The correct answer to this question was a mother and a wife. The second best answer was a doctor, a lawyer, or a rocket scientist (or more realistically a nurse, a librarian, or a teacher). I knew not to answer a baseball player, a fireman, or a cowboy.
I didn’t know what happened to kids like me, but I wasn’t ever going to be a wife and a mother. To be safe, I said I wanted to be a lawyer (we watched Perry Mason on TV). Then I read The Fountainhead in high school and decided to become an architect. It was all based on image, not innate skill. I didn’t question why all my role models were men.
I enrolled in an architecture program but I was no Howard Roark. I was too sloppy to pass the introductory drafting class. I transferred to civil engineering because it had a promising job board. I pictured myself on a construction site wearing Carhartt canvas pants and Red Wing boots. I aced my classes. I also came out as butch. It was the first identity that I could identify with. It seemed natural, as if it had been waiting for me all along.
The term butch only came into usage in the 1940’s. Regardless of the label, the religious, legal, medical, and psychiatric authorities have pathologized, criminalized, and demonized people like me since they realized we existed. I say people like me, because even though we’ve been around forever, the words used to describe us keep evolving. The bigotry seems to stay the same.
Since biblical times, words existed for the sexual acts between people of the same-sex (e.g. sodomy, buggery, or tribadism), but until the mid 1800’s there were few words to specifically identify the kinds of people who committed these acts. The terms homosexual and heterosexual were first published in 1880 (by Károly Mária Kertbeny). Transvestite was used by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910, and transsexual in 1949 by David Oliver Cauldwell. I’ve never identified with any of those terms.
I don’t know what choices I would have made if butch didn’t exist. Would I invent it? Would I go underground and try to pass as a man? Wear women’s clothing in public, but dress as a man at home? Cohabit in a Boston Marriage? Join a religious order? Suppress everything and marry a man? Have romantic friendships? Would I be institutionalized? Would I try to kill myself? I do not judge those who came before me.
They lived quietly and did not write books about how they lived their lives (Radclyffe Hall being one of the exceptions). What was reported in the press, after their death or discovery, was often lurid or prurient. We do not know their true gender identities and sexual identities. I don’t want to appropriate their stories or retroactively try to fit 21st century labels onto them, but I can picture myself in their boots.
Slang and labels come into fashion and go out of fashion. It is difficult to write about myself without using my 2016 vocabulary. Today, I’d say I was assigned female at birth (AFAB) but identify as queer, non-binary, and transgender or as a transmasculine butch.
I use labels, but I believe in the whole spectrum, not just my little part of it. I don’t let labels dictate what I can or can’t do. Labels helped me untangle the confusing mess of my gender and sexuality. Labels help us find our niche. Labels help us organize and come together to fight for our rights, to defeat the bigots, and live to tell the story.
Notes: I was thinking about how fast terminology changes when I read Shawn’s post on labels last week. I started looking for timelines of what terms were used when, and instead found this interesting summary of terms in the OED (The Oxford English Dictionary) for women who have sex with women.
Lastly, I was looking for some information on “Boston Marriages” and found this article in The Atlantic on 19th century friendships (But Were They Gay?).