Anyone I’ve spoken to for an extended period of time this semester probably knows that this semester, I’m engaged in an independent study. Too complicated (or perhaps I’m just too long-winded!) for a quick and comprehensive elevator pitch, I usually say that I’m thinking about “butch (and/or) trans (and/or) masculine relationality, historically and today.” But that doesn’t quite describe the truth of what I’ve been thinking about since just before break, and what I’m spending so many hours on today. Truthfully, I’m trying to figure out (and live inside the discomfort of) the politics of cross-genre personhood, specifically in regard to transbutchness.
Because this project includes a strong autobio/ethnographic component, I will be focusing on those assigned (“diagnosed”, really) female at birth who cross sexgendered expectations at some point in their respective lives. Some of these people are marked as / self-define as butches, butch women, dykes, bulldykes, stone butches, passing women, passing butches, genderqueer people, nonbinary women, studs, nonbinary studs, nonbinary people, bois, nonbinary lesbians, nonbinary butches, genderqueer butches, nonbinary transmasculine people, genderfluid lesbians, genderless lesbians, transmasculine people, trans men, third gender people, genderqueer trans men….and I could go on! The rub is that words are inherently incapable of capturing the true complexity of our respective experiences, and also attempt (in vain!) to tie our respective experiences to static definitions. The same logics that declare “they” not a singular pronoun are weaponized here: namely, in the advancement of the myth that language (and identity) is inflexibly static, that the dictionary is some sort of divine ordinance instead of an object created and re-created by humans.
Within this independent study, I feel I must also address the thorny, often-abused topics of detransition, or the “cessation” of transition (which are difficult to quantify, too). With the rise in accessibility of medical transition for many people, including children, I would expect no less than a fetishisitic gravitation toward the idea of transition regret on the part of transphobes, particularly transmisogynists. After all, what better way to argue against the bodily autonomy of a marginalized group than to weaponize the existence of those who used their autonomy to make a choice they don’t like?
I am not going to bother linking all the fearmongering articles here, they’re not worth the extra clicks. What I am going to mention here (and in whatever comes out of this study) are the curious ways in which most people do and do not analyze (de)/transition. Instead of understanding detransition as further evidence of the mutability of gender and its dependence on social and sexual relationships, they instead use detransition as an excuse to double down on their essentialist project: to reinscribe the assumption that being “truly trans” is rare and must be gatekept for fear of enabling a supposedly-irresponsible choice. If “true transness” is as rare as these people want it to be, then violent systems of gender normativity can remain in place, and those few exceptions to it may be confined to reproducing gender stereotypes even as they transition. Those whose genders are liminal are painted as indecisive, juvenile, and fundamentally incomplete.*
Butches are then wholesale grouped into the “woman” category, and transness and butchness/womanhood are understood as mutually exclusive. Thus, butch transition is often blocked, and when allowed, the potential womanhood of butches is erased. Transmasculine people are expected to completely defect from womanhood without regard to what could be years or decades of involvement with communities of LGBTQ+ women; if they do not defect to the proper degree, they will risk not receiving a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, thus blocking insurance coverage for transition as well as social approval of their identity. This is what it means to be medically illegible.
“I don’t feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body, I just feel trapped.”
– Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues.**
If we open up the space between cis and trans –– if such a space exists outside the eyes of the medico-legal systems that govern the true-trans person –– what possibilities can we find? And, can we find a way to steal gender non-conformity back from this current push to medicalization?
Right now, a large swath of the people against the medicalization of TGNC life are simply transphobes who believe that the medicalization of transness is part of some massive plot to “take away the butches” from lesbian communities. They demand to know where all the “masculine women” are going, with the proliferation of identities outside womanhood. Some even see dysphoria as an experience so tied up in what it means to live as a woman under patriarchy, that the question of transition would seem to be moot: if women live in bodies that are constantly under attack, how is one to suggest medical alteration as a solution?
Truthfully, I don’t think this “debate” is all that worth having, because all arguments rely on the assumption that there is some “deep-down” truth of our identities that existed prior to social relations. Unlike many of the poststructuralists, I’m not saying there must be no essence, or that our selves must be solely the result of discourses. I’m saying that either way, we’re never going to know the difference, and that efforts to find a deep-down biological reason for identity and behavior is virtually always in service of those in power.
Arguing for a relational understanding of (trans)gender, one that is not fixed and inborn, is something trans people aren’t always safe enough to do. I recognize that. In her groundbreaking 2007 book Whipping Girl, Julia Serrano made arguments for “subconscious sex” that may or may not be in line with one’s body as a reason for transness. Needless to say, I was repelled by this argument upon reading it today, but not only was it written over a decade ago (a thousand “trans studies years”) but it was also written subsequent to Serrano’s agonizing journey through the medical industrial complex. If arguments for the existence of “brain sex” are what some trans people need to tell their families in order to ensure their own safety, the choice to do so seems clear. Similarly, if Serrano needed to publish this idea in 2007, prior to the wholesale entrance of trans discourse (or even gay discourse!) into the mainstream, in the hopes of cis readers treating her with some semblance of respect, I understand.
All this said, it is now 2019, and because of the way I live my life, my own existence relies on a more complex view of gender/sexuality. For me, they are inherently connected. I have asked myself many times, “why am I not a man?” after all, one of the most vile arguments that transphobic women make is that trans men are transitioning as some bid for “male privilege,” as though they are “selling out.” Wouldn’t it be easier for me to “just be a man”? I mean, I’ve transitioned medically in multiple ways, and am interested in women. If the idea of butch flight is real, if people exposed to gender-multiplicity today are going to abandon butchness and quite literally sell out “to the man,” shouldn’t I?
To be perfectly honest, I’m repelled at the idea of myself being a man. It’s not so much a repulsion at being called “he,” although that is certainly not the correct pronoun for me at the moment. It’s not even a repulsion at being “read” as a man, because, though uncomfortable, it is psychologically preferable than being read as a woman. It is that the idea of being (acting as?) a man is completely incongruous with the way I live my life. It simply isn’t the way I want to enter any of my relationships, especially romantic ones. Had I had different life experiences, perhaps I would feel differently –– I don’t feel like there is something inherent in my subconscious that gives me the particular gender feelings I have. I just have a litany of gender options in front of me and have the experience and information to make the decision(s) that is/are best for me, and right now, being genderless and a butch lesbian is right for me: I am not interested in loving women as a man and womanhood is incompatible with my psychosocial reality. Maybe this will change. Maybe it will never change.
Overall, I want to fight the notion that, when identities mutate, replace each other, are taken on and rejected by different people, this renders some “right” and “progressive” or “wrong” and “defunct”. This goes for societal differences (butchness is not somehow less progressive than transness, of course, and it’s not like the two are mutually exclusive anyway). Similarly, butch isn’t “trans man lite” and someone who was once a butch and was later a man, or vice versa, is not necessarily growing closer and closer to their “real” identity but rather making valuable, courageous, informed decisions based on their constantly changing lives and relationships.
So, if you’re wondering what I’m doing in this independent study….hopefully that clarifies things somewhat!
*Bearing obvious, purposeful resemblance to biphobic rhetorics.
**Stone Butch Blues is free for download at the link.