It seems silly that I didn’t participate in Butch Lab’s Symposium #1, considering the content of this blog. I promised myself that I would participate in Symposium #2…and I am! Just late.
The prompt is:
What do people think “butch” means? What are the stereotypes around being butch? What do people assume is true about you [or the masculine of center folks in your life], but actually isn’t? What image or concept do you constantly have to correct or fight against? How do you feel about these misconceptions? How do you deal with them? Do you respond to these stereotypes or cliches? How?
Isn’t that the whole point of this blog?
I’m probably going to take this in a different direction that the author of this prompt originally intended. My academic background is in math: specifically, probability, and a growing knowledge base in statistical theory. In undergrad classes, one of the things that really bugged me was something I recently saw listed on the Microaggressions tumblr:
In my statistics class this morning in a discussion of basic polls and data-gathering, my professor uses gender as the example and explains that the two categories are male and female, and you have to be in one and that they are mutually exclusive.
I am a genderqueer/genderfluid person. This made me feel invisible, like a lie, irate and like I need to leave.
Gender is pretty much THE example of a binary variable in introduction to statistics classes. I can’t tell you how many times I sat through an explanation of a binary variable only to hear, “The categories are male and female: each person belongs to one, and one alone.” And every time, it really really hurt. But it doesn’t have to. Consider that there are different types of variables. Just a few are:
- Binary. Example usually given: gender.
- Continuous. Example usually given: height.
- Categorical. Example usually given: race.
Even funnier is that every statistics professor in the world will tell you that the way that the measurement of the latter two variables, continuous and categorical, is open to interpretation. How are you defining “race”? Are you making people select from a list or using write-in answers? How are you measuring height? Are you wearing shoes? Is your scale accurate? They emphasize the proper collection of these attributes because they seem so much more open to error or bias. But gender? Most of them don’t think of it as something measurable, something that requires interpretation.
We, readers of gender blogs, already know that gender does require interpretation. How are you measuring it? Self-reporting? Survey collector’s impression? How are you accounting for error or bias? The truth is that gender alone could be its very own statistical model. To us, it is vastly complex. Why is that? I’d argue it’s because of something that a professor once said in lecture:
No model performs well on its boundaries.
I wrote that down in the margin of my notebook. It wasn’t important to the class but it was hugely important to me. Think of gender as a binary model – something most human beings plug coefficients into to get either a 0 (traditionally male) or a 1 (traditionally female). Imagine that the model is this (it isn’t):
Genital Configuration + Dress + Hair Length + Speaking Voice + Interests + Sexuality = Gender
Imagine that all of the variables on the right side sum to 1. Then, in order to get either a 0 or 1, ALL of the coefficients attached to each variable must be either 0 or 1. That’s why when one of these things doesn’t conform to the expected output, people get confused.
But all of us queers exist on the boundary of the traditional gender binary model. We’ve already challenged the output by not having the expected sexuality, at the very least. So we’ve invented a new model, one that accounts for the gender diversity that we see reflected in our worlds. It’s more complex than a binary variable. That’s where we get the rest of our words: “butch”, “transgender”, “queer”, “genderqueer”, “femme”. But is it complex enough? Let me ask another question: have you ever seen a Mandelbrot zoom?
Every time you think you know the structure of what you’re looking at, you get closer and realize it’s infinitely more complex than you could possibly have imagined. That’s why, under critical self-examination, even our own genders, which we “should know” and “are stable”, shift more than we anticipated.
Of course, that’s no way to go through life, all the time. You need the power that these statistical models give you, otherwise you’d be consistently overwhelmed by the amount of information in your life.
Butch stereotypes exist, but it depends which statistical model you’re using. If you’re using the model that most American society uses, here are some of those stereotypes: We’re quiet. We’re unattractive. We hit on straight girls. We’re fat. We have bad haircuts. We’re all lesbians. We’re all women who want to be men. Now zoom in, to what might be a mainstream LGBT perspective: We’re anachronistic. We disrespect women. We buy into a patriarchal culture that privileges masculine behaviors over female ones. We hate our bodies. We shouldn’t be the face of the movement. Zoom in. We might hate our bodies, but it might be because we’re trans. Or we’re not. We all have short hair. We wear mostly men’s clothes. Some butches like to date other butches. Some butches like to date men. We’re kind of incredibly hot. Zoom in. Hi, I’m Harrison. I exist on a statistical boundary. How about you?
As I’ve mentioned, I am taking a part-time grad class in addition to my full time workload. Except, well, now I’m not. I dropped the class, or, as I’ve decided to call it, I’ve deferred it until next year. I know I shouldn’t be disappointed in myself, but I am. Math is still hard. And I feel a little bit like a failure, even though I have a contingency plan that involves tutoring and self-learning and I know exactly what I need to prepare. And I know I shouldn’t be surprised because I have access to my own transcript from college and my own brain, and these things tell me that there were certain materials I did not grasp particularly well – and now I am going to grasp them. And that is good. Better late than never. A lesson, which, ironically, I am learning…better late than never.
For what feels like the first time in a long time, I don’t have an outside-of-work project. I guess I have this blog, and I play piano, and I work out, but these are things I consider my lifestyle. They’re not goal-oriented. I’m not taking the GMAT. I’m not going to school. As I struggled to come up with Something to Fill Time with, I realized I was being ridiculous. I considered my apartment, which is a mess. I considered my body, which is a mess. I hadn’t been cooking for myself. I had a solid month in November where I ate Chinese takeout every night. I’m not saying that Chinese takeout isn’t awesome. I would never say that. (Greasy Chicago rec? Furama) I hadn’t been working out. I hadn’t been taking care of my clothes or my girlfriend or really doing anything but existing.
I have a year before I have to start this class again. And sure, I’ll be revisiting math topics, but – it would be nice to take a year to myself and just…be.
What does that have to do with butch? In some ways, my gender has already been taking me down this path. It comes in waves, but my dysphoria is going away. I can tell. I can look at transmen without thinking that testosterone is something I should be taking. Before I’d look and just feel jealousy. I can look at myself and see that I look exactly as I should. It’s a hard lesson to learn, whether in regards to my gender or in regard to my entire self, and I’m not saying that I’ve learned it or even that I’m halfway through learning it. But there is less anxiety about it.
I need to calm down. I need to disconnect. I need to accept that I am heading in the right direction, that I am doing the right things, that I am living up to my own high expectations, simply by taking care of myself and listening to my needs. I don’t need another project. I need to give my brain time to wander.
Stop checking my e-mail so often. Eat without distractions. Watch a sunrise. Stretch my body out. Be alone without being lonely.
As I’ve said before, I identify pretty strongly as female and as a woman (right now in my life, if you are curious, more strongly as a woman than as a butch.). In a comment Faggot Boi left here, he asked me why it was that I felt those identities strongly. I still don’t know.
- I have a womanly body. It’s a classic “hourglass” shape. I like my body – sometimes I try to change it by lifting weights, but I try even harder to love it, as I’ve said. That being said, I don’t think my body leads to my identity as a “woman”. I think transpeople will nod their heads to that.
- Related: Some women use the fact that they can give birth as a uniquely “womanly” trait. But – lots of women can’t give birth, and some men have, and furthermore – I don’t really intend to use my body in that way. I can imagine myself doting on my pregnant wife, but not being pregnant myself. So my potential to give birth, when I don’t plan to exercise it, doesn’t make me identify as a woman.
- Female traits? Is that why I might identify as a woman? I truly don’t think certain traits are “female” or “male” in nature, as I recently wrote on Butch 360. And hey, check out the answers! Other butches agree.
- Female interests? My internal response to this answer was “Fuck no.”, but I’ve been trying to reframe my previous dismissal of feminine-coded interests and hobbies as potentially misogynistic. So, my new reframed response is: I’m not sure math, science, sports, and a love of eating but not really cooking are considered feminine by most people yet. Though I appreciate an expertly executed aesthetic, I rarely want to create it. The creation (decorating, fashion…), I think, is the traditionally “feminine” interest.
- Female community? Thus far, this is the closest I’ve gotten. I do feel a pretty strong kinship with other women-identified people. It’s mostly in the lesbian community. I am close to everyone in my family, but I have a special relationship with my mother and sister. I feel I share something with other genderqueer and female-identified people. But I still am dissatisfied with this answer. I think many people feel close to their mothers, and I hate this answer because I feel it almost erases the relationships that I have with men. I also feel like I have a special relationship with my dad! And my brother. And for most of my life, though I’ve had larger NUMBERS of women in my life, I’ve nearly always had a male friend with whom I shared a particularly special bond.
I think the best answer I have for “Why do you identify as a woman?” is: “It’s a habit I feel disinclined to break – and if I did, I’d feel I’d be missing…something”. What about you?
A story: At a party that I was not at, my girlfriend starts to get hit on by this guy. Not being interested, she turns him down by ignoring him at first, using body language in the hopes that he’ll go away. This, as you might guess, doesn’t work. He makes it even more obvious that he is attracted to her, she states explicitly that she is not interested. Then she says she is gay. He seems disbelieving. She informs him that yes, she is gay, she has a girlfriend. He seems further disbelieving. “Oh yeah, what’s her name?” She gives him my name. His face goes white, and he walks away.
Turns out I work with the guy.
I know what I think/feel: equal parts anger, amusement, and a sense of injustice. Anger because “WHAT THE FUCK MAN. YOU HIT ON MY GIRL.” Amusement because it’s a funny story. And a sense of injustice because he should have just paid attention when she said “No” in the first place. I mean, I feel kind of special that my name is what made him stop, but the thing that should have made him stop is her disinterest, not me. According to the Guy Code, he did everything right – stopped when he found out he was hitting on a girl already spoken for.
I’m conflicted by my feminism – what happened really happened between the two of them and I shouldn’t insert myself as my girlfriend’s protector – and my sincere desire to protect not only my girlfriend, but other women as well. He should have stopped when she said “No”, and I want to tell him that. Pointedly. With a lot of glaring.
Please note that this post may be triggering for anyone who has an eating disorder, or is currently recovering from one. It’s not my intention, but it might happen.
Apart from my frequent declarations of love for her, I try to avoid writing my girlfriend’s stories on this blog. Still, this one involves her. Why is my resolution never to “lose weight”? Because my girlfriend has an eating disorder – indirectly, anyway.
But let’s talk about me. Have you ever thought about the degree to which, given sufficient amounts of food of every conceivable variety, everyone’s eating will be a little bit disordered? I have. A lot. Not just because of my girlfriend, but because it took me a long time to recognize and resolve my own disordered eating patterns. Being a boi growing up in L.A. with an extraordinarily health conscious family sort of creates a perfect storm. Here’s why:
- L.A. itself: L.A. is not that different from every other city. But the part that I grew up in, the affluent, overwhelmingly white part, owes a lot to visual culture. We all know that the media affects everyone’s body image, particularly that of young women’s. L.A. has a unique symbiosis with Hollywood, and because of that, there’s a different and more intense image obsession there than there is anywhere else. It permeates everyone’s lives, regardless of how entwined you are with Hollywood (for the record, I was not at all involved in the entertainment business – not my family or me).
- My family: Bless their hearts. I don’t know if you can tell, but I do love exercise and sports. I got it from my parents. My family’s interest in nutritious eating and exercise borders on disordered. It’s not, but it’s close. As a teenager, I was taken to a nutritionist at the tender age of 14 to help me learn how to eat better and lose weight. Is going to a nutritionist helpful for many people and did I learn how to eat well? Yes. Was going to a nutritionist helpful for a young woman at the time in her life when she is learning that she needs to be slim to be considered attractive by mainstream society while her body rebels against that script by sprouting hips and boobs? Um…no. My parents are so matter-of-fact that I don’t think they really thought about the self-loathing they were casually approving by “helping” me eat well.
- Being a young woman: This one barely needs explaining. Women (and increasingly, men) are encouraged to hate their bodies. I’ve done my share of it. Doesn’t it seem that “everyone” “needs” to lose 5-30 lbs? I love a wide variety (no pun intended) of bodies.
- Being a boi: It took me a long time to sort out what was gender dysphoria and what was not. There’s a visual ideal in queer culture too, whether or not there should be. I have SUCH a feminine body; that is not the ideal. Why aren’t I slim? Why do I have D cups? Why are my hips so large? Why don’t I have a six pack? If only I could look like… Being androgynous doesn’t mean being slender. That one I’m still learning.
I haven’t always been a sensitive soul. In high school, one of the most jarring, terrible things that happened was a peer of mine blaming me for her eating disorder. Even though such a thing isn’t truly possible – let’s just say I didn’t help. I too wanted to lose weight, and I thought I was helping her by offering to do it with her. It almost hurts to write that sentence, because I now know how painful, terrible, and triggering that offer was. Though this friend and I parted ways (She rightly realized that I was not a good influence during her time of recovery and cut me out of her life.), you can imagine my cosmic desire to “make it right” when, 4 years later, my now-girlfriend informed me that, on Saturday mornings, she’d be leaving my bed around 7:30 am in order to participate in an intensive outpatient program for her bulimia. At that point, I’d known her for about 6 months, and we had been dating exclusively for 2.5 months.
Dating someone with an eating disorder is not what I would call easy. That illness takes her and you on a million and one rides that you’d never want to go on. The lows can be pretty low. And so much of an eating disorder is about isolation that a healthy, two-sided relationship can be a struggle. But a healthy, two-sided relationship is always a struggle, no matter what.
My girlfriend’s recovery is her own. I can’t own that process but you can bet I support it. And just by learning to be the best support I can be, I’ve learned some really important things – even more important, given my previously poor body image. I’ve learned how to love my body and how important it is to do so. I’ve learned how to value bodies of many sizes, not just as beautiful, but as sexy. But what I’ve really learned is that it’s too acceptable to hate yourself. That eating disorders go unnoticed because people “look great” when they’ve lost weight.
My body is different from everyone else’s. In particular, mine can jump, run, fuck, smile and laugh. Not everyone’s body can do those things, but mine can and I am glad. My body is also bigger than some people’s and smaller than others. My mood is better when I eat a lot of vegetables and fruit and shrimp and I don’t eat too much of those things. Sometimes I am happy when I eat salmon but not always. I have breasts and sometimes I am happier when they are swinging under a shirt, bra free, and sometimes I am happier when I wear a tight sports bra so they’re a little less big and sometimes I imagine myself getting chest surgery – because I sometimes want to change my body, but I never, ever, ever, want to hate it again.
For some people, “weight loss” is just that: the desire to change their bodies, but for others, the desire for weight loss is the manifestation of their often unsuccessful struggle to love their bodies. So sometimes my resolution is to run a faster mile, lift a heavier weight, avoid alcohol, avoid sweets, or eat more produce. To eat well, but not “good” – because food has no intrinsic moral value. To exercise when I want to and it feels good, but not “enough” – because it’s not a competition. So for me, out of respect for my girlfriend, but also out of respect for myself, my resolution is never to lose weight.
Happy New Year!
I’m watching FOOTBALL!!!!
Every time I sit down to write something lately, I can’t get the words out for what I want to say. Or I can but they end up seeming so matter-of-fact. I like writing prose. So pardon this blog entry if it doesn’t come out so beautifully.
I am struggling with my fashion sense. I love dapper blazers, queer haircuts, collared shirts, ties, slim but just slightly baggy pants. I hate clothing that doesn’t feel like it fits my body. I struggle to find clothing that fits into a professional wardrobe. Looking androgynous is trendy right now, so often when I buy the clothes I like, I seem to find something that is placing me into “weekend” clothes, not “work” clothes, even if it is a blazer and a collared shirt. I’m not sure why it is that it doesn’t look right to me, but it doesn’t. I compensate by wearing it anyway, but – I hate not feeling 100% polished at work. I also feel visually inconsistent. In life, I’ve more or less accepted by now that on some days I will wear tight jeans with riding boots and shirts that show cleavage, and on other days I will pull on a binder or a sports bra and well, a shirt that doesn’t show cleavage. I wonder what it’s like for my co-workers to see me come in one day looking feminine and the next looking decidedly not. I wonder if it even registers, or if it creates any kind of cognitive dissonance, or the fact that I occasionally look boyish trumps any days where I look feminine. Through it all, I get concerned about not being perceived as professional enough. It upsets me that my constant experimentation with identity – something that pretty much every 20-something does, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, does – is so visible to my professional life, and might be seen as unimportant or as something that should be hidden.
I’ve struggled with how to wear my hair. After my post “Hair Evolution”, I decided to grow out my hair a bit and return the Justin Bieber cut. It works when I’m femmed up. It works when I’m butched out. (Why do these have different prepositions?) Regardless of how I dress, my hair feels incongruous with the look I am going for. If I’m looking more feminine, I feel guilty for not having it long. If I’m looking more masculine, I wish it were shorter.
I discussed this with my girlfriend, and I got to the first step. If I were to describe the style I want, I would want to say, “classic”. Practical executions of that word in the fashion world are so gendered.
At some points, I feel I need to stop trying to be all things to all people. My parent’s girl, my girlfriend’s strong butch, attractive to women and to men. When I say it that way, it almost seems emotionally unhealthy to keep oscillating between the gender presentations I try on. But I like the way it feels to be each of those things. I think.
When you first begin playing with gender, or if you are now, how do you separate out what comes from within and what comes from others?