I suppose it is a sultry summer evening, as sensei said. So after karate, after the meditation, I suggested we go for ice cream. Three of us went, out of four. Three women, three generations (after a fashion). One triple black belt, one yellow belt, one beginner. One butch, one femme, one young person still inconclusive about gender identity. We ate black raspberry chocolate chip frozen yogurt and moose tracks, all made there at the store on the edge of the reservoir. We sat outside in chairs on the sidewalk and talked about gender, and queerness, community.
I felt right in the middle of them. I felt my place acutely even as we walked there. Maiden, mother, crone came into my head, a remnant of my medievalist and witchy days. And what a funny triad we were! The younger, with her shorn head and wispy sideburns, her slouched posture and earnest conversation. The older, head also close cropped, shirt tucked into high pants and solidly, strongly aging. And I -- not so much older than the "maiden" -- still with short hair but by far the most feminine of the group, earrings glinting, newly manicured nails flashing, strong in my body but still (perhaps?) visibly queer. I felt myself become a bridge even though they didn't need one. I was amazed at how we were able to talk together so openly.
At my dojo we are taught that self-care is of utmost importance. If something isn't working for you, modify or bow out. Everyone has this responsibility. We care for each other, but in order to do so we must know how to care for ourselves. I think this let us have a conversation that is unusual -- three generations of queerness talking about incredibly difficult topics, knowing that we could say what we thought without fear, knowing that the others would listen and be able to protect themselves.
I can't really write about what we talked about. It would be impossible, and if possible, a betrayal. My teacher talked about growing up butch in the 1950s. My new friend talked about attending a women's college where "most people identify as queer, and many professors ask your preferred pronouns in the first class." And I -- I felt so strongly in the middle, identifying as femme, choosing to align myself with a (perhaps an old fashioned?) identity (although I know of many radical femmes in my peer group, but it's certainly less common) -- and yet having experienced some of the same shifts in community as my younger friend described. The thing that is really sticking with me is something I hadn't really thought of before. And it's hard to write about it here because there is so much mistrust and anger and miscommunication within queer/trans/gender-nonconforming communities (to say nothing of what comes from outside) -- it makes me worried I might hurt someone unintentionally. But I think it's important to find a way to have conversations about things that are hard, and we can't figure things out without having words for our experiences.
What I observed is that most often in the masculine-of-center spectrum, butch is an identity that takes years -- decades -- to grow into. I know people who say they knew they were butch as young people, children even, but I still think it takes time to develop. Part of the problem of course is that language is incredibly imprecise. Who can decide what a word means? Who can decide who can claim an identity? I certainly know older butches who are immature in many ways. But still I think that to generalize, butches are older and take longer to come to that identity. Whereas most of the trans folks I know are younger and often transition within a few years -- five or ten at the outside -- combining hormones and surgery and then passing or not, but being one way or another committed (a least physically) to a trans identity. I don't think this time compression is a bad or a good thing, but I do think it makes a difference. I think that no matter what conclusion you come to, the length of that process does matter, one way or another. I think that about myself and my gender/sexuality.
Where did this conversation leave us? This old feminist butch? This Alaskan femme who has always loved masculine-of-center folks and struggled with that, because at college everyone was supposed to be androgynous and queer and hip and I just wanted to wear light sundresses and big sunglasses and love butches and bois and genderqueer and trans folks? And this young person just finished with their first year of college and figuring out "gender and all that"?
It left us all grateful that we know each other, and can have a conversation about our perspectives and experiences and dear god where would we be without being able to share with one another? We would be even more lost and uncertain and nervous and confused. And thank god that we live in a place where we can have this conversation, that we can meet, that we can safely talk in public about things that are important to us on the sidewalk of a small, semi-rural town.
I am so grateful for queer community. For butches, for their strength and for giving me a focus and something to swoon over. For young people (am I old enough to call them young people?) who give me different perspectives. For my transgendered friends and lovers, for their courage and conviction. For my beau. Oh, my beau, who informs my thoughts, my feelings, who reflects my strength back to me and grounds me and holds me and has been gone for over a week and comes back in two days and has been right with me the whole time.