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Fight and Flight: “Butch Flight,” Trans Men, and the Elusive Question of Authenticity

My junior year of college, my roommate and dear friend had a butch girlfriend. She aligned more with what many would consider traditional masculinity than I did; there was always a can of Axe body spray in the back of her truck. She confessed to me one night that she felt pressure to transition to become a man. “But I like being a woman,” she said. “I like my body.” If all of these other people — some even less “butch” than her — were transitioning, did it mean she had to? I reassured her, of course not. “There is enough room in this world for trans men and butch women,” was what I said.

I was first introduced to the concept of “Butch Flight” in an email from an undergrad history professor, which included a link to this blog post. Because I was first coming out as a trans man (a person who transitions from female to male) while a student in her History of Women in Europe course, she emailed me to seek my opinion on the piece.

When people refer to “Butch Flight,” they’re contending that a phenomenon is taking place in which masculine women feel increased pressure to identify as trans men. This trend is distressing to some because it reinforces normative ideas about manhood and womanhood rather than challenging them. In other words, some are concerned that increased visibility of the trans community, and especially trans men, leaves little room to be a masculine woman or gender non-conforming person who does not go through gender transition medically, legally, or socially.

Even as a trans man myself, I do not think the concerns at the core of describing “Butch Flight” are misplaced or wholly wrong. Women like my roommate’s girlfriend often do need support in being masculine women with no interest in gender transition.

An error window asking computer user to please select a gender.
Please select your gender. (Granter/Flickr)

But “Butch Flight” has always been a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around based on my own personal experiences. My first reaction to my professor’s email was to say, “I may not be the best person to consult on this issue because I was never a butch woman.” On the contrary, perhaps that puts me in a unique position to speak to some of what the notion of “Butch Flight” misses.

I realized I was bisexual at age fifteen, but although I am attracted to folks of any gender, I’ve always had a preference for men. Certainly I liked doing activities many would consider “boyish” with my brother, but unlike the typical transgender narrative, I was not unhappy playing with dolls. By the time I was in middle and high school, I was a ballerina and a flautist with long blonde hair and my boyfriend sitting in the front row of my performances.

Because of this, it took a lot of soul-searching to realize that I was experiencing gender dysphoria. Early after puberty I knew something was wrong, but it felt impossible to articulate. I knew what the word “transgender” meant, and at moments I wondered about my own gender identity, but reassured myself, “you can’t possibly be a transgender person — you’re too ‘girly’ and you date guys.” Gender dysphoria couldn’t feasibly be what I was experiencing.

So, instead, I tried to embrace queer womanhood. I loved the queer women I became friends with in high school and college; they’re some of the only true friends I still confide in. But within those queer women’s spaces, I had this feeling that something about my identity and experience was just… off, like I was a guest in those spaces, however welcome a guest. Dismissive attitudes toward bisexuality may have played a role, but I knew that wasn’t the whole story.

Photograph of someone dressed on one side as a man and on the other as a woman.
Gender architecture. (Shooting Chris/Flickr)

My gender presentation began gradually shifting into “neutral” territory by binary standards. What I said to myself in my head back then was true: “You can be a woman with short hair who wears ties.” But even though it was true, there was something hollow about me saying it. It was a truth, but it wasn’t my truth.

I felt more at home, and more myself, in communities of queer men. It led me to interpret my gender presentation differently. Did it necessarily have to be considered “girly” that I liked music and dance and romantic movies? The gay men I found community with certainly didn’t see it that way. I did not feel like an outsider or a guest in those spaces. But was I merely appropriating experiences that weren’t my own?

As these questions came to a head, I panicked. I turned to outdated writing — by authors who themselves were not transgender — that explained how harmful, damaging, and patriarchy-reifying the concept of gender transition was.1

But eventually, there was no amount of intellectualizing I could do to brace the floodgates against realizing I am not a woman — and believe me, as the type of strange individual who would willingly pursue a PhD, I really tried. I still don’t fully understand why my most authentic self is as a man, but I’ve learned to accept that this doesn’t diminish its authenticity.

This makes my story difficult to reckon with the “Butch Flight” narrative. One could make a legitimate point that my case is less common. Many trans men’s feelings are exactly the opposite of mine: they always felt at home in queer women’s spaces and struggle with losing them. The population of trans men attracted to men is higher than many might think — at least 25% of all trans men, with more generous estimates up to a half2 — but that still leaves a majority exclusively attracted to women. Many high-profile trans men do exude a very traditionally masculine persona and discuss a strong aversion to “feminine” toys and activities in their childhood that wasn’t nearly as strong in my own. However, I think there are more diverse experiences among trans men, and among all trans people, than most realize.

A homemade symbol combining the male arrow attached to a circle and the female circle attached to a cross, made out of purple pony beads.
Transgender symbol made out of pony beads. (Burleson/Flickr)

Both my roommate’s butch girlfriend and I had to struggle against stereotypes about what makes a man and a woman in order to come to terms with our most authentic selves. It’s important to ask: where do these conflations of gender presentation and gender identity come from? To some extent, they do come from within the trans community itself. Yet I struggled to realize I could be the kind of man I am, not because I was hearing that primarily from the trans community, but because I’d read and seen the trans experience narrated in a very particular way from people who were not trans themselves.

In addition to trans men and genderqueer people with experiences like mine adding nuance to the issue, I think the discussion of “Butch Flight” mirrors many others about changes over time in lifestyle and medicine with which readers of this blog are intimately familiar. For example, is the skyrocketing number of reported cases of depression a result of societal influence, or is it simply that depression has always existed and now we recognize it?

We will never know how many people in the past would have sought present-day depression treatments were they magically transported to the year 2018. Would I still have transitioned if I’d been born twenty years earlier? Would I have transitioned a lot younger if I were born twenty years later? It’s impossible to know the answers to these questions. As a historian, the amount of assumed contingency of circumstances in these hypothetical questions makes me dizzy. I decided to pursue a PhD in history precisely because pragmatic realities make more sense to me than unanswerable hypotheticals detached from time, space, and context.

Though it’s important to ask why so many people are identifying as transgender, when discussing “Butch Flight,” there is often a darker undercurrent to the analysis: that if only we could get through to these poor confused women, they wouldn’t feel the need to become men. Sometimes trans men do have doubts, and make the wrong decision, and even transition back to living as women, but attempting to rationalize away an entire community is a horrifying prospect. More importantly, it won’t work. Explaining away the trans community won’t make us disappear.

I think there is a way to support butch women without throwing trans men under the bus. As I alluded to, we undoubtedly have our own housecleaning to do. Among the trans community, but especially among trans men, we need to push for zero tolerance for attitudes that trans people must present themselves a certain way and that all gender-nonconforming people are really trans. For both trans people and cisgender people, we need to be more comfortable embracing the notion that the relationship between gender identity and gender presentation eludes simple answers.

We also need to trust people to make sense of their own identity for themselves and trust that their motivations for deciding to transition, or not, are sincere. To trust that people mean what they say about themselves is not to say that societal influence plays no role, but no one, transgender or not, has a gender identity or gender expression entirely free from outside cultural forces.

We cannot assume that someone describes themselves as transgender out of ignorance of the true nature of gender. Similarly, trans people have a responsibility not to simply understand someone who is gender non-conforming, but who does not identify as transgender, as simply someone who’s “really” trans, working under outdated constructions of identity.

There is enough room at the table for all of our infinite combinations of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. None need be an existential threat to another. To paraphrase the late trans activist Leslie Feinberg, we are all just doing the best we can to make our own meaningful poetry out of the language we were taught.

Notes

  1. Examples of these works include Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Boston: Beacon, 1979) and various works by Sheila Jeffreys, including “Transgender Activism: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective,” Journal of Lesbian Studies, 1:3-4 (May 1997), p. 55-74. Return to text.
  2. Scheim, Adam, and Marshall, “Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Men Navigating Sexual Fields,” Sexualities, 2017. Return to text.

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