And everything in between

8 03 2010

“Butches are known by their appearance, femmes by their choices.” Joan Nestle

I like girls. The experts around me sometimes tell me I am a butch dyke. I intensely dislike being told who I am and what my own little personal definition is going to be. I am extremely wary of being defined at all but writing this forces me to look at this matter of identity.

I am not very keen on anything that categorises people although I know it is inevitable. (Virtually every choice in life puts one into some demographic or the other after all). But I don’t think that the relief of conformity that comes with embracing these groupings is worth the blocking of other information that goes with that decision…like evangelical christians and gay people, who often seem to have so much in common – we tend to interact with our own groups almost exclusively and so continuously reinforce what we already choose to believe and feel. I do not choose the titles of butch or femme or any other for myself. But I do see that people very consciously choose and need religion and other groupings to belong to and that they may also need the reassurance of clear definitions of identity in their lives.

Years ago, I have to admit to doing my share of clomping around in Doc Martens, jeans and shirts in the fiery heat of Colombo, simply to broadcast the point that I was a dyke and I would dress as I pleased. But now I really don’t care about any of the accessories, for myself or for others. I like girls…femme, butch, whatever they choose to call themselves. But I like them for their characters, their humor, their strength and their tenderness to me. I am attracted to butch girls’ androgyny and the huge energy they have, which I do not possess myself. I am also attracted to femme girls’ knowledge of their own power, their lack of need to explain themselves and their desire for butch girls. It is these things that I love, not their definitions of themselves.

Here are some generalizations of my very own. Butch girls are sometimes thorny, controlling and insecure. They are also competent, logical and sometimes dearly loved in the mainstream world where they could have close male friends. They are resilient, having spent lots of time trying to lure girls into bed and have a good sense of humor from learning to handle rejection since they were ten.

Butch girls are usually strong and are frequently into competitive sports. They are ferociously attached to their personal fashion choices and wear their pants and shoes and hair like weapons against a hostile world. Since they are visibly different, they have to fight harder.

Femme girls are delightful. They are quite aware of their massive power which they are capable of using quite ruthlessly when necessary. They also possess the softest hearts and can be persuaded into the wildest activities, sexual and otherwise, by smart butches. Since they do not have to deal with the battle against the mainstream world as much as butch girls do, femme girls are often more relaxed about themselves and their choices. But this also means they are not always forced to think too deeply about these choices and what they imply. Femme girls are usually gorgeous and funny and in many ways are quite like straight girls, except that they are fatally attractive to butch girls and they know it.

Femmes are perhaps best described as lesbian, bisexual, and queer women whose manner and style falls along the lines of what is traditionally considered feminine. Whereas butches are sometimes accused of trying to be men, femmes are sometimes accused -by other lesbians -of donning accoutrements of traditional femininity to pass as straight in the mainstream world. Actually, however, femme lesbians subvert prescribed sexual and gender roles by co-opting conventional ‘womanly’ traits to indicate their attraction to other women.

(http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/butch_femme_ssh.html)

This may not always be true in real life but it is a revolutionary idea so I like it.

And then there’s all that lies between…the soft butch girls sexy in short skirts, the strong femme girls in charge of their lives – and all the physical and emotional characteristics that we lesbians exchange and share. And in the end I don’t think there is any final definition of femme or butch that covers it all anyway. How could there be?





What does it mean to be a man?

11 08 2009

There are some dominant characteristics that constitute being a man in south Asia. Being physically strong and attractive, being the protector, the leader, the chief decision maker, being sexually successful and being heterosexual are just some of them. These definitions are commonly referred to as Masculinities. The plural form “masculinities” conveys that there are many definitions for being a man and that these can change over time and from place to place.

These dominant forms of masculinities are instilled in men from birth onwards and perpetuated by men and women, mothers and fathers, in schools and on the streets, throughout a mans life. Once instilled, men are required to constantly prove their manliness. Men are taught from an early age that to be a successful leader you must be ready to put up a fight. Adolescent boys for example think they are proving their manliness by engaging in risky behavior, like driving too fast and too rash, or drinking and driving, or proving them selves to their friends by going through with certain dares. Ragging in universities is a good example of this in Sri Lanka. Some men consider beating their wives an expression of their manliness. Many young men are initiated into sex by their friends. Some are forced to visit sex workers whether they like it or not and rarely refuse for fear they will be considered less of a man.

These aspects of masculinity are encouraged to prevail for a man to be a “real man” and are endorsed by key institutions, such as in business, politics, the military and in sports. Such institutions are structured and designed around these masculine roles making it extremely difficult for women to play a leadership role. We see this from the few number of women in parliament in Sri Lanka for example.

However, these behaviors have a cost to society. Ragging for example has lead to countless closures of our Universities and even to the death of some students, most notably S. Varapragash in 1997. Drunk driving and the resultant injuries and deaths from road related accidents amount to millions of rupees in losses. These are costs that can be easily avoided, lives that can be saved.

What if a man were to develop and take on characteristics that are not those of the dominant man, if he were to become for instance a secretary, or a kinder garden teacher, or a nurse, would that make him less of a man? At least as women we are given the choice today to either wear pants or skirts, to work and pursue a career or to stay home and bear children or both. A young girl can be a tomboy and get away with it, but a boy who is sissy is called a “sothiya” a “ponnaya”, laughed at and taunted. A man who is not naturally aggressive or competitive is forced to pretend to be or face scorn. In fact, “feminized men” are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Studies in our neighboring countries India and Bangladesh show that feminized men are more likely to be abused as adolescents, most often by members of their own family. They are also more likely to harm themselves and commit suicide than their peers. It seems like the worst insult one man can hurl at another is the accusation that a man is like a woman.

One reason for this is that women are less valued than men in our society. We know from the rates of female infanticide across the region that this is true. The girl child is seen more as a burden and liability to the family. When compared to boys, girls are less valued hence less educated, less fed, given less opportunities, confined and treated as less than human in many instances. Our culture and the rituals associated with it celebrate the male child, while a daughter’s arrival is not half as jubilant.

Certain jobs associated with caring and rearing, are considered too demeaning for men to do, almost unclean and dirty.

But no man can possibly live up to the dominant characteristics of being a man all the time and still be human. As a society we expect too much from men. We expect them to be super human; men are looked down upon if they show emotion or if they cry, men are expected to do tough physical jobs, they must succeed at all costs, they are expected to be assertive, to know all about sex and how to perform in bed (in reality young boys get even less sex education that young girls[1])  We place too much pressure on men. And if men cant live up to the pressures we place on them, they turn to other ways to vent their frustrations like drinking, violence, abuse and the like.

As a society we need to redefine what it means to be a man. This will not only allow men to develop deep and rich connections with others, including women and children but also with other men. These connections are what make life full and rewarding, but they require vulnerability. We need to allow men to explore their softer side without being ridiculed and tormented instead of narrowing their emotional range and depth. This will be good, not just for men, but for women too. By redefining what it means to be a man, there will be less violence against women and more harmony between the sexes.


[1] In a recent review of the Millennium Development Goal indicators for young people from 9 countries in Asia, no country reported more than 50percent level of sexual knowledge among boys with some countries reporting as low as 3percent. Redefining AIDS in Asia, 2008