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