Unmascing the Everyday Patriarchy at Vassar, Part III: On Being Butch and Vulnerable at Vassar

When Yasemin Smallens came to Vassar this year, the queer culture she encountered was invigorating—the way a slap in the face might be. She found a bubble where being a butch lesbian is an anomaly among the queer femme norm, and where the privileges of masculine presentation complicate her place in hookup culture. In this edited interview, Yase presents her own experiences and thoughts on being a butch lesbian in a climate of toxic masculinity.


SASKIA GLOBIG: Let’s start. If you wanna introduce yourself however you want, can you also describe how you look so the audience can visualize you?

YASE SMALLENS: Okay! My name is Yase, I’m a freshman at Vassar College, and I guess I identify as lesbian, I identify as a woman, I identify also as masculine-of-center, so that means I dress in kind of more boyish clothing I guess you could say. I have pretty short hair, I wear Timbs [Timberland boots] every day because I’m a walking stereotype… I wear loose-fitting jeans and a sweater or something… I feel like this is some like phone sex thing, like, “This is what I’m wearing!” [laughter]

SG: Can you tell a story—or more than one, whatever you wanna do—of a time when you were mistaken for a boy? And, I guess, how did it make you feel? And how, maybe, did it make you feel or think differently about yourself than before?

YS: So I would say in the majority of encounters I have with just cashiers, with waiters, I get mistaken for a boy more often than not. I get called “sir”… But, I think a really great story is, over the summer me and my ex-girlfriend went to Montreal, took the train ride—it was like twelve hours, it was crazy—we reach border security and we’re on the train together, and she also has short hair and I have short hair… She was wearing a sweater so she was also looking androgynous that day even though she’s more femme than me—anyways, we’re on this train, and the border security dude comes by and sees us, and he’s like, “How old are you boys?” [laughs] And we’re like, “Uh, we’re eighteen,” and he goes, “Oh! Brothers?” [laughs] and we’re like, “Not really, not so much,” and he takes our passports. So he opens mine first, and he goes, “Oh, oh, sorry, siblings?” and we’re like, “Mmm, not really…” And then he opens hers and he goes, “Oh, sorry, sisters?” and we’re like, “No, um, we’re girlfriends.” The border security guy just goes, “Oh, oh, I’m on your side!”

I hate public restrooms. Gendered public restrooms are the worst. Recently I was going to the movies in the city, and I was in the girls’ bathroom, and I walked out and there was this guy, and he was just like, “What were you doing in there?” And it was very accusatory—’cause I already have my own insecurities about coming off as a predatory lesbian, because I feel like more masculine lesbians in general, there are stereotypes about us being predatory, you know, corrupting these femme girls and things like that, so the way he worded that really kind of resurfaced those insecurities.

SG: And made you feel like you shouldn’t have been in there even though you are a woman?

YS: Yeah, it really depends. In a lot of all-women’s spaces, which are predominantly femme, there are times when I feel like an other and I feel like I’m seen as an other, and that can be really difficult for me because I do identify strongly as a woman, and I struggle with what that even means, but—I don’t feel like anything else, and so therefore I think I am a woman and that’s kind of just my own understanding of it, and I think everybody experiences gender in their own way.

SG: Why do you choose, then, to dress how you do or to look the way you do?

YS: So I’ve been a quote-unquote “tomboy” pretty much my entire life. My mom would get me dresses and I’d be like, “No!” The last time I wore a dress was for a bat mitzvah when I was like thirteen, and even then—okay, there’s a whole culture around wearing dresses, rules you’re supposed to know that I did not know, and I was flashing people… I didn’t know the etiquette, they were never taught to me. My mom wasn’t very present in my life growing up, so I think that also plays into it, but really, this is the only way I feel comfortable. I don’t know what it is—it’s just, I’ve always dressed this way, I’ve always presented this way.

I had really long hair when I was younger and it was just unmanageable and I always felt like I wasn’t pretty, and I guess my response to that was, “Well, they can’t tell me I’m not pretty if I dress like a boy.” These days I feel confident in how I look and I feel… you know, I don’t feel not-pretty anymore.

I just learned how to dress this way and carry myself in a certain way because the other thing about wearing traditionally men’s clothing is the clothes fit you differently, so you therefore walk differently. And even when I wear femme clothing… Me and my friend, one night we went to this party and we switched outfits, and I was wearing these jean short shorts and this crop top—even wearing her clothing, I was still dressing with the “butch walk,” which is, you know, bad posture, long stride, like, “I’m not really trying,” you know, that whole nonsense. And I felt so uncomfortable that night also in feminine clothing. It’s just like, I’m not used to experiencing my body and being seen in that light. But I think it’s a really important experience for me to also have.

I do experience misogyny but my experience of misogyny is very different than most women who present in a feminine manner, just because a lot of people a) don’t see me as a woman, so therefore I don’t get catcalled—if I do get harassed in the street, it’s either because of homophobia, or actually people who assume that I’m trans and I get transphobia. Even though I’m not trans, people have used trans slurs against me. And I don’t experience dysphoria and I don’t experience the transgender experience, but I think because other people have read me as transgender in the past, the slurs that come out of them are used generally against transgendered people. I am a woman but I don’t experience misogyny the same way as a lot of women, and I feel like a lot of what it means to be a woman throughout all of history has been defined by how men treat women, or how even other women treat women because of the patriarchy, and to know that I’m not experiencing that fully, that’s a privilege, but also it does exclude me from some other women and I think that also kind of bleeds into the uncomfortability sometimes I feel in all-women’s spaces.

SG: Have you ever caught yourself doing masculine things that don’t sit right with you, that feel like they don’t fit or that you sort of regret?

YS: I think that masculinity is interesting in a twofold sense. I appear masculine but on the inside, I’m a big femme. You know, if we’re defining femininity—which I think is messed up, but you know—we define femininity a lot of times as the idea of vulnerability and we see women as vulnerable and therefore feminine a lot of the time. I’m very emotionally a vulnerable person, and sometimes I make myself too vulnerable and I think it’s a response because I think people expect me not to be vulnerable because I’m so masculine. So I almost overcompensate by being like, “Look how vulnerable, look at all my emotions! I’m trying to prove to you that I’m not just like a dumb boy who doesn’t feel emotions!” ‘Cause I feel like a lot of people read masculinity and then people expect me to be this cold person. So I feel like I respond by being very empathetic—which is not necessarily a good thing. I think we have this idealist view of empathy, but when you empathize so much you kind of lose yourself… I cry a lot. [laughs] Like, I was at the gym yesterday and I was lifting weights and I was listening to Angel Olsen and I was crying.

SG: Oh my god. [laughs]

YS: Even when I try to perform masculinity—which I don’t even think—I think masculinity is supposed to not be a performance—but the few things you can do to perform masculinity, even when I try to do those I start crying, which I think is hilarious.

I think there’ve definitely been times when I’ve adopted, you know, the downside of masculinity, which is kind of just like misogyny, but I also think I’m hyper-vigilant of my words ‘cause I’m so afraid of being a predatory lesbian and so afraid of being the asshole guy, because, you know, I see so many men just be awful, you know? I really don’t like men. [laughs] And I think part of that’s… I’m so afraid of adopting these misogynistic views.

SG: You mentioned the predatory lesbian stereotype… Do you wanna go into maybe more how it plays out in your relationships with girls, and in your interactions with boys?

YS: Yeah, so, for me, I’m very afraid to flirt with people. I’m always afraid people, especially girls I’m trying to befriend, think that I’m hitting on them. That’s a big fear of mine. I feel guilty whenever I do hit on a girl, which is… I don’t know…. It’s—it’s difficult ‘cause I think sex, for me, is something I’m kind of uncomfortable with because I’m afraid of hurting the other person and, I think, because this rhetoric has been imbued in me that I’m doing something impure, and I’m ruining them. Which is messed up, because it’s an equal relationship. It’s so hard for me to see that and conceptualize that and I’m so worried about freaking girls out by hitting on them even when I know they’re queer and when I know they might be into me. I’m still so scared, and it’s a lot of self-doubt. And then on the other side, I think a lot of women expect me to be kind of like a player, to be able to make sex and emotions two very separate things, and it’s very hard for me to adopt that persona. And I think sometimes because other women in the queer community who are more femme expect me to be this player, they kind of hit on me in ways that I think [if it was] a man hitting on a woman would be seen as totally inappropriate. I’ve gotten messages from girls at like three am being like, “Wanna come over and hang out?” at this campus, and I’ve gotten invited over to people’s houses that I don’t even—it’s just, very uncomfortable interactions with women. Those moments stick out so starkly to me as, “You don’t see me as a woman. You don’t understand that this is making me uncomfortable.” Also everyone thinks I’m a top, which is like… a whole different thing! [laughs]

SG: A lot of constructions of masculinity are built on violence, and are built on oppression, so what does it mean to you that you adopt some of them?

YS: [sighs] I don’t know, I think masculinity is so tied to a lack of emotions that I think there’s something about not showing a lot of your body. I don’t look vulnerable. I look very protected, and like I can carry myself, and like I don’t need anyone to protect me, which isn’t really true, but that’s how my appearance looks, and I think—I think inherent in that becomes a power dynamic between people who dress in a way that makes their body and themselves vulnerable and people who don’t, and I think for me that’s something that is really scary because I do worry about…for instance, in high school I co-led this diversity club in my high school with this girl, and she dressed a lot more feminine than me and also was objectified by a lot of men. And it was so clear that when the two of us walked into a room, everyone would listen to me first. I think for a while, I was just like, “Oh, I just must be a really good leader. They’re all listening to me.” But the more I thought about it and I talked to my co-leader about it, the more I realized they’re just respecting me because I look more like a dude, and my body looks less out-in-the-open and on display for them. I’m trying so hard to equal the playing field, but how much can I do when people still read us like that? Towards the end of the year when I started to understand how me and my co-leader were treated differently, I would make sure she would talk first, and I would always be like, “Listen to Julie—” you know, I would support her a lot. But it was… it was just difficult, ‘cause… I just did not… she got so much disrespect and so many lewd messages from boys, and it was just awful. I can try and try and try, but to know that there’s a limit to what I can do just based off what people can see is very frustrating. But that doesn’t mean I should stop working. I need to work and be vigilant of other people and be listening, and listening and listening and listening. ‘Cause that’s what I can do, and then act upon what I hear, and most of the time acting means kind of sitting down and letting other people speak up.

SG: The devil’s advocate question to that would be, “Okay, so don’t present your gender that way.” But then that’s hard because you want to, and it’s who you are, so how do you deal with that?

YS: I physically could not function dressing in any other way. [laughs] It is a choice to dress this way, but also I’m so uncomfortable wearing, like, crop tops… I’m not used to seeing my body that way. I also think part of it is my body type is like, you know, moderately sized boobs and I have really small hips and stuff. Like I also have kind of an androgynous body in and of itself.

SG: There’s a privilege to that, too.

YS: Oh, there’s such a privilege to that, in that men’s clothing. Yeah, on my boobs it’s kind of uncomfortable, but for the most part it fits me kind of well. And I have an androgynous face as well, which works for me. I feel like I don’t look that womanly. First of all, women, I think we have a very cis view of it, so we see—as in, society—usually affiliates a woman with a vagina, and breasts, and butts. I always wear saggy pants so you can’t see my butt. So then when I wear tight clothing, I’m like, “Oh, I have a butt!” It’s like, “Woah! Where’d that come from?” Every time I wear feminine clothing it’s like I’m somebody else. I don’t really think I could change…

SG: And why should you?

YS: You know, why should I? Yeah.

SG: Do you notice anything different, or do you have any thoughts about gender performance on this campus, at Vassar, or was there a shock when you came that you had any thoughts about masculinity or femininity here?

YS: I grew up in a really queer scene in New York City…so I was around a lot of queer people who definitely pushed gender expectations, definitely pushed those boundaries a lot.

Why are there so many drag queens, but so many few drag kings? It kind of gets to this idea that femininity is a performance. You know you can perform to make yourself vulnerable because you’re pleasing an audience, which has historically been men. Whereas masculinity is not a performance. There are a few performances of masculinity— “I’m a big dude, here I am!” But you don’t—you’re not flaunting, you’re not showing. So for me, the idea of kind of forming gender, and especially at college, is: my performance is I’m not performing, ‘cause the expectation of women is to perform, so then other people read that contradiction as a performance.

SG: You don’t think masculinity is a performance, generally, at all?

YS: I think of masculinity as a performance between other masculine people, but I don’t think it’s a performance for feminine people.

SG: Or as often, maybe?

YS: Yeah, I think femininity has historically been a performance for the masculine people, which have historically been men, whereas masculinity is intra, you’re fighting with other mascs. Even with other butch women, there’s a way that I talk with other butch women that makes me uncomfortable. I feel that competition and that culture of masculinity in there, but it’s definitely not as bad as between men, at least from what I’ve witnessed—just because we’re also women, so misogyny is something that we know, that we experience and know about.

Masculinity is not making yourself vulnerable, that’s the whole point of it, which is really messed up. I dress in a way that makes nothing really vulnerable about me …

SG: Physically?

YS: Physically vulnerable about me, and then I act in a way that makes me incredibly emotionally vulnerable to compensate for the lack of physical vulnerability because I wanna be human. I feel like with a lot of men, they wanna transcend humanhood. You know, it’s like the God-like complex, like, “I’m so strong, you can’t touch me, I’m untouchable, I don’t have emotions, look at me I have power over you,” whereas I feel uncomfortable in positions of power more often than not.

SG: So, what do you think about the whole sad-boi, alt-bro phenomenon? Yeah, talk about that.

YS: I personally identify as a sad dyke. [laughs] No, no, no… I think it’s really messed up because I think a lot of men like to deny their privilege by being like, “I’m so sad, I get to feel emotions too.” But really, they’re making women do all the emotional labor for them. The lack of awareness  of themselves and the space they consume is incredible. There’s something so self-indulgent about that culture that really bothers me, that really speaks to the patriarchy. I think it’s been embroiled in a lot of women that “you should not expect to be emotionally reciprocated in a relationship,” so therefore women act in a way where they’re like, “Oh, okay, I shouldn’t expect to be met as an equal,” you know? So people start dating these sad-bois that can’t emotionally meet them because you don’t think you deserve that. But it’s like, “Yeah you do!” And also sad-bois need to learn to deal with their emotions and be in touch with their emotions, ‘cause masculinity does not tell you how to deal with your emotions. I think part of the reason I have a lot of issues dealing with my emotions in a healthy way is ‘cause… there’s something about being a girl and growing up, and then having friends who are girls, there’s just that bond that I never really got ‘cause I always dressed this way so I had a lot of friends who were boys growing up, or girls who were also kind of weird.

Men and masculine people need to learn to deal with their emotions and make themselves vulnerable. So the whole idea of a sad-boi is they’re not fully experiencing their emotions, they’re only experiencing it to a point where it appeases women to feel like, “Oh, this boy’s different from the other boys,” but really, he’s an asshole, too. There’s a really great autostraddle [article] about being butch and never learning how to deal with your emotions. How do I be sad when everything in masculine culture tells me not to be sad?

SG: So how does that translate into lesbian culture? ‘Cause b-o-i, boi, is also used by lesbians, so how have you experienced that?

YS: I kind of accept it. You know I joke, “I look like a little boy,” I joke around with it, it doesn’t—it doesn’t usually upset me but there are moments, especially in my interactions with girls in a romantic sense, where sometimes I’m insecure that sometimes women are into me because they expect me to be a boy. Which is different. Queer women on these campuses know we’re women and they also see the masculinity in us. In queer culture at Vassar at least, masculine lesbians are very… there are not a lot of us here, I think I would say. There’s definitely the idolization of dykes and stuff like that, which makes me uncomfortable ‘cause I feel like I’m a human, I want you to see me as a human before you see me as this masculine person. And it makes me uncomfortable also ‘cause I’m—I feel like sometimes in the queer community we recreate patriarchy, and we have these apathetic dykes that are on the top.

SG: I think there’s also the phenomenon of girls and femmes who aren’t just lesbian equating butch lesbians with straight guys, and that’s a similar privilege somehow…

YS: Totally true. I’ve had a lot of experiences with girls who totally think butch women are men, which is definitely—if that’s your thing, cool, as long as you see me as a woman and treat me as a woman, which I feel like isn’t always the case. And also, how is a woman supposed to be treated? I guess that in and of itself is also a controversial statement, but, it’s hard to trust women sometimes, queer women, ‘cause I’m just like, “Do you really see me as a woman, or do you just see me to the limit of my masculinity?” I feel objectified as a masculine person all the time. Because they’re like, “Oh, she’s not a boy so she won’t hurt me like a boy, but she looks like a boy, so it’s close enough.” But I really just wanna be Yase, and not “Yase the butch lesbian.” But I feel like no matter what I do on this campus, I’m “Yase the butch lesbian.”

SG: And you’re only a first-year! It’s insane, and people already think that about you.

YS: Yeah! Plus I’m like—okay, there are, like, three of us on campus, also. There are, like, ten Muslims, ten butch lesbians on campus, so in both categories I’m… if there’s a census on campus, I’m “winning” it! [laughs]

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