The Fork in the Road

I came to a fork in the road and I moved the fork.

When I started writing this blog, I stood on the border of butch and transgender, with one hiking boot firmly planted on each side. I was unable to budge. I had never truly, fully, thought of myself as a woman, but as an increasingly older boy. I had suppressed and avoided making a choice, all under the rubric of being butch.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930

The sticking point was that as masculine as I felt and looked, I didn’t picture myself as a straight middle-aged white man. I could not authentically place myself in that construct. Conversely, I couldn’t tolerate picturing myself as a middle-aged woman. The dysphoria was too raw. No one over 40 wants to picture themselves as old, but I still wanted to be a boy. I did not know who I wanted to be like when I “grew up”. I knew I was trans, but I didn’t know what words to modify it with.

I share a history with kids who were raised as girls but didn’t want to be girls. With tomboys, with kids who rebelled against their parents and teachers, who created their own internal boy lives, and who defiantly stayed true to their boy selves. Whether they identify as butch or transgender or any label on the spectrum. Whether they identify as women, men, both, or neither.

I feel a kinship with masculine women and feminine men. With people who look queer. With transgender people who don’t always pass. With people who walk down the street and go about their business with their chins up knowing that other people are staring at them.

I don’t always feel welcomed as trans when I’m in a transgender space, or as butch when I’m in a lesbian/gay space. I feel like an intruder. I haven’t been to a lesbian event in a while (unless Staceyann Chin’s wonderful one woman show, MotherStruck, at The Culture Project, counts). I’m not sure if it is because there are so few lesbian events, or if I’ve unconsciously stopped going to them.

I’m not sure why I hold on to my butch identity except that it is my history and I am not ashamed of it. I don’t think I’m gaining any privilege by identifying as butch. While there is some status in the community for being a young and handsome butch; I there isn’t much for being a middle-aged butch. I am, however, keenly aware of my middle class and white privilege. In many ways I have it easier than my friends (pension, health benefits, nice home, partner, and dog), even if I can’t comfortably use a public bathroom.

There is a myth, repeated and perpetuated by some butches and some trans men, that the difference between butches and trans men is that butches are female identified and trans men are male identified. This is an over simplification of butch identity (butches are lesbians, lesbians are women, QED butches are women), and ignores the complex relationship that butches have with their masculinity and gender expression. Some butches are comfortable being women and some are not. Butch harbors a range of masculinities, including trans masculinities.

It saddens me when I see trans men try to distance themselves from butches, or advocate to take the T out of LGBT, as if they have nothing in common. It saddens me when butches claim that trans men are traitors, or when they try to save them as if they were misguided lost souls. If one is secure in one’s identity and life choices, then one should not be threatened by, or be dismissive of, someone who came to the fork in the road and took the other path.

Gender isn’t a straight line spectrum. There is no imaginary or fixed line that I can cross that will take me from butch to transgender. The border is wherever I choose to place it. I admit that I keep shifting it, each time I take another step, so I can stay on that border.

Update: One of the comments is noxious and is from someone who has harassed and doxxed trans women. I prefer not to engage with hate speech on my blog. Please google this person before engaging with them.

Notes: There has been a lot of discussion about the loss of lesbian spaces across the country (some of which is transphobic and transmisogynist). Broadly published The History of Lesbian Bars which talks about why lesbian bars are disappearing/closing, and includes an excellent embedded video by JD Sampson and Drew Denny on the topic.

26 thoughts on “The Fork in the Road

  1. middleagebutch

    I’m still trying to figure all of this out. Something I think I get it … who I am … but other times I’m not so sure. Who knew gender could be so complicated. I find it interesting how Ivan Coyote writes about how they will always maintain their butch identity.

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  2. Austin Elliot

    I’m transitioning in my mid-thirties. I have identified as a lesbian (and not really as butch) for about 20 years. I like to think of myself as “culturally lesbian” and hope to remain proud of that culture even after a physical transition (even when I’m a straight middle aged white man).

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think it is hard to transition and still be a part of a lesbian, as opposed to LGBT overall, community. I’d be interested in knowing if it is easier to do it in smaller places – if the community is more inclusive and supportive. I lost a very close lesbian friend (turns out she is a Radfem at heart) after I had top surgery.

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      1. mostcurious

        I am also a mid-30s person in transition, but like you, moving the fork as I go. There is a local group of “Freethinking Females” (spawned out of the local atheist community) where I am no longer sure I am invited to join because of this. One of the two group leads voiced a strange opinion at the last meeting I attended. Instead of the radfem view, which I can at least sort of wrap my head around even if I think it’s wrong, the opinion expressed was that a trans woman would be welcome with this group, but not a trans man. I’m still not sure what that means to me and I’ve been to shy to find out as of yet. Also I am an atheist but I don’t feel a need to talk about it all the time anymore, so I’ve kind of dropped the whole community even though they are very a woman-positive group, unlike a lot of the atheist community.

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      2. mostcurious

        I realized I forgot to say: I too deeply understand the impetus to not be an old woman. I am never going to be an old woman. Whether that means I’m an old man, I’m less clear.

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  3. Lesboi

    I think the myth you spoke of also dismisses the complicated relationship lots of trans men have with being seen as cis male. You are not alone in wanting to find a balancing point that feels right. Sometimes gender neutral works for some folks but not others and even with that it’s tough to pull off in real life full time. Who wants to be telling strangers their pronouns all day? I’m pretty resigned to the fact that if I look like a man then people are going to assume I’m a man and that will be the end of the conversation unless there’s a reason to go deeper. The tipping point for me is that I’m (I think) more comfortable being seen as a middle aged man than a middle aged woman.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I forget about the pressure for trans men to identify/look/be read as cis male. It is really complicated – particularly for guys who try to go stealth.

      In my head I tip way towards male, but I actually I like to hang out with women (and gay men) more than straight men. I don’t think I’d want to try to pass myself off as a cis-man (I’m not a cis anything) – but I get total dysphoria running up and down my spine at the thought of being a old woman….

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      1. Lesboi

        I was also thinking about how some trans men don’t feel 100% comfortable being assumed to be cis male. Many choose male as the lesser of two evils but don’t feel like either fit them perfectly. And another is that some want to live visibly trans which is tough to do but implies they don’t want to be seen as cis either in my mind anyway. Of course there are a great many who ID 100% male and don’t want to have anything female associated with them. It runs the gamut I think. Stereotyping and generalizing usually gets us in trouble and boxes are way too constricting for most folks, even cis folks.

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  4. macetera

    Exactly how I feel. It hurts so much to feel excluded from lesbian spaces now, especially since I don’t have any desire to be in male ones. I’m a butch on testosterone, but I’m still a butch.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The only place I feel comfortable talking about this issue is here, and at the trans masculine group at the NYC LGBT Center. The group is an inclusive, safe, and diverse place with a mix of newly out, established trans men, genderqueer AFAB, and questioning AFAB people. In the rest of my life it is hard to create that kind of space.

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  5. RonaFraser

    I love the “moved the fork” line! I like how you question the myths, and I’d like to take it a step farther.
    If I had to describe myself, I’d say I’m a not-very-feminine woman who is attracted to men, in general. But why do I have to define myself? My gender, my sexual preference. What I mean is, what I see as the issue (and yes, I realize I am not in any of your shoes so I don’t really know how it feels)… what I see as the issue is the need for everyone to label themselves and everyone else. We label ourselves with gender, sexual preference, race, religious beliefs, political views, and anything else we can think of. At the best we use it to help us feel like we belong (with people of like views), and at the worst we use it to see others as so different as to be non-human (and therefore we can hurt them guilt-free). In between we perhaps simply separate ourselves from others. It’s kind of like the border between the US and Canada. For the most part, it’s not like the geography or people suddenly change… someone long ago just decided the dividing line goes there. Canadians are not all polite wimps who drink good beer, play hockey, and live in igloos, and Americans are not all overweight bullies who drink bad beer, watch football, and shop at WalMart with their undies showing.
    I wish we didn’t care about each others looks, as well as other stuff. And I’m no different, in that I have a very hard time getting past the loud voice in my head shouting how different I am, being in my late forties and never having had a boyfriend. All the weddings and parties and dinners where I am the only single one… I try to not let it bother me, to not let it make me feel different. I feel like I am finally getting to a place where I do not focus on it and am fine just being who I am, but it is not easy. We live in a world of labels and comparison and it can feel AWFUL. But I think we need to work on removing the labels and the perceived differences that we all have.
    I don’t want to offend anyone or belittle anyone’s feelings. I just wish we could all be happy being the best self that each of us can be… Oh crap. I just realized that I am already putting other labels on things — my best is not your best… I may think helping others is great while others may think advancing science it the best… and others may value being silent alone in prayer… I give up. I just wish we all wouldn’t be so fixated on putting ourselves in boxes. 😦

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Way too many Americans shop at Walmart, wear TRUMP buttons, and buy Cheese Doodles. Also Canadian beer is far superior to American beer.
      I think labels come from a need to explain why we always felt strange and an outsider – many like myself from an early age. And we were told we were wrong or bad or sick, and to stop doing what felt natural and to do what was expected – and either we complied or rebelled – but we still took in what we were told. I think the labels help us go from “wrong” to something that we can find others like ourselves and get some support. Some of the labels can be like splitting DNA – but that is OK if we try to sit in the big tent with people who ID differently instead of trying to huddle with people who are exactly like us.

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    2. Jamie Ray Post author

      Also, I meant to add that I had originally started the post that “I came to a fork in the road and I impaled myself upon it.” which is sometimes how it feels, but that implies that I am stuck, which I’m not. Then I realized that even though I feel like I’m in the same place, I really moving and not in the same place at all, but I keep moving the border/fork with me.

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  6. GallusMag

    Butch is not a gender identity but a descriptor of a particular lesbian experience, that of a dyke who is “unfeminine” and who has resisted the violent enforcement of “femininity” upon her by men. It has nothing to do with haircuts or fashion. It certainly has nothing to do with men, love of men, or identification as male. There is no “border” or relation between Butch Dykes and maleness and such a suggestion is misogynist and homophobic. Women and girls who decline to perform ritualized behaviors of subjugation to men are not themselves men or on a continuum of maleness. To suggest so is the height of sexism and male centrism. Very offensive supposition that should cause the author to reflect on her internalized misogyny.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The first time I tried to read Stone Butch Blues (when it came out) I couldn’t get through it because it was too raw and close – and I focused on the differences between us (class, education, and my attempt to embrace lesbian feminism) rather than the similarities in how we saw ourselves. I read it again about 10 years ago and I was able to absorb it.

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  7. micah

    I always saw butch as a derivative of lesbian, a descriptor inherently muddled with sexuality, so I never identified or felt identification as either lesbian or butch.

    The felt affinity was with the queerness of it all – the transgressive butch experience came closest to mine. But being always entangled with the attracted-to-girls part, it was clear I wasn’t a Butch, although I wasn’t simply straight either. That’s why when someone explained “transgender doesn’t mean you want to be a man” it just clicked for me, it was finally MY label. I’ve never had to let go of a community I used to belong to, because I was sure I never belonged to any of the others in the first place.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There are also quite a few butch straight/bi women – and most people assume on first sight that they are lesbians, but they are attracted to men. But, most butch women are on some level lesbian or gay identified.
      If you roll the clock back an extra 20 years, the “transgender doesn’t mean you want to be a man…” sentence would not have had a context.
      The myth that there is only one transgender identity hurts all of us, and allows for the bullying of those who are “not trans enough” and the delaying or withholding of medical transition. I don’t see the point of it, and I’m not sure what the motivation is within the community.

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      1. micah

        Another identity that gets flack is gay trans men. Honestly it took me a while to wrap my mind around how someone even figures this out for themselves. Some of them even try being butch/lesbian for a while.
        You’re right, society is still not enlightened when it comes to decoupling gender from sexuality and the binary. I can’t imagine I would’ve gotten to where I am 20 years ago, which is is perhaps why everyone is starting to come out now.

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