The ButchFemmeinist: Passing and Visibility Edition

Bren: Hey Maddie! Wanna hear about a funny thing that happened to me the other day?
Maddie: ONLY IF IT WAS ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Sorry, kidding! Go.
Bren: Heh! It was actually at Dunkies (what us cool New Englanders call Dunkin Donuts). I was in line, but it was a slightly unorganized line and it wasn’t clear who was next. The lady behind me said to the cashier, “He was next.” I was standing there for like a full minute before I realized she meant me!
Maddie: MISTAKEN GENDER IDENTITY! What did you do, Bren?
Bren: Um, well, I ordered my frozen hot chocolate, paid for it, and left.
Maddie: Are there feelings involved? Were there feelings involved?
Bren: Well, I mean, it’s not exactly uncommon for me to be mistaken for a dude. I get “Sir’ed” with some frequency.
Maddie: Well, do you ever correct people?
Bren: You know Maddie, I don’t, for a couple of reasons:
1.) I don’t want to them to freak out and
2.) I don’t mind it. Oddly enough, I actually kinda like it.
Like butch comedian Lea Delaria once said, “It’s OK; I’m going for that look.”
Maddie: Right, I get that.
Are there any instances where you find you resent being seen that way, or is it generally preferable?
Bren: I mean, being read as a guy isn’t my goal. I’m not trying to pass. But if I do pass, I don’t mind it.
Except for the small margin of times when I feel like passing is dangerous, in the sense that, if I’m “found out” there could be issues.
Maddie: …That people might perceive you as deliberately duping them, instead of being your own authentic self that they are too binary-oriented to read correctly? Is that what you mean?
Bren: Right, and when people feel “duped,” as you say, they might get angry/violent.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if I don’t mind it a little too much. Sometimes I get real pleasure out of passing, which is a bit odd, no? I’m not trans, so why should being read as male make me happy?
Maddie: Well, I don’t know. Is there a reason it shouldn’t?
Bren: Maybe I want that male privilege, just a little.
Which I shouldn’t, because it’s wrong. The existence of male privilege, that is.
Maddie: Well, I think it’s pretty common to present oneself in such a way that is more or less authentic but also maximizes privilege/advantage/power in a given situation.
It’s hard to distinguish presenting as your “best self” from evily exploiting unfair systems of privilege, when you really start poking at it.
Bren: This is very true.
Maddie: And let’s also remember this:
The great majority of people out there don’t have the same nuanced understanding of gender variation (or ambiguity, or complexity) that we especially gender-minded queers do…so if the only boxes available to be ticked in their minds are 1.) normative female and 2.) normative male, normative male might not be exactly you – but it might be the closest of the available options.
Bren: You know, I think you’re right on the money there.
But I can’t help feeling some guilt when I get a taste of privilege that I disagree with, which is why I feel super guilty about my interest in exploring binding and packing.
Maddie: Tell me about this interest and related guilt!
Bren: Delighted to! Well, let’s start with binding.
Here’s some truth: I fucking hate my boobs. Hate, hate, hate. They’re annoying and always in the way and make it hard to buy shirts I like. And on top of that, they’re so decidedly… feminine.
Maddie: Well, based on our cultural conflation of bodily characteristics and gender identity… yes.
Bren: I want them to not be so…boobilicious. I want them to not be noticed, you know? Not to go away entirely, because they’re nice in certain (sexy) situations, but letting an intimate partner see them and letting the world see them are two very different matters.
So, I’d like them to be less noticable. Binding is a way to achieve this. Problem is, my boobs are big and binding hurts. The best I seem to get to is a tight sports bra, which also kinda hurts. My boobs are annoying as well as wimpy.
Maddie: Now, now. We’ve already gendered body parts here; let’s try to avoid personifying them as well!
Bren: Hmph.
Well, anyway, there’s that.
Now, as for packing, I just think it would be hot, honestly. Also, if you’ve ever read butch-femme porn (and I hope you have/can recommend some good stuff), the butch is almost always packing. Just walking around town, going to clubs, all whilst packing.
This seems pretty normalized, right? So why can’t I figure out how to do this without looking like I have a permanent raging hard-on? And, more importantly, why do I want to?
Maddie: Well, let’s not assume that because a thing is featured in porn/erotic fiction it is actually a statistically normal thing.
I bet the femmes never have trouble achieving orgasm, either, you know?
Bren: Not that I can recall… But there are plenty of real-life butch writers out there that discuss packing/do pack.
But, really, does it make sense? Isn’t that just a form of trying to pass?
Maddie: Can I ask, are you interested in hard-packing for the purposes of being able to have strap-on sex at whatever spontaneous moment arrives, or are you also (or instead) interested in soft-packing for the purposes of just quietly feeling more masculine throughout the day?
Bren: The former, methinks. It’s all about function.
Maddie: Then I don’t see that as being related to passing, if that’s what worries you.
 Bren: Ok, good to know. What about binding?
Maddie: I mean, what about it concerns you as far as passing goes?
And as for binding, I know it’s not all totally equivalent, but we all do things to make our bodies look more like the aesthetic we identify with.
Bren: I just feel like, somehow, if I “accidentally” pass then it’s ok, but if I actually do things to alter my body and then pass, it’s trying too hard to get that privilege.
Maddie: I’ve been known to wear high-waisted pencil skirts that are, you know, maybe a pretty far cry from the most comfortable thing in my wardrobe, because I really like having the appearance of an hourglass figure.
Bren: Do you feel there’s privilege in that aesthetic?
Maddie: Definitely!
Bren: Ok, well, how about other kinds of passing? Do you feel like you pass in different ways? Maybe passing as straight?
Maddie: One note on that: again, it’s hard to draw a distinct line between maximizing how good you feel about the you you’re presenting to the world in an empowered, positive way – and exploiting your own privilege in a messed-up way.
But the fact of the matter is, you can fight systems of oppression from within.
Bren: True…
Maddie: For example, I have body size privilege. I may not come near most cultural ideals of body size – and I am no stranger to body image issues – but I fall within the range of what has been normalized, and am treated differently than others for that reason. That doesn’t mean I can’t be a vocal, proactive ally in fat positivity.
If I were doing myself harm in order to be the size I am, I would probably have to tackle that first.
Bren: Most def.
Maddie: But just choosing a lifestyle that is mentally and physically positive for me and dressing in a way that I like doesn’t have to mean I am oppressing others.
Bren: I guess the important thing is to be wary of whatever privilege you have and use your powers for good, not evil.
Maddie: Words to live by!
Bren: So what about this whole business we always hear about, how femmes are accused of passing as heteros?
Maddie: Well. Honestly? I take that as a given, at least on your average workday.
Just like most people don’t have a nuanced-enough understanding of gender to get your actual gender location, I just assume most people out there aren’t looking for clues that I’m gay. They’re not suspicious. For most, a person is straight until proven otherwise. THEY’RE NOT GOING TO NOTICE THE FINGERNAILS, BREN. THEY’RE JUST NOT.
Bren: BUT THE FINGERNAILS ARE SO IMPORTANT.
Maddie: YES – for those of us who actually go around looking for the clues.
And let me tell you, I hate it when I walk by my own people unnoticed.
Bren: That happens often?
Maddie: This is probably why I’ve been known to maybe overdo it on the dyke indicators on my own time, when I’m not trying to comply with any downtown suit-set dress codes and I just wanna feel plugged into my own community.
Have I walked around in a ‘hawk, hoodie, beater, frayed denim mini, combat boots and bandana neckerchief? Yes. Yes I have. And probably will this weekend.
Bren: MAJOR DYKE OVERLOAD.
Maddie: And I guess that’s the way I’ve found to most comfortably out myself – it’s easier for me to be confrontational in my appearance than to have to figure out ways to slip references to my dykehood into every conversation.
Bren: Let me ask you this: Do you ever feel guilty for not outing yourself in a given situation? Do you think there’s privilege in that?
Maddie: There is SO MUCH FRIGGING PRIVILEGE IN IT and yes, I do feel guilty.
At the same time, I try to remember that part of the disadvantage experienced by queer people is the attitude that we are being deceitful if we don’t disclose immediately, and being oversharers if we do – and adjust my expectations accordingly.
If I don’t know someone well enough to know any characteristics of the people they ‘ship up with and/or bang, then it’s okay for me to not share that information with them.
But if I DO have a relationship such that that information is on the table, I’m not oversharing or being inappropriate if I reciprocate.
Bren: That seems very reasonable to me.
Maddie: What I maybe can’t rationally reconcile, though, is my nonchalance about people not knowing my personal business with my UTTER DELIGHT at the visibility that comes with an unmistakable-even-for-oblivious-straight-folk marker like walking around holding a girl’s hand
Bren: So I imagine that having a GF makes you feel very giddy and very SEEN.
Maddie: I mean, it’s hard to completely separate the gushy-mushy I LIKE YOUR CUTE FACE giddy feelings from the O HAI WORLD I AM DYKE RAWERHRHHG giddy feelings, but I sure do like them both.
Bren: Understandable.
Here’s an interesting way to combine our different experiences with passing: What if you’re with a dyke who passes for a dude? Do you magically become a straight couple?
Maddie: I AM NOT SURE BUT MAYBE AND TO BE HONEST IT KIND OF SCARES ME.
Bren: Because I’ve passed as male while with my GF and those people probably thought we were some nice straight couple instead of two norm-smashing dykes.
Why does it scare you? I found it a bit funny.
Maddie: No, it is a bit funny. You know, in that Trojan Horse SURPRISE! NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT! sort of deliciously subversive way.
But for context:
My first girlfriend wasn’t at all butch. She was maybe a bit gayer-looking than me in that quirky, thrift-store hipster dyke kinda way, and I loved that I was automatically more visible by being around her. But nobody was gonna mistake her for a dude.
My second girlfriend, though, was way way way further over on that gender-presentation spectrum. Butch in a kind of faggy, fey way – yes. But easily mistaken for male.
So, when we first started going out, I was happy to have that holding-hands-in-public kind of visibility again… until the point when it struck me that, oh, wait, she might actually be making me look even MORE straight, and I got a little panicked.
I think it was the unwilling aspect of it. When I dress up in work attire, I know what image I’m putting out there, and I’m somewhat in control over it.
When I dyke-overload out, I’m still controlling the image I project.
When I very deliberately, very knowingly play up the gender-divide dynamic between myself and a butch partner, it’s a playful kind of costuming that I totally enjoy.
Bren: That butch-femme gender-divide dynamic is pretty much the best thing ever.
Maddie: But when it happens without my expectation or awareness or intention, it can be startling and uncomfortable.
Bren: Also a bit maddening, I imagine, to be gaying it up so hard and yet still being read as straight.
Maddie: I mean, THAT’s the part that’s funniest to me, that you can get so damn gay you come all the way back around to “straight” again.
But maybe it’s similar to what you were talking about way at the beginning of the convo, with this feeling that maybe we’re unintentionally in disguise.
Bren: That last line might be the most emo thing to be posted on this site to date.
Maddie: IS THAT A CHALLENGE? I CAN TOP IT, I PROMISE.
Bren: I need to go hit up Hot Topic after work and find myself a Cure album and a pleather trenchcoat.
Maddie: I’ll bring the eyeliner. I’ve got plenty in the “dark and smudgy” category.
Bren: Very Avril Lavigne. I like it (or, I liked it when I was 17).
Maddie: You may be the first person to have compared me to Avril Lavigne and lived to tell the tale. Just saying.
Bren: Hey, she was hot back in the day! Rocking those ties and ribbed tanks and Converse. Totally dykey.
Maddie: True. I guess I just felt superior knowing that my JNCOs were bigger than her JNCOs.
Bren: SIZE DOESN’T MATTER.
Well, on that note, I’d like to offer my closing remarks.
Privilege is power. Powers should be used for good, not evil.
Maddie: Agreed.
Well, and to recap what most every homo knows or is soon to find out, passing can be a privilege and visibility can be a privilege.
Bren: Which is fucked up and makes me sad inside, but is true.
Maddie: Don’t be sad! It just means we’ve all got challenges and advantages to work with at any given moment.
Let me also reiterate this point, though: we shouldn’t forget that “passing” vs. “visibility” is a question of the beholder, too.
Sometimes your authentic self is going to be misread by someone without the proper background/goggles, and it’s not because you’re in disguise.
Bren: I’m now humming the Transformers theme, only as “Homos in Disguise.”
Maddie: By the same token, it’s pretty valuable to learn how to send signals to work against that misinterpretation. But there’s ultimately only so much you can do to control how others read you, and you can’t be accountable for their ignorance.
Bren: Basically, we’re awesome just the way we are, and they can all go suck an egg.
Maddie: YOU DO YOU, HONEY.
Bren: Or, to put it nicely, we should be true to ourselves and then learn how to deal with/make good out of the privilege (or lack thereof) that comes with being authentic.
Maddie: Hear, hear, queer!
Bren: With that, I’d like to thank you all for reading another here-queer-and-not-going-anywhere edition of the ButchFemmeinist. Now go do you!
Maddie: GET IT, GAYBIES! See you next time.
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12 thoughts on “The ButchFemmeinist: Passing and Visibility Edition

  1. Loved this, as always, ladies! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go process this and feel all the feelings. As a femme who ALWAYS passes, even in gay bars, unless I’m pretty much making out with a lady, this convo is something I think about ALL THE TIME. Thank you both!

  2. Another awesome post! I agree with you, Bren, that it is very frustrating when one’s otherwise-awesome body does not quite match the mental image one has of oneself. And Maddie, your comment about not personifying boobs just made my whole morning.

    • My friend, you are greatly overestimating our proficiencies with technology. 😉 That is a very cool idea, though! Who knows, crazier things have happened.

  3. Great post! I struggle a little with the binding & packing issues myself – well, maybe “struggle” is not the right word, because I do feel as you explained above, that we just do things to make our bodies look more like our authentic selves. Love your blog!!!

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