[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.
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!