“Trans Butch Blues”

“You’re a woman!” Theresa shouted at breakfast…

“No I’m not,” I yelled back at her. “I’m a he-she. That’s different… They don’t call the Saturday-night butches he-she’s… It’s a way we’re different. It doesn’t just mean we’re… lesbians.”

Theresa frowned. “What’s the matter?”

I shrugged. “Nothing. I just never said that word [‘woman’] before. It sounds so easy when you say it… I’ve been fighting to defend who I am all my life. I’m tired…”

Theresa sat back in her chair. “I’m a woman, [Leslie]. I love you because you’re a woman, too… I love your butchness.”

(Stone Butch Blues, p. 147-148)


When I first read the pages of Leslie Feinberg’s memoir, Stone Butch Blues (1993), I was just beginning my social transition into my own ‘womanhood.’ I remember turning through the chapters of the book in between college classes in San Francisco, highlighting passages like the one above that evoked new questions within myself pertaining to my own identity as a trans person with a sexual attraction that was anything but straight. I began bookmarking certain selections to come back to after embracing my own new-found gender and sexuality during the midst of the night for a few short hours before getting ready for the routined-opening shift at the cafe the next morning. I remember smoking and taking drugs and sleeping with other trans people and realizing how beautiful intimacy could be outside of a cisheterosexual framework. Feinberg’s story, encapsulating their experience as a trans masculine butch lesbian during the 1970s, emerged as one of the critical queer texts that highlighted the voices of transgender butches across varying intersecting identities during that era that, I believe, still influences the lives of other trans butches to this day. Feinberg’s expression and articulation of their butch idenity as someone along the trans spectrum was groundbreaking for me as a young white queer trans woman trying to understand my own identity as a trans person who also claims a butch identity. However, even from reading Stone Butch Blues time after time after time, I still was not able to see all of myself fully and my queer experiences reflected through Feinberg’s described narrative.

The point in which butchness and transness intersect is one which remains barely discussed and unrecognized. More recently, I have thankfully stumbled upon other trans women who further critique the heteronormative social expectations and, rather, advocate for an embracing of trans butchness–some of these include Hannah Rossiter’s “Butch Lesbian Trans Women in the Lesbian Community” (2014) and Genny Beemyn’s “The Intersections of Trans Women and Lesbian Identities, Communities, and Movements” (2015). The majority of trans literature that approaches the meeting of butchness, however, predominantly has been written and uplifted by the voices of butches who were assigned female at birth. In Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam features an explicit focus on the positionality and complexity of the “Transgender Butch” as a subject, highlighting “the distinction between some transsexual identities and some lesbian identities may at time become blurry… And for that reason alone, one cannot always maintain hard and fast and definitive distinctions between lesbians and transsexuals [sic]” ([1998]:150). Halberstam, like Feinberg, identifies as someone assigned female at birth and whose gender expression is fluid as a trans person who likewise embraces a butch identity; while this distinction is important to make, what I more so appreciate about Halberstam’s distinction about trans butches is how our identities rest on these intersections of what it is to be queer and to be trans concurrently. I have no aspiration in defining what a trans butch is for any reader because I could not authentically do so without disproportionately telling you what being a trans butch is to me specifically. Rather, recognizing the beauty and diversity of queer and trans people, I strive to highlight the commonality in our identities as well as the individually and drastically-different lived experiences we all share by speaking specifically from those of my own.

All the while Feinberg’s biography immensely resonated, and continues to resonate, with me in terms of my butch identity, my experiences as a butch that was assigned male at birth have been, obviously, drasticly different. Despite Feinberg and all the lesbian literature authors that emerged throughout similar eras like Rita Mae Brown, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Judith Frank, I nonetheless was never able to pick up a text and read about another lesbian with a dick loving a lesbian with a vagina and calling it gay romance. Having been assigned male at birth, the choice to embrace a form of masculinity and “butchness” while likewise maintaining an identity as a trans woman, all of which society and communities deem as ‘valid’ and ‘real,’ is a difficult one. 

Oftentimes, when I talk to family and exude an overwhelmingly generous amount of energy in elementary conversation just to be heard and understood by them, I still hear: Well if you’re attracted to women, are you sure you’re not just a straight man? or Why would you call yourself lesbian if you’re trans? or So, how do you have sex then? These questions are not only intrusive on the trans person’s livelihood but also completely misconstrue the items of gender and sexuality and underline a larger societal emphasis on being anything but gay and trans. There is another trend I see in which, immediately as soon as I tell someone that I am a trans woman, that person will ask if I have a boyfriend. Telling another individual that I am a trans woman leads to the inevitable: But you’re such a beautiful woman! How could you not have a husband? or Any guy would be lucky to have a girl like you. So often I hear well-intentioned cis people trying to validate my identity as a woman by simultaneously hyper-focusing on any reminisce of femininity and stripping away the autonomy to name my sexuality for myself outside a heteronormative fashion. What these questions dangerously imply is that my sexuality is dependent on my gender as something that inherently should strive for heterosexuality, that my gender is dependent on the status of the cis man and to not strive to be in relation to him is unideological, and that my claiming of a lesbian identity is fauluable under the assertion that a lesbian is always a gay woman and to be a woman is to be someone who is not trans. However, by rejecting the ideology that womanhood is simultaneous and inseparable from the possession of a vagina at birth and the overall dependability on the cis man, trans butches may be able to break free from other perilous parallel axes of disenfranchisement that we too often face.

Trans women systematically and culturally find ourselves at a unique intersection of survival and stealth mixed with autonomy and authenticity–to either build a shell around ourselves to keep us alive or shed it all and risk the consequences. Talia Mae Bettcher argues in her piece on “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers” that the trans woman specifically, “when intersected with possibilities of either being or not being visibly trans, yields a dangerous double bind” (2007:50). Our society tells us that to be a trans woman is to strive for cis-status, to pass, and to be heterosexual, white, and rich with a conventionally-perfect skinny and abled body; yet, when we purposefully stray away from this archetype and take on other intersecting identities we risk becoming the victim to further forms of violence and disenfranchisement on the status of being a “pretender or masquerader” of our authentic form of womanhood (Bettcher 2007:50). I often felt like I was pretending myself initially . However, to this day, I walk around with my trans butch identity and often feel like the ultimate pretender operating in my own reality as coming across another butch trans woman is spark.

Balancing the desire to be seen as a valid woman that is trans and lesbian who also expresses herself in a non-heternormative masculine fashion has certainly taken time, years in fact. Before reading the words of Feinberg and other queer authors, I solely expressed myself in a hyper-feminine manner in the early stages of transitioning because that was what the culture I was engulfed within told me I had to do. I was transitioning in an age when the examples of trans women across media outlets I saw were Laverne Cox throughout the take-off of Orange Is The New Black in 2013, Janet Mock and the launch of her book Redefining Realness in 2014, and Caitlyn Jenner on the front cover of Vanity Fair in 2015. None of the women above identify as lesbian, let alone necessarily embrace a “butch” identity, and to go against the cultural current that is heteronormativity when there are no representations of trans women claiming butch identites feels like casting myself off into an abyss. Julia Serano in a piece on “Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels” underlines “[t]his is why trans women like myself, who rarely dress in an overly feminine manner and/or who are not attracted to men, are such an enigma to many people. By assuming that my desire to be [woman] is merely some sort of femininity fetish or sexual perversion–essentially making the case that women have no worth beyond the extent to which they can be sexualized” (2007:47). Because of the ways in which femininity is commodified and hegemonized throughout our culture, trans women have little to no representation to look to when attempting to break free from cisheteronormative definitions of what it is to be a real woman.

Ironically enough, while there is not an immense amount of examples to look up to when trying to understand where one’s positionality falls as a trans butch, there is a plethora of sources across all societal outlets to highlight where a trans butch has no place. For a trans woman of 6-feet-3-inches like myself, becoming extremely feminine seemed like the sole way initially of surviving–surviving, but never thriving. I tried beating my face to no avail. My hair saw every color in the rainbow. Skirts made me feel even more dysphoric. My breasts were coming in and I was ecstatic, but wearing a Victoria Secret bra definitely did not feel like the next move in terms of embracing my new titties. Above all, I just wanted to be able to walk in a room and not be misgendered; however, I also wanted to still wear my boots and baggy pants and jacket and put my hair up in a messy ball with no makeup and be able to confidently flirt with another butch without a man threatening me. I wanted more than anything, when I opened the door for another woman, to not hear the response of “Thanks, sir.”

More often than not, this dream did not become a reality. My dream of being perceived as a real woman–a real woman who is also butch and trans–was not made a reality because those around me refused to validate my multifaceted complex identity as a woman. I was either blatantly misgendered or pushed aside and othered as a third gender that was to be intentionally excluded from any conversation around other people potentially loving us. I sought relationships with people who could not come to humanize my trans identity let alone status as a woman. I think, just as in the same way of which trans women unconsciously prescribe to a norm of trying to “pass” as cis, we often likewise fail in challenging a culture that tells us our sexuality can be other than straight. Trans women already face disproportionate levels of violence and to be completely honest somedays embracing a multi-faceted identity as a trans butch when I walk down the street and attempt to exist as anything other than a femininized caricature of a cis woman is fucking tough.

A few years later I would come across an edition of a zine created by Xanthra Phillippa titled Gendertrash From Hell, a magazine which highlighted the voices of other trans women’s voices between the years of 1993 and 1995, created by Phillippa and her partner, Mirha-Soleil Ross. In the third volume of Gendertrash, Phillippa features an astonishing self-written poem, “Don’t call me mister ‘Cause I’m a TS Butch” (1995), which highlights much of the untold realities that trans butches continue to experience day in and out.

“In the morning
When someone calls me on the phone
And I answer
In a deep and tired voice
That doesn’t make meA sir or a mister

‘Cause I am what I am

And that’s not a man

Simply a Butch

A TS Butch…”

To be a trans butch, and to read work from history that fully encompasses your daily lived reality, is to be real. Phillippa never gained such notoriety for her own articulation of her identity as a trans butch compared to Feinberg who published Stone Butch Blues just two years prior to Phillippa’s publications. To this day, trans butches and non-heterosexual trans women have a stark amount of representation across literature, media, and other historical accounts to document our existence and survival over centuries. In another essay, I focus on the urgent need for more theory and literature centering the lives and experiences of queer trans women because I see theory and literature and a life-saving form of knowledge that can bring one another closer to ourselves and each other. I wonder what my former years would have looked like if I had been exposed to more writing from Phillippa and others at an earlier point in my transition. I wonder what Phillippa’s experiences could have looked like had there been someone before her to look up to in terms of her butchness and transness. I will never be able to know these answers; I will never be able to look back and know for sure. Yet I will always ponder the thought of what a coming-of-age memoir by a trans butch could have done for me in my prior years of searching for myself.

Resources

Bettcher, Talia M. 2007. “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia 22(3):43-65.

Feinberg, Leslie. 1993. Stone Butch Blues. New York: Firebrand Books.

Halberstam, Jack. [1998] 2018. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Phillippa, Xanthra. 1995. Gendertrash from Hell. 3rd ed, edited by Xanthra Phillippa and Mirha-Soleil 

Ross. Ontario: Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Serano, Julia. [2007] 2016. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating ofFemininity. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

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