I was a tomboy as a kid in the 70s. Too tall, too strong, and utterly incapable of doing anything cute. I had the misfortune of coming out during the Reagan era and AIDS crisis, but managed to stumble into the miracle of dyke bars with my terrible fake ID. It was there, among mullets and awkward line dances, I discovered there was a name for people like me — butch. And butches were hot. I was sixteen and I went on being a cocky, stereotypically dysfunctional butch dyke for another twenty-five years.
At forty-one, after one too many doomed affairs with a straight girl, I decided to take testosterone. I was exhausted from being a butch dyke. My whole existence antagonized the world. I didn’t want to be anyone’s exotic pitstop ever again. I got testosterone from a physician who just wanted to be accommodating, but didn’t know what she was doing. She prescribed me three times the normal starting dose. I eventually found more professional guidance and scaled back my dose, but I loved testosterone when I first started taking it. I loved middle-aged puberty. I thought I wanted to become a man, but after nine years of transitioning, I find I’m still very attached to my old butch identity. I feel like I earned it and my place in queer community. I also really like my beard, not being harassed for using a public toilet, and having a post-menopausal sex drive. I like being a butch who looks like a man. I have heard anecdotal evidence this experience is not entirely uncommon for trans men in my age group. I’m also white, and I pass, so I do realize I’m claiming entitlements from the mainstream and the marginalized. Have I lived through enough adversity to justify enjoying my identity, or am I just a terrible person with toxic nostalgia?
After writing a book about the whole tangled, glorious saga, I was faced with embracing the internet to market it. I created a Tumblr account. My friends asked, “Is Tumblr still a thing?” Being fifty, I’m adept at being antiquated and corny, so I persevered. And within a few serendipitous follows and hashtags, my Tumblr feed revealed to me a lively cabal of young gender warriors, each with strong and extremely specific positions on a vast catalog of non-normative identities: genderfluid, demiboy, and propegender, among others. I had to Wiki-search many of them. There were acronyms I’ll never discern. It made me feel really old. Then I felt a little creepy, like I was being voyeuristic, and I wasn’t supposed to be a part of this conversation anymore.
I had heard of genderfluid and demiboy before and technically, I would fit into either of those identities, but to use them as my everyday identity somehow feels like trying to shove my fat ass into some skinny jeans. Identity is more profound than fashion, but contemporary cultural associations are very important to identity. Butches in the early 90s dressed like skinheads and got cheesy pinup girl tattoos. Irony was very trendy. I’m not an expert on the current iteration of queer and that feels okay. Gender Wiki almost exclusively references Tumblr, so I was in good hands.
But then I got my very first real-live internet troll. I’ll call her Kevin, which is similar in gender and flavor to her Tumblr handle. I couldn’t resist joining the conversation.
Kevin: “Making yourself ugly as fuck won’t ever make you a man.” Ooh, is this a TERF?
Me: “Thanks for the tip, Kevin. Why don’t you leave gendercraft to the professionals.”
Kevin: “No one wants your stupid book you self-hating, dick-worshipping MRA” (Men’s Rights Activist?)
Me: “No one as angry as you is good at eating pussy.
We continued this vigorous dialog for three action-packed days and then Kevin left me and didn’t come back.
Kevin was half my age. She didn’t hurt my feelings. I should not have taken such pleasure in being condescending. I felt her pain in her anger at me. She identified vehemently as a butch lesbian. Kevin felt genuinely betrayed by my transition. For her, my existence invalidated her identity. I remember how excited I was when I found butch. I remember how much it meant to me when I realized I wasn’t the only stoic and sturdy big-boned gal in the world. I don’t want to take butch away from Kevin. I also don’t want to give up butch. Which one of us has a legitimate claim to set or expand the boundaries of butch?
I’m sure the internet identity police would happily answer that question for me, but butch is probably big enough for both of us. Queers have always made the world they have a place in. There’s a good chance Kevin will soften her edges as she ages. Being that dogmatic severely limits one’s dating pool. I was angry in my twenties, too. I just alienated people by being terrible at monogamy. Isolating oneself is a coping mechanism for traumas Kevin and I likely share.
I have no desire to demean anyone’s gender identity with crotchety ignorance, especially the ones I’m still learning about. Although those identities don’t resonate with me as butch does, I hope they do for those that claim them. The belonging is the good part of enlisting in identity. I don’t think I’m the only Gen X queer out there feeling lost among the proliferation of new identities. Perhaps there is simply an emotional disconnect caused by generational affiliations and experiences.
I lurk in the Tumblr shadows, watching new queer identities birth themselves. I witness the inevitable rituals of cannibalistic commentary fighting to delineate the borders of who gets to claim which identity. I worry about the isolated grief behind the avatars. It feels like a club for much younger queers to get to know one another and find their clans, but it’s harsh and it’s messy. We had dyke bars and serial monogamy to figure out who we were and who we were going to have sex with. There was no internet or cell phones, but we had rock n roll and could still smoke in bars, in dyke bars. I didn’t know I was cute until I found dyke bars. I also thought I was completely alone. Dyke bars have been replaced. New paradigms and protocols are being negotiated right now by a new generation of queers. Young queer culture has new needs and desires. I wish they had gathering places outside of the internet, but I don’t feel it’s my place to offer guidance in their arenas.
I do feel like solidarity is paramount in this political environment. Transphobia factors prominently in the current administration’s agenda. Where are the new settings for potential intergenerational queer discourse and alliance? I’m willing to pass the torch, but I’m not too old to set fires. Hating trans people isn’t new. And there have always been gays and lesbians throwing the same tantrums as conservatives about trans people. The “gender critical” lens has become more organized and gained small amounts of legitimacy from academia and popular figures. It feels like a cult now. I can’t care about J.K. Muggle Dick whining about “cancel culture” like a Republican when she’s worth 670 million dollars, but I will fight for Kevin’s soul.
I feel oddly maternal toward the new generation of queers, even Kevin. I’m sure it’s her passionate defense of an old-school identity I can’t seem to sever my problematic ties to. I’m proud and I worry. It’s okay if you get mad at me when I call myself butch. We can talk about it. But, angry conservatives will not discern subtle nuances among new queer identities and direct their hate accordingly. They don’t like any of us. I remember Reagan. I got kicked off my softball team in high school for being a lesbian because I saw my coach at a dyke bar. Irony was also prominent in the 80s. My coach was a butch dyke, but she would have lost her job had she defended me. The AIDS crisis turned all queers into a public health hazard. I remember what it was like before being gay was decriminalized. My elders remember worse. I won’t go back to the world I grew up in.
Kevin, your anger with me won’t help you in a world increasingly hostile to us all. I know you can’t see it right now, but I’m on your side. The futures Kevin and I desire are not so different: more gentle, more kind. And yet, what becomes an obstacle to that future is our own fear of one another. Empathy comes more easily the further we get from our own trauma. The queer spaces being imagined and created on the internet right now will be an expansive legacy passed onto another generation. Every queer identity that demands visibility and respect today will someday be a sanctuary for someone else.