You Need Help: I’m 13 — How Do I Explore My Butch Identity?

Q:

I am a 13-year-old queer gal who’s always presented as a Blue Jean Femme — but for over a year now, I’ve wanted to present as butch. I hate wearing dresses, skirts and makeup and have always felt better in jeans. While I’ve always worn my hair long, I’m considering getting a faux hawk. I’m also a feminist and have recently realized that when I do feminine things like wearing lip gloss and styling my (sadly long) hair, I rarely actually enjoy it — I do it because I feel I’m supposed to. And I’m both thrilled to be moving in this direction and a little concerned about how it will go. Most of my female friends are very femme, and all my female relatives fall on the feminine side of androgynous, so I don’t have any butch role models other than celebrities.

The comments I might get worry me — I’m already a queer feminist, liberal and politically radical, homeschooled and a theater kid, so if I change my expression of queerness, I’ll likely get teased. I also don’t want to adopt any of the harmful parts of masculinity — I’ve been affected adversely by toxic masculinity before and refuse to embody it.

My questions are: How do I deal with any teasing? How do I rethink masculinity instead of just adopting it? What does this mean for dating? I’m attracted to both femme and butch girls, but I’m not sure if butch girls will want to date me once I make this change. And above all, how do I explore my butch identity rather than just getting the hair and the clothes?

A:

First, I want you to know that I think you’re so smart and so cool!!! I deeply respect your introspection, and I love that you reached out to Autostraddle for help. Thank you for trusting us with your thoughts.

Before I answer your questions, I’ll tell you a little about myself. I was once a 13-year-old feminist theater kid, too, but I’d only just started finding my way towards queerness at that time. I slowly started telling my friends I liked girls, and when I was 15, I came out to most of my family, my school faculty and my classmates. I’d always been drawn to a more masculine aesthetic, but I didn’t fully embrace my queer masculinity (at least not aesthetically) until I went to college.

Now I’m 32. These days, I don’t really know which word(s) I should use to describe my gender expression, but I’ve been increasingly drawn to “butch” because of its connection to lesbian history. And while I’ve used a number of different identifiers throughout my adult life — genderqueer, transmasculine, nonbinary — my lived experience most closely aligns with the experiences of butches. I don’t always feel like I need an identifier, but sometimes it’s helpful to have a word that efficiently describes how I move through the world — right now, “butch” does that for me.

Now that you know my qualifications, let’s get into your questions.

How Do I Deal With Teasing?

If you change your gender presentation, yep — you might get teased by your peers. You might get teased or questioned by adults, too. When I was an openly queer teen, adults were some of my biggest bullies. It sounds like you’re already open about being queer and having radical politics, so hopefully, that means you have some supportive adults in your life who will celebrate your butch journey. BUT, for you and for other young people who might be reading this, I feel obliged to say this: if you think that changing your gender presentation would prevent you from accessing care and financial support from your family or guardians, please put your safety first. I hate saying that. It sucks. The unfortunate reality is that when we’re kids and teens, we have to rely on the adults in our life to take care of us. Sometimes that means temporarily compromising some aspects of who we are (at least when we’re around our caretakers) until we’re old enough to live on our own.

If you think it would be best for your safety to hold off on adopting a butch aesthetic, here’s some good news: being butch is about so much more than having a specific haircut or dressing a certain way (I’ll get into that later). If, however, you feel confident that your caretakers will continue to support you through your exploration, then charge on forward into the Great Butch Beyond and dress however you please, wherever you please!

You might be wondering what exactly you should say in response to any snide remarks from your peers, and the truth is, I don’t know. From your question, it sounds like you haven’t experienced teasing in response to your gender expression yet (hopefully, you won’t be teased about this at all!), and I don’t know what kinds of things other young people might say to you. Instead of writing out a long list of witty responses to potential insults, I’ll give you some tips for taking care of yourself if and when bullies are getting you down:

1. Seek community with other young people who understand your experience.

When you’re experiencing teasing, it’s important to have people you can go to for guidance and a confidence boost. Those people don’t have to be butch or even queer — maybe they’re different in some other way. When I was in high school, there weren’t many other openly queer teens in my area. One of my good friends was a straight guy who, like me, experienced bullying. Even though he wasn’t gay, he understood what I was going through and even joined me at my very first pride parade. We built each other up when the bullies tried to get under our skin, and whenever we spent time together, I felt a little better about myself.

It sounds like you’re already involved in theater, which is an excellent way to meet people your age who don’t conform to social norms. Depending on where you live, there might be support groups or social groups for queer youth, too. If not, you can find queer community online. The Trevor Project has a moderated, online support space for LGBTQ+ young adults between the ages of 13 and 24.

2. Ask adults for help when you need it.

You already know how to ask adults for guidance — you wrote to Autostraddle! If light teasing turns into ongoing bullying and you can’t figure out how to manage it on your own, if you feel like your physical safety is at risk or if you’re experiencing bullying or discrimination that’s coming from adults, talk to an adult you know you can trust. Maybe that’s a family member, a teacher, a queer-affirming therapist or an adult who runs an extracurricular activity you’re part of. There is no shame in asking for help — I’m still asking mentors for help, and I’m in my thirties!

3. Remember that happiness is the best revenge.

When I was in high school, I used to listen to a song called “The Best Revenge” by a queercore band called Pansy Division. In the chorus, the singer repeats: “Happiness is the best revenge.” He’s talking about how bullies want us to feel ashamed — they want us to make ourselves smaller (or straighter). According to Pansy Division, the best way to spite those bullies is to keep on living our happy, queer lives.

Of course, it’s hard and sometimes impossible to be a happy person when you’re getting teased, especially if it’s happening often. That’s why my teen self tried to find joy in little things. Whenever I experienced teasing or bullying — whether that came from my peers, my teachers, my friends’ parents or my high school principal — I would try to do something that day that made my queer heart happy. I would listen to a queer band or read a queer book or write a story about two girls falling in love. You’re probably already doing little things throughout the week that make you feel like your queerest, butchest self. Write out a list of those activities and keep it somewhere safe — these are the most important tools in your metaphorical butch toolbox.

4. Remember that for every person who teases you, there’s probably another person who looks up to you.

This one might be hard to believe — at least, it was hard for me to believe when I was a teen. Even if you don’t get showered with compliments after you get your fancy butch haircut and start dressing the way you want to dress, some of your peers are quietly admiring you — they might just be too shy to tell you; or maybe they’re also butch, but they’re not ready to embrace that part of their identity just yet.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. Even though I wasn’t embracing a butch aesthetic in high school, I was very openly queer. Long after I graduated, a number of my former classmates reached out to thank me for being open about my sexuality. Some of those folks are the same people who once told me I was going to hell (and some of those people turned out to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, too!). So trust me — there are going to be people who will deeply respect your authenticity. And I’m one of them!

5. Pump yourself up!

The world can be hard on butches, and sometimes you have to be your own butch cheerleader. If teasing is affecting your confidence, put on an outfit that makes you feel extra handsome and give yourself a pep talk. I’m serious. Talk to yourself in the mirror or record a video of yourself listing all of your best qualities. If that feels silly, write out your list instead or try writing a letter to your younger self.

Sometimes when we’re hurting, it’s actually the little kid inside us who’s suffering. Some people call that our “inner child.” I like to imagine my eight-year-old self meeting my adult self — and I know that eight-year-old Ro would be STOKED to learn how adult Ro turned out. You can try this, too: What would eight-year-old you or five-year-old you think of you at thirteen? What kinds of things have you learned and accomplished that you can share with your younger self? Looking at how far you’ve come and how much you’ve evolved might help you feel pride in who you are and who you’re becoming.

How Do I Deal With Other Uncomfortable Butch Experiences?

There’s this other thing that happens to butches and other gender non-conforming people that isn’t exactly teasing, but it’s definitely uncomfortable for some of us: once you embrace a butch gender expression, some people might think you’re a guy. I live in a big city now where most people are used to seeing a variety of gender expressions, but some people see my short haircut and masculine clothing and assume I’m a man (or more often — a teenage boy). I’ve been asked to leave the women’s locker room and the women’s bathroom many, many times. I’ve been called “sir” or “young man” by bus drivers, flight attendants, cashiers, servers and even doctors. This happens even more often when I’m in suburban or rural areas.

While there are definitely some butches who also identify as trans men or genderfluid and/or use he/him pronouns, I’m not one of those people. Still, being perceived as a guy doesn’t bother me, and I don’t waste my time correcting every single person (honestly, I like being called “sir”). Sometimes I just roll with it, especially if it’s a brief interaction. If, however, they’re interrogating me about my gender (“Are you a boy or a girl?”) or if they’re demanding that I leave a gender-specific space like a women’s bathroom or locker room, that’s a different story. Usually I’ll just say, “Don’t worry — I’m in the right place,” and most of the time, they leave me alone after that.

This might happen to you, too. Depending on where you live, it might happen a lot. I live in the US, where multiple states are rolling out anti-trans legislation that specifically targets youth. It seems like a scary time to be gender non-conforming teen here. If you’re in the US — or really, anywhere — there might be adults who don’t want you in spaces that are supposed to be for “girls” or “women” because of your gender presentation. If you’re worried about having a potentially awkward or dangerous encounter in a gender-specific space like a public bathroom, bring a friend or a group of friends with you or opt for single-user bathrooms and locker rooms when they’re available. And if someone thinks you’re a dude when you are not, in fact, a dude, remember that they probably mean well — they just haven’t met many people like us.

If strangers don’t assume you’re a guy because of your hair and your clothes, they’ll probably assume you’re queer. This might be helpful when you want to signal your identity to other queer people, but sometimes, depending on where you are and who you encounter, being read as queer can lead to some tough encounters, too. And other aspects of your lived experience, like your race or your religion, might impact the ways in which you experience homophobia. I’m a white person who grew up in a predominantly white, predominantly Catholic town, so that’s the only experience I can speak to (but hopefully, we’ll get butches of other backgrounds in the comments who can share their experiences with homophobia, too).

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this to scare you out of adopting your best butch style — these are just things to keep in mind if you live in or travel to an area where homophobia and transphobia are rampant. Even if you live in a liberal town or city, homophobes are everywhere, so it’s a good idea to anticipate their presence. As a queer adult who’s lived through some of that stuff, I wouldn’t be doing my job as your Butch Wilderness Guide if I didn’t warn you about it. My hope for you is that your young butch life is fun and exhilarating and free from the judgement of close-minded people.

How Do I Kick Toxic Masculinity to the Curb?

While embracing queer masculinity can open you up to ridicule, sometimes it comes with privileges, too. For example, I’m rarely sexually harassed by men, and in some situations, I’ve found that men take me more seriously than feminine straight women, queer femme women and femme nonbinary people, probably because they don’t view me as a sexual object. Whenever I can, I try to use this privilege to advocate for others.

I know you’re worried about adopting harmful aspects of masculinity — if that’s something you’re already thinking about, then I’m confident that your version of masculinity will be positive and considerate. “Masculinity” is subjective, and you get to make it your own. When in doubt, use whatever privileges you have to advocate for others. Remember that no gender or gender expression is better, more capable or more valid than any other. Respect the heck out of femme folks. And don’t make assumptions about what other people want and need based on their gender expressions.

Also, having solidarity with trans people is really important, especially right now. Some butches connect with the word “trans.” Others don’t. Regardless of how you feel about your gender now or in the future, the current legal attacks against trans kids, trans-affirming families and trans adults are, in some ways, rooted in a fear of people who disrupt gender norms — and butches disrupt gender norms! Even if you don’t consider yourself part of the trans community, speak out against transphobia whenever you can. LGBTQ+ people have to look out for each other, especially when some our most vulnerable community members are in danger.

How Can I Explore My Butch Identity Beyond My Outward Gender Presentation?

If you asked ten butches what is means to be butch, you’d probably get ten different answers. For years, I didn’t think I could call myself “butch” because I’m not a gruff, beefcake car mechanic, but it turns out that masculinity varies widely across countries, cultures, families, communities and individuals. My version of masculinity looks like this: I’m a caretaker. I will bike many miles to bring food and meds to a sick friend. I will be the roommate who unclogs the drain. I will send an encouraging text to a colleague who’s struggling. If I see someone getting harassed on the bus, I will offer to sit next to them.

There isn’t anything inherently “masculine” about taking care of others in these ways, but in my own brain and body, this part of my personality feels connected to my masculinity. I wish I could explain exactly why, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

I’ve also been told that the way I stand, walk and speak is “masculine.” This is just how my body naturally works. In the past — even recently — I’ve tried to hide some of these things in conversations with new people and even in work meetings, because some people have said I come off as “too serious,” “too aggressive” or “intense.” I’m working on embracing these parts of myself now. Maybe you have some of these qualities, too — and if not, that doesn’t make you any less butch! I know butches with high voices, butches who sway their hips when they walk and butches who talk with their hands. You don’t have to change your body’s natural mannerisms to call yourself butch.

Quick aside: speaking of bodies, there are all kinds of butch bodies out there! We rarely see butches on TV or in movies, but when we do get a taste of butch (or at least butch-ish) representation, the butches we see are usually thin and white. But guess what? There are lots of people of color who describe themselves as butches, studs, masculine of center, masc, etc. There are also fat butches, butch trans women, butches with big chests, butches who’ve had top surgery, disabled butches, nonbinary butches, long-haired butches — I could go on. Sometimes when you’re exploring a new aspect of your identity, you might feel like you have to emulate something specific. But there’s no one way to be butch.

So how do you identify your own butch qualities? Journal! I can tell you’re a keen observer and a great writer. Scribbling down your thoughts or typing them out might help you understand yourself a little more intimately. If you need some journaling prompts, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

To me, being butch means…
I feel the most confident when…
I feel the most comfortable in my body when…
It’s 2032. Here’s what I’m doing:

Talking to friends and mentors is also a great way to learn about yourself. If you have LGBTQ+ buds, ask them how they see their own identities.

Finally, seek out butch representation in media and see whose experiences speak to you. For me, learning about butch history helps me conceptualize my own identity and my place in the world. A few years ago, my friend gave me a book called Butch Heroes by Ria Brodell, which profiles 28 butches and transmasculine people from history. This book reminds me that there have always been gender outlaws in this world. Now I get to be part of that legacy, and so do you.

Since you like theater, you’re probably familiar with the musical Fun Home, which is based on a graphic novel by Allison Bechdel (it’s sad — really sad — so if you’re not familiar with Fun Home, maybe read a quick synopsis before you commit to checking it out). I especially appreciate the song “Ring of Keys,” which chronicles the moment when a young Allison Bechdel encounters a butch person for the first time.

I’m also a big fan of a zine and Instagram account called Butch Is Not A Dirty Word, which features images of butches and their stories. If your particular flavor of butchness is underrepresented in media, you’ll probably find it here.

I’m not super familiar with young adult fiction, so I asked my fellow writers at Autostraddle to recommend some YA books with butch, masc and stud representation. Here are some of their suggestions, plus some others I found listed on our website:

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin
Home Field Advantage by Dahlia Adler
One in Every Crowd by Ivan Coyote
Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
I Am Your Sister by Erika K.F. Simpson
The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George
Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, ND Stevenson & Gus Allen

As a final piece of guidance for your butch exploration, remember to stay curious. Gender expression, gender identity and sexuality are fluid, and you can experiment with different things at different times — I certainly have. No matter where you’re at in life, run towards whatever feels authentic and exciting for you right now.

Do Butches Date Other Butches?

When it comes to dating, there are definitely butches who date other butches! In fact, most of the butches I know are into other butch people. There’s even a whole issue of Butch Is Not A Dirty Word celebrating butch4butch love. Personally, I’ve dated people with all kinds different gender expressions.

While some might have a certain type, I think most people are attracted to folks who are confidently and authentically themselves. And if your authentic self is butch, then other people are going to be attracted to that! I was really worried that I would have a hard time dating after I embraced a masculine aesthetic, but the exact opposite happened.

Does that mean every single person I’ve ever had a crush on liked me back? Nope. Unrequited love happens to all of us, and there will probably come a time when you’re into a girl who just isn’t into you. Maybe that’s happened already. Remember that you don’t have to change yourself for a crush, and trying to change yourself probably won’t feel very good (no matter what the musical Grease tries to tell you). Eventually, your heart will be drawn to someone who likes you exactly the way you are, and if that doesn’t work out in the long-term, don’t worry — you’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet new people, and you’ll learn something new about yourself from each person you date.

Oh, and the best way to find out if a girl likes you — whether she’s butch, femme or something else — is to tell her you like her or ask her out! I know that putting yourself out there can feel scary, but it’s the only way to know for sure if someone is into you (and even if she’s not into you, she might respect the fact that you were confident enough to say how you feel).

Before I sign off, I have to tell you this: when you sent your question to us, the Autostraddle writers and editors were SO EXCITED to hear from you, and we are absolutely blown away by your thoughtfulness, your intelligence and your bravery. No matter what kinds of experiences you have in the future, please remember that there’s a group of queer adults at Autostraddle who are rooting for you. Now go out there and live your best butch life!

Love,
Ro


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Ro White

Ro White is a Chicago-based writer and sex educator. Follow Ro on Twitter.

Ro has written 89 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Letter Writer I am so proud of how much work you’ve done on figuring out who you want to be! Being thirteen can be so hard and being thirteen and queer and gnc is even harder. I think Ro did a great job answering questions (and this guide is now bookmarked for any baby butches I meet) but I want to repeat that finding your people is so energizing. As a fellow theater butch, I bet you know or will meet a cool older butch who would be happy to take you under their wing. We live in a world that can make it weird for teens to connect to adults, so don’t be afraid to involve your adults in early connections.

    And Ring of Keys! There’s actually an organization for queer theater people by that name that does workshops and things- that could be a fruitful path to explore!

  2. Wow, I love every piece of this.

    I was nowhere near ready to come out when I was 13, but the few out queer classmates I knew at that age absolutely were people I looked up to and later drew strength from when I came out at 21. To the letter writer, it is so cool that you know who you are and are able to be out and are thinking about all of this!!

    Wonderful advice as always from Ro and yes we are all rooting for you, LW!

  3. I love everything about this. Ro, such fantastic advice. OP, what a great step to write, I hope you have so much fun exploring this!

    I’m more femme than butch, but on occasion I do like to mix things up. What I’ve noticed that shoes matter so much in how I move my body. For me, wearing combat boots makes me feel invincible, and it makes me walk with purpose. Probably in a way that outsiders think of as masculine. So if you want to explore your style, boots might help, because they can usually be worn in situations were you need to be more stealth with your outfit and hide them under jeans. (PS: if you live somewhere cold, do not get the steel toe ones, they are going to be freezing.)

  4. Hey awesome kid! I want to answer your question about teasing. That’s totally understandable.

    I’m a teacher and have learned a lot about behavior, including teasing. Often the teaser wants attention, either from you or from others; maybe they crack a joke at your expense and their friends laugh. This is hard to handle because you can’t control if other people laugh or not. People also tease because they want to feel cooler than others (which increases their sense of belonging.)

    To prevent or stop teasing, you want to avoid giving teasers what they want. So here are some tips:

    1. Think about your nonverbal communication. If you feel great about your new faux hawk and show it with a confident facial expression and posture, people will notice! And if you hide your face, slump your shoulders, etc, people will absolutely pick up on that. And then you are more of a target for teasing. So pick outfits/hairstyles that make you feel great and practice a cool grin in the mirror.
    2. Come up with a response or two that you can whip out in the moment, and practice in advance. This is where you might think about the setting: are you in front of people or is it 1-on-1? In a group, I suggest making a joke if you can. Sometimes even making a *little* fun of yourself will work. (Just a little, don’t give them more ammo.) A funny reply will attract attention to you (which they hate) and you will look cooler than the teaser. Otherwise maybe give a look that says “I don’t care” and say something in a blasé voice, like “thanks for the feedback.”
    3. Try to stay calm, or at least pretend to. They want to assert that they’re better or cooler than you, and you getting upset would give them that sense of satisfaction. (I know this is easier said than done!) This is why I encourage you to practice your response in advance, because it helps you stay calm in the moment. If you feel yourself getting upset, I suggest deep breaths and telling yourself a mantra in your head. One I use when someone’s pushing my buttons is “I am safe. I can handle this.”
    4. Don’t engage with them. Give your response and if you can, walk away. If not, go back to ignoring them (chatting with friends, texting, listening to music, reading, whatever.) This decreases the attention they get.

    I hope you never get teased, but if you do, I hope these tips help.

    Last thing: my suggestions are intended to help with mild teasing or snide comments. If at any time your physical safety is threatened or emotionally you just can’t handle it alone, tell a trusted adult.

  5. Hi letter writer, I just want to say that you’re great and I hope that the joyful and exhilarating and confident parts of figuring out who you are eventually add up to more than the scary or uncertain or hard parts (and there will be both and that’s OK too). You got this.

    I was also a butch-presenting kid and teen. I’m 35 now, and last week I got to go camping with two friends who I met at camp when I was your age (I was 13, they were 9 or 10). One friend told me about one of her first memories of me, which was that another kid misgendered me as a boy and I calmly corrected the kid and explained some things about gender and gender presentation. I totally do not remember this encounter but I feel very proud of my 13-year-old self. AND, this encounter stuck with my friend — she trusted me and looked up to me as a person that she could be safe being herself around, and as someone who made the gender box bigger for her as well. So you never know who you will end up influencing, and who might be your friend for 20+ years just because you decided to be yourself and be outspoken about it.

  6. What a beautiful, thoughfully written letter, with such a loving reply <3 LW, I'm sure that just by being who you want to be right now, and continuing to be thoughtful, introspective, and open to change about your presentation and place in the world, you will be helping countless others to be a little more comfortable with themselves, whether or not you ever know it.

    Ro, I love the shoutout to Butch Heroes :) I once found a SIGNED COPY of that book, along with a bunch of queer YA novels, at a thrift store here in rural Nova Scotia, and it now occupies a place of honour on my bookshelf next to my copy of Stone Butch Blues (an old edition discarded from the Stonewall Library!)

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