[Updated Sept 2021]
Today’s post is a Special Request post for Digger, who asks, “how is a butch dyke to dress for a conference or campus interview?” She goes on, “I recently tried to girl-up my wardrobe, and it was pretty much a disaster (ranging from Oh Hell No, to my shoulders don’t fit in any of these tops, to wtf, women’s shoes [even the flats!] are dangerous). Not all was lost, but given that presenting as a “conventional” woman is pretty much out of the picture, any advice?”
I have advice. I’m a femme dyke who has lived with my butch partner for almost 10  years. We have raised two kids together and navigated joint university positions together, both in Oregon and the Midwest. We are both now happily out of the academic career track, and back in our beloved Oregon, where we both do The Professor Is In.
My comments are going to come from my decade of watching my partner successfully navigate the two professional realms of academia and the corporate world.
My partner is an old-school butch dyke. She’s 50, and hasn’t worn an article of women’s clothing probably since she graduated middle school (with the exception of a bridesmaid dress for her sister’s wedding oh so long ago, which was the fulfillment of a childhood promise). For years she had her hair cut at the barber, although now she gets a really good men’s haircut from a hip hair salon. She had to work with them a bit to make them understand she wasn’t asking for a “pixie,” but now they’re totally on the same page.
[2021 Update: The androgynous moments of lesbian history passed her by unheeded.]* She wears men’s clothes exclusively but does not consciously attempt to “pass” as male. She is a butch dyke: that’s the category. She is, nevertheless, mistaken for a man with some regularity, especially when she’s wearing a suit, or sitting down at a restaurant, or in Japan, where there just isn’t any other cultural means to interpret her. But people almost always realize their mistake pretty quickly, and then some awkward moments ensue before the flow of conversation resumes.
A former journalist, she has not interviewed for a job in many, many years, whether it was as the publisher at a small newspaper, a tenure-track position at an R1, or a major start-up, in which she did not arrive for the interview in a men’s suit, with men’s dress shoes, and a man’s haircut. (She tends not to wear a tie, as these interview contexts did not demand that level of formality.) She has gotten every job she’s interviewed for and has succeeded, and been promoted, in the institutions in which she has worked, despite the fact that in these institutions she is generally the only butch dyke, or conspicuously gay person, on the payroll.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to ask why, because we’d know that she was being judged on her qualifications, skills, and character. But we know the world is not ideal, and people are judged on their appearance all the time. Heck, one of the mantras of The Professor Is In is: attend to your clothes! You are judged and found wanting when you don’t! So why would a sartorial profile so obviously marginal, so obviously outside the mainstream, so obviously fraught with subcultural meaning and potential controversy, have absolutely no observable impact on her level of professional success?
Well, I’m not omniscient, so I can’t say for sure, but I have a theory. And it’s a theory my partner shares from her own subjective experience of her life. The theory is: she is completely and totally at ease with who she is, and so people respond with similar ease to who she is, instead of getting hung up on what she “signifies.”
I know that’s not super precise, but it’s the closest I can come to articulating how it works. She doesn’t hold up the dress style or the haircut or the masculine affect as any kind of barrier to other people, or to her own personality, which is very large. When you interact with my partner, you are instantly *in* an interaction –you’re engaging with her, responding, thinking, reacting, talking, listening, joking, exchanging ideas. There is no time or energy from her devoted to a subtext of: “you get that I’m butch, right?” “you know that I’m different than you, right?” “don’t just assume that I’ll share your experience…” “you probably disapprove of me,” or any other kind of unspoken judgment or assumption put up as a barrier to communication. The substance of the communication prevails. She’s quite charismatic, and people generally just want to keep talking. And know more. And get her onto their team.
Now, what does this mean for those of you who are wondering how to dress, as a butch dyke, on the job market? Well, in a way, it is a message that applies to everyone on the market, butch or not. The message is: you need to be comfortable with who you are. If you’re butch, go butch. If you’re androgynous, go androgynous. If you’re femme, go femme.
Now, that would seem to contradict my perennial message that you need to wear potentially unfamiliar, formal clothes to interviews, clothes that might not be all that comfortable. But I’m speaking of a deeper level of comfort. My partner would not go to an interview in jeans and a t-shirt, even though that is her most comfortable style. She wears interview-appropriate clothes, clothes that might chafe a bit, but that are both appropriate to the context and consistent with her larger identity.
I had a colleague years back who was a dyke. She wasn’t butch, and she wasn’t femme, which was neither here nor there. But she seemed to have this misguided idea that she had to “pass” as extra-feminine to be legit in the academy. Don’t ask me why. Day after day she’d show up in pencil skirts, and constricting tops, and little heels, and day after day she’d walk stiffly and awkwardly around the department, the strain evident on her face. Now granted, she had a job and got tenure and promoted and so on, so this is not some morality tale of how she crashed and burned because she wasn’t “true to herself.” But it is a tale of a colleague who was (and is) excruciatingly uncomfortable in her own skin. No, the sky hasn’t fallen in on her. But most of the grad students and a lot of her colleagues stand by and wonder…..”Why?” And…. “What is UP with that?” And…. “Really?” And…..”hmmm.” Intangible, yes. But real nevertheless. There was a constant tension. No, of course it’s not just from clothing. But clothing reflected a deeper discomfort in her own skin.
I had another colleague, a butch dyke, who showed up for her campus interview in a three piece suit and wing-tips. She got the job, and proceeded to come to work in three piece suits and wing-tips for her first couple years on campus. Over time she got comfortable with the laid-back vibe of campus, and ratcheted down the formality level, but she never stopped dressing full-on butch. And, as far as her career goes, it’s basically a non-issue. Sure, she stands out. That comes with the territory. You’re never going to be a butch dyke, or gender-variant, and not stand out. But standing out is different than being “a problem” and “rejected,” and “unemployed.”
Let’s look at Ellen Degeneres for a moment, shall we? She passed as femme-ish for years. She was successful to a degree, sure. And she came out, and it was pure hell. She was brutalized. But what has happened since? Watch her over the intervening years. She’s gotten butcher and butcher, albeit Hollywood butch. And the butcher, and more herself she gets, the more people love her. The more comfortable she gets in her own skin, the more successful she is. [2021 Update: I would probably not use her as a positive model if I were writing this post now. She’s become tragically problematic, and I would look elsewhere.]
I get that not every campus around the country is going to be equally open to candidates showing up dressed in gender-bending ways. I get that the South may well be more conservative than the West and Midwest, and that small schools , and certainly church-related schools, will be far harder nuts to crack in this regard than R1s and Ivy Leagues. It’s a risk to show up for an interview, or any high stakes encounter (like meeting my mother) dressed like a guy. But what’s the alternative? Are you going to fake it? Do you think you can? I’ll bet you can’t. And the strain is going to show, and undermine your performance in a host of overt and covert ways.
Ultimately, my advice is: if you’re a butch dyke, you better go to that campus interview dressed as a butch dyke (not in your jeans and leather jacket, and not in wrinkled chinos and a short-sleeved poly blend shirt, but in a REALLY NICE suit and dress shirt, and quality shoes, and socks that match your trousers, and a fresh haircut), because you do NOT want to get offered a job under false pretenses. They need to know who you are. And you need to know who you are. And then, when you get the job, your productivity, and teaching, and contributions, and collegiality, will prove your value to your colleagues and the institution. And then you can work on aging gracefully as a butch professor, and setting an example for the baby butches finding their way.
Addendum: here is a company that tailors suits for butch dykes: The Butch Clothing Company. DapperBoi also makes nice inexpensive unstructured blazers and chinos that work well for a casual campus vibe. TPII is not affiliated with them in any way!
*The original read: “The androgynous, boi, and trans moments passed her by unheeded.” A trans reader wrote to say that this read as a microaggression – first to call “trans” a moment and second to imply that moment ended in 2011! I agreed and redid the post immediately. I am leaving the original here to show my acknowledgment of my error and growth in my thinking.
Thank you so much for talking about this. More posts on being out in the academy would be very welcome.
You got it. Stay tuned.
Thanks, Karen! “Be the spiffiest, neatest, matching-est and freshly-shorn version of yourself.” That last part being key; needed to hear it, ty!
so, one service I offer to clients on occasion is to review their interview outfits when they send me a photo, or else on skype. if you want a check, let me know!
i love this post, Dr. Karen. thank you for writing it! but, i think the post fails to answer the basic question about how to actually do the work of dressing yourself as a genderqueer person.
aren’t there resources for finding and/or procuring a good fit (say menswear tailoring with room for hips, or a larger chest than most bio men have, while avoiding the look a humongous shoulders, flared pants, ‘wrong’ direction of the button placard, etc…)??
maybe we need to create some if none exist….
good point. My partner has overcome those issues without tailoring by careful and painstaking shopping for the exact suit / jacket/ trousers that work. It’s time consuming. She hates it. I insist. But at the same time, yes, this is a larger issue that needs addressing. Let me investigate. I’m pretty sure there is a company that makes butch dyke tailored suits that someone told me about a year or so ago.
added a link to The Butch Clothing Company. It’s based in the UK, and it’s pricey. But they get it, that’s for sure.
This was a wonderful article, thank you for writing it! I’m femme, myself, but only an undergrad; just reading about queer presence in a (professional) university setting is really heartening.
Saint Harridan is a manufacturer of very stylish, custom menswear tailored especially for butch women, transmen, etc. It’s actually preparing for a Kickstarter campaign to get funding, but it’s already getting a lot of attention. I thought you might be interested!
Nice! thank you so much for this tip!
I love this post. I am not particularly gender-bending, other than being a tom-boy who became an ecologist/anthropologist who loves climbing trees, wearing pink, etc. This post rocks. Thank you. You hit issues that are not specific to gender or any particular identity-sexual or not, but to a broader issue of being ourselves in what can so often seem like an entirely uncomfortable, unforgiving context. I so appreciate this.
Thank you, thank you, thank you
thank you, Nancy! It is always a delicate dance to stay true to yourself while meeting all these expectations….
Excellent advise as always–and with application to anyone who might not appear to fit the norm.
I’m a fat woman who consciously takes her cue from her fat grandmother (from whom I inherited my short-waisted, barrel-chested figure along with a neat set of ankles) a scrappy, energetic woman who, from the 1910s-70s made all of her stylish clothes to REALLY fit (none of this too-tight-is-alright or invest-in-a-tent business) and who exuded authority, humor, sass along with a deep sense of self-satisfaction. When I’m anxious about meeting new folks or going into a public arena I think of her as I tailor my outfit AND my attitude.
Nice! It’s hard. There is a strong expectation among academic women to be really, really thin. It’s a kind of asceticism, i think, or related to control. I used to be really thin when I was invested in following the rules, and now am not. I think a lot about what meanings are attached to size and weight in the academy.
that, of course, should be “excellent advice”
I wanted to say thank you for writing this. I’ve been working in offices for the past 7 years and am climbing the corporate ladder while taking on more client facing responsibilities. I recently began questioning how my butch wardrobe was effecting my prospects for promotion. Your article is exactly the answer. I am the reason for my standing in the company, not my men’s shirts and refusal to wear heals taller than cowboy boots. You helped me remember that and remember to trust in my ability. Thank you (and your butch muse)!
Thanks for writing, Anastasia. This makes me happy. And I showed it to my butch muse too!
Beverly Davis says
Absolutely beautiful post. I’ve often thought, over the years, that if I had the money and the talent I’d start a lesbian themed clothing store. There have been places for high heels and clothing large enough for men for decades. Even a butch section in the big box stores like Macy’s would be great. I’m pretty androgynous, so I get by. But my ex partner had a heck of a time finding the items that she needed. She was very curvy (which she hated) and had to buy huge men’s clothes to have tailored. The only time I ever saw her in a dress was when she went to court to adopt a relative’s baby. She was just too scared that being herself would cause her to lose him.
thanks, beverly. I’m thankful to be living in a time when there is more acceptance of different modes of dress. It’s never easy, but at least there’s a chance.
Great post and so much food for thought…
I’m a butch dyke and I’ve been faking it at work (elementary school) for years. It has taken its toll. I’m ready to overhaul my ‘teacher wardrobe’ and let my true colors shine through this fall. My classy butch clothes will come out of the closet and drag me with them 🙂
Thank you for your insightful words.
how wonderful! want to send a photo? 🙂
Thank you so much for this advice!! I just had a job interview and I dressed up as a butch dyke. I’m always scared about doing interviews because I feel like theyre judging me negatively. But I did not want to hide who I am… And I got the job!!
Hi karen,stumbled into this post and I consider it very relevant,thank you for your understanding of the subject matter.I studied engineering,I was offered a customer service job in a bank and I took it,I am butch,but I live in an environment where one has to conform to heterosexual standards.I am no more with the bank as I was sacked recently.I an interview to be a personal assistance to an executive director in another bank,.I was pretty nervous and it affected me in the interview,I dint get the job,even though I try as much as posible not to hide my identity as I am very uncomfortable dressing femminine,I am constantly afraid of wht pple will think and conclude .sometimes I just pray the laws of this land and myfamily will be more accepting of people like me,then life will be much easier
Shawn Love says
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It helps to stumble on posts like these but doesn’t give people like me much hope. The “not quite right” label is stuck to me no matter what I do. Some people are just judged mercilessly no matter how true to themselves they are. Sometimes authenticity is frowned upon even when you hold your head up high. People have to just walk their own path.
Sumiko Braun says
Thank you for this article. As a genderqueer up and coming bio-female actor, I struggle with these very same issues on presentation and work. Of course, my industry is very much image based and largely heteronormative, so I often present myself in a very feminine manner, leaving me to feel not so always comfortable in my own skin. I constantly question what to wear and how to style and present myself for auditions/interviews (ex: “If I express myself in a more soft core butch/androgynous way, will it be acceptable for this role?” “Can I cut off my hair or do I really need to keep it long?” “Do I have to wait to truly express myself until I’m further along in my career?”). I’m interested in exploring how I can take the ideas you lay out here and apply them to my own situation. Again, thank you.
It’s always a question. My partner has to attend a dressy evening function for work tomorrow night, and we went out and bought a new suit for it, but drew the line at a tie because a butch dyke in a tie is a whole diff level of ‘intense’ than a butch dyke in just a suit. Ties really are phallic! Anyway, it’s all a grey area.
I just came out as masculine, i wore long hair for years to pass as a regular woman, but always wore masculine clothes. I have been out masculine when i was young and was more confident in it then. This time round i do not carry myself with confidence as i spent all those years not being visable as a lesbian. To make things worse i live in a very gay friendly area where i often glimps women who are butcher then me and getting on in life better then me. People here are more excepting then i am of myself but i just cannot stop feeling on the defensive every time some one looks at me. I feel like i dont want to relate to women anymore if i dont know them incase they think im hitting on them. I dont want to go back to being more feminine as i do like myself better this way but just cannot carry myself with pride. I wish i could overcome this and be proud to be a lesbian in the way i once was when young, but for some reason i cannot. When i had long hair women were more catty towards me, that has changed now, and im not sure how to interact with strange women. Its like coming out all over again in a strange way, like im now out to everyone. I did not want to do that, i just wanted to be able to have freedom of gender expression. I thought i was maybe trans but realize im not now. Im kind of angry about how differently im treated based on a haircut. Especially by women.
Lindon, I think it *is* coming out again in a new way, and I would suggest that you read all the excellent books that have been written about the butch experience, starting with Leslie Fineberg, the Butch-Femme Reader, the Persistent Desire, and many many more. Also of course all the websites that now provide a community and support, which you can find by googling. It is a “thing” that you’re treated differently because of a haircut; but, hey, you FEEL differently because of a haircut, so it’s no surprise that people treat you differently. It’s just getting how you are treated and how you feel to align a bit more closely. Although, when you are butch or any non-normative gender, that alignment is never, ever simple or complete.
Trans Man says
Does the calculation change much if you’re actually an FTM transgender person on the job market?
i’d hazard to say it applies all the more! ie—go full-on men’s clothing.
Trans Man says
I asked this question after my only interview of the season because I was getting concerned that I hadn’t heard back from a position I was pretty certain I should have gotten. (I know the job market is uncertain, but I’m in a highly niche area of religious studies for which there are few qualified applicants, my academic record is stellar, it was a replacement position for a friend of my advisor I greatly resemble, the description seemed written with me in mind, the interview appeared to go flawlessly, etc.). I was in masculine clothing and the only thing that seemed to go wrong was a chance (?) social encounter AFTER the interview where a member of that school’s faculty asked me a lot of illegal questions in a private conversation, including sexual orientation and health status (I’m bald in order to look more masculine, so one could possibly suspect I am a cancer patient. I’m not, however).
I just got back the rejection, which claims that their decision was not made on merit but on the basis of “fit,” and I’ve been worried all along that “fit” might sometimes used as a pretext to discriminate against minority applicants and that gender/sexual orientation could be a factor for some schools. (This particular school makes national lists for being homophobic).
I owe over $200000 in student loans and will be sleeping on the floor on my adjunct office next year if I don’t somehow land a tenure-track job between then and now, which I did before as a TA and can probably handle.
But I really need a sense of whether this is going to be a fatal deal-breaker for many positions in the future, as it seems to have been in this case.
This is a very stressful story, and it would certainly suggest that discrimination played a role. Nobody can ever say for sure, of course, which is what makes these things so hard to confront. I’m surprised that they admitted it was an issue of “fit” since usually schools will cover their tracks and say it’s an issue of scholarship or teaching… The illegal questions sort of show their hand. Anyway, if it’s a school that makes national lists for homophobia, then I’d say chances are good it really is discrimination. But your success getting this far does suggest that you’ll still be competitive for other jobs in less homophobic settings.
Trans Man says
So many people have reacted in the way you did to the comment about “fit” that it really makes me wonder WHAT a senior academic friend who once told me that “fit should matter in academic hiring too, not just merit” is defending… But I digress.
If it might be helpful to your readers, I’ve done some decompressing with senior academic friends, and I ended up with a pretty grim picture of the equity of the job market. Because there is a lot of similarity in the region and in the institutions from which most (though certainly not all) of these academics hail, I’d be interested in the extent to which the picture they paint is typical.
On the specific issue of gender/sexual orientation, my most helpful comments came from my undergraduate advisor and some friends who were on the search committee that hired him. At the time, the department understood itself as hiring the first openly gay man on the tenure-track in religious studies in North America. (I believe it’s possible that several such individuals were hired at more-or-less the same time and that who was actually first is debatable). This was in the early to mid-90s. The department understood itself as doing something very radical and virtuous that others had not done in hiring him – and indeed, my former advisor had a habit of checking up with search committees that rejected him and often found that these committees had voted to hire him (only to be blocked by the administration) or that he could make contact with a sympathetic search committee member who was outraged that he or she had been outvoted by other committee members who were blatantly breaking the law. He says this institutionalized discrimination was very much the norm, not the exception. He also felt compelled to put unusual lines on his C.V. pre-emptively to avoid being rejected out-of-hand from consideration because of being openly gay. Among these was a line about “health” where he entered “in good health” to avoid presuppositions that gay men will have HIV that he had repeatedly found negatively impacting his candidacy. He did get hired in the end, and like me would end up periodically fielding teaching evaluations where in the gripe section students blamed his sexual minority status for making them feel uncomfortable in class (with occasional parental/student complaints either to the department or the university about the scandal of allowing deviants to teach religion to college students in a secular university).
My ex-advisor actually thinks – and several academic friends who have been on hiring committees agree – that at least in this corner of the world, gender non-conformity is to the academic job market now what being openly gay was then, and it’s remarkable if you do get hired. I was actually hired for my present adjunct job sight-unseen (someone quit teaching right before the beginning of the semester) and I have sometimes wondered if I would have gotten it were I not interviewed and offered the position on the telephone. I’m not in a particular conservative part of the country, either.
I would like to think that this is all very regional and very very cynical. I’m not so certain though. Almost to a man (or in the rare case, woman) the senior academics trying to make me feel better about this rejection have described search committees they’ve been on – AND THEY ALL REPORT (as if this were nothing, and I am naive to think the world is any different) their participation in committees in which illegal hiring criteria were deployed for one reason or another. On the benign end, perhaps it was administration-mandated diversity hiring in the 1990s, but not all of it was so benign. I was told by several people that absolutely everything – politics, religion, sexual orientation, sex, gender presentation, race, etc. – matter, and the fact that they’re federally-protected categories was more-or-less irrelevant. If you can swing it (and probably I can’t, they acknowledge), at least at state schools in this region it’s best to be the most anonymous and bland persona you can possibly pull off. They have also told me that merit absolutely doesn’t matter at all in hiring, beyond the minimal threshold. Merit is used to weed out applicants who either don’t have a PhD in the field or a reasonable completion date or who seem unlikely to generate enough publications to meet tenure; beyond this minimum, the only thing that matters at all are these illegal, political hiring factors. Nearly all of these people hated this, and none of them thought they could do anything about it.
If that’s the world I live in, I’m screwed. It’s terrifying. The only thing that’s gotten me through this nightmare of loan indebtedness all these years was the assurance that in the end merit does matter, and all these people (some of whom are Eminences in the field) telling me that because I am really the best, I will definitely get a job despite the statistics. But apparently in the real world, the only thing that matters is whether I can pull off seeming acceptably vanilla to bureaucracy men.
Well that’s just ridiculous. Of course merit matters. In every search comm. i was on for my whole career the faculty debated passionately and intensely about MERIT, although ALSO about fit. It was a fit-merit combo. And fit was mobilized not in creepy discriminatory ways, but mostly in pretty legit ways, as in, AFTER closely studying merit and evaluating the very specific publishing and productivity and teaching trajectory, and coming down to equally meritorious candidates, evaluating the degree to which “this person seemed interested in us, happy about the job, positive about the milieu (ex: into being at a mid-ranked state school in the PNW and not showing signs of wanting to bail for NYC at the first opportunity), and seems will be a productive and energetic departmental colleague.”
Now, none of this means that anti-trans discrimination doesn’t occur. Of course it does. But that is a separate issue than the blanket merit-is-nothing discourse your advisors are engaging in. That just hyperbolic rhetoric. Basically your Eminences said “merit is all.” Now your cynical undergrad advisor is saying “merit is nothing.” Neither of these is true, and why would they be? The first is not how humans have ever operated since time began. The second is victim-talk (ironic, and not very accurate, since your advisor is employed). The truth is in the middle. Get a grip, accept that trans discrimination is a real thing, and keep trying.
Trans Man says
Some human beings do believe that if something is ethically mandatory, you are left with no option but to obey your obligations (period, no questions asked) and are very surprised indeed when others do not recognize their own obligations and act accordingly. I suppose a lot of these people congregate in fields like ethics and religious studies, which helps explain the fact that you run tend to run into idealists and cynics (that is, jaded idealists) and nobody in between; perhaps people in other fields find us all ridiculous.
At any rate, I’ll keep checking, but given the hiring timeline in the field and the small number of positions in this area, I think I missed out on the only chance for tenure-track employment this season (and possibly several seasons) due to trans discrimination. That has serious economic implications no matter how anyone feels about it.
Yes on the religious studies thing. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed from working with RS clients. The pragmatist middle ground does not seem to come easily.
Let me just say that I’m REALLY sorry for this outcome and understand the desperate circumstances that might be the result. I don’t take that lightly at all, and don’t call THAT ridiculous. It’s horrible. I would say thought that I feel you are misidentifying the ethical failure: it falls less in the biases of hiring groups (a well documented fact from countless scholarly and journalistic studies of hiring in every sector of the economy) than in the ethical failure of the professors in your program who concealed the true nature of the academic job market and the untenable financial risks of debt-for-a-humanities-phd over your entire graduate program. But that is me. I’m an anthropologist and to me systems and structures of privilege do more damage than individual motivations or intentions.
Trans Man says
There really is no such thing as a humanities PhD without debt if your EFC is zero because apparently the financial aid people have been funneling gift aid away from the poor to attract more wealthy students who would otherwise pay full price. http://www.propublica.org/article/how-state-schools-ramp-up-aid-for-the-wealthy-leaving-the-poor-behind And of course, most graduate programs’ “full funding” doesn’t really meet the cost of attendance.
With that being the case I don’t know quite how you can preserve access to the PhD for all socioeconomic classes at the same time as recommending people not to undertake debt to get the PhD, though I agree absolutely that it isn’t sensible on economic grounds to take out the debt.
The rub is that even if my mentors knew what the job market was like and were completely forthcoming about it, I would have still gone into the field and taken out any amount of debt (even more than I actually have) to fulfill the obligation I feel I have towards the deity I firmly believed called me to this profession. I also won’t consider another profession in exclusion to this one. That’s an entirely personal obligation, and I’ve aggressively done my best to talk every prospective graduate student who has ever spoken to me about their future plans out of even considering a PhD. No need to pull other people into one’s own foolishness.
I respect anthropologists, by the way. A lot of very interesting work in theology right now is in the area of ethnographic theology, and it would be better work overall if more anthropologists addressed some of the theological issues (or else teamed up with theologians), rather than being done by theologians like myself who have to suddenly develop secondary skills in ethnography. The ethnography in ethnographic theology is often so amateurish it’s embarrassing.
Trix Bernier says
As so many before me have said, I greatly appreciate the time, effort, and detail you put into this article. I found the information to be extremely helpful in not only determining appropriate dress attire but also in gaining confidence in my ability to wear masculine clothing.
Transitioning from military culture to the civilian workforce has been confusing and difficult, but at least this is one less thing I need be concerned about.
Once again, thank you for the information you’ve provided.
– Greatful Veteran
Thanks for writing this. I had a second interview today (I work in K12 curriculum development) and the only concern they had was the conservative folks I’d need to shmooze. I left thinking I’d addressed their concerns, but afterward I started replaying it and was afraid I’d be nixed for being butch. My mother said “soften your look” to me about five times on the phone tonight. I needed to read this.
Thanks for this great article! As a lesbian stud, it really made me feel better to hear that I should still be myself in the workplace. Of course, as you said perfectly, it depends on the area where the job is located and I think that’s an important point. I have a question, something I didn’t really understand, how well does the corporate world accept gender expression? I’d like to go into psychology for my future profession, and people have already told me that, because it’s so conservative, I’d have a hard time finding a job if I showed up in a suit. Do you think they’d be as accepting as the other domains? It kind of worries me.
I can’t say for sure–i think it depends hugely on what workplace, what corporation? I think you have to just proceed onward and learn as you go.
RJ Factor says
Thank you, Karen, for recognizing the significance of this issue. I sometimes find myself dismissing the importance of feeling comfortable in what I’m wearing in a misinterpretation of 2nd wave feminists’ desire not to be judged on appearance. I appreciate your attentiveness to the subtleties of these issues and the recognition that, we are daily, to some extent, constructing our bodies and who we are, and some ways of being feel infinitely more inline with how we move and stand and experience ourselves in the world than others. To respond to others comments:
1. Thankfully, there are a number of businesses right now that cater to genderqueer, transguys, gender non-conforming folks:
bindle and keep
2. a good website to check out is dapperQ.com
3. the environments in which psychologists work vary tremendously with regards to gender nonconformity. Corporate environments and hospitals tend to be more conservative, while community psychological service centers and university counseling centers tend to be much more progressive– as a general rule. (Note – the higher the salary, the more gender rigidity — at least in my experience.)
Good luck to all gender non-conforming folk. Know that simply being yourself in your environment is a powerful, inspiring act and that you are helping to expand possibilities for those around you. Thank you.
And thank you, Karen, for helping to create this forum.
So, I’m a non-binary identified genderqueer assigned female at birth. I live in Oklahoma. I have spent most of my life wearing fairly androgynous clothes for everyday wear but going kind of low femme in situations where I need to dress up because I never learned to be comfortable (read: non-terrified) when wearing men’s dress clothes. As a teen I was assaulted while wearing boy-drag, and I’m sure that plays into my fear a lot. My partner is a trans man and has always been very masculine, and passes almost 100% of the time, and seems to have lost sight of how scary this can be. I feel like I’m in drag when I wear femme clothes but at least I don’t feel afraid to walk down the street in them!!
But here’s the thing: After a lifetime (I’m 45) of working in environments where my preferred jeans and t-shirts style was fine, I’m about to graduate from college. I’m okay with the business casual wear I’ll need for day-to-day in the office, but I am TERRIFIED of shopping for my interview suit. Giving up and just buying a woman’s suit feels like failure (plus I’ll have to wear the suit for court and such).
Thanks for this post. I’m going shopping in two days’ time, my partner in tow (good grief, I hate shopping!). This post was just what I needed to give me a bit of a boost. (All of those links to butch clothing sites are awesome, but we live on less than a living wage, so it’s going to be consignment and bargain rack shopping, and doing my own tailoring. *sigh*)
Thanks for writing, Makalove. Let me know how it turns out! I’d love to see pics!
I currently work for a women’s fashion box store, but on the .com support side. I am not super butch by any means, but it can be really hard in that environment to deal with seeing as a lot of the women in mgmt are pencil skirts and heels representing what our company has going on etc. Sadly it is pretty much how you get in to management, wearing whatever is featured an so on. I am one of the lucky few that escaped the trenches to move up like a monopoly space and a half [but one of the blocks where you lose a house or two (because it still kind of sucks) or whatever happens in monopoly, god knows I’m tapped out at half an hour anyways.)..Yea so pretty much slacks button ups and sneakers, I get away with jeans and a band tee when I can put a little cardigan over it or something. Anyways I don’t mind dressing up I actually like it, but there is always the damn show issue! I wont wear heels I hate them, flats just aren’t charming and honestly men’s dress shoes I just don’t like them I feel like it’s not me :/(what is a girl to do?) I think what I wanted to say is it’s just nice to hear the idea “don’t go into a job under false pretense”, especially in this context. It rings an honest truth, it is something we need to hear a bit more often. I think it is something we all kind of know, but white lie through our own persona a bit as we prepare and walk in to an interview, acting the person we imagine they want more than the person we are. Being true to yourself, it resonates, is more powerful. How you write of your partner reminds me of a teacher I had a few years back(had the hots for a tiny secretive bit too lol), honestly it is so comforting when someone does it you know like this is me I am smart I can hold my own I am here because I deserve to be and yeh I’m wearing a suit or tie or whatever it is that beyond “convention”. It is like giving up the ghost that has lingered around since 50’s marketing hit it’s goldmine of gender segregation. It opens doorways for other things though, strength of character is exactly that and when exemplified doesn’t necessarily represent only the defeat of a specific personal battles or hurdles of our societal sects, but has the ability to shine in a way visible for anyone to see. I just want to say kudos, kudos foremost above the banter, I pleasantly stumbled upon this piece and such great comments that just let us not be alone on just this one little topic that carries so much.
I’m 27 and heavy set butch. Interviews scare the poop out of me. The fear that that middle aged Italian man will look at me in disgust is very real. Confidence is key I guess. Thank u
Thanks for addressing this. I’m not a PhD, but I am a queer, plus-sized woman in a male-dominated field. When I look back at what I wore to interviews coming out of undergrad through my mid-20’s…yikes. I was wearing heels and skirts and shiny things because I thought I had to – and felt uncomfortable and not confident. Since then, I’ve found “nuetral” suits – classic women’s clothing that isn’t girly at all. I get it tailored to fit. I get a haircut. I wear my matching socks and polished shoes. I accessorize with a nice watch.
I appreciate your point…suit it up, but in the gender-expression that works for you.
And a note to the other plus-sized women: I’ve found that Talbots has classic styles that fit tall and short curvy bodies without the frills and bling too often attached to plus-sized clothes. Navy wool suit with two button jacket? Done.
Hey all, I too am soft butch and have recently changed careers from oilfield to sales. I thank you for writing this, plus the replies are great help as well. I got lost for a bit in what to wear to work as I hate women’s clothes and don’t like how I feel in them but want to be professional so I will wear what I feel comfortable in and not lose my identity for the sake of a job. Check out this newer site hautebutch.com I think I will be doin some online shopping here right away.
Thank you again for this post, Karen. If I can add my two cents, I have found that as a butch with an inconveniently feminine body type (very short and very curvy), the best thing short of getting a suit made is to find conservative women’s pantsuits and blouses that fit my body well (Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, etc) and wear them with masculine shoes/socks and no jewelry, etc–the usual styling–and I look butch. I wasn’t impressed with St. Harridan’s ability to fit my body type, and I feel like fit is what makes a butch look confident.
Great article, thanks for writing! I’m studying to be a maths and science teacher, and I’m trying to get my head around workplace butch attire..
There are a couple of quick bits of feedback I’d like to give. The first is that there are actually masculine presenting folks in Japan, often using “bo-i-shyu” to describe themselves. There may be fewer white butches, but there are some of us in Japan as well (I was until a little while ago). I find I get read as male a lot wherever I am, Japan, Australia… you name it.
I think it’s really important to remember that people who present as butch/gender diverse or trans exist in every country and every culture, it’s not just white people. Making an assumption that butches are more likely to face misunderstanding or hostility from people who aren’t WASPS is a trap we should be careful not to fall into.
The second piece of feedback is that, although the advice to be comfortable with who you are is really wonderful advice, I think it’s also important to acknowledge that if someone isn’t comfortable with who they are, it isn’t due to some personal failing, or because they aren’t trying hard enough. Not receiving familial or community support for who you are or facing discrimination of other kinds (such as racism, abelism, fatphobia) are probably going to make being comfortable with yourself harder. Being broke or poor and not being able to buy the clothes that fit you the way you wish can be another big thing. There’s a way to being comfortable with who you are, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Finding people who love and support you for who you are, and see how fantastic you are is going to be as important as working inside your own head to find acceptance (although now I’ve strayed a long way from the simple question of how to dress like a butch dyke!”)
As someone who has struggled with doing what’s comfortable for themselves and what makes her parents/society happy, this article has brought me so much relief. I have just discovered your writing, and I wish I had come across it a lot sooner because I would have better ways of explaining my experiences and feelings to my family and friends. I am a second year graduate student in a PhD program, and I have been struggling with “how to be,” so to speak, my entire career. This article, and reading about your experiences and tribulations, has given me so much validation that I am getting surprisingly emotional. So, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I will definitely be following your blog and reading as much as I can.
I’m so glad!
Thanks for this great article!The rub is that even if my mentors knew what the job market was like and were completely forthcoming about it, I would have still gone into the field and taken out any amount of debt (even more than I actually have) to fulfill the obligation I feel I have towards the deity I firmly believed called me to this profession.
I just want to say that I needed this so much today. I know I’m reading it on a weird internet timeline, but thank you so much for this. It’s actually making me cry.
Karen Kelsky says
I am glad.
Dom Rodriguez says
I have an important job interview very soon and was feeling very nervous on how I should dress. I always dress more masculine, and I never second guess myself. Reading what you wrote is helping me gain confidence where I all of a sudden lacked. Would you be able to view and approve a photo?
Karen Kelsky says
sure why not! Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi, Dr. Karen! I’ve found your book and blog very helpful as I prepare to go on the market next year. That said, I’m struggling with your comment here that ‘[t]he “lesbian,” “androgynous,” “post-butch,” “boi,” and “FTM” moments passed her by unheeded.’ The last part, in particular, feels like a microaggression — suggesting that being trans was a ‘moment’ (and one that was apparently over by 2011… lol). I understand the distinction you were trying to make, but I’m certain there’s a way to make it without implying that being trans is a trend, when that narrative is being used to cause very serious harm to young trans people right now in 2021. Would you consider editing that part of the post?
Karen Kelsky says
Good point; yes i will.
Karen Kelsky says
Thanks, I appreciate it!