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The Gay Agenda

Living in a gray area: The border between butch and trans man

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The Gay Agenda

Editor’s Note: The Gay Agenda is a column about LGBTQ experiences and issues. 

If you’ve read this column continuously over the last few quarters, you might have noticed that I started writing under a new name this fall. If you were to see me in person, you’d notice that I cut my hair short and started to bind my chest. 

I go by Eddie now, I use he/him (or they/them) pronouns, and have been referred to as “a guy friend,” by those close to me. But what am I? What is my gender? 

When I told my mom that I wanted to start going by Eddie, she asked, “So are you trans?” 

The answer is yes and no. The question I think my mom meant to ask was “Are you a trans man?,” to which the answer is no. I, personally, do not feel like a trans man. But I don’t feel like a woman either. 

So the “yes” answer to “Are you trans?” means that yes, I’m trans in the sense that my gender identity differs from the one I was assigned at birth. And for now, that gender identity is just “transmasc,” or transmasculine. 

Transmasc can mean different things to different people, something I learned when I sat down with UW English department’s queer and trans studies professor Dr. Stephanie Clare to discuss this topic. 

The following is a shortened transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. 

Eddie Milton: What about people that don't necessarily identify as butch —  they don't feel that that kind of encapsulates everything that they are feeling — but also don't necessarily feel like a trans man? And they do kind of fall into that gray area?

Stephanie Clare: I think that's what's useful about transmasculine is that it allows for that space. I think there's a lot of people who live on the border between between butch and transmasc, and who also navigate between those two positions, or in the borderland of them. 

People's genders could be contextual in part, right? The ways that they understand themselves depend upon who it is that they're talking about and talking to, and what meanings [are] placed upon them as well. 

I think transmasculine allows for this space of identification that doesn't necessarily make a rigid distinction between the two. And I think that's really productive.

EM: This might muddy the waters even further, but I recently learned about he/him lesbians.

SC: What I ended up thinking about was you can identify with and you can identify as, and my assumption — but maybe I'm wrong, I'm very happy to be wrong —  is that maybe one thing that would make sense for lesbians who identify with he/him pronouns is that you identify as a man in symbolic order, but with “lesbian” in a lesbian community, perhaps. 

I think another thing that's interesting to me in all of this discussion is that we've separated what counts as sexuality from what counts as gender. And that separation, I think, really only starts to get solidified in the 1990s. It's pretty recent. Whereas it used to be that sexual orientation was understood to be something about one’s gender, and one's gender was understood to be something about sexuality. 

I think he/him lesbian actually brings us back to thinking about sexuality and gender together. Which I think is productive. I, over and over again, think bringing those two things together is productive because I actually think that our experience of gender and sexuality are so wrapped up with one another. 

EM: What is the importance of these identities not gatekeeping each other and instead coming together and recognizing their differences, but also their similarities?

SC: I think one of the biggest things, for me at least, is that realness has been weaponized against trans people. Either you're not a real man, you're not a real woman, or you're not really trans. And that kind of realness, I think, gets internalized too. Am I really trans? Am I trans enough? I think transmasculine allows for a little bit of less of that policing, perhaps, because there's less of a question of who is authentically trans? Or who is authentically more masculine? I mean, how are you to judge that?

Actually finding solidarity and similarity [between the identities] can be powerful: [using the phrase] “transmasculine,” as opposed to separating the butch lesbian from the trans man. I think that ... what could happen is that the butch lesbian then becomes like “the good figure who's not really trans, who's multiplying what it means to be a woman.” And then the trans man is like, thrown under the bus. So I think understanding both together is, you know, nice. 

EM: I guess this isn't necessarily a question, but I just want to voice it and maybe get your input on it. [Transmasculine] is an umbrella term and can describe that borderland and it can also just include both sides of the border. So for people, and I think I ask for people who are in that border, they can still identify just as transmasculine. And that can be their gender identity, or it can even be tied to their sexual orientation. Even though it's an umbrella term, it's still fair for them to do that.

SC: Oh yeah, for sure. It's a good point, actually. I mean, transmasc, what does it allow that trans man doesn't? It allows for more? I don't know. You tell me. What's the difference for you? 

EM: Well, for me, when I look at it, trans man is something kind of more finite, it's like a final thing. But for someone like me, I feel more masculine than butch lesbian, but in my personal experiences, I don't fully want to go into man. The way I describe it is I like presenting more male and going out and having people use “sir” or he/him pronouns. But I still really like the lesbian community, and identify with the lesbian community and the love that is available there. And so I want to stay in that and it feels like if I stay in that I can't go to trans man. Not that I want to but it's that I feel more masculine than a butch lesbian, but I don't fully want to go over to trans man.

SC: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And what I noticed is you said exactly that you identify with lesbian. That's exactly what you said. It was that distinction and then … identify as more masculine. So that distinction between with and as,I think, is an interesting one. 

I think there are a lot of people who have existed on this transmasculine spectrum, who have insisted on the freedom to move between genders and to understand their gender as contextual and have seen that not as a threat to their masculinity or their transness but rather as a mode of survival ... to allow for the complexity of our living and breathing lives. 

Reach columnist Eddie Milton at Twitter: @eddiemilton253

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