Sunday, 20 May 2007

White middle-class butch?

Well, after several attempts to write a first post that introduces me in all my glorious detail, I’ve alighted on the idea of just writing a first post (!)… on something I’ve been thinking lots about.

What I have wondered, ever since admitting that I was not the young woman everyone took me for, is whether or not I am butch. I don’t think of myself as a woman, but I do identify as a dyke; I suffer from serious discomfort about my female body, but I don’t want to become a man; I have a femme girlfriend who coaxes me to talk about my emotions… I can tick plenty of stereotypical butch boxes, but.
But I’m white and from a thoroughly middle class background.

I realised just how significant this is reading Stone Butch Blues for the first time. It was incredible for me, I felt like I was touching a tiny bit of my history, and Jess’s survival made mine seem more likely. But, realistically, if I were born in the early 1950s, would I have frequented butch-femme/gay bars? Unlikely. More likely I would have done what I did until last year, put on women’s clothes and lived in my mind. When people suggested I was a freak, I would have gone to the library and finished an assignment. I would have probably made it to university, joined the women’s movement, and taken refuge in androgyny, political lesbianism and manic activism. I would have written superficially convincing feminist theory that ignored working class women and secretly hated myself for hating my body and for wanting to penetrate my girlfriend.

The combination of having class privilege to lose, and the option of a disembodied academic/activist existence would (most likely) have been enough to dissuade me from coming out as masculine. In this way, a lot of my history hasn’t really been written. I can only guess how many of the radical feminists who wrote patronising/admiring/revisionist histories of masculine and passing women, secretly wanted to live their lives.

(None of which is to say poor me. Invisibility does hinder my self-realisation, but I have more options than working class or non-white butches about how out I am, which keeps me physically safer. And when I am out, I have better chances of maintaining attention and respect, because I speak the right kind of language.)

Are there white middle-class butches? If so, where are they? I found Judith/Jack Halberstam’s book, Female Masculinities, particularly disappointing in this regard. It seems that J/J identifies as butch (??). But although she shows how butch history has been ignored by middle-class feminism, she doesn’t admit that being an academic means that working-class butch history doesn’t simply belong to her. She doesn’t use this opportunity to share her own experience of butchness, and instead uses the (often extremely personal) stories of others to illustrate this story. It’s this kind of behaviour that allows white middle class men/women/butches to claim a rich history and identity, while hiding our privilege over others of the same gender (just like white women using pictures of black mothers to symbolise the fertility or spirituality of all women).

In the mean time, I’m adding middle-class to butch, every time I use it… and I’m looking for new words. Female Masculinities is actually quite useful in this way, perhaps I am more of an invert or a female husband. More on those terms later.

I’m surely not the first person to think about this. Do you agree I should get my hands off your identity? Do you know white middle-class people who identify as butch? Are you one? Talk to me, or direct me to more conversations. Please.


ck said...

Hmm. I know many middle-class butches. (I'd say that I'm one, although I identify with some of your gender ambivalence and am, oddly enough, in the middle of reading Female Masculinities.)

I'm looking forward to reading more of your reflections--don't have much to add right now of my own.

W.B. Reeves said...

Well I just popped by via Maia's link at Alas a Blog. All I can say is best of luck on sorting it all out. After 51 years of my own sorting, I'm only certain of my renewed appreciation for the adage that it's the journey rather than the destination that's important.

Speaking entirely for myself, there was never a time when I accepted the binary of masculine/feminine. May have had something to do with the crossdressing at age three.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally not a white middle-class butch (more like gender-impared biethnic crazy pants) but J/J's book didn't sit well with me either. Can you tell the rest of white academia to stop appropriating me and telling me what I am, please?

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting question -- mainly because I'm a butch and I'm entering the middle class after getting to go to college... the hardest thing to do is the stupidest stuff like finding clothes that are appropriate to wear to the office. You're in an office with a strict dress code that says guys should wear ties and women should not wear 'revealing' clothing, which doesn't offer any real advice, so what do you do? Your dickies obviously won't cut it... the suit you found at a thrift store isn't going to cut it... do you really have to shop at Mens Gap and wear sweaters??? If I do, does that negate my butch identity? How much of butch gender identity is related to specific class markers? Argh!

oh, and I found you from Alas. Congrats on starting the blog.

pip said...

Thanks all for stopping by, and for the encouragement.

I'd be interested to hear more about what people think of Female Masculinities (the book). I reckon Judith/Jack had a few good points, and some interesting historical research, but...

It was a good example for me of just how cold and unappealing pure academic writing can be. I thought the way she treated other people's stories lacked heart. It was more about tearing them apart, than acknowledging that they were deeply personal stories (about things like identity, sexual acts, medical histories) that mostly get silenced in this culture.

And when she entered the picture, it was in a posey, superficial kinda way (don't i look like a stud in his picture), rather than the brave and honest way that some of the stories she was dissecting had been told.

that's pretty harsh, but i guess i was especially disappointed since this was the first time i'd seen lot's of things about myself reflected, only without the care they deserved. i was devouring it, and hating it at the same time.

Murphy - i hadn't thought much about it in terms of what people actually wear. but that's really interesting. When i see women wearing men's corporate or flash clothes i always think 'cross-dressing', as opposed to butch, but i don't know if I'm alone in this. And 'cross-dressing' makes me think it is a performance and less about who they really are... maybe that's cause those kinda clothes just seem artificial and weird on anyone.

But i suppose you'll still have history, mannerisms...? that mark you as butch?

Anonymous said...

It's funny you should mention the 'performance' aspect of butchness because it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I focused on clothes in my first post because 'what to wear' has become such a big part of my life these days -- how do I move through the world the way I want to (speaking strictly of gender) while conforming or not conforming to very real societal strictures like dress codes? What I wear reflects who I am, at my core, and also reflects conscious decisions to make concessions and, well, perform a certain identity.

But, also, about Female Masculinities. I read the book a long time ago, just coming into butchness, you could say, and trying to adapt to a shockingly academic environment. In some ways, it bridged a gap for me, which I'm grateful for. That said, I think a lot of your criticisms about the writing and the subject matter are valid -- strange too, that she can so easily appropriate white working class culture and yet avoid any real discussion of studs, that I recall... All I can remember right now is her cultural critique of the 'tomboy' in film and something about Raging Bull (?) ... well, that and the pictures.

Thanks for getting me thinking again.

Pip said...

True. I'm coming from a privileged position reading Female Masculinities, in that I'd already crossed the bridge into academia with the help of feminist authors. I probably think more kindly of them than J/J, although many of them do similar stuff, because they let me in to the university ivory tower.

I think the other thing that affected my response to Female Masculinities is that I exist somewhere in the overlap between the groups 'transgender' and 'butch', so i try and get some of my support from the FtM transsexual community. And J/J was more focussed on having out her differences with that community than building bridges. (as opposed to say Leslie Feinberg, who really inspires me, cause s/he seems to be arguing tirelessly for coalitions between all us gender deviants).

I agree that clothes are a big deal. I've been unemployed for a while, but am just looking for work again now, and 'what to wear' is looming almost as large as it did in high school. I keep thinking about this bit in Stone Butch Blues, where Jess chooses not to try and hide her butchness by swapping clothes, because she would rather face the cops as herself.

I never would have understood this until i started cross-dressing, and realised the strength it gives me to show people who i really am.

prof black woman said...

for history examples of white middle class butches check out both the victorian period and the 1920s. Halberstam's book on Female Masculinities does some work on the victorians but it fails in its focus on white people as the center of butch and female masculine identities (ie ignores a long tradition in Africa, the Middle East, some Asian countries, parts of India, etc. as well as the much of the class analysis of particular famous working class butches in the period).

For a book that does not mine the stories of others, try _Butch is a Noun_. I don't think it will get at your class question though. (It will get at the process issue wb reeves mentions and the issue of language and identity you mention as well)

Other published work on N. American middle class butches are predominantly about African Americans as far as I remember.

You may want to look at the classic Twilight Lovers for a historical view as to why academe and the movement have chosen to link white butch and working class identities so closely.

It sounds to me like there is a dissertation topic in it. But, I don't study, nor am I, a butch so . . . maybe it is out there. I'll be checking out your blog to see.

(oh yeah, and there is an autoethnography of drag kings online that discusses butch and drag - differences, similarities, overlaps . . . can't remember where I saw it. It is not exclusively about white people either but it is written by a white person - middle class through intellectual if not economic capital - and about her own journey.)

pip said...

prof black woman,
thank you, i will go back to the victorian period in female masculinities, it did intrigue me, then i got all annoyed at J/J.
and thank you again, book lists are my favourite kind of help : ) i'll paste up everything interesting i get from your leads.

Herman Maia Coyote said...

I think working class folk are very much suffering from capitalist brainwashing too and being a good middle class ally is a complex task. Radical history of resistance erased and or vilified, dissociated from ordinary folk's self perception, hanging around like an ineffectual ghost, these are elements you shall surely meet on your journey. But to be a good ally to an oppressed community is to view the bones of the oppression from another angle and often to be utterly alone. But it's the good work. My experience is you got to learn self-care techniques and behave in your mind as a bona fide warrior. Making hard choices and surviving. The solidarity work is not subsidised.