Labels and Authenticity Do Not Mix

Once a butch always a butch

Anna P. 1922, Germany

When I was a five I was a tomboy. At night, I wished to wake up in the morning and be a boy. This is not unusual. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Some girls feel this way. Some girls feel this way so much and for so long that they manage to become someone other than a teenage girl. Someone other than an adult woman. I knew what I was not. I’ve had a difficult time accepting what I am and figuring out what to call myself. Labels and authenticity do not mix.

In Kindergarten, I wouldn’t play house unless I could be the daddy. I refused to play with baby dolls, or toy kitchens, or plastic vegetables. Instead, I stuck to blocks, books, puzzles, and stuffed animals. I knew what I was doing. I grew up to be a gender non-conforming Civil Engineer who reads a lot, does Ken-Ken, and plays with my dog.

In second grade I developed my long term strategy. The school librarian asked me why I was only taking out boy’s books. I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn’t realized it was obvious. I started taking out twice as many books. For every two boy’s books I took out two girl’s books. Even Steven. The librarian left me alone. I only read the boy’s books. Adults paid attention, but it was superficial. I could be a boy under the radar. I had to be a little less blatant and claim it didn’t mean anything.

I didn’t have crushes on David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman. I didn’t wear flavored lip gloss or paint my nails. I could avoid a lot of girly things by claiming they were stupid or boring. I had more important things to do (like develop crushes on every female teacher I ever had). I kept reading.

I was a boyish and asexual teenager. Never dated. Never shaved my legs or under my arms. If anyone asked why I told them it was an unnatural and barbaric modern custom. I fell in love with Stella, broke-up with Stella, and came out as a butch lesbian at 17. I didn’t masturbate until I was over the age of consent; I had to read a book with diagrams to figure out what to do. I kept reading.

I knew that I was hiding my desire to be a boy, but being a butch lesbian offered community and the prospect of being in a relationship with a woman. Being butch was as close as I could get to expressing my desire to be a boy. I knew I had a woman’s body, but I also knew I desperately longed to be a boy. This is my butch experience. This is my transgender experience.

Transgender is a wildcard. It changes the game. It offers up a lot of options, some of which I am choosing (see this post on pronouns and this post on name change). The changes I am making (and not making) do not make me any more or any less transgender. My experience is that I couldn’t stop wanting to be a boy, and I couldn’t get used to being a woman. I am incorrigibly gender non-conforming. I’m still not sure what to call myself (butch, queer, genderqueer, bigender, trans*, transgender) even though I know who I am. Even though I knew exactly who I was when I was five.

Note: The picture of Anna P. is in the public domain. She was photographed by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1922 for his book Sexual Intermediates.

21 thoughts on “Labels and Authenticity Do Not Mix

      1. ChrisCQC

        there’s this site krazydad.com/inkies that has ones up to 9, in mixed difficulty or hard. I usually get the mixed difficulty ones. I’ve done enough of ’em this summer that I can usually get one done in 30-60 minutes.

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      2. Jamie Ray Post author

        So now the gauntlet has been thrown down, and I am going to have to check it out and see where I get stumped. Thanks for the site; I have a 2 hour train ride upstate and back on the weekend so this will make it fly.

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      3. ChrisCQC

        You’re welcome. I went to print off some more today, but the printers in the 24-hour lab were on the fritz and the libraries were closed. I have other stuff to do, anyhow.

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  1. Alex

    Thanks for your openness…I feel for you, with you, having had the same experiences. I sort of thought I was a boy until I was 10, thanks to the genderneutral upbringing of my mom and the more genderneutral growing up in the ’80s when you could have short hair and not look like a barbie. Playing with boys, having a tomboy best friend, playing with lego, cars, playing outside, shooting bow and arrow. Nobody thought it was strange behavior I think. It dawned on me quite late in my childhood that I Was a girl and could not be a boy. I was devastated, but hid everything away and started to conform to the heterosexual world and the binary.
    . I only went through that trauma some years ago, when my therapist told me it must have been so sad and frustrated to realize I was not a boy. It came all back to me at that moment, it was so good for me to realize some of my pain lay there. I started to take my gender non-conforming serious and began to walk on my identity path…I’m still walking, but along the way I found out some things: my butch identity and my gender non-conforming suit me now very much, I love my new name, I’m proud of my lesbian identity and of my lesbian feminism. I discovered on my path I don’t want to be a man, although it still is here, inside of me, but I cannot want to be a man in this world we live in now. After all that I have learned and studied the last years, that would feel like collaborating with the enemy.
    So I just stay Alex, lesbian feminist butch. My own chosen labels and I do think they make me authentic.

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      1. Alex

        Thank you too, Your thinking and your writing about it gives me always a lot to think about. I really appreciate your honesty and openess, it is not easy to talk about some of these things 😉

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  2. RonaFraser

    I just realized… I have no label for myself other than Rona (my name). Well ok, ya, I’ve had tons of labels — music geek, Trekkie, anglophone, Quebecker, Canadian, etc. But I don’t think of myself as a girl, woman, lady, adult, … I am a hetero woman, I guess. Blech. What I mean is, I am a fortysomething female who is attracted to men, but I’ve never really felt very feminine and if you call me a lady I roll my eyes. I never liked playing house or dolls… I loved Lego (still do) and Mechano and Monopoly and card games and building forts. Me and the 2 girls I mainly played with growing up were all like that. I think that, although there were some girls in my day who liked playing girly things, most of us just liked to be outside, riding our bikes, playing in sandboxes, protecting our forts, hiking where we weren’t supposed to go, or playing games. Now it feels like every game has been made gender-specific. Even bikes seem to be “pretty” or “tough” — I HATE IT!!! I’m not saying it is part of any gender agenda — I think it has only become this way due to advertisers trying harder and harder to get you to buy their product (to get your kid to nag you for their product). But still, I wish we would get away from that. It’s like we are telling our kids the right and wrong way to be a boy or girl. And then we wonder why we have more and more young pregnancies etc. Starting our kids thinking about what sex they are at a young age, and how they are supposed to act probably makes them more likely to feel they should have sex. Ok, I don’t know — this idea only occurred to me now, but I am on a roll. 😉
    But I digress. I am just glad that I like and identify with my name. It is a relatively unusual name and I didn’t know anyone else with the name when I was growing up. I think this helped me to be able to just be me, instead of trying to fit into a name that seemed cute (Sandi?) or sexy (Alexis?) or smart (Christine?). Although I guess I did and do try to fit it. Rona is different. And unknown. Hmm.
    Well, sorry for the ramble. Been working like crazy at deadline time and I fear my brain has melted. Back to work… Thanks for the posts that make me think, even when my brain is out of commission!

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  3. Jamie Ray Post author

    Give Ken Ken a try- like Sudoku they range from easy 4*4 to very hard (7*7 in the Sunday NY Times) and I’ve seen books with 8*8 but haven’t tried them yet. It is a mix of basic math and logic. Addictive. Glad the post made you think – you might not feel that way after you fritter away an hour on Ken Ken.

    It is strange how people choose to identify. My parents identified as assimilated middle class New York Jews, and I also carry that identity around with me (I always notice it when I leave New York – I talk too fast and with my hands. They gave me and my brother very neutral suburban names (we were also given Hebrew names but they were never used in daily life).

    Gender and sexual identity is quirky – I think most people who are “normative” don’t think about it unless something challenges them – but if you are not “normative” you think about it way way more. The way you might think about it when there is an assumption that women get married and have children/grandchildren. Or that every woman should be under a size 12 US.

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  4. genevafox

    Jamie Ray, thank you for being so honest. I always look forward to reading your blog on Wednesdays. Each time that I do, I wonder if you are simply Jamie Ray. Could Jamie Ray simply be in their own category? I enjoy being a woman, so maybe this is a silly question because I do not know what it is like to identify in any other way. However, reading your blog has expanded my mind. I no longer try to figure out someone’s gender if I am unsure. I simply think of them as human. Your blog gave me this line of thinking. I personally think that you are just Jamie Ray. Which is a good thing! Your writing is definitely in its own category. 🙂 Thank you!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for reading. I am simply me, but it is hard to check “me” off on a form or to find the “me” symbol for the bathroom in a public place. Someday. I like your strategy to not try to figure out someone who is either ambiguously presenting themselves or difficult to read. I always assume it is intentional; there is always a conversational way around it. Be well.

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      1. genevafox

        Wow! I have never considered the check boxes on forms or the signs on bathroom doors. I see your point. However, I really think creating a dialog such you are doing will slowly but surly bring about change.

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  5. urbanmythcafe

    I just googled up kenken. These are great, but I have no time in my life for solving them!
    I like your library strategy!

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  6. rmiles

    I thought I was reading an autobiography for a moment. . . . I learned how / what a “normal” girl was like from my older sister and Judy Bloom. I too read profusely as an escape mechanism and to learn but I knew I was not cut from the same cloth as the “normal” girl when I read Bloom’s book “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” That book scared me for life!
    Peace

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think reading is the best escape for a shy queer kid. Books are acceptable to adults (hard to complain that your kid is reading a book) and they open up a lot of possibilities/alternatives that you can’t explore in real life. I mostly read non-fiction (literary biography, anthropology, and cultural history) but every once in a while someone will insist that I read a particular novel and I will. I just finished “The Riddle of the Labyrith” about the woman who cracked the code of Linear B (the ancient writing of Knossos in Crete). No queer content, but really interesting.

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  7. Borderlion

    I can relate. I am still figuring things out but for now I call myself genderqueer and also prefer ‘they’ as a pronoun. It is nice to read about someone else with similar experiences.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Hi, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think it is important for us to tell our stories and to share them as honestly as we can, including our confusion and our doubts. It is important for people who are gender non-conforming to see the variety of options and hear from other people about what choices they’ve made and what mistakes they’ve made and how they feel about what they are going through. I appreciate your honesty in your posts.

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