“Passing” Butches: The Convergence of Butch and Transgender in the Mid-20th-Century US

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:30 AM
Regent Room (New York Hilton)
Alix Genter, independent scholar and editor
Scholars of both butch lesbians and transgender men claim ancestry in nineteenth-century “passing women,” female-bodied individuals who chose to “pass” (or live) as men. These historical actors defied cultural, legal, and aesthetic parameters of womanhood to claim male privileges, such as earning higher wages, voting, traveling alone, and marrying women. “Passing women’s” experiences aligned with burgeoning definitions of sexual abnormality that saw same-sex attraction as an overall inversion of one’s gender role. By the mid-twentieth century, however, a shift in understandings had supposedly drained homosexuality of its gender inversion, defining it instead by the sex of one’s desired partner, and the concept of transsexuality began to gain cultural legibility. Thus, despite often sharing historical and theoretical space, many conceptualize the connection between midcentury butches and trans men as fundamentally distinct.

In contrast, this paper argues that the categories of butch and trans sometimes converged at midcentury, since butch was an identity and social-erotic role for female-bodied people with varying relationships to masculinity. Analyzing oral histories, autobiographical writing, and periodicals, I show that the tradition of “passing women” persisted, as living as men continued to provide economic and social benefits, only now many of these subjects identified as butches and had an honored place in lesbian communities. By examining the work of passing—butches’ fashion choices, bodily modifications and illusions, strategic mobility, and innovative tactics like using dirt to resemble facial hair —this paper engages larger questions about how gendered aesthetics were understood, regulated, and challenged in the midcentury U.S. Arguing that butchness and lesbian culture provided a home for transgender embodiment, this paper historicizes the category of trans men and complicates the figure of the butch in both lesbian and trans scholarship.

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