Dear, Butches: A Love Letter from a Femme

Ashley Alam humorously describes her experience maturing as a femme-identifying queer person, and her felt appreciation for 'butch' people.

‘Butch like a blue ribbon awarded at the county fair, baby like a promise.’ – Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Like every other 13-year-old on the planet, I had a Very Big Problem. I had not yet figured out the solution so, naturally, I turned to the BBC’s ‘Merlin.’ My theory was as follows: if I stare at Bradley James’ jawline long enough, I will start to like men. As much as I loved my disinterest in boys as a halal superpower, I had recently dawned on a horrifying question. What if it never happens? The crisis was triggered in Register Duty, when the other girl, completely unaware of the effect the question would have on me, asked, “Do you ever think about boys, or do you, like, literally just think about school?” She then hit me with a cloud of vape smoke and disappeared, like an anxiety-inducing amateur magician.

Trying to ignore that those were my only two options, I was hit with the realisation that I am at the age where I should be thinking about boys. Cue Arthur Pendragon. I am thrown because, on paper, I very much like him. I like the breadth of his shoulders, the depth of his voice, the way he looks at Guinevere (oh, to be Guinevere), and of course, the way he looks at Merlin. I undoubtedly like his masculinity, but something is not quite right. Liking him, and boys in general, feels like making accidental eye contact in a mirror: alien and embarrassing. 

I started to consume a lot of queer content to try and learn what it is to be a queer woman, like a desperate scavenger hunt, looking for any scrap of relatability (nothing soothes me like a label.) It happens to be that all the content I come across is of very feminine people with a near religious appreciation of traditional femininity. They like small women, pretty women, dainty women, soft women, women that are perpetually selling period products and probiotic yoghurts on TV. I am heartbroken.

When I see a group of pretty girls in pretty dresses, I’m not at all attracted to them – I’m shopping. I love femininity like I love my sister. I don’t like boys the way girls do, and now, apparently, I don’t like girls the way girls do either. This scares me because I know I have the capacity to love the way I want to; I just have no place to direct it. I am scared of the question that persists; What if it never happens?

I didn’t have my first crush until I was 17 and two months. I met a girl (this is a gross exaggeration; she existed, and I relished in it) and looking at her made everything make sense. She was new to school and her shoulders were broad and her voice was deep, and it was so, so nice. She wasn’t even particularly masculine, but I’m from a very small town where the people are not very stylistically adventurous, so this was the first time I ever saw anyone remotely gender non-conforming in person. I had been aware of the existence of GNC people, but I hadn’t put much thought into it at all (retrospectively, this was almost definitely self-repression.) But seeing her everyday made it unavoidable. Watching those women’s reactions to femmes several years ago no longer seemed over-exaggerated in the slightest. My first glimpse into butchness was nothing short of religious. There is something about the rejection of femininity that is so inexplicably attractive. They can still be small, and pretty, and dainty, and soft, but in this magical way that I could never be. 

Perhaps the most magical thing about butches though, is that the more love for them I revealed, the more I learned and loved about myself. I wouldn’t have resonated with one of my favourite things about myself (identifying as a femme) if it weren’t for my existing love for butches. I am well aware that both femmes and butches are completely valid in using those labels completely independently of each other, but for me, learning about the femme identity via the historical significance of butch/femme culture, especially the support and protection we can provide for each other, is possibly the only time I have immediately felt good and proud about an identifying label. I loved others as butches, and myself as femme, because of those labels, not despite them. 

Although I think being ‘straight-passing’ as a femme is a massive privilege overall, there are few things as wonderful as being recognised as queer by a butch. There is a beautiful part in an Ivan Coyote poem that I think captures the feeling best:

‘I know that sometimes nobody truly sees you, and I want you to know that I see you.

I see you on the street, on the bus, in the gym, in the park. I’m not sure why I can tell that you are not straight, but I can. 

Maybe it’s the way you look at me. 

Please don’t stop looking at me the way that you do.’

-To All the Beautiful, Kickass, Beautiful, and Full-Bodied Femmes Out There

Dear, butches: Thank you for seeing me. It is such a gift to live both as very much feminine and very much queer whilst feeling held by the group of people you love most, and to make the greatest effort to hold them in return. I can do anything, just because with one look, you tell me ‘I’ve got you, and I know you’ve got me.’