“Why can’t you just be a butch lesbian?”

November 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

A question I’m asked on a regular basis. And one, according to my mother (hi mum!), that was asked of a trans man on Radio 4 this morning. Sigh. Radio 4. Leaving aside of questions of desire – who we sleep with, who we love (and why do they disregard our desires and loves?) – the symbol is drawn equating a very butch woman with a very effeminate man. Not a “real” man. So, why not be a butch woman? Here is my simple and easy to follow answer – do with it what you will.


The first and most fundamental line of ‘reasoning’ tends to be that I, and those like me, have vaginas. It’s assumed, anyway. God knows we can all tell by a casual glance at a clothed person. So – if the form’s the same, the content must therefore be identical? Close enough, anyway. But, if you’ll allow me to be a little whimsical:


I’m going to give myself the title of Person A. A musician. I’m going to pick a profession at random – a biochemist. Person B. Now, you could put person A in a lab coat and safety goggles, position them next to person B and make them look, to the untrained and lazy eye, like a biochemist. Or vice versa – Person B gets to wear a lovely frock coat, stand in front of an orchestra and sing. Except, of  course, they couldn’t. Just as the only thing I could reliable be counted on to do in a lab is drop something valuable and make a horrible mess. The outside trappings don’t determine who the people inside actually are. Only character can do that – and we’re only just on the cusp of working out how that all comes about.


And, to take it further. Put Person A and Person B in matching jeans and shirts. Strangely enough, they’re still totally different people. So why is it so hard to understand that, though you assume that I, Person A, have a vagina, and Person B, our theoretical butch lesbian biochemist, has a vagina – well, that it means, oh, absolutely nothing? It probably means something personal to both Person A and Person B but, to the outside world – what does it tell us? How does it let us understand someone? It’s just not the outside world’s business.


“But Person A,” these people might say (I’m quite enjoying this, can you tell?), “who’s to say that you wouldn’t have been a brilliant biochemist, if you had been supported in the path of biochemistry, instead of seduced into the sordid world of music?” And here’s where I throw up my hands. Who’s to say why anyone is anything at all? I’m a musician because I’ve always been good at it, I’ve always loved it – it makes an intrinsic sense that nothing else comes close to. It doesn’t make me feel “happy” – it makes me whole. Because of always loving it I’ve given it the very best of me, which has only served to strengthen that love. Because of all that work, that devotion, the very nature of my brain has changed to reflect the fact that I’m musician – which it wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t loved it from the very core of me, loved it enough to devote myself to it and bring about that change. If I had been forced to work another job (and I have worked many other jobs) and been stopped from performing it wouldn’t make me good at that other job – it couldn’t make that job my vocation or my identity. Who we are doesn’t work like that. Pour different coloured water into identical glasses and the blue is still blue and the green is still green – even if their containers are the same.


Why do we ask people to justify their gender based on a randomly assigned body, when we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) ask them to justify their interests, their passions, the rest of what makes them unique?

§ 5 Responses to “Why can’t you just be a butch lesbian?”

  • cassandratoday says:

    Will try to offer a more serious comment later, but for now…

    “And here’s where I throw up my hands.”

    I admire your self-restraint. I’d have been too tempted to leave off the last two words.

  • “who’s to say that you wouldn’t have been a brilliant biochemist, if you had been supported in the path of biochemistry, instead of seduced into the sordid world of music?”

    This, and more. We tried being the men/women we were “supposed to be” first….and we know it doesn’t work.

  • Grace says:

    A question that’s asked based on the assumption that (trans)gender and sexual orientation are linked, and moreover in a hetero way. ‘Cause if you fancied guys, why would you bother being trans, right? So frustrating!

    Your musician/scientist analogy is really effective. As someone who isn’t trans, this kind of insightful and articulate writing is so important in helping to further understand and support the trans friends I love so dearly. These questions and assumptions need to be openly and honestly asked (the fact that people are even asking these frustrating questions rather than just going ‘eww gross’ is a kind of progress in itself – they are taking an interest in issues of gender and sexuality and trying to get their heads around a situation that is incredibly hard to understand when it doesn’t apply to you), answered and challenged – understanding each other is our most important tool in becoming a more accepting and loving society. Keep up the good work!

  • Alexander says:

    I’ve only ever been asked this once. My response “erm…because I like men?” I think I’d make a pretty crap lesbian on that basis.

  • […] links: on ‘academic’ and ‘authentic’ understandings of oneself not being incompatible; on how appearance does not constitute identity; on dyadic terms being counterproductive; and since I’m linking to CN in a ridiculous frenzy […]

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