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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Why Game of Thrones is the perfect show for the modern age

There is something horribly relatable about George R R Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth.

By now, it feels as if George R R Martin – the author of Game of Thrones, narrative sadist and ruiner of all things beautiful and good – has been appointed scriptwriter for the news. I am not the first to observe this. Martin is famous for killing off everyone’s favourite characters and sending his stories careering into pits of bleak uncertainty just when you thought everything might turn out all right. Since Prince became the latest beloved star to die this year, it has become abundantly clear that life is imitating Game of Thrones, and there’s nothing to do but watch the next bit through your fingers and try to avoid spoilers.

The staggeringly popular HBO show based on Martin’s books is in its sixth season, and it is wild, glorious trash. I mean that as a compliment. I love this horrible, problematic show more than I can possibly justify, so I’ve stopped trying. It is hardly a social-justice warrior’s dream, given that it seems to be racing against itself to sexually degrade as many female characters as possible in the space of a 45-minute episode.

The argument for the endless misogynist violence is that it has to be shown, not to titillate viewers, absolutely not, but because that sort of thing just happened back in the murky medieval past. This would be a decent excuse if sexual violence were indeed a thing of the past; or, come to that, if Game of Thrones was actually set in the past, instead of in a fictional fantasy world where there are shape-shifters, zombies and dragons.

There is one aspect, however, in which Game of Thrones has a claim to being the most realistic show on television. Despite the wizards, the wights and the way every character manages to maintain perfect hair even when they’re being pointlessly tortured to death, there is something horribly relatable about Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth. What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.

Viewers might tune in for what the actor Ian McShane called the “tits and dragons”, but they stay for the unremitting horror. Martin gleefully tramples over all the tropes of conventional sword-and-sorcery fiction. There are no noble quests or heroes’ journeys. Instead, horrible things happen to good people for no reason. Heroism goes extremely unrewarded. The few times injustice does get punished, it happens by accident. Fair maidens are not saved, protagonists are slaughtered at random, and war is always a stupid idea, even though the ­surviving cast members are still trying to solve all their problems by waging it.

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The moral lessons so far are murky but sensible. Dragons are awesome. Men are invariably dreadful. Following religious zealots into battle is a poor life decision. Honour is a made-up concept that will probably get you killed. Most importantly, there are very few truly evil people in the world: instead, there are just stupid people, and scared people, and petty, vindictive people, and sometimes those people get put in charge of armies and nations, and that’s when the rest of us are really buggered. That’s what Game of Thrones is about.

I’m not even confident of a happy ending. I’ve made peace with knowing that my favourite characters are unlikely to make it out of the series alive, and even if they do, it won’t matter, because a giant army of ice zombies is coming to eat the world.

And that’s what makes it brilliant. There are plenty of horrible, sexy things on television, and in these anxious times every novelist worth his advance seems to be turning his hand to grim dystopian fiction. The problem with most dystopias, though, is that they’re too predictable. They serve up worlds where, however awful things get, someone is at least in charge. They are comforting for that reason, in the same way as conspiracy theories are comforting. It is less distressing to believe, for instance, that a secret race of lizard people is managing the destiny of the human race than to believe that nobody is managing it at all.

Stories help us rehearse trauma. They help us prepare for it. You sit down to watch terrible things happening to made-up people and you imagine how you’d cope if that were you, or someone you loved, and even if the answer is “not at all” you find yourself feeling a bit better. Right now, the really frightening prospect is that the world is actually being run by vicious idiots with only half a plan between them who are too busy fighting each other to pay attention to the weather, which is about to kill us all.

That, along with the epic theme music, is why I still love Game of Thrones. It feels like aversion therapy for the brutal randomness of modern politics, with a side order of CGI monsters and a lot of shagging. There you go. I hope that’s given you all the excuse you need to tune in for season six. I did my best. If you need me, I’ll be behind the sofa. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism