I’m not butch.
Androgynous, maybe. Not femme, but not butch either. I’ve never been a fan of the binary. It’s generational, I think. I remember sitting in Queer Studies courses and dismissing butch/femme dynamics. We all did. Sure there was the issue of imitating heteronormativity, but it was more than that. It seemed like some quaint imitation of all normativity. And we—in our academic bubble—were beyond normative, plebeian behavior.
When I started working at the high school, it was refreshing to see kids take gender to the next level. They weren’t androgynous, no. They were genderqueer, genderfluid. The outright rejection was a validation. My generation had moved beyond the binary and the next generation was living that truth. Even when I didn’t entirely understand their distinctions. Even when I fought against my inner grammarian who disagreed with “they” pronouns. This was evolution.
At the end of last school year, one of my students began wrestling in earnest with her gender. She had always presented as a masc of center lesbian. She was young, articulate, self-aware. So when she triumphantly landed on genderqueer, I wasn’t remotely surprised.
But then she kept wrestling. Every morning before school she would sit in my office and talk about her weekend or her girlfriend or her homework, but somehow those subjects were covers. Instead, she would spend twenty minutes, every morning, five days a week, slowly pulling apart her identity. We discussed presentation and chromosomes and haircuts and hormones and gender and sexuality and the mess where it all intersected in this small, brilliant child.
I never tell my kids who they are. It’s a trademark of sorts. I give them terminology and we can talk feelings. Sometimes I give them specific terms if I think it’s a direction they will value. At times, we use the most beautifully careful language. Others, we make linguistic mud and throw it at the walls. But I try very hard to never assign them an identity.
Sometimes I slip.
One day this kid said she felt pretty okay identifying as a girl. This was a new articulation. She’d been fighting “girl” for a long time. But she was pretty okay with it now. She also was good with being masculine and she didn’t see why those concepts were at odds. And I realized suddenly what term she was looking for. The term I’d spent fifteen years fighting against. The only term I’d never really bothered to direct her to.
“Kid, you’re butch.”
She always carried tension in her shoulders. A constant hunch to protect her softness. Like she was always, always waiting for a fight. And when I spoke, her shoulders relaxed. She lifted her chin. It fit.