Butch Please: A Letter to Baby Butches

BUTCH PLEASE is all about a butch and her adventures in queer masculinity, with dabblings in such topics as gender roles, boy briefs, and aftershave.

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Header by Rory Midhani


Dear little sister, brother, sibling, or child,

Is today the day you are calling yourself butch for the first time? If so, this letter is for you. It’s also for you on the day when you’re not ready to give yourself a name, and on the day when you’ve been called butch by a boy who wanted to hurt you, and on the day when you kiss the girl who calls you a baby butch in her sheets. If the word makes you cry, this letter is for you. If the word makes you proud, this letter is for you, too.

Maybe you have said it to your mirror, or underlined it in the book that you’ve slid between pillow and mattress. Your cat knows the word because he heard you whispering it in the shower. Maybe you’ve known ‘butch’ for your whole life, or one whole year, or the single minute that made your head spin with all that resolution.

Did you know it only takes one thought to curl itself into the shape of a fist? Did you hear about the straw that broke the camel’s back? You are not the straw, or the camel. You, my baby butch, are the desert, and the rain that only needs to come once to nourish it all.

I know the street corner where you and the girl you loved without words once wrote your names using twigs and nails. When you peeled back the plastic and pressed your hand into the wet cement, did you know that someday you’d come back to the place and you’d smile at the memory? Did you know what the handprint said? It said ‘I am here, I am in love.’ It said ‘butch.’

Do you remember that nosebleed? The one that left red constellations across barstools and scattered like dice on the sidewalk? If you’d opened your palm for one second, you’d see that the lines in your palm that ran red were spelling out ‘butch,’ clear as day.

There was the night when you were drunk in the bathtub and the girl with the braid swung her legs over the side. You thought you could see Jesus in those legs the way people see Jesus in toast or wallpaper. She shaved your head while you laughed into a bottle of schnapps. Your hair was falling into your lap like a hundred promises coming true and each follicle was saying ‘butch, butch’ in a chorus. And the next day when they stared, when their eyes couldn’t meet yours, those gazes too were saying ‘butch’ and you remember what you did then? You took what they said and you sewed it into your shirt, right between the top button and the tie you learned how to tie on your own.

The switchblade your father left you? Butch. Your knuckles curling like poetry? Butch. The night you believed in God for three hours? Butch. The tattoo in Amsterdam that made you cry like a baby? Butch. The dent in your flask from the kid who knocked you into the wall with a kiss? Butch. And the stars, too; if you stare long enough, you’ll see how they’re spelling it out with each little wink and nod. You’ll never forget the night your mother laid in the grass with you and said that your grandfather was in the stars. He was up there, spelling out ‘butch’ with celestial Scrabble tiles.

But butch is in the other parts of you, too. You couldn’t see it and they’d never tell you, but there, in your favorite shade of pink thread, was ‘butch’ spelled along the ribbon of that dress. ‘Butch’ threaded through a ponytail, and scuffed into your Mary Janes. That nail polish says ‘butch’ just as well as that jackknife. You can keep both in your back pocket and know that they learned to spell just fine.

Are you out there? Is your name still hanging in the closet, or have you pinned it to your diaphragm so it swells with stubborn pride every time you take a breath? Swallow that mouthful of air and hold it for a few seconds longer — do you feel the power of that word pressing against your ribs? It’s been known to rip through guts thicker than yours or mine, but there’s a flush in your cheeks that I’ve seen in my mirror and I think we both know the risk is worth it.

It won’t be easy. Some days, it’s too heavy to carry down the street, and you’ll be struggling under its weight before you realize you forgot your shoes. You’ll think it’s a limp, or a dead dog on a leash, or a wound that’s gone rotten in your side before you ever think it’s a saving grace. And if you’re waiting for the world to smack you in the face — if it’s a fight you’re holding out for — you’ll get it. Collect your teeth from the boxing ring and you’ll see the way ‘butch’ is written into the enamel. You’ll get a mean left hook from how far you hurl it away from yourself, and when they sling it right back, you won’t think twice about standing in the way.

But you remember what they told you about foxfire. You think you’ve got yourself a swamp until you see the way it shines in the dark.

I have every faith in you, baby butch. I know you will be careful with this word and its legacy. It looks like a badge but it feels like a battleaxe, and I need you to know that it’s five times as difficult to earn and ten million times more dangerous. You weren’t awarded butch at the end of a great queer race. You cannot hang it in your living room or shine it on your mantle. You dug it up from the ground. You were on your knees, scraping at the soil with your short nails and your bloody hands. You found ‘butch’ in your own bones and you sucked out the marrow until your tongue knew the word by heart. And there are other names and other terms that were just as hard to find as yours, and you’re not to ever assume that the hole you made in the ground was deeper than anyone else’s. You had best promise me that right now.

Baby butch, you are beautiful. You are the most handsome motherfucker I’ve ever seen, and I’m the proudest elder sibling in the whole strange world. Don’t doubt the family you have — we’re right here cheering you on, elbowing you in the side, mussing your hair. You’re gonna be just fine.
All my lovin’,
Kate
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Hard-lovin' butch made of tears, sweat, and spit, in that order. Full-time writer, part-time lover, freelancing in fancy cheese and cider. Made in America but making a darn good life of it in Dublin, Ireland.

Kate has written 127 articles for us.

68 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    you write so eloquently…it is like the most beautiful poetry….the words stay with me a long time….maybe, time to put all this together and write a book?

    • Thumb up 11

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      i would love to write a book, or lots of books, or just things that would feel more like a life’s calling and less like a “career path” or a Thing Done For The Internet. it always seems like something you’d call a book is in the conception stage, but the thing is that i’m not really there yet; it’s fun to pick out names or daydream over coffee, but i’m still fooling around with the condom and hoping something sticks

      but someday, yes

  2. Thumb up 2

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    I was already a fan of this column, but this piece is melting my heart! Such a poetic & striking description of butch life. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thumb up 4

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    I can’t relate to identifying as butch in any way. But damn you are a stand alone writer!! This married momma would read anything you write! So beautiful.

  4. Thumb up 2

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    I’m sorry but this is not good writing, in my opinion. It is gratuitous and over done. Also you rip off andrea gibson a bit, but we all do that.

  5. Thumb up 9

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    Kate… Your posts are like crack to me. Every time I go on Autostraddle I look for them and I get excited if I see one and if I’ve already read it I feel crushing disappointment and the empty stretch of time before I might get to read another one. If you had a blog I’d read it every day.
    I’m not butch. But I love so many butches that you make me feel closer to them, more understanding and sensitive to them. So thank you for that. Thank you for warming me and educating me. I love how often those two are the same thing.

  6. Thumb up 1

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    I’m sorry but this is not well written, in my opinion. I appreciate what you’re trying to do but I think it sounds contrived… too literary. and I feel like you’re ripping off Andrea Gibson… although I don’t really mind that.

    • Thumb up 22

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      y’all gotta make your point twice in slightly different wording from the same IP address? killin me, friend

      if you like andrea gibson and think she is who i am ripping off, you should definitely investigate the rest of the “write bloody” writers who are ALL amazing and are all people i enjoy reading and listening to and think my work might get a bit of its glimmer from, at least in inspiration. you would really enjoy them if you don’t mind andrea gibson! there’s a lot of poets on the internet these days whose work is super accessible and great and i highly recommend them to everyone. i think that current school is what ‘butch please’ could be accused of sounding like if only because we deal in very similar subjects, love metaphors, and aren’t ashamed of our bad parts

      otherwise my biggest writing influences are lorrie moore and people yelling on public transportation and just having lots of really immense gratuitous feelings

        • Thumb up 6

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          naw, it’s totally cool. i am actually super down with critiquing and making my writing even sharper and better, so i don’t mind when people wanna shoot me some critiques. i just wanted to clarify my inspirations and stuff my writing is often compared to because andrea gibson’s voice is probably the most well known in the “write bloody” crew but very similar to that sound — and i want other people to read from that school, too, so i wanna spread the good word! i am familiar with that style but like i said, i would say the writer i most aspire to be is more the lorrie moore side of things with just a shit ton of shameless FEELINGS so if this is how it sounds, so be it. it’s a compliment!

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            Apologies; it seemed that the first comment didn’t post. I am just being honest – I’m not saying I’m right. I think you are a good writer, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to critique :)

    • Thumb up 2

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      Taking your words back?.. lol

      No, but I think these autostraddle readers are easy to impress with the whole “I’m a soft-hearted butch, please be gentle with my feelings and pet me” thing. I found the writing to be okay, but not stellar.. I think if you (Kate) were to really develop some writing skills, it wouldn’t be on this blog where people overreact to everything they find remotely interesting.

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        I just think reign it in. Write factually or literary. Don’t get sucked in to creating a romantic persona – I can see your better than that.

        Zenio – I wasn’t taking it back hahaha just trying to be constructive.

      • Thumb up 2

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        I think your criticism would be a lot more likely to stick if it strayed away from personally insulting the writer and/or readers.

        Criticism (of the constructive sort, which means no personal attacks) is great! It’s an important part of our development as artists and human beings. But it should be free of sarcasm, and definitely free of insults – otherwise no one is going to be open to said criticism (would you be?), and it does no one any good.

  7. Thumb up 9

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    thank you thank thank THANK YOU thank you THANK YOU THANK YOU

    i’m the only butch my age (16) i know and on the one hand it’s who i am and i love myself especially for the parts that others would gladly rip from me. so my masculinity is something i will always clench in my fist, ever since i was eight and getting into fights with boys older than me so they could feel my identity right in their gut. now my fists only ever swing by my sides, but my masculinity is still something i’m proud of and wary of and fiercely protective of.

    but on the other hand, it does get a bit lonely at times. it would be nice to see folks like me in movies, or on tv, or maybe even just at my school. because masculinity is something i have had to teach myself, or take from the guys i know and twist to fit my body. and while i love who that mess of influences made me, it would be nice to not have to do it all myself. i love the scruffy kid with too many feelings i’m growing up to be, but it’s a bit lonely knowing i’m always the only butch in the room and not very much, whether it’s clothes or the words of various people i admire, will fit me without modification.

    so in summary thank you for being the first role model i’ve ever had who acknowledges kids like me and whose words fit me like a glove~

    • Thumb up 8

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      I’m also 16 and I can totally relate to what you said. I don’t think I’m exactly butch, but I do have a lot of masculine traits. I’ve always knew I was different and everybody knew that too. I’ve always felt like I had to hide and to fake because I was doing something wrong.
      It definitely gets very lonely sometimes. Being the only one in school, being the one who’s stared at on the streets. And not being able to really cope or understand because you don’t know anyone like you, you don’t read about them or hear about them. I think that’s why everytime I see someone’s who butch, or that just looks queer, I feel like smiling at them. I feel like somehow I know them, because at one time or another we’ve all felt the same way.
      Kate’s articles really helped me not to feel ashamed of who I was anymore. Seeing someone who is like you and is unapologetic about it, who’s proud of it… it makes you feel proud of it, makes you feel part of something and realize you’re not so lonely anymore.

  8. Thumb up 9

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    Most times, I can’t even bring myself to even think the word “butch” without it evoking every memory I have of it used against me. Butch is the risk card. The one to hold close to my bound chest till I’m sure that it’s safe, and I almost never feel safe.

    This. This made me feel those things I usually ignore. There were tears. Crazy little baby butch tears that I both resent and relish. It was nice though, to be honest.

    I feel like thank you would never really be enough. Butch Please has been that safe haven where I get to see things about myself in a new way…a positive way. Coming from a family like mine, in a community like mine clouded by general ignorance, calling myself a butch is not a positive thing in the least. But I get stronger everyday! You help me do that, so thanks.

  9. Thumb up 6

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    well i’m crying now
    adding my voice to the chorus of gratitude

    “That nail polish says ‘butch’ just as well as that jackknife. You can keep both in your back pocket and know that they learned to spell just fine.”

    my favourite part. thank you.

  10. Thumb up 2

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    Kate,

    Your writing hits me in the gut like nothing I’ve ever read. I’m not good at feelings, but I’ve already had to write down several quotes of yours so that I can reread them. Makes me feel human.

    Just thanks.

  11. Thumb up 4

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    “And there are other names and other terms that were just as hard to find as yours, and you’re not to ever assume that the hole you made in the ground was deeper than anyone else’s. You had best promise me that right now.”

    THIS!!

    Cade, you’re killing me here. You keep writing things from inside my head but then expressing them more eloquently than I ever could. Identification Overload + Writing Envy = TOO MANY FEELINGS!

  12. Thumb up 2

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    Dear Kate, your writing is exquisite…you know why…because you… unlike so many other people…write from the heart. I am not butch, in fact many call me “fey” because I am of all because all is in me…I am me and I have never let anyone in all my young to middle ages tell me what to do and how to do it…we all have a particular style of living and that is what we should all be happy. It doesn’t matter what others say.. but; when you write….your words stay with me a long time and enlighten me to the people around me…and, that is the best compliment one can pay a writer or an artist. Thank you…keep writing and do think about a book.

  13. Thumb up 8

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    I seriously wanted to cry reading this.. your shit is so beautiful.. all your words. Every part you reveal and share with us. I’ve been reading this article for a long while and am always struck by your writing skills. I always send the article to my sister and say “Look.. LOOK at this!”. She knows how much I relate. She smiles and tells me it’s beautiful. Your words are like a validation for me and I wish they didn’t have to be. I wish I was stronger and more confident. I’m getting there though. This semester was the first time a girl ever called me handsome. I think she could tell how it made my insides twist and flutter and so she made it a nick name. Every time I hear her say it I automatically blush and look down because I like the way it sounds. I didn’t know there were people who would like that about me. I was the little girl who had more grace and skill then all the boys in her 4th grade class and yet they refused to throw the ball to her. My mom tells me not to worry and that she’ll help me find a wedding dress whenever I find the girl I want to marry. She sets appointments to get our nails done and flings feminine shirts over the changing room door at me. I feel like she’s saying to me “It’s ok that you’re gay as long as you can pass for straight”. It’s ok though. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says or does. This is me.
    Thank you, Kade, for everything. For helping me to see.

  14. Thumb up 12

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    Hmmm, writing critique. I was thinking about some of the critiquing comments earlier, and of what I know of your writing, Kate, as I read every one of the “butch please” essays.

    In my opinion, a real strength of yours in writing is in crafting rich, evocative images. People communicate through words, but also through images. Through our senses is how we take in (read) the world and our experience. Well-crafted images in words are so effective at reaching us deep inside because it’s like a collaborative process between author and reader to paint/create the experience inside our brains. And that’s awesome. This piece is full of really specific, vivid images, which makes it strong and something that readers really feel and experience.

    Also my opinion, however, is that your writing is at its strongest when combining your gift for vivid sensory details with story. Humans communicate through words and images, but we seek out meaning through story. I am still thinking over your last piece. It works on so many levels. The ideas and issues connect with me because of your use of your personal narrative, and I feel like I had a glimmer of the experience echoed in my mind because you are so skilled at crafting those sensory details. It stirred my feelings and my thoughts and is still popping up for me.

    What this piece doesn’t have is that narrative. I love it for the pure lavish feast of brilliant imagery. But it did feel a little lacking to me in a “but what is she saying with it” type of way. I am not butch and even if I was, I am not you with your individual experience, and so, I just don’t know how the nail polish and the jacknife and the ribbon of the dress and the stars your grandfather is in, how that relates to and influences and intersects with butch identity. Something about grounding images and sensory details in story makes them more real to me, easier to latch onto, and lets them work on more levels, getting to think and staying with me.

    Some people have mentioned you writing a longer piece or book. I could very much see this as being a part of a longer work. As an introductory letter it would have me wondering about the meanings and stories behind the images, and feeling emotionally open and primed and anticipating the rest of the work.

    There’s another way I’m thinking about this too. We come to written work with the expectation of a narrative to guide our search for meaning and maybe some exposition we can latch on to to clarify our take-away. But perhaps there are other things we can do with language and it is important to explore those and challenge expectations. This piece reads to me a little like a series of slides lit up on the wall by a projector. It’s like using written art more like how a visual art piece is presented.

    Also, it reads to me like a box of objects, each one an image or small experience that has been key to you to understanding, accepting and living yourself as who you are as butch, that you’ve wrapped up and sent out into the world as a gift to those coming after you, with a card reading “these things have helped me; I hope they help you too.”

    At any rate, those were just some thoughts I had about this piece and your writing. Thank you for sharing it here and I hope you keep up the hard work!

  15. Thumb up 1

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    I’ve been reading your column on here for a while, but only recently created an account to comment. This made me cry. Your writing is beautiful as are you. Thank you for sharing all of this and please never stop writing.

  16. Thumb up 2

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    I really like this! You definitely spoke to me because as a butch I identify with the dirt and the short hair and the masculinity but I also identify with pink and ribbon and fingernail polish.

  17. Thumb up 2

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    I feel really lucky that I found Autostraddle around the time I first began to identify as butch. Twas summer and the first article I came across spoke of the “butch swimsuit,” something I had struggled to describe to many of my nearest and dearest. It felt so good to know that there was a small corner of the internetz where people understood where I was coming from.

  18. Thumb up 6

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    I’ve been butch a long time. I got in trouble when I was maybe 6 or 7 when I had to wear a dress and I wouldn’t keep the little shoulder sleeve things down off my shoulders for my Dad to take a picture with my sister. I got yelled at and sent to my room. I truly remember just not being able to stand the feeling of the girliness of the off the shoulder sleeves. Just found the site. Great posting Kate.

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    I sat up a little straighter and looked a little closer when I saw this: “It’s also for you on the day when you’re not ready to give yourself a name”

    I’ve read through this three times, and now I have this dumb little bemused half-smile on my face and I’m not entirely sure why it’s there. I guess this piece is a bit more indicative of what’s in my muddled mind than I thought it would be. There’s just something so familiar about the words you write, the feelings generally more so than the circumstances, and every time I read them there’s a little more clarity than there was before. Thank you for this.

  20. Thumb up 4

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    Wow! This made me cry!
    I felt addressed in so many ways.
    I really appreciate your view on being butch and also enjoyed your text about Butches and misogyny a lot.
    These days it’s becoming clearer and clearer for me, that I feel masculin of center, but at the same time I still like so many things that are considered femme.
    But today I realised, that that’s okay! I’ll just live my masculinity in a glam rock kinda way and be the girliest boi around! :)
    Thank you Kate, I love this text and after reading it, I feel so much better and taller.

  21. Thumb up 4

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    Re: the shit I went through growing up butch- Some would say it was character building, made me stronger, more independent, etc. In truth, it was a waste of my time. I could have been building community, forming relationships, etc., but instead, I was dealing with other people’s bullshit. Having close connections with others and a community behind me would have made me stronger and more independent. I had other additional shit going on in my family and life; I did not need my character built up any more. Luckily, things improved in adulthood.

  22. Thumb up 2

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    I think what struck me about your piece is the relativity of life…in my mid 40s and married to a stone butch, when I read your Butch Please columns, I think of YOU as the baby butch and, in fact,, used those exact words to describe your column to a friend. Just interesting how our perspectives are relative and change as we age.

    Great piece.. Love your voice.

  23. Thumb up 0

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    I’m speechless. Every word is so expertly crafted. Every word has a meaning. Every word hit me right in the soul telling me that I belong, that there are others like this, that we are a brotherhood of people. You my friend, are an amazing writer.

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