Personal Stories

Brown Butch Blues: On Masculinity and Butch Identity in Desi Queer Spaces

I have had conversations with femme-presenting sapphics who read my published poetry and writing about heavily personal themes– my transness, my butchness, the erasure of butch identity in a lot of Indian gentrified, rainbow-capitalist queer spaces– and their takeaway is “You guys seem to be going through a Not Like Other Girls Phase.

A couple of months ago, I was chatting with a younger Bengali sapphic person, about the queer dating scene in Kolkata. I was telling her my observations after experiencing a series of unfortunate Bumble matches: how a lot of online spaces frequented by queer desi women seem repelled or even hostile towards any display of masculinity, androgyny or gender non-conformity by lesbians and bisexuals, unless they adhere to the whitest, most conventionally acceptable Hollywood beauty standards– think celebrities like Kristen Stewart, or Ruby Rose.

To this, my younger acquaintance simply replied, “Well, if you like your women so masculine, you should just try men.”

An absolutely bizarre statement, in retrospection, considering a) I’m anyway attracted to multiple genders and b) butches, studs and masc lesbians are not substitutes for men, neither are they always leaning towards trans-masculinity. But it certainly opened my eyes to the way a lot of millennial and Gen Z Indian LGBTQ communities view butch lesbians and masculinity: a sort of half-way space of mutation between true queer femininity and internalized misogyny- only to be rectified by the “appropriate” gender presentation, as in, choosing to identify as trans men instead. Consequently, to such people, sapphics exhibiting queer desire towards butch lesbians becomes a heteronormative performance. If you are not even attracted to femininity in sapphic relationships, you might as well like men! Are you a lesbian or bisexual who has had this statement flung at you? You might be entitled to financial compensation. I definitely am.

I mean, I guess butch-femme culture isn’t nearly as talked about in Indian queer circles outside of academic scholarship? Anyway, let’s get this clear: attraction to masculinity =/= attraction to men (cis or trans). A lesbian/sapphic desiring a butch does not make them straight or inherently bisexual, because a butch woman is still very much a woman. I love to quote this part from Malinda Lo’s Last Night At The Telegraph Club, a historical novel about butch and femme lesbian communities in the 1950s McCarthy-era America:

It had given no sense, Lily now realized, of Tommy’s physicality. The way she stood, the way she moved—her swagger—so like a man and yet—It was that yet that made Lily’s skin flush warm. The knowledge that despite the clothes that Tommy wore, despite the attitude that invited everyone in the room to gaze at her, she was not a man.

It’s not my job to give you a crash course on butch history. If you are an intersectional queer and/or ally, I urge you to seek out the pioneering works of Leslie Feinberg or Alison Bechdel, and become familiar with Judith Butler’s theory of butch lesbianism being a subversion of masculinity, not an appropriation (Gender Trouble, 1990)!

What I can tell you is my personal story. I have often found myself having to don dresses and a full face of makeup on Indian dating apps; my matches (usually cis femmes) nearly always express overt repulsion when I explain that I am usually more masc-leaning in real life and prefer presenting as butch, although I switch between identities. And before you say, “You can’t dictate preferences!”– truly, I can’t. But I have had conversations with femme-presenting sapphics who read my published poetry and writing about heavily personal themes– my transness, my butchness, the erasure of butch identity in a lot of Indian gentrified, rainbow-capitalist queer spaces– and their takeaway is “You guys seem to be going through a Not Like Other Girls Phase. Femininity is actually cool!” I have had femme sapphic friends call me “lazy” about my clothing because I don’t “make an effort” in my queer presentation- as in, I don’t present like they do, at college farewell parties or during Durga Puja outings. I have had to forcefully feminize myself for social occasions, only to receive backhanded compliments like: “You know, you are actually so pretty, you should dress like this more often!” It’s easy to point to cishet folk as the Big Bad Enemy, but the truth is, the bigotry and microaggressions are worse when it comes from within our desi queer community. Butchphobia cannot be justified by “preferences”. Just respect my identity.

Queer does not just mean rainbow makeup or Pride Parties. It means consciously moving away from heteronormativity, from thinking in binary opposites, or outdated stereotypes. Yes, in India too. And to do that, gender-conforming queer people and exclusionary gender-essentialist desi feminists need to accept butches/mascs and studs as a stalwart pillar of the global sapphic community. You do not get to assume the male gaze through your narrow rhetoric and then accuse us of internalized misogyny. You do not get to dismissively generalize all of us as confused or closeted trans men, just because we do not adhere to the Pinterest-y “desi sapphic” aesthetics that conform to conventional femininity. (Seriously, how many butches show up in the celebration of “desi” queer pride in mainstream online spaces?)

Butchness is political, radical and subversive. It takes guts to reclaim masculinity from the hetero-patriarchy. In a world where butches are demonized, even in Western liberal queer spaces, the Indian LGBTQ community should strive harder to accept feminine masculinities and gender non-conformity among desi lesbians and sapphics. And no, having a crush on Kristen Stewart does not qualify you as a butch ally, until you are willing to accept non-mystified, middle-class Indian butches too – to understand that our bodies, our desires and our way of performing gender is not a failure of “true” femininity, whatever that means – but a celebration of something far more uniquely diverse and liberating.

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Sritama, also known as Alo on social platforms, is a poet, writer and critic who enjoys writing about queer Bengalis in love. She completed her BA and MA in English Literature from Jadavpur University and currently resides in Kolkata. She has published writing in various US and India-based literary magazines, queer forums and online zines. Her debut poetry collection, There Used To Be a Lake Here Once (2024), is being published by The Writer's Workshop, India.
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