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.
Header by Rory Midhani
I am boarding a plane to Atlanta, Georgia. In Atlanta, I will catch a second flight to Los Angeles, California. I am in Philadelphia’s airport, and I have a printed ticket in my hand that is already crumpling from the sheer heat of my fist. I am in line for the security check. I am wearing two layers under my sweatshirt and sweatpants and I’m already scared that they can see my heart vibrating against the fabric. By some complete miracle, I am not crying or in the fetal position. The nectar of the queer gods is Xanax. The gods are good, or so I am always praying with both pairs of fisting fingers crossed behind my back.
I hand over my identification. The picture on my driver’s license is from 2006, when I was 16. My hair is long, and pulled into a loose side ponytail. I wore a lot of loose side ponytails that year because that was something that pretty girls did. I was not a pretty girl, but I was good at pretending. In the picture, I am wearing large earrings made from coconut shells and a hot pink button-up from a Ralph Lauren outlet store. The man riding the horse is lime green and slightly crooked because he is a knockoff. A cheap imitation of the real thing, just like me. My eyeliner makes me look tired because I never learned how to apply it. I am staring at the camera as if it is the greatest inconvenience I have ever known. I am a walking imitation of the straight girl teenage culture I saw around me and sought to pull over my body like a fireproof blanket. My mother had picked out that button-up. This was when I still wore the outfits she picked out for me, and when the act of me getting dressed made her smile with approval.
2006 was also the last year that I flew in an airplane. My identities might be nebulous, but I need my modes of travel to be grounded to something solid and tangible at all times.
The officer looks from the photo on the card to my face. I have pulled off my sunglasses. I am used to this moment, and my hands have already formed fists out of habit. I get this moment in bars where I am still carded, and that one time I was pulled over for a busted headlight. I know the look I am about to receive, the telltale double-take. My body has braced itself, knowing that preparation is survival.
It is more than the revelation that I have gone from feminine to masculine in one glance. It is more than my butchness at all. It is the fact that I am genderqueer, and my identity is about resisting definitions, and here I am, about to be gendered and defined by someone with the power to pat me down and put me in prison.
“Thank you,” he says, and hands the card back to me. He looks at me while he does this, and then glances down at the card before I take it. And then back to me, and then back to me. I am blushing and shoving it into my wallet, hurrying to catch up with the line. I am pulling off my shoes and emptying my pockets long before I get to the queue. My palms are already sweating.
I do not like to be exposed. I do not like to be gendered. I am about to be both, and neither.
My body unwinds for a moment. I want to clarify the meaning of unwinding here: I do not mean a state of relaxation, the kind of unwinding that is used as a tagline for beach resorts. I am talking about the state of a body unraveling, a brain backfiring and backtracing and then, since it is most often tightly wound up, unwinding, organ by tiny organ.
I step to the center line. I am about to go through the full body scan. I am wearing my binder, my hood is up. I am trying to imagine what a binder looks like on a scanner. Are my nipples still visible? Will he see the impression of my breasts even where I have attempted to erase them? My body is typically so bound and modified that it is impossible for people to see my actual shape. I have not allowed most lovers to see beneath the binder. There is a stranger here who will see it, though, and in two minutes, he will have placed me in a box that took me years to crawl out from.
I pull off my sweatshirt – I am down to two shirts now, but I feel naked. The officer steps forward, pauses, and then the female officer behind him is there, looking me over. She finally nods, and he steps back. There, I think. They’ve picked out a label. They have decided what I am.
I step through the scanner. I put my hands above my head in imitation of the human outline in front of me. My body already knows it has been accused of something, but now it has assumed the position as well. My heart is beating so fast that I think it’s going to knock the scanner over.
I step outside of the scanner when commanded, and start for the containers of my things. The officer stops me and asks what is in my pocket. I cannot understand the question. My pocket? What is my pocket? I am not thinking in terms of pockets, or their contents. I am thinking about taking a shower for so long that the mechanical act of scrubbing over and over again left me with a rash for a month. Can you fit a fear in a pocket? What about senses of self-worth, or safety blankets?
There is chapstick in my pocket, as it turns out. I take it out of my sweatpants pocket and hand it to the officer.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I am begging her with every inch of me not to pat me down. I repeat the apology. I might be crying, but I can’t tell. “I’m so sorry, I really am.”
The officer makes eye contact with me after giving my entire form a long look.
“I’m sorry,” I say again. She nods and waves me through. I move with a speed I did not know I had in me. I recollect my things. I pull on my shoes and walk as if walking over hot coals. I am in the terminal.
I am hyperaware of myself as many signifiers of gender that are carried in muscle tone and hip width. I give the sign on the bathroom door my fuller attention, check it and double check it like an error on a page. I use a higher voice when talking to the lady at the register. I feel like buying tampons, even though I don’t need them. I feel like buying makeup, something pink, hairties that my hair won’t hold. I feel like making up for whatever part of my old gender identity I’ve lost. They used the female officer for me. They put me in the female line. But female feels like a label I don’t deserve, something I’m supposed to be apologizing for with every unladylike step.
When I go to sit down at the gate, I find myself gravitating towards clusters of women: mothers and children, an older lady with pearls and a wide-brimmed hat who looks like she’s dressed up for church. I want to hide in the skirts of these women until that last segment of my heart stops shaking. I want them to reassure me of my place among their ranks, their familiar presence like a shoulder squeeze from my aunt. The few men sitting in this section feel like impostors, and I do not want to be one of them.
Sometimes I am proud as a stone of my genderqueer identity. But sometimes I miss womanhood with a fierce hot ache that feels an awful lot like missing my mother, or my grandmother, or my ability to sit at their table for family meals.
“I just love your hair,” the woman next to me says. Her smile is genuine. Her accent sounds like a kiss after lemonade. I could hug her in that moment. That is how grateful I am for the small kindness of her acknowledgment.
When I am scared, I think about the way it feels to make my mother happy. I think about the countless outfits that she’s bought me over the years, the ones I cannot give away or justify returning because I know that she bought them with me in mind. I know the girl she was imagining when she picked out that sweater set, or that skirt at the JCPenney. I remember our conversation when I came home presenting as myself, as butch, as genderqueer, the conversation that was more of an accusation, a terrified argument, a door closing somewhere. I thought the tears in her eyes were anger, but now I realize they were tears of grief. She was mourning the girl I used to be, and the woman she wanted me to become.
It would be so easy to make my mother happy, to let my hair grow and put on the dress she bought me for my birthday. It could be simple, I think. And when I’m scared, when I’m missing the way she used to hug me when I was still small, or an adolescent, or even the young woman who had not yet come out as queer or a survivor or been a disappointment in so many ways, I think about how my mother’s hugs would be if I had just kept on making my mother happy. I wish she was there at the terminal. I wish I was wearing an outfit she liked. In her place, I wish these women around me could join together in a ring, and come closer to embrace me. I wish their warmth would be equal to the one I miss.
I get on the plane. I am seated next to the wing of the plane. The flight attendant asks me if I am willing to assist with the removal of the door and the evacuation of the plane in case of an emergency. I am thinking about how many times I have needed an escape route installed in my body and how I can’t check my email without having to brace my body for impact.
“Yes,” I say. “I am willing.”
I am sick on the plane, with a sinus migraine and nausea. When I puke into the complimentary paper bag, the woman next to me leans over and gives me a gentle pat on the back.
“It’ll be okay,” she says. “We’re almost there.”
I am always almost there. I am almost a girl, or almost a boy. I am almost butch enough, or almost genderqueer enough, almost radical enough or interesting enough or attractive enough. But I never feel that I am enough, which academia taught me was the state of being queer. To be on the cusp, to exist on the edge, within and without. To be the barrier between or beyond.
Yet I know that when I was cisgendered, I was not enough. In that picture on my driver’s license, I knew innately that something was wrong about the way I felt in my skin. I was not happy or comfortable or able to properly express myself. The things I miss about my relationship with my mother would not make the experience of being gendered and scanned any easier. The outfits that never felt right would not have felt more comfortable as I boarded the plane. I am genderqueer. I am enough.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.