Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fodder for thinking about lesbian gender

This list has got me thinking about butch a lot the past day or two, in a back-of-my-head way, and I want to see what happens if I bring it forward. I think it will be kind of rambly around here while I do, so forgive me. Please click through, so you can see what I'm talking about--the pictures are awesome, and it's a visual record I'm reacting to here.

I tend to think of myself as product of the crunchy/hippie lesbianism of the 80's--I hung out in dyke bars, but I came out in the peace movement, surrounded by activists and artists. The butch-femme tradition is something I tend to regard from a remove--I admire the guts and the sexual in-your-faceness of it, but I'm not really within it. Contrasts in masculine and feminine energy don't work for me that way.

My hair has been long for all but a few years in my middle twenties, when I cut it boy-short in an attempt to be read more easily as a lesbian. It did work: I got a lot less attention from men and I read more easily to other women, but there's identity as how you're read by others and identity as how you read yourself. My missing hair haunted my dreams for years until I grew it out, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I had to go through that experiment before I really figured out how to bring myself to a relationship.

But hair aside (and it was usually braided), I used to be a pretty straight-up flannel dyke: jeans, Birks or Docs, a baggy unisex t-shirt, an Aran sweater or a tartan shirt from Bean, and that was me dressed. And I still dress that way on winter days when I'm feeling the weather, or I want to feel armored and secure. The body-altering imperatives of femininity are a toxic mess and I have never wanted them anywhere near me, and the baggage that comes along with "pretty" often does my head in. But if I want to look good, I want to look beautiful rather than handsome. Wardrobe: I have shopped from the boy side of the store but not when I'm looking for something to make me feel sexy. It's never been the unisex tees but the femme outliers in my closet that I've reached for when I wanted to feel hot on a date or when I was heading out dancing. I feel as much in drag in a jacket and tie as in a dress: if I find the extremes of femininity asphyxiating, I find the extremes of masculinity alien rather than empowering. Butch clothing is protective, but it's dyke I'm aiming for rather than butch: a woman outside heterofeminine strictures, rather than a masculine woman.

In recent years as I've worked through some of my issues with moving through the world in my particular body, I've chosen my everyday clothes to acknowledge my curves instead of hide them, and I wear my hair loose much of the time. My sexuality and gender have a lot more to do with being a mother and a massage therapist than with playing with the erotics of the gender spectrum--and it's something that I love about women-only spaces, whether they are lesbian or not, that once men are out of the defining-yourself-against-them equation, the possibilities of female identity explode outside the two dimensions of a spectrum.

Scrolling through these pictures of butch women and transmen, I didn't feel like men were out of the equation in the way that makes gender interesting to me--it's not a women-only space, this list, and it shouldn't be when the story Sinclair Sexsmith is telling by compiling it is about a particularly blurry edge of the spectrum where "masculine woman" is not very far from "transitioning man," and that's a story that needs telling. It both isn't and is about me. What I wound up feeling about where I am is that any part of the spectrum is blurry, including my place near the middle. And even in a story about masculinity and female-born bodies, a hell of a lot of other--and to me, more compelling--axes of female identity are popping out of those pictures. I felt like these are my people, this is a tribe I belong to, and the self-portrait of Catherine Opie (#91) nursing her child gave me a shock of recognition. Motherhood is what crashed me hard into femininity, and I have found a power there I needed to own: it crashed me into femininity from a complicated place. How much more complicated for a butch woman or a transman?

ETA: Sexsmith has edited the list to remove transmen unless they give permission to be included--read her explanation for this change here.

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