Butch Lab Symposium #2: Butch Stereotypes, Cliches and Misconceptions

Butch Lab Symposium #2, March 2011: Butch Stereotypes, Cliches, and Misconceptions: What do people think “butch” means? What are the stereotypes around being butch? What do people assume is true about you [or the masculine of center folks in your life], but actually isn’t? What image or concept do you constantly have to correct or fight against? How do you feel about these misconceptions? How do you deal with them? Do you respond to these stereotypes or cliches? How?

Oh wow, where to start, there’s so much to talk about around stereotypes and assumptions.  Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • The Butch is the sexual aggressor, or top, in a sexual relationship
  • Butches are only attracted to feminine women
  • The more you are like a man, the more butch you are
  • The Butch is the man in the relationship, and therefore, takes on traditionally male roles and responsibilities
  • Butches are emotionally and sexually guarded as compared to their more feminine partners, some even assume butches are sexually stone
  • Butches shouldn’t be sexually attracted to other butches, or masculine persons of any kind
  • Butches in D/s relationships are the Doms, never the subs
  • To be masculine is to be strong, expressing femininity is weak
  • Butches are rough and tough and enjoy football and working on cars

We are inundated by images and stereotypes equated with masculinity.  As a young queer person wanting to express my masculinity, it seemed to me there weren’t a lot of options.  If I wanted other people to recognize my butchness, I had to copy the attitudes and behaviors of the boys, and other butches, around me.  I played along for a while during high school, ending up with a combination of chivalrous and sexist behaviors.  I was sweet to my girlfriend, holding the door for her, doing all I could to be the gentleman.  However, I also went along with my butch buddy and other guys when they spoke in not-so-complementary terms about their girlfriends and girls in general.  As time went on, it was clear to me that if being butch meant being sexist and chauvinistic, I would have to find a different identity.

I’m telling you this because as I read the above list, I see assumptions and judgments I held at one time, some I’ve only recently begun to reject.  And though I saw chivalry as a positive way to relate to the females in my life, I later found out some women see it as demeaning and sexist.  Living through my male side and not being offensive can be very challenging.

I gave up on being butch for a lot of  years because, based on what I saw around me in people who called themselves butch, I couldn’t be butch.  I couldn’t bring myself to believe I was better than someone who was less masculine and I didn’t automatically defer to someone who was more masculine.  I couldn’t ape those sexist attitudes without feeling disgusted and sick inside.

A theme running through my list is the assumption that to be masculine is to stick to the gender roles traditionally assigned to men.  I find that so limiting.  Honestly, I want the freedom to feel and live through and express my masculinity without being locked into a certain way of behaving.  I am involved with two very strong and intelligent women who own their sexuality and aren’t afraid to initiate.  Should I be seen as less masculine, less butch, because I enjoy it when my lover throws me down and fucks me?

Along those lines, a pretty consistent source of amusement for my wife and I is the assumption that she *must* have carried and given birth to both of our daughters. The impression we get is that this assumption is based on her more traditionally feminine appearance vs. my very masculine appearance. Most of the time we laugh and shrug it off, but we do make sure they know the truth: I did get pregnant, carry and give birth to our first child. What saddens me about this assumption is that it shows how limiting stereotypes about gender roles can be. It saddens me that other butches may think they can’t get pregnant and have babies without negating their butchness.  Read J Wallace’s excellent story ”The Manly Art of Pregnancy” in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, for another take on masculine pregnancy.

To me the assumptions and stereotypes about butches and transmasculine people are limiting, and I don’t want to be a part of perpetuating unnecessary limitations.  We need to look beyond the limited scope of what the media is showing us, to find and create new media.  We need to look beyond our own experiences and what we’ve seen in people around us to find a way of being masculine that fit us, rather than trying to fit within a confining definition.  My philosophy of life is built around the principal that we should all be allowed to self-label and determine for ourselves what those labels mean. Any limits on what kind of experiences we can have, what activities we can engage in and how we derive pleasure, should also be self-determined — not dictated by others.

I’ve chosen to fight these stereotypes and cliches by being very open about when I diverge from them. I’m a butch who is happy to be the giver or receiver of sexual pleasure in my relationships.  I am proud that my partners are strong and capable and don’t feel diminished by their strength and capabilities.

People are surprised, and even shocked, to learn that I am happily fulfilled when being submissive in my D/s relationship with Roxy. When confronted by the shock of one of my butch friends at this revelation, I wasn’t surprised: masculinity tends to be equated with strength and emotional control and submission is seen as weak and emasculating.  Submission, like most things, is not a single, narrowly defined set of behaviors. I express submission through strength, control, dedication and service. To me this lines up with my identity as butch and masculine very nicely.

I’m also becoming more comfortable with my attraction to other masculine individuals.  This has been a taboo in my mind for so long that it was a revelation when I learned that there were communities who supported and celebrated butch-on-butch love.  Giving myself permission to acknowledge that attraction and accept it as valid has been very healthy and has cleared away years of self-reproach.

I didn’t figure all this out myself, I’m fortunate in that I have a lover, confidant and best friend who has been very patient in holding up a mirror to my behavior and assumptions.  It’s through conversations with Roxy that I became aware that unwelcome chivalry is sexist — no matter how good my intentions might be.  Through her eyes, I’ve seen my own chauvinism.  She’s the one who notices the male privilege I’m the recipient of, when I’m oblivious to it.  Being a ‘long hair’, she’s much more aware of the pervasiveness of butch sexism and assumption of male privilege.  Not that all her observations are critical, she’s also the first person to tell me how sexy my masculinity is, how much she appreciates when I project a positive masculine image.  It’s been quite an eye-opener to see all of this through her eyes.  Having someone to reflect my behaviors back to me in a respectful way is invaluable in my evolution as a transmasculine person.  I now count it as one of my life goals to figure out how to live and breathe and love through my male side, in a way I can respect in the morning.

This guided exploration has been painful at times, no question.  It’s also been amazing and mind-opening, and I am definitely the better for it.  If you have someone who’ll be honest with you, someone who has a different perspective on masculinity and male privilege, I encourage you to sit down with an open-mind and open-heart and hear what they have to say.  I tend to have an elevated opinion of my own intelligence when it comes to self-exploration, but I’m learning that nothing replaces the revelations you can have seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.  Much gratitude to Roxy for being so honest and loving and supportive throughout my exploration into masculinity.

I’m glad Butch Lab is hosting this conversation.  I remember a post – well, several, really – on Sugarbutch where Sinclair asked a lot of these questions and contemplated a style of masculinity that didn’t need to put itself above others, a more respectful and feminist version.  I believe this is a conversation that we need to keep having, that we need to really consider for ourselves what masculinity means to us.  I’m really done following rules that don’t improve my life.  The traditional, stereotypical rules of masculinity, the list of butch cliches and assumptions, need to be examined before we adopt them as truths.  Let’s each decide for ourselves — and respect the right of others to decide for themselves — what it means to be butch.

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