Joe LeBlanc is a poet, photographer, and self-professed music geek who mixes house paint for a living. He works at a Lowe’s store by day and spends the rest of his time challenging gender norms. He characterizes himself as a “gender-queer” butch, meaning he’s biologically female but comports himself as a man. He keeps his hair in a spiky crew cut, wears guy clothes, and favors masculine pronouns. He’s grown accustomed to people mistaking him for a guy, and doing the “‘Sir — ‘Oh, sorry, ma’am'” thing. It’s something LeBlanc’s learned to deal with — like the confrontations in public restrooms, when other women see him and do a double-take. “I just try to smile,” LeBlanc said. “If I present in a way that’s non-threatening, it’s usually okay.”
Still, it’s not that easy being a butch — or, for that matter, anyone who doesn’t adhere to a bedrock essentialism of gender — in a world that maligns masculine women. LeBlanc grew up a tomboy and all-around jock — as a kid he played soccer, volleyball, basketball, and softball — and said he was always “pretty much the same,” even when he had longer hair and identified as “she.” Still, it took a long time to get comfortable with the butch identity. “Presenting masculine in a female body comes with threats of harm,” he said. “And with people trying to figure out am I a man, am I a woman?”
Granted, the term “butch” has a lot of baggage. LeBlanc’s main beef with butch-ness in pop culture is that retrograde image of the macho, blue collar, congenitally brutish she-man — a person whose closest male analogue would be Stanley Kowalski or the Fonz. “I didn’t feel like I fit the stereotype that was out there — that wannabe man from a working-class background who was supposed to be very mechanically inclined and had to be the man in the relationship,” said LeBlanc.
It’s hard to even say from whence that stereotype. Unless you count certain flannel-shirt-wearing rock singers of the k.d. Lang or Melissa Etheridge strain, butches scarcely exist in popular culture. Only three L-Word characters seem remotely virile, and of them only one fits the masculine-identified profile. Brandon Teena hasn’t spawned a ton of imitators in Hollywood. Before the arrival of talk show host Rachel Maddow and The Wire‘s Detective Kima Greggs, butches were all but invisible in pop culture. It was hard to carve out a niche, let alone build a critical mass.
Such challenges led LeBlanc to create the first-ever (as far as he can tell) conference for butches, studs, aggressives, and their allies. Called Butch Voices, it runs Thursday through Sunday at Oakland’s Marriott Center and features workshops on body image, internalized misogyny, race and masculine identity, “the politics of passing,” religion, class stereotypes, gender pronouns, online social networks, butch imagery in pop culture, and even flirting. It will also feature karaoke, networking dinners, a film night, a play party, and a couple of celebrity panelists — including drag king Jack Halberstam and filmmaker Kimberly Pierce (who directed Boys Don’t Cry). LeBlanc got the idea for Butch Voices after attending a similarly themed femme conference, put on by the Femme Collective. He thought it would be nice if butches could have their own forum for in-depth conversations about identity politics and gender transgression. He couldn’t think of a place — outside the digital realm — where one could find a lot of butches sitting together at one time. Maybe it didn’t exist, LeBlanc thought. But the demand was there.
His colleague Krys Freeman couldn’t agree more. Freeman, who generally goes by a “s/he” pronoun but doesn’t mind “she” or “he” (I’ll use “she,” for sake of clarity), is a former model with subtle features and perfect facial geometry. She says there are tons of pictures of her up on the Internet “in boy stuff and girly stuff.” She once tried out for an Eminem music video. Now she gets stared down every time she uses a public restroom. “I have broad shoulders, I wear men’s attire, and I have short hair,” Freeman explained. “If you don’t look at my face, you see a tall black man.” That ambiguity comes to bear every time a cop pulls her over. “I can hear their tone change when they come to the window,” she said.
Freeman is the logistics chair for Butch Voices. Additionally, she’ll lead a workshop on relationships and networking called “Creating a Space for Lone Wolves.” The title alone speaks volumes about fractiousness in the butch community. For one thing, butches have a hard time meeting and networking, except through online forums like Butch-Femme.com. Going out to clubs and social events can be futile, said LeBlanc, who meets most of her partners on the Internet. (“My desire is to be with a femme, and that’s nothing I can get in a regular lesbian space — it’s more androgynous people that partner with each other,” he said.) Moreover, there’s no single political line to tie all butches together. Older butches disparage younger butches for ascribing male pronouns, as though it were a form of minstrelsy. Racism and sexism don’t elude the butch subculture — just because you’re transgressing gender lines, doesn’t mean you’re enlightened in every way. In fact, said Freeman, “I honestly felt like there hasn’t been a community, even with all the work that we’ve gotten to do and that we still have to do.”
Yet there’s a certain sense of insularity to Butch Voices. The conference organizers have a unique taxonomy of gender and identity labels, and even their own patois. They’ve reappropriated the slang terms “stone butch,” “tomboy,” “bull dagger,” “papi,” “daddy,” “faggot,” and “stud,” twisted them around, and come up with different meanings for each. They’ve changed the word “aggressive” into a noun, to mean someone born into a woman’s body, who presents herself as a man. They don’t all identify as butch, cautioned LeBlanc, although it’s a useful catchall-term for masculine females or trans men. (Freeman, for example, would characterize herself as a stud or tomboy, if anything, while Butch Voices performance chair Arnetta Smith calls herself a “soft stud.”) But they do share a feeling of marginality that comes from having to prove yourself on a regular basis. “Sometimes pressures are put on us that aren’t fair,” LeBlanc said. “Our masculinity isn’t celebrated as a man’s is, but we’re shunned from being feminine.”
Then there’s the problem of having a dearth of representation in pop culture, and being saddled with stereotypes anyway. Freeman said that’s part of what’s driving her behind the Butch Voices conference. She can think of a few media figures who look butch-ish — Ellen DeGeneres, Queen Latifah, Da Brat — but none of them publicly identify that way. For the most part, she said, the butches you see in Hollywood or on mainstream television are cold-blooded gang-bangers or stars in girl prison movies. Some of them fix cars all day. Some adhere to traditional codes of chivalry. Some are hunky. Most are un-intellectual.
The cliché isn’t hugely derogatory, but it’s definitely one-dimensional. Thus, most butches pick and choose from the traditional attributes. Take LeBlanc, for instance: He can play sports, fix stuff, and take a woman out for a night on the town. But he also writes poetry and geeks out on Otis Redding love ballads. LeBlanc contends that it is indeed possible to be a man in a woman’s body, without devolving into caricature. But you can’t speak through the filter of what a butch is supposed to be.