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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] GLB Where are the butch intellectuals?

Where are the butch intellectuals?

black-butch-aj-davisPredominant stereotypes of butch women are that we work with our hands, have callouses, and wear steel-toe boots. But there’s an image of butchness that is rarely seen or even recognized: the butch intellectual, writes Adrienne ‘Aj’ Davis.

It took me a long time to decide what to say about being a black butch woman. A great deal has already been said, rivers of ink have flowed and countless electrons sent whizzing around the internet, in the name of defining and illustrating what it is to be butch.

However, there’s an image of butchness that is rarely seen or even recognized: What of the butch intellectual?

The TV host, Rachel Maddow, is really the first acknowledged butch intellectual I’ve ever seen.  The TV host, Rachel Maddow, is really the first acknowledged butch intellectual I’ve ever seen. Leslie Feinberg, whatever other appellations might crown her [sic] in glory, isn’t referred to as an intellectual.

Butches are known to be many things; we all carry an image of a butch in all her glory but among those images, I’d wager that very few of them are of a woman sitting at a desk eagerly figuring out some arcana of Linux or Apple Script or lying on a couch, some copious tome on evolutionary biology or string theory in her hands. Yet, we do exist.

I know we do because I am one.

(A quick note on pronouns: I am a woman-identified butch and so will use the pronouns I feel comfortable with. These should not be taken as any commentary on how others identify).

I am black, I am butch, and I am an intellectual. I use the latter 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.

Yet, here I sit, at a desk where I don’t ever touch anything other than my keyboard and mouse. My tools are all electronic. The muscles I use are mostly in my head and hands. That I am a black butch means that I am even more of a strange attractor.

Regardless of what we might think of it, much of being ‘butch’ gets framed within the context of embracing masculinity.

Unfortunately for some of us, this embrace comes along with the baggage ‘real men’ aren’t thinkers. For whatever reasons, we have internalized the idea that to be a ‘real butch’ means that one is a body-person not a head-person.

Yet, here is something we embrace for no good reason that I see. Since we butches already transgress gender rules, we have purchased the freedom to embrace or reject whatever typical gender traits we wish. Why, then, should we reject one of the more pernicious myths of masculinity – namely that to be strong is to be a doer not a thinker.

Now, some of this is obviously class-based and, of course, class is a mine-field at least as fraught with peril as race.

I am not working-class nor do I come from a working-class background. The times I have been poor in my life, it has been because of youth or bad decision-making, not because it was the way I grew up.

The image of butchness that most lesbians would recognize as such is working-class. One could make a fair argument that being an intellectual or an academic is a luxury for the middle-class and that’s okay as far as it goes.

However, the truth of the statement does not change, in any substantive way, that middle-class butches do exist. We are doctors, professors, lawyers, accountants and so on. I cannot make an even half-decent approximation of a working-class butch and I would not insult my sisters and brothers who genuinely are from the working class by trying to appropriate something that does not belong to me.

This leaves me with the task of being my own role model, carving out my own space. That task can be difficult and frustrating at times but I have also experienced it as liberating.

The frustration has come from the friction of other lesbians’ expectations of me as a black butch and my own; I am not supposed to be from where I am from, not supposed to love the things I do nor am I supposed to aspire to be a black, butch, Carl Sagan.

Yet, here I am, with a background that I not only cannot change but wouldn’t change. Here I stand, wanting to fill the void left when Sagan shuffled off this mortal coil.

In writing this, I am reminded of Sojourner Truth’s speech ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ In closing, and with apologies to the sister’s memory, my question isn’t ‘Ain’t I a woman?. Bathroom incidents notwithstanding, that question is settled.

Rather, the question is ‘Ain’t I a butch?’

Ain’t I a butch? I can get out there and work with the best of them. Work myself until my bones hurt. Yet, in my work-a-day life all of my heavy lifting is done with my brain. My hands are for typing or gesturing or fidgeting while I digest the contours of whatever knotty problem I am hacking on. Ain’t I a butch?

I can put on my butch cock and give my lady exactly what she needs to sing for me. Yet I don’t identify as a guy, a Daddy, or a fella. Ain’t I a butch?

My cycle is pedal powered, not motorized. Ain’t I a butch?

You’re more likely to find me in the library than on the softball field. Ain’t I a butch?

I cry whenever I see The Color Purple and it gets to the point where Shug reconciles with her father. I weep during that scene. Ain’t I a butch?

I live for the life of the mind. Ain’t I a butch?

I’m as comfortable in a Brooks Brothers suit as I am in jeans and a tee-shirt. Ain’t I a butch?

Butch_Voices_posterAdrienne ‘Aj’ Davis is a middle-aged, African-American butch living in the great Pacific Northwest. In her two decades out of the closet, she has been an HIV/AIDS educator, a science reporter, a system administrator and a technology educator. She is now pursuing a degree in bioinformatics/computational biology with aspirations of a life spent in academia.

She lives in Portland, Oregon with her wife, Jaime and their three cats; Willow the Princess, Cerridwen the Goddess and Liam the Wonder-Ninja, Panther kitty.

Adrienne is the co-chair and board member of the Butch Voices conference held annually in the US. Regional conferences will be held in New York (25 September), Portland, Oregon (2 October), and Los Angeles (8-10 October). Visit the website for details.

Comments   

0 #13 Lou Rob 2010-09-19 12:25
Thank you for broaching this most intriguing topic. The butch intellectual is a creature I long to meet. I have met womyn with deep insights into matters varied & deep with throaty voices and leather jackets, only to watch them eat peas of their forks. Sigh.
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0 #12 lizziegreeneyedfem 2010-08-30 12:46
I'm surprised that there's been no mention of Judith Halberstam. I'm not sure how Halberstam identifies, but she was one of, if not the first, academic to do work on female masculinity and butch identity, from the perspective of someone within both the queer and academic communities (she wrote "Female Masculinity" and "The Drag King Book"). She's the first person I thought of when I read "butch intellectual." I would argue that even Rachel Maddow is femme'd up a bit with hair and make-up on her show, so that the mainstream audience can avoid reading her as butch.

Granted, Halberstam is just one person. I think you're dead right that butch identity is almost always associated with a working-class background or occupation, and that that is tied up with expectations of masculinity and what "men do." Jax also makes a good point above about how it's only been recently that non-blue-collar work has opened up to butch women.

And for butches of color, it's even further complicated/agg ravated by expectations of the kind of work that men of color do. But echoing others here, I do know non-femme women in academia and white-collar work -- so you are not alone. Hopefully the spaces for butch women to do all kinds of work will continue to expand.

Thanks for the article.
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0 #11 Sam 2010-08-24 01:50
Excellent article. I struggle through this one as well and I agree with the above poster regarding intellectual work spaces not being accepting of butches. I work within a very large (fortune 10) company in a department focused primarily on learning. I have an Ivy League degree, have completed patents and am happy with the intellectual challenge my work provides. However, after trying rather unsuccessfully to fit the corporate mold defined for me, I gave up on trying to "femme it up" as directed by my supervisor, and settled into a sense of self presentation I am comfortable with, within a company that is prided for its diversity policies. I am very much a "butch intellectual" - I am very well recognized for the contributions I make, but my suit and tie are not going over well. When asking why I was passed over for being considered a "high performer" despite the fact that I am untouched within performance in my organization or my field the response I received was "look around the leadership table - no one looks like you". So, though at a company level, my corporation may be doing well, and though my butch compatriots in the more physical aspects of the business assure me they are well received in the ranks, there are clearly battles to be fought in this space for acceptance of the butch intellectual.
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0 #10 Galatea 2010-08-21 18:02
It seems to me that these labels are only drawing more lines. Your objection to the 'butch worker' stereotype leads you to create a new stereotype of your own: 'butch intellectual'. What about those of us who are butch and both? Or neither? Seven-tenths of one and three of the other?

When you respond to an inaccurate box by creating an accurate one, you're still boxing yourself off - and excluding someone else.
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0 #9 laprofe63 2010-08-19 20:37
Very interesting post. There are butch intellectuals everywhere across this country in colleges and universities. I have known and worked with some, been fellow students with others.

It's truly a wonder to behold, a woman who can exert her butch-self in the world of the mind, both on paper and in person.
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0 #8 Rusty 2010-08-19 15:54
Great article, and an important (and alluring) topic. But while I would concede that the intellectual butch isn't perhaps the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of butches, my default stereotype of the intellectual woman-loving woman would be butch. At least in the context of academia, and maybe in the humanities and theory particularly, I think of the Judith Butlers and Eve Segwicks. Some of the most excellent and unforgettable professors I had were strong butch intellectuals. For sure a demographic that needs to be celebrated!
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0 #7 Tee* 2010-08-17 21:17
A.J. thys article was very needed! We as a community tend to set boxes to force ourselves in!! :-) We as a community ned to understand we are diverse as the Rainbow we use to identify our community! Thank you for educating! It's needed!!

Regards,
Tee*
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0 #6 Nat 2010-08-17 21:06
Fabulous article :-)
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0 #5 Doctor Mayhem 2010-08-17 18:41
Love the article - so much..... excuse me for drooling over the epithet of 'black butch intellectual'. Butchness has such power to redefine and challenge how we live our gender, class and race. My own exquisite butch lover sees hirself as a positive role model of masculinity that is safe, intelligent, strong and caring, and this tends to work really well with teenage boys who lack decent male role models in the bioboysphere. There are so many ways of doing butchness in different contexts: from the professional, the asexual, the sexual, the social.... and despite the limitations of what defines a 'man' under patriarchy, there are so many variations on masculinity that butch women can appropriate and queer for our own wonderful ends.
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0 #4 Les 2010-08-17 07:28
such a timely article thanks . When reading it, I am reminded of typing only 60wpm and looking up at a bemused femme girlfriend. I am on a political demo and hear a femme say that she wishes her butch girlfriend would march. I ask why doesn't she and am told "this just isn't her thing...." *shouting* she trails off. I fill in the gap. Is political activity considered non butch?

Being butch is merely a look, a masculine image that I play with and subvert at work and play. Looking butch comes up against that minefield of butch attitude . What is this? I have never found out and gave up the search pretty quick when I realised just how silencing and objectifying this has been for for me. I love the butch look in all its varieties, but will resist the association that suggests you butch therefore you are simple, sexist , uninformed and only physical. I am not the strong, silent type .And will run like the wind from femme, butch, non -iding friends colleagues and lovers who resent intellect. Being butch is attire for me plain and simple. I have worked mostly in the not for profit community sector. I am a socialist and community and trade union activist . Like you work involves using more writing, researching , planning, campaigning and using mental energy to effect social change. Being butch at employed work is still problematic because it encounters a straight look at a politically conscious, masculine black "mouthy" lesbian and all the conscious and unconscious associations that goes with that. I think the Machine is still scared of this .
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