Butch lineage: The difficulties of chronicling a subculture
By: Kait Fenwick
Not unlike the sleeves of a T-shirt repurposed into a muscle singlet, butch lineage is often seen as dispensable. A cog in a much larger LGBTQIA+ wheel, it is seldom tracked.
It sits calmly in the corner of a quiet pub, a schooner in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It swaps stories using a carefully calibrated syntax that is so uniquely butch, in a manner that slides within the folds of forgotten handkerchiefs and crinkled love letters.
Butch history fumbles: it is a timeline of mismatched folklore, punctuated by significant moments in time only to slip back into and become part of a wider queer undercurrent.
In Boys Like Her: Transfictions, author Ivan Coyote writes, “We are carrying contraband words with us, memorized, tucked away in tattered journals.” While we butch folk might have our own means of communicating between ourselves and with the wider queer community, we’ve been unable to outwardly manipulate that dialogue to write a history that is ours.
Type butch quotes or butch history into any search engine and your results will be peppered with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid content and narrow definitions of what it means to present as ‘butch’ or ‘femme’ that neatly follow heteronormative patterns of existence.
Butch is diverse, transgressive and, sometimes, transgender. We’ve learned this by looking to the pillars of the butch community, most notably activist and author Leslie Feinberg.
Her Stone Butch Blues is the equivalent of a holy text for many a butch-identifying person because it paints a multifaceted image of butch existence. It delves into the complexities of butch in plain, accessible language. It explores gender ambiguity, presentation and representation in ways that allow for discourse to flow in between and outside the lines.
Like Feinberg, queer poet Eileen Myles speaks to the intersection of butch and trans, articulating the ways in which both identities collide and marble. Their work challenges what we, as butches, know about butchness, as well as what butch looks likes when transcribed into trans modes of being. They write, “I’m happy complicating what being a woman, a dyke, is. I’m the gender of Eileen.”
Myles reminds us that complication isn’t a design flaw, nor is it an identity placed upon them, but rather one that’s been created through trial and error – through butch expression that’s moved into uncharted spaces. And these spaces are vast: poems and lovers, how Myles paved their own path through the backstreets of Manhattan and navigated their way through upstate New York.
Their identity consists of a clusterfuck of beginnings and endings and alternative modes of thinking. They have arrived at this identity by re-evaluating and redefining, again and again, what it means to be a dyke – and, ultimately, what it means to be butch.
The terms dyke and butch have a long and varied history. For many, particularly those outside the community, they are synonymous and hold negative connotations. However, for those of us who identify as such, butch is a badge of honour – a title that is earned and worn with pride, often after a period of struggle navigating the world as a masculine-presenting female.
That is just one trope of butch: a common one, but not necessarily applicable to every butch-identifying person. Dyke is sometimes considered an ‘insider word’, used freely in safe spaces by the community. However, when it is spat by someone who doesn’t identify – perhaps on the street, out of a car window, in a beer garden – it drills you to the core.
A recent I-D article entitled ‘eileen myles on their love for shitty t-shirts’ looks at how clothes, like the words we use to describe ourselves, act as identifiers. Speaking to Emily Spivack, Myles characterises a beat-up old T-shirt from Banana Republic as signifying comfort both physically and metaphorically: “I wear it and I feel like the world is in place.”
It is not uncommon for butch and masculine-of-centre people to cling to clothing that makes them feel most like themselves. While butch history has a disjointed timeline – particularly when it comes to fashion – there are certain elements of the quintessential butch wardrobe that never go out of style (a black bandana in a back pocket; a pair of Birkenstocks; a leather cuff worn around the wrist, fastened with push buttons; a deliciously fitting binder).
How does clothing relate to our history? Clothing is significant because what we elect to put on our bodies as we move through the world is deliberate – and, through this deliberateness, we weave a language.
These signifiers allow us to communicate and create points of reference in our communal history, whether that be inside bars that cater for the wider LGBTQIA+ community or, now less commonly, on the street. Activist Kate Bornstein has affectionately referred to these garments as “dykewear” – two decades ago, that black bandana acted as a cue, a suggestion, that the wearer was queer and into S&M.
In our contemporary context, however, meanings have shifted due to increased visibility. Just as bondage paraphernalia has moved into the public consciousness, we no longer rely on these articles of clothing as a form of secret code.
A carabiner housing a dozen keys that jingle with every Doc Marten–clad step, fastened through the belt loop of a pair of skinny-fit, faded Wrangler jeans, could be a subtle indicator of one’s sexual preferences. But, today, such clothes function largely as tokenistic expressions of our queerness, many of which overlap with signifiers adopted by the wider LGBTQIA+ community.
Mainstream media leads us to believe that butch looks like comedian Lea Delaria (said with love and affection) or fictional character Shane McCutcheon (said with love and affection). It would also be naive of me to suggest that, across time, butch and androgynous fashion haven’t mimicked one another – or perhaps even that, in many instances, they aren’t one and the same.
However, to reconstruct our visual history, we must include the diversity of butch. Butch that’s brown. Butch that’s chequered with stretch marks and varicose veins. Butch that’s young, or old, or with disability. Butch that’s femme and femme that’s butch, and butch that is entirely masculine – complete with top surgery and a perfectly proportionate packer tucked into a pair of RodeoHs.
Australian publication Butch Is Not a Dirty Word (BINADW) is systematically archiving our stories, one cover butch at a time. The magazine is currently published biannually and, within its pages, looks at butch from every angle.
Perhaps most importantly, BINADW documents butch people of colour. For the most part, the butch history that we have access to is written in white pen, by individuals with a plethora of tertiary qualifications that definitely hold merit, but who don’t necessarily accurately con- vey the experiences of the less privileged in our community. BINADW reconfigures that dominant narrative, allowing text and image to offer a comprehensive look at butch.
The images within BINADW are also reminiscent of the photographs of Catherine Opie, who documents our people as part of a visual history that doesn’t focus solely on the performative.
In 1994, Opie came to prominence through a series of portraits exploring the Los Angeles leather dyke community, butch identity and the self. When she revisited these themes 10 years later, she captured a different facet of butch. The 2004 series revealed a softness – allowing glimpses into a butch vulnerability, and reminding the community that softness and butchness are not mutually exclusive.
Over a decade later, parenthood and butchness are still scarcely seen within the same frame. Yet Opie continues to reconfigure our conception of butch. Her photograph Self-Portrait/Nursing, for instance, showcases masculine maternalism, depicting a cropped- haired, tattooed Opie chest-feeding a hungry child.
Both Opie and BINADW challenge the notion that butchness equates to hardness, and highlight a commitment to showcasing butch people in ways that challenge common stereotypes.
To ‘track butch’ is to record our nuances: aspects of ourselves and our community that have long been shelved as unimportant or not worthy of documentation.
Our minimal attention to detail is what has led to a lack of inclusive, tangible history – a history that we can pick up, put down again, shake, rattle, question and challenge. At present, there’s no framework for redefinition and reclamation beyond what we have, because it’s other people who have documented it for us – those same individuals with myriad qualifications perched on their ivory towers.
Perhaps this lack of tangible history is a result of our queer elders not feeling as though the language of their context was applicable to them. This has meant that the syntax of butch that we can roll between our thumbs and forefingers is made up of non-verbal signifiers, an oral history that is shared but not penned.
Our patchwork is a poorly tattooed symbol of Venus on a forearm, a home-job buzz cut on a middle-aged dyke, torn posters of t.A.T.u., wardrobes full of colour-coordinated plaid and dog-chewed Calvin Klein underwear. But, beyond the obvious, it’s also genderless, breastfeeding, transgender and transcending.
To live butch is to sit beyond the margins; it cannot be concealed, nor should it be. All I ask is that we start writing things down so that those who come after us have points of reference – so that they don’t have to fumble in the same ways we did.
Kait Fenwick is a trans-butch person living in Newcastle, Australia. In 2017, they completed their Honours thesis titled ‘Digital Queeries’, a body of poetry that explored the relationship between millennial queers and the internet. Their work has been published in the Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry anthology, Butch Is Not a Dirty Word magazine and Cordite Poetry Review.
This article originally appeared in Archer Magazine #10, the ‘HISTORY’ issue. BUY ARCHER MAGAZINE
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