It's Possible To Be A Butch Intellectual, And Other Lessons From "Butch Voices"

An NPR piece on last weekend's Bay Area "Butch Voices" conference shows that female-born butches face some of the same stereotypes men do — and some very different ones.

Butch Voices founder Joe LeBlanc says he saw the conference, held in Oakland, as a way to help butches "have the hard conversations that we never seem to have otherwise [...] because were so divided across race, divided across gender identities, pronoun choices." Described as "4 days of workshops , entertainment & bonding for Butches, Aggressives, Studs, & Allies," the conference included segments on such topics as "Taking it On: Dealing with Our Internalized Misogyny," "Butch Survival: Mentoring Gender Nonconforming Youth," and "Butches Having Babies." Logistics coordinator Krys Freeman also described the conference as a place for butches to meet people they share aspects of their identity with, outside the context of a bar.

NPR guest host Jennifer Ludden spoke with both LeBlanc and Freeman, and the whole interview is worth listening to. One of the highlights comes near the beginning, when LeBlanc says butches are "supposed to be these silent, cool types that don't talk or only are about how we look." He implies that butches are not only expected to conform to stereotypes about masculinity — being "strong and silent" — but are vulnerable to a stereotype more traditionally associated with femininity as well. That butches "only are about how we look" echoes assumptions about looks-obsessed women, but also the idea that LGBTQ identities are an act, something people put on, like drag. LeBlanc points out that some people both identify as butch and wear makeup, and part of the point of Butch Voices was to address the fact that gender identity is more than skin-deep.

LeBlanc, Freeman, and Ludden discuss class stereotypes too. Freeman says strangers don't expect her to be educated, "just based on my appearance," and LeBlanc says that "butch [...] is a very class-oriented identity, from the history of it, it's a very working class, a very white stereotype." On the Butch Voices website, conference co-chair Adrienne "Aj" Davis addresses these issues head-on. She writes,

I am black, I am butch, and I am an intellectual. I use that term in the classical sense of one who lives for the life of the mind and for ideas. I am happiest when I am either reading something that makes my brain hurt or engaging in a fast-paced discussion about politics or some arcane subject. It took me a long time, over a decade, to become truly comfortable with this fact about myself. In part this is because there were (and still are) precious few depictions of butch intellectuals in lesbian literature or film. We work with our hands, we shower after work, we have callouses and steel-toe boots. What we don't have are jobs where we sit and do mental work all day. For some odd reason that is supposed to be the province of femmes.

She also mentions that "the TV host, Rachel Maddow, is really the first acknowledged butch intellectual I've ever seen." Maddow notwithstanding, it's interesting to note that the idea of intellectual endeavor as somehow effeminate affects butch people as much as it affects male-born men. All these assumptions — that masculinity is about strength, silence, and steel-toed boots, or that being butch is all about "how you look" — stem from the idea that of gender as unitary, inflexible, rule-bound. But according to Freeman, Butch Voices showed that identity is actually much more expansive. She says,

What this conference brought out for me in particular is that people do form identities. [...] All these things are constructed, they're made by us and made by the influences the people in our lives have on us.

One lesson of Butch Voices is that gender identity isn't a set of rules imposed from outside — instead, it's something people build for themselves, consciously or unconsciously. If we are aware of this building process, we can understand that our particular gender expressions are just one possible construction — and respect other people's constructions as well. As the Butch Voices website explains,

The point is, we don't decide who is Butch, Stud or Aggressive. You get to decide for yourself.

A Conference For 'Butches' [NPR]
To Be Black, Intellectual And Butch [Butch Voices]
Butch Voices [Official Site]