I’ve never been into the more obvious trappings of performative femininity. I grew up in a household where the only make up was some blue mascara used exclusively for costume-y fun on special occasions. I never learned how to apply it, partially because my mom didn’t really know herself. I taught myself how to shave my legs and then taught my little sister a few years later because I was more willing than my mother. I remember one time my mom got a make-over and a glamour shot and my father’s distaste for this transformation was palpable even to my very young self. Both of my parents are very logical, practical folks, and neither very consumed with decorations of any kind (on one’s person or in our home, I mean seriously we have entirely blank walls, not even photos hung, and have for my entire life).
As a young butch I tried really hard to get into these performances and decorations. I complimented my girlfriends on their make up when I knew they had spent a long time getting ready for our dates with the intention of looking nice for me. I noticed when they got a new dress or new shoes and I appreciated the fact that they did these things with the hope of enticing or keeping my romantic interest. For a long time I thought there might be something wrong with me that I was most into my girlfriends when they were wearing hoodies and jeans with clean faces, because they dressed up for me, right? They got gussied up in these particular ways for me, and here I was not appreciating it right. I said the appreciative words and tried my best to make sure they felt like their efforts weren’t going unnoticed but at the end of the day it was just words. I didn’t actually like the skimpy dresses or the heels, I just wanted the women I cared for to feel appreciated. Lingerie was super confusing to me. I went along with these things mostly because I had the idea in my head that these women were fundamentally different from me, you know, they were actual women who actually wanted these things. Women liked these trappings, and my young lesbian upbringing was extremely butch/femme in that there were no “dykes,” you were either butch or femme. There was no room for opting out of performance. Butches didn’t date butches and weren’t exactly women, but kind of an offset category with different rules. If I liked women, it followed that I must like femmes, I should learn to like and appreciate these things that the femmes seemed to like for themselves and to display for the butches.
I was really good at it for awhile. I gussed up in suits and ties and they gussed up in dresses and heels and I spent a lot of my young dyke life getting the validation of looking like the male half of a heterosexual couple. I passed unintentionally when dressed up next to my femme girlfriends for years before I began identifying as a boy.
I could never wait to get to the places where we were just comfortable, where we both relaxed and the differences between us blended more. I lived for weekend mornings starting slow together with sweatpants and coffee and blank slates to understand each other with. I felt more at home in those times than any other time.
Often, when I discussed past partners with my girlfriends who had experience dating other Butch girls, they would tell me how I was the only Butch (or, later, transman) they had ever dated that didn’t push them further towards performative femininity. I didn’t insist on the strappy dress to complement my slick suit. I didn’t insist on their shaving legs when I certainly wasn’t going to shave my own. I didn’t turn my nose up when they wanted to leave the house in board shorts. They had never or very rarely been told how beautiful they are when they are existing outside of performance for a sexual gaze. It often blew my mind. I don’t think that I am a complete anomaly, of course, but I do recognize that there is a lot of truth when my sisters of any identity or experience talk about being pushed into performative femininity by women who value “performing masculinity” for themselves. There seems to be this idea that one’s “performative masculinity” is more real or authentic when coupled with a woman “performing femininity.”
I’m now at a point where I don’t really find performance, in general of either direction, to be an attractive quality in a partner, and I no longer feel the need to try to force that attraction on myself. I’ve generally come to find that if I think something is an attractive quality for myself to embody, that I find that quality attractive on another person. I can understand and appreciate certain aspects of performance on special occasions, but I love that in my life with my partner right now we actively avoid engaging in any sort of “gendered performance” on a day-to-day basis. We both wear clothing that is comfortable, useful, and practical – and that clothing looks slightly different because we have different bodies and therefore different comfort needs. We divide household tasks purely by aptitude, desire to do them, and availability. There is no consideration for roles when it comes to our relationship, and I feel so happy and comfortable in this space where it really is a constant clean slate for us to build off of. The world will conceive of us as a butch couple, and that’s okay because it’s a useful shorthand descriptor for the way that society understands us, but it’s not a conception that we take with us in terms of how we understand our own relationship. It’s nice to be on a level playing field.