Masculine-of-Center Roundtable: How We Do It and What It Means To Us

Last summer we published a roundtable called What We Mean When We Say Femme, and now we’re following it up with our writers who identify as butch or masculine-of-center. Below, we grapple with the questions: What does being butch/masculine-of-center mean to you, personally? Do you think there is a generational difference in how people think the words “butch,” etc. should be used? What are your butch/MOC roots? And do you lean on a butch/MOC aesthetic to signal your queerness? Also: The “center” according to whom?! 

Carrie, Staff Writer

I’ve written about this before, but in the year or so since I’ve had time to settle in and let the whole thing marinate. Now that I’ve grown more at home in this presentation, I think I understand it better and am smarter about the context I’ve stepped into. I love that my aesthetic pushes me to keep learning; it’s important for me to think critically about my body and the choices I make with it.

For me, being masculine-of-center means giving my body what it wants. Every other configuration I’ve tried always felt like I was fighting against something essential and achieving a look in spite of myself. Being disabled makes you feel that way already — it’s extremely difficult to feel comfortable, let alone attractive — so I assumed aesthetic disappointment was just gonna be a fact of my life. But once I started saying yes to what my body had been telling me all along, I realized that I didn’t have to conceal or apologize for it anymore. I could just let it be what it is. That’s what my look does for me.

Especially as a white cis person, I have to be very mindful that I’ve got a new set of privileges because I look like this. I can be read as queer in public, I’m assumed to have authority on all things queer, and I’m now what a friend once affectionately referred to as Gay Hot. Sure, okay (and thank you!), but that’s not because I’m frowning upon femininity or any aesthetic that’s not my own. Femme invisibility and disparagement is some bullshit and I’m not here to contribute to it.

I use “masculine-of-center” rather than “butch” for similar reasons to the ones Ali articulated in this article I reread for inspiration all the time (and is one of my MoC roots). Masculine-of-center is weird too, though, because where’s the “center”? I mean, it makes the point I want to make, but it’s certainly not without its head-scratching aspects.

Other roots include my uncle (who remains the sharpest dresser I have ever encountered in real life), Esther Quek, and Kevin McHale (from Glee, not the basketball player).

Alexis, Staff Writer

In elementary school, I told my friend I was dressing up as a boy for Halloween ’cause I thought that would’ve made liking girls easier. I never did it, partially because of the look I got from them that day — but something stuck and it was wanting to be able to shop in the mens’ section. I stayed in dresses and skirts and long hair until about four years ago when I got a blonde mohawk and mostly just wore pants and t-shirts when possible.

I went to Capturing Fire! (an international LGBT spoken word and poetry festival in DC) for the first time this year and spent most of my time at Awqward Camp, for QTPOC writers. The week before, I went to Target and Kohl’s with my little sister because I’m all kinds of nervous shopping for myself and she walked straight to the mens’ section, picked out like ten outfits for me, went to employees to find a dressing room (there was a moment where an older woman wasn’t sure which dressing room to point me toward), and talked me through my anxiety. I walked out exhausted, but content, and with five new outfits, enough to last me the weekend. Each outfit was composed of just shorts and tanks and Vans but putting them on each day was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.

I’ve been getting a lot of my butch feelings from holding doors, Alike in Pariah, fanon Jane Rizzoli, the stylistic choices of Queen Latifah as Khadijah James in Living Single, Black Girl Dangerous, the preview of 195Lewis, WNBA players, Princess Nokia’s 1992 (especially Kitana), L Word Mississippi: Hate the Sin, blkyn boihood, Black Gay Slay, Black Gay Girls Rock, Butch Moodboards, Butch of Color, Butch Nod, and Unfeminines.

I do lean on my butch/MOC aesthetic to signal my queerness but only really recently when, a few weeks ago, my coworker said, “Because you’re butch” and I interrupted with, “I’m not butch.” and they immediately walked away in embarrassment and I went, “Wait! Am I butch?” I’ve leaned into the answer being yes because I realized I have the space to finally feel that.

Molly, Staff Writer

I like to think of my life as a butch sandwich, and that’s if we named sandwiches after the bread that is holding the meat, which ironically would be the femme part of my life. I was a super tomboy as a kid — if we even use that word anymore? — all scraped knees and tangled hair. By the time I was in middle school, though, I conformed a bit more to what I thought girls were supposed to look like. My hair was long, I wore tighter clothes, I tried makeup. It continued through high school, and even into the first year or so at college, but then I spent a summer working at a camp and discovered my inner dirtbag. So my style now, with short hair and never dresses or skirts, is all about utility and feeling comfortable, because that makes me feel capable. Which, in turn, makes me feel like the soft butch I am.

That’s a pretty good signal to everyone around me that I’m queer, since I live in a rural conservative place and androgyny still confuses some people.

Priya, Staff Writer

I don’t know how to describe what being masculine-of-center means to me, personally. To me, looking the way I do means gender is actually the last thing on my mind. I just wear what’s comfortable for me. It’s ironic, because presenting the way I do, gender seems to be at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. I get misgendered all the time, and though it doesn’t bug me, getting stared at all the time is quite unsettling.

Lately, for me, being masculine-of-center has meant navigating the world of South Asian traditions. Societal roles in my culture are pretty gendered, and to me, breaking out of those has nothing to do with how I present—I just don’t want to cater to patriarchal systems. But somehow, bucking the gender construct in presentation means breaking the status quo in other ways too. That’s been a tougher one to take on, and I hate that it even feels like I’m “taking something on” — I just want to be who I am.

I will never forget the euphoric feeling of chopping off my mid-back length hair five years ago. I spent a lot of closeted years feeling like my attraction to women was wrong and that it was somehow linked to my lack of comfort with long hair (something quite relevant as a sign of femininity for South Asians.) But the truth is, I feel more me in jeans and plaid shirts and short hair than I ever did before.

I grew up watching basketball and football (and playing them too) and often got teased for it. I wore overalls and love Chucks and I honestly never fit into gendered roles. I get pedicures and manicures and I drink whiskey and beer and I like how I feel in ties and blazers. That’s just me, beyond the bounds of what constructs exist around body, gender, and femininity.

I’ve never really been called “butch” before (at least to my face) but somehow I don’t feel like the word fits who I am. Maybe being masculine-of-center is a “softer” way to put it, but it still makes me feel like there’s a center (what is it! Who delineated it!) and that there’s a spectrum of masculinity and femininity to adhere to… which I don’t feel right about.

I do sometimes take it for granted that presenting masculine-of-center means people will know that I’m queer eons before I ever have to say the words. (What’s really fun is when they don’t and I’m like, but do you see how I present?) It sometimes feels like a lot of pressure, as if I speak for all queer people or even all queer South Asian people. Most of the time, though, it feels like I’m wearing a giant rainbow flag all the time, which is delightful in finding fellow LGBTQ folks like a lighthouse but not quite so delightful when I’m trying to navigate an unfamiliar space say, holding my partner’s hand.

Lucy Hallowell, Contributor

Hoo boy do these questions bring up a lot of feelings for me. So many feelings. For a little context, I am just back from a week-long writers retreat where I was surrounded by queer people. It felt like literal heaven in so many ways so I am coming to these questions probably in a better headspace than I’ve been in (queer-wise) in a long time.
When I think about who I am and how I fit in the spectrum of butchness I do a lot of sighing and mentally shrugging my shoulders. Butch is such a loaded word, one that was spit at me the same way kids used to call me a dyke. I wasn’t always sure the word fit, but I always understood it was bad. Now I’m thirty-mumble mumble years old and if someone calls me butch, I mostly shrug it off and ponder whether it truly fits me without any of the accompanying shame.

If by butch they mean I like to wear jeans and sneakers more than dresses and high heels, they are correct. I grew up a tomboy with more friends who were boys than friends who were girls because they played the things I wanted to play. I was tough enough and coordinated enough to play football and baseball, soccer and hockey with them and they accepted me as one of their own. I wore this as the peak of coolness. I was one of the boys with my hair short, my clothes comfortable and my attitude set to “I don’t care as long as we win.”

As I grappled with this identity (hello horrific middle school), I grew out my hair, changed my clothes a little, and tried not to look like the biggest dyke in the school. Yeah, I failed at that. I did the cliche thing of cutting my hair in college (more than once) and then went back to wearing it long because it might be easier for people to accept me if I could blend in a little better.

But then I got older and stopped giving so many fucks and cut it again. I don’t know if that makes me butch or masculine-of-center or just me. As a child the hardest thing was understanding (and making others understand) that I didn’t want to be a boy; I wanted the world to let me be a girl the way I wanted to be a girl. I was never going to meet their expectations of femininity and I wanted, more than anything, for that to be okay.

Now, at this advanced age, I wear what I want. Mostly, that means v-neck t-shirts under plaid of some variety (flannel in the winter, cotton in summer), alongside jeans or shorts, and a pair of sneakers or men’s oxfords. Somewhere along the line I stopped worrying so much about whether the world saw me as a woman in these clothes. I stopped needing their permission to be who am I. I’m just an old lesbian who likes to be comfortable and thinks she looks best with short hair, jeans, and a pair of aviators. I don’t know if that makes me butch but if people think it does, well, the word doesn’t make me flinch anymore. It just makes me smile.

Chloe, Intern

I was six years old when I first marched into a hair salon and told the stylist to “make me look like a boy”, but it took another fifteen years and a trip to A-Camp before I started to explore and understand my identity and aesthetic. Camp for me was the first time I was exposed to a range of gender presentations and styles, the first time I saw that there was more than one way to express masculinity, and more than anything, the first time I believed that I could be thought of as attractive and even desirable for presenting in a way that makes me feel like myself. After years of fighting familial and societal pressure, I finally felt liberated to present to the world how I want to be seen. I am still in a constant state of iterating to figure out my identity and my style, and thanks to camp, I get closer all the time.

To me, being masculine-of-center means boyishness, it means blurring gender lines, it means a more vulnerable and delicate form of masculinity. It gives me the freedom to not fulfill expectations based on my assigned gender and body. Personally, butch has never felt like it fits exactly right; my masculinity feels softer than butch, but I don’t know if that stems from social stigma surrounding butchness, or from the much wider array of words and labels that my generation can choose from. I want to generally deconstruct our language around “masculine-of-center” as well, because I don’t really think of my gender or presentation falling on some kind of linear scale, with masculine and feminine extremes at either end. I don’t feel feminine ever, exactly, but I love feeling carefree in a sundress on a hot day as much as the next queer, and it makes me uncomfortable how masculinity is often idolized as an “all or nothing” characteristic.

My MOC aesthetic is my primary signal of my queerness, which has its ups and downs. I realize that I have enormous privilege in being white, able-bodied, and now masculine presenting, and often read as male in public. I don’t get cat-called, stared at, or hit on, and I generally benefit from many aspects of male privilege. I also am easily read as queer by other queers, which I know is a huge privilege as well. However, it also means that it’s difficult to hide my queerness even if I would like to, and sometimes getting dressed poses a challenge of choosing between personal safety and feeling authentic in the world.

Ali, Staff Writer

I’ve written before about how I started presenting masculinely. My attitude has changed a little since. Before, this was something I did to make moving through the world in my body a little easier—I could buy clothes whenever I needed them, I didn’t feel the need to apologize for the amount of space I take up. Now it’s just part of the fabric, so to speak. Woven in. It’s just me. It’s how I move through the world. I’ve also started using the word “butch.” I didn’t feel like I had rights to it before; I felt like there were dues I hadn’t paid for it. But after the second person in a week reminded me what bathroom I’m in (yes, I’m super hella aware that this is the women’s room, thank you for nothing), it’s just more evidence that I am, in fact, paying the dues for this all day, every day. It’s just how I look; it’s also more.

As for practicality, the finer points, the day-to-day, butch for me means an inherent masculinty that I have already. I make decisions and hone it how I’d like. I specifically attempt to disrupt toxic masculinity wherever I can. Just yesterday, my wife and I were canoeing on Loch Ness and we were paired up with a family of four (and their dog). They had a boy child and a girl child; the alarm bells went off when the girl child was yelled at for using the paddle as a shovel, while her older brother was allowed to do so. When she started talking to us about American Girl Dolls, her brother said, “I don’t get girl talk.”

“Actually,” I replied, “there are plenty of boys who have American Girl Dolls.”

“They have Logan now,” the girl-child piped up.

“Do they?” I asked. “Even so, even before, plenty of boys play with dolls who are girls.”

I could tell he was torn between trusting an adult’s words and total disbelief, and probably he will forget that moment. But maybe, if I’m lucky, that conversation can be one of many moments in that kid’s life. Maybe it’ll build into a freer definition of what it means to be masculine for just one kid. That’s if I’m lucky. If we’re all lucky.

So I guess what butch means to me is taking something that I just have and putting a couple dents in it, shaping it to something that fits with my queerness, my politics.

As for whether or not I lean on my butchness to signal my queerness, it’s not intentional, but it absolutely happens. My wife, without me, is read as straight. With me, there’s no question. I’d call it a pleasant side effect and at the same time I wish it didn’t create issues for all y’all who aren’t masculine. I also do (sometimes, though not often) wish I could blend in. Like when I’m traveling. So I could just, like, pee without American tourists making a fuss. That’d be sweet.

Jenna, Contributor

Being masculine-of-center is something I think about a lot. Like, just about every single day in some form or another, a lot. You would probably figure that with all my thinking I might have some insightful answers, right? Unfortunately, I kind of don’t.

Growing up, I was a tomboy through and through. I hated dresses and dolls, and I liked football and Ninja Turtles. When I played house, I always wanted to be the brother in the family. I worry now that some of my masculinity comes from internalized misogyny. Did I reject traditionally feminine things because I thought less of them? I really hope not! I have done a lot of digging into my heart and brain and I don’t think I feel that way, but I still worry about it.

These days I am getting used to feeling okay with being fluid in my gender and presentation. Most of the time, I present as MOC and I feel alright about that. I still struggle with my body, for a lot of reasons, but I try to focus on the good. For example: I like how I look in a shirt and tie. Those clothes feel right in a way I can’t quite articulate, or even grasp, but I try not to overanalyze it. Another thing that helps is that I have the most wonderful wife in the entire world. She is always telling me that I’m handsome or beautiful, and how can I not believe it when she looks at me the way she does?

I have a hard time with words; I never seem to be able to settle on the right ones. Butch doesn’t seem like the proper label for me, and masculine doesn’t either. Those words are so well-defined and most of the time I am… not defined at all. I like queer because it makes me feel like I can be anything on any given day, and it will still fit. It doesn’t matter if I think like my pronouns should be she/her or they/them or none of the above, because I can just be queer and Jenna and that is maybe enough.

Faith, Staff Writer

Butch is a word that feels very dated to me. I have no problem with other people using it, but it doesn’t resonate with me — unless a woman is calling me a “hot butch”, because my vanity will always override any dissonance over the descriptor of my gendenergy. My preference if I have to choose: genderqueer.

As a kid I played sports and guns and wrestling and action figures with boys. I was called a tomboy more times than I can count. I lived in tees and skinned knees. Not much made me cry, but having to wear a dress reduced me to ugly tears. I would sneak jeans and a t-shirt on under whatever itchy, frilly monstrosity I was goaded into wearing for the church service or funeral of the hour. I’d roll the legs of the jeans up until they were snug over my thighs and hidden under layers of taffeta. Later, as I stuffed the dress into a backpack in a bathroom stall, I felt like Clark Kent transforming into Superman.

My barber is the longest and most stable relationship I’ve ever had. I’ve been wearing men’s clothes (down to my skivs) exclusively since I was 18, the exception being when I was waiting tables, which was nothing more than pretending to be friendly in drag for tips. After all these years I’m still caught off guard every time I’m notified that I’m in the wrong bathroom. I’ve argued with dressing room attendants who were absolutely certain they should tell me that I was either using the wrong dressing room or (when I insisted that I wasn’t) informed me that I had indeed picked all of my clothes out of the wrong section of the store.

I do feel like we have a ton of unlearning to do as a culture and society about what it actually means to dress “like a boy” or “like a girl.” However, when I move through the world as I am, I don’t feel like I’m performing masculinity. I don’t look, act, or dress the way I do to signal my queerness. I do it because it’s the only way I’ve ever felt truly comfortable in my own skin; truly me, like I wasn’t playing a part to fit into a club I never wanted to join.

Do you identify as butch or masculine-of-center? We’d love to hear what that means to you!

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  1. “To me, looking the way I do means gender is actually the last thing on my mind. I just wear what’s comfortable for me. It’s ironic, because presenting the way I do, gender seems to be at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. I get misgendered all the time, and though it doesn’t bug me, getting stared at all the time is quite unsettling.”

    This right here feels utterly relatable to me.

    I am the last born in the family and there’s an eight year gap between me and my closest sibling. This meant I was left to my own devices a lot as a child. So when I started developing breasts, and one was slightly larger than the other, I didn’t talk to anyone about these changes. I just chalked it up to this being “my normal.” Or as americans say, “it is what it is.” I just preferred to wear shorts and pants because I hated fussing about keeping my legs closed. I like my hair short because I liked not having to stress over maintaining it.
    I wish there was a deliberate effort into expressing my identity, but how I carry myself and interact with others has always been about doing what comes naturally to me. People call that………..manner of existence, I guess lol, butch.

  2. I’m curious if folks could elaborate on what they feel are privileges of being read as butch? I feel like it’s been a huge burden on me (even though I’m just being myself), but maybe I’m missing something. I seem to be viewed as less attractive, taken less seriously, clothes that fit are hard/ impossible to find, etc :( I seem to be recognized as queer in important ways about as much as before – sure, more strangers on the street see me as queer, but not sure how that is a good thing haha. Lately I have been thinking more and more about just putting the mask back on because it is so tiring to exist outside of the norm.

    • I think the ‘privileges’ conferred upon butch/MOC women are very context-dependent, and the people describing them here may have a very different experience than you or me based on all kinds of social factors. They’re only describing their own lives and I think they’re being quite careful about not projecting onto other people who identify similarly.

      Butch/MOC women are more likely to be recognized in queer/lesbian spaces and to not have their queerness called into question. They may recreate some troubling gendered dynamics with partners, in which they have a disproportionate amount of power. They may take on some privileged associations with masculinity or be able to distance themselves from some of the disadvantages of femininity.

      It’s definitely worth noting that
      -some butch or MOC identified women may never actually experience all or even any of those privileges
      -the risks/disadvantages of presenting as butch/MOC may far outweigh those privileges
      -butch/MOC women still experience things like sexual assault, objectification, misogyny etc, even if our experiences aren’t identical to non-butch/MOC women

    • None. Frankly, Donna’s post above doesn’t even feel like it’s from the same planet I live on. My experience has been that both straight people, and some cis LGB people who are seen by straights, by themselves, as closer to gender conforming, are not comfortable with GNC women in practice. (In theory, they’ll say, “Yeah, they’re so hot,” but that’s not the same thing.)

      Like when I used to try to hang out in LGBT spaces, people reallyyyy wanted me to be femme. Insofar as people would talk to me, there’d always be this stream of unsolicited advice being offered on how to pick out a dress, how to put on makeup, etc, and I always hated it, but I could never make them stop. (Near the end of it, I tried to articulate what I wanted instead – I was like “This is what makes me feel confident!” – and got laughed at.) No one would say so, but they were clearly kind of uncomfortable with me, you know? It didn’t feel different than straight cis people trying to make me into the kind of girl they could recognize.

      It took leaving LGBT spaces altogether to give me the space to move closer to butch. Now I barely know any other LGBT people IRL, but at least I know the person I see in the mirror. I wouldn’t go back if you paid me. I deal with people staring at me on the street or calling me “not really a girl” on my own.

      • To be fair fivebees, I did say that “some butch or MOC identified women may never actually experience all or even any of those privileges”, so I’m not sure we’re necessarily on different planets. :)

        Over the past couple of years I have increasingly heard people claim that butch/MOC women are seen as more desirable than others in queer communities. I find this curious because I still struggle to not feel like I am less attractive because of my gender after a lifetime of being told that butch=ugly. We don’t all move through the world being treated like Shane. And while I am sure there are butch/MOC people who are especially popular my local dating pool, this isn’t a universal experience.

    • yeah echoing some of the other comments; the idea that there is some kind of universal experienced-by-all butch privilege has never made sense to me w/r/t what i’ve witnessed regarding my ability to move through the world as a woman who can pass for straight vs. those who cannot. I’m not moc, but i’ve always had moc girlfriends, and thus lots of convos on this issue, and lots of bathroom escort experience! and i’ve never felt like they had any privilege over me aside from cis male privilege — that is, when they are misread by strangers as cis men, they’re less likely to be subject to street harassment. i think sometimes people are referring to their sense that moc folks are more sexually desirable in some LGBT spaces? but again, it’s a space-by-space situation.

      because! like donna said, everybody has different experiences and different context with which they come to the table, which is why debating the relative privileges of various gender presentations can be really fraught online with people from all over the world having vastly different universes they are reporting from. so i don’t know that there is a blanket statement anybody can make about it, you know?

      like i said, in my world and opinion, my ability to pass as straight feels like a huge privilege. but others with the same ability have reported feeling sidelined or excluded in queer spaces. i used to experience that when i was first coming out, like people at bars asking if i was REALLY ACTUALLY GAY ’cause we were wearing dresses, but it never really bothered me or made me feel like i didn’t belong, it just made me feel like there were assholes in every bar, even the gay ones.

    • I can elaborate a little, since I brought this up. A major place I’ve experienced this privilege is in the workplace. I’m an engineer in the tech industry, and I can’t tell you how much more seriously people take me because I present in a way that is consistent with stereotypes of engineers/technical folks. This goes along with other workplace privileges, such as getting talked over less in meetings, not getting hit on or sexually harassed because I’m read as gay, etc.

      This isn’t to discount what I said in the post (ie safety, societal pressure to be feminine) as well as issues others have mentioned (lack of media representation, for example) aren’t issues. I just wanted to explicitly acknowledge the ways I’ve benefited from this presentation as well.

    • I get a mix of experiences as a masc person. These are the benefits.
      My family seem to let the masc ppl go in the lounge on Christmas day & watch action films/talk football/politics while the femme ppl are cooking & cleaning.
      My achievements were taken more seriously by my extended family when I was at primary. My cousins were the pretty ones, I was the smart one. Im actually about the same as them but cos I wasn’t into fashion I was considered intelligent.
      The (patriarchal) world is set up for cis-het masc men. This doesn’t impact on a personal level but means masc hobbies/interests are considered more serious. I love soccer/football. Every two years in the uk, the summer schedule is full of football matches. It isn’t full of dances or fashion shows or even netball matches. Parents don’t tend to mind their daughters being tomboys as much as they mind their sons being feminine (I can’t even think of a positive slang term for a feminine boy under eleven). If someone reads trashy novels, sci fi is more respectable than romance. This isn’t done to benefit butch women or transmen, it’s done to benefit cis het masc men but we benefit from it on some level if our hobbies are masc and not very obscure.
      In short, masc privilege exists but in butch ‘privilege’ it’s complicated because of being visibly queer and gender non conforming in a sexist, transphobic homophobic world.

    • Yeah, I’m confused about that too. As far as I’m aware, ‘privilege’ implies a system which exists across all other -isms, even if it takes different forms for different people (e.g. a white guy’s male privilege works very differently from a black guy’s, because racism complicates the latter’s experience of it). Whereas masc privilege… men get it, yes, but non-men? No, or at least not consistently.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful roundtable. I don’t feel particularly eloquent at the moment, but I wanted to at least say that.

    The question of who decides where and what the “center” is has puzzled me too as I meander closer to finding my own style and way of moving about the world. The style is mostly inconsistent, varying from day to day, and sometimes I wonder if on the sporadic days when I take it upon myself to wear skirts or dresses other people can tell that’s not my usual attire. Can people tell that either extreme (if it even is a line, since there are so many ways to be masculine or feminine) feels partly like a costume, at least on some days? The style is inconsistent, and so is the way that strangers seem to interact with me depending on how I present myself – but I am myself every day.

    • mey rude told me once that when she thinks of the “center,” of the masculine/feminine scale, she thinks of me, so it must be true, i am the center, not only of this universe and my own personal universe but also of all of gender forever for all time

      • what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Riese is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief, That thou, her maid, art far more center-of-center than she.

  4. When I read the accounts of people who identify as butch lesbians and people who identify as trans men, I often associate and identify with both narratives, even though they’re different. I don’t know what that means. Something about gender labels like non-binary or genderqueer feel so sterile to me– not that I have anything against others using them. But I feel like my emotions surrounding gender are so much more passionate than any of these terms sounds; I am very securely masculine, with a bit of an anchor in femininity I can’t let go of. I feel like I’m swaying between two choices, and I can’t land on one comfortably.

    Is there a word for this?

  5. I know I tell this story All. The. Time. But! I still don’t hear it from anyone else too often so I’m telling it again anyway.

    When I was in the first grade I got headlice too often and my mother shaved off all my hair, not realizing that, for a child named A-MAN-Duh! That gender policing was gonna be how I was bullied from now on. Which, I certainly was a tomboy already, but it went from an attitude that made my best friends and family uncomfortable occasionally, to a single defining feature that I couldn’t run or hide from that other kids hurt me with on purpose.
    Eventually the perks kicked in, my friends would call me genderless in an affectionate way, and I found queer communities that affirmated the fuck out of *gestures at all of me*
    Once *I* wasn’t frightened and confused anymore, I could actually enjoy the straights loss for words (and learn the relative privileges I’d aged into)
    I um, still get squirrelly and uncomfortable defining things myself, though, like I’m still waiting for a first grader to tell me I don’t count. So my clothes are still darker and the fabrics are sturdier and I carefully avoid asking if I was gonna be Masculine-of-Center the whole time or if I’m just leaning in to what my face and hair and clothes tell everyone for me.

  6. “yes, I’m super hella aware that this is the women’s room, thank you for nothing” Also BRB gonna make a t-shirt, and a patch, and an enamel pin, and maybe a stick and poke for good measure

  7. I identify as masculine of center but like, only slightly? Like, when asked to pick a side, so to speak, I unhesitatingly choose the MOC side, but I also sometimes feel not masculine enough to totally fit in with that side. I also think there is a (small) extent to which my gender presentation is shaped by body image and the fact that I don’t think I look as good in dresses as I do in pants, but if my body were shaped differently or if I had more body confidence, maybe I would wear more dresses (not hard: currently zero).

    In college I lived in the queer dorm and one day we were lying around playing this game where we rated each other on a scale of 1-10 where 1 was the most butch and 10 was the most femme (which sounds terrible and like we were all Putting Each Other In Boxes and Defining Other People’s Identities and Assigning Value to Gender Presentations, but honestly it was just a casual fun thing that no one took too seriously), and my dorm mate said of me, “There is no five more five than [my name]” — like, that I was right smack in the center — and I’ve always sort of identified with that, in spirit, I guess? In reality I think I am a little lower than a five (yes I realize this is very binary and reductive), but in a non-literal way he was right; he saw, without my saying so, that I didn’t quite fit on either “side”.

    Also in college, my freshman year, a classmate announced that she had founded a new student organization aimed at queer femme women, and my first thought was, “Oh, I should go to that,” and my second thought was, “…wait, am I femme?” I was a very femme little girl, all dresses and sparkles and costume jewelry. It’s only my adult self that identifies with “Ring of Keys”, not my childhood self.

    I identify now (among other things) as andro, but I guess in terms of how you experience the world, or of how other people perceive you, presenting androgynously as a female-assigned and -identified person is more like presenting butch than femme — even if I’m not butch, I still get strangers calling me “sir”, little kids asking “Are you a boy or a girl?”, the straight friend who looked at me funny and said, “Are you wearing a guy’s shirt?”

    • @hollisb your post was so fascinating for me, because I’m looking at all this from a trans perspective. I think, in a lot of ways, our journeys have many more similarities than I ever first imagined. We are both dancing around gender, aware of how it impacts our privilege, and how others treat us due to their perceptions and limited understanding. This whole thread is truly eye opening.

    • Hi I liked your comment…oddly enough I used to play the same FBI (femme / butch index) game with my queer buddies… and the scale was flipped – 10 being the most masculine, 1 being a extremely feminine femme.
      Not for nothin’, I have been mistaken for a boi since before elementary school… definitely did not feel or see privilege in that as I felt so much shame and confusion… until I came out when I was 18 yo… in 1977… That was a scary time… one of the only privileges being mistaken for a man conferred was when I had a femme woman on my arm in public, there was slightly less harassment (as long as I didn’t speak, and kept my butch swagger)
      Today, almost 4 decades later, I consider myself ‘soft butch’ or MOC… Gender is such an interesting construct, probably as political as it is personal to me…
      I could compare notes with many queer folk… I used to hang out in gay men’s bars and talk to the drag queens – more about how are lives and beings were similar more so than how we were different. I have also known some FTM folks who I felt were like brothers to me, having met some of there partner’s as well, I also felt at home with how some of these partners seemed to have some intuitive acceptance and understanding about what the experience is like to want to break out of gender conformity, I am a woman… I love my female parts as much as I love another woman’s female parts, but I often feel like a boi, a real live boi
      Peace to all y’all, and my hope is that we just all keep on living and respecting each other while we keep on holding onto each other and our true SELVES.

  8. “To me, being masculine-of-center means boyishness, it means blurring gender lines, it means a more vulnerable and delicate form of masculinity. It gives me the freedom to not fulfill expectations based on my assigned gender and body.”

    I loooove this. Butchness depends on where you are at a given moment. When I’m standing next to five feminine women in traditional flowery dresses at a wedding or baby shower, you bet I feel butch af. But I don’t have the typical emotional stifling or alpha male dominance issues you might attribute to masculinity. I have always gravitated away from dresses (in fact, wearing a dress feels like drag to me). Wearing more masc clothes makes me feel more me, and more powerful, but not in a Donald Trump power-handshake toxic-masculinity kind of way.

    • “Wearing more masc clothes makes me feel more me, and more powerful, but not in a Donald Trump power-handshake toxic-masculinity kind of way.” yessssss exactly this

  9. It’s great to see this butch representation as it does feel hard to come by sometimes. I know that femme presenting queers find it hard to feel seen in the world, but seeing MoC women in TV and film, or even books, feels really rare. I saw a documentary last year made by and about butch women, and the filmmaker said something really interesting when relating an anecdote about how Jackie Chan was considered ‘”too Asian” for a Hollywood film, which was that she thought butch women were seen as “too gay” to be on TV. It’s like we’re in this weird double bind of being the most visible and stereotypical, but rarely seeing our actual narratives played out on screen.

    I also think that butch and MoC women have a really interesting time constructing a masculinity that isn’t exclusive or critical of femininity. Y’know like I really dig being masculine and get a lot of joy out of it, but because I’m not trapped by the expectations of maleness it means I can pick and choose which bits of masculinity are worth keeping. Although my partner might disagree on my interest in boxing and violent TV.

    • I see it this way too. Although I don’t have much interaction with our community these days, more due to distance than desire, I seldom see what I believe most MOC women look like represented on even the few TV series that brings lesbian or bi relationships into their plots.
      At first I thought it was probably just to provide titillation for the male gaze but have come to the idea that probably MOC women are too challenging for the average viewer to relate too. Possibly too threatening for male viewers and stimulating for their wives?

  10. Loved all this; love reading the comments too!

    (I’m especially interested in people’s views on clothing as I studied/worked in costume for film and theatre, which is all about clothing as narrative.)

  11. This is an excellent round table and grateful to be a part of a concerned, thinking and questioning community.

    While I’m content with who I am and how I present, which is mostly derived from what makes me comfortable, like Jenna, I also wonder how many of my masculine traits/personality come from wanting to differentiate myself from stereotypical femininity, and why. I’m the oldest child with one sister and no brothers, and growing up she was the definition of pink and dresses and all things gloriously femme. Like the stories above, I’m naturally a tomboy, but I wonder how much of my presentation now is derived from a desire to differentiate myself from her.

    I’m also very aware of the privileges associated with masculinity and do my best to call out the attendant misogyny, in relation to the recognition how much of my identity was formed from that. It’s partly why I’ve never resonated with the term butch. Though I will say, due to my body composition, I have always been recognized as a woman (at least to my face.)

    I guess I’m curious to hear thoughts of those who also have considered their MoC presentation/being in relation to not wanting to present as femme growing up (beyond just being comfortable), and why.

  12. As a person who is MOC, I’ve become pretty accustomed to strangers (especially much older people) misreading me as being a teenage cis boy. I’ve always identified more with masculine clothing and traditionally masculine hobbies. I would hate when my mom would tell me I had to wear dresses or when relatives would buy me girly clothes or toys. It wasn’t that I looked down on or thought less of femme things, it just wasn’t me, it felt forced.

    I was constantly getting my reality checked by my classmates, especially when I was in middle school, on what I was supposed to wear and like, and how I was supposed to act as a female. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I really stopped giving a shit and fully leaned into how I wanted myself to look and do. I was a lot happier after that, but my dad still expresses dislike when I cut my hair short or don’t shave, or behave like a “lady”.

    Side note: I just buzzed my head two days ago which was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and it feels very me!

    • This is basically my life too! I was so excited the first time I buzzed my hair, every time I caught my reflection I was so happy!

  13. I love how many experiences are here. I’m used to reading moc ppl who wear suits a lot which isn’t my style. I’m soft butch but lazy w it. My gender fluctuates between soft butch queer girl to trans masc camp queer guy & everything in between.
    Only times I’ve tried to dress femme are for straight bfs & I end up feeling really uncomfortable about it so I’ve decided not to date monosexual straight guys anymore. They never like me to be me which could be a sexist thing or could just be that femininity is as hot to them as it is to me.

  14. Thanks for this.

    This is one of those topics that make me feel old and out of touch – I came out as bi in the early 90s but I’ve been with my husband since 2000 and I managed to miss a lot of queer cultural developments.

    A few years ago I realized that I’d unintentionally erased my queer identity and I’ve been seeking out queer community online and irl. I seriously feel like Rip Van Winkle (or Queer Van Wrinkle?) – so much has changed while I wasn’t paying attention and there’s a lot of catch up on.

    I’m still figuring out how to label my gender presentation – femme and butch were seriously out of fashion when I came out.

    • @cepperly I’m right there with you Cleo. I feel like I’m a complete outsider to the queer community sometimes. I came out as trans a year ago, and before that, for the last 30 years, have never really felt comfortable enough to explore my sexuality. Now that I am being hit with both pieces at once, it’s just so much to take in and explore. Sometimes it can be a little scary :0

  15. Thanks for this round table and for all the comments.
    I came out in 1977 – at the age of 18. I had always been a tomboy, played sports, liked boy stuff, boy clothes… I wanted to be a cowboy, or an astronaut, never girl jobs…
    Over the years, I have realized that more people seemed to be more pissed at what I wear and how short my hair is or how I cross my legs than who I fool around with.
    Hard to believe forty years of queer have gone by for me… Listening and watching how things have changed, Sometimes feeling like I have helped push boundaries personally & politically.
    Sometimes I feel like my moc dress and mannerisms are waving my freak flag – (I have never felt any kind of external femme presentation has come naturally to me… I feel like I’m in drag if I have to wear a dress)
    I know most things have gotten much better for LGBTQ folks but some things seem to feel entrenched in much of our culture – misogyny, sexism… I am grateful for the younger queer folk out there. I get tired and frustrated, it’s nice to know the younger generations are fighting the good fight too.
    I’m not sure I have experienced actual male priviledge – I know I’m a woman, I like all my woman parts, I realize,I probably was ‘safer’ when I went out socially in my wayward youth, I used to be mistaken for an adolescent male for many years. Today, I am mostly comfortable dressing in a MOC or androgynous way. Although, I have attempted at a couple of turns in the road to dress more femme… It just isn’t who I am inside, I get weary of trying to be something that I am not on a number of levels…
    So, thanks everyone at AS and everyone who comments for making me feel a part of instead of apart from…

  16. Major femme appreciation for this MOC roundtable. Ya’ll are beautiful humans and I so appreciated the thoughtfulness around femme identities. It’s only in disentangling femme identity from the heteronormative ideas about butch/femme dichotomy that I was able to claim being a femme who has masculine partner AND explore my own femme4femme desires. Butch and MOC queer theorists and lesbian theorists were a huge part of breaking down those ideas for me.

  17. One more thought on where the center is, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as a bi woman.

    For a woman married to a man I think I’m considered pretty masculine – short hair, mostly pants and jeans, almost no make-up, comfy shoes, non-frilly style and you will pry my cargo pants and shorts from my cold, dead body.

    But for a queer woman, I’m more in the center / kind of lazy femme – soft hairstyle, occasional lip gloss, sun dresses, feminine cut to my clothing and I love my dangley earrings and pendant necklaces.

    Both paragraphs accurately describe my current wardrobe and style. It’s weird.

  18. YES!!! To all of you! I love this post so much!

    I am called butch by alot of people, and I’ve often been asked if I’m trying to be a man, or be political in the way I dress. Like I wear a vest and tie because I’m trying to make some feminist queer statement.

    I tell them I am not trying to be anything, I don’t stress about my gender or what my style means.

    “But you dress so butch!” They say.
    I just smile, because I dress the way I do because it makes me feel confident and sexy, I don’t do it to be anything special, I just do it to be me.

  19. I totally identify with the idea that it’s easier/more convenient to present MOC. I’ve always appreciated fashion and feminine presentation from a distance, because I found it way too hard to actually present that way myself. Like, I wore makeup for a day in sixth grade and gave up because it took too much time. That said, it’s been refreshing for me to find a masculine style that I like, both because the clothes are easy to find in appropriate sizes/allow for easy movement (and pocket space, which has changed my life) and because I truly feel like I’m representing myself. I feel like it’s 10x easier for me to be considered attractive in a masculine presentation, too – my hair, which is short, requires minimal maintenance; my clothes only have to fit; and the way I carry myself does the rest of the work for me.

    To the discussion about being easily read as queer while butch – I only found that held true once I cut my hair. I have been out for years, dressed more or less exclusively in men’s clothing, and fit just about every stereotype I could, but only started being consistently read as gay once I cut my hair again. Although I know there are plenty of MOC/butches who have long hair, it’s frustrating to me that I wasn’t really recognized as such until I cut mine.

  20. Hey, all
    Thanks for more thoughtful comments …
    I’m still fascinated by the whole butch femme dynamics… I wanted to add some things I have been thinking about. I think, for me, there is this androgynous, very sexual and sensual energy… A vibe. I think it is a kind of energy. For me when I hang out with other ‘handsome’ androgynous butches, there is such comraderie and connection. I don’t feel the same kind of connection with straight women or even femme lesbians. It’s a brothers in arms feel…
    I appreciate all genderqueer presentation I think it takes balls to push against the constraints of our ‘dominant’ culture … I just started working with a gay man from Alabama, he is such a gentle man… I don’t really like many men, but I am comfortable with him. He has a soft butch kind of energy :-)

    But I digress…

    So I wonder if other MOC women feel like their ‘butch energy’ comes from the inside out… I feel like I am who I am whatever I am wearing but more true to myself wearing boyish clothes or less frilly women’s clothes.
    I feel like I have really never been able to hide that I am queer… which has been mostly a good thing…
    Yup so that’s what I’ve been pondering. Thanks for the Round table and comments

  21. “As a child the hardest thing was understanding (and making others understand) that I didn’t want to be a boy; I wanted the world to let me be a girl the way I wanted to be a girl.” This so much. Not my parents though who let me dress in a lovely suit for Catholic “Holy Communion”, where girls usualy wear white dresses. I think the priest was short of a heart attack.

  22. I’m femme and oh, if this isn’t THE most adorable and articulate line-up! If only I were 30 years younger!

  23. I relate to this so much! I’ve dressed quite tomboy/masc my whole life, but my face is very round a feminine so I’ve never come across as gay. I just cut my hair really short and finally feel like myself. My confidence has gone up, but I feel insecure about what other people think about me. I guess it will get easier over time.

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