Beyond the Swagger: The Serious Play of Lesbian Expression

The appearance and gender expressions of sexual-minority women, and lesbians in particular, has been of academic interest for a considerable time (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996; Hutson, 2012; Huxley, Clarke, & Halliwell, 2013). Are there noticeable differences between heterosexual and homosexual female expression? And if so, what are the explanations and functions for deviant expressions among lesbians? By analyzing an inter-disciplinary collection of studies on lesbian gender expressions, I hope to begin to draw some patterns and new insight into what makes a lesbian “look like” a lesbian, and why she may (or may not) adopt such an expression.

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Butch Is Not Just For Cis Women

I am a trans woman. I am also a butch lesbian.

Despite what you may have heard, these are not contradicting identities.

A trans woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth by the medical industrial complex. This assignment is based entirely on the appearance of a phallus, specifically a phallus at least half-an-inch in length. That’s it.

A cis woman is a woman who was assigned female at birth by the medical industrial complex. This assignment is based entirely on the lack of a phallus (or a phallus less than half-an-inch, therefore acceptably small enough to be considered a clitoris). That’s it.

So forget whatever the hell you’ve heard about chromosomes, gonads, gametes, fertility, or anything else. (Chances are good you and your doctor have no idea what half of those are for you personally, anyway.) If you can accept that, it’s easy to accept how greatly variable everything else we take for granted about “sex” and “gender” is per individual.

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The Etiquette of a Butch

One of the fun parts of being a butch lesbian is playing with traditional gender norms and making them our own weird and beautiful brand of expression. As a butch lesbian who is also a trans woman, I thought it might be especially cathartic to take all of the well-intended advice about “how to be a gentleman” and make it queer by replacing all male identifiers with “butch”:

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“Closets are for clothes, not people,” is a common battle cry of the queer rights movement. But many fail to appreciate the ways clothes can be used to trap us or free us.

Like it or not, humans make assumptions about other humans based on their bodies and the articles used to cover those bodies. As much as I genuinely believe clothes should not have gender attached to them, I also know I project a very different message to the world as a 28-year-old woman wearing jeans and flannel than I did when I was a 17-year-old kid wearing jeans and flannel.

Many people fail to realize (because they’ve never had to think about it) how much about our gender and sexuality we communicate through our clothing. And even fewer people realize how much others rely on our body and clothes to interpret clues about our gender and sexuality. This is why the same outfit on two different bodies can be interpreted in wildly different ways depending on their skin tone, haircut, fat distribution, size, height, and many other uncontrollable factors. And why even the same clothes worn at different points in our lives can communicate drastically different things.

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“We all come out of the closet twice…at least twice,” is a running joke among trans women.

This was certainly true for me, as my first trip out of the closet I intended to live life as a gay boy instead of a trans girl, even though I already knew on some level I wasn’t a boy and that I most certainly liked girls. I was knowingly trading out my small closet for a slightly bigger one. Gay men were becoming increasingly accepted and loved; surely being an extremely feminine man would be close enough to being the woman I actually was? At least then I wouldn’t be in the weirdo category of “my girlfriend is a man” that I saw on Jerry Springer. Or the men in dresses I was intended to point and laugh at. Or the pathetic creatures wheeled around on news specials and movies I was expected to pity before congratulating myself for being so open minded, never someone I was intended to actually identify with. And the most damning were the perverted men who got off by wearing women’s clothes and pretending to be something they weren’t.

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