Butch Please: Butch and Boundaries

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


Her hand was on my neck, and then the small of my back. She wasn’t neat about it because she was drunk, and when she grabbed for my jacket, she lost her footing and knocked into my shoulder. My three layers of binder and too-pressed shirt and half-wrinkled jacket might as well have been paper, because every time her body was touching mine, I shuddered. My knees had already locked, and my hands were shaking when I tried to pull away without having to brush against her. The room was starting to close in and spin, because I was dizzy from the rush of anxiety that came with each moment of body contact.

“Don’t touch me,” I said, over and over again. “No touching,” I repeated, and tried to pull out of her grip. I said it loud enough for the other people in the bar to hear. I said it loud enough for the people I had come to the bar with to hear, all of them standing around us, watching the situation. I felt like I was humiliating them. I felt like I was responsible for what was happening to me, while simultaneously knocked backwards five years to a dark corner of my memory that I will paddle backwards in a hurricane to avoid recalling. But no one was doing anything, and I was grappling with a straight drunk woman in her forties who was belligerently telling me she wanted to dance, even when I said no too many times to count.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I have a breaking point like anyone else, and mine might be a little finer than most. I shoved my way out of the bar, nearly breaking down the door in my rush to get outside. The air at 2 am hit me like the flat of someone’s palm, and I collapsed on that cobblestone alley with so much furious energy that I might as well have been a meteorite, splitting Philadelphia in two. In the wake of my crater, I was attempting to still my hands enough to light a cigarette. I’m not a smoker until I am.

“Are you okay, honey?” Two gay men were crouching next to me. “That was bullshit.” They had removed the woman from the bar, and now she was being pulled down the street by her companion.

“I’m staying here,” she said, and her body bent backwards in such a way that I thought maybe she wasn’t a real person at all, but the spirit of something I’d left behind a long time ago. She tried to grab for my hair. I ducked. I winced, actually, and it became the nodding of my head and the shrugging of my shoulders that kept her hand from making contact with me one last time.

She disappeared down the alley. I made small talk with other smokers. I made jokes about Liz Taylor. I pretended that you could chase feelings away with words you don’t mean. The people I’d come with left the bar, and went their separate ways home. I looked at them for a half a second more, hoping someone would say something to me. I wanted to feel validated in my discomfort and anxiety. I wanted them to tell me that I had been right to be scared, and I wanted an embrace, a kiss on my forehead to erase where her hand had swiped at my brow. I wanted them to say I was going to be okay. But they did not, so I took off at a pace that made my lungs ache and I didn’t stop walking until I realized I couldn’t walk all the way home to West Philly.

I retold the story without a punchline, just to see if my reaction was too far off. “You’re such a chick magnet,” I heard in response. “This always happens to you at bars,” my other friend said, but she didn’t mean it in a sympathetic way. She was laughing. She said she was jealous.

Why is it that time and time again, people act like they can’t make me uncomfortable? That as a butch — as well as a queer person, a top, someone who likes to flirt and be sexual just like most human beings — it’s impossible to sexually harass me? That it is impossible to objectify me, sexualize me against my will? Why am I automatically seen as such a sexual being that I am invulnerable to such advances?

A straight girl once told me that I was a coming out party. I asked her what that meant. She said that to be seen with me in public, just the two of us, would make everyone think we were sleeping together, that she had finally “gone gay.” And I laughed at the time, because sometimes I have to make jokes about how I don’t have to come out anymore, how my physical appearance does that for me. But I also make jokes because I am so self-conscious that my very presence has become its own sexual marker. If you are socializing with me, especially one on one, it must be that you are sexual with me as well. My existence is interpreted as so hypersexual that there is no in between, that I can’t be around a girl without also sleeping with her. And nothing could ever make me feel more uncomfortable than that assumption.

At bars, I can’t order drinks for my friends without people assuming I am trying to pick my friends up. Once I slid a gimlet down the bar to the friend I’d come with, and she made a joking face in return. A man stepped in, and after backing up into me, asked her if I was bothering her. A woman shoving her tongue down my throat on a dancefloor or in the back of a bar is interpreted as something I’d always want, no matter what, even if I didn’t initiate, even if I’m too drunk to protest, even if I say no.

“What happened to your butch sex drive?” my friend once asked when I started a night out by saying that I wasn’t in the mood to be jostled around. I hadn’t realized that the butch sex drive was more powerful than any other sex drive, but to them, I was wrong.

My tumblr inbox is a mess of sexual come-ons, references to my body parts, and demands for sexual acts. Most of these come from queer-identified people, and the rest I cannot identify because they are anonymous. There is a very vocal part of my insides that feels I should be grateful for these messages, because being raised as a girl means being raised to feel flattered by all forms of sexual attention, to say thank you in turn. My insides remind me of every time I’ve been called a bulldagger, when my butchness has been turned into ugliness, and I tell myself I should be thanking them for finding me desirable. And yet sometimes it makes my skin absolutely crawl, to be so readily and aggressively sexualized, and I never know if I’m allowed to feel that way.

I think to myself over and over again, if it was a man, maybe they’d say something. Five seconds of a man doing this to me and they’d get him kicked out of the bar. Five minutes of this woman doing the same thing and no one seems to see it as a problem. Because harassment to society looks like a man harassing a woman, and yes, so many times it is exactly that. When I talk about being harassed, I am most often talking about a straight person reacting to my queerness, but that is not always the case. What about harassment within the queer community? Why aren’t we allowed to feel safe and put up boundaries, too?

Two weeks ago, I talked about how misogyny was often perpetuated in butch communities, and in the practices of masculine-presenting queers in what seems to be an effort to emulate hypermasculinity. I am always conscious of this, and the fact that my identity is something that’s associated with such harmful behavior makes me even more aware of my own actions. But I don’t want this to erase the fact that it is still possible to be harassed as a masculine-presenting person. Objectification of feminine bodies comes with an intense history that is as true as ever. Objectification of butches and masculine-presenting queers seems much less likely to be considered an issue, or something that is damaging to the person on the receiving end. Of course, it very much is.

I have been trying to break this down for days now. What was it about that moment that prevented anyone from identifying it as an issue? Why am I construed as taking pleasure from any form of sexual attention? Queerness is defined by sexual and gender identities that veer from the norm, and as a result of all the ways that queerness has been attempted to be contained by society, it has also been portrayed as negatively deviant, dangerous, a mental disorder that causes serious harm to the bearer and those who enable them. Even today when we have made household names out of RuPaul and Ellen, queers are entertainers who have weird, scary sex. The queer sex life itself is censored entirely, or made out as a freak show, a punchline, a parody of itself. No matter how much we are bombarded by instructions in heterosexual intercourse since childhood, the queer equivalent is seen as a mystery or a monster. Thus queers remain portrayed as hypersexual beings whose bedroom activities are simultaneously ritualized and reviled. As many a person I have encountered in my life would say: “Well, if you didn’t want to be seen as so sexual, then you shouldn’t keep talking about how you’re gay.” I know the drill by now.

In my own life, I’ve constructed little rules to make sense of all this. I don’t make the first physical move. I just don’t. There’s a girl sitting in her apartment in Manhattan right now who will tell you that she endured my flirtatious small talk for literally five hours until she finally figured out that she’d have to kiss me first. I am terrified of making anyone feel sexually uncomfortable because that is an issue very near and dear to my heart, and also because I know that queerness is portrayed as a state of hypersexuality, and I feel like I need to prove to every girl I meet that no, I’m not actually trying to sleep with her. Which seems to work until I really do want to sleep with her, and then it takes two hours, or two years.

Because at the same time, I do like sex, and I don’t want to apologize for that. I am absolutely a sexual creature who wants to touch and be touched, to kiss and be kissed and revel in everything that bodies can do together. I am allowed to flirt, but I’m also allowed to choose to say no. I don’t want to live in a world where I cannot be both a butch who loves sex and a butch who is not allowed to turn down sex. All the accusations of “ugly bulldagger” in the world can’t convince me that I’m not still desirable even when I’m telling someone I don’t want them to do something to me, that I’m not worthwhile even when I reserve my right to give consent. In the shape of every crater I leave is the declaration that I have agency, and I am still beautiful.

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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.

74 Comments

  1. Thumb up 17

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    First of all, I’m sorry that happened to you.

    I don’t really identify as masculine-presenting but I am a dyke who has a big build, so I’m read that way often. I think the emotional side of being read as “the heavy” is underdiscussed. This comes up at work — ie, my boss, who’s very femmy, was recently very upset with me and essentially didn’t realize that her previous insensitive actions and words (which she admitted to) could upset me. My partner has told me many times that people *just assume* that I am very solid, stable, etc, because of my appearance. I just to think this was SO simplistic and could NOT be that simple, but now I accept that it’s true.

    Social stuff of course overlaps with sexual stuff. Straight friends have commented (thinking it’s a compliment/joke) that I’m “like a nice boyfriend.” Because I’m easygoing and unthreatening but nothing threatening could happen? Still unpacking that one.

    Then there is the casual small-talky slamming. I’m a writer and recently was at a literary dinner (before a reading) where a prominent writer asked me if I pee standing up. In front of all the other people! What! I was wearing a vest, a button down, a man’s hat, and my first thought (being very honest/vulnerable here) was “did I cause that?”.

    I’ve never been assaulted and will not claim any understanding of your post-traumatic response, it would be disrespectful. But I understanding something of the pain of being misunderstood, wrongly perceived and badly defined by others and having that pushed in your face. It’s an awful feeling, esp since in reality I am a very introverted person and it would never occur to me to jump someone. I would not know how!

    I think it’s often the most low-key unobstructive ppl who take the fall because the “silent and strong” stereotype is so fundamental to our social landscape & interactions.

    Take care.

  2. Thumb up 0

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    People assume in that situation that men can take care of themselves.. And they usually can. As a butch has a lot of masculine energy, they assume that you will be alright too.

    I guess you’re not as butch as you thought you were..

  3. Thumb up 14

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    Thank you for continuing to be an advocate for lgbt+queer people that have experienced discomfort in this arena, and for being brave and vulnerable enough to open the eyes of complete strangers through your own personal experience. We need more of this. Please keep writing : )

  4. Thumb up 11

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    Thanks for this. Outstanding writing as usual.

    I think that the fundamental reason that people overlook female vs. butch sexual violence is because butches are supposed to want it. We’re considered to be undesirable and unattractive by the majority of the mainstream and when any opportunity arises, we’re supposed to jump at it, because hell, when would this ever happen? This is also connected to the stereotype of the hypersexual queer that you mentioned in your article.

    Personally I act in much the same way as you when it comes to relationships I want to pursue, but I think my hesitation stems from the fact that gender norms have been so ingrained in me that I feel this urge to simultaneously be the perfect gentleman as my masculine side dictates and the shy, retiring flower that society says that I as a woman have to be.

  5. Thumb up 5

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    This article was surprise triggering for me, but that was part of what made it effective for me I think. I’ve mostly only had this crap from straight men, but I’ve also had the if you don’t want to hook up why are you here experience at queer nights. I get this crap happen less and less now I look gayer (I’m not a butch but I tend to dress like an eighteenth century gentleman or queer up femme clothes) but I also almost never go out anymore.

    And there’s definitely always the voice of “no one will ever want you you great dyke, be flattered” in the back of my head.

  6. Thumb up 3

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    beautiful writing as always. Your insight and bravery continue to astound me. I am so pissed at the people who witnessed that, especially the people you came with. But thats why the conversation is so important because I can’t honestly say that I would have identified a problem and stepped in. The dea that if you’re there you must want it is very strong. Maybe thats because gay bars have historically been one of the few places where people could flaunt their sexuality. But that doesn’t excuse unwanted attention. And it should be a place where anyone is allowed to say yes and no and have that be respected

  7. Thumb up 11

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    I’m going to ignore the moron, and compliment the use of Lucille Bluth in your very well worded response. Kudos.

    Also, I’m sorry, for all of it.

    As for the dismissal of your friends and peers, I can empathize. The grass is always greener to others and you have to practically pull it up in clumps for them to see otherwise.

    Thank you for this article.

  8. Thumb up 8

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    Amazing, thought-provoking, and beautifully written, as always. I wonder how much of this particular attitude towards butches is connected to the same cultural ideas surrounding male/masculine sexuality that make it so difficult for men to admit to their own sexual abuse and assault, namely that men (and perhaps masculine-identified people in general?) somehow ALWAYS want sex no matter what, their consent to sex at any given time or place is taken for granted as ever-present. Not to say it’s the same at all, but perhaps this combines with the cultural demonization/marginalization of female masculinity as inherently ‘unattractive’ in violating the norms set forth for acceptable female sexual presentation to make it especially acute here.

  9. Thumb up 11

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    “I have to make jokes about how I don’t have to come out anymore, how my physical appearance does that for me. But I also make jokes because I am so self-conscious that my very presence has become its own sexual marker. If you are socializing with me, especially one on one, it must be that you are sexual with me as well. My existence is interpreted as so hypersexual that there is no in between, that I can’t be around a girl without also sleeping with her. And nothing could ever make me feel more uncomfortable than that assumption.”

    This is exactly how I feel. I thank you for writing this because I now know I am not alone in this feeling.

    Thank you. So much.

  10. Thumb up 5

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    first off, i am not butch and do not identify as butch but as my friends are almost exclusively femme and i am androgynous they tend to identify me that way.

    i’ve had many similar experiences, been approached and touched in bars and clubs in ways no one would ever dream of touching a femme. i’ve been groped, never been assaulted but it’s come close and because of my appearance it’s perceived as acceptable.

    i honestly think some women see me as a sex object, literally, i’m something they can use, play with and throw away because i’ll ALWAYS be up for it.

    this piece was very resonant for me as it’s never something that’s been discussed. i feel validated in my emotions. thank you.

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      Hey, not to derail your comment, but maybe when you said ”in ways no one would ever dream of touching a femme” you meant something more like ”in ways no one would ever dream of touching a femme… and still look respectable”?

      Because, uh, gay place or straight place, I’ve had and seen more than my plateful of being treated like meat.

  11. Thumb up 6

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    Kate, I never fail to be amazed at what a beautiful writer you are. You give real nuance to complicated relationships, and write so thoughtfully as to give the rest of us pause. Thank you.

  12. Thumb up 8

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    thank you again for this wonderful writing. i have been thinking about this a lot recently, after a male friend of mine was being attacked by this very drunken woman he had hooked up with once or twice. she wouldn’t leave him alone, no matter what he did, or we did. she was too drunk to get the message, i guess, and it was really sad and gross. i tried to walk her home, get her to pass out in our back room, anything, but no go. eventually he walked her home, with my bike, which he promised to ride back on. moments after somehow agreeing this was ok our another friend mentioned that if their genders had been reversed i would have NEVER let that happen, and i felt bad. i mean, he could have been more assertive about the whole thing– but i realize that a lot of men, and, i think, more masculine-identifying people, feel like they don’t have that right. they are the ones that can take care of themselves, etc. but that whole line of thinking short sells all parties involved from the finer points of being sensitive to each other’s desires and needs. unless we’re all working towards seeing each other as singular human beings each with their own particular wants– at different times and moods– suspending all generalizing assumptions– we’re screwed.

  13. Thumb up 5

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    Yup, this is the exact issue that will lead weird, scared me to have not one “is this a friend date??” but several in a row before the girl saves me from myself

  14. Thumb up 11

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    I’m probably not the first person to suggest this, but you really need to work this whole series into a book. You’re a superb insightful writer.

  15. Thumb up 13

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    There is the idea that anyone MOC automatically “wants it” whether it’s a man or a butch or anyone else, and even if they don’t, they’re physically “tough” enough to take it. Yet it doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t. Sexual harassment is not okay no matter who’s doing it to whom and you had every right to be pissed and upset about it.

    People should never assume anyone is sexual-anything just because of their orientation or gender expression. I’m gay. And while I usually tend to present as more moc (I consider myself a hard andro though, not butch), I’m far from hypersexual. In fact I’m asexual. I’m gay because my romantic orientation is toward women, not because I necessarily want to sleep with them. And I would totally not be okay with being groped. You handled that situation way better than I would. I love being touched by the person I’m in a relationship with but even my friends and I don’t have a lot of physical contact, so a stranger doing it would so not be okay!

  16. Thumb up 8

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    First of all, thank you for revealing your story, it was very moving and resonated heavily with me, however from a different perspective. As someone who identifies as bisexual and is fairly femme in appearance, I am now comfortable within myself as being primarily attracted to femme women.

    Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case. Out of what I can only describe as a very awful, dark aspect of my personality, I made this very assumption of butch women and heterosexual men. My own personal inability to connect with other femme women motivated me approach the other side of the spectrum, and with absolutely no regard for the feelings of the people I predatorily pursuing.

    To this day, I have no idea the level of damage I caused to a number of people along the way. In my own personal crusade against the world, I was very lucky to meet one very lovely, very forgiving gentleman who opened my eyes to what I was doing and taught me to have respect for others and respect for myself.

    I think that, as people, we all need to take a step back when we are out and about, whether in a bar or a packed club, and remember that, ultimately, we are dealing with people, not objects. Sometimes it is far too easy to forget that we are not simply in a meat market; more often than not, people are seeking a connection with another human being, not a quick rub up in a bathroom. Sometimes we just settle for that rub because we feel unworthy or incapable of anything more.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think your experience is something that is 100% avoidable. Just like some butch women approach me, stare at my tits and act like my ultimate goal is to be dominated by a more masculine personality. I do however hope that your article will at least encourage someone to think twice the next time they approach someone, and for those that never read this, that they will meet someone beautiful like the person who helped me change my life. I may still be single and searching for that perfect woman, but I now wake up at the end of every weekend and can smile at my reflection.

  17. Thumb up 7

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    I’m such a fan of this column. I don’t know if I’ve commented on one before, because they’re always so complex and beautiful and vulnerable and true that I have too much and not enough to say all at once, but thank you.

  18. Thumb up 2

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    I loved this article! As a fellow butch in Philadelphia I’m so sorry to hear about this experience. The gayborhood is a scary place after hours.

  19. Thumb up 8

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    “I am terrified of making anyone feel sexually uncomfortable because that is an issue very near and dear to my heart, and also because I know that queerness is portrayed as a state of hypersexuality, and I feel like I need to prove to every girl I meet that no, I’m not actually trying to sleep with her.”

    THIS times 1000. Even when I like someone I ALWAYS let them make the first move to the point that it frustrates some people, but I’d rather do that than make someone feel uncomfortable because I know being more MOC means that people may read my touch differently.
    It takes me longer to get to a place where I’m comfortable hugging friends who aren’t men. And there is something so disheartening about having an acquaintance assume you’re perving when you aren’t.

  20. Thumb up 4

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    1) she had absolutely no right to touch you! Drunkenness never excuses asshole behavior.

    2) initially i thought your friends were jerkwads for their response (or lack thereof). But giving it more thought I think maybe since you’re butch they thought not only *could you handle it in your own but that you Would want to handle on your own since MOC people are usually assumed to have bigger egos they wanted to “save your pride”or something by not stepping in

    3) I admire the way you handled it! My personal boundaries don’t stretch very far (I too have some tramas in my past). Whenever someone crosses them i find myself apologizing to them for my anxiety and uncomfortable feelings.

  21. Thumb up 12

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    I think its interesting however that there is a tendency for straight women to do this kind of thing. I had a similar experience to you Kade but perhaps escalated further.

    I think that perhaps there is this idea among straight women that experimenting is ok, but it only has to be ok FOR THEM. The person they’re acting out on doesn’t need to play any part, because obviously as MOC females, we literally just think about sex all the time and how dare we not want their attention. Its like they think we’re not people. We’re an experience for them, we’re a sex toy, but we’re not people. And then, because we present masculinely, we must have the same physical capabilities as the men they’re used to to tell them to fuck off, but sometimes that’s not the case. And if no-one is there to save you like those two gay men, you’re kind of fucked.

  22. Thumb up 10

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    As always, an incredible and thought provoking read.. The reaction of your friends kinda bothers me though. I mean, I don’t want to diss them because a) I don’t know them and b) they’re your friends and they obviously love you and vice versa, but like.. it’s usually pretty clear when one half of a potential sexytimes situation isn’t into it. Right?
    If I’m out with my friends and I think one of them isn’t keen (or is possibly too keen) I will be that annoying person who suddenly goes OMG THIS IS MY FAVOURITE SONG EVER AND I HAVE TO DANCE WITH YOU AND ONLY YOU RIGHT NOW (regardless of what the song is) and just bust my way on in there, to check whether everything’s alright. If it was a false alarm, then no harm done and my friend can be all smooth and ‘now where were we..’ but if not then we can sneak away to the bar like ninjas.
    Maybe my friends all hate me and I shouldn’t do that but I reckon it’s better than being abandoned in a dark corner with someone and studiously ignored all night because there’s a chance they might ‘want’ it.

    • Thumb up 3

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      I have a similar response to how the friends reacted, and like you I’ve a habit of unobtrusively checking in on my friends to see if they’re cool with what’s going on (especially since I’ve been in situations where I would have been happy to get an out from dealing with someone). But much as I’d like to be able to consistently read what’s going on, I’ve got this wrong at least twice before – making eye-contact for a “they cool, yeah?”, misreading the response and thinking “oh, things are good, glad [friend] met someone nice” and finding out later that they were actually not into it. It can be a hard one to judge, though that’s no reason not to try.

  23. Thumb up 11

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    Okay what I am about tho write is by no means an excuse for the kind of behavior that violates boundaries and agencies over other peoples bodies. Because this is horrible and is never okay. And no-one should feel guilty about not being “thankful” for unwanted attention. Ever!

    That being said, I have this one thought of what may also be the cause for shitty things like that…

    Maybe the problem is not only that we tend to project patriarchal stereotypes into female masculinity but also that femme-invisibility is a thing?

    Like Kate said, some people get read as queer no matter what occasion and space. On the contrary the queerness of (stereotypically) feminine women is questioned even within queer contexts and spaces. They way “femmes” (I use this term loosely here) are perceived is basically “straight girl” by default in way too many cases, which kinda leads to the problem that their presence and acceptance within those spaces doesn’t feel unconditional to them. Basically they are always in need to prove that they are in fact queer (enough).

    So while it is enough for a moc woman to simply be present, the femme needs to jump ropes to be seen by someone she is interested in: She needs to be the one who makes the first step, she need to initiate and be vocal. And sometimes physical… and this is where shit gets messy because people and their boundaries are different.

    Therefore I am really thankful for this conversation. Because we all need to check ourselves and to communicate our experiences to others and also to listen to the realities of other lives, so we can stop ourselves from hurting each other.

    As for the entitlement of straight girls… I dunno. Straight people keep confusing me since 1994.

    [Also sorry if my writing is weird and/or doesn’t make any sense. I am tired and English is a foreign language for me. But I tried.]

    • Thumb up 3

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      I agree that femme invisibility can definitely be a part of the problems we’re discussing here. I spent three years trying to present as male before I realized that I wasn’t trans and I wasn’t proud of the person I had tried so hard to be. Now that I’m finally comfortable with myself as a low-key-femme lesbian, I’ve noticed that I seem to have a VERY different “place” in LGBT spaces.

      For some reason, everyone assumed I was a lesbian when I wore a binder and men’s clothes, but as soon as I took the binder off and wore women’s clothes again everyone assumed I “turned straight.” No, really. As soon as I could say “I’m a lesbian” with pride, no one believed me because I apparently didn’t look the part anymore. And even though my personality has stayed the same regardless of the way I dress myself, the only time anyone ever commented on me being “too emotional” or “oversensitive” was after I stopped saying I was a man.

      This tells us that we’re not valid lesbians if we aren’t masculine-looking or masculine-acting. So if we don’t want to buy a new wardrobe just to be accepted in this community, we have to at least change our behavior. And what’s more “masculine” than being sexually aggressive?

      I haven’t done this myself and I haven’t witnessed anyone else do it, but I would believe it if some of these incidents happen because us non-masculine lesbians feel like we need to look or act a certain way for other lesbians to accept us. That doesn’t make this kind of behavior okay, and it doesn’t right the wrongs done to people like Kate. But I think it sheds light on the fact that stereotyped expectations about how lesbians should look and act hurt every one of us, and we really need to keep fighting them so we can all be cool with ourselves and each other.

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      I’ll admit that I’m guilty of perpetuating that invisibility to some extent because years of encountering defensive femme straight women everywhere, even in gay bars, means that I hesitate to approach femmes I don’t know for fear of making someone uncomfortable or facing yet another homophobic accusation.
      But when someone says they’re queer or what have you, I take note of this information instead of questioning it because WHY WOULD I? I am so sick and goddamn tired of hearing stories of femmes identifying themselves as queer and being told to prove it. If you need some kind of ‘proof’, maybe it’s time for you to step back and prove to yourself and everyone else that you’re not an asshole.

      There WAS a disastrous period where I would assure feminine acquaintances that I understood they were straight, because my queerness was incredibly visible and so many random girls preemptively informed me of their heterosexuality that I figured it would save everyone discomfort if I acknowledged it first. I felt encouraged to keep doing this because quite a few girls thanked me for essentially proving that I respected their lack of interest in me (never mind the possibility that I wasn’t interested in them anyway).
      Then one day when I was assuring a kind femme friend that I respected her straightness, she took me aside and was all, “Hey Donna, you’re great and I know you’re gonna graduate but you’re actually being an ass and invalidating my identity.” And she was right and even though my intent was not to be exclusionary, I am very sorry for being such an ass.

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    I think there’s this thing, this narrative, of the femme savior. The femme who redeems and rescues a butch by loving her, being attracted to her; the femme who sexually validates her (the butch) with her (the femme’s) beauty and desirability. The femme who is such a perfect embodiment of femaleness-done-right that she can open the butch’s eyes to the value and worth she could never before see in herself.

    It’s bullshit and I hate it.

    I get that your-love-is-my-redemption is a sentiment that can come up, very authentically, in a lot of our deepest romantic relationships. But overall, these ideas that 1. someone gender-non-conforming needs someone femme, someone who “does” femininity in a culturally sanctioned, appropriate way, to be attracted to her in order to have worth; and 2. that someone femme gains *her* worth by being beautiful and desirable and nurturing enough to rescue someone else; these ideas must die. These ideas cause real harm.

    My sense, from a perspective somewhere on the feminine side of the spectrum, is that the kind of harassment described here has a lot to do with the femme savior narrative. Both in why/how it is perpetrated and in why/how it is invisible to some bystanders. In that: a butch’s consent can be taken for granted as long as you’re beautiful and desirable enough and you better be beautiful and desirable enough because otherwise you’re worthless so better go out and prove that you are and don’t take no for an answer because if she says no then it just confirms your worthlessness. And also in that: why is this harassment, who cares, what’s the harm, it’s just confirming your value, aren’t you glad that someone wants you?

    We are all fully responsible on an individual level for ascertaining and respecting one another’s boundaries, and I bring this up not as an excuse for harassers or to make them out to be the real victims. But I just want to add my perspective on a particular bit of cultural baggage that can use some unpacking while we work to dismantle the ways in which we harm each other within queer spheres.

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      Not all ways to do “femme” are culturally acceptable, just as a note, and not all femmes who pursue butch women are believing themselves to be saviors in any way. In fact, that thought has never, never crossed my mind except in a four-year relationship in which someone labeled me as such (like you mentioned, a very deep relationship).

      I assume you and most readers are aware of this, but I always feel that I need to validate the femme identity in its non-conformity as well as its potential acceptability. I think it’s a very interesting thought though, this “Femme Saviour” thing…

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    Thank you for continuing to challenge the gender roles we seem to be put into by both hetero and homo culture. I would hope that the one of the outcomes of not fitting into the heterosexual norms of society would be allowing us to redefine and reexamine gender roles. I do not understand why we feel the need to label one another as butch/femme etc. Just because you are masculine presenting, does not mean you are NOT a woman. Just because you appear more feminine, does not mean you are not capable of standing up for yourself.
    I land on the more masculine side of the spectrum, I identify as androgynous but I’m still a woman. People see me, and, much like your experiences, assume things about me that are simply not true. Anyone who spends more than 15 minutes with me knows that I am still a girl. I may know nothing about hair, makeup or fashion (stereotypes, I know) but I can and do talk about my feelings whenever I can. I have 4 sisters, its hard to not be somewhat in touch with your emotions, growing up in a houseful of ladies.
    I’ve had similar instances where I’ve felt uncomfortable and harassed by straight women. One of my old coworkers would flirt incessantly with me at work, despite her knowing I had a girlfriend, and my clear discomfort with her advances.
    On her last night in town after graduation, she found me, walking alone to my car, and pinned me up against the wall and forced a kiss on me. It was unwanted and I didn’t really know what to think.
    Though I’m not glad that anyone else gets put through these things, it is good to know that it isn’t just a problem I have to face. I get enough shit from straight men, why do straight women think its ok to objectify me? Isn’t that what we, as women, should be working against?
    Thank you for continuing to address the issues created by our patriarchal society, I look forward to hearing more from you :)

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      Being masculine does not make her not a woman. Being genderqueer and not identifying as strictly a woman does, however, and you need to respect that.

      And being a woman is not a requirement for being in touch with one’s feelings or liking to talk about them. That is as much a stereotype as the other things you mention. The only way a conversation would show that anyone is a woman is if they said so.

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    I guess people assume that, for one, men are promiscuous and always want sex and that, as a result, masculine women are like that as well. They assume you’re a player and enjoy all the sexual attention you get, especially if you’re the type that is considered extremely good-looking.

    Representations on TV didn’t help much either, considering how the most masculine women also tend to be the most sexually aggressive ones (see Shane, or Franky on “Lip Service”). For once I’d like to see this character reversed, say, have someone who looks like Shane but turns out to be a shy romantic. What a twist that would be, right?

  27. Thumb up 12

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    This article, THIS ARTICLE
    I do not understand this rutt that is the hegemonic and normative assumptions of masculinity that we as a queer community continue to re-articulate. It makes me really sad. We need to work towards creating a queer culture where there is an open dialogue about boundaries and respect and presentation. And we need to treat embodiment and presentation as something that is unique and not a flat standard. LETS NOT FETISHIZE EACH OTHER, ALL QUEER PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, THATS WHY WE’RE GREAT~

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    I think you’ll never really know how much you’ve been helping people around here. Every time you write something I feel like writing you a thank you letter. You are one of the loveliest people I’ve ever seen.

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    Wow, what an awesome post. I’d never thought about masculine queer females being objectified like this, but after reading your article I can totally see it. I’m mostly a femmey queer, and even when I don’t present as a femme, I still feel that way. I always thought butch types were lucky, because the only come ons they must get are from feminine women, and that underlying creepy, misogynistic entitlement couldn’t possibly be there.

    But no, it’s the same thing. You may be masculine, but you’re still being fetshized and objectified. It’s the same thing, the same shitty deal every other female bodied and/or queer person gets. So thank you for helping me see that.

    I’m really sorry. I wish I could have given you a hug that night and helped you make things okay again. That must have really sucked, and then having friends trivialize your discomfort must have sucked, too. Thank you again for this post, and I hope you’re okay.

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    I really enjoyed reading this and any of your other posts that I’ve come across. It’s really interesting to hear your perspective especially as a gay girl living in Ireland. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing but in my experience here every queer individual seems to be categorised as fair game sexually.

    From a personal point of view, I am pretty slight and small in stature and I suppose I would be viewed as being femme(ish). My girlfriend is taller than I am but much more a femme. I am the physical protector in our relationship (it’s a shame someone has to fill that role but such is life). At bars and clubs she handles unwanted advances with amazing diplomacy and a grace that just makes her more attractive and yet there are always people who just won’t take the hint.

    I seem to get the rougher advances, the gropes, the innappropriate touches or the comments with a threatening edge. I think it’s probably because I don’t have her easy way with people that I end up with that particular end of the stick but whatever the reason may be it ultimately ends up with me feeling like a frightened animal backed up in a corner. Despite feeling like that I act tough and hold my own but it ruins a lot of nights out when no can’t just mean no.

    Luckily my girlfriend is more the emotional protector of our relationship and is an amazing person who treats me with respect and dignity and recognises the hurt I feel when treated like an object.

    I really feel for you, no matter what way you present you are entitled to feel safe, to feel that your body is your own and to set your own limits of comfort which others must respect. I think you’ve highlighted something really important especially in terms of butches or masculine-presenting individuals so fair play.

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    I can really relate. The city i live in is kind of small so there is only one gay bar and it can be a pretty diverse crowd of unwanted personal space invasions. Alot of times gay men will mistake me or my friends for one of their own and come on really strong.

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    I loved this article. I am so sorry that you have had to deal with situations like these; I love have you have used those experiences to express this stuff that evidently a lot of masculine-of-center people are feeling.

    This was really enlightening for me.

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    I loved this article. I am so sorry that you have had to deal with situations like these; I love have you have used those experiences to express this stuff that evidently a lot of masculine-of-center people are feeling.

    This was really enlightening for me.

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    Thank you for writing what others might be too afraid to say. This article has really touched me, as a (gender)queer person.

    Again, thank you.

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    So much love for this series.

    I am about to be late for work cos once again I started reading something Kate wrote and am now feeling ALL the feelings, sitting here in pyjama pants with absolutely no desire to go out the door and deal with society cos its just wall to wall wankers out there. Somebody is definitely going to get an unexpected rant that goes something like “AHHH!!!! Because patriarchy!” at the office today.

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    I have such a story to respond to this with but the comment would be too long and honestly the experience was almost too traumatizing to fully even just in type. Long story short, my very drunk roommate came home one night with some girl who woke me up in my bed, hanging over me, in the middle of the night because my roommate had told her about his gay roommate. The things she said disgusted and frightened me even though she did really touch me. I literally woke up with a strange girl in my bed. The whole situation seemed like a joke to my roommate who clearly had no concept of sexual harassment. If this chick had been a dude, calling the cops would have feasible to him I’m sure, but in this situation I was expected to laugh it off. Even though I later got more apologies from my roommate, I still shiver at the memory of that girl and her Cheshire grin glowing in the darkness. If my girlfriend had been there, she would have been punched to say the least.

    I’m guessing that in her drunk state her logic was gay girl=girl who wants any and all sexual attention from any girl, at any time, no matter how inappropriate the circumstances.

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    I’m so sorry that you ran into a person who entirely invaded your personal space and bodily autonomy and pushed your triggers, and so sorry that the people around you didn’t recognize and acknowledge it as harassment.

    I’ve been that straight girl ogling someone hot and butch on the bus or at a bar, and while I’ve never come on to a stranger, I’m praying now that I haven’t made anyone uncomfortable by looking. When you said “my very presence has become its own sexual marker,” that hit me hard, because it (1) resonated with my own experience as a woman who has been ogled and objectified in unwanted ways and (2) called me out on the way I often mentally twist a person’s butch presentation into a sexual statement. Apparently I’m not alone among straight/straight-ish women in feeling instant electricity and developing crushes on butch women/people before I’ve even heard them talk.

    There is never an excuse for harassment. Straight men have been blaming the victim because of her dress or makeup or body shape or hair for millennia. Just because we think someone is super hot, we have no right to infringe on their physical or emotional autonomy. Straight women who are attracted to butch women need to pull our shit together.

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    Hey there. I just wanted to let you know that I went through this every single time I went out when I was in england. I’m a very curvy, outspoken, sexual advocate. I write stories on butch-femme sex, have given seminars blah de blah de blah and I have massive hooters. This means I am always up for it. And because dykes can’t be oppressive and I’m a dyke too, it means that coming up and shoving your face in my cleavage is *funny shit*

    For ten years I did not go to a single event without some wanker dyke (butch, femme, genderqueer, just me etc) pulling some kind of idiot stick on my body.

    I know what it feels like. And people are shocked and I must be making that shit up, right? I must think eeeeeeveryone wants me.

    It’s been a real arsepain to try and educate the women and genderqueers, even the bicurious girls, that just because you ain’t a man, does not mean that I want you to touch me, talk to my tits before you talk to me or make filthy rude comments about me person, just because I talk about sex in an educational or jokey way.

    I’m also a sex worker and in massage therapy school. So, yeah, that really helps that picture doesn’t it.

    People tend to do what they want.

    It won’t go away. You do have to grow a very thick skin and talk to those who get it. Most people won’t. I have started grabbing people’s wrists and holding it up in the air and telling people “next time, I break it. keep your hand to yourself.”
    You won’t be thanked. People will come up with excuses and try and save their embarrassment by making you look bad. I’ve just had to suck that up. As will you.

    It’s hard not to be given a respite from sexual harassment in the daily world of men (no, surprisingly I don’t want to fuck you, I’m just trying to buy a pint of milk…) to come to a space of lesbians/dykes and queers and it just keeps going.

    All you can do is stand up for yourself, be very assertive, make jokes and try to educate. That’s it. Don’t expect people to understand. Don’t expect people you call out to apologise – they won’t.

    At times the harassement I got was so bad it made one of my dates scream “SHE’S A FUCKING PRIMATOLOGIST TOO YOU KNOW” (my uni degree) after the 300th dyke at pride tried to grab my tits. I often have to think about what I am wearing to a dyke event and who is coming with me because it’s not just me that gets put out, but my friends have to deal with the idiot harassing me and interrupting us.

    And that sucks to have to clothing censor myself in order to ensure my group of friends don’t get annoyed with idiots all night.

    Just hang in there and be very, very forward. Don’t be polite. That’s the biggest flaw you can do. You might get labeled a **** but it’s better than the alternative.

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    I know this is a really old article and I don’t know if anyone is reading this, but I felt like I had to comment because this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I’m sorry if I get anything wrong or my vocabulary/experiences don’t ring true (the latter may be because I’m not from the US or any English speaking country).

    I think this is a problem that is true of any bodies that are perceived as being female in some way by society, that people immediately feel like they’re entitled to something. I’ve often felt like some fellow queer women just expected me to be ‘available’ to them in some way all the time. I’m a femme and I can’t count the number of times butches have patronised me or made objectifying comments about me (the problem from the other side of the fence I guess). For that matter, also the times when in queer circles there’s the expectation that touching is always ok all the time based on the logic that it’s all in good fun and if we’re not cis men we cannot possibly do anything disrespectful.

    The problem is that even among the queer community we often replicate problems that exist with society at large, objectification of women being one of them. It’s probably because we still have so many internalised stuff that is hard to get rid of completely.

    When it comes to butches, that probably works in two ways. One is what I’ve said above, the expectation that if you’re perceived as being anything other than cis male then your body is something that others are immediately entitled to in a way or another. The other way is that we’re so often made to feel like feminine means not-sexual and masculine means always sexual all the time, which is ridiculous, so I guess people end up perceiving butches as more masculine and therefore more likely to be more sexual.

    Don’t be afraid to be rude if someone is seriously disrespecting all your boundaries and touching you without your consent. Just tell them straight to stop and call for help if they continue. Unfortunately for people who will carry on regardless of what you say, being nice or being quiet is akin to a complete green light.

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