The Butch Nod

The Butch nod.  The chin lift.  A corner-of-the-mouth smile and a lifted eyebrow.  Recognition, acknowledgement of a brotherhood amongst transmasculine gender outlaws.  I invite it, offer it, look for it, but I don’t always get it.

This afternoon, Roxy and I were talking about how butches interact in public.  Now, this conversation covered a lot of ground, some of which exists only in her fevered and sexy imagination, for now… if what she envisioned did come about, it might look like this:  Roxy’s “Give a Bro a Hand Crew”… check it out, seriously, you do not want to miss this.

We’ve talked about this before, the way we both get excited when we see transmasculine people out and about in our daily lives. I definitely notice when another butch is in in the vicinity.  There is one butch whom I sometimes see at school events.  We’ve caught each other’s eye, briefly.  I want to give her a nod or a chin lift but she looks away too fast.

It’s not always that way.  For example, I might be swaggering down an aisle at Home Depot with my cart loaded up with supplies for my current weekend project, and come around the corner and find myself face-to-face with another butch.  It’s kinda goofy, really, the way both of us will pull up short, eyes widening in surprise, clearly reacting to the fact that we are still a fairly rare species not often seen in daylight amongst the ‘regular’ folks.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen two straight cis-women react to each other that way in public.

On a good day, the ‘shocked to see another butch’ greeting is followed by a butch nod or maybe a chin lift.  That may be all I get from another butch.  If we’re both feeling sociable, I might get a hearty ‘Have a good one’ to which I can respond with a husky ‘You, too’ — which would count as a pretty extensive communications between two butch strangers, in my experience.

Why is that?  What is up with us butches?  And how about territoriality?  Like when I walk through my local bar and the butches pull their girlfriends in close and put as much of their meat between the little lady and me as possible.  And even without a hen to protect from roaming foxes, there’s still sometimes this puffed-chest sort of stand off between us, as if there can be only one unaccompanied butch in a bar at one time.  And, OK, I understand competitiveness and I understand that it feels good and right to to be strong and able to protect what’s yours… but are we obligated to see each other as threats?  Because it seems like that’s the default setting, and that getting to the butch brothers stage takes a lot of work.

And I have used ‘butch’ through out this, but I am thinking of all of us masculine of center gender outlaws.  It’s dangerous in a lot of ways to be out and honest about who our true natures.  Depending on the situation, we may crave that recognition or fear it.  Being seen as butch should be something to celebrate, but some may see it as an opening for criticism, hate, misunderstanding and harassment.

So what do we do about it?  I want to make connections, make new friends, not steal your girlfriend or challenge you to an arm wrestling match.  (OK, I’m not opposed to the arm wrestling, but I would do it for fun, not to become King of the Butch Hill).

My Fellow Butches and other Transmasculine Gender Outlaws:  what do I want when I see one of you?  I want to be able to look over and acknowledge you without causing discomfort and I want you to feel comfortable recognizing me.  I’d love to come up and introduce myself, but I’m a little apprehensive.  What if you don’t identify as butch, even if you look like one to me?  Will you be offended, say something dismissive or insulting, or just turn away and ignore me?  And if I did have the balls to introduce myself, what should I say?

“Hi, you seem butch, like me, how’s it going?  Want to hang or something?”

I know this may seem kinda dorky or naive, but I’m honestly interested in networking and learning from others who are gender transgressive, especially transmasculine people.  I think we can learn a lot from each other.  I think we can have interesting conversations.  I believe we can be supportive of each other, and I think we would be able to relate to each other on a lot of levels.  I don’t know how to start that conversation and I’m looking for ideas.

I’m curious what other butches in my blog neighborhood have to say on the subject, so I’m going to tag them here and hope they take a moment to add something to the comments.  I also want you, who ever you are, to chime in as well.  I’m really interested in what people think.  Do butches have communication issues, or is it just me?

Sinclair Sexsmith, Sugarbutch Chronicles and Butch Lab

G, Can I help you, Sir?

Harrison, How to be Butch

Wendi, A Stranger in this Place

Holden, Packing Vocals

J-Rob, On Being Butch

Ulla, Lesbian Neurotica

Natt Nightly (yes, I know you don’t blog much anymore, but I’m going to bug you on Facebook and see if you’ll comment)

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported license.

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18 Responses to The Butch Nod

  1. Roxy says:

    Despite my tongue-in-cheek salacious take on what two butches do when they meet, I’m really happy that you’ve written this. You and I have had some really great conversations about it, and I’ve even been able to do some field research when we’ve been together. Having bro-time has always been important to you, and though you’ve got a good group of geek cisguys to hang out with, there’s a special bond between butches/transguys (and here I am being good and NOT imagining that in a dirty way at all.) Sitting back with a cold beer and a good friend shouldn’t be this complicated, and I imagine it’s something that a lot of your brothers would enjoy as well.

    It shouldn’t be that complicated, but it does seem to be. I do have some butch friends, as you know, and one in particular whom I can irregularly meet for drinks. However, I’m her only close butch friend. Usually, we gain friends through other friends, but in a group of people who tend to be the lone one of their kind in any group, that additive principal doesn’t seem to work as well.

    Case in point, I was walking to my bar the other night and another butch was approaching the same crosswalk a few moments ahead of me. We stopped and waited for the watch signal. Now, normally, if I’m standing at a crosswalk with someone I don’t know, I just wait and mind my own business. But this was another butch, a very butch butch, and we were both very aware of each other. The tension wasn’t high, but it was palpable. When the signal changed, we walked, and ended up walking into the same bar.

    Some other butches I know were there, sitting at the counter and stranger butch walked up and greeted one of them warmly, I walked up to the other and did the same. There were quick introductions and each of us nodded in greeting. Maybe if we’d not been sitting 2 people apart, I might have attempted to bridge the gap between us. As it is, I left the bar hours later with some other friends and don’t even remember that new butch’s name. What’s the lesson? If I want to get to know more folks, I’ll probably have to make the effort. There is a heightened level of wariness amongst transmasculine people, no doubt well-earned. I’m just the kind of person who wants to make connections, which means I’ll need to stick my neck out and take the risk — K

  2. Wendi says:

    I like that you’ve brought up this topic. Personally, I’m a bit shy and will generally keep things to a nod or on those days when I’m really feeling brave I’ll say ‘Hey’ but that’s about it. I wonder if those sort of ‘communication issues’ come from all the shit we have to deal with on a daily basis just to be ourselves.

    As far as the bar situation goes, I’ve noticed that sort of thing happening more with the younger generation and not as much with the older crowd (those who are my age or around there). I wonder if that’s not more of a confidence or maturity level issue.

    Here in Portland we have what’s called a Butch Crew Meet up at the Q Center every 2nd Sunday of the month so there is a place for us to go and hang out with other butches and those identified as such. You should totally get something going up there!

    I think a lot of us are shy, gun-shy, wary of rejection or criticism, etc. I think a lot of us are used to rejection on the basis of our non-traditional approach to life and gender and that makes us a bit more wary of opening up to folks we don’t know.

    I agree that the defensive, protective posture is probably the result of insecurity. Not sure what to do about that 😉

    I do hope to start some kind of regular social group for butches and other transmasculine folks but have decided to put it off a few months, so that I can give it the proper energy. I think I’ll create flyers and some simple business cards. I can pass the business cards out when I see folks who appear to be in my target demographic (and hope not to offend). I can also give some to other friends and ask them to pass them around — K

  3. DeDe Deylnn says:

    Though I’m femme, I have and do still play around with my gender. At one point I identified as gender queer with strong masculine leanings. I understand a lot of what you speak of and these days as femme I find myself giving the butch nod out not just to butches but men in general. It gets tricky when I’m want to convey interest to that butch I just saw down the street! But I do this all the time. Even the possessive ownership and protective posturing when in public out with another woman, butch as equally as femme. I have always done it. I don’t know it’s so much a bad thing mostly because I communicate effortlessly most the time but it does send clear signals. She’s with me. I’m stronger than my skirt and heel may imply. I’m very protective of the people I love AND ( if it’s a straighter environment ) my community and family. It feels a way to own my space and set up boundaries. But I have seen how this can cut communication when and if your in competition. I think the competition is what changes the dynamic. It’s hard to hear one another if all your thinking about is how can I be better than that guy.

    I dunno. That’s just how I see things. I always chuckle cause as a femme, I’m quite the butch! I’m funny that way. I relate to butches in ways I don’t femmes. Stone Butch Blues speaks so deeply to me as do other butch books. But I suppose that’s a whole other topic. ;).

    Thank you for joining the conversation, DeDe. I would love to hear more from your perspective and how butch identity speaks to you. Some people are more comfortable communicating and being open to it than others. As open and gregarious as I am, I still clam up at times when I find myself with other butches I don’t know. It’s just weird and I’m working to get over whatever barrier I have. Part of my fear is that my ‘advances’ will be rejected. Fear of rejection is an old monster under the bed and I’m always working hard to overcome it — K

  4. Ana George says:

    When I read this, I thought of you…

    Thank you! K

  5. Amber says:

    That must be so frustrating. I’ve never thought of this, I’ve always assumed that there was some sort of automatic comraderie (sp?) between butches, just born out of recognition and respect. I never imagined that there might be shyness, or even perceived threat if one of you is with their girl.
    When I moved here, I noticed a lot of lesbians around (its really a weird thing), and I wanted to go up and ask them where the clubhouse was and what was the password. I finally approached a couple in the Food Lion parking lot, and the butch was mildly accomodating but ultimately unhelpful, I wouldn’t go so far as to say friendly, and the femme put herself in the car and locked the door! I think I could see steam coming off of her head when I glanced over. I imagine the conversation when her butch got in the car to be something along the lines of: “What the hell was that? What did she want? Why did you talk to her? You don’t have to be nice to everybody! See this is the problem with how you always…etc., etc., etc.”
    Oops. Femme faux paux.
    So, it happens with girly-girl types too.
    I would have loved to talk with her, but she didn’t give me the chance.
    But I could be assuming a lot as to the reasons.
    Anyway, also I wanted to say that if you do form some kind of club as suggested above, you should totally keep that as secret as you can because, if they find out, I would imagine that the single femmes will start coming in droves, hanging out along the periphery, ordering fruity drinks, lifting their noses to get a smell of you and trying to smile bashfully at you until the entire group is dismembered in preference to higher order pursuit.

    omg, your description of what might happen if the femmes discover the secret club is hilarious — and something Roxy would probably completely agree with (though she might expand the group to include non-femmes of all kinds inescapably drawn to the sexiness of a butch group). That interaction with the couple in the Food Lion parking lot doesn’t surprise me. It could be a general fear of being seen too clearly by the rest of the world, and through that discovery, becoming a target. The possessiveness and distrust could definitely be there because of previous experiences, or a general insecurity in the couple. Maybe they were late to an appointment. Who knows, right? I applaud you for being bold and trying to make contact. When asked by people new to this town, how to find the lesbian|gay|queer|etc. community, I’m often at a loss. There’s a bar, or two, not exclusively queer, but with definite queer flavor. There are organizations to get involved with, if you have the time. I don’t think it’s uncommon in most communities to find that there isn’t a well defined way to interface with the queer community. It’s frustrating, definitely. So kudos to you for making an effort and I hope you keep at it regardless some of the failures that will undoubtedly happen — K

  6. Natt Nightly says:

    I totally have things to say about this, it’s just really loud in my office right now, so I’m going to have to take some time later tonight to really tease it all out. Sneak preview of what my initial reactions are:

    “Reflection on the weighted importance of visibility by gender-peers, defense mechanisms against mainstream othering, the intense guarding of personal identity to the exclusion and threat of anyone else’s similar but different identity (possibly the overstated importance of individual definition in relation to the growth of community) , and the absorption of mainstream masculine identities as in some cases quite harmful to the construction of butch gender and a queer solidarity.”

    Well, boy-howdy, you do have some things to say. Excellent, I look forward to hearing more. I may use different words, but I think we’re in the a very similar ballpark in identifying the barriers to butch bonding. And, thank you my friend, for responding to my not so subtle poke for attention 🙂 – K

  7. bee listy says:

    This is different for me. I am super attracted to other butches (oh yea, i’m a butchfag…although not exclusively because I’m also super into femmes). I find that it means that I police my interactions with new butches in my social sphere so that i’m not being too flirty. (although sometimes it pays off, ask my current sweetie–a totally hot butch.)

    i try really hard to just do the nod, and if introduced be friendly. not sure what else to do.

  8. jennamcjenna says:

    I’m the person who looks away when a transmasculine person (a “butch”) tries to catch my eye and engage the nod. I look away because I’m not sure if I “count” as butch, and I’m never sure if I count as “butch enough.” Am I butch when I’m binding and packing? If so, then am I butch when I’m not binding and packing? If not, then am I butch when I walk a certain way (with a swagger) through a certain kind of store (Home Depot) wearing a certain kind of outfit? What about when I’m at the craft store buying yarn for my next crochet project?

    What if I feel butch but don’t look butch?

    What if I look butch but don’t feel butch?


  9. GG says:

    This is such an interesting topic. I can’t say I’ve ever felt “trans” as a physical sensation, i.e. of being in a wrongly-gendered body, but I have often felt angry or “misplaced” for a better word by being put into a “feminine” category. To me “female” and “feminine” are wildly different. I’m happily female, but not sure I like being called “feminine”.

    As with the comment above, there are often times when I FEEL what could be described as “butch” but don’t think I really look that way–although I get called “sir” a lot even tho I have never bound my chest or packed. Perhaps it’s also a matter of how one walks or carries oneself in public. I walk fast, with purpose. Is that “male/butch”? I don’t know, it’s just how I walk. I have short hair. I have a fairly low voice. To me, sadly in a lot of ways, what people think of as “male”, “masculine” or “butch”, I simply equate with “capable”. Sorry, femmes, no disrespect, but it’s a lot harder to do any kind of physical task wearing traditionally “feminine” clothing or shoes. I know, I’ve tried it! 😉

    You’ve raised a lot of interesting questions and hopefully some great discussion will follow.

  10. As another femme commenter mentioned, I too don’t know how to acknowledge a butch or TG, to let them know I “know” and am a….supporter? fan? I dunno even how to word that. That while I may look like a hetero chick, I’m not.

    I can only speak for myself. I think making eye contact is a great start. I can read a lot about the person I’m talking to through their eyes. That of course presupposes we’re talking, but I’m a pretty open person, I’m pretty easy to start a conversation with. Even if you’re not trying to pick up on the person, going with a complement, or a comment on something they seem to be interested in, etc. For me, if people comment on how dark my beer is, they won’t be able to stop me from talking. If you don’t want to get into a conversation, I think a friendly smile, combined with looking the person in the eyes, communicates a lot. When someone does that to me, I feel distinctly seen. Depending on the vibe I’m picking up from the person, I may even get a feeling that they recognize who/what I am at a deeper level — K

  11. VJ says:

    Thank you, Kyle. I really appreciated this post…

    I’ve been lurking for some time now and reading your musings on all that is “Butch”…you see, I am (I guess) a “reluctant Butch”….After constantly being “tagged” as one throughout the years (even when I “ripped the runway” in 4-inch heels and a full face of makeup — go figure), I’ve settled into my “true” style and am letting who I am shine on through….I’m still musing on what “Butch” really is….

    I think my “reluctance” has a bit (hell, a lot) to do with internal “butchphobia” as well as the worn-out stereotypes of what Butches are “supposed” to be….

    Again, thank you….and I’ll keep on reading….


    VJ, many many many of us have gone through the same thing: rejecting or refusing the label ‘butch’ because of stereotypes, assumptions and expectations that didn’t fit us. I’m very happy to have come back to ‘butch’ and defined it for myself. I love hearing from other butches who are doing the same. Welcome to the club, VJ, you’re welcome as long as you want to claim the label –K

  12. Loved this! Li is always talking about the “Butch code of conduct,” which reminds me somehow of the “cone of silence.” She was particularly peeved when a butch friend/regular supporter of both of our (currently practically non-existent due to wedding planning/money making) blogs made a rather overt pass at me on Facebook. They had been e-mailing back and forth and Li said the woman in question had violated the Butch code of conduct. I almost split a gut laughing. I never knew there was such a thing! I’ll have to prod her to write about it so that I can see it coming from a mile away. or not.

    That kind of stuff is more tradition and expectation than anything written down. I think the same sort of rule applies in any situation where a friend is attracted to another friend’s partner/gf/bf/etc. It’s in poor taste — and may earn you a black eye or more.

    The only time anyone’s brought me up on charges of violating that particular unwritten law is when I said something complementary to someone on twitter and that women’s butch partner decided I’d gone too far in my complement — K

  13. G says:

    Ah, the elusive (quality) contact with the butchus maximus!

    I’ll talk about the territorial piece first, since it seems simpler. I think it’s really a matter of confidence and/or maturity. I see it with younger butches, and I felt it when I was younger. Whatever it is, I know that it’s more about personal issues of the person behaving that way and less about my butch identity.

    The communication/camaraderie piece is a little more complicated to me. I’m not sure where the breakdown happens. Do butches feel more guarded – even with each other – because of the thick skin we’ve had to develop by being visible? Do we feel like there is vulnerability in recognizing and connecting with others like us? Or is it something done out of the assumption that we’re supposed to be that way – tough, taciturn and distant?

    I’ve known masculine of center women who view any warm, affectionate expressions – either verbal or physical – as actions that are too feminine to be butch. Even worse, they see them as signs of weakness. I think that outlook hurts the individual, but I think it also hurts the community at large. I’m a butch who loves to laugh, banter and connect with others, so that sort of perspective makes me sad.

    There is a dearth of masculine of center women in my life, and it’s a void I definitely feel. I’m not sure what else to do to build up the bonds in this special corner of our community other than really focus on being friendly, making eye contact and smiling when I happen to meet another butch.

    Sounds like you and I are a lot alike. I can pull off the strong, silent act from time to time, but my personality is open, gregarious, friendly, chatty and touchy — and I know not everyone is comfortable with that, so I dial it back depending on the reception I’m getting. That’s how I’ve made friends before, so it stands to reason it might/should work on at least some butches, but I get that nervous-what-if-they-don’t-want-friends fear a lot of the time. I think you’ve got something in your speculation about our well earned thick skin keeping us distant. I’ve felt my thick skin shields go up on occasion when I was worried about threats, rejection or criticism. I think that guarding instinct along with the stereotype that being butch is about being strong and silent, goes a long way toward keeping threats at bay, but also keeps friends and allies at a distance. — K

  14. RadDyke says:

    I love this post, and I love that you wrote about it. I recognize the power of the butch nod…I use it to nonverbally say “I see you” because I’m too shy to ever say hello. However, as a butch who doesn’t conform to butch gender stereotypes, it is rare that another butch recognizes me with the nod.
    I think the idea of needing to find our community, for lack of a better word, drives us to really internalize this butch-butch (or masculine-masculine) interaction. When someone recognizes you for who you are, it is a really powerful sort of “I understand”. That’s why every butch knows this signal, and knows what it means.

    I definitely feel that drive to connect with other people. I do it with other software developers, other parents, other queers, other geeks of all varieties. Connecting with other transmasculine people feels a little more special probably because it still seems so rare. I know there are lots of butches around here, I see them, I know some of them, but getting into situations where I can have focused social time is a challenge.

    Being recognized is fundamental, I think, to good mental and emotional health. A lot of us are fringe types for one reason or another, polite society would rather look the other way than have to see us fully and value us for who we truly are. For that reason, even a nod or a quick eye contact can be a bright spot in our day. Someone saw us — K

  15. VJ says:

    @ RadDyke:

    “…as a butch who doesn’t conform to butch gender stereotypes, it is rare that another butch recognizes me with the nod.”


    I’ve been known to “confuse” others (and have been told this!)….i.e.: I’ll have “the hair”, but be rocking a face straight from the MAC counter with a tie and cufflinks.

    Often, I’ve only been given “the nod” when I’m in the company of a woman (who’s NOT my date or love interest) who happens to look a little more….”feminine” (in the straight sense, if that makes any sense at all….and by the way, those women I spoke of….are straight).

    Why it is (almost) always about how we “are” in relation to the “other”? (I do believe there has been much discussion regarding this recently….)

    yes, yes, yes, excellent point. So much of what we see and recognize about other people is in contrast to other people. I don’t know how to get away from that totally. I’m more aware of those limitations and my own biases now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes fall prey to them. I can say that even if I don’t pick up the butchness of someone, I will generally notice that they are “outside the norm” and that almost always gets my attention — K

  16. e says:

    The butch nod is as close as we can come to the secret lesbian handshake. I give the nod whenever I can; I get a few back, I get ignored a lot, sometimes I get a glare, sometimes I get a blank look that seems to say “what? do you think I play for your team?”

    In my own household we have a dichotomy. My partner looks quite butch and wants to “be” more butch (at least, more butch than me), but hates recognition in public. I am the enthusiastic little butch who relishes recognition. She is fearful of the general public and territorial around unknown butches. I am the social coordinator trying to connect with every dyke I see. I wear a rainbow on my work badge and a pride button on my backpack. Flying the queer flag, here, people! My partner sighs and shakes her head…

  17. Bren says:

    “Like when I walk through my local bar and the butches pull their girlfriends in close and put as much of their meat between the little lady and me as possible…”

    Guilty! I’m so guilty of this. You’re right – we shouldn’t automatically see each other as threats, but that instinctual reaction is deeply ingrained in the psyches of so many of us. I suppose that, when one is accustomed to occupying a small space in a small community, one becomes unreasonably defensive when that space is breached by somebody else.

    For me, it’s rare to stumble upon another 20-something who IDs as butch in my city of androgynous queer hipster youths. When it does happen, I find myself caught between feelings of excitement at finding another like myself and terror that this new specimen is somehow “more” than I am. More tough, more muscular, more desirable, more butch. These reaction – the heavy arm around a femme, the looking away, the hard stare – they come from places of fear and anxiety. We’re all playing the same gender game, but nobody wants to be the loser. Here’s hoping that we as a community of butch sisters and brothers can someday make this into a team sport.

    Well said, well said. I agree that there is a weird competitiveness between butches and I agree that it probably comes from the small space we’ve been allowed in the wider queer community. I understand it, but am hoping we can put that competitive instinct aside in favor of building our community and claiming more space. Clearly, thinking in terms of winners and losers creates a game that will ultimately reduce us all. In order to convert this to a team sport, each of us who feels passionate about community and connections will need to gird our loins, pull up our britches and stick our necks out — someone needs to be willing to take the risk. In the conversations I’ve been having with butches — in person and through the internet — it’s clear that a lot of us want community and want to get over the ‘there can be only one’ mentality. I welcome you, Bren, on my team. Thanks for your contribution — K

  18. Justa Notha says:

    I mostly consider myself a femme with Tomboi days–my tomboy days have gotten a little less frequent, though, because I find the butch-on-butch hostility exhausting. It was particularly bad at my last job. There was a butch woman there who was totally cool with me 90% of the time, but if I came to work in men’s clothes her hackles rose right up like a dog defending her territory. And it’s not like we even associated with the same women!

    It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me–but I get that same feeling: like the negative side of two magnets approaching eachother–around some men when I go outmatch too. Maybe it’s just a guy thing? I know men and studs sometimes randomly bump or body-check eachother…

    It’s hard to approach butches as a femme too. There’s a really cute woman in my neighborhood, but I never know what to say to her. “Hiiii… I’ve seen you around, I’m a lesbian too?” that just sounds silly.
    Usually I just cast lots of furtive glances and hope they catch on…

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