostly I am masculine in the ways I feel: I am tough and fiercely self-sufficient and find myself in pissing contests, even though I think they're stupid; I go awkwardly rigid when it comes to tenderness and vulnerability; I feel completely entitled to experience desire without guilt, shame or obligation and to speak my mind as I see fit. At times, I do want to feel testosterone running through my veins, like a drug I was meant to have, to give these feelings physical form. Would a low dose (one too low to change my voice or body hair) make me more of a man, in society’s view? I don’t think so, because society cannot see gender anywhere but on the physical body. I think I would still be seen as a mannish, militant lesbian who doesn’t know her place by those who disapprove of me, and as some version of butch by those who get it.
But I’m not a woman who refuses to accept her place; I’m not a woman — for me, personally, the word is irredeemably steeped in its connotations of motherhood and nurturing. (For this, I blame the Second Wave feminists.) The constitutive thrill of being a male-identified dyke is feeling like those prescriptions simply don’t apply. Problem is, femmes and other gender-savvy dykes tend to be the only ones who recognize this basic fact of masculine gender identity.
People, in my experience, have a strong desire to be seen for what they are, or, at least for the good things they are. That’s why the thought of injecting testosterone crosses my mind at times — say, when I’m sweating my balls off picking up trash for the city to work off parking tickets. I’m in Dickies and an old T-shirt. It’s me and the homeboys; there are no straight women or femmes or even middle-class folks doing it. Then somebody comes up (with the class-blind expectation that because I “work for” the city, I will have handy information at my fingertips) and addresses me with “Miss!” Miss? I may have the tiniest hint of breasts, but doesn’t the combination of actions, attitude and attire speak louder? People who call me “miss,” or who apologize profusely after calling me “sir,” mistake me for some poor old frump who can’t help but look mannish. But I am more in charge of my gender than they are: I have negotiated it; I know who I am and I like it.
Some butches probably transition because they’re tired of dealing with these situations. Their choice may be politically retrograde or politically radical or neither — only time will tell. But nobody said it would be easy to overturn social expectations, and it’s really no surprise that society willfully misreads attempts to loosen its categorical shackles. One such attempt comes in the form of folksy advice: It’s best not to give a fig how others see you. Aside from the fact that no one is comfortable being misread profoundly and negatively — they may not have experienced it, but I’m quite sure they wouldn’t like it — this advice ignores the basic fact that refusing to see people in all their complexity furthers the cause of discrimination.
But that same tone deafness is what has allowed the category of butch to exist at all. “Butch” is a space between the poles of gender and would play quite differently if the poles disappeared. The current explosion of FTMs is already shifting how it plays, and what it's called. As a dyke dude, I could feel emasculated by FTMs’ ballsier embrace of masculinity. Sometimes, say when I see them at the gym lifting twice as much weight as I can, I do. But sometimes I feel ballsier than they are for pushing the gender envelope in a more active way that FTMs who pass — or at least for walking away from a potential pissing contest with them. Being butch is a claim that can be rejected (unlike, say, being biologically female), and some butches and tranny boys respond by needing to be more masculine than the next dyke to feel masculine at all.
I will admit to being uncomfortable with the popularity of transitioning to the extent that at least some people are doing it to win at that game — a perfectly reasonable desire for your early twenties, but not one worth shaving a few years off of your life for. (Testosterone is hard on the liver and may be linked to various kinds of cancer--no one knows because no one researches it.) But because male-identified dykes are also often judged harshly for reaffirming patriarchal biases, I’m inclined to abstain from judgment. I generally think it’s better not to fret that FTMs are limiting the scope of gender play in the dyke community. The decision to transition or not to transition can be a reflection of which aspects of masculinity different people connect with, or which strategy they employ to break through the walls of binary gender. Or maybe the polarity that has resulted from some butches’ choice to transition reveals what most lesbians already knew: Gender is so complicated that sleeping with biological females is not a very strong glue with which to hold a community together. (Note to homophobes: It’s our shared experience of oppression that really connects us as a community.)
Whatever the case, testosterone isn’t a magic key to a brave new world where gender diversity — and perversity — are valued. That should go without saying. Meanwhile, some of us are still holding down the butch fort, which is — in case it’s never occurred to you that butches look working class because we can’t get better jobs— still very much under attack. Now it’s also on shifting ground.