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.

New Statesman
A rainbow flag symbolising gay pride hangs in Manhattan, New York. Do we need more terms to describe LGBTQ identities? Image: Getty

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.

Tags:LGBT