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Life The butch to nonbinary pipeline

Mar. 4, 2022

Reading Stone Butch Blues didn’t start my gender questioning, but it was the moment when things got interesting. Leslie Feinberg’s brilliant, intense novel tells the story of a young butch entering the queer world in the 1940s, offering a tale of lesbian experience and resilience. Ironically, the book came into my life through my short-term femme lesbian lover—a fitting recommender for Stone Butch Blues.

I remember, play by play, reading the story of the protagonist, Jess: watching her buy a good masc outfit with a big leather jacket to wear to the gay bar, consider surgery and hormones, get arrested, and come home to a girlfriend who holds her close, washes her binder, and loves her right. I read it straight through. The following day, I bonded with a friend of mine over our shared lesbianism and mentioned ahow, for me, the label of butch lesbian “just made sense.” 

This wasn’t a lie. Days quickly turned to months, and the longer I sat with the label of “butch” and its connotations in Stone Butch Blues, the more I felt connected to it. I did a deep dive into lesbian history and outdated Netflix movies; I read memoirs; I scrolled through transcribed interviews with ACT UP activists; I became re-obsessed with Rent. I grew out a mullet so that I’d feel both masculine and womanly when a girl tugged on it during a makeout session. My TikTok algorithm started to feed me videos about how to look more masc, how to flirt with women, and how to take good photos with your girlfriend. I tried butch lesbianism with vigor and immediacy. 

In the end, it wasn’t right.

Five years prior to discovering Feinberg, I came out as a bisexual cis woman. I’ve always been obsessive about my body, clothes, and hair. I’ve also always been pretty quiet, leading me to be accepted into nerdy-guy groups in high school even when I really wanted to experience the camaraderie of female friendships. Bisexuality, at fourteen, presented me with a way to interrogate my relation to the masculine.

Eventually, though, the gender relief provided by bisexuality stopped cutting it. I was dating women, but I still didn’t feel present in my body. When I was with women, my presentation always ended up on the more masculine side. At the same time, I wasn’t masculine in a way that was recognizable; I couldn’t “pass” as anything other than a girl. What would I have rather been? I didn’t know, but nothing I was doing felt right. I was lost between the parts of me that were somewhat feminine and all my other indescribable parts.

Like many, I first encountered they/them pronouns on the internet in the fandom IG circles of the mid 2010s. The emphasis on labels and new vocabulary in these communities meant learning about all the indicators for different gender identities. When I first learned about the label, nonbinary identity didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t present androgynous enough to validate changing my whole gender identity and making everyone learn new pronouns. But over the years, the idea of being nonbinary stayed in the back of my mind, knocking at the door very quietly.

And then I got to college. For the first time, I was no longer living with people who’d known me my whole life. No one had any preconceptions of me. With the newfound confidence that came with being on my own, I started using they/them pronouns. I changed my Instagram bio to include them so that everyone could see. Identifying as nonbinary seemed like a way for me to maintain the parts of myself perceived as feminine without having to stay a woman. I could fully embrace everything not-woman about myself for the first time.

Though I was starting to feel more sure of myself, reading Stone Butch Blues at the beginning of my sophomore year made me start questioning again. I wanted what Jess had—an outfit that felt right, a community which recognized me, a clear medical way to affirm myself through surgery, a tender lover to take care of me. 

In order to test out Feinberg’s possible explanation for my questioning, I took on butch lesbianism for a couple of months: I consciously chose to only date non-men. Before that, I’d only dated cis lesbians anyway. I’d been comfortable in these relationships for the most part but hadn’t been able to fully relate to them, always having the caveat of my attraction to men as a chasm between us. Perhaps embodying the lesbian label would make these relationships feel more sustainable and intimate, I thought. The transition to lesbianism seemed natural, and my nonbinary identity could dovetail naturally into presenting as butch. 

I knew pretty quickly that it didn’t feel right, but nonbinary lesbianism seemed like the only way I could access the queer utopia that Feinberg imagined. I felt alone in being nonbinary. No one experienced my gender the same way I did. Other nonbinary people had their own explanations of their gender, and none of them matched mine. I didn’t experience days where I felt “masculine” and “feminine” or even days where I could quantify how much I was of each—I just felt like me, completely dissociated from either of those terms. No one knew how to talk to me correctly, how to treat me in bed, or how to talk about being trans in the way that I’d been feeling forever and still couldn’t articulate.

After about three months, my discomfort finally built to the point where I had to end my trial run identifying as a lesbian. I was dating a couple of women, and I barely felt connected to either. I was spreading myself too thin. I was also experiencing attraction to a couple of men, one my now-boyfriend, which led me into a spiral of self-criticism for my inability to just pick a label and stick with it. If butch lesbianism made me feel limited, I reasoned, it probably wasn’t the right label for me. Identifying with Jess’s character didn’t necessarily mean I was her.

I decided to keep my they/them pronouns, and I traded “lesbian” back in for “queer.” My nonbinary identity felt right to me even through my detour into butchness, because whenever it was celebrated, my self-image would noticeably improve. Every time someone used my pronouns correctly, I’d notice how good it felt in my body. Letting go of “masc” or “fem” modes of presenting and just wearing what I wanted to wear let me stop being so obsessive about my appearance—something that had upset me and bogged me down for much of my life.

Abandoning lesbianism, though I only claimed it briefly, also felt like a final departure from womanhood. I kept revisiting lesbian discourse from the ‘80s and ‘90s about butch lesbians and trans people. Trans essayists wrote often about cis lesbians’ claim that nonbinary people were leaving womanhood. Nonbinary identity was an easy way out of the patriarchy in order to escape the troubles of womahood, they posited. I understand this accusational impulse, though it isn’t the correct one. In any community built on solidarity, we want to keep our people close, not lose them to our oppressors. 

In the months that followed my final confirmation of my nonbinary identity, I started reflecting on how I experience attraction and love, and the many boxes in which I’ve placed myself.

To be frank, I realized I’ve always been attracted to men. I tried to ignore this attraction to align with butch lesbianism, but it’s ever-present. Shortly after my trial run with the label of “lesbian,” I started romantically talking with my current boyfriend. I very quickly recognized that, when faced with guys who are humble and warm, I definitely desire men.

And honestly, the more I converse with other trans people, the more I notice that my attraction to butch lesbianism was an example of my own internalized transphobia. Dating mostly women meant I was always catering to some kind of feminine gaze. Pushing to be in these partnerships with mostly cis lesbians was a way of subsconiously telling myself that in order to be desirable to cis women, I needed to become one myself.

For the months that it served me, “butch lesbian” was a catch-all term for my disjointed feelings that I still don’t know how to define. I want to be able to tell everyone I meet that I have felt too intense for my body sometimes, and for everyone to immediately know what that means without me having to say anything more. That’s the freedom of claiming butchness or masculinity—there’s a word that says it all, no explanation needed. Nonbinary identity has no such privilege.

Though “nonbinary” is often associated with aesthetics of androgyny, passing as nonbinary is actually impossible. No matter how many “nonbinary looks” are conjured on TikTok, “they/them” pronouns are never assumed at the coffee shop, at the airport, or by professors. Nonbinary people can present as close to or as far from binary gender as they want. My nonbinary identity could look the exact same was as my cis woman identity did. My desire to have a definite word like “butchness” came from my desire to be recognizable as something; I could pass as butch. I cannot pass as nonbinary.

But as good as it would feel to be able to pass in some respect, it’s harmful to demand that passing as nonbinary ever could happen. The act of passing would indicate a standardization of nonbinary identity. That would feel good on an individual level, yes—identity is lonely, and we want to know that there are people just like us. But having a standardized nonbinary look creates a need for assimilation; a demand for nonbinary people to look a certain way. But nonbinary identity is named for its act of negation, the “non” binary. Gender labels must be ways to hold difference, not create sameness. We must stand alongside each other, not look at each other as mirrors.

These days, my boyfriend will sometimes look over at me and say “Lillian, you really are nonbinary. I don’t think there’s anything else you could be.” Something about the way he—my also-trans, also-self-interrogating, also-artist lover—says this to me feels unspeakably tender. When he says it, my palms ache in the way they always do when I feel deeply known. 

Yet still, sometimes I wonder what came first—the identity or the label. Am I nonbinary because that’s an identity I granted myself? Or does being nonbinary open me up to something in myself that had been demanding release anyway?

Of course there are other things I could be. There always are. But this is the one I want. This is the one that makes me feel like nothing is missing or being sacrificed.

In December, I got the androgyne symbol tattooed right above the center of my collarbone. I do not present as androgynous, nor do I think that nonbinary identity is synonymous with androgyny. Rather, I identify with the androgyne presented by Plato and Aristophanes in Symposium: beings who have everything in them already, men and women merged together to create the unrecognizable, those who spend their whole life searching for whatever will make them whole while also knowing that they’re already whole, bound in companionship and solitude at once.

I’d call this the nonbinary impulse. This drive to overwhelm, to double over, to double back, is all that recognizes me. This drive to know everyone to this depth, this intimacy, this intensity of disjointed and ever-changing difference, is that to which I must hold.

Leslie Feinberg and Stone Butch Blues provided me with a set of questions with which to consider my gender and my sexuality. Jess’s story was a framework, a fictional narrative that I could use as a guide. Butch lesbianism as a concept and identity marker served me well while it could; the parts of the label that didn’t work for me turned out to be exactly what I needed to truly clarify what I actually recognize myself as.

I’m sure my labels are bound to change again over the course of my life. Until then, though, I hold who I used to be and who I am now with care and softness. One need not know it all on the first try. With queerness, one can always circle around and try again with lessons learned, clearer and clearer with each attempt at comprehending oneself. That, I think, is at the heart of each label—regardless of meaning, association, expression, or community.

Photo by Ella Boucht.