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“If you don’t see a doctor, we’re through.” This ultimatum from my partner of 15 years cut through my pain and fear and made me realize I finally had to get help.
Her declaration came after months of suffering that began when I found myself far from home on a train from Buffalo to Albany in such excruciating pain I couldn’t stand upright. When, after six long hours we arrived in Albany, instead of getting medical care, I had a work colleague help me to my hotel room and pour me a tumbler of whiskey. I downed the whiskey with a handful of aspirin and prayed for the pain to stop. My job was intense. We were traveling throughout upstate New York in an all-out campaign to pass a bill that had the potential help thousands of suffering patients, and yet ironically, I just couldn’t imagine stepping away to take care of myself. Somehow, I managed a full schedule of lobbying the next day, and then, despite the recurrence of this pain every few weeks, I continued to work insanely long hours for the next several months until we succeeded in passing the bill.
When I finally looked up, I was not only in pain, I was exhausted, out of shape, and living off a diet primarily of gin, whiskey, and fried chicken. I had become my job and little else, and it was making me sick.
Until I got sick, I had prided myself on being a “tough” butch, who could manage the “all in,” rough scrabble world of social activism. I was emotionally tough too, I thought. For me, being a “real butch” meant: I shouldn’t cry or be emotionally expressive; I shouldn’t be vulnerable or emotionally available, I should avoid asking for help at all costs, I should not seek medical care unless death seemed imminent. I should work my guts out, and I should never ask for directions.
I’m not sure where I absorbed these ideas about butchness and masculinity. Maybe from the men in my life or maybe from watching too many episodes of “Dirty Jobs” and “Deadliest Catch.” What I do know is that there just aren’t a lot of butch role models, and, as Adrienne “Aj” Davis notes in her wonderful piece, To be Black, Intellectual and Butch, many of us are left with the task of being our own role models or muddling our way through this thing called “butchness.” Maybe it was simply the absence of butch role models that led me to fall back on traditional forms of masculinity.
My feeling trapped by masculinity is not for lack of knowledge, either. I went to an all women’s college where I was steeped in feminist thought and critiques of hegemonic masculinity. I read Butler, Halberstam, Connell, and other feminist, gender, and queer theorists. I even started a group more than 20 years ago for butches and trans men to explore issues such as male privilege, sexism, and internalized misogyny. So, I get it. I’m certainly not naive about the hazards of masculinity — the gender binary and masculinity are social constructs that hurt us all. And yet that knowledge didn’t protect me from internalizing some of masculinity’s nastier features.
My resistance to medical care wasn’t just about masculinity. As a butch woman, who is often mistaken for a man, my experiences with the healthcare system have rarely been positive. I’ve been met with incredulity, hostility, and curiosity. I’ve been asked inappropriate questions, offered tests and procedures I neither needed or wanted, and been the object of “teaching moments” where other providers have been called into the exam room to marvel at my appearance and ponder my hormonal make up.
Ironically, for me, the condition that was causing me excruciating pain was “female trouble” (endometriosis), and it forced me to face my fear of the medical system and get help. By some great good fortune, I found my way to an excellent, queer holistic practitioner who immediately “got” who I was and intuitively understood all the fear and apprehension I brought to the exam room. That positive experience and the ones that followed changed everything. Over the course of two years, I completely transformed my diet, stopped working insane hours, and started prioritizing my own self-care. Without surgery or the medications that other doctors had recommended, I am completely pain free.
But even more transformational than changes to my physical health has been learning to question those parts of my butch identity that were contributing to my illness and diminishing my life. With expert guidance from the same holistic healer, I’ve learned to let go of those toxic conceptions of masculinity. I’ve even joined with others to take the conversation about the constraints of masculinity online by starting a Facebook group called the Emo Masculinities Collective.
As it turns out, being forced to stop, get help, and start taking care of myself was just about the best thing that could have happened. I am discovering who I really am when I set aside conventional tropes about masculinity and my antiquated ideas about what it means to be a “real butch.” It turns out that I am a tenderhearted, sensitive butch, who cries at sunsets and stops to stare at the flowers growing out of the sidewalk, a butch who can’t kill so much as an insect or watch violence on TV. I still like motorcycles, weight lifting, and pickup trucks; I also like poetry, meditation, and prayer. I’m learning that there is courage in vulnerability and that asking for help is a sign of strength. My heart has opened to a world full of pain, but also to a world of tremendous joy and beauty.
There, I’ve said it. I’m not tough… not even a little a bit. I’m not giving up my suits and ties, but you may find me drying my eyes with my handkerchief. How queer is that?