Big Tent Blues: the Butch Voices / Butch Nation, Masculine-of-Center / Butch controversy

If you’re on the Butch Voices mailing list(s) or follow them on Facebook, you’ve probably seen some of the discussions that have erupted over a change in the Butch Voices mission statement.  The word ‘butch’ was taken out of the opening line of the mission statement and the term ‘masculine-of-center’ took center stage.  (read this,  this, this and this, oh and definitely this to get caught up if you don’t know what I’m talkin about here).

At first I thought it was a silly argument, at least a petty one, over semantics.  Then I read more and thought about it and now think the issue around terminology was just the straw that broke the collective’s back.  I think Sinclair Sexsmith was right, when she speculated that there were personal differences we’re not reading about and those were the issues that started this rift in motion.  And, like Sinclair, I’m not going to try to guess what those issues are.  I will say that when I first read through the complaints people were airing, the first thing I thought was that Butch Voices was interested in creating a bigger tent, big enough to fit a very diverse range of people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB), but are in someway masculine identified, or masculine in presentation.  I have the advantage of having been involved in Butch Voices Portland as an organizer, and having met other people involved in the national organization.  Knowing Joe LeBlanc as I do, I knew immediately that his intent was not to exclude people, but rather to be as inclusive as possible.  Masculine-of-Center was the big tent the Butch Voices organizers created to be inclusive.  Unfortunately, not everyone feels included under that tent, despite their best efforts.

I don’t think the dust has settled yet, but, at this point, there is a new organization focused on people who identify as Butch and their allies called Butch Nation.  This group is planning an event for October of this year, see their Facebook page for more info.

Identity is a complex, fascinating subject.  What might look like just another word for one, could be an identity lightening rod to another.  People do live and die over identities, over the right to claim them and over the right to police them.  Identity policing is a major pet peeve of mine.  It appears to me, from my view of the visible elements of the fight between Butch Voices and the Butch Nation advocates, that part of the fight is essentially around identity terms and their definitions.  There are a lot of words to describe that place where masculinity and AFAB persons meet — butch, stud, aggressive, macha, tomboi, for example.  Some of these terms are held up as proud banners by one group, while those same terms cause fits of PTSD in others.  It may be impossible, in the short term, to bring those two groups together in their way of thinking about those terms, however, it may be possible for each to respect that their view of these terms is not universally held, and that there are multiple truths in relation to these terms.

The Butch Voices conflict is also about priority, about preference and some rather firm tribal lines.  The folks behind the newly formed Butch Nation are female identified butch lesbians (at least that’s the gist I get so far).  They certainly fit under the big masculine-of-center tent, but they fit under it with a whole lot of other identity tribes.  Even with BUTCH in big letters on the name of the organization, there was a feeling of betrayal from the traditional butch female contingent.  They felt slammed when by the terminology change, marginalized and de-prioritized.

I think at this point, people will choose to stay offended or be open to what Joe and the others at Butch Voices are saying about their attempts at inclusiveness.  I wish them all the best.

I’m in agreement with Sinclair, I’m much more interested in the overlap and similarities under the big tent, and how we can come together as a community to support each other.  Nitpicking over differences is frankly a luxury, an indulgence and one that doesn’t get any of us any closer to equality, safety, self-actualization or happiness.  I prefer to see differences as the spice to our communal stew.

Choosing a masculine presentation, as an AFAB person, is a very intentional and radical choice. I’ve been mulling this a lot while getting my Intentional Masculinity workshop ready for Butch Voices. And I heartily agree that to be masculine is not necessarily to be male. Butch identity can sit on the shoulders of female or male identified people, in my opinion.  I don’t think you should be required to return your ‘Butch’ card because you prefer male pronouns.  And you can certainly be masculine and female identified, and/or to express traditionally masculine traits while looking traditionally female. There is an infinite number of ways to combine gender expression and appearance which I think is fascinating and contributes to the richness of our community.  There’s so much variety, so many viewpoints to learn from, I’d rather be in the big tent most of the time, than a smaller one.

As much as I’m in favor of a bigger tent in terms of who gets to enjoy the rewards of the community, I do understand that as we make the tent bigger, there can be feelings of marginalization.  If everyone gets to come to the party, is anyone special anymore?  Groups who feel they should be at the core of the community might feel pushed aside in favor of other groups — as is the case with the female identified butches now backing Butch Nation.  So there are pluses and minuses to this bigger tent.  What we are witnessing are growing pains.  Butch Voices has had an incredible growth spurt from it’s start 3 years ago, and I’m not terribly surprised that there are now conflicting opinions about the positives and negatives of that growth.

I think the conversations around identity, inclusion, community membership, etc., are extremely important.  I don’t see them ever reaching a point of complete agreement for all. That’s not cynicism, that’s my realistic view of humans.  As these conversations continue, I’d really like to see more of a sense of talking within a community, with an effort to keep the community intact, rather than the ‘.. and now I’m taking my toys and leaving‘ messages I’ve seen around this issue. No matter what our differences are, there is so much more we have in common and so much to gain by working together.

With that in mind, I’m looking forward to spending some time under the big Butch Voices tent in a few days.  I’m excited to meet people, learn from them, inspire conversations through my workshops and revel in the wonderful diversity of people who want to be a part of the event.

I’m very aware that as a genderqueer trans butch who no longer identifies as a lesbian, or exclusively as a woman, I’m still trying to work out where I fit in.  The tent includes me, I know that, but there are little things that remind me I live between some of these communities.  My heritage is female identified butch, but in a lot of ways I feel closer to the trans community.  I’ve signed up for the trans networking dinner, but I still feel a little insecure stepping into trans spaces.  When I see people drawing firm lines around their groups and their definitions, I feel excluded.  By definition, I guess I don’t belong.  That’s why I support the Butch Voices mission.  It’s a bit of a selfish reason, but even line-crossing rebels need to belong sometimes.


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9 Responses to Big Tent Blues: the Butch Voices / Butch Nation, Masculine-of-Center / Butch controversy

  1. Roxy says:

    Long before any of this came up in the Big Butch Voices Tent, you and I were already talking about the intersection of genderqueer, trans, butch, masculine, attitude, orientation and appearance. Over the course of a few years we’ve both been slowly growing into our skin, trying on different terms and rejecting others. Although I’ve spent most of my life outside most of them, I’ve occasionally come across one (like ‘queer’) that fits me well enough to hold on to, so I can understand what’s at stake. Although, as Sinclair pointed out, the map is not the territory, sometimes the identity *is* the terminology, especially because the world is so antagonistic towards us. Sometimes all we have is a word or a phrase, like a flag, that we can hold out to hold onto what we are.

    The whole ugly mess has me torn and sad…sad for what’s been lost, and sad for the fears on all sides that keep us divided. I suppose it’s hard to see a community that I’ve enjoyed for 2 years struggle with its first division like this, and hard to anticipate that it will likely not be the last. I just hope that everyone can find a place where they feel seen and heard, and whole, in every sense of that word.

    All of this has been a giant learning experience, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised to see a community become very successful and suffer this kind of fracture. It seems to be a function of size, unfortunately. If there are only 10 of you, you’ll stick together for survival… you get to 100, or larger, and you can fragment into smaller groups and still not be alone. I hope people will take a moment to recognize and appreciate the overlap, as Sinclair puts it. We are more alike than we are different, we stand to gain more by staying together.

    I’m hoping for a good outcome – K

  2. CH says:

    I notice in this post, and in Sinclair’s post as well, only issues of identity are discussed as the cause of the rift. No mention of the role misogyny or agism might have played, yet that is something the butches who left BV did raise. They also mentioned their concern about a lack of ferminist principles in the BV organization.

    I’m no insider (and not a butch), and only know of the conflict via facebook, blogs, and butches I know personally, however I tend to feel more concern over issues of internal misogyny and agism than I do over the endless parsing of identity terminology. Plus, no queer organization that includes women can afford to be without a strong and clearly articulated feminist grounding. But that’s just my opinion.

    Good points, CH, and you’re right I fixed on identity, mostly because I have strong feelings about identity. Not having been in on the discussions, I’m not sure where ageism and misogyny came into the picture. Not all who protest are aged, and I’m almost 50. I know many of the principals and I would never link them to misogyny. So I don’t know if those accusations were based on assumptions or what. My advice to those who eventually decided to leave would be that staying and working toward change and education would be a harder and stronger course. But that’s just me. The organization is growing and changing, those who can stick through the growing pains will have greater leverage to effect change than those who leave.

    Do you have a sense of where the accusations of ageism came in? I’m asking because I’m not sure myself. And do the charges of misogyny come from the inclusion of masculine identified people? I don’t know, so I’m asking what you think — K

  3. Pingback: Big Tent Blues: what did I miss? | Butchtastic

  4. Done with dropping the woman the female DDDDDDDDDDOne Done Done!!!!!While male privilege and butch privilege abounds in our Queer Utopias and woman become men and then rape woman! reproduction rights are under attack ,woman in the world and our communities are under attack politically. Rape is used as a weapon of war in the Congo and other places. Rape as a “corrective” thing for lesbians in South Africa! I am done with dropping the female and that is what pissed me off about the BV conflict not that they dropped the butch but they dropped the female!!! So A shout out to all and any one who can stand strong in the assigned or chosen gender known as female You Rock the Planet!!!!!Female of center PLEASE!!!! I dare you!
    With resect and love

  5. CH says:

    K – Again, like you, I’m not privy to the inner workings that resulted in the split, though I know from years of activism that sometimes it is not possible to work from the inside.

    One of my pet peeves is that queers are over-focused on parsing identities and under-focused on issues of intersecting oppressions that impact all of us. So the fact that some of what occured was experienced as the erasure of butch women, (which is what Sasha T. Goldberg is talking about in the post you linked to) — concerns me. Erasure of women is a form of misogyny. As for agism — that may reflect what is essentially a generational divide. I’m not sure.

    My sense is that those who have formed Butch Nation can best articulate these concerns, so it might be worth reaching out to them.

  6. goddessboi says:

    Try this again.Done dropping the female from everything!Done done done done!!! Considering the condition for females in the world and here in the states with the out right war on female reproductive rights i beleive we can stand for our sisters mothers daughters while we explore develope and induldge in our butch and masculine privilege!
    with respect

    found the previous comments in my spam filter.. approved the second one as requested. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – K

  7. CH says:

    This post regarding the split explicitly states concerns about agism and misogyny:

  8. CH says:

    Oops – it links to the current blog post. Check the previous one.

    great to get that link, actually. The press release I’ve linked to through Sasha T. Goldberg’s blog. Thanks for the info – K

  9. Ani says:

    To say that the women who left are ” taking their toys and going home” is minimizing and disrespectful in my opinion. The same where you say that lovely little bit about a “PTSD fit”. When I have felt like I am on the other end of misogyny it makes sense to get the hell out. Also, Sasha wrote about her concerns and her reasons and was met with institutional silence. Call me a hater if you want. Wish it were that simple. I love me some butches. Goddesses knows I do.

    I don’t think you’re a hater, that’s reserved for people who are hateful in the way they address me and my opinions and impressions. Thank you for your response. There are a lot of levels to this issue, for certain. Personally, I’m peeling them back little by little.

    As for the “taking their toys” phrase, yes, I was called on that by my partner, Roxy as well. There are a lot of reasons for leaving an unresponsive organization, I am hoping that enough will stay to help change it. Change is hard, it takes time and, for some, the change needs to be about leaving. I see communication fault on both sides of this, frankly. I see people mistaking ‘masculine’ for male, and extending that to misogyny. I’m masculine, I’m partly male as well, I am aware of my own misogyny and working to end it. But to be masculine is not to be misogynist, and allow for masculine expression amongst butch identified people.. well, isn’t that a huge part of what being butch is about?

    Anyway, I’m going to leave off for now. As I said in another post, I want to give this issue some focus and time and right now I have neither. Take care, Kyle

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