Butch as in not you

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.


  1. Oh, this was a nice way to start my day. I’m butch, and for most of your post I was wondering what new way someone would tell me that my identity was outdated. That who I am belonged with old women who didn’t understand how their identities were no longer relevant and actually now held back the progress of our community. How wonderful to be touched and realize that in validating who this young woman is, you’ve validated who I’ve been for years. Thank you for the gift today.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Ash, I’m so very pleased to see this post and Amy, I understand your response completely. As the femme part of a butch/femme marriage, I’ve been warned that our relationship somehow shoves us to the embarrassing fringe of lesbianism. Apparently, I’m obsolete, subconsciously supporting misogyny, uneducated and painfully perpetuating stereotypes.

    That’s why I wrote When Butches Cry. I wanted people to see how our kind of relationship can work so well. It was a tremendously daring choice to live authentically, back then, and we were reclaiming the power of words meant to wound.

    So Ash, thanks for being open to a word that was anathema to you while helping a young woman figure herself out. To be a butch is a good thing.

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  3. What a fascinating blog! I have always found the fifty-shades-of-gay spectrum really intriguing. The assorted relationships and attractions arising from different points along the arc inform my writing as well as piquing my curiosity; what a fascinating study is human sexuality!


  4. My wife identifies as butch and she has since she came out. She’s always refused to listen to all of the binary/non-binary arguments and she certainly isn’t willing to call her 40+ year old self ‘gender queer’. ‘Butch’ fits and she wears it proudly.

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  5. Thanks, Ash. The kids are so incredibly lucky to have you there with them as they work through stuff.
    I grew up in the butch/femme era, and I’ve often thought it’s sad the word butch has been, to some degree, vilified to the point young women don’t find it. It’s the masc of center, but good with being female area I think many young people are struggling with, because they see the binary and think trans may be where they’re at, simply because they no longer have an acceptable space in which to identify as masc women. I’ve worked with several of those kids lately, and I hope they’ll find the terminology that brings them that sense of place.

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  6. I related to not wanting to claim being butch. Here is a film that you all might be interested in. You can watch the whole thing for free online until next Wednesday, March 29th. http://www.gendertroubles.com Click on the link on top that says “Watch it Now For Free”


  7. Great article, and I probably could have been that young girl 30 years ago. Nah, I was that young girl. I still have trouble with the “Butch” identity because I don;t feel I 100% identify with what I’ve always considered butch. I went for years calling myself ‘soft-butch’ and even though my eyes always strayed to those lovely femme girls, a butch is who always stole my heart. So not sure what label if any I use anymore. Getting to old to bother with such matters. I’m just another lesbian looking for my other half. Femme or butch, doesn’t matter as long as we mesh.
    That young woman is lucky to have found you.

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  8. Loved this post. I felt the same way the first time I was called a butch. I was in my mid-thirties at the time. It was a game changer for me.

    If you’re interested, I’d love to send your student a copy of my book, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, which is all about my experience as a butch. If you give me your mailing address, I’ll put one in the mail. You can contact me at rae.r.theodore@gmail.com.

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