As any butch or otherwise gender non-conforming lesbian will tell you, sometimes our biggest struggle is the simple dignity of being seen. Yes, seen. Obviously, homophobia and misogyny are also major issues, but the difference is that even among our allies, we are often totally invisible. This invisibility typically takes one of three forms: people’s refusal to see us as women, their refusal to see us as regular human beings, or their refusal to even see us at all.
The kind of invisibility that’s easiest to explain is our complete absence in people’s minds when they think of the word “woman”. For a lot of people, the idea of a woman with short hair wearing a suit and tie, or that of a make-up free woman working as a carpenter, is simply too much to bear. It’s mind-boggling to know that even in this day and age, people are still so tied up in archaic gender roles that when they encounter a female person who doesn’t adequately perform femininity, their only possible explanation is that she must really be a man or a part of some other category that isn’t “woman”.
I’m neither an immature fourteen-year-old nor a straight twentysomething who’s desperate to be oppressed, so I’m not about to go on about my identity being “invalidated”. My identity is intrinsically what I am, not something that could be taken off or sent into a tailspin because somebody referred to me as “sir”. Though I am secure in my sense of self, it’s still pretty isolating to be thought of as a strange, separate creature than all other women. It’s amazing how much of a mind-reader you can become when you’re watching someone’s face go on a desperate journey as they try to figure out how to categorize you.
What is that? Is that a boy or a girl? I think it’s a boy, wait, I think it has tits. If it’s a woman, why does it look like a boy? Oh god, I hope it speaks so I can know for sure. Wait, shit, I still can’t tell.
This can, unsurprisingly, go on for so long that you wish they would just ask the rude way, as children do. It sometimes makes you want to scream “HEY, BUDDY! ENOUGH WITH THE CONFUSED STARES ALREADY! I’M A WOMAN, OKAY?” but deep down, you know that even that won’t make them see you.
Among progressive types, you face the inevitable “what are your pronouns?” followed by the look of absolute shock when you answer “she” instead of “they” or “he”. It often feels like the only strangers who automatically recognize butch lesbians as women are other lesbians. Among each other, we are brilliantly visible.
Our invisibility doesn’t stop among strangers. It often takes on a dimension that sees us as more of pets or aliens than actual human beings. Even among family, after we’ve come out and changed some aspects of our appearance to the way we desire them to be, we’re often not daughters or sisters or nieces anymore. But with this, we do not magically become sons and brothers and nephews—instead, we’re something…other.
My family isn’t homophobic, but I still feel constantly othered while among them, as many lesbians do. I am fortunate to have a sister so my mother can have the daughter she always wanted, though I am often left out because no matter how hard I try, I just can’t relate to conversations about boyfriends, male celebrities, or feminine “prettiness”. I am now starting to accept that even though I can be my sister’s sassy gay best friend or my mother’s scholar, I will never be a part of their intimate inner bond because I am not a woman the way they are women. That does not mean that I fit in with the men in my family either. My dad and I can pretty much only talk about school or TV shows. My older brother and I don’t really talk, and though I am close to my younger brother, he’s made it clear that to him, I’m a second brother if I’m a person at all. I think it’s true that, as gay adults, we have to build our own families and communities because even if our biological families aren’t homophobes, we still don’t quite fit into the picture.
The third type of butch lesbian invisibility is difficult to explain to anyone who isn’t a butch lesbian. It’s a sneaky kind of invisibility, in the ways that eyes skip over you, the look of acute disgust when you speak, the way you’re crashed into while walking as if you aren’t there at all. It’s like the minute you came out, you gave up the opportunity to be seen at all.
And so the question is: how does one combat the problem of butch lesbian invisibility in her own life? You could either shrink away from yourself and feminize or be more loudly butch and gay so that you can’t be ignored. I don’t think that we should live our lives in fear of making other people uncomfortable, so being loud and proud and impossible not to see is my preferred response, even if it is frightening at times.
Our butch foremothers did not sacrifice their lives, safety, and freedom in order for the butch lesbians of today to shrink ourselves into nothing so that society can be comfortable. Take pride in being butch, take pride in being a lesbian, and above all, take pride in yourself. We are butches, and no matter how much society might wish it, we’re not going anywhere.