Saturday night was the Butch Runway. It was a kind of halftime show at a queer women’s dance. In my navy tailored suit and maroon tie, I milled outside the venue with the other butches, taking nips off the flask that was going around. Manning up, waiting for my cue. Telling myself that I had the balls for this—even if those balls were silicone.
But when the performer ahead of me stepped onto the red carpet, a wave of electric nausea traveled from my stomach out through all my extremities, including those silicone balls. I peered through the parted curtains to see my transmasculine friend Little Bear looking so totally natural in his bow tie and suspenders, his hip-hop hand gestures, dancing in a circle close to the ground. His utter confidence made my heart pound. I waved one hand frantically to get the flask, took a long fiery draw that made me cough. This is a performance, not a contest, I told myself. They’ll see me like I want to be seen.
When Little Bear finished to wild applause, I assumed my position at the door, squeezed my butt cheeks together like he’d advised me to. They’ll see me like I want to be seen. And I stepped through the curtain.
The organizer of the Butch Runway, Cory, is a self-described 70s dyke who is contemporary enough to prefer the pronoun “they.” They had called me weeks before. I like the way you do drag, they said. But we’re doing DapperQ this time, not drag, they said. So no facial hair. And just in case you might be going for the femmy butch look—no heels; men’s flat shoes only.
I told Cory that I hadn’t worn heels since my high school prom, and I would most definitely not be going for the femmy butch look. Nor the butchy femme look, for that matter.
But I had to Google DapperQ. It’s this whole thing. It’s when people who were born with girl parts wear sharp men’s fashion, like suits and vests and ties. It’s explicitly not drag. So no costumes, no celebrity impersonations, no raunchy stage names like “Rusty Nutz” or “Maxwell Endowed.” No facial hair, Cory had warned me—but without my trademark goatee, I’d never pass. Even dancing was apparently forbidden. According to its website, DapperQ is not just something you do but something you are, as in I’m a DapperQ. It’s a queer fashion revolution and one of the most stylish forms of protest of our generation, the home page proclaimed. I didn’t understand how something with this many rules could be a form of protest at all, stylish or not. I already wanted to protest the protest. Still, this was a chance to get what was inside out of me.
I don’t mean to say I’m male inside. It’s just that I’m not female either. The inside of me has no gender, or maybe is every-gendered. In the private sphere of my being-ness, I am forthright and pliable, rational and mercurial. In my longest relationship with a man, I was the one who couldn’t cry, who was cut off from their emotions, who made decisions and got things done. In my longest relationship with a woman, I was the one who cried, but also the one who left.
The outside of me, unclothed, looks like a woman. A queer woman, according to my shaved-sided, spiky-topped highlighted/lowlighted haircut and my unapologetically hairy legs and pits. A femmy queer woman, according to my curves and soft jawline. I do appreciate, even love, my handful-sized breasts, my occasionally jubilant clit. Why do we call our bodies by the impersonal pronoun, it? My body, she, is the most gendered thing about me.
But when I put on men’s clothes, gestures, inflections tones stances; when I draw my goatee with the brown eyebrow pencil the same color as my hair, add cool shades or nerdy spectacles, I can pass. Businessman, nerdy engineer, surfer dude; Walter White, Eminem, punk rock drummer. One Halloween in my twenties I went to a Denver cowboy bar dressed as a swishy professor and got so many threatening looks I escaped out the back exit before I could get beat up.
I couldn’t do the guy thing 24/7. I couldn’t do any gender 24/7. That’s the point—to mix things up, express the multiplicity. A skirt and combat boots one day; suspenders and bow tie the next. The problem is, I like adornments, accessories. If I had a man’s body, I’d still wear earrings, chain belts, mascara. I’d be a glam rocker, a Flock of Seagulls guy. In a previous life, I was a gay French poet who slept with Rimbaud. I’m only sort of kidding. The song I chose for the Butch Runway is pure Ziggy Stardust, “Moonage Daydream.”
I told a friend I was doing the Butch Runway. You’ll be a costumed butch, she said. No, it’s part of me, I insisted.
We met for rehearsal a few days before the Butch Runway. It was not a dress rehearsal, so I went for the opposite of DapperQ, with baggy ripped jeans, a T-shirt with Jesse Pinkman saying Yo bitch, a long-sleeved flannel from the young men’s department of Ross. Eyeliner and mascara and silver spike-punk belt, bracelets, necklace. Black ball cap turned backwards. I bumped fists with the other DapperQs as they arrived. We all knew each other to varying degrees. A few looked my clothes up and down, assessing, smiling quizzically.
While we waited, we practiced our moves. The butches walked with canes and hats, fake cigarettes, ambling shuffles. I tried on a gangsta swagger, adding a hard landing to each step. I was a little nonplussed to see that our DJ for rehearsal was a woman I’d tried to hit on at the last dance until she went outside to smoke with a more masculine-presenting friend of mine. They never came back. Because butches get all the girls.
The DJ cued up Cory’s song first. All leather chaps and butch cool, Cory modeled for us the DapperQ ethos of just walking, not dancing. It occurred to me that the point of DapperQ was to be more legit than drag. But legit to whom—to heteronormative society? We queers don’t need to prove anything to each other.
Cory’s best friend Keisha went next, performing a badass circus routine involving long chains that she twirled, threatening to decapitate anyone within range. Lindsey was third. Dressed like a 20s-style gentleman, she began her routine with jazz steps and jazz hands.
No dancing, Cory said, staring down the rest of us to make sure we understood.
Lindsey rolled her eyes at me; we’d made a pact in advance that we were going to dance anyway. She slipped off her jacket, swung it around, threw it to her girlfriend on the sidelines. Lindsey came across as androgynous more than butch, but she’s tall and self-assured enough to get away with whatever.
Finally it was my turn. On the first chord of “Moonage Daydream,” I took one lunging step forward with index fingers pointing to the sky. “I’m an alligator,” sang Ziggy. “I’m a mama-papa coming for you.” I brought my fingers down diagonally, then into a disco roll.
You can’t get the girl out of you, can you? The DJ called out, laughing. I stopped in the middle of the red carpet, the song still playing. I gotta practice, I said. I’ll get it.
I grabbed my not-there junk with a humping motion on the lyric, “The church of man-love / is such a holy place to be.”
Whoa, tone down those hips there, Cory said.
But he’s singing about man-love, I protested.
You’re a solid femme, Cory said, laughing, shaking their head. The DJ giggled. A few others smirked too.
No I just gotta tone down the hips. I haven’t practiced yet. My throat was tight and I swallowed tears. Tears would only prove them right.
When my song was over, I stepped off the carpet. They would never laugh at a real butch. A real butch would get all up in their face.
Little Bear motioned me into the corner. Said in conspiratorial tones, When you stop and pose, squeeze your butt cheeks together. I squeezed. And packing helps a lot. I’m packing.
Shit yeah—I totally forgot to pack. Thanks man. I wanted to hug him, but he held up his fist for me to bump.
After rehearsal I sat in the car for a while. I don’t know why I care, I thought. Butch-femme isn’t even my kink. I want to live between categories, beyond dualities.
But was I failing even at being in between? I wondered if there were subtle norms even around the expected presentation of nonduality—rules I was violating without meaning to. I didn’t know how to conform to gender nonconformity.
Back home, I took Little Bear’s advice. Placed my silicone packer into my bikini-cut panties, shaft angling upwards. Dressed in the dusky metallic men’s shirt and navy silk suit I’d had tailored in Thailand. Slipped over my head the maroon necktie I’d kept knotted ever since the clerk in the men’s department at Dillard’s had tied it for me.
I sat there in my outfit watching a dozen YouTube videos of male models doing the runway thing. Then I practiced walking robotically like them, not dancing, not smiling. When I stopped to pose, I squeezed my butt cheeks together like Little Bear had said. I showed off the lapels, the crease of the pants, the tie. I pointed a borrowed squirt gun toward the sky on the lyric about the ray gun. Grabbed my silicone junk on the lyric about man-love. Slipped off my jacket and twirled it around like Lindsey had done.
After I scribbled down the sequence of moves, I approached the mirror. My jaw not square enough, was maybe what it was. Wrists too slight. My body, she. How many of us would appear radically different if our true gender could survive the push from inside to outside? And how could I hold onto my real self in the face of what others reflected back to me?
It occurred to me, then, that Iris could help.
Iris is a trans woman with whom I was involved a few years ago. Our affair lasted a month but seemed like at least four, anyway. To me, she was all genders in one body. Like I was, except that no one could see it in me. She was a ski racer and she could fix her ’72 Corvette and she wore tight leather dresses that held in her gorgeous curves. She never got misgendered. I thought I was in bisexual heaven. Or maybe “pansexual” was the right term for me after all.
Once she got lazy and let her red Irish whiskers grow a few days; she knew I wouldn’t mind. But she didn’t know I would like it. And I didn’t know she would freak out so hard about me liking it. Iris wanted to be seen as a woman, full stop. She was a woman. She was not genderqueer, or genderfluid, or in between. I hadn’t perceived her as she wanted to be perceived. That’s what she told me in her breakup speech.
After Iris, I began to shop in men’s departments. Actually, the boys’ and juniors’ departments. I haunted the aisles of Target, Ross, Dillard’s, TJ Maxx, sliding hangers down the racks across from teenage boys who looked at me quizzically. The thrill of something illicit. I wanted to take the clothes into the men’s changing rooms, but I couldn’t go that far. Iris got it; she never tried to tell me what I was or wasn’t.
Still standing at the mirror, I took a few selfies with my phone at my hip, deleted them. Then I texted Iris to invite her out for a beer. Maybe she could tell me why I wasn’t being perceived as I wanted to be perceived.
We met at our town’s only gay bar, its cavernous space always a little depressing when it was still light outside. Iris was already sitting at a low table when I arrived. What’s wrong with this? I asked, posing with my hip out and waving a hand over my outfit, the same exact ensemble I’d worn to the Butch Runway rehearsal.
What do you mean? You look great.
Oh my God, I said, I freaking love your hair. It was shaved on the sides, pink on top. Iris was getting dykier all the time, having traded in her leather dresses for Patagonia chic. I sat down. The butches made fun of me for being too femme. Wait no don’t say it.
I didn’t want to pick at that old scab again. A few months after we stopped dating, Iris had realized another reason why we didn’t work: I wasn’t butch enough. She wanted to be the femme—but there we were playing out the same tired hetero gender roles, with her as the male.
We went up to the bar to order, both opting for harder stuff than beer. I didn’t say it, she noted. But I will say that your T-shirt is too tight. It shows off your boobs.
What’s wrong with my boobs?
I never said there was anything wrong with your boobs. But in case you didn’t notice, butches wear baggy clothes to hide their boobs. Or they bind.
Good point, I conceded. The bartender smirked as he poured Iris’s shot of Crown.
The hat works. And the flannel. But what’s up with all the bling?
I had the necklace and earrings custom-made in Thailand, I objected. And this bracelet looks kind of punky, but it’s actually Chinese folk art.
You’re wearing an engagement ring, for fuck’s sake, Iris laughed.
Tell it, girl, the bartender chimed in, pouring my margarita into a salted tumbler.
This is my great-grandmother’s opal ring. That’s the only finger it fits on.
Do you want my opinion or not? Iris asked as we reclaimed our table.
I’m sorry. I know I should give all that shit up. But it’s who I am, too.
How could I reveal more of my masculine side without erasing the rest of me?
You gotta help us out, Iris said. You know I always say that if you’re a trans woman and you want to be called “she,” take your freaking hormones. Move like a woman. And don’t dress in bolo ties and cowboy hats. I got her reference to a friend we have in common.
I picked up her riff, saying, And if you’re nonbinary and you get offended when people call you “she,” don’t flail your arms when you dance. And don’t wear a tube top that highlights your major fripple. This was another person we both knew.
Nonbinary people are the worst, Iris laughed. They give all sorts of mixed signals and then get pissed when people use the wrong pronoun for them.
But shit, that’s kind of me, I said.
I do think that if people aren’t responding to you the way you want, that at least half of the equation is you.
Why can’t people just deal with the various manifestations that I show up in, without trying to make me be one thing or the other?
We drank our drinks.
Will you come to the Butch Runway? I asked Iris.
You know I never go out.
Finally it was Saturday night and I was standing outside the dance hall, the femmiest of all the butches. Cory did their urbane walk; Keisha wowed the crowd without decapitating anyone; Lindsey reprised her jazz steps and hands. Finally Little Bear was reaching the end of the runway and the applause for him was swelling, then subsiding. Finally I would be seen like I wanted to be seen, if only for a snippet of song.
On the first chord of “Moonage Daydream,” I lunged into the floodlights, onto the red carpet. I made my whole body one dramatic disco gesture with arms in a Y, fingers pointing to the stars. “I’m the space invader/I’ll be a rock n’ rollin bitch for you.” I tried not to smile but couldn’t help it. The women crowding the edges of the carpet were just shadows in the glare of phone flashes. I couldn’t see if Iris was there and it didn’t matter; the audience cheered with one voice. I was a starman a glam rocker a robotic male model. I went through all the moves. Pulled out my ray gun too early, wobbled on the lunge at the end. But it was fine, it was good. It was good enough.
When I reached the end of the runway, Cory was waiting with a big leather hug. Well done, they said. An older butch strode onto the carpet with a stylish cane as her song began.
Back outside, the show over, we DapperQs called each other dude and man and slapped each other’s backs. Bro you killed it, Little Bear said. His girlfriend told me, You have such range. You can be a super-hot femme, and you can pull this off too.
Behind Little Bear was Iris. You pulled it off, she echoed.
You came, I said, hugging her. I’d pulled off something—I wasn’t sure what. Performing my masculinity; performing myself. Even if I was still confusing as all hell to everyone else. Hell, maybe I liked it that way. And maybe if I could like this about me, then others could, too.
Am I butch enough for you yet? I teased.
Nope, Iris said. But that’s okay. Little Bear and his girlfriend laughed with us.
I looked into the eyes of my friends looking back at me, saw my real self reflected.
Kristin Barendsen is a Santa Fe writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, American Poet, Nailed, Gravel, Atticus Review, and many other venues. Awards include the Academy of American Poets Prize and two Southwest Writers awards. She is co-author of Photography: New Mexico and a former contributing editor of Yoga Journal.