Twitter isn’t real life. But it does serve as a megaphone to amplify all sorts of views that exist in the rest of society. Of particular relevance to lesbians and gay men is the way it magnifies the homophobic attitudes that many still hold, even as the UK has moved on in leaps and bounds in legal equality.
India Willoughby recently tweeted: “I do believe that some of the most aggressive butch anti-trans lesbians are actually people who have a form of jealousy. They dress and behave like blokes. In effect, they’ve transitioned. But they lack conviction – so take it out on trans.”
When challenged, Willoughby doubled down, saying “Sorry – truth hurts. SOME (and I stress SOME) absolutely have effectively transitioned socially. Whether they realise it or not.”
To a butch lesbian these are not unfamiliar sentiments, and their current prevalence on Twitter reflects how firmly embedded they are in the rest of society. The butch woman is a target of criticism from all sides. We obviously deal with all the misogyny common to the female sex, because we are women, and at most it only takes a second glance to know that.
Those butch women who aren’t lesbians will often face homophobic assumptions anyway, given how strongly a butch aesthetic is connected in the public imagination with lesbians. Those of us who are lesbian and butch are visible, perhaps in a way that few others are, and it can sometimes feel like we need to put on armour just to walk through our day. I’m tired of the earnest, smiling, shiny faced, self-identified ‘Allies’ asking me what my pronouns are, and somehow feeling they don’t need to ask the woman beside me in a dress.
There’s the old-fashioned homophobia; the teen boys shouting ‘dyke!’ as they peddle past on their bicycles, the impertinent ‘Are you the man, then?’ questions, even, very occasionally, another woman looking disgusted because you might be ‘one of them’.
Then there’s the new-fangled homophobia, the kind that squats like a toad in the LGBTQ+ community, where the pressure to question your ‘gender’ is like a rite of passage, and butch women are often assumed to be on their ‘transition journey’. This is the homophobia that Willoughby is indulging in. It’s completely acceptable to organisations like Stonewall, whose CEO Nancy Kelley suggested that lesbians needed to examine whether “societal prejudices may have shaped your attractions”; that is to say, you’re prejudiced for not considering male sexual partners.
Butch lesbians, according to the likes of Willoughby and Kelley, are ignorant of who we truly are. If we’re lesbians, it’s because we’re prejudiced against penises. The conversion therapy rhetoric inherent in such statements should be obvious.
But our butchness is something even more offensive to people like this. Lesbian women, under the male gaze, reduced to a porn category, face relentless pressure to accept male attention. Butch lesbians have the temerity to not even play to the male gaze.
We don’t ‘woman’ properly in any sense for them. Our sexuality is unconnected to men, our appearance doesn’t reward their libido, and our existence is a constant reminder that women can be entirely unconnected to men and thrive.
We even face critique and challenge from some feminists who hold the position that masculinity, and in particular the butch/femme dynamic, is harmful to women. It can feel very much like the butch lesbian is a constant challenge, and that’s quite a burden to bear.
Those of us who are lesbian and butch are visible, perhaps in a way that few others are, and it can sometimes feel like we need to put on armour just to walk through our day.
It’s with all this in mind that so many of us are in the unpleasant position of arguing against a ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ because of the devious conflation of ‘gender identity’ with ‘sexual orientation’. The likes of Kelley and Willoughby support the ban, and they do so from their position of seeing lesbian women like me as in denial about actually being men.
They support a move that would further entrench the acceptability of assuming a butch woman is not actually a woman, or of asking a lesbian if she identifies as a man. They actively promote a culture in LGBTQ+ groups and spaces which, in reality, induces gender dysphoria in women, some of whom are just coming to terms with their lesbian sexuality and already have to navigate a culture that tells them, at almost every turn, that there is something wrong with them.
Every single day, from all manner of sources, I am told of butch lesbian women who folded under the weight of it and began ‘their transition’, and this all adds to the expectations. The more it goes on, the wider those ripples will get. The women who are in relationships with butches will inevitably find themselves facing a similar plight to heterosexual transwidows, where the distorted neo-identities of spouses must be validated under threat of ostracism from a wider support network.
Butch lesbians must be tough. Not in a stereotypical, strong, unfeeling way. We are absolutely under attack, and we need grit to withstand the pressure. We must be tough because we know our existence is part of showing the wide variety of being a woman, and that matters to the liberation of all women. We do it because courage is a virtue worth holding on to, but we can’t do it alone. No one can.
Those who repeat the mantra that gender identity beliefs don’t affect anyone else are the ones who are ignorant. We are all part of a sexist, homophobic society, and butch women are trying to be ourselves in a world that says we just lack the conviction to transition and are too ignorant to realise it. Don’t ask for our pronouns. We’re not men, inside or out. We lack nothing but the respect we’ve earned for not bowing to the demands of people who would rather we disappeared, and we’re not going anywhere.
Kay Knight is a British writer and podcaster. She has a particular focus on women’s stories, and an enduring fondness for Doctor Who, despite everything.
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