Butch Please: Butch on the Streets

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


Trigger Warning: Mentions of violence, rape/sexual assault, drug use, self-harm, and eating disorder.

1.

The last time I wore a skirt was about five years ago. It was a floral high-waisted skirt that hugged my hips and revealed my legs. Back then, all my skirts were short. People told me I had good legs, and as a result, I wore a lot of things that showed them off. I had a flat chest and wide hips and other things that magazines gave lots of tips for hiding, but the same magazines said that my legs were something I was allowed to show, so I did. It made me feel like my body had some ounce of worth to it, if that makes sense.

I was walking through Philadelphia with a backpack on. The backpack made my skirt ride up, something I didn’t always notice because I was never entirely aware of myself in these outfits. Putting on a skirt or a dress or a push-up bra sent me outside of my body for a while. I still moved in them like I was wearing scuffed jeans and a flannel shirt, clothing made for wide gaits and more reckless stretches. I never learned the way you’re supposed to move in these clothes, the extra cautions my mother would have insisted I take so as to not reveal too much skin. My skin was revealed that day. I was wearing a coral colored silk thong from Victoria’s Secret. It was the one and only time I went to Victoria’s Secret by myself to buy something. It was at the end of the year when I hadn’t worn underwear because I was afraid of feeling something touching me. I could never not feel the thong touching me. In a Livejournal entry from 2009, I describe the thong as “cathartic.” It was not.

There were three boys walking behind me. ‘Boys’ is a loose term that I use much more often than I use the term ‘girls’, but here it means young males who were probably in their early 20s. They were commenting on my skirt, and my legs, and my ass. They were talking about what they would do to those parts of my body. They asked me where I was going, and why I wasn’t going somewhere with them. When I ignored them, they called me baby and they called me bitch.

There was a fear in my chest that I will never forget. There was also another feeling, something that I can’t think about without shuddering. It felt affirming for these boys to objectify me and treat me this way. If they were seeing me as a sexual being, they were seeing me as a feminine being, something I didn’t feel myself, something I felt I was constantly failing to achieve. I felt extreme discomfort in their presence and as the subject of their comments, but I felt as if I was obligated to listen and internalize what they were saying at the same time.

I felt like I should thank them.

I didn’t get catcalled very often. I don’t know why I feel guilty about this. It is a sad state of the world when catcalling and negative male attention are seen as qualifiers for one’s success as a desirable feminine being, but I still feel as if I am some sort of failure for not having attracted that when I was presenting in a feminine way.

I was raped before I had ever had sex, or had a chance to be a sexual being. I had never even been properly kissed, or felt that someone had wanted to properly kiss me. I never knew sex, or kissing, or desire outside of the context of that event. And there were times when I felt I was supposed to thank my rapist for what he did, as I thought that he must have seen me as desirable in order to do that. And I connected his actions to those three boys who were walking behind me, and the few men who did whistle at me or say something sexual to me at the bus stop. I was horrified by them, and I felt helpless in their presence, but I thought I was supposed to thank them for wanting me in this body that I was routinely starving and hurting and filling with drugs that were supposed to make me forget.

My mother had cried when I’d come out because she said that now my life would be hard, and I’d never find someone to share it with. I’d been told that I’d “become” a lesbian because no man had wanted me and no man ever would. I’d been told that it was due to my being raped. My first years openly identifying as something other than straight were difficult for a wide range of reasons, but the quiet internalized shame I felt after connecting queer with undesirability and telling myself that yes, maybe I was gay because I was ugly, maybe it was because I was unwantable, was the hardest. I have since realized that this is, of course, absolute bullshit, the farthest from any truth in the world, but society has a weird way of getting through even our most well-patched cracks and finding the parts of us that want to believe the worst.

That was the last day I ever wore a skirt, ever. My best friend and I went to H&M that weekend and I went to the men’s section with all the conviction I could muster up in my little body. I remember staring at myself in the dressing room mirror and wanting to burst open. I felt good. I felt untouchable. If you went to camp, you probably saw the hat I bought that day. It’s got stars and galaxies all over it. I will never lose that hat, I guarantee it.

2.

I had a bloody nose for all of last week. It followed its own rules for arrivals and exits, staining almost every article of my clothing with a fierce determination. I chalked its frequency up to the high altitude of the mountain, but it’s more likely because I walked into a stop sign two nights before I left for California and smashed my nose in the process. I was turning around to respond to a man who was calling me a “pansy faggot” from across the street. I was also still walking, so when I turned around, I walked directly into a stop sign that has been lowered to face level by a few poorly aimed cars.

I had bumped into him when getting off the trolley. I was exhausted from work and hadn’t properly balanced myself when standing up to exit. When the trolley came to a stop, I knocked into him on the stairs. He told me to watch myself. I didn’t apologize because sometimes using my voice, revealing that my voice does not match my appearance, is dangerous. I started moving as fast as I could, but we had to wait for a red light and my getting my keys out to slide between my fingers – more a habit for emotional comfort than actual physical safety – seemed to be read by him as a threat. He said something under his breath that I didn’t hear. I crossed the street before the light turned. He yelled “pansy faggot” after me and I walked into a stop sign before thinking of something intelligent to yell back.

I had been alone. I have only received street harassment for my masculine appearance when alone, especially when there are not other people around. By street harassment, I do not count the people who ask if I’m a boy or a girl, even when that can be the most triggering part of my day. In this case, I’m talking specifically about verbal assault and threats of violence, which almost always have to do with the question of my gender and my masculinity. Interestingly enough, the most common term I hear is “faggot,” maybe because that is the pervading term for gender non-conformation, maybe because so many genders and sexualities are invisible but the cis gay man has come to represent all of them in the eyes of the outsider.

I was afraid of him, and the potential of violence he represented. I was afraid of what he would do to police my presentation, which he had identified as incorrect. I was a “pansy,” my masculinity deemed weak and lesser than, and I was a “faggot,” my gender and my masculinity and my implied sexuality all classified by that word as Other, unnatural, in need of stamping out.

My survivor instincts were in full swing, with flight always outweighing fight, but there’s a part of me that walked away from that nosebleed with a small fluttering of pride. The violence I’ve experienced in my life came to me in moments when I felt helpless and worthless. Being a survivor means my body has known a wide range of pain, from that night that my life slipped out of my hands to self-harm that comes from an effort to regain control, but the worst for me is the type that leaves me without agency.

It is incredibly complicated because it is a very different experience than the harassment I received as a feminine-presenting person, and I understand the gap between those two very different kinds of implied violence. There are different power dynamics at play, and I feel that immediately. The reasons for harassment are very different, yet they’re symptoms of the same overwhelming problem with our pervasive rape culture. The acts threatened are different because the recipients are distinct, but the meaning behind the threat is one in the same.

There is something strange about the street harassment I receive as a butch in that it is often terrifying and extremely triggering, but something about it makes me feel justified. I am glad these men see me as a threat. I’m glad I’m being read in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable and violent and all the things I fear with every fiber of my being, because even though I know firsthand what terrible things that humans can do to other humans, I’m proud of igniting that in someone who recognized me as queer. It makes me feel like I’m succeeding at my genderqueer identity, at my butch identity, in my masculinity. I’m glad I unnerve that man. I want to thank him for making my nose bloody, just like I want to thank the man who hit me in the face at the bar and the one who called me a “fucking bulldagger” when I stepped between him and his girlfriend.

Hit me, I want to say to them even when my skeleton is quivering with the fear of the familiar and the fatal. I fucking dare you, I want to say. I feel goddamned alive. 


Note: The featured image comes from artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women To Smile poster campaign, which are incredible and worth looking at and promoting.


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.

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Hard-lovin' butch made of tears, sweat, and spit, in that order. Professional lonesome polecat. Kate is living proof that you can take the hillperson out of the mountains, but she's still probably going to run back to the mountains anyway. Kate prefers the trashy to the classy, and the tender to everything else. Full-time writer, part-time lover. Heart got so big and soggy that she had to cut off all her sleeves.

Kate has written 124 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 5

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    <3 <3 i love this & i extra like reading your thoughts about street harassment for some reason, probably because philly sometimes felt like street harassment central & my favorite memory is still the time you yelled YEAH WELL SHE *IS* FINE when that guy was hitting on me at the bus stop

  2. Thumb up 14

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    “The reasons for harassment are very different, yet they’re symptoms of the same overwhelming problem with our pervasive rape culture. The acts threatened are different because the recipients are distinct, but the meaning behind the threat is one in the same.”

    really, really well-put. it is all an assertion of power and an attempt at keeping the harasser’s preferred hierarchy in place.

  3. Thumb up 9

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    I’ve been called a bitch, a faggot, a dyke – among other things – all depending on how the person reads my gender (or doesn’t) at any given time.

    Prejudice and fear are inherently confused things. I am not.

  4. Thumb up 27

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    I have never commented before. I’ve been lurking for weeks. Hi.

    These articles are so applicable it’s painful sometimes. I came out a long time ago. No one was surprised. However, acceptance seemed to be conditional on how feminine I kept it. I played the game for years.

    About two weeks ago I gave up. I’m sick of wearing a costume. With way more support than I expected, I cut my hair, changed my clothes, ditched the make-up. It’s done. I got a lot of positive comments.

    However, the open hostility I’ve gotten from men has been staggering. I knew it existed, but I’m seriously shaken by it. Even men I know who I thought were at least friendly. My brothers father-in-law got in my face at a party last weekend to tell me “You know you’re not a man, right? Good.” And walked away before I could form a response. It left me physically shaking. I could see the malice.

    Sorry for the long post. I think I just had to get that out. The short of it is, yeah. I get this now.

  5. Thumb up 11

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    Kate, thanks for this moving essay. Yes, I think there are some differences in “ugly vibe” between what perceived cis women get, what perceived femme men get and what perceived trans/genderqueer people get (and between what the MAAB and FAAB of those groups get). A lot of crossover, but you’re right about some of those differences. I grew up as someone who had ‘faggot’ screamed at me a lot from childhood on (and at least two beatings for being considered that) and it was a different feeling from when I was early in transition and had people purposely insult me, avoid me or give me stink eye. And I also appreciate what you mentioned about voice. Sometimes I think it’s trans women who get the bulk of crap about supposed “voice/appearance mismatches” but thank you for opening me to the pain you experienced and the potential danger. I have zero patience for anyone in the queer/lgbtq community who makes light of the issue of such mismatches (*cough* Kate Bornstein *cough*) while not understanding how much danger gets amped up by these “mismatches” for trans/GV people in already tense situations.

  6. Thumb up 9

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    Kade, are you sure you don’t have some sort of superhuman powers, to know when I need these articles? I just found it today, after getting back in from being assaulted in the streets.

    I know it’s a slightly different situation, I am FTM not butch, but today I biked home from my friend’s house, and some people I went to school with threw a stone at me and knocked me off, and then continued to spit and pour water on me, saying things along the lines of “lesbian you look like a man”.

    Although I know full well they are out of line and I didn’t deserve it, I felt some kind of confused gratitude for them recognising my efforts to look manly, along with guilt for the fact that I wasn’t even “deceiving” society properly, and shame of not being enough of a man to stop them, and fear for what they might do next. It triggers my dysphoria badly, and it terrifies me, but the emotions I feel are more complex than that.

    Thank you, so much, for writing this article, and for putting into words everything I feel, even though our situations are somewhat different.

      • Thumb up 2

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        Thank you, Dragon. I feel a little bit better about it today, and I know rationally that I can’t let it affect me any more than it has already. One thing that has surfaced, however, is how nearly everybody feels they have a right to make me feel guilty for not going to the police. It’s been less than 24 hours and I am already tired of defending my decision to not report it; I know nothing would happen to the kids that did it, even if I could ID them, which I can’t. It’s something I just want to move on from, but people insist on telling me that I either should have fought back, or reported it, and make me feel ashamed for having done neither :/

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          It’s easy to tell someone they should have fought back when they aren’t the one fighting the heady adrenaline rush of fear. In my experience, those who are not often placed in situations of physical conflict have difficulty maintaining the presence of mind to make an informed decision to fight back. It kind of happens or it doesn’t. Don’t feel badly for having an honest and natural reaction. As for reporting it, that’s totally up to you. No judgement here.

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          And do those people have any vague concept of what it feels like for trans or gender variant people to walk into a police station, explain who they are and what happened? Sad to say that some cops (not all) are some of the worst perpetrators of phobic behavior. It’s improving in drips and drabs but for a lot of “non gender normative people” a police station is just feels like a torture garden and that’s true even in many supposedly progressive cities.

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          The only thing you “should” do after an assault is whatever feels right for your emotional health and safety at the time. If that’s reporting, ok. If that’s keeping things quieter, that’s ok too. Reporting might be ideal, but it’s not always safest.

          If you are caring for yourself, you are doing what you should be doing. Keep on surviving.

  7. Thumb up 4

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    I know exactly how you feel when it comes to being harassed in a feminine context. I also used to wear the skirts and dresses that showed off my body because that’s what everyone said I should do. And I too would still walk with long masculine strides and pretend it wasn’t me when I looked in the mirror. Yet somehow, I felt a twisted pride when guys would grab me at clubs or catcall on the streets. I think it’s because I tried so hard for so long to get better at “being a woman,” and it was proof that all that practice was working.

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    I’m uncomfortable (to say the least) with our identities being validated by either approving whistles or disapproving fists.

    Though I understand thinking *Hit me* brings some comfort. I’ve used this tactic myself. But I’m left with that sour feeling too long after the encounter. I prefer a response that at least attempts to open dialog, even when that dialog is with a bigoted person who may not deserve my effort.

    Its naive, and I haven’t had success, but it brings me more comfort than affecting a stiff upper lip. Furthermore, I’m tiny.

  9. Thumb up 2

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    Your writing is so powerful. Thank you for writing this column. This is one of the rare articles that actually didn’t coincide with a recent experience in my life, yet it seems to be the most striking and poignant so far. Again, thank you.

  10. Thumb up 6

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    Street harassment… I never know how to deal with it. It makes me feel so angry, but for safety’s sake I keep my face forward and set and my pace up. I tell myself they’re looking for a reaction and I’m not giving it, but I feel like an object moving through their view, like they’re still getting what they want and my anger is stuffed and smoldering and I feel weak, like by not turning and retorting I’m supporting the idea that they are more powerful than me.

    Once I was drunk and walking home from a queer dance party and really exhilarated and happy feeling and when a cluster of guys in a parking lot started saying shit and I just on impulse flipped them off while continuing to walk. It pissed them off and riled them up more, but I sailed on feeling buoyant and charged. Safest option? no. But it felt good.

    I’ve never had the gender non-conforming triggered harassment… I’m cis, femme-ish and I think usually read as straight. So that’s a layer, factor, stressor that I don’t contend with.

    Good essay. The juxtaposition between the two experiences serves well to raise questions and expose how complicated it all is.

  11. Thumb up 9

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    I love Butch Please soo much. It always makes me think. I am pretty femme and curvy and living in the Middle East, and almost every day I get comments like the first experience you described, even on the days when my wrists and neck are the only skin showing. I hate how much I let it ruin my day, but I also hate how yes, I do feel validated and that I must be looking cute today, even though I know that has nothing to do with it. I hate having to wear my “street face” every time I step outside my house, because the frown on my face makes me feel sour inside. But most of all, I hate what it has done to my attitudes toward men here. At least I have Butch Please to look forward to each week!

  12. Thumb up 4

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    I never comment, but just had to come out of the woodwork to say that your writing is incredible and touching and real, and reaches out to the humanity in all of us. You are a beautiful person – keep walking your own path.

  13. Thumb up 4

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    This makes me want to cry, and feel things.

    About a month ago I was riding my bike home from work and attacked, thrown off my bike by a drunk guy walking past. I don’t know this for certain, but his comments and the way he behaved suggested to me that he’d read me as male. I identify as gender fluid, and tomboy, and I couldn’t help but feel afterwards that if I was presenting in a feminine way, he wouldn’t have done this. Who knows, maybe he was just drunk.
    But whatever it was, he made me feel shame about my presentation, somethings I’ve been striving to perfect in order to feel comfortable with myself. Which is almost the flipside of ‘I’m read as a male, something I’m proud of.’ Because I am proud of it. But my brain still questions whether I could have avoided that situation in the first place if I’d been read as female.

    Which is basically why your article made me have a lot of feelings. So, thank you for that.

  14. Thumb up 3

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    This was beautifully written and felt very, very painfully familiar. Just this morning some jerk blocked my path on the sidewalk and refused to let me pass just so he could tell me to “learn to dress like a fucking girl.”

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    Ok, after thinking over this for a bit, I have a few thoughts:
    It’s so true, that different people experience different forms of street harassment. I experience street harassment every single day, because I walk to work downtown. I live in the middle of an extension of Greek Town, so I walk past drunk, entitled frat boys, and then into downtown, with the pervy homeless guys in the bar doorways and more drunk, entitled frat boys. It’s ALWAYS of the sexual variety. I’ve never been called “faggot” in my life. Actually, even when I’m on a date with someone who is butch, it’s them that get yelled at for being gay, not me.
    I have that fear, though, that burning fear that the people that harass me are going to hurt me. I don’t make eye contact so as to not make it worse, but I also know better than to say anything back to them, or smack the guys that grab my ass, because I am 5’5, average build, and I know, from experience, easy to rape. If they got mad at me for defending myself, I’d be completely helpless. I DREAM of responding, but I know that they see me as nothing more than a piece of meat that they, because of their anatomy, and mine, have a right to. A piece of meat that would have to be put in her place should she dare argue that.
    I’ve always been called stubborn, hardened, and fearless. But this, this is one thing that takes that all away from me. Being molested, and raped, I think it’s scared me into submission. I HATE that. I HATE it.

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    This article really helped me to vocalize some of the emotions I have been dealing with as of late. I am currently living in Morocco. It seems that I can’t go anywhere without some sort of unwanted male attention. I’ve been presenting as masculine for a while now and hadn’t received much male attention until I got here. It has been really hard for me to know how to deal with this kind of attention that I haven’t delt with for a couple years. I can’t decide if it helps or hurts that I have no idea what they are hissing at me on the way to work every morning. At first, I tried to explain to the other female volunteers how it made me feel a mixture of fear and pride. It made me feel like I should buy a skirt or something… Or a binder. It makes me want to fit in one role or the other. They gave me a boys wetsuit at the surf club and I felt as if I had achieved some sort of small victory. Anyway, thanks for reading my mind. I always look forward to your articles. They continue to validate my unwelcome feelings.

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    i never know how to deal with street harassment. last week i was walking to the bus stop and a car drove alongside me for a full minute while i purposefully stared straight ahead…finally the driver asked me if i needed a ride. i told him no and he kept driving beside me. i stopped and looked at him and his only response was “what, no thank you?” i don’t know how you can handle scarier stuff. that alone was terrifying.

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