The Five Ws
A further elaboration on the difficulty between drawing clear lines between ftms and butches, continued from my post here.
Gloria Anzaldúa first elaborated on her concept of the borderlands in “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”. The bilingual nature of the book emphasizes the foundation for her Chicana feminism that has been so central to modern postcolonial feminism, intersectional feminism and “third wave feminism”. In essence, she analyzes the invisible “borderlands” between groups of individuals typically cast and portrayed as opposites, breaking down dichotomies and emphasizing the intersections, all while critiquing the Western colonist thinking of binaries.
Judith Halberstram was among the first to apply the concept to the conflict, interplay and discourse between FTM (female-to-male) transgender individuals and butch lesbians in Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum. He expands on the points brought up in criticism and support of his older piece F2M, and in doing so touches upon the “border zones” that are explored in Borderlands. I’ll highlight the most important passages
Jones eloquently and forcefully articulates the limits of a monolithic and absolute
model of hormonally and surgically defined transsexual identity. His description of
the wild variability of masculinities and identifications across butch and transsexual bodies refuses, on the one hand, any notion of a butch-FTM continuum; on the
other hand, it acknowledges the ways in which butch and FTM bodies are read
against and through each other for better or for worse. His understanding of transgender variability produces an almost fractal model of cross-gender identifications
that can never return to the binary models of before and after transition, transsexual and nontranssexual, or butch and FTM.
So while it is true that transgender and transsexual men have been wrongly folded into lesbian history, it is also true that the distinctions between some transsexuals and lesbians may at times become quite blurry. Many FTMs do come out as lesbians before they come out as transsexuals (many, it must also be said, do not). For this reason alone, hard-and-fast distinctions between lesbians and FTMs are not always helpful
Using various butch, trans male and other gender diverse autobiographies and narratives, Halberstram explicates the instability and complexity of gender identity among lesbians and transmasculine individuals.
Finally, in relation to the project of making concrete distinctions between
butch women and transsexual males, all too often such distinctions serve the cause
of heteronormativity by consigning homosexuality to pathology and by linking
transsexuality to new heteronormative forms. For example, in a popular article on
FTMs that appeared in the New Yorker, Amy Bloom interviews several FTMs and
sex reassignment surgeons to try to uncover the motivations and mechanics of so-called high-intensity transsexualism
The places where the divisions between butch and FTM become blurry have everything to do with embodiment. As JordyJones suggests, many of those who take hormones might not make transgendered subjective identifications, while many self-identified transgendered men might not take hormones or pursue surgeries. Indeed, the labels butch and transsexual mark yet another gender fiction, the fiction of clear distinctions between categories.
There are many butches who pass as men and many transsexuals who present as gender ambiguous, as well as many bodies that cannot be classified as either transsexual or butch
However, in the border wars between butches and transsexual FTMs, FTMs are often cast as those who cross borders (of sex, gender, bodily coherence), while butches are left as those who stay in one place. The use of the term border war is both apt and problematic for this reason. On the one hand, the idea of a border war sets up some notion of territories to be defended, ground to be held or lost, permeability to be defended against. On the other hand, a border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and porous
If the borderlands are “uninhabitable” for some transsexuals who imagine
that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those
subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally. Prosser’s cartography of gender relies upon a belief in the two territories of
male and female, divided by a flesh border and crossed by surgery and endocrinology
Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross
from point A to point B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity. These distinctions do not map onto categories “transsexual” and
“nontranssexual” in an easy one-to-one correspondence.
The one thing that disappointed me in this essay was her retreat from the radical statement that ““There are no transsexuals. We are all transsexuals”. It was perhaps hyperbole, but it emphasized the instability, incoherence and fundamental nonexistence of gender categories. Despite that, it’s a good analysis and review of the differentiation of identity.
Gayle Rubin (a noted sex-positive feminist who has greatly influenced my politics) also wrote about identity in regards to trans men, butches, gender dysphoria and queerness. In The Transgender Studies Reader, Rubin introduces the concept of “butchness” and how it is placed historically within lesbian feminist and lesbian communities. Even more, she explains how it relates to gender dysphoria:
Butch is also the indigenous lesbian category for women who are gender “dysphoric.” Gender dysphoria is a technical term for individuals who are dissatisfied with the gender to which they were assigned (usually at birth) on the basis of their anatomical sex. Within the psychological and medical communities, gender dysphoria is considered a disorder, as were lesbianism and male homosexuality before the American Psychiatric Association removed them from its of official list of mental diseases in 1973. I am not using gender dysphoria in the clinical sense, with its connotations of neurosis or psychological impairment. I am using it as a purely descriptive term for persons who have gender feelings and identities that are at odds with their assigned gender status or their physical bodies. Individuals who have very powerful gender dysphoria, particularly those with strong drives to alter their bodies to conform to their preferred gender identities, are called transsexuals.
Unfortunately, she starts off by reducing transsexual identity to transition, a notion that has rightly been problematized in modern trans discourse, but it is understandable given the time period. What’s important is her emphasis that gender dysphoria is not something unique to trans people, it’s something experienced by butch women (which unfortunately she stops short of the important claim that it exists in more gender categories).
Within the group of women labeled butch, there are many individuals who are gender dysphoric to varying degrees. Many butches have partially male gender identities. Others border on being, and some are, female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs), although many lesbians and FTMs and the areas of overlap between butchness and transsexualism disturbing. Saying that many butches identify as masculine to some degree does not mean that all, even most, butches “want to be men,” although some undoubtedly do. Most butches enjoy combining expressions of masculinity with a female body. The coexistence of masculine traits with a female anatomy is a fundamental characteristic of “butch” and is a highly charged, eroticized, and consequential lesbian signal.
Further breaking down arbitrary notions of cis-trans identity (a model I’ve criticized for the recreation of dichotomies that trans politics typically professes to break down – also see my piece on Daphna Joel’s research), she points out that non-normative gender identity is present among individuals typically considered “cisgender”.
Sometimes lesbians use the term butch to indicate only the most manly women. But the equation of butch with hypermasculine women indulges a stereotype. Butches vary widely in how masculine they feel and, consequently, in how they present themselves. Some butches are only faintly masculine, some are partly masculine, some “dag” butches are very manly, and some “drag kings” pass as men. Butches vary in how they relate to their female bodies. Some butches are comfortable being pregnant and having kids, while for others the thought of undergoing the female component of mammalian reproduction is utterly repugnant. Some enjoy their breasts while others despise them. Some butches hide their genitals and some refuse penetration. There are butches who abhor tampons, because of their resonance with intercourse; other butches love getting fucked. Some butches are perfectly content in their female bodies, while others may border on or become transsexuals
Rubin breaks down dichotomous interpretations of butch, femme, trans and cis categories by emphasizing the range of gender identity, embodiment and experiences among butch lesbians. We can note that some of these narratives are nearly identical to that of trans men: it is difficult to create a clearcut distinction between trans men and lesbians without trapping people on one side or the other in contrast to their identity. Even more, the reification of a contrasting butch and ftm identities erases those who never transition out of one category or the other, that fit into both, live their lives as both and die as both. As emphasized in the last essay, any attempt to claim individuals living in this ‘border zone’ ends up making it more difficult for people to live their lives in that border zone.
No system of classification can successfully catalogue or explain the infinite vagaries of human diversity. To paraphrase Foucault, no system of thought can ever “tame the wild profusion of existing things.” Anomalies will always occur, challenging customary modes of thought without representing any actual threat to health, safety, or community survival. However, human beings are easily upset by exactly those “existing things” that escape classification, treating such phenomena as dangerous, polluting, and requiring eradication. Female-to-male transsexuals present just such a challenge to lesbian gender categories.
And as I would argue, butch lesbians present a challenge to the trans community’s gender categories that set up strict binaries between butch lesbians and trans men, or rather butches and ftms. Queer theory and its antecedent post-structuralism provides a poignant critique of territorializing bifurcations which shows up in Butler’s Gender Trouble, Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and so on.
Although important discontinuities separate lesbian butch experience and female-to-male transsexual experience, there are also significant points of connection. Some butches are psychologically indistinguishable from female-to-male transsexuals, except for the identities they choose and the extent to which they are willing or able to alter their bodies. Many FTMs live as butches before adopting transsexual or male identities. Some individuals explore each identity before choosing one that is more meaningful for them, and others use both categories to interpret and organize their experience. The boundaries between the categories of butch and transsexual are permeable.
The permeable nature of these boundaries alludes to a possible conceptualization of these gender categories as Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance concepts’ as Jacob Hale has utilized to analyze society’s meaning of women in reconstructing Monique Wittig’s assertion that lesbians are not women. Perhaps we can see the relationship between butches and ftms as the intersection of two family resemblance concepts, the border wars being a result of contests over who fits or does not fit within each category, political disputes resulting from the ambiguity of criterion necessary for membership augmented by social disparities, self-identification and ideology (as depicted in this analysis of Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts of ‘woman’ vs ‘man’). But again, the family resemblance concept does not lend itself particularly well to an anti-essentialist anti-foundationalist politics that emphasizes the difference of similarity and similarity of difference as a means for grounding solidarity while rejecting binaries. As such, my embrace of family resemblance concepts has always been reluctant and pragmatic in the need to explicate the complexity of identity to those ‘stuck’ in regressive understandings of gender as strict binaries.
A sex change is a transition. A woman does not immediately become a man as soon as she begins to take hormones. During the initial states of changing sex, many FTMs will not be ready to leave the world of women. There is no good reason to harass them through a transitional period during which they will not quite fit as women or men. Most FTMs who undergo sex reassignment identify as men and are anxious to live as men as soon as possible. They will leave lesbian contexts on their own, when they can, when they are ready, and when those environments are no longer comfortable. It is not necessary for gender vigilantes to drive them out. Some FTMs will experiment with sex change and elect to abandon the effort. They should not be deprived of their lesbian credentials for having explored the option.
This passage is particularly relevant to modern gender politics for two reasons:
- It explains why trans men are often seen in women spaces (female-only spaces, lesbian dating apps like Her) and why trans women are sometimes seen on gay dating apps like Grindr: a period of transition, experimentation and testing identity where one tries to figure out where exactly in the modern gender schema they fit
- The proliferation of nonbinary identities, in particular nonbinary lesbians and gay nonbinary individuals, can be seen as a method of carving out a new space for gendered performance and sexuality to exist by rejecting the binaries of gender ideology. But of course, idle speculation should not outweigh the voices of those involved.
Lesbian communities and individuals have suffered enough from the assumption that we should all be the same, or that every difference must be justified by a claim of political or moral superiority. We should not attempt to decide whether butch-femme or transsexualism are acceptable for anyone or preferable for everyone. Individuals should be allowed to navigate their own trails through the possibilities, complexities, and difficulties of life in postmodern times. Each strategy and each set of categories has its capabilities, accomplishments, and drawbacks. None is perfect, and none works for everyone all the time
Community is not a homogenous unit of individuals akin to a “Borg collective”, it’s a rhizome perpetuated by negotiation with individuals asserting themselves as members, not without conflict but with plenty of it. There is no reason why ‘the’ ‘lesbian community’ cannot include trans men, trans women and nonbinary individuals of all colors and stripe other than that of rigid gender terrorism: the insistence on immutable, contrasting and opposing genders that are simple and neat. It’s society’s love of fitting people into boxes applied to gender.
Feminism and lesbian-feminism developed in opposition to a system that imposed rigid roles, limited individual potential, exploited women as physical and emotional resources, and persecuted sexual and gender diversity. Feminism and lesbian-feminism should not be used to impose new but equally rigid limitations, or as an excuse to create new vulnerable and exploitable populations. Lesbian communities were built by sex and gender refugees; the lesbian world should not create new rationales for sex and gender persecution.
A necessary read for those self-described “gender critical radical feminists” who terrorize trans, nonbinary, lesbian and queer individuals for their identities, bodies, relationships, experiences and existences that justify the ideological schema of radical feminism (used here to describe ‘TERF’ radical feminism).
Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. T e fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman,” “butch,” “lesbian,” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism.
There are some important points that are made within the ending paragraph of this piece, but the conclusion falls flat into the depths of liberalist identity conceptualizations rather than the radical negation of identity. An analysis of identity categories reveals the rigid bases these categories are founded upon, not built for fluidity and negotiation, but for categorization and the subsequent oppression. It is only through the wholesale rejection of identity can true liberation be realized.
And of course the piece that I referenced in my previous piece, Consuming the living, (disremembering) the dead in the Butch/FTM border wars, makes the points in the strongest, most pungent manner.
If people insist on appropriating this corpse by locating it definitively within any particular identity category, they must explain away multiple inconsistencies, ambiguities, and ambivalences in self-identification, self-explanation, behavior and presentation by using concepts of denial, repression, fear, and internalized prejudice and shame that all tend to diminish the agency of the subject once animated in that dead flesh. To justify belief in different, solidly located outcomes, all that need shift is the content of these schematic rhetorical devices and those aspects of life to which they are applied.
Undeniably, an important characteristic of ftm subjectivity is masculine subjectivity in persons assigned female at birth and raised girl-to-woman with fairly unambiguous female embodiments for at least part of our lives. Once we try to be more precise about the relative notions of masculine subjectivity, however, matters become extremely complicated. Masculine subjectivity cannot be simply reduced to self-identification as a man, as not all ftms self-identify as men in any simple, nonproblematic way. Several alternatives are available here. Some ftms, such as David Harrison, self-identify as transsexual men and view that as “a different gender from what people commonly think of as man”. Michael M. Hernandez writes, “My sexual orientation is queer. I consider myself to be a hybrid of woman and man, and thus lesbian as well as gay”.
Indeed, some butches might have richer, more solid male or masculine self-identifications than do some ftms. Consequently, drawing a distinction between butches and ftms in terms of masculine subjectivity threatens to elide both some ftms’ self-identifications and some butches’ self-identifications relative to the categories “man”, “male”, and “masculine”
Yet some butches also avail themselves of some of the same reembodiment technologies, including exogenous testosterone, breast removal and chest reconstruction, hysterectomy, oophremectomy, bodybuilding, and genital alteration through piercing.
As Zachary I. Nataf notes, in some cases, self-identification might be the only distinguishing characteristic. Indeed, in some cases there may be no distinction at all, since some people self-identify as both butch and ftm.
It is no doubt misguided to try to locate one or two necessary or sufficient conditions by which to demarcate butch/ftm differences. Most people who participate in trans communities take it as already given that there is no one characteristic that provides a sharp distinction between nontranssexual women and nontranssexual men, although it would be fallacious to draw from this the conclusion that there is no distinction at all. Elsewhere I have argued that the dominant cultural definition of woman in the contemporary United States has thirteen defining characteristics, clustered into several groups and weighted differently. None of these thirteen characteristics is necessary or sufficient for membership in the category “woman”. Rather these characteristics are best understood as Wittgensteinian family resemblances: resemblances that some women, to greater or lesser degrees, share with some other women, just as I share some resemblances with some members of my biological family to greater or lesser degrees share with others in my biological family.
Analytically pursuing definitions of ftm and butch in terms of Wittgensteinian resemblance characteristics would render a descriptively adequate distinction more likely than would attempting to draw a sharp distinction based on one or two clusters of characteristics such as masculine subjectivity and male reembodiment. Concerns about how such a definition of ftm would likely function, however, stay my hand, for it could easily provide a paradigm paralleling the coercive medicalized construct of the “real”, “true” or “primary” (female-to-male) transsexual.
The dilemma of providing definitions for identity categories has haunted me in my time in the qu\r community, as I tend to refuse to provide stark demarcations for determining membership in one category or another, but am also quite skeptical of Wittgensteinian family resemblance concepts due to the implicit wars over membership in categories that would recreate the aftermentioned “true transsexual” politics (also see Kapusta’s thesis on the fights over membership and the necessity of dissemblance that quickly makes a family resemblance untenable).
Ken Morris and Candance Hellen Brown propose to define transsexual in terms of desire, writing, “It is not surgery which defines a transsexual, but the internal visualization and experience of the body as being of the opposite [sic] sex, which creates the desire to bring the body into conformity with the internal image.” This proposal is unsatisfactory on four accounts. First, it either classifies as transsexual those butches who desire at least partial male reembodiment or, if it is tightened to require desire for “complete” reembodiment, it implies that ftms who do not have this desire are not transsexual. Second, it is transsexual-centric at best to classify as transsexual someone who desires reembodiment but elects not to act on that desire and does not self-identify as transsexual, as Morris and Brown’s definition implies, since they propose that desire based on internal visualization and somatic experience is sufficient for membership in the category “transsexual”. A third problem is that not all transsexuals report having any positive visualization or experience of their pretransitional bodies as bodies that are culturally encoded as male; some ftms, instead, talk about being disassociated from their bodies or unhappy with their bodies and do not form a positive visualization or somatic experience until their bodies are hormonally or surgically altered. The fourth problem is more directly relevant the classification of historical individuals into contemporary categories: just as some contemporary people are able to form desires for reembodiment only under the condition that they are aware that reembodiment is a possibility for themselves, Morris and Brown’s definition ignores relationships between having a desire and having concepts through which to form or make sense of a desire.
Identity is always doubly relational (at a minimum). We form and maintain our identities by making continuous reiterated identifications as members of some category U(s). This is accomplished both positively and negatively by repeated identification with some (not necessarily all) members of U, and by reiterated identifications as non-members of some other category T(hem). Identifying as and identifying with, while closely related, are not identical. Identifying as U always involves identifying with some members of U, but the converse does not hold; for example, I identify with leather dykes – as a result of historical ties, continuing friendship circles, and some semblances of sensibility and values – but I no longer identify as a leather dyke.
Hale’s piece is one of my favorite refutations to “true transsexual” politics that helps explicate the nuances of trans identity in the face of gendered society and the norms that result, as well as the specific focus on trans male identity. I highly recommend reading the entire piece.
A recent work that reflects on Hale’s Consuming the Living is Weiss’ The Lesbian Community and FTMs.
In 1998, Dr. Jacob Hale wrote “Consuming the Living, Dis(re)membering the Dead in the Butch/FTM Borderlands.” He discussed the competing claims by lesbians and FTMs regarding the gender identity of historical figures. The title refers to a ‘borderland’ between butch lesbian identity and FTM masculinity, which consumes the living, “disremembers” the psychological identity of the dead, as well as “dismembering” their physical status as FTMs or lesbians (depending on which side of the line you reside).
There is no evidence that the combatants have changed their positions, or their fervor. The line is real. It is sign of difference, a line of demarcation, and an identity distinction of great importance to both lesbians and FTMs. Nonetheless, I contend that the border may not have a long future. There are converging trends in sexual identity that suggest such a result. These changes primarily affect the younger generation in their teens and twenties. First, the old labels are shifting in meaning. ‘Lesbian’ is moving away from a primarily political discourse of ‘woman-identified woman.’ ‘FTM’ is moving away from a primarily medical discourse of ‘sex change.’
Second, sexuality and gender among the younger generation have changed and begun to blend. Many young people now identify as ‘genderqueer,’ a word suggesting the conjunction of both gender and gayness, and pluralistic challenges to the gender binary (Weiss 2004 a). ‘Lesbians’ can have sex with men–can even be men (born male-bodied or female-bodied). ‘FTM’ can mean ‘female towards male’ and refer to a lesbian, a woman and/or a man. Such a person may have sex with women, or men, or either.
Third, differences among sexuality and gender are regarded as personal differences, not identity differences. Being a woman who has sex with women, but who considers oneself masculine does not require identification as ‘butch.’ Being a woman who considers herself transgender does not mean abandoning one’s identity as a lesbian and taking on an FTM identity.
“Here is how one lesbian described herself and her friends in 2002:”
One of my friends identifies as a female-bodied butch. He says he is neither a womon nor a lesbian, and he takes only womyn lovers. Another friend says that s/he is a lesbian and also a man. Yet another says s/he is a masculine womon. I know two people who identify as transgendered womyn–one is a biological man and the other a biological womon. The bioman dresses and lives as a womon; the biowoman dresses and lives as a man. Both call themselves lesbian. I have come to understand that, although there is not yet a name for my desires, I am a womon, a lesbian womon, and a femme, who deeply desires male presence in female bodies. I love men on top of me and inside me. This is my kind of lesbianism
There are also lesbians who consider themselves transgender but want to remain women:
I routinely speak before groups of young queers like Jesse who refuse to identify as gay or straight because they don’t want to leave any of their friends behind, because they don’t want to be known by something as simplistic as who they sleep with, or because they don’t even select their partners by sex.
The works I summarized and analyzed today demonstrate the false dichotomy between ftm and butch identities and problematize the purported clearcut bifurcation between the rich identities. By the utilization of a single characteristic to attempt to cleave ftm from butch or vice versa, advocates problematically ignore the lived experiences of both butches and ftms. The deconstruction of the butch-ftm dichotomy has further implications for contemporary gender politics: cis vs trans, straight vs gay, trans vs drag queen, trans vs gender nonconforming, bisexual vs pansexual, male vs female, gender vs sex, and other gender/sexuality binaries. And while single-characteristic conceptualizations of the distinction between butch and ftm fail, so do Wittgensteinian conceptualizations that use a litany of characteristics to distinguish the two groups by reinforcing ‘trutrans’ politics and medicalization of personal identity. The essays here provide clear reasoning for the necessity of anti-essentialist gender politics in our rapidly shifting world of gender and sexuality identities.
Some Other Readings
Butch Wonder’s work on the conflict between butch women and trans men
Queer Like Us descriptions of various individuals gendered lives
Matt Kailey’s piece on ‘the Great Divide’
Slate’s article on the ‘border between butch and trans’
An analysis of the conflict in the show The L Word
A Medium narrative on the coloniality of trans and butch identity
A reading of Stone Butch Blues through the lens of the border wars
FTM Trans Theory VS. Trans Narratives by Emily Nelson