I’ll start with a bad joke: what’s the difference between my father visiting my house and a butch person visiting? My father says he’ll take out my trash and fix my leaky sink; the butch does it without saying anything.
The joke is funny because my father is the picture of traditional masculinity. He is very cis, very straight, very Christian. Despite the social capital that his masculinity may offer him, my father hasn’t ever done anything for me. Not take out my trash, not fix my sink, not even buy me groceries. Every time I leave an interaction with him, I feel small and defeated and bruised.
The joke is funny because masculine of center people are always offering to fix things for me. It’s like Sam the Onion Man’s character in Louis Sachar’s novel Holes: “I can fix that,” they say when my trash is full or when the knob on my shower is broken or when my screen door wobbles. And when they offer, if I let them, they never just fix things, they help me fix my broken relationship to masculinity.
It used to be that when I thought about masculinity, I thought about my father’s brand: overbearing, the kind that beats women in front of children, the kind that uses a patriarchal God to excuse transphobia, the kind that I allow to come into my life almost five years after no contact and demands that I give him grandchildren within two years. The kind that is attached to people already born with fistfuls more privilege that I will ever have who use them to punch other people into the ground instead of lifting them up.
Here’s what I think about now: the girl who was physically attacked and called a dyke on public transportation for daring to look visibly queer, but who took out my trash before she’d let me comfort her. Or the classic butch who wears boots every day in what is honestly oppressive heat in Texas, who I’ve never seen without a perfect haircut, who plays footsie with me during our class on race and public policy, and who secretly has the world’s softest hands. They call themself my acountabilidaddy. These are folks who are hard and masculine but aren’t dangerous, and work hard to make sure I don’t see them as dangerous either.
The biggest factor that has changed my understanding? I keep better company now. I befriend, I fuck, and I love butches and studs and AGs and masculine-of-center cuties who are embodying masculinity in ways that disrupt the hegemonic definition of the word. They are vulnerable and honest, and they don’t see my femininity as a threat to their masculinity. They are caring and they check their internalized misogyny and confront toxicity in their communities head-on. These are folks who are hard inside and outside, but I am supported by their hardness, not broken down by it.
And the more I have loved butches, the more I have loved hardness. Being able to be soft in this world is important for a lot of folks, but also, I think it’s a privilege. And when you exist in a world saying “women look like this” and you do not look like this (and maybe even aren’t a woman), it takes being hard in order to thrive. There is beauty in being hard that way. There is a reason we tell our lovers their haircuts make them look “sharp.”
These hard butches have taught me how to be hard as a femme, non-binary, human too. From them, I have learned to demand that the world see me the way I want to be seen. More often than not, I’m seen as a straight girl doing femininity a little bit wrong; but when they love my facial hair, and my unruly stomach, and my changing and confusing relationship with gender, I love those things and I can leave home feeling like a diamond; hard and beautiful and dangerous.
It was hard for me to admit that I admired masculinity in a partner. If I accepted that I loved these hard women and people, I’d have to admit that masculinity wasn’t inherently bad (which means my father might just be a bad person, and that masculinity isn’t the problem, it’s him). For a while, even thinking about masculinity felt all too wrapped up in my relationship with my father (and I work very hard not think about my father. Except when I try to write personal essays about how much I love butch women and people and accidentally write about him). But the thing is that every time I love a butch person, a little bit of the harm his masculinity caused me is replaced by something new and queer and good.
Sometimes hardness means a hammer, but sometimes it is a trophy, or a rock rubbed smooth and shiny, or a steel-toed boot that is worn from long hours doing physical labor, or a mattress that you can feel supporting you where you need to be held, or a silicone cock, even. Hard can be comforting and desirable, hard does not have to hurt.
A few weeks ago, I was cooking for someone cute and she told me, “You don’t have to do all this for me.” I said, “I know,” and “thank you,” and “you deserve nice things,” and that was that. But caught me off guard, because didn’t she get it? Didn’t she realize she was saving my broken relationship with masculinity, saving the world, saving me just by existing and loving me? The least I could do was fix her a plate.