Baba is butch

Never simply late when I can be egregiously late, I am filing this mid-December response to Sinclair Sexmith’s call, posted at Sugarbutch in late October, for thoughtful responses to the following prompt:

What is butch? How do you define butch? What do you love about it? What does it mean to you?

It’s the opening gambit of a project she’s launching this month (link forthcoming when the light turns green The Butch Lab Symposium #1 link roundup’s here!), which will be guided by the following intent:

to promote a greater understanding of masculine of center gender identities, expressions, and presentations, through encouraging: 1. visibility, because we feel alone; 2. solidarity, because there are many of us out there, but we don’t always communicate with each other; and 3. an elevation of the discussion, because we have a long history and lineage to explore and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

I am so thrilled about each of those three intents (nearly as much as I am by Mr. Sexsmith herself, whose chivalry and generosity put a maraschino cherry the size of Brooklyn on my NYC trip last August), and I’m eager to participate in the conversation.

There’s no doubt my “betwixt and betweenness,” gender-wise, is something that I don’t write directly into this blog so very often: at one level, it’s merely something I take for granted, and thus find less need to articulate. At another level, though, I simply lack the time to step aside from the stream of continual parenting to lay it all out.  So long as I keep the blog title “Lesbian Dad,” I hope some portion of the explanation will be naturally imported with whatever associations one makes with that term.  “Hmm. Not a mom. Whatever that means.” Which is true enough, and makes a good start.

Taking that as the entry point, whatever stories herein will be those of a lesbian parent who feels as much dad as anything else, and so (I hope) they contribute, post by post, year by year, to a complex portrait, resistant to reduction. Still, I know that’s not enough. So I’ve been waiting for a kick in the pants like this to begin to bring all this mannish female parent stuff into sharper relief, and I look forward to ongoing symposium topics to keep me moving.

It took me nearly half my life to reach a sincere sense of comfort and belonging in my gendered self which, if I had to put one name to it, I would describe as gentle-manly. I like also to describe myself as mannish. I like the sassy reclamation of a term I’ve first known as pejorative; I like the mild retro effect mannish has. Plus it’s fairly descriptive.  Particularly the -ish part. When I use the term butch it’s in a fairly unorthodox way, more as a modified adjective (as in butchy) than as a noun (I am butch, hear me roar).  But the butch shoe fits, considering it’s been men’s shoes I’ve been wearing since somewhere about the mid-1980s. (The knickers came a bit later.)

I’m tempted to tell a long, detailed story about the journey from my first men’s shoe purchase (Bill’s Men’s Shop, Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley; some grey over-the-ankle David Bowie-ish pointy-toed number; it was a very uncomfortable shopping experience for me, a harbinger of the next at least ten years) to now. I’m also tempted to bounce back and forth between so many other influential definitions of female masculinity, from the legendary Leslie Feinberg and Audre Lorde to the intellectually dense Judith “Jack” Halberstam to the yet denser Judith Butler. S. Bear Bergman’s Butch is a Noun pretty much says it all (here’s Bear saying some of it zirself; try hard to overlook the bored undergrad to zir right, who may have been hoping this would not be on the test). Sinclair’s work hither and yon provides oh so very much to respond to.

But at that rate –telling a story of my evolution, or unfolding and fiddling with a half-dozen other folks’ intriguing propositions–I’d never actually file a response to Sinclair’s prompt before 2011. So I’ll try to just cleave close to each question as best I can. Forgive me the blurry mobility of life drawings done rapidly (one minute poses? five?), which this is. I’ll try to be as honest as I can be, knowing at the outset–and from recent experience, mindful of the stinging debates at  the Butch Voices conference I attended in Oakland, CA in August 2009–that butch means many things to many people, and thus is, as is so much about our lives, contested terrain.

What is butch? Butch is a term I spent the first ten years of my out lesbian life studiously avoiding.  Butch is women that I was afraid of – buzz-cut, rough-hewn — while at the same time fascinated by. Butch is hard, top, masculine. Is butch feminist? When I first learned of the term and the persona it ostensibly described, I would have thought: no.  My earliest conceptions of butch women were: “trying to be men.” Way off.

Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues put an end to those distortions, and was to my incipient butchy self what Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle was to my incipient lesbian self  five or more years earlier — my first playbill, as it were, for the theater I woke up to find myself in.  Another decade-plus later, reading my former grad school colleague J. Jack Halberstam on Female Masculinity — a term she either coined or thoroughly analyzed, and either way opened up –  put a name to it all for me.

How do I define butch? What does it mean to me? All of the above, if it can also be combined with its opposite (soft, bottom, feminine). “How do I define butch?” is a harder question to answer than “What does female masculinity to me?”  I place myself (with regrets) at the periphery of contemporary conversation about the term when I find myself bound by it (my presumption: more work with it would reveal it to be a suppler thing in the early 2000s than I found it to be in the 1980s).  For better or worse, for the moment it’s the raft of associations I have with the term that add up to what it feels like to me now.  And a big one entails a workingclass masculinity, something which, if you were to imagine masculinity and femininity on a linear scale (never a liberating enterprise, I’ll grant you) would be located further masculine than I’ve felt in my skin.

A late activist friend named Lisa Davis, herself a “soft butch,” revealed me as such in June of 1994.  I remember feeling a whole body release, realizing for the first time that there was a place for me that might fit.  (“Oh, you’re a soft butch, honey,” she said in her Texas accent, as I was pondering my “woman without a country” status. Was it in my Minneapolis kitchen? Or her Austin one? What I remember was the revelation, and a kitchen.) “Soft butch,” as soon as I could get over the “soft,” meant something butch of center, but mitigated, a releif of the imposter syndrome inspired in me by what I thought of as the “real” butches I knew and lived with – all motorcycle-riding, all with workingclass roots, one the first FTM guy I knew.  While that truck tire under each arm iconography represented an ideal (in the social space and historical moment I occupied), I knew myself to be a pretender to it. The steel-toed work boots I wore at demos, for instance, had never protected me from the weight of falling heavy machinery on the job.

As my sense of my gendered self has evolved, I’ve eked out a space for the kind of masculinity that feels most appropriately me: the masculinity I saw in my own father, a middle-class masculinity, slightly fey, dandyish, not-so-very-butch-if-butch-means-engine-repair kind of masculinity.  This has pulled me away from “butch” and toward “gentle-manly,” for better or worse. Upside is I’m no longer objectifying or attempting to appropriate a class position whose experiential truths I’ve only read about.

Now: take the linear x-axis of masculinity and femininity and slice a y-axis through it, representing class.  In this multi-dimensional realm I can begin to plot a kind of “butch” that makes sense to me.  Slice some more axes through – representing specra of racial identity on out – and it becomes more pliant, more descriptive. And more densely obscured. Which is as it should be.  Some triangulation points that have to do with my body and my history are not going to change. All the triangulation points that have to do with experience do change, and will continue to. For instance I am as much defined by having lived through a period of multiple deaths of people very close to me as I am by anything else. The coupling of those deaths with the inception of my parenthood even more so. If there were a single-syllable name for that, that’s what I’d call myself by right now.

What I love most about “masculine of center” female gender identities is that they exist outside of me as well as inside, and therefore I am not alone. I have my beefs with my female body – I’ve arrived at a strained truce with my breasts; could never envision myself pregnant (the clothes! the clothes! the breastiness of nursing!); stopped short of it primarily because bearing a child felt like it would pin me through the thorax to a very decisive femaleness, like a butterfly to a board.  But my body’s mine, as is, I’ve long since decided. Several years into menopause, I can barely remember what it felt like to manage the monthly flow of blood that was my femaleness’ most trenchant reminder.

Whether or not “butch” is the first term I find myself using to describe my gender, it is an umbrella I find shelter under. At the Butch Voices conference my breath was taken away: a room after room, hallway after hallway of people like me. I’ve got years of familiarity at being called “sir” (“six of one, half dozen of the other,” I usually reply, with a smile and a hop of the eyebrows); I am resigned to forever fluster/ disorient/ alarm women in public restrooms (at forty some-odd, I still avert my gaze and head for stall or sink, in mute attempt to convey I’m  “just here to pee, ma’am; just here to pee”).  Yet being surrounded by so many mannish women showed me how inured I am to aloneness in public. And how much I welcome Sinclair’s project.

I’ll end this by wending my way back into the heart of this blog. “Butch,” as a gender descriptor for me, is now eclipsed, at least in daily life, by “Baba,” which is decidedly a gender descriptor for my kids. Their world — which, for the moment, overlaps nearly completely with mine — is defined by familial relations in a big way. The very young are narcissistic — developmentally appropriately so — thus, my relation to them is way more germane than my relation to anything else.  When gender is refracted through that prism, butch becomes baba. As in, “That gal looks like a Baba to me, dontcha think, kids?” (About “Baba’s” nomenclature and its origin for me, much more here.)

Without a doubt, right now the facet of my identity that is engaged more hours of the day than any other is that of parent. I waded into this blog in order to wrestle that identity down for myself, to call out to others that they may help shine a light. Before I could begin to comfortably inhabit “parent,” I had to give myself permission to excuse myself from the table of “mother” and set another one. “Baba” is a sumptuous repast for me, more so than “Papa,” maybe for its openness, or maybe for the same reasons that “gentlemanly” occurs to me faster than “butch.” Maybe it’s because, as a Buddhist, I’m most intrigued by the middle path.

As breathtaking as the conference full of butch women was (and the femme women that understand and love us), breathtaking, too, is the daily nonchalance with which my kids take my ’twixt-‘tween gender. There is no struggle to understand: it is as basic as the feel of my hand and the smell of me as I hug them. My son makes a count of the “boys” and “girls” in the co-housing cluster of extended family we live in – my partner and our kids in one place, an old friend in another, and my partner’s brother and his family in another. One by one my son names the girls: every other girl or woman but me – and then the boys:  his uncle, his boy cousin, himself, and me. To him we are boys together.

Eager to insure I’m not setting a petard he’ll be hoisted on one day, when the social and bodily pressures work to enforce an either/or binary on him, I clarify: “You know I’m a girl in my body, right?” “Yeah, I know,” he says. And, paraphrasing a gender-queer five-year-old I once knew, I say, “I’m a girl in my body, but mostly a boy in my heart.” He smiles because he understands. He’s a boy in his body and mostly a girl in his heart.  There’s space for both of us in this world, sweet by any name.

14 Responses to Baba is butch

  1. Brigindo December 14, 2010 at #

    I love “gentle-manly” but I really love your y-axis of class. Such an important discussion. Thanks.

    • LD December 14, 2010 at #

      Thank you. For me, I think making sense of the middle-class lionization/ objectification/ reduction of workingclass masculinity was the beginning of my making sense of female masculinity for myself. What needs so very much work, and I know many are at that work, is to spread out male masculinity and really broadcast its variations and contradictions, as we go about staking out our age-old claims to our female masculinity. Whenever I see caregiving/at-home dads and feminine men of all sorts — but particularly, for some reason, straight, feminine men who struggle for a cultural home — I see how much a pin-hole understanding of masculinity we all have. For all of us — women like me and young boys like my son — that re-vision work is critical.

  2. virgotex December 14, 2010 at #

    All the triangulation points that have to do with experience do change, and will continue to. For instance I am as much defined by having lived through a period of multiple deaths of people very close to me as I am by anything else. The coupling of those deaths with the inception of my parenthood even more so. If there were a single-syllable name for that, that’s what I’d call myself by right now.

    The whole post is gold but this especially speaks to me. Five years behind the wake of life-changing trauma I am now very aware that so much of my identity is experiential, of here, of now. Certainly as much as bodily and brain.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. theycallmemada December 15, 2010 at #

    “…One by one my son names the girls: every other girl or woman but me – and then the boys: his uncle, his boy cousin, himself, and me. To him we are boys together.

    Eager to insure I’m not setting a petard he’ll be hoisted on one day, when the social and bodily pressures work to enforce an either/or binary on him, I clarify: “You know I’m a girl in my body, right?” “Yeah, I know,” he says…”

    My son and I share these same conversations…only, at three and a half, he has days when, instead of saying “yeah, I know” he says something like, ‘NO – Kiss my ass – you’re a boy!’ Both responses are beautiful to me. Reminders that his understanding is an evolution as much as mine is (and has been)…and that I get to participate (in the evolution) but also get to leap-with-faith and trust his way of knowing as he grows. For him, today, I am a boy and a Mada. These two distinctions are perfect and clear for us.

    Thank you, LD. You nailed my thoughts and feelings in this writing. Nice.

    mada

  4. Nimble December 15, 2010 at #

    I’m a girl in my body, but mostly a boy in my heart.
    Lots of good tasty truth there. I love trying to speak complicated truths in language that kids understand. It is a great thing to grapple with even if it defeats me sometimes.

  5. hsomaini December 15, 2010 at #

    When my kids were born, my boss jokingly started referring to me as the “Mom/Dad”…I sort of liked it. It summed up a lot. :)

  6. Liza December 20, 2010 at #

    Another wonderful post, with lots of food for thought. Thank you, my friend.

    (And only tangentially related to this post, I loved your Maddow-reminder taped to the television. While I’ve never met your beloved — yet! — I suspect that all of Dr. M’s eye-candy and brain-candy properties cannot compete with Babahood.) (Plus it was a fun reminder of our, er, my Dr. M. stalking (with your delightful company) way back last summer.)

    • Lesbian Dad December 21, 2010 at #

      I like to think it’s a sign of my gallantry (I’d say über confidence, but that may not be quite the case) that I led you and two other breathless gals to the mouth of the sanctum sanctorum. So she slipped out the back door once had already left before Will At Work was hepped to our proximity. (Here’s a visual, for the folks playing at home.) We tried, and that’s what counts.

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