When I was a kid, there was an older black woman in the house next to ours named Ms. J. who took care of her older, invalid sisters. I loved Ms. J.
I was a rascally little kid who got into constant trouble and who was visibly crushing on the girl across the street. Today we might call her my “frenemy,” but back then, I just thought she was my bestie. Needless to say, I was pretty clueless.
I remember one day, a couple of the neighborhood boys and I were sitting on my porch, as kids did back then in the summertime. Ms. J. was out in her yard doing what older black women do. As one of the boys’ older siblings came over to the porch, he called out:
“Hey, Ms. J.”
She turned around, smiled and waved, then went back to what she was doing. I remember wishing I could have a pair of overalls like her; that I could have her swagger. She wore her long gray hair French-braided down her back while she chewed on a matchstick, and you never saw her without the hilt of her switchblade sticking out the back pocket of her overalls.
“Ms. J. is cool,” I said.
“Ms. J. a bulldagger,” the older boy hissed.
I didn’t know what a “bulldagger” was, but the way he said it made it sound bad. And I didn’t want to be bad, but I knew that Ms. J. and I had a kinship. And besides, being a bulldagger didn’t look too bad to me.
Today I identify as a butch/stud lesbian. When I mention these identities where I live and work, it’s as if I’m resurrecting a dinosaur. Many of the queer folk in my field and the place I live who once identified as masculine of center, butch, studs or tombois have since transitioned to trans men. As a result, I know a gang of trans men and very, very few MoC queer women. And while we could argue all day about so-called butch flight and how transphobic the concept is, the absence of butch women in the LGBTQIA conversation is glaring.
The last time I saw a black butch woman on TV was on The Wire. If you’re unfamiliar, her name was Snoop (portrayed by Felicia “Snoop” Pearson), an integral part of Marlo’s crew, and both respected and feared. She embodied the cool of butchness, as well as the toxic masculinity of the men around her. Today her closest predecessor is Young M.A., possibly one of the most skilled MCs out there—but the misogyny embedded in her lyrics makes me cringe. As a femme friend said on Facebook, “Degradation is not part of my erotic tool kit.”
For those of us who identify as MoC, what is it about our butchness that requires us to be invested in toxic masculinity?
The Good Men Project defines toxic masculinity as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly ‘feminine’ traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as [a] ‘man’ can be taken away.”
When I was a baby butch, I hung with a group of guys who were all about being “men.” Their behavior around me was part of their way of proving their manhood, and my behavior around them was about proving my masculinity. I was never confused about my womanhood, but I definitely knew I wasn’t in the least bit feminine. So when they would call women bitches and hoes, so did I. When they would grab their crotches, so did I. When they would hold back their emotions, so would I. We were all playing at some form of manhood. I was emulating what I thought black men were, and so were they.
They also spent time trying to figure out if I’d had “good-enough dick” yet. Sometimes I was just one of the “niggas”; sometimes I was this chick that one of them could “hit” and make straight.
But I’d been learning toxic masculinity since I was a kid. My pops is an old-school player; having a daughter freaked him out. Not only was he overprotective—my first date was prom, which is another story—but he very much had the idea that women were dumb, naive and vulnerable prey. That was the message I got as a young girl, and that was the message that shaped my identity as a butch woman.
My own understanding of femmes was shaped by that message, as well as the friendships I had with men. Prior to fully coming out, when I dated men, I’d also see them as less than men because how could any “real” man want to be with a woman who was damn near a dude herself?
Most likely, the reason we don’t often see butch/MoC women in mainstream media is that MoC lesbian bodies aren’t there for the male gaze. It’s too challenging for our heteropatriarchal world. Women have “a place,” and MoC lesbians buck that in more ways than just a sexual one.
The presence of MoC women is a very direct, almost gladiatorial challenge to the concept of masculinity. Today we are seeing in a very real way how men assert their violent ideas of masculinity, through the diverse and rapidly growing group of men who are finally being called to task for their unhealthy and illegal behaviors toward women (and men).
I don’t hang with that particular group of dudes anymore; I grew up and moved away. But looking back, that time in my life was about not only the formation of my butch/MoC identity, but also a deeper understanding of my blackness as a black/biracial woman.
I still kind of chuckle about my relationships with my current group of male friends. They are all social justice minded, and most would call themselves feminists or women-affirming men. And yet even knowing my identity, they’ll sometimes open the door for me, talk about me having children (not that you can’t give birth as a MoC woman) or remark how “pretty” I am when I’m dressed up.
How about saying how handsome I am?
These men see my fat body with its hips, ass and boobs, and no matter how fly I look in my menswear attire, they occasionally try to pull out my chair. Some would say that men shouldn’t do this for any woman—femme and MoC alike—and that’s valid. However, for me, these behaviors often feel like their subtle way of expressing their dominance over me, in the guise of just being “polite.”
What I wish for butch/MoC identities is that we are increasingly included in the conversation and projected onto the screen. Not just as a nod to dapper sensibility—there’s some fetishizing and body-shaming in some of these conversations—but as a complicated identity that isn’t out-of-date or out of step with the fluidity of queer identities. The fact is, being butch/MoC in public is sometimes a very dangerous way to live.
And yet I can’t imagine living any other way.