by Zeph Fish
Recently I spent a bunch of time reading the online forums of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, trying to understand why many attendees feel like it’s so important to exclude trans women from this event. I was drawn to a thread called “Inclusion from a Butch Lesbian Perspective.” I am a middle-aged butch dyke (also two-spirit, and genderqueer, and a lot of other names). I read the posts in this thread with a lot of grief. Grief that butch women have to fight so hard in the world to be who we are. Grief that so many of these posts are about pain and struggle, and that safe space is so hard to come by.
Yes, out there in the mainstream world, patriarchy wants to keep all the categories simple. The good ol' boys know that Men are Men, Women are Women, period. And if they meet anybody who confuses those categories, they react with fear and anger, with questions and accusations.
Festival is one of those wonderful rare spaces where butch women are appreciated, valued, seen. I looooved the "Wanted" posters in the Porta Janes [they celebrate individual butch women and were put together by Nedra Johnson, an advocate of exlusion]. So hot! So fierce and loving! I hear butches saying they love MichFest because it is one place where their gender isn't questioned, where they can get away from the questions and accusations in the outside world. I also hear some of these butches say that sense of validation has been broken since trans men and women became more visible on the land. They say, the festival needs to police and reject other kinds of festival attendees who can't pass as normative women, so butches won't be questioned or mistaken for them.
I understand the pain that fuels this desire, but I wonder if there are other ways to ensure that butch women feel visible and respected that don't come at such a high cost for other kinds of non-normative women. What about tall square-jawed feminine women? What about really hairy androgynous women? What about women who've taken male hormones at some point in their lives? Or women whose bodies aren't normative in less-visible ways? How simple do we have to keep it, so our identities can be understood on sight, without question? And when we meet people who confuse us, are we going to react with the same fear and anger, the same questions and accusations, as the good ol' boys do?
In particular, a lot of butches on this thread direct deep resentment at trans men, as if FTMs are the source of butch invisibility and oppression. As a butch dyke, I've also seen a lot of my more masculine friends take hormones, get top surgery, etc. and had moments of feeling righteous or insecure about my own choices, or resentful of others' intrusive suggestions or competitive remarks (arising out of their own insecurity, always). Sometimes those friends have left women-identified spaces; sometimes they continue to find community, and a connection to femaleness, in those spaces, and usually they are welcome. It's a complicated conversation, but I respect that my friends' choices around gender are never taken lightly.
If we have misunderstandings around acronyms and language and details, I don't confuse our little squabbles with the real struggle against patriarchy. Trans women who come to women-identified spaces, too, have taken a long, hard road to get there. Many trans women are already survivors of patriarchal and sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, etc. (http://transequality.org/Resources/index.html). Some trans women also identify as butch. All of us who confuse those simplistic categories--"Men are Men", "Women are Women"--are at risk of violence in the heteronormative world. All of us--butches, two-spirits, trans folk, genderqueers, androdykes, any women who don't fit the norm--risk losing jobs, homes, family. FTMs and trans women are not attacking butches in the street, are not erasing us in the media. Shouldn't we be validating each other? Shouldn't we be watching each others' backs? Shouldn't we be uniting our diverse strengths? Shouldn't we be dancing together?
Butches fighting FTMs and trans women is like the chickens pecking at each other in the cage while the farmer sharpens his knives in the big house. The more women at MichFest try to police each other's gender, the more all of us who are non-normative suffer, because it’s hard to tell us apart, because we have so much in common. I suffer, muscular short-haired women suffer, tall women with moustaches suffer, women with deep voices and nail polish suffer.
How can butch women feel loved & recognized without marginalizing all of these other ways of being a woman? Is it really a zero-sum game--if your identity is validated, then mine disappears? I think when we fight to create more space for all of us, we all win.
If butch women want to celebrate their femaleness without question, one easy way to do that is to assume we're all women on this land. (Even if, as in my case, there are other spirits within me.) Another easy way to do that is to love and recognize each other for how we move in the world, for how we dress and how we smile, and let us tell each other the names for how we identify, if and when it seems relevant. Another way is to get together and call out all of our names to the sky, all at the same time, with big loud voices, preferably outside of the door of some fundamentalist megachurch, or a rightwing thinktank. Now that's a good use for all our energy.