Monday, 29 June 2009

You Say Butch Like It's a Bad Thing

As one of the judges on Sinclair Sexsmith's Top Hot Butches / Sugarbutch Hot List project, I wanted to weigh in on the discussion that's been going on about who's included on the list: namely, whether more feminine women, trans men, trans women etc., 'really belong' on this list.

One thing I like a lot about Sinclair's project is its use of a category of gendered experience that doesn't simply reproduce the old binaries of man and woman. It's a category that reflects the experiences of a lot of people I know and the community I live in. I see it bringing together two threads. First, there is 'butchness' as a particular expression of masculinity, quite apart from biology or sex assignment or sex identification. Second, there is the insight that people who have been assigned female at some point in their lives, whether by choice or not, yet who place masculinity at the core of their identities, well, we have something in common. Finding that common ground, and discussing it together or separately, is not about appropriation or stealing; it's about kinship.

This category is not theoretically perfect nor are its borders rigid and exact. I'm aware, for instance, that the first thread includes people assigned male at birth who still identify as men ('cisgender men') while the second would tend not to. But the categories of men and women themselves are not more perfect. And I believe that trying out new categories, new ways of organizing our experiences and our relationships to others, is an important part of the working of dismantling the dominance of the idea of men and women as seemingly eternal, natural categories. That's exactly why I keep that Judith Butler quote in the sidebar.

One of the very sad things about the debate over this list has been the tendency to insist on those very categories of man and woman. This list is about women, the argument went, and trans men are men. And yet there are many people, myself included, and many on the list as well I believe, for whom neither 'woman' nor 'trans man' is an adequate description.

In my real-life community, that fact is not a problem. The category that Sinclair is exploring and invoking in this list actually functions to bring people together, and ultimately, that's why I believe in it. I believe in a world in which I'm welcome at trans events and my trans friends, FTM and MTF, are welcome at the Dyke March. Which is not to say FTMs ought to go to the Dyke March, necessarily, or that they have to feel comfortable being on Sinclair's list; but it's a matter of individual variation and preference, as has been amply demonstrated by the fact that some of the trans men on the list have opted to be reinstated, while others have not.

This leads me to another thing I like about Sinclair's project. It refuses from the outset the idea that being including on a 'butch' list could be insulting. I appreciate this on a visceral level because of how very long it took me to claim that word for myself, because of how long I spent thinking of it as a bad word for bad women. I think it's an admirable audacity to insist that butch is a good thing. It's one thing to say, if this isn't the category for you, if this isn't a place you want to be, say so, and I'll respect that. It's quite another to concede butch from the outset as something insulting.

This issue has been taking up a lot of space in my brain since the list was published last week. While packing boxes and sorting papers for our upcoming move, I fulminated about any number of aspects of the whole thing. I wrote some angry posts in my head, completely blowing the 'cool' out of MacCool. But time passed and I spent time in my own community, with my own friends, and I realized, I don't want to add more fuel to anyone's fire. Instead, I want this post to be a tribute to the connection and liberation that can flourish when we stop treating the space between "man" and "woman" as a despised, battle-scarred borderland, and start treating it as the center of our own better universe.


Saranga said...

I must admit that I was confused by the inclusion of men on the list. Thanks for writing this post it;s given me something to think about.

Bren said...

Excellent article. I wrote a blog response about the wonderfulness of creating a list that affirms the hotness of butches from the perspective of someone who was included in that list. Check it out. I totally agree with what you're saying.

LL Cool Joe said...

Labels, labels. They do my head in.

When I was younger it used to drive me crazy. What the hell was I? I'm not as masculine as that butch and yet I call myself a transman. I'd look at someone who called themselves femme, and think well she doesn't even look that girly. I've been called so many things throughout my life. I've often felt I can't live up to the label I give myself. So in the end I decided to say fuck it to all of them. I know what I am, I know how I feel inside, I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks or sees. I am what I am.

Now, I'd be happy to be in any HOT list, but I don't think I stand much chance of being "Miss World" somehow. :D

I long for the day when people just don't see gender at all, they just see people.

greg said...

You really are so MacCool, buddy. I wrote a silly comment over at Sinclair's and I immediately regretted it. I don't have the ability to write in a way that best explains how I feel and I knew I'd be attacked.
I just get so damn frustrated by people who can find the bad in something that was meant to be so good. It just never ended. I shouldn't have added to it but I wanted to be a voice for Sinclair, however much it was not needed. :) It is what it is and I'm glad it's getting quiet but I can't tell you how warming it feels for me when I read a post as eloquent as this. You make me smile.

e said...

Very well written post, Leo.

I was surprised at all the negativity around this project. To me, a list of top hot butches is just about the most visually delicious thing on the interwebs. The queer community, in all its diversity, doesn't celebrate our less binary appearing members. That was just one thing I hated about "The L Word".

I eagerly awaited this list and salute Sinclair for putting it together.

Britni TheVadgeWig said...

My new URL is

Plz to update sidebars and such!

Butch Boo said...

You indeed are cool butch girlcat. And you write so wonderfully well.

Butch is beautiful and I long for more representation. The list was great and must have taken a lot of time and hard work. I challenge those who criticize to do better.

All the people all the time will never be happy.



Namaste said...

"I want this post to be a tribute to the connection and liberation that can flourish when we stop treating the space between "man" and "woman" as a despised, battle-scarred borderland, and start treating it as the center of our own better universe."

I adore this. A very interesting post. Thank you for this.

Shazbat said...

Thanks for this post - it's been really interesting. I haven't checked out the list yet because recently I've only been able to access the net at work, which means a quick look at some blogs, but no writing and certainly no dribbling on the keyboard. I did catch a hint of the controversy surrounding the list though, and I was thinking about the issues involved - disrespecting peoples' identities v. celebrating non-traditional and non-binary forms of masculine-flavoured beauty. And I know J loves to be appreciated sexually by people who recognise and confirm his gender (which is not so common as you might hope). It's affirming, and pretty wonderful actually. I also know that it really hurts to be invisibilised by a community who you feel should be supportive. So yeah, thanks for this.