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

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