Written By Carol F.
Talk to any lesbian about transgender identification or gender transition, and there is a very high probability that she knows a lesbian who has transitioned. Most of the lesbians who transition are butch. Woman after woman has a story of a friend, a lover, or an ex who has transitioned. In a private chat a few years ago, a woman shared that all eleven of her former girlfriends had transitioned. The likelihood that so many lesbians would be born with a mismatch between their brain and body seems improbable.
Most of the conversation around transition from the gender-critical side focuses on the teen girls who have gone down this path. I can understand why. The medicalization of teens is a horrifying thing to see. However, as a lesbian in her 40s, I’ve seen transitioning happening from within my own community since the 90s. I was a newly out 21-year-old in 2001 when almost all of my butch friends started identifying as trans men. I’ve heard lesbians older than me talk about butch women they knew who took testosterone as far back as the 70s. This is not a new phenomenon in the lesbian community, although it was once more concentrated to large metropolitan areas. No doubt the Internet has enabled these ideas to spread far and wide.
In recent years, the transitioning of butch lesbians has only become more prevalent. It’s almost impossible to find a butch lesbian in any kind of media who hasn’t transitioned. An article from 2012 was making the rounds on social media written by a proud butch woman. She was singing the praises of her butchness, as well as the butchness of her sisters. I found the article inspiring, and it made me feel proud to be butch. I wanted to find out more about the author, so I Googled her name only to find out that she had since transitioned. Immense sadness and a deep sense of loss swept over me.
I guess she couldn’t fight the tide either. It’s also very telling and quite sad that we have to go back to 2012 to find anything positive about butch women in mainstream media. This story repeats itself again and again. From old documentaries where half the butch lesbians have since transitioned to essays rendered useless by the author’s relinquishing of her butch identity; it’s disheartening to say the least.
So the question is, why are so many butch lesbians transitioning? Butch lesbians manage to check many of the boxes for the criteria to be “trans” by the mere fact of our existence. A butch lesbian is a woman who does not conform to gender roles/sex stereotypes. She has what would be considered a masculine presentation and way of being.
A simple Google search of “How do I know if I’m trans?” yields essays such as this one: “21 Signs That I Was Transgender & Just Didn’t Realize It”. In this essay, the author gives a lengthy list of reasons she believes she is trans, or not really a woman. The vast majority of her “signs” are sex stereotypes that have lingered in our society for centuries. For example, she points to “hatred of girl’s clothing” as one of the ways she knew she was trans. This is almost a universal experience of butch and gender non-conforming women. We all hated “girls’ clothes” and instead gravitated to “boys’ dress and style” and tended to be more interested in stereotypical boys’ hobbies.
This Medium article demonstrates how pervasive these beliefs have become in the LGBT community and how completely inescapable they are for a butch woman. The LGBT, or maybe more accurately the LGB community used to be a place where a butch woman could go to find acceptance for who she was. She could “act like a man” all she wanted and still be seen as a woman. However, now she is told that she really might be a man after all because she didn’t like pink dresses as a kid.
Most people conform to sex stereotypes to some degree no matter their political affiliation or cultural background. It is not surprising that these age-old sex stereotypes have been repackaged into a set of beliefs around a gender identity. It’s an interesting twist put on them for sure.
“Gender” is described by gender ideologists as a person’s essence. The closest comparison to a belief in “gender” is the belief in a soul or spirit. Therefore, in our modern progressive LGBT spaces there is a belief system that a person’s essence can be male or female or neither even though their physical body is clearly female or male. And how does one know that their gender (essence/soul) is really this different thing from their body?
Well, it’s all in what they like and don’t like it would seem. Things such as liking pink dresses and playing with dolls give you the essence “gender” of a female, while liking blue, sports and rough-and-tumble play must mean you have the essence “gender” of a male. Additionally, being meeker and more submissive would indicate you have a female gender. A male gender would be more outgoing and aggressive.
It is assumed that females are naturally better at nurturing, are more emotional, and cry more often while males are stoic and show little emotion. Females like to make themselves pretty by getting their hair and nails done; males have no use for those things, preferring beer and football with the boys. You can see how if you are a butch woman who feels more comfortable in “men’s” clothes and has a more stoic personality, you are likely to feel that your gender (essence/soul) aligns with male, not female.
No doubt I will have someone say, “Well, likes and dislikes are one thing, Carol, but what about gender dysphoria? Surely you can see that having gender dysphoria means a butch woman might be trans and can benefit from transition.” To that, I say a woman who has endured years of bullying and harassment because of the way she acts, dresses and whom she is sexually attracted to would most certainly be uncomfortable with her womanhood and body. If you are slapped in the face repeatedly and told you aren’t a woman, how long do you keep showing people your face? What does that do to your sense of self? You are most certainly going to develop gender dysphoria.
This is the core of the issue. Why do so many butch women transition? I believe it can be distilled down to butch women buying into our own abuse for self-preservation. When we transition, we are saying, “yes, you are right, I am really a man because I don’t adhere to society’s stereotypes”. We have been ostracized by society for not behaving like women are expected to behave. We’ve been informed something is wrong with us because we aren’t feminine and we believe them. We believe that there really must be something wrong with us.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only men play an active role in enforcing these stereotypes. Women can often be even more cruel than men when it comes to gender non-conforming women. Any butch woman will tell you that the women’s public bathroom can be a nightmare from being mistaken for a man to being harassed because you “look like a lesbian” and are therefore assumed to be predatory. Since other women are our tribe, our pack, our group, the pain from that can run deeper and be more real than anything we might experience from the men around us.
Butch lesbians have always found ourselves in this dilemma, straddling two worlds and trying to find a safe place to land. In past years, our safe place was the lesbian and gay community and women-only music festivals and events. We founded our own places that were generally safe and accepting of us. Even more importantly, we found other women like us, both older and younger. We saw ourselves reflected back and we could feel normal. We could feel beautiful.
However, over the last 20 years, maybe more, we have seen our spaces and community slowly disappear. Belief in gender identity, commonly referred to as gender ideology, has taken hold in the LGBT community. As a result, a man can identify as a woman and a lesbian based on his self-identification. He now must be included in lesbian spaces. After all, if you believe that you have an essence that is the opposite of your biological sex, then that essence trumps your biological sex. Therefore, a man can be a woman and a woman can be a man. Reality be damned.
This belief system has had the effect of dismantling both lesbian-only and female-only spaces in which we once could be at home. What does this do to butch women both young and old? Where is our place in this? Every message we seem to get now from both the mainstream and our own community is that we must have a man’s soul because we feel more comfortable dressing in “men’s clothes,” or that being uncomfortable with being female means we really aren’t. Butch women have a multitude of reasons to feel really damn uncomfortable with being female, none of which are that we have the brain, soul, or gender of a man.
Why are so many butch women transitioning? Because the belief in gender is toxic, sexist, and homophobic. It reinforces to the butch woman what she has been fighting against her whole life. It corners her, it traps her, and what is even more sinister is that it offers her acceptance and praise—but only if she does that one little thing: identifies out of her womanhood.