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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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.