On Being Butch and Vulnerable, Take Two: A Reflection by Yase Smallens

Editor’s Note: Last year Saskia Globig (co-editor in chief of boilerplate) asked if she could interview me about masculinity and butchness for her series on toxic masculinity. I immediately said yes; I love talking about my butchness, it’s a fundamental part of my identity and a community that I often feel is underrepresented and misunderstood.

We spoke for a little under an hour. Afterwards I didn’t remember much of what was said, I know I told some silly stories and talked a little about the patriarchy, but the conversation mostly faded from my memory. Nearly a year later the piece, Unmascing The Everyday Patriarchy at Vassar, Part III: On Being Butch and Vulnerable At Vassar , re-entered my life.

Upon examining this interview on a deeper level, I’ve come to question aspect of Globig’s approach, however focusing wholly on Globig’s work would be a fruitless task; instead I intend to use this moment as an opportunity to expand our collective understanding of privilege and oppression as it relates to my own experience.

***

It was a late Tuesday night, I was eating a “loaded” baked potato from the Vassar Food Truck, when I received a message in my Facebook inbox. It read:

“Hey I wanted to reach out to you bc I’ve seen the interview with u circulating in some spaces I’m in and I’m so sorry you had to experience that”

I didn’t know what to make of the message at first. It was sent by a distant friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years, and I was unclear what she was referring to. I said thank you, but followed up by asking what interview she was talking about. She linked me to Globig’s piece. I began to re-read it, trying to figure out what negative experience this person was talking about. As I read on I received another facebook message from the same person, it was a screenshot from a facebook group for butch lesbians. They were discussing Globig’s article, the commenters were “sending support my way” or stating that “the interviewer was unethical and unprofessional,” or worse “butchphobic.” And so I re-read the interview even closer, and then I saw it.

Globig’s series was on toxic masculinity, not masculinity, and therefore her questions were trying to gauge how my own masculinity may fit in to the framework of toxic masculinity. Globig stated: “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?… 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?… Why do you choose, then, to dress how you do or to look the way you do?”

In a different context these questions would make more sense, if Globig was interviewing a cis-straight man I’m sure there would be little to no objection— but she wasn’t interviewing a cis-straight man, she was talking with me, a butch lesbian. Globig’s frames her series on masculinity as an opportunity to “hear Vassar students of various identities speak on their encounters with toxic masculinity…the series will confront the realities and ramifications of what it means to embody masculinity in the here and now”.

Upon second glance I found Globig’s questions to be misguided and, at times, insensitive. Globig chose to mostly engage with my presentation as a manifestation of my masculinity. However, fixating on my presentation allowed my experiences as a woman to be overlooked. I appreciate her work deconstructing the patriarchy through my interview and others, but to further investigate the gender inequities today it is integral that we break away from the privilege/oppression dichotomy, and examine the fluidity of social identities.  Several times in the interview I spoke about how I often feel discomfort in women’s spaces because of my butchness, I feel as though I am not a woman enough, and many of these questions continue that pattern of being othered. In an attempt to deconstruct the patriarchy, Globig perpetuated aspects of it by disregarding my own experiences as a woman.

Toxic masculinity is a concept I first encountered in High School at diversity workshops I attended. I hadn’t revisited the topic in depth until I re-read Globig’s piece and started to question my own relationship with toxic masculinity and my position within the patriarchy. I began to ask myself if I, because of my presentation, hold toxic masculinity?  Toxic masculinity isn’t a tangible and singular entity, it has many definitions and interpretations; I define toxic masculinity as the extreme concentration of harmful traits such as dominance, violence, suppression of emotion and competition, that hurts all genders and larger society. It is also important to note that any source of privileged social identity has the potential to become toxic; I often find that there is a lack of discussion about toxic whiteness or toxic wealth— yet these identifiers are also rooted in notions of dominance, violence and competition.

   

In my interview with Saskia, I gave examples of times when my masculine presentation afforded me more respect than others. This remains true today as I often find leadership positions are delegated to me before more feminine presenting people. In these scenarios it is patriarchal notion that leadership and masculinity are one in the same which shapes society’s collective imaginary and influences individual decisions across the board. It may also be true that because of these patriarchal frameworks, I find myself more comfortable talking in class and directing groups as a result of my masculine presentation. The problem lies in the assumption that because of my butch presentation,I have adopted traits  “of masculinity [that] are built on violence, and oppression,”: hypermasculinity.  I find that this idea overlooks the complex relationship between butch women and the patriarchy. It is important to locate and resist  assumption, noting that nearly all people are implicated in patriarchal dominance regardless of one’s presentation. Deconstructing these oppressive frameworks is an active, rather than passive process; for passivity perpetuates oppression where, more often than not, agency welcomes justice.  

Furthermore, the few privileges I receive as a result of my appearance are mainly visible in liberal communities like Vassar. In many setting outside of Vassar, my masculine presentation has been a liability. In these contexts patriarchal norms no longer become a source of my privilege, but of my oppression. Even in New York City I’ve experienced virulent discrimination; I’ve been chased out of bathrooms, followed by strangers to my apartment, and threatened with violence. This danger only escalates as I leave the city and enter into less liberal territories.

Many academics have discussed how homophobia is a product of the patriarchy; gay people are marginalized because they threaten the hegemonic structure which assigns men dominance over women. What is far less discussed is the topic of “butchphobia.” I define butchphobia as the fear and disgust against masculine presenting women (predominantly lesbians) largely as a result of the patriarchy. My ability to wear men’s clothes, and, at times, be mistaken for a man, threatens the notion that masculinity is innately tied to manhood, and manhood is innately tied to superiority. As a woman, my masculine presentation exposes the myth of masculinity as innately male, and therefor maleness as innately superior. Through this lens it is not only my sexuality, but also my presentation, which elicits anger and hatred in many.

While I’ve experienced street harassment for my butch presentation, I have not been cat-called as many of my more feminine presenting friends have. This is a privilege I have a result of my presentation, but this privilege is often the result of being misgendered. On the streets and in cafes, I’m frequently referred to as “sir” or with “he/him/his” pronouns. The reason I’m not subject to cat-calls is not because I have privilege for being a masculine woman, but because I have privilege for being mistaken as a man. Yet being misgendered is also a source of discrimination. Last spring I was asked to leave a women’s bathroom and forced talk to a manager because another patron assumed I was a man.

Being seen for my true identity as a butch woman makes me vulnerable to homophobia, whereas being mistaken for a man frees me for misogyny. Yet being misgendered is also a source of discrimination. The complexities of my butch experience reveals the need for a more comprehensive understanding of privilege/oppression. Currently I find many liberal arts colleges use a capitalistic framework to discuss social identities. Identities are assigned fixed positive or negative values as either privileged or oppressed respectively. While some identities, like whiteness, are practically a fixed positive value, other identities like female masculinity are more fluid in nature. An identity which is at once a source of privilege, can also be a source of oppression, as clearly seen through my interactions with masculinity. Another example of the fluid nature of social identities can be found in my own religious background. Where being a Muslim in America is source of oppression, it’s a source of privilege for my family in Turkey.

Recognizing the intricacies of social identifiers asks that we step away from commodified notions of identity and see social identifiers, such as masculinity, as not inherent and static privilege; rather privilege depends on the person, time and place. If social identities are products of socio-political constructions, then it is imperative that we pinpoint  these identities within their socio-political landscapes. For me that means locating my masculinity as a woman in the predominantly liberal spaces that I occupy.1  BP

 

  1. Also important to note other identities, such  as race, class, etc. affect how one operates within a socio-political landscape.

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