Ask Your BFFs: Fixer-Uppers, Defining Butchness, and Keeping It Old School

Why are women attracted to other women who don’t have their shit together?

Bren: I couldn’t have asked it better or more eloquently than that, dear reader. I have to say that I think this is a universal human problem and not so much an exclusively lesbian problem. However, lesbians are to drama as cats are to catnip (we get high by rubbing it all over our faces), so we probably fall into this trap more often than your average Joe/Jane Heteroschmo.

Back to the question at hand: Why indeed do we get so gaga (the crazy, not the Lady) over people whose lives are basically flaming train wrecks speeding towards the edge of Failed Adulthood Gorge? Because we’re fixers, my friend. We dykes just love fixing things – that’s why our wedding/civil union/commitment ceremony registries are at Home Depot. And you know what’s really hard to fix? A person! I mean, an immature emotionally unstable Child-Woman is just such a challenge, right?

I think the allure here is the notion that you and only you alone can turn this hot mess into a functional human being, as if the power of your love is enough to inspire some magic Beast-into-Prince(ss) Disney transformation. The thought process goes like this: Sure, she’s never worked a day in her life, but she’ll get a 9-5 for me. Sure, she’s cheated on her other 65 girlfriends, but she’ll be loyal to me. Sure, she likes to get wasted on a Tuesday night and get into bar room brawls, but she won’t do that if I ask her not to. You get the idea.

I’m going to propose something radical here. How about we, dykes and non-dykes alike, agree to start dating people who – get ready for it – already have their lives in working order? Instead of thinking, “I can make this person awesome if I date her,” we start thinking, “This person is awesome, and that’s why I want to date her.” Relationships shouldn’t be about giving your partner a makeover, and we all need to be the masters of our own destinies (that’s a fancy way of saying, “Only we can make our lives not suck”). If the person you’re crushing on doesn’t have her proverbial shit together now, take a step back and give her the chance to improve her life without your charity. If nothing changes, well, there are plenty of other gay fish in the sea.

Maddie: HOO BOY. Well, first off, I’m just gonna put this out there: if we limited ourselves to only dating people who had their shit fully together, we’d cut out a pretty good chunk of the eligible lesbian dating population. I mean, there’s that. While I most certainly advocate charting a nice, firm, bold line in between what you can healthily manage with a SO and what is going to make it too hard for you to navigate your own shit, let’s recognize that we’re all works in progress and that “having one’s shit together” is a pretty subjective designation. And a process more than a destination. Also, I’ve been the shit-not-together person in relationships and agonized over it, only to find out after an overdue breakup that…it wasn’t me, it was the relationship, and no sooner had we parted ways that my shit began to magically coalesce into something much more closely resembling a state of togetherness. I’m not trying to say that the only worthwhile relationship is the effortless one, but I think there’s something to looking for the people in whose presence our stable, functional selves just kind of naturally come out to play.

And now I’m gonna put all that conciliatory business to one side, and talk about the kind of person that you are very possibly talking about: the kind of person who approaches relationships as a victim. It’s a tactic. So. Those of us who were socialized as women were socialized to make the most of our weakness and vulnerability. And sometimes that’s the only way we know how to get things from other people: play the Hot Mess card. And the kicker is…it works. Because being needed is so effing alluring. Because messiness is relatable. Because it is really easy to mistake someone dropping an armload of exploding baggage on your doorstep for some kind of intimacy. And you know why else? Because it can be exhausting to always feel like the mess in the relationship, and it might feel a whole lot easier and safer to be the (comparatively) stable one for a while.

My radical suggestion towards a solution is this: start by loving, valuing, respecting, and trusting ourselves. If we don’t see ourselves as card-carrying members of Club Hot Mess we’re just not gonna feel the same pull. We’re also gonna recognize that we are perfectly capable of sustaining relationships with other stable, healthy, functional people.

This approach won’t solve that annoying piece of the equation, that sometimes the people we want to go for us are gonna go for someone on #teamhotmess instead. That sucks, but eventually they’ll learn. Or you could link them to this wise, wise column here, of course, and speed up the process.

What defines someone as being butch? Can I always expect a butch to open doors for me?

Bren: There are two things that define someone as a butch: Hirself and hir actions. If a person says, “I identify as butch,” well, then that person is butch. It’s really as simple as that. I don’t believe in the policing of identities; even if someone has butt-length long hair, a French manicure, and 6-inch stiletto heels, that person is still free to say “I’m a butch.” They might not look like my flavor of butch, but nobody has crowned me King of the Butches (yet), so who am I to say “you’re doing it wrong; my way is the right way”?

As cheesy as it may sound, butch is something in one’s heart. It’s a way of seeing and existing in this world that is deeply personal, and isn’t dependent on the presence of a pocketknife or biker boots. It’s a masculinity that isn’t misogynistic, a bravado that isn’t regressive. Of course there are physical traits that are shared by many butches – short hair, masculine attire, an affinity for showing up on Tumblr holding cute things – but none of these are required for entry into Butch Club. (First rule of Butch Club: bring brownies.)

That said, I do think there is a correct way to “act butch.” This has nothing to do with fixing truck engines, chopping down trees, bench pressing 200 lbs., or other stuff that I can’t do. It has to do with being a gentleman. It’s knowing how to be good to people – not just femmes, but everyone. It’s being an upstanding citizen, volunteering to help someone in need, and taking care of the ones you love. It’s all the good in masculinity and none of the bad.

This is a good segue into your second question, the answer to which is yes. Any butch worth hir weight in leather wrist cuffs understands the significance of holding doors. It’s a very simple but oh-so-gallant gesture that shows 1.) that the butch is being respectful and 2.) that the butch values chivalry. This is of the utmost importance. Butch 101-level stuff, really. Someone recently pointed out to me a bumper sticker that said, “Chivalry isn’t dead – she’s a butch!” Allow me to give that a ‘hell yeah.’ HELL YEAH. Thank you.

Maddie: Alright, it’s not for me to step on anyone’s dapper, spit-shined-boot-clad butch toesies, but I have to disagree here with Point #2: No, you cannot always expect a butch person to open doors for you. Maybe that butch recently dated me, and knows that if I get to the door first, there’s no way in hell I’m gonna step to the side, give an expectant look, and wait for her open it for me. I’m gonna open it, and politely provide her the chance to walk through first, which she is free to accept or reject. Perhaps she learned that if we’re walking to her car and we reach the passenger side first, I’ll smile sweetly and thank her for opening the car door for me, but if she walks the whole way around the car to my side NO MATTER WHAT to open the door for me EVERY SINGLE TIME she’ll start getting a “BUTCH, PLEASE; I GOT THIS” look. And I understand, I do, that for the chivalry-minded set, it’s not about viewing one’s partner as incapable, it’s about doing something nice for her – but there’s a point where it becomes uncomfortable for me, and I would posit that a butch is very much worth her ID if she understands that some of us butch-daters have, you know, Feelings about the assumption that chivalry will always be well-received. The corollary here, though: if you want a butch partner who will permanently fill the door-opening role, they certainly exist. It just doesn’t automatically follow from the title.

And about that title, “butch:” that’s what it is. A title, a label, an identification, an identity. It’s not a simple descriptor. Thus, I will wholeheartedly second Bren’s answer to Part One of your question: a butch person defines a butch person as butch. That’s it. Period. Now, are there latent butches who haven’t come around to that identification yet? Ask anyone currently IDing as butch and you’ll hear that yes, this is a common experience. But it’s still not anyone else’s call to make.

Do ‘old school butches’ exist close to my generation (under 30)? If so, where do I find one?

Bren: Yup, they do. I’m right here. Next question?

Oh, wait, you mean you want to date one? Hmm, well that’s an entirely different matter (I’m not on the market; sorry, ladies). I guess the first thing to do here is to clarify what “old school butch” means. To me, it means “chivalrous, protective, and knows how to treat a femme like a lady.” Think of all the olden tales of gallant knights riding into battle to defend the honor of a fair maiden; now replace “knights” with “butches,” “riding into battle” with “hopping on the subway,” and “to defend the honor of a fair maiden” with “to go shovel a femme’s car out of three feet of snow at 11:00 at night.” That’s what kickin’ it old school is all about.

I’m going to make a bit of a detour here. I don’t think there’s really a shortage of masculine-of-center queers in our generation; what I do see are fewer young queers who self-ID as butch. This is a trend that I’ve been fretting over and trying to figure out for a while now. What is it about the word “butch” that makes it unappealing to new genergaytions? Do people think “butch” is synonymous with “middle-aged white woman with a crew cut and an L.L. Bean flannel?” Is the term too dated, or perhaps, too racially-loaded? Can queer POC relate to “butch?”

To me, “butch” is a word that is full of history and pride. It stands for those who bravely left the house in a men’s suit when it was the law to wear at least three pieces of women’s clothing. It stands for those who kicked ass at Stonewall. It stands for those who lived and loved in smoky underground bars long before Ellen was a household name. But I get to approach “butch” with the privilege of my light skin; I need to remember that. For others, this word may never have spoken to them and their experiences. New words like “stud,” “dom,” “boi,” and “AG” have been added to our lexicon since the summer of 1969; for many non-Caucasian queers, these are the words that fit. Blogger LishOus recently wrote about growing up as an MOC POC and how “butch” was viewed in her community; it’s a great read, and I certainly learned something from it.

Ok, so that was less of a detour and more of a summer vacation. Sorry! I just have so many Feelings sometimes. I’m going to offer my standard dating advice, which is helpful for finding butches – old school, new school, middle school (don’t look for that one unless you want to meet Chris Hansen) – or dykes in general. Check out profiles for all the tell-tale signs of chivalry (see the previous question), then schedule a date with a promising fella. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if this person “gets it.” Does she pay for your drink? Does she hold the door for you? Does she walk you to your car? Take notes and then, take her arm. You’re golden.

Maddie: Yep, they exist. Unfortunately, my butch homing technology is still in the earliest stages of development, and I can’t track any available ones for you. Here’s the thing: large gay populations tend to form when lots of gay people migrate to the same area. Sure, gays come from everywhere in the world, but sizable, identifiable, critical-mass communities of gay people depend on migration. It’s my theory that this creates that much more self-selecting and locally unique populations: certain types tend to dominate in certain areas. Maybe you truly don’t live in an especially butch-dense area. It happens.

If you do live in a fairly big, urban place, though, I recommend browsing different scenes. Those tend to be self-selecting, too. Where I live there are a few different bars and monthly parties: the crunchy hipster queers have one or two, the yuppie-preppy gays have one, the more old-school lesbians have their haunt, the glitz-glammy femme4femme types have theirs. These are crude generalizations, but just like with straight bars and parties and neighborhoods, birds of a feather do tend to flock.

And here’s another thing to keep in mind: butchiness can present in some surprising ways. Masculine-of-center people (cis and trans men as well as masculine dykes) are reshaping and questioning the parameters of masculinity in ways that my feminist self considers very productive. I’d encourage open-mindedness before concluding that a person isn’t masculine enough, butch enough, old-school enough – there are a lot of different ways to “do” masculinity. See if someone surprises you when you get to know hir.


3 thoughts on “Ask Your BFFs: Fixer-Uppers, Defining Butchness, and Keeping It Old School

  1. I’d like to fancy myself growing into an old-school type butch.
    I’m 20 so don’t fret, we’re here.
    Well, at least I am.

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