To Be Black, Intellectual and Butch

It took me a long time to decide what to say about being a black butch woman.  A great deal has already been said, rivers of ink have flowed and countless electrons sent whizzing around the Internet, in the name of defining and illustrating what it is to be butch.  However, there’s an image of butchness that is rarely seen or even recognized:  what of the butch intellectual?  The TV host, Rachel Maddow, is really the first acknowledged butch intellectual I’ve ever seen.  Leslie Feinberg, whatever other appellations might crown her in glory, isn’t referred to as an intellectual.  Butches are known to be many things, we all carry an image of a butch in all her glory but amongst those images, I’d wager that very few of them are of a woman sitting at a desk eagerly figuring out some arcana of Linux or Apple Script or lying on a couch, some copious tome on evolutionary biology or string theory in her hands.  Yet, we do exist.  I know we do because I am one.

(A quick note on pronouns, I am a woman-identified butch and so will use the pronouns I feel comfortable with, these should not be taken as any commentary on how others identify)

I am black, I am butch, and I am an intellectual.  I use that term in the classical sense of one who lives for the life of the mind and for ideas.  I am happiest when I am either reading something that makes my brain hurt or engaging in a fast-paced discussion about politics or some arcane subject.  It took me a long time, over a decade, to become truly comfortable with this fact about myself.  In part this is because there were (and still are) precious few depictions of butch intellectuals in lesbian literature or film.  We work with our hands, we shower after work, we have callouses and steel-toe boots.  What we don’t have are jobs where we sit and do mental work all day.  For some odd reason that is supposed to be the province of femmes.  Yet, here I sit, at a desk where I don’t ever touch anything other than my keyboard and mouse.  My tools are all electronic.  The muscles I use are mostly in my head and hands.  That I am a black butch means that I am even more of a strange attractor.

Regardless of what we might think of it, much of being ‘butch’ gets framed within the context of embracing masculinity.  Unfortunately for some of us, this embrace comes along with the baggage ‘real men’ aren’t thinkers.  For whatever reasons, we have internalized the idea that to be a ‘real butch’ means that one is a body-person not a head-person.  Yet, here is something we embrace for no good reason that I see. Since we butches already transgress gender rules, we have purchased the freedom to embrace or reject whatever typical gender traits we wish.  Why, then, should we reject one  of the more pernicious myths of masculinity–namely that to be strong is to be a doer not a thinker.

Now, some of this is obviously class-based and, of course, class is a mind-field at least as fraught with peril as race.  I am not working-class nor do I come from a working-class background.  The times I have been poor in my life, it has been because of youth or bad decision making not because it was the way I grew up.  The image of butchness that most lesbians would recognize as such is working-class.  One could make a fair argument that being an intellectual or an academic is a luxury for the middle-class and that’s okay as far as it goes.  However, the truth of the statement does not change, in any substantive way, that middle-class butches do exist.  We are doctors, professors, lawyers, accountants, etc.  I cannot make an even half-decent approximation of a working-class butch and I would not insult my sisters and brothers who genuinely are from the working-class by trying to appropriate something that does not belong to me.

This leaves me with the task of being my own role model, carving out my own space.  That task can be difficult and frustrating at times but I have also experienced it as liberating.  The frustration has come from the friction of other lesbians expectations of me as a black butch and my own; I am not supposed to be from where I am from, not supposed to love the things I do nor am I supposed to aspire to be a black, butch, Carl Sagan.  Yet, here I am, with a background that I not only cannot change but wouldn’t change.  Here I stand, wanting to fill the void left when Sagan shuffled off this mortal coil.

In writing this, I am reminded of Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a woman?” In closing, and with apologies to the sister’s memory, my question isn’t am I a woman.  Bathroom incidents not-with-standing that question is settled.  Rather, the question is ‘ain’t I a butch?’

Ain’t I a butch?  I can get out there and work with the best of them.  Work myself until my bones hurt.  Yet, in my work-a-day life all of my heavy lifting is done with my brain.  My hands are for typing or gesturing or fidgeting while I digest the contours of whatever knotty problem I am hacking on.  Ain’t I a butch?

I can put on my butch cock and give my lady exactly what she needs to sing for me.  Yet, I don’t identify as a guy, a Daddy, or a fella.  Ain’t I a butch?

My cycle is pedal powered, not motorized.  Ain’t I a butch?

You’re more likely to find me in the library than on the softball field.  Ain’t I a butch?

I cry whenever I see The Color Purple and it gets to the point where Shug reconciles with her father.  I weep during that scene.  Ain’t I a butch?

I live for the life of the mind.  Ain’t I a butch?

I’m as comfortable in a Brooks Brothers suit as I am in jeans and a tee-shirt.  Ain’t I a butch?

by Adrienne “Aj” Davis
Conference Co-Chair and Board Member
BUTCH Voices (2009)

One Response to “To Be Black, Intellectual and Butch”

  1. gravatar Gabrielle

    I am a college student studying Accounting. I am butch. This article has really helped me realize that I can be one thing and still do another. I sometimes ask my self will I be OK, accepted, into the accounting field because of my brain not my looks, the way I am dressed for the day…

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