So I’ve had this post floating around for a while, but I’ve never gotten around to finishing it. Rather than have it rotting on my server I thought I’d publish it and come back to it later.
It’s rough, I haven’t finished my conclusions and I’m sure there are some bits that are contradictory. There is so much more that I want to write about on this but I just don’t have the time. Hopefully I’ll get back to it soon!
Butch girl = normal boy?
I’m sitting in my family living room, where we are all sat blankly watching the television, like a precognisant tribute to The Royle Family. This isn’t so unusual – it’s 1988, I’m 9 years old and I’m stuck in a dead-end Northern town – what else is there to do but gather around the glowing box? Besides, it’s after dark and there’s no way I’m being allowed outside after setting fire to the dining room. Again.
Onto our Rumblow’s rented TV set (insert 50p to get half an hour’s viewing!) comes this show favoured by my dad, but which I’d never really watched. Something about a man in a long scarf, with a hat? Or is it an umbrella with a question mark handle?
I sit playing with my lego, building spaceships that would take on the Evil Empire. As I play I become aware of the programme with the weird intro. There’s this girl on the screen who is acting just like how I like to act. She’s insolent, rude, wears Doc Martens and carries explosives. I stop playing with my lego. She acts like I act, but she’s a girl? I sit transfixed for the next forty minutes. The girl I’m describing is Dorothy Gale McShane. Better known as Ace, the companion of the Seventh Doctor.
Now, you’ve got to understand who I was back then to fully fell why my emphasising with this girl was so incredible. I was an introverted 10 year old boy who wanted to be a girl. I couldn’t figure out why I had the overwhelming urge to be a girl when I didn’t like any of the things that girls were supposed to like. I didn’t like dolls. I didn’t like pink. I enjoyed getting messy and running around in fields. I was a pyromaniac who set fire to things for the sheer joy of it and blew things up in isolated fields with snaffled gunpowder. So how the hell could I be a girl? Finding a woman on TV who I looked up to, who I wanted to be like, who was like me, was a rare thing.
Being a trans kid is tough to deal with when you’re in a pre-internet age and have no knowledge of why you are as you are. But it gets a whole lot more complicated when your gender expression matches the sex you’ve been assigned at birth. I pretty much ID as butch, even if I’ve hidden it for a long time. So a boy, who wants to be a butch girl? That’s a hard one to figure out.
Even as adults, those of us who are trans, MAAB (male assigned at birth) and who don’t identify with the femme corner of gender space have it tough. Because to most people, including a huge number of trans women, the process of coming out as trans is obviously one where you put on a dress, apply the lipstick and wear the heels.
You’ve seen it and you know what I mean. Every trans woman you’ve ever seen on TV is shown putting on make-up, while whimsical, fairy-like music plays in the background. It’s one of those things that has become a trope, necessary to establish to a cis world that the person being portrayed wants to become a woman. Because to the world at large a woman is defined as pretty/make-up/hetro.
So what’s a butch girl to do? If you’re living as a pre-teen boy, well, be confused as fuck.
Why so femme?
Most trans women end up portraying themselves as femme, even if they don’t necessarially ID that way. The reason for this lies with the patriarchal psychiatric system that oversees trans people. Y’see, we aren’t allowed to make body decisions for ourselves. Bodily autonomy, taken for granted in abortion, reproduction and body modification, is denied to us. Gender psychs (an overwhelmingly masculine profession) have to make sure that we’re “suitable” for treatment. How does a psych “tell” if a boy wants to be a girl? Why, by them dressing up in pink! By them playing with dolls! By them fluttering their eyelashes and being submissive.
This patriarchal bias means that gender norms are rigidly enforced. I submitted to it myself, turning up to psychiatrist offices wearing a dress, made up to the fucking nines. Because there’s this voice, whispering to you, created from the experiences of the thousands gone there before you: “what if he doesn’t think I’m pretty enough?”
Let me say this loudly, just so I’m sure you understand. I WAS WORRIED ABOUT HOW A CIS MAN, A MAN WITH POWER OVER ME AND MY BODY, WOULD JUDGE MY LOOKS AND MY “FEMININITY”.
This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a fucked up situation. It is an *abusive* situation. It meant that I subsumed my natural self, who I am, to fit in with a pre-determined notion of what a woman is.
It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that trans women are so reviled by the hardline feminists. Yes, we do reinforce gender stereotypes. Not because we want to, but because it’s a patriarchal institution making us act like simply so that we can attain basic medical provisions. It’s an abusive relationship that would not be tolerated in any other field. Being non-femme with a psych means missing out on treatment. That’s why, Julie Bindel and other second-wave radical feminists, trans women so often “look like characters from Grease“. Because they have no other fucking choice.
Of course, a large number of trans women succumb to the societal diction that certain traits belong to certain genders and equate woman with pink/pretty. Those people I’m disappointed by. Transitioning should open your eyes to the gender restrictions that exist in society. Not criticising you for being femme, but criticising you for not questioning the woman/femme combo meal that has been served up to you.
The aversion of trans women to the butch expression is not limited to psychiatric abuse. “Passing” plays its part as well.
Most trans women are not gifted with physical attributes that put a hypothetical naked body within female norms. Discounting genitals, hormones can only do so much to the typical male body. Unless you started them as a young teen, which is still utterly rare, you’re not likely to wind up with wide hips, a slight frame, or a hairless body. So the typical trans woman has to compensate. Hyper-femininity is used to counteract the physical characteristics that cannot be rid of by hormones, electrolysis or surgery.
Gender cues are complex, but what is for certain is that we judge gender almost instantly. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s the first thing that we assess about a person. Big, confident, short hair? Man. Slight, timid, long hair, adorned with colour? Woman. You do it. We all do it. We’ve been raised to do it by parents and society. It’s why our brains fuse slightly when we meet someone who doesn’t conform to the gender binary, or who throws up contradictory gender cues.
Because of the bodies congenital masculinity some of those cues have to be over-emphasised, to a degree that is sometimes verging on parody, simply in order to overcome the built-in “male” cues. That’s why the vast majority of trans women reside at the femme corner of gender space: it’s hard to be butch if you’re physically masculine – you’d get misgendered almost instantly. And misgendering, for a trans person, is a painful experience.
What does all this mean then? I’ve railed against the enforcement of gender, that we should be allowed bodily autonomy and taken a potshot at radfems. Do I have a point? If I was with you in person and had consumed some vodka I’d be gesticulating at you wildly and shouting something like “Just fuckin’ do it! Just be who you wanna be! Don’t give a shit! Don… *hic* …don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Which I think sums up my position pretty well. I’m pretty sure gender is an irrelevance. I don’t think that conflicts with my being trans, as that’s to do with my body, my sex, bits that are relevant to me and to those I choose to share them with. “Gender” is the facepaint that we face the world with. Gender is societal. Gender is power.
Butch is the nearest word I can use to express how I present to the world, even if I don’t agree with the way gender works. We’re still mired in gendered language, after all.