This meandering bit of memoir is brought to you courtesy of thoughts inspired by friends of the Glitter Collective: Pixel Therapy Podcast, where a couple of very smart and creative queer folks talk to other very smart and creative queer folks about videogames and their feelings around them. Check them out! They posted an interview with me and my brilliant wife two weeks ago!
This post started getting super-long, and then I decided that I was going to poke specifically at how my butch identity evolved over time. I’ll spin off discussions of media from this series. I think I’ve established that I’m a giant geek, and I’m giving myself permission to focus this post more on the queer side of things right now. Even though this post got kind of, uh, heavy on the selfies near the end.
Earlier posts in this series:
In our last episode, I had just gotten married, bought a house, and gotten my career off the ground, as well as digging into anime, getting back into videogames, and continuing with my long-term standbys of tabletop RPGs and comics. Oh! And I was further exploring my butch identity.
I still vividly remember the first moment and place I was when my butchness uncurled from its hiding place sufficiently to try to manifest: I had finished my 1995 Xmas shopping and was exiting the biggest mall in northern Delaware through Macy’s. The perfume counter was gently reeking on my left and the women’s clothing section loomed to my right. I suddenly became viscerally aware that I was walking differently. The feeling of my feet hitting the tile with more weight, more confidence, more depth sank into the rest of me. My hindbrain said, Yes This Is Right, and another part somewhere in my middle said, Welcome Back. My shoulders relaxed as this part of myself I’d been repressing suffused every muscle of my body.
I guess this was, in a way, my Ring of Keys moment, though unlike Alison Bechdel’s moment of recognizing an older butch as a kindred spirit, I was seeing/feeling my Inner Butch, getting a glimpse through time of where I could land, if only I managed to stay the course of being more and more of myself.
Fortunately, I was temping as a training writer for a company that didn’t give a crap about my clothing (and they hired me temp-to-perm despite my clothing). I went from wearing tight women’s jeans to wearing black or camo BDUs to give myself room to move and take up space. I discovered that I couldn’t bring myself to buy or even contemplate wearing women’s underwear, while still being too afraid to buy men’s underwear: I opted to go “commando” for years. (I was privileged to be able to use a well-fitted menstrual cup to cope with my period.) I ditched all my old girly bras with their lace, hooks, and other decorative bits and started wearing only sports bras. I stuck with t-shirts and oxford buttondown shirts, often layered like I did in high school and early college.
That was the state of things for a couple years. But when I was trying to move to New England in 1997, I realized I needed interview-wear. I could not even begin to contemplate interviewing in a skirt, hose, and heels ever again. One of my friends went shopping with me and I came away with a red “hunter” blazer, a white collared blouse, terrible black slacks, and black women’s flats. Again, I flew under the radar sufficiently while not feeling completely gross (only moderately gross, because plus-sized women’s slacks… EW).
After my first couple of IT jobs in New England (where jeans and buttondowns were standard officewear), I ended up in a company where needed to wear Business Casual 4 days a week in the office. How to do Business Casual in the late 1990s in a way that didn’t involve skirts/slacks/blouses? Deva Lifewear and their unisex clothing to the rescue! Just femme enough to fly under the radar, just masc enough it didn’t make my skin crawl. I really liked their vests (gillets, whatever), and got into wearing them pretty regularly over various Deva shirts. The whole style felt kind of SCAdian (Society for Creative Anachronism) and since we were still attending the Pennsic War every year at that point, it felt comfortably geeky.
In 2005, I was managing a project for which the client suddenly demanded a face-to-face meeting. I realized that I had no Business Formal in my wardrobe except my long-neglected interview-wear, which had been found by a few moths while it was stored away since my last interview in 2003 and was no longer usable. My wife gently convinced me to go shopping to buy an actual men’s suit. A little investigation turned up a family-owned store a few towns away. As we walked in, I was flat-out terrified. I had some sort of idea that I would be mocked, or attacked, or… something, for daring to shop for men’s businesswear. The baby butch in the back of my head was convinced we would be punished for doing the thing we wanted.
The saleswoman didn’t even blink when we said I wanted a men’s suit. When we walked out an hour later, I had bought a black men’s suit and would be picking it up a week later after their tailor made some alterations. I had a bag with a variety of accessories, from a shiny black leather belt to cashmere dress socks.
Despite everything I couldn’t bring myself to wear a tie that trip: too much of a commitment to masculinity. Too much transgression. Too much fear.
I started buying jeans again — stretch jeans from Land’s End — and tried to get some corduroys, but discovered that the texture of cords is too much like velvet and makes me cringe. (Velvet has been a lifelong texture issue. Some women’s cords have enough length to the nap that it doesn’t set me off, but men’s cords are all short and set my teeth on edge.) My BDUs gave out and didn’t get replaced. My Deva shirts started getting replaced again by buttondowns.
Somewhere around 2005, I started getting into the Takarazuka Revue. The Takarazuka Revue consists of all-women musical troupes that perform musical theatre in Japan, and have been doing so for over a 100 years. The Revue has its own academy that promising young women actors just out of high school (or possibly slightly earlier? I am unclear) attend for 2 years. Each actress is channelled into one of two training tracks: otokoyaku (masculine actors) and musumeyaku (feminine actors). The Revue started to stutter financially in the 1960s. In the 1970s, they turned the wildly successful manga Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda into a musical, which saved the Revue. The show has been one of their standbys ever since.
While at Yuricon in 2003, I had seen part of a Rose of Versailles show on DVD and was impressed by the SPARKLES and FEATHERS and BUTCHNESS. But the Takarazuka company didn’t (and still doesn’t) market their recordings in the US (and aggressively pursues postings online with takedowns), so I didn’t go looking for it until a few years later. Finally, the Internet opened up a bit more and there were services available for buying Japan-only media. I started watching clips from Elisabeth, an originally Austrian musical based loosely on the life of Empress Elisabeth. I watched several versions of the extremely homoerotic The Shadows Grow Longer (Die Schatten werden länger) scene, where Death essentially seduces Elisabeth’s son Rudolf. The gendersquiggliness of the whole thing sucked me in: 2 masculine characters, played by 2 women performing masculinity in sparklybutch kinds of ways, having a very dysfunctional seduction scene.
I settled on buying myself a copy of the 2005 show of Elisabeth, starring Ayaki Nao, because it was the favorite of another friend of mine who’d seen that version live. In 2005, Elisabeth was played by Sena Jun, an otokoyaku (apparently not unusual in cases of Very Strong heroines, which seems to shortchange the lead musumeyaku of the troupe who would otherwise get the role — I’m not privy to the Japanese fan culture of Takarazuka, so I’m not sure if it comes off to them as it does to me, that the musumeyaku is being told she’s not “strong” enough to play the lead role). Sena Jun had played the secondary otokoyaku (the role of Luigi Lucheni, the dude who assassinated Elisabeth) in the 2002 version, and I liked her a lot. (Aside: Sena Jun finally got promoted to top otokoyaku for Moon Troupe and played Death in the 2009 Elisabeth, and is I think the only Takarasienne thus far to play all 3 lead roles in the musical.)
The next Xmas, one of my friends found me the 2002 Elisabeth as well as a copy of the 2005 Moon Troupe Ernest in Love, starring Sena Jun as Ernest in this musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest. I proceeded to acquire a number of other productions, including the 1999 Cosmos Troupe José and Carmen (starring Shizuki Asato and Hanafusa Mari), 2006 Moon Troupe Oklahoma! (starring Tokoroki Yuu and Shirosaki Ai), 2004 Cosmos Troupe Phantom of the Opera starring Wao Youka and Hanafusa Mari.
Time to make this geeky aside relevant: In 2007, after many years of my wife carefully giving me permission to butch my waist-length hair that I honestly didn’t know how to manage, I decided to go for it. At a friend’s suggestion, I scheduled an appointment with a queer hairstylist at Judy Jetson (the name of the salon really made it for me, the geek), printed out a couple of pictures of Sena Jun in otokuyaku makeup, and went in with the question: can you do this for me? (Done with the understanding that Sena Jun actually had longer hair than that and used product to slick it down to her masc look.)
The stylist did it, or the nearest she could approximate. For the first time in >15 years, I had short hair. And it was fucking exhilarating.
*pause as I discover, randomly, that Sena Jun starred as Big Alison in a 2018 Japanese production of Fun Home, supercolliding my Takarazuka fandom with my musical fandom and my comics fandom in an enormous rainbow explosion*
*pause as I weep upon being unable to locate a recording and having confirmed that there is no recording*
For my next client trip in 2009, I got myself suspenders and a sub-fusc tie to wear with my suit, though I discovered that clip-on suspenders do not work for those of us with frontispieces (ie, a bustline) and a habit of inhaling deeply for calming purposes. Neither my coworkers nor my clients blinked, and I was moderately more confident than I’d been in years.
Somewhere in there, I don’t even remember when exactly, I started getting boxer briefs from Land’s End. I have to say that they’re ridiculously comfortable and the fabric is vastly superior (as is the case in most men’s clothes) to the women’s equivalents. Also, much much better for the menstruating individual if one has hit a point in one’s life where one has sudden unpredictable onset and is perhaps on a road trip with 3+ hours between rest areas. Not that this happened to me or anything.
I had a job interview in 2010, the first in 7 years, and I wore the suit and a tie. Took that job, moving to biotech. That job exploded in a mess of mysterious toxicity that occurred 2 years in. I had no one with power at my back and kept getting set up to fail spectacularly, so I bailed out in 2013. (Still no real clue what happened there. My family suspects homophobia, which is entirely possible, but there’s no evidence or proof.)
By the time I was interviewing in 2013, I had discovered the world of Fluevog boots and my wife had started getting me Victorian waistcoats from Historical Emporium. I had my suit and lavender tie and stompy boots that gave me about an inch of lift for the interview and felt like a thousand bucks.
Aced the interview, got the job, and started going dapper at work more and more often. Also managed to find the black stretch jeans of my dreams, which were absolutely worth every dime (unlike the Lands End jeans, I have yet to have a pair go out in the thighs). I also started getting chinos for dressier occasions (“dressy” as interpreted by the IT startup environment). My wife enjoyed the opportunity to decorate me with tie pins, cufflinks, and pocket watch with different chains/fobs, since I’d mostly stopped wearing jewelry a few years earlier.
I got frustrated with the dress shirts available in large sizes being almost entirely white or IBM Blue, with occasional daring forays into French Blue. The answer to my frustration was DXL, which has a wide array of dress shirts (and other clothes) for big and tall men (don’t you love how men get to be “big and tall” while women are “plus-sized”?) and their shirts come in vibrant gem tones and fun patterns. (Though right now my brand of choice seems to have gotten a little boring. Huh.)
Unfortunately, as seems the custom in some IT startups, that job went toxic in early 2017. I dressed in my butch armor daily to try to cope for the next 7 months.
Then that job dissolved in a hot mess of racism, misogyny, and ageism, with bonus queerphobia! (There was evidence this time, but I didn’t have the wherewithal — financial or otherwise — to get embroiled in the legal proceedings.) I decided to do a spot of consulting work while I processed the whole shitshow.
When I did start interviewing, I discovered the moths had joyously found my old suit despite our best efforts. Sigh. I improvised for my interviews — fortunately I had a good tweed blazer and a lot of fancy ties and waistcoats. I also dyed my hair brown after one interview went sideways pretty obviously because the person was looking to hire a Young Person. (Nothing actionable, just a lot of rhapsodic discussion of the person they were replacing, who sounded like a cis het white woman in her 20s. Hiring manager was my age, but not grey.) When I landed another job, I got my stylist to shift the fading brown dye job to blue.
We thought it was time I got a proper 3-piece suit. We’d had a few issues previously trying to get me other suits, so I was nervous and all sorts of touchy/moody about it. While I find masc clothing a lot more comfortable and affirming, I also know I am fat and weirdly shaped for both off-the-rack men’s trousers and women’s slacks. So I mostly try not to think about clothing — I buy stuff online that I can try in the privacy of my own home and be disappointed about in private, without external judgment. Getting a bespoke suit meant being a lot more vulnerable than I’d been in years.
After a lot of research, we decided that perhaps going to NYC for a suit was a little much, and found a local tailor that had a quiet reputation for being good with female-bodied masc people: 9Tailors. At the time, they were one of the few tailors that had galleries featuring folks who appeared to present female-bodied wearing masculine-styled suits. I found some reviews on Yelp by other butches. Hemmed and hawed, but eventually emailed for an appointment. My wife wrangled everything else, which gave me the room to be frantic and emotional about the whole process. She and a member of our chosen family who is also butch were very good about supporting me. It worked out.
I have steadily but cautiously gone shorter and shorter on my hair — my hair stylist has been hesitant to do it sometimes, but she keeps telling me that I rock it. My family likes the Butch Velvet(TM) result of this. (My hair makes for a good stim toy, I guess?) With home pandemic haircuts, I’ve opted to go even shorter, since the only clippers we have in the house were cheap pet clippers we originally bought to deal with the problematic furry culottes of a long-haired cat.
The pandemic has certainly impacted my own queer performance. I’ve certainly seen a lot of delightful queer content on social media — makeup and hair and whatnot. I experimented with posting pictures on Instagram of me, mostly dressed up, showing off some of my Fluevogs (inspired by a friend who has a considerable boot collection). But I’m bad at selfies and also looking at myself in pictures, so if pics don’t work out immediately, I tend to give up, rather than the tried and true method of taking a hundred pics and finding the best ones. I’m mostly not dressing up, having opted for sweatpants, flannel, and hoodies. I dressed up for Valentine’s day, I think, and there was another occasion in January. But yeah, pretty much flannel and hoodies.
I’m not sure where this is all going to go. I’ve seen people comment that they now understand the 1920s and everyone’s urge to dress up to go everywhere more now, and I can see that. I could see myself diving back into my dress shirts and waistcoats. I’ve certainly been windowshopping Haute Butch and some bespoke clothing establishments occasionally with a wistful thought of “someday, maybe.” I may have acquired some things from Dapper Boi.
I’ve been thinking about my gender a lot more than I have before, possibly because I have the space to consider it without having to perform for, say, a corporate setting or people who are not my queer family. After some quiet experimentation, I’ve slid gently into using they/them pronouns and describing myself as nonbinary, despite my early statements of “I’m too old for this” or “if I were 10 years younger.” This doesn’t erase my being a lesbian, a dyke, a queer, or a butch — it’s just one more word I can use, and it’s okay to continue to evolve and learn more about my gender identity even if I’m “old”. If the language can change, so can I. I hope I’ll still be changing and evolving when I’m 90.
Tomorrow is my birthday, and even though I’m pandemically depressed and anxious, it’s worth celebrating that my fat queer butch nonbinary ass is still here. I’m still writing what, when I can; still living the best life I can; still doing my best to learn to be a better person every day; and still loving my family and friends as hard as they’ll let me. And I will celebrate 53 years on this planet tomorrow while wearing the black hoodie from my tai chi school, a soft and squishy henley, and my otter pajama pants, because they are damn comfy.