Butch, Not Gay

When I was a kid, the apartment two floors above us was occupied by two ladies. They were both teachers. One of them was tall and stern-looking. The other one was short, roly-poly and generally jovial as you would expect someone of such a build to be. Both of them had short, cropped hair and they were always seen together.

I’d usually see them returning in the evening, with handbags and ubiquitous black bags, synonymous with Goan Catholics, presumably loaded either with students’ papers or with vegetables and meat for that night’s meal. I was a little scared of them, as I was of all teachers, even those who didn’t teach me or even at my school. Many years later an older neighbor-friend whispered to me in wise big-sister hushed tones,

They’re lesbians.

I haven’t seen them in years but I thought of them recently, when I started writing for Gaysi. I was about to say that I’d never known any lesbians closely but it occurred to me that perhaps I had. Or had I? They didn’t look like lesbians, which leads me to question,

What do lesbians look like?

A friend opined that they’re generally tomboyish-looking and don’t care too much about dressing in a ladylike manner. I retorted,

That described me in my teens too and I’ve never been a lesbian!

You know what I mean, she said and rolled her eyes. Not really, I wanted to say. Did she mean they were all butch? I ended up having a long debate with a lesbian friend over the meaning of the word BUTCH – an argument that unfortunately was never resolved. The dictionary tells me that Butch:

a. (of a girl or woman) having traits of personality, dress, behavior, or appearance usually associated with males.
b. (of a male) decidedly or exaggeratedly masculine in manner or appearance.
c. A haircut in which the hair is cropped close to the head.

The teacher couple did have short hair but they dressed in uniformly bland, printed blouses and skirts in sombre hues. Very teacher-like. I don’t know about butch, much less lesbian.

Of the two other bonafide lesbians I know, one certainly fits the description, being completely characterised by her ‘Don’t take panga with me’ style of dressing. Not even on the same planet at girly. The other one is…well, tricky. She’s one of those ‘smart-dressing’ types. Which is to say that she never looks like she spends too much time on her appearance but looks good and tastefullly dressed anyway. I’m not sure that’s any more butch than my teacher-neighbors.

I’ve heard a few ridiculous things like ‘if you wear a single anklet on your left ankle, you’re lesbian’ which sounds suspiciously like someone tried to think up a female alternative to the ‘earring in one ear – surefire gay’ which is even more ridiculous.

Incidently I’ve worn a single anklet on whichever ankle I’ve felt like, for years. And sported every possible length of hair, with my current style alternating between casual mop and cropped chic. My wardrobe contains oversized sweaters, men’s dungarees and superbig shirts. Also skirts, leggings, frilly blouses, tank tops and other female paraphrenalia. And as an icing to the butch-cake, remember those ads for Ray-Bans years ago?

They said only men could be pilots. They said Aviators were for men.

Hah! I love the big, circle-turned-triangular dark shades and who cares if anyone thinks they’re masculine or not?

Hence I conclude that being butch has nothing to do with sexual preferences. A short haircut is just that – a statement of style, a yen for convenience perhaps but not necessarily an indication of homosexuality.

And I come back to the fundamental question of whether it is possible to figure out a woman’s sexual orientation just by looking at her. I’ve written about Gaydar but I find that only applicable to men. What do you think?

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Ramya Pandyan, also known as IdeaSmith, is a writer, blogger and performance artist. She runs a creative community called Alphabet Sambar and is co-founder of SXonomics, a feminist band. Ramya tweets, blogs, Instagrams and Youtubes as @ideasmithy.
Ramya Pandyan

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