A Conference For 'Butches' Last weekend hundreds gathered in Oakland, Calif., for a conference billed as the the first such gathering for "Butch Voices," a group of men, women and transgendered people to talk about what it means to be masculine — even if you're not a man.

A Conference For 'Butches'

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Last weekend hundreds gathered at Oakland, California, for the first ever Butch Voices Conference. It was a gathering of men, women and transgendered people to talk about what it means to be masculine, even if you're not a man. To learn more, we're joined by the founder of the conference, Joe LeBlanc, and also the conference logistics coordinator, Krys Freeman. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. JOE LEBLANC (Founder, Butch Voices Conference): Thank you for having us.

Ms. KRYS FREEMAN (Logistics Coordinator, Butch Voices Conference): Thank you, this is Krys.

LUDDEN: Can I just ask a very basic question. Krys, you go by she and Joe you go by he, and can I ask what made each of you take that decision?

Mr. LeBLANC: For me, personally - this is Joe - he fits me better than she does. It attributes, it reflects the masculinity that I embody and embrace in my identity as a butch.

LUDDEN: And Krys? You're a she.

Ms. FREEMAN: I identify as gender fluid so I don't - I respond to either pronoun, but I've been a she for the entirety of my life and I'm okay with it. Often people refer to me as he too, so I'm not offended at this point of my life. But there was a time when I was.

LUDDEN: And Joe, if someone calls you she, what do you do?

Mr. LeBLANC: That's not a negative connotation either. I work in a retail environment where I'm getting either pronoun because obviously people will see what they want to see about me. And really either is completely fine. I don't correct anyone.

LUDDEN: What motivated you to hold this conference?

Mr. LeBLANC: Well, for me as a butch, I needed to have the space to interact with other butches, studs, aggressives, and really have the hard conversations that we never seem to have otherwise. There are just so many stereotypes about us that we have to be these silent cool types that don't talk or only are about how we look. And we have a lot to say.

We just don't really ever get the time, because we're so divided across race, divided across gender identities, pronoun choices. So if we can get around the pieces that usually keep us apart and actually get to the meat of things, we can affect some real change and bridge some gaps.

LUDDEN: Krys, what did you get through the conference?

Ms. FREEMAN: It was an opportunity for me to just see us in real life. I mean, for me, it's - I came into my own and started developing my identity mostly through the Internet and it's because I didn't have a lot of outlets to meet people. I came from a family that wasn't very fond of the fact that I was queer-identified. And so, I had to find alternative ways to engage with folks.

This was an opportunity where I got to meet a lot of people that I knew from online. I got to meet some people that I'd never met before. And got to feel like, wow, I'm not the only one. And to add that, I think that's the other issue is that I didn't want to always have to find people in bars. Like I want to be able to engage with folks and have a conversation, to go hiking, to go play basketball, to just do anything that you would do with a friend, but also be able to identify with them in some way that's not just around the sport or around the activity. You know, guys get to hang out and have boys' nights. Ladies like to have ladies nights. Can we have a butch's night?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

So Joe, can you give me a snapshot of who did come to your conference - age, ethnicity - who was there?

Mr. LeBLANC: We had folks from all over North America, various parts of Northern Canada, the States - we had people show up from very rural backgrounds in Montana that were really looking for support and other people like them to connect with. Our age range ranged from 16 to 73. We had Asian folks. We had African-American folks. We had West Indies. We had Latina - Latino.

Ms. FREEMAN: And folks all the way from U.K.

Mr. LeBLANC: Yes. Yes. Yes.

LUDDEN: Seventeen to 73, that's a pretty broad range there. Any generational differences stand out?

Mr. LeBLANC: Oh, definitely. There are generational differences. If anything, we have the elders that are from a different time period, where there are radical lesbian separatists who were there attending as well as folks who were coming in to things now.

LUDDEN: Those were the older ones, not the younger ones.

Ms. FREEMAN: Right?

Mr. LeBLANC: Right. All those folks that are coming in to things now who are more gender fluid or maybe more of a gender-transgressive decade or, you know, time frame.

LUDDEN: It's always the older radicals maybe astonished by the younger mainstream folks or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FREEMAN: Definitely, definitely.

Mr. LeBLANC: I mentioned that there are some that were because it's not really something that they are themselves completely comfortable with but there were other elders who are definitely, you know, all about embracing that and they see that as the next wave.

LUDDEN: The list of workshops that you had is pretty interesting. I mean, there is something on internalized misogyny, race and masculine identity, one non-conforming gender presentation and job searching. What was that about?

Mr. LeBLANC: Well, folks who present as gender non-conforming, they could identify as transgender, they could identify as butch, they could just look like they could be queer. And oftentimes, folks receive prejudice and discriminations in the workplace for appearing, you know, not according to norms for how most female-bodied individuals would, and so that's about developing strategies on how to search for jobs.

LUDDEN: Even though this is becoming maybe more mainstream and accepted in some places, I mean, did you get the sense that - do people have an identity and stick with it, or do you have multiple identities, depending on where you are, weekend, weekday, night versus day?

Mr. LeBLANC: I would say that we have multiple identities. We belong to more localized communities, as well as our identities overlap each other as well as change from situation to situation because they're not static. So it's a very three-dimensional view when you get to the point where you're talking about people and how they form their identities.

So there's culture involved. There's language. There's class. There's race. All of it affects those specific words, and they are different with each person.

LUDDEN: Krys, what about you?

Ms. FREEMAN: In terms of forming identity, I think what this conference brought out for me in particular, is that people do form identity, and that's something that's a misconception generally is that people assume identities: Oh, I'm a man, so that's just what I'm going to do. Oh, I'm a woman, this is what I'm going to do, whereas all these things are constructed.

They're made by us and made by the influences that people in our lives have on us, and so it's important for us to remember that when we're, like, taking things for granted.

I think that there are multiplicitous identities that were represented, and I think even within those identities, there are lots of complexities that we saw from people. Where, you know, it's called Butch Voices, but we saw - the identities ran the gamut, I mean, from butch to gender-queer, to stud, to aggressive or AG, or anything. Like, folks are very, very different, and it's not a monolith, and I think that's really important for us to take forward.

LUDDEN: Does that make it harder in a sense, though, to have more choice?

Ms. FREEMAN: Yes and no. I mean, I think that's part of the common misconception is that having more things to identify as that that makes it more difficult, but the reality is that we all are so very different, even outside of just the community that we're talking about here.

Even day to day, everybody that we encounter is so, so different, but we kind of fit into these small, small boxes that don't necessarily reflect who we really are.

LUDDEN: You talk about having different identities, you know, depending on situation, and you make it sound so easy, but it seems like that would be really psychological stressful.

Ms. FREEMAN: We adapt ourselves to the environment no matter what the situation is. Like, I came here today in a button-up and a sweater because I felt like it was important.

If I go to a job interview, I want to look professional, but there isn't a lot of space, and there aren't a lot of ideas about what that looks like. Like, what should I look like when I go to a job, or what should I look like when I'm at a formal setting because a lot of times, people are off-put when they expect to see a woman, and they see me, and I don't look like what they expect of a woman.

And so it becomes - it can be psychologically, like, challenging, but for a lot of us, this is something we may have been doing for a long time. I had to learn how to switch up a lot because my mom was very uncomfortable with my presentation. So I went away to school. When I was at school, I was comfortable. When I was at home, I had to moderate so that I could relieve some of that stress of being into these conversations with my mother about why I have to dress like this, and why it feels comfortable, and why she doesn't like it.

It may be considered psychologically challenging, but at the same time, it can be something that relieves some stress with others who don't really get it.

LUDDEN: On this program, we've recently reported on a rise in hate crimes against the LGBT community. Did you have workshops on hate crimes?

Ms. FREEMAN: We did not have any workshops on hate crimes. We did have a couple of - we had a workshop in particular about how to be safe. We also had a workshop dedicated to mentoring gender-non-conforming youth because I know that that, kind of, is one of the things that they look for in terms of support. But I think part of the reason why this conference came together is because of these hate crimes and because of this feeling of not being safe, not having a space, not having community to support you and to back you up if you feel in any way, like, insecure around others.

LUDDEN: There were some workshops on class issues. How do they play into the butch experience?

Mr. LeBLANC: Well, the class - I mean, butch in its inset is a very class-oriented identity. From the history of it, it's a very working-class stereotype. It's a very white stereotype. So if you are talking about, you know, now, I mean, you have a lot of people that if they are not a working class, you know, and they still identify as butch, how does that affect who they are? You know? Can they not be an intellectual, an educator and still be butch?

And so instead of just looking at that point of view or looking at, maybe, as butch as a way to mimic hetero-normative features, I mean, you're just - there's just so many things at play with it. So class is definitely something that comes up very often.

LUDDEN: Kyle(ph), we recently spoke to Thomas Rogers, who wrote an article called "Ladies, I'm Not Your Gay Boyfriend" for Salon.com, and he complained about how gays in pop culture are constantly being cast into this role of the funny best friend. I'm wondering if there's some caricature or role that butch women get kind of pushed into in American pop culture.

Mr. LeBLANC: That was definitely one thing that we talked about because Butch Voices, the whole premise behind it, I mean, butch is thought to be this very visual identity, a very flat - you know, the woman that you would see who you believe wants to be a man, you know, very hard, gruff, mechanically inclined, the man of the relationship. So for us to have this conference, we have to dispel that and say we can be that, but we're more than that, and there's more to us, and here's what we're about.

So you know, butch - I mean, there's butches who enjoy cooking, who enjoy sewing. I mean… You know, they wear make-up. I mean, it's not just about, you know, the clothing or the hair styles. It goes deeper than that.

LUDDEN: Krys?

Ms. FREEMAN: Well, I would say that - I don't even know how to answer this question. It's really difficult for me because I'm, like, do I - I don't fit any of the stereotypes, or I do. I mean, I have the visual image, but I play basketball, grew up, I was always into basketball and athletics, but I also write poetry.

The stereotypes, like, I don't have a great deal of investment in the stereotypes. But I know that they exist and I kind of have a sense of it when I walk into a space, people don't assume for me to be educated. They don't assume for me to have something to say, and they don't assume that they will get along with me just based on my appearance, and then they talk to me, and they're, like, oh, you're kind of cool.

LUDDEN: Joe LeBlanc is the founder of the Butch Voices conference. He joined us by phone from his home in Tacoma, Washington; and conference logistics coordinator Krys Freeman joined us from the studios at the University of California, Berkeley. Thanks so much to both of you for talking.

Mr. LeBLANC: Thank you.

Ms. FREEMAN: Thank you for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Coming up, star athletes are now giving fans the play-by-play of their daily lives using Twitter.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): It spans the whole spectrum, from the quotidian to you know, I just woke up, had eggs for breakfast, to kind of the breaking news about their own lives and their teams - to even cries for help.

LUDDEN: Sports stars embrace Twitter, this just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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