In this ongoing interviewing project having to do with the experiences of partners of transguys, I’ve been struck by the very inventive ways in which the partners (almost all of whom are cis-female) understand their own gender and sexual identities. For those who understood their sexuality as something different from straight, which is almost all of them (us) thus far, the existing categories of ‘lesbian’ never made sense for many of them. One person I interviewed saw herself as a ‘failed lesbian’ due to her chronic inability to perform what she understood was the required look: either the tough masculinity of the visible butches in her rural world, or the commodified ‘lipstick lesbians’ of the 1990s mainstream representation. She now describes herself as a ‘tomboy femme,’ very happily partnered with her princess transguy.
For people who came out in the 1980s and 1990s, they felt a pressure to come out as ‘lesbian’ even though it never made much sense, in many ways. They were attracted to masculinity on ‘female’ bodies, and at that time, that usually meant butches—another word that didn’t necessarily fit for those folks who might now, in 2011, identify as trans. Now, these women are partners with transguys, and even though there’s not much visibility or language to describe the fit between their sexuality and those of their transguy partners, there is a comfort there that makes sense for many of them, much more than the category ‘lesbian’ ever did. Butch/femme doesn’t fully translate here, either.
One person I interviewed recently said: “I think around 2001, 2002 was when I first had this odd experience of flirting with someone who identified as transgender butch. It threw me into an identity crisis because I had developed an understanding of what it meant to desire a butch as a femme. I [had] developed an understanding of that dynamic separate from heteronormative norms about sexuality. I was pretty much secretive about it amongst people because everyone tended to read butch and femme as a lesbian version of straight. I knew it wasn’t that. I knew that my identity as femme wasn’t about being girlish or feminine. I’ve always said I’m a non-feminine femme. It takes a while for people to start figuring out what that means. I’ve also always said that I’d never feel like a woman. The only time I’ve ever felt like a woman is in the arms of a butch, someone who’s got a kind of foot in the world of womanhood somehow or another at some point in their lives, but has a commitment to and a sense of self that is very masculine. There’s something about that, that makes me feel like being a woman is okay.”