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Tuesday 22 January 2008

Book Review: Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam

I just finished reading Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam. This book explores masculinity as embodied by women. She notes that most studies of masculinity talk exclusively about men - often specifically about white, middle class men, as if they have sole claim to masculinity. Halberstam notes that this is extremely incomplete. She focuses her study on dykes, inverts and other queers, making the dubious claim that straight female masculinity is more tolerated. I think she just wanted to focus on lesbians because she is one, and that's fine, but I wish she hadn't justified her focus by pretending that manly straight women don't face many of the same oppressions that manly dykes do.

She starts, in her introduction, talking about public bathrooms. She had me right there. She talked about having security called on her several times when she tried to pee in airports on some trip. Man, I thought I got bathroom grief, but I've never gotten security called.

Much later in the book, she talked some about FTMs and specifically about the Butch / FTM "Border Wars." I don't know if she coined that term, but it's one I've seen other places and I think her writings on the topic have been influential. Alas, as of this book, which is now ten years old, I think she furthers misunderstandings more than clears them up.

The so-called border war has to do with suspicion and mistrust which can exist between butch dykes and FTMs. Some dykes fel threatened and or betrayed when folks they know as dykes decide to transition. Maintaining a butch dyke identity is often difficult, given the invisibility in popular culture. Every other butch dyke that disappears can make this seem more difficult. Butch dykes can also resent the privilege that (white) FTMs acquire and may get pissed off by media articles which appear to favorably contrast FTMs to lesbians. On the other side, many FTMs are eager to establish themselves as male and don't want to be seen as a butch dyke and thus take some efforts to distinguish themselves. Many FTMs get annoyed when they perceive butch dykes as refusing to accept them as men.

Halberstam's chapter on this is somewhat undermined because she doesn't really address the issue of passing. Passing, in this case, means being taken for male and can happen to both butch dykes and to FTMs. She notes in the introduction that passing can be life or death for people using the men's room and indeed, even acknowledges elsewhere that some butches need to pass to survive. More than survival, though, passing is directly integral to the identity of some FTMs. They need to embody their masculinity as men. Failure to pass, for them, can mean psychic harm in addition to physical. So when Halberstam makes hay about a FTM passing guide which specifically addresses how to avoid being taken for a butch woman, she is failing to account how extremely important it is for some FTMs to pass. Not wanting to be perceived as a butch woman doesn't necessarily indicate hostility, just a need to pass and not to be taken for any kind of woman.

Halberstam questions whether FTMs would also want to avoid being mistaken for a Republican or for a gay man and notes the conservative style of dress recommended. Many FTMs actually do worry about being taken for a gay man - they don't want a second look. They don't want to stand out. They don't want to take on additional risk when visiting the men's room or walking down the street or just trying to live. Some FTMs are homophobic. Some are just very aware of the risk of violence which can surround them. Some are gay.

Being trans can include a lot of worry - about passing, about violence, about coming out, etc. Some FTMs retreat to misogyny to underline the differences between themselves and women, but most (I hope) do not. The FTMs that are "jumping ship" from being butch also tend to try to maintain ties to the dyke community. Maybe that's just a San Francisco Bay Area thing.

Finally, most FTMs that worry about passing are either no-ho or haven't yet started hormones or have started very recently (or are stealth in a conservative area and have reason to be concerned for their safety). They're a part of the trans community, but not the biggest part and don't yet feel secure in their transition.

Halberstam goes on from passing guides to an unfortunate article in The New Yorker in which Amy Bloom interviews some trans men and finds out *gasp* that they're men. Halberstam points out a few phrases from the article which positively compare FTMs to butch dykes and seems to conclude that the mainstream press is more ok with FTMs. I think this conclusion is largely in error. The mere existence of the article speaks to a discomfort with FTMs. Why would an investigative journalist need to do field research to discover that men are, indeed, men? Halbertsam writes, "Would Bloom, in a smilar article on butch lesbians, comment so approvingly on their masculinity?" (p. 157) Given how Bloom feels the need to point out that one of her interview subjects - a man - eats "like a man" (ibid), I'm not sure that's a fair comparison. Bloom is condescending in the extreme. Halbertsam quotes a longer passage from Bloom:

I expected to find psychologically disturbed, male-identified women so filled with self-loathing that it had even spilled into their physical selves, leading them to self-mutilating, self-punishing surgery. Maybe I would meet some very butch lesbians, in ties and jackets and chest binders, who could not, would not accept their female bodies. I didn't meet these people. I met men. (p. 158)

Before I go on to Halberstam's response to such drivel, I want to take a moment to give a big "fuck you" to Bloom. What is she saying here? 'Oh my gosh, they actually passed! Passing is everything! I thought I'd see a man in a dress woman in a binder and be forced to deny his identity, but I've decided that these individuals actually might deserve to have their identities accepted by ME. And I certainly am the gateway for normativity and passing!' Fuck you Bloom.

Halberstam is justifiably pissed at that passage. She writes, "What a relief for Bloom that she was spared interaction with those self-hating masculine women and graced instead by the dignified presence of men!" and goes on to note that many FTMs ID as straight, which Bloom approves of. But while Halberstam catches the queerphobia and butch phobia, she seems to miss the transphobia. Bloom's article there is hardly tans-positive but just notes what should already be obvious: some FTMs pass.

Unfortunately, a lot of this chapter is about MTFs and their narratives which are assumed to mirror the narratives of FTMs. This book is from 1998, so I think this more speaks to a lack of published material by and about FTMs more than a real assertion by Halberstam that the cases are mirror. I'm going to look into whether she has published more recently on the topic. That chapter talked largely about a previous essay on the topic and what she had learned from that, so while she sometimes misses things, she seems eager to learn and I imagine that the problems I've noted have certainly been addressed in the last 10 years.

Part of what was most fascinating for me about this book is the way labels have shifted over time. Inverts would not have IDed with lesbians. Butches of the 1950's were excluded from the definition of 'lesbian' that was current through the 1970's - 1980's. (Indeed, being butch was still controversial when I came out). FTM is emerging as a new label. People like me, with more ambiguos/ complicated views on their own gender would have been excluded from transitioning until recently. Past FTMs have IDed as "men." The idea that "trans" would form a more permanent part of a label is new and is being picked up by trasgender or genderqueer IDed persons.

There used to be the idea of a passing woman. That's a woman who looked like a man and passed for one. I don't know how different a passing woman is than a genderqueer ftm, but I can say that the label "passing woman" has always made me nervous. I like the label "dyke." Not 'lesbian,' which for a while was specifically defined to exclude me and not 'woman' passing or no. What does that make me? A transdyke? A FTM/dyke? It makes me feel better to have a label, I think. It also makes me feel better to be able to place myself within a history. I don't want to reject the label 'dyke,' as I've been attached to it for so long. When I watch a movie like Go Fish, I'm watching something that impacted my life. Dyke culture has shaped me, formed me. I felt at home in it and I feel at home in it. At the same time, I really like taking T. I like what it's doing to my body. I like how I feel to see myself in the mirror, looking gradually more manly. And I really like that I don't need to choose. There might be some sort of border war going on, but I like being parked right in the middle of it and I have no intention of moving.

(This post is also a test of the Flock web browser blog functions)

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DK said...

Hi there, DK here..happily sharing your 'border' and loving it. Thought I'd wave just to say hello, and tell you I enjoyed reading you.
~doffs cap~

Ander said...

Hey, I recently read the "border wars" chapter of Female Masculinity, and I stumbled upon this post. I agree with you that Halberstam focused overly on the butch-phoboia in her analysis of ftm passing tips and Bloom's article, and didn't give any attention to why FTMs are so desperate to pass. That said, I also felt like her article really legitimized those of us who occupy other places between butch and ftm. She wrote alot about the new meanings for the term "transgender" as different from transsexual, for example ftms who identify more as trans than as man, or who are content to live with ambiguous bodies, and so on. I found those words to be true to my experiences of the queer community, and validating for my identity. Anyways, thanks for your review. It's interesting to read other's reactions to the piece. Cheers!

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