Category Archives: Butch Or Trans?

Icy Stares and Hot Springs

I didn't wear my hat while on vacation.

I didn’t wear my hat while on vacation.

The game plan for my vacation in New Mexico was to go gender free as much as possible; to only use women’s facilities when absolutely necessary. I did nothing to soften or tone down my gender expression. I dressed comfortably and to please myself. I tried to carry myself as if I belonged everywhere I went. No shame. No apologies.

This plan worked better than any other plan I’ve followed. I found the family/accessible restrooms in the airports. I swam in the hotel pool in my trunks and rash guard. I also wore them in the two hot springs we visited. I had a serious massage at a spa where there was no mention by me, or the masseuse, of my top surgery/scars.

The only place that was a problem was the changing room in the spa. We stayed at the Ojo Caliente MIneral Springs Resort & Spa. We booked a room in the 1916 “historic” hotel wing. So historic, that guests must shower in the spa locker rooms before and after “taking the waters”. There was no shower in the room, or even down the hall. It is rustic, and less expensive than the newer rooms. A little like travelling on a budget in Europe. Continue reading

What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

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.

Highway engineer in Nebraska, 1960.

Highway engineer in Nebraska, 1960.

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.  Continue reading

Being Visibly Queer

darn-butchI was visibly queer before I was conscious of being queer. Back then, I was one of those kids you could spot a mile away and say “She’s going to be a lesbian when she grows up.” Now, you’d probably say “That kid is going to transition as soon as they can.” I’ve never been able to hide it. I never tried to look “normal”.

I didn’t know that I was trying to manage my dysphoria, I just knew that I wanted to look like a boy. I knew that every compromise hurt.

All through elementary school I wore dresses to school because it was “the law”. I wore the least feminine dress possible, but a dress is a dress, even if it is olive drab. Putting a dress on felt like a punishment for waking up. I swore that when I grew up I wouldn’t get married, have kids, or ever wear a dress.

I said I was a tomboy, and that I didn’t mind being a girl. I claimed that I wanted to wear boy’s clothing and sneakers because they were comfortable and practical. I didn’t tell anyone that I wanted to be a boy, or that I was a boy. No one wanted to hear the truth, even though it was obvious.

I repeated versions of that lie right through my adolescence and into adulthood. The olive drab dress gave way to jeans and a flannel shirt. When I came out, I liked that I was visibly, recognizably, butch. What was once a problem was now a solution. I went from being an outcast to being part of a community. Continue reading

Masculine Enough

butch-stretchLast week at work, in the middle of the afternoon, I pushed my chair back from my desk, and said “It’s time for the seventh inning stretch.” What I meant was, I’m bored, and I’m going to get another cup of coffee and walk around the office. It is exactly what my dad used to say when he got up from the couch, during a commercial, for a snack.

There are many facets to my gender expression. Where did they come from? How much came from my dad and my brother? How much of it did I learn by osmosis? How much by imitation? Is any of it genuinely authentic?

I adored my dad and I was envious of my brother. My dad was squishy. He was masculine enough for a middle class Jewish man with a desk job in Manhattan. He was an avid Met’s fan. He watched as many baseball games as possible. When it wasn’t baseball season he talked about pitchers and catchers and spring training. He taught me how to watch the game, and, indirectly, how to talk about coaches, players, umpires, fielding strategies, rules, and stats. I still, obviously, pepper my speech with baseball idioms. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Paperwork Obstacle Course

Babe Didrikson, demonstrates her hurdling technique. 1932.

Babe Didrikson, demonstrates her hurdling technique. 1932.

In July, after my intake appointment at Callen-Lorde (NYC’s LGBT health clinic), my nurse practitioner told me that my cholesterol was high. I needed to lower it before I considered starting testosterone. I bought a bottle of fish oil.

I carried a card in my wallet, with the name of a prominent cardiologist on it, for three months. When I called, the office manager told me that I can’t schedule an appointment until the cardiologist looks at my file. She gave me her name and the fax number, which I wrote down on the back of an envelope.

The next day, I pulled up the Callen-Lorde patient portal expecting to send my results over. I attempted to log in. I tried every permutation of my user IDs and passwords. I phoned Callen-Lorde, and they realized that when they initially registered me they incorrectly entered my e-mail address in my profile (which explained why I never got any emails from them). I dropped by their office to straighten it out and re-register.

I went home, set up the user name and password, wrote the password down on the patient portal information sheet, opened up my file to get my results, and couldn’t find them. I clicked around a lot and gave up. I was going to call Callen-Lorde back and ask where to find my test results, but it was late in the day and the medical records office was closed. I had to wait until the morning.

I thought about calling Callen-Lorde every day, but there was always an excuse to put it off. I waited for a month. Continue reading

Ma’am and Microaggressions

Comic by Transitive Properties (see notes).

Comic by Transitive Properties (see notes).

Every time I get called Ma’am, it’s like getting slapped in the face with a dead fish.

For years I’ve tried to adjust to strangers calling me Ma’am. I’ve tried to ignore it. To acknowledge it and let it roll off of me. To accept that in a cisnormative society I’m perceived as a masculine female or as a butch lesbian. To accept that some people must use only Sir, Miss, or Ma’am in their jobs. To accept that other people can’t imagine any other alternatives, even when one is standing right in front of them.

I’ve tried to listen to the tone of the Ma’am. To guess the intention. Is it friendly? Is it innocent? Is it automatic? Is it sardonic? Is it because they don’t know what else to call me?

I wish it didn’t bother me. There are far worse things going on in the world than the cashier at Whole Foods calling me Ma’am. Or the bank teller. Or the staff at the front desk of the gym. Yet each Ma’am smacks me in the face.

I don’t know if calling me Ma’am counts as a microaggression, but it feels like one to me. Columbia Professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Microaggressions are “different from deliberate acts of bigotry because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.” Microaggressions “include statements that position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same.” Continue reading