The Time I Wanted to Hug a TERF

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?

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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.

Ty has written 1 article for us.

37 Comments

  1. oh wow I love this so much. (also, going forward, I think I want all analysis of tumblr queer discourse written by thoughtful and empathetic Gen Xers.)

    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.”

  2. This was lovely Ty, thank you. As a fellow gen xer. Non-binary (maybe, agender probably) human, I really appreciate this article.

    I am mostly isolated from the wider community. So spend a lot of my time a bit lost and bewildered but also experience the fierce desire to protect the younger ones, so they can have a better chance than I did.

  3. This piece is so generous and insightful and so goddamn funny! (“No one as angry as you is good at eating pussy” belongs in some queer retort hall of fame.) I think my tired little gen X heart just grew three sizes.

        • I won’t say I understand how you feel, because I haven’t experienced the kind of hurt you have, but it is totally valid for you to feel what you feel, and to express it.

          I hope you can see that trying to understand the pain and fear behind someone else’s hate in order to defuse it is not the same thing as defending them. This is absolutely not something that you have an obligation to do, as the one who is most harmed by this – it is not at all on you to try to empathize or understand the people harming you. But somebody has to do it, because I truly believe it is a crucial part of winning this battle.

        • I don’t think it’s true that transmasculine people aren’t among the ones who TERFs want dead (or at least detransitioned). They truly believe there’s a war on, and Ty’s experience with Kevin makes it pretty clear that they hate “deserters” just as much as “infiltrators.”

        • First, I agree with you Oerba Yun Fang that as a trans masculine person, especially a white, older trans masculine person who passes in normative circles, I have much more privilege of safety. I also have an obligation to use that privilege in defending queer people in general and trans people in particular. Humor is my lifelong, go to tool for defusing hateful vitriol directed at me or those I care about. It is usually sufficient to deflate the impact of harmful rhetoric and embarrass the perpetrators which is a double bonus. That said, I hope you know I would never defend TERFs in general. My imagining Kevin growing out of her hate merely resizes her anger into bitsized morsels. I also don’t want to minimize your experience and I apologize if my article caused you any pain. TERF rhetoric and dogma is abhorrent to me. My first choice is to mock them, but I would happily be on the front line of any bar fight against TERFs.

          • I see butch/masculine of center nb people etc calling in terfs lovingly as vital work. Not because terfs deserve gentlness, but because it is effective in disarming their hate.

  4. I’m pretty sure at this point that all identities appear to invalidate at least a few other identities. And a lot of identities appear to invalidate at least one other identity which uses the exact same label. I’m not sure if there even is a good solution to that, but if there is one, “no labels” definitely isn’t it. I mean, can you even imagine the general public dropping the categories of “man” and “woman”? Because that’s what it would take for “no labels” to be meaningful.

    That said, there do exist identities which inspire actions and words that are harmful to others. A lot of TERFs have some concept of womanhood which is at best insulting to a lot of cis women, and at worst harmful to all women and most nonbinary/trans people but especially to transwomen. So “all identities are equally valid” isn’t it either.

  5. I loved this thank you. About 10 years ago I went through a messy difficult time when half my group of friends basically came out as TERFS and the other half as trans or trans positive.

    It became very clear to me that TERFs were attacking people who had no power and who were on the recieving end of a lot of physical and emotional violence. You can guess which side I landed on.

    But I knew those TERFs intimately, I had loved them. Some had been exes or close friends. I knew their hurt. Many of them received constant challenges in women’s bathrooms. Had been on the recieving end of sexual violence because of their gender presentation. Were never seen as ‘proper’ women.

    So much of the anger of the TERFs I knew came from the fact that they had never been gender conforming, fitted in or been seen as proper women. Yet they had been subject to patriarchal violence because they didn’t measure up to the correct standard of femininity.

    I think the concept of being trans was threatening to them. It threatened the very foundations of their understanding of who they were. Of who they had fought to be.

    So much TERF anger comes from fear and pain. But it is directed wrongly at trans people who deserve none of that anger. The trans people who experience constant violence and none of the privilege. Trans people who are just trying to live their lives.

    Ultimately I will always be here for and stand by trans folk. But I think if we are ever to stop TERFs it helps to understand where that anger feeds from. So we can counter it and ultimately stop people being recruited into the cult of anger and hatred.

    • I’ve had some tough conversations with those gender nonconforming queer women who are right on the edge of becoming terfs. I agree that some of them can be brought over through empathy. I agree with Ty though about how it often feels like a cult, and you can’t reason with cult members so some are a bit too far gone for now.

    • This is a great analysis and story Jess. I even had/have internal conflict about my own transition. When I started transitioning, a part of me felt like I was betraying my own historic struggle of being a butch.

  6. Love to see this perspective!

    I’m not quite old enough to be Gen X, but I feel the same protective instinct towards younger queers who didn’t grow up under Reagan’s shadow. I take most of my tumblr discourse filtered through a therapist’s perspective (highly recommend star-anise to those who don’t follow her) and also hope they can grow out of the vitriol.

    • What’s the name of your book? It’s such a relief to read this. I hate feeling pitted against older lesbians in my community when I actually feel so grateful to them and would a million times rather be allies.

      • Well thank you Ca1000. I do really want to make alliances or at least open a dialogue. My book just came out in September. It’s called Chemically Enhanced Butch. Hopefully it’s a continuation of this conversation. Check it out at chemicallyenhancedbutch.com. You can also drop me a line there.

  7. Thank you for this article. As someone who identifies as a queer dyke, genderqueer, and maybe trans masc, I appreciate your nuanced discussion of identity and different queer generations and transphobia. Thank you for sharing your experiences in navigating gender.

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