I never pretended I was a boy. I just was the way I was. This flustered adults who (mis)gendered me as a boy. As if I was trying to pull something over on them. As if I was being dishonest. As if it was a game that went to far. It embarrassed the adults; they didn’t like being fooled.
Being seen as a boy is different from pretending I was a boy. I continued seeing myself as a boy long after I should have gotten the picture that being a girl is permanent. I refused to inhabit the pink world, the Barbie and ballet class world. I refused to think of myself as a girl. Other people call this denial, but I see it as a form of self-determination.
I tried as much as possible to stay in the range of activities where I could see myself as a boy. This required a fair amount of magical thinking, e.g. “This isn’t a three-quarter length sleeve shirt – it’s a football jersey and I’m a quarterback.” I dissociated from my body. By staying inside myself I avoided having to face the world as a girl. I would rather do nothing than do something girlish. I played by myself a lot.
The stereotype of butch lesbians is that we are pretending to look like or act like men. Some butches (and some trans guys and some cis guys) may lay it on a little heavy for some people’s taste; we may project a type of masculinity that some find offensive or unattractive. After a life time of being told to tone it down and not be so blatant, it is not easy to trust my instincts or to get it right.
If I ever pretended to be anything, I pretended to be a girl who wants to be a boy. I never tried to be a girly girl. It reassured the adults if I said I was a girl even if I didn’t act like one. I learned to throw a few girl’s toy’s around me while I played with boy’s toys. I learned to take out a couple of girl’s books for show at the library when I took out the boy’s books that I wanted to read. I learned to create the illusion that I was doing both girl and boy.
When Craig Russell dresses up and performs as Mae West; he is doing drag. When Mae West dresses up and performs as an actor playing Mae West she is doing double drag. If this sounds convoluted, trust me, it is. But, double drag is more common than you would think. Here is a video of Craig Russell singing Frankie and Johnny (1979), and here is Mae West singing the same tune (1976).
I was eight years old when I first tried to wrap my head around this concept. I knew being a girl was a charade, but I couldn’t find a way out of it. It was impractical to insist that I was a boy, but I continued to hope that eventually everyone would get it. It was equally impractical to pretend I was a girl; I was incapable of acting like the other girls. Claiming I was a tomboy gave me an excuse for being unable to assimilate as either a boy or a girl. I learned how to do double drag as a way of being myself in public. Boy-girl-boy.
Notes: I first read about double drag in this (long and academic) essay by Wendy Doniger – “The Mythology of Self-Imitation in Passing: Race, Gender, and Politics“. If her name sounds familiar, it is because her book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” created a controversy and was withdrawn from publication in India because of objections from Hindu ultra-conservatives. It is still available in print outside of India.
Frieda Belinfante (photo) was a lesbian, a cellist, an orchestra conductor, and a fighter in the Dutch resistance movement during WWII. When the Nazis were hunting for her she avoided being captured by passing as a man. She emigrated to the US after the war.