When Butches Talk About Men Wearing Skirts …
… they’ve got my attention.
I’ll admit right up front that I don’t know what the takeaway from this is, but I feel like I have to comment on it. Sinclair Sexsmith is an excellent writer, and his thoughts on masculinity, coming from his (it’s a noun not an adjective) butch perspective, have got my attention. Sinclair’s piece When Men Wear Skirts is over at Carnal Nation, and it’s not brand new, but I’m just getting to it. He’s got other pieces on the topic, like the “Manifesto for Radical Masculinity” and “How To Make Masculinity Stop Hurting“.
Since I don’t know what to say, I’ll use some blockquotes, tell a few anecdotes, and probably conclude by pretending I have something to add. Here goes:
men still cannot wear skirts by choice. Sure, there are hakama, the Japanese wide-legged pants that samurai wore, and there are kilts (and the cultural assumptions around Scottish masculinity also say that Scotsmen are strong, capable, and prone to violence, so we dare not insult a man wearing a kilt)—but we can’t even call these garments a “skirt”, that word is too femininely gendered. Could we even entertain the idea of a man’s dress? Ha! A man in a dress—that is pretty much the (untasteful, probably) punchline to a joke, not an acceptable garment possibility for men.
There are even some particularly manly skirts out there: like Utilikilts, which are made in Seattle, where I went to college. I remember my college roommate, any time we saw a man wearing one, saying, “Awww. He needs a hug,” because it was obvious to her that his masculinity was compromised, and he now is sensitive, soft, and caring. Not manly, not studly, not just some guy in a skirt, but emasculated, because of his garment, because of his gender presentation.
Sure, perhaps not all men or masculine folks want to wear skirts—I sure don’t. I don’t really want to pursue baking, scrapbooking, or sewing as one of my hobbies, either. But feeling as though I cannot pursue any of these hobbies because of the social consequences makes me want to partake just to be a thorn in someone’s side. Everybody should have the choice to pursue whatever hobby, interest, activity, or presentation that catches their particular fancy.
The meat of the thing is that end bit about the constaints of the binary. If all this stuff that people do is coded, and our gender performance is policed for whether we’re doing it right, we’re all limited as people. That’s a losing proposition for everyone. Critically, it’s not an equally losing proposition, and some people end up relatively better even if absolutely worse, which is why we’re stuck with this shitty mess.
But Sinclair already said that. So instead I’ll add an anecdote about kilt-wearing. I’m a Scot. I was born in the United States, so I’m a diaspora Scot. My dad’s an immigrant, I’m in touch with the family back in Scotland and in Canada (where Scots as an ethnic group are much more prominent and cohesive, and where much of the post-WWII immigration from Scotland went). I sometimes wear a kilt, and not just to Scottish events. I wear a kilt, for example, to formal-dress lawyer events.
The attention it draws is jaw-dropping, by the way. Some of my colleagues have been amazed at the way folks flock to me, want to tell me that they have some Scottish ancestry, or that they know what that little knife is called, or that they don’t know what that little knife is called.
But I do get gender-policed. Lots of my colleagues almost seem to feel compelled to refer to my kilt as a “skirt.” Perhaps they want to see if they can get a rise out of me, but they mostly know they can do that by making a sexist joke. So it must be that they need to defuse some tension. There’s an ethnic aspect to that, which is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s mostly a gender issue. They literally understand that I’m from an ethnic group where men wear a particular skirt, but at some level they can’t process it, and feel they have to comment on the dissonance. It’s like they’re saying, “doesn’t your culture’s clothing have a meaning in ours that makes you uncomfortable?” The answer is that it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but it obviously does them.
Sinclair goes on:
These things are not required by any particularly formal process—it isn’t as though they revoke your driver’s license when you reach a certain number of manly demerits. But the consequences are hard, and they are done through social policing—friends, family, lovers, strangers, coworkers. Most of us are way too eager to step in and make us feel bad about our choice when we’ve stepped outside of our appropriate gender identity.
My boss at a previous job had one single pink button-down that he wore rarely. Once, in the hallway by the elevator, I complimented him on it: “That’s a good color on you,” I said. “Great shirt.” “Thanks,” he said, and sighed. “Every once in a while, I see it in my closet and think, ‘Why don’t I wear that more often?’ Then I wear it to work and take crap all day, and I remember why, and it goes to the back of the closet.”
It wasn’t even a girl’s shirt, it was a men’s dress shirt! Really? That happens? To you, a successful, good-looking, conventional, rather conservative, well-respected boss? So strongly that you won’t wear the shirt again?
I was surprised, then I was surprised that I was surprised. Of course that happens. It happens to me too: even when I wear my pink polo, I occasionally hear people say, “What, going femme on us now?” and “Nice shirt! Ha, ha.” Hello, people: a pink polo is hardly an indication that I am “going femme.” I have been known to quip back: “I am confident enough in my masculinity to wear pink. Ya gotta problem with that?” Even still, it hurts. It’s not overt, but it’s a little pinprick to my gender presentation, and a little pinprick of social shaming for my tiny, tiny range of gender expression.
I have two pink shirts. I never used to buy pink shirts. But then one day my son said that boys don’t wear pink. I went right out and bought two pinks shirts. I like my pink shirts. I don’t put them in the back of the closet. I wear them in the regular rotation. But this? “I am confident enough in my masculinity to wear pink. Ya gotta problem with that?” Yeah, I do that.
There’s a particular way that some of us cissexual het guys challenge gender norms. Not quite ostentatiously, but … confrontationally. The “ya gotta problem widdat?!” approach; there’s swagger and attitude about it which is kind of defensive, like when we do it, we’re spoiling for a fight, which … is itself masculinizing, as if it’s a carbon-offset for the unmasculine thing we’re also doing to challenge the norm. We can push the boundaries, as long as we don’t exceed our overall average man-credibility doing it. There is an aspect to that that is about how power structures change, and there’s an aspect of personal comfort and cowardice to that. Only someone far smarter than me could disaggregate those dynamics.
Sinclair asks, “Can a butch order a vanilla vodka and cranberry without getting sneered at?” I don’t know. I know when I’m at a bar, I order Shirley Temples. In part, I come by it honestly: I’m a teetotaler, and I have a sweet tooth. Sure, some folks call them “Roy Rodgers” or some other boy name, but then nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about, and I want what I ordered. But then, too, I’m not exactly trying to do it quietly. “You heard me.” Because that’s the way lot of cis het men do feminine things, carefully counterbalanced with a chip on the shoulder. Just sayin’.
Sinclair never says what masculinity is. Not a lot of people do. But Sinclair is asking the best questions.