Nothing in Between

Even when I existed in the deepest nook of my closet, in denial that lesbianism was a ‘lifestyle’ choice I could ever cope with, I could not understand being butch. Well, not being butch as much as falling for one. I thought, well, if one had to be attracted to a woman who was like a man then might as well be with a man. No? (Of course I did not realise then how repulsed by penises I was.)

My first lover was a woman who identified as butch. She spent a lot of time, or so I felt, in trying to define me. I never found myself conforming to any identities. There were days I felt generally macho and I’d slip into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. And there were days where I’d find feminine wiles flowing out of me in my pretty blue lucknowi kurta-salwar and dangling jaipuri jhumkas. Shortly after I came out I also shaved off my long tresses and walked around unabashedly with my shorn head.

This however, left Lover #1 in doubt about whether I was butchy-femme [more femme than butch] or femmey-butch [ultimately more butch than femme]. “I think you are butchy-femme,” she’d contemplate, “because your core energy is femme.” I’d snort and smirk and make disapproving noises, but mostly in vain. “I am woman.” I’d assert. “That is the only identity I adhere to.”

Lover #2 or lets say Partner #1 (funny how one shies away from being defined but finds weird nomenclature for others) was constantly slotted by people around her as butch, while she herself ran away from that identity. She hated it when people on streets called her bhaisaab. She hated it when in parties all the butch women would gang up and say “Oye, now the men will dance” and expect her to join them. She would flinch and frown and make disapproving faces. She would wear pretty floral tops, tease with a bit of cleavage, wear a sari to my friend’s wedding and leave the dykes shocked.

I had decided that andro is the type for me. Androgynous woman make my heart leap and leave me drooling for more. They were just the perfect mix of male and female energies (even though one has been struggling to redefine what those energies are in the first place). For when we claim that we are born with our biological sex but we construct our gender, aren’t those energies then also just what we construct?

The fact is most butch women I seem to have interacted with are women who take on those characteristics of men that have made me cringe all my life. They are either chivalrous and patronising or extremely lecherous, pushy-pawy, getting into drunken brawls and subjecting their girlfriends and other women to all sorts of abuse. Abuse that women have been fighting against and built movements around for centuries. I had not met a feminist who identified as butch and by that I mean a feminist who not only preaches but practices too.

When I saw XYZ for the first time, I thought, ‘oh another butch. Switch off.’ Did not even look twice. Until she, otherwise shy, belted out a thumri or so and from that moment I was smitten  (What can I say, I swoon for singers!). Alas, she was a DPT (Dyke Passing Through for the uninitiated) and soon left the country. Ten online conversations and a few shared songs down the line, I found myself deeply attracted to her. Lover #1 accused me of being a butch sucker and I was thoroughly offended. More offended than when I was called butchy-femme. I could not understand why I would feel attracted to a stone butch.

Soon XYZ realised my discomfort and we both seemed to be remotely disappointed with each other. But I also realised what it was that intrigued me more and more about her. She took it upon herself to engage with me and have long conversations about identities. And slowly I realised that while I believed myself to be severely non-judgemental, I was in fact so judgemental of butch women that I had never given a thought to engaging with them.

I came to accept that it is not perhaps their identity as butch that I judged. But my own discomfort of being identified as femme in relation to them. XYZ asked me, ‘what is it about being femme that upsets you?’
‘Well, for one I am expected to be petite both in body and behaviour. I am expected to be vulnerable and require care. I am expected to be deeply dependant. And I am expected to dress a certain way if I identify as femme.’
The fact is, I am a large sized woman, loud, who can completely take care of myself, bordering on self-sufficient, independent, vulnerable only to a very closed few, and as mentioned above, I dress in an undefined way. I told her femme for me is a performance. I paint my toe nails and wear my sarees only as part of that performance.

And here is what XYZ had to say to that. ‘Butch does not mean more competent/gutsy at existing in this world than “women”… Femme is not any of those things (petite, vulnerable, needing smelling salts), at least not in the way it is mobilized as an identity. Femme is a political category that mixes feminism with femininity. But that category actually describes you more i.e. a fully capable individual who is feminist, kickass, independent, and is also feminine. So to me, secretly, you being femme = all the things i said above. To you, somehow, it has come to mean helpless femininity, so i shall not call you femme.’

Through these conversations I realised that my issue after all is not to do with identities of butch or femme but with the extreme stereotypes one conforms to in the name of being butch or femme. Recently I got called a confused butch because I dropped two women home on my way to my own house at around midnight (which I reckon is 2 am by Bangalore nightlife standards, 12 am by Delhi standards and 10 pm by Bombay standards).

While we talk of gender fluidity shouldn’t the characteristics we attribute to each gender also be fluid? And even if one asserts ’masculine’ or ‘feminine’ characteristics shouldn’t we choose to imbibe those characteristics which make us better beings rather than being the worst stereotype of either gender? I guess one has a long way to go but for now I am glad to be and have peers who understand, engage and enjoy being who we are.

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Neelima Prasanna Aryan (also known as Nilofer), is a self-taught graphic-designer art director and illustrator. As a queer feminist woman, her work over the years has been with organisations that focus on the rights of women, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalised communities. Cat humom, city-hopper, lover of all things delectable and kooky; Neelima's art is not for the light-hearted or the narrow-minded for they are mostly loud, about women, large bodies, self and queer, love and intimacies.

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