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
Her hand was on my neck, and then the small of my back. She wasn’t neat about it because she was drunk, and when she grabbed for my jacket, she lost her footing and knocked into my shoulder. My three layers of binder and too-pressed shirt and half-wrinkled jacket might as well have been paper, because every time her body was touching mine, I shuddered. My knees had already locked, and my hands were shaking when I tried to pull away without having to brush against her. The room was starting to close in and spin, because I was dizzy from the rush of anxiety that came with each moment of body contact.
“Don’t touch me,” I said, over and over again. “No touching,” I repeated, and tried to pull out of her grip. I said it loud enough for the other people in the bar to hear. I said it loud enough for the people I had come to the bar with to hear, all of them standing around us, watching the situation. I felt like I was humiliating them. I felt like I was responsible for what was happening to me, while simultaneously knocked backwards five years to a dark corner of my memory that I will paddle backwards in a hurricane to avoid recalling. But no one was doing anything, and I was grappling with a straight drunk woman in her forties who was belligerently telling me she wanted to dance, even when I said no too many times to count.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I have a breaking point like anyone else, and mine might be a little finer than most. I shoved my way out of the bar, nearly breaking down the door in my rush to get outside. The air at 2 am hit me like the flat of someone’s palm, and I collapsed on that cobblestone alley with so much furious energy that I might as well have been a meteorite, splitting Philadelphia in two. In the wake of my crater, I was attempting to still my hands enough to light a cigarette. I’m not a smoker until I am.
“Are you okay, honey?” Two gay men were crouching next to me. “That was bullshit.” They had removed the woman from the bar, and now she was being pulled down the street by her companion.
“I’m staying here,” she said, and her body bent backwards in such a way that I thought maybe she wasn’t a real person at all, but the spirit of something I’d left behind a long time ago. She tried to grab for my hair. I ducked. I winced, actually, and it became the nodding of my head and the shrugging of my shoulders that kept her hand from making contact with me one last time.
She disappeared down the alley. I made small talk with other smokers. I made jokes about Liz Taylor. I pretended that you could chase feelings away with words you don’t mean. The people I’d come with left the bar, and went their separate ways home. I looked at them for a half a second more, hoping someone would say something to me. I wanted to feel validated in my discomfort and anxiety. I wanted them to tell me that I had been right to be scared, and I wanted an embrace, a kiss on my forehead to erase where her hand had swiped at my brow. I wanted them to say I was going to be okay. But they did not, so I took off at a pace that made my lungs ache and I didn’t stop walking until I realized I couldn’t walk all the way home to West Philly.
I retold the story without a punchline, just to see if my reaction was too far off. “You’re such a chick magnet,” I heard in response. “This always happens to you at bars,” my other friend said, but she didn’t mean it in a sympathetic way. She was laughing. She said she was jealous.
Why is it that time and time again, people act like they can’t make me uncomfortable? That as a butch — as well as a queer person, a top, someone who likes to flirt and be sexual just like most human beings — it’s impossible to sexually harass me? That it is impossible to objectify me, sexualize me against my will? Why am I automatically seen as such a sexual being that I am invulnerable to such advances?
A straight girl once told me that I was a coming out party. I asked her what that meant. She said that to be seen with me in public, just the two of us, would make everyone think we were sleeping together, that she had finally “gone gay.” And I laughed at the time, because sometimes I have to make jokes about how I don’t have to come out anymore, how my physical appearance does that for me. But I also make jokes because I am so self-conscious that my very presence has become its own sexual marker. If you are socializing with me, especially one on one, it must be that you are sexual with me as well. My existence is interpreted as so hypersexual that there is no in between, that I can’t be around a girl without also sleeping with her. And nothing could ever make me feel more uncomfortable than that assumption.
At bars, I can’t order drinks for my friends without people assuming I am trying to pick my friends up. Once I slid a gimlet down the bar to the friend I’d come with, and she made a joking face in return. A man stepped in, and after backing up into me, asked her if I was bothering her. A woman shoving her tongue down my throat on a dancefloor or in the back of a bar is interpreted as something I’d always want, no matter what, even if I didn’t initiate, even if I’m too drunk to protest, even if I say no.
“What happened to your butch sex drive?” my friend once asked when I started a night out by saying that I wasn’t in the mood to be jostled around. I hadn’t realized that the butch sex drive was more powerful than any other sex drive, but to them, I was wrong.
My tumblr inbox is a mess of sexual come-ons, references to my body parts, and demands for sexual acts. Most of these come from queer-identified people, and the rest I cannot identify because they are anonymous. There is a very vocal part of my insides that feels I should be grateful for these messages, because being raised as a girl means being raised to feel flattered by all forms of sexual attention, to say thank you in turn. My insides remind me of every time I’ve been called a bulldagger, when my butchness has been turned into ugliness, and I tell myself I should be thanking them for finding me desirable. And yet sometimes it makes my skin absolutely crawl, to be so readily and aggressively sexualized, and I never know if I’m allowed to feel that way.
I think to myself over and over again, if it was a man, maybe they’d say something. Five seconds of a man doing this to me and they’d get him kicked out of the bar. Five minutes of this woman doing the same thing and no one seems to see it as a problem. Because harassment to society looks like a man harassing a woman, and yes, so many times it is exactly that. When I talk about being harassed, I am most often talking about a straight person reacting to my queerness, but that is not always the case. What about harassment within the queer community? Why aren’t we allowed to feel safe and put up boundaries, too?
Two weeks ago, I talked about how misogyny was often perpetuated in butch communities, and in the practices of masculine-presenting queers in what seems to be an effort to emulate hypermasculinity. I am always conscious of this, and the fact that my identity is something that’s associated with such harmful behavior makes me even more aware of my own actions. But I don’t want this to erase the fact that it is still possible to be harassed as a masculine-presenting person. Objectification of feminine bodies comes with an intense history that is as true as ever. Objectification of butches and masculine-presenting queers seems much less likely to be considered an issue, or something that is damaging to the person on the receiving end. Of course, it very much is.
I have been trying to break this down for days now. What was it about that moment that prevented anyone from identifying it as an issue? Why am I construed as taking pleasure from any form of sexual attention? Queerness is defined by sexual and gender identities that veer from the norm, and as a result of all the ways that queerness has been attempted to be contained by society, it has also been portrayed as negatively deviant, dangerous, a mental disorder that causes serious harm to the bearer and those who enable them. Even today when we have made household names out of RuPaul and Ellen, queers are entertainers who have weird, scary sex. The queer sex life itself is censored entirely, or made out as a freak show, a punchline, a parody of itself. No matter how much we are bombarded by instructions in heterosexual intercourse since childhood, the queer equivalent is seen as a mystery or a monster. Thus queers remain portrayed as hypersexual beings whose bedroom activities are simultaneously ritualized and reviled. As many a person I have encountered in my life would say: “Well, if you didn’t want to be seen as so sexual, then you shouldn’t keep talking about how you’re gay.” I know the drill by now.
In my own life, I’ve constructed little rules to make sense of all this. I don’t make the first physical move. I just don’t. There’s a girl sitting in her apartment in Manhattan right now who will tell you that she endured my flirtatious small talk for literally five hours until she finally figured out that she’d have to kiss me first. I am terrified of making anyone feel sexually uncomfortable because that is an issue very near and dear to my heart, and also because I know that queerness is portrayed as a state of hypersexuality, and I feel like I need to prove to every girl I meet that no, I’m not actually trying to sleep with her. Which seems to work until I really do want to sleep with her, and then it takes two hours, or two years.
Because at the same time, I do like sex, and I don’t want to apologize for that. I am absolutely a sexual creature who wants to touch and be touched, to kiss and be kissed and revel in everything that bodies can do together. I am allowed to flirt, but I’m also allowed to choose to say no. I don’t want to live in a world where I cannot be both a butch who loves sex and a butch who is not allowed to turn down sex. All the accusations of “ugly bulldagger” in the world can’t convince me that I’m not still desirable even when I’m telling someone I don’t want them to do something to me, that I’m not worthwhile even when I reserve my right to give consent. In the shape of every crater I leave is the declaration that I have agency, and I am still beautiful.