Do we need a better word for "butch'"?

The only word that used to be available if you were non-straight and masculine presenting was "butch". Times have changed - and one woman has found that the term "Masculine of Center" strikes a chord with America's LGBTQ community.

Whether you’re straight or LGBTQ, chances are you’ve heard of the term ‘Butch’. After all, it’s been around for decades, pre-dating even the legalisation of homosexuality. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that by 2008 it had lost some of its appeal: it was in this year that African American activist and academic B. Cole declared that it was no longer relevant to her cultural identity, and instead coined the term ‘Masculine of Center’.

According to Cole, the only word that used to be available if you were non-straight and masculine presenting was ‘Butch’. Clearly, times have changed. “People call themselves all kinds of things now: in California people are more likely to call themselves ‘studs’. On the east coast, in New York, ‘aggressive’ is much more popular. In DC, Maryland, it’s more ‘dom’ (short for dominant). I wanted to make space to identify many different people to participate in the research project."

We are Skyping across the Atlantic. Cole sports a charismatic smile beneath her shaved head, and is more than happy to talk about the term that has taken over the underground queer community in the US.

‘Butch’ has always been seen as an identity for openly masculine-presenting women who wilfully challenge the gender status quo. However, many had seen that as restrictive in the past, or connected to negative stereotypes. ‘Masculine of Center’ represents the ‘Butch’ identity, but also goes above and beyond it in its inclusion of other less mainstream, more modern, queer and masculine-appropriating female identities.

Cole describes herself at the time as “challenged by the lack of language and just how powerful language is for creating disability.  For me, it was far less about creating a monolithic term than being able to speak to the political power of all of our identities, and at the same time recognise that there is a very important complexity – ‘Butch’ and all of these different terms are still very important to our cultural identity."

In the United States, MoC has “grown tremendously... there are trans-men and gender queer people who identify as ‘Masculine of Center’,” she says. “One of the most important things is that it’s about thinking of gender as a continuum... really all of us are a duality of masculinity and femininity.” However, despite coining the term during her Masters degree at the London School of Economics, her phrase has never broken the UK scene in quite the same way.

After finishing her Masters, Cole returned to the United States. There, in 2010, she founded a charity-based activist group for queer people of colour - The Brown Boi Project.  In its manifesto the group describes itself as “a community of ‘Masculine of Center’ womyn, men, two-spirit people, transmen, and our allies committed to transforming our privilege of masculinity, gender, and race into tools for achieving racial and gender justice.”

Cole’s work with The Brown Boi Project has aimed to create a space in which ‘Masculine of Center’ can exist, not just as an academic term but as a functional tool for non-straight societal representation. “I think that part of our work as academics and social change theorists is to be creating things. We get taught so often in critical theory to dissect and pull things apart as a form of critical enquiry…which is really exciting, but I think that in some ways we don’t have enough generative spaces where we’re building things that could work for us. I built this because it worked for me at the time, and its evolved in ways that I think have worked for other people.”

The Brown Boi Project provides regular retreats that focus on training individuals, particularly in regards to community organising and leadership development, around the issue of queer masculinity. With now over 5,700 likes on Facebook, the organisation has been growing rapidly; activists and community workers come from all over the United States to be trained. “We have 200 people apply for the odd 20 slots we fill on each of our cohorts, which I think speaks to a real desire and a renaissance around gender and masculinity.”

But what about those in the LGBTQ community for whom the identity MoC doesn’t appeal? “I am really excited for folks who find that the term ‘Masculine of Center’ speaks to their identity, and I also totally understand for folks that it doesn’t."

Will ‘Masculine of Center’ boomerang its way back across the pond, overtaking and encompassing ‘Butch’? If there is a need for it, according to Cole – and with this, only time can tell.

A rainbow flag symbolising gay pride hangs in Manhattan, New York. Do we need more terms to describe LGBTQ identities? Image: Getty
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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge