I’m not butch. I’m a fierce, independent woman with a strong voice
adjective – mannish or masculine in appearance or behaviour, often aggressively or ostentatiously so. “a butch woman in a baseball cap”
noun – a mannish lesbian, typically as contrasted with a more feminine partner.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to a corporate do. At the event, we were served a three course meal and wine, sat at our assigned tables. Alice (my partner) ate her starter and her main and decided to have a taste of the dessert. It was a chocolate tart with fruit on top. She ate half of it and when I asked her why she hadn’t eaten all of it she replied: “I’m trying to eat healthily, I just wanted a taste”. A man at our table muttered to the group “That’s women’s logic for you” and a few at the table began to laugh.
I looked at him and said with some jest (my heart was pounding): “Oh, a little bit of casual sexism I see“.
“What”, he asked.
“Casual sexism”, I repeated, “that’s what that is”.
“What?”, he asked again, putting his hand to his ear suggesting he hadn’t heard me.
“I said that’s casual sexism, you can’t get away with that on my watch.” I was being a little playful. I wanted to gently let him know that the conversation on this table wouldn’t be going in that direction.
His reply: “Casual sex?“, he asked with raised intonation and a suggestive tone.
I stood up and said with a look of surprise “Oh right, that’s enough“. I could see where things were heading. I left the table for a moment and returned, picked up my things and invited Alice to leave with me and off we went.
I felt awkward and embarrassed leaving. My first thought on leaving the building was ‘oh goodness I hope I didn’t cause a scene, should I have left it?’. But I couldn’t leave it. Comments like that, as small and as seemingly innocent as they might be in the moment create a tone: a tone that suggests a women’s logic isn’t a smart as a man’s; a tone that suggests it’s the man’s table not everyone’s table; a tone that suggests it’s okay to put women (or anyone) down for a laugh. Well it’s not.
Alice and I spoke about it as we left the venue. I felt confused. Proud in one moment that I’d had the strength to stand up for what I believed and speak out, after all ‘one’ could laugh off the comments as being ‘harmless banter’. Embarrassed in the next moment for ruining the day, for ‘overreacting’. It’s not the first time I’ve spoken out like that but it was the first time I’d done it in such a public forum. I felt exposed, open to judgment but I also felt proud and strong. I felt very aware of my social conditioning – the way we’re taught some things are acceptable and others aren’t. Were his comments acceptable. Were mine?
Have you ever been whistled at walking down the street? Beeped at? Me and Alice seem to get beeped at all the time. It’s happened in Manchester and London and not infrequently. One time, we were walking to Media City in Manchester. It was daylight and we were wearing Jeans, boots and a coat. We weren’t holding hands or being ‘provocative’, whatever that even means?! We were just walking to get a coffee. We got beeped at by five separate drivers (I’m not even joking) and it whipped up a fury in me. “For fuck’s sake Alice“, I shouted. “What is that all about? What on earth are they trying to achieve? Is that how they communicate?“.
Literally the next week were walking back to our hotel in London. It was dark and it was a quiet street. Two separate cars went past and beeped at us, one driver and his passenger making direct eye contact with me as he did it, smiling. “Alice“, I said “I’m scared“. “Me too honey” she said. “Keep walking and don’t engage. Let’s go the long way round”.
These two incidents have been sitting with me for a few weeks now as I’ve watched and seen more and more commentary coming out about Donald Trump and the tone he sets for how to view and treat women.
Then, just last week Michelle Obama delivered an amazing speech in response to it all – that tone that seems ever present. Alice and I sat and watched it together. We both had chills running over our bodies. We were both so happy to see such a prominent woman standing up and saying ‘no, that’s enough and here’s why’. She articulated everything so well and she blazed a trail for others to do the same.
She said: “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. And I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them and that they should make their voices heard in the world.”
Michelle contrasted this with what she’s heard out on the campaign trail: “we have consistently been hearing hurtful, hateful language about women. Language that has been painful for so many of us not just as women but as parents trying to protect our children and raise them to be caring respectful adults…this is not something that we can ignore. It’s not something we can just sweep under the rug.”
She went on to say: ” I feel it so personally and I’m sure that many of you do too particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman? It is cruel. It’s frightening and the truth is it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close stairs little too long it makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt…”
You can watch the full speech here. It’s amazing. She put many of my thoughts – my feelings – into words. ‘It hurts’ and sometimes we’re afraid to speak up about it. I have been in the past but for me, all of these comments and actions are the thin edge of an ugly wedge that seeks to objectify women and make women feel small, undeserving.
‘This is not something that we can ignore. It’s not something we can just sweep under the rug’. To quote Michelle once more.
When I was 24, I got a promotion at work. I always wore smart shirts with matching cotton cufflinks and a smart work skirt, sometimes with a blazer. I looked good! In starting my new role, I’d come to hear one of my colleagues expressing his first impression of me. “She’s butch“, were his terms.
At the time, I was wounded. I shrank a little that day. I felt ashamed. I felt persecuted and I just can’t explain it any better than that. It hurt and it made me feel small.
I speak openly about being in a relationship with a woman now and in fact I first typed ‘I speak opening about being gay now’ but I’m quite liking Miley Cyrus’s take on it all. In a recent interview with Variety, she commented:
“I went to the LGBTQ center here in L.A., and I started hearing these stories. I saw one human in particular who didn’t identify as male or female. Looking at them, they were both: beautiful and sexy and tough but vulnerable and feminine but masculine. And I related to that person more than I related to anyone in my life. Even though I may seem very different, people may not see me as neutral as I feel. But I feel very neutral. I think that was the first gender-neutral person I’d ever met. Once I understood my gender more, which was unassigned, then I understood my sexuality more. I was like, “Oh — that’s why I don’t feel straight and I don’t feel gay. It’s because I’m not.”
I told Alice the story tonight about being called ‘butch’ and I cried. It was a painful memory because I know it was said in a derogatory way. I said to her. “I’m not butch Alice, I’m a strong fiery, independent woman and he didn’t have the right language for it. In his eyes, I didn’t fit his description of being ‘womanly’, whatever that even means.”
I’ve wanted to write about these few things but I haven’t known how to until today. I still don’t have the right words. Right now I feel like an ice breaker ploughing through ice bergs on the open sea. Brash and clumsy but I will keep speaking and I will keep expressing my thoughts. I want people to know that this ‘tone’ isn’t acceptable any more. Not for banter, not for laughs and not for any other reason.
I’m a strong, fiery independent woman with a strong voice and that’s more than okay.