There’s an onomatopoeia to the word. It begins with a sibilant, sinuous, sensual ess, then moves on to a gentle ah that caresses the palate. Then the quick succession of consonants hitting the lips and teeth like a playful kitten batting a toy mouse. The word is a delicacy, smooth and subtle.
As a descriptor, it can be tactile: pliable, cushioned, comfortable. Cotton sheets worn silky smooth. Downy puppy fur. Velvet rose petals drawn across bare skin. But of course, the negative associations slip in quickly: pliable becomes yielding, yielding becomes weak. A soft touch. Soft-hearted. A big softie. An antonym not just for hard but for strong.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be strong, to be tough. I didn’t want to be soft. How could I be anything but soft, though, when PE was my worst subject and I was so sensitive that the slightest injustice—Nikki’s mom yelling at me for wearing shoes on Nikki’s waterbed, even though the tell-tale footprint clearly came from Nikki’s shoe—or most mundane tragedy—restless teens dismembering a cheap claw-machine teddy bear in my presence—never failed to make me cry?
More onomatopoeia here, too: a voiced plosive, a deep vowel, three consonants in a row. Similar in feel to “macho”—but subtly different in meaning. Stereotypically masculine. Nothing about me has ever been masculine, so how could I ever be butch?
Dickies pants became the rage when I was in high school. As an alternative-rock aficionado who obsessed over the sound and aesthetics of the movie Singles—it came out when I was twelve and changed my life—I knew I needed them. When I was 16 and had both a job and transportation, I made my way to the local Tillys to snag a pair. The black cotton twill was stiff under my fingers as I stepped into the pants and pulled them up.
The Dickies pulled against my hips, uncomfortably snug, and gaped so wide at my waist I could fit a fist between my skin and the cloth. I left the store disappointed. Why did I even bother? “Good, childbearing hips,” people would tell me, even as an adolescent. I resigned myself to a presentation that never quite matched the ideal in my head.
When I was an adolescent, the parts of my appearance I was most satisfied with, even proud of—and, not incidentally, these were also the things I got the most compliments and praise for—were my hair, long and fine and honey-brown, and my thinness.
At fourteen I was paired with another girl for a dance routine, and she openly admired my prominent collarbones: “You have those,” she exclaimed, gesturing at the neckline of my t-shirt. “I want those!” So rarely did I have anything someone else wanted!
I was plenty thin, then, despite my wide-set hips, and it felt right. But my frame was clearly all wrong. I should have looked like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, strong and hard and fierce. Instead, I was still somehow soft—one time I substituted for one of the bass drum regulars in the winter drumline, and the drum harness left big enough bruises on my hip bones that I had to tape folded dish towels across my abdomen for the performance.
So I was thin, and I was soft, and somehow that made it easier to believe I was straight.
These days, I’m Schrodinger’s fat girl, simultaneously existing in a state of thinness and fatness depending on who’s observing me and how they’re doing so. In the doctor’s office, I am fat. Nurses look at my BMI (body mass index), waist circumference, and body fat percentage—which I dutifully submit myself to measurements of every year in exchange for benefits through my workplace’s employee wellness program—and tut. I need to get more exercise and eat better. They say—not in so many words, but they say it nonetheless—that I take up too much space. There should be less of me—and what there is of me ought to be more socially acceptable. None of this perpetually messy hair or sprawling limbs or visible tattoos or constant fidgeting.
In the rest of my life, though, I’m not really fat, which is to say that I don’t face most of the marginalizations fat people have to deal with. Sure, I might have a relative see photos of me online (from a relay race, no less!) and email me to say I really ought to lose weight, but I can mostly buy clothes off the rack. I fit into airplane and movie seats without discomfort. I don’t get more street harassment than the average woman or femme.
But somehow, at the same time, in groups of thin people—particularly women, particularly straight women—I’m definitely fat. Once I stood by quietly while two women friends bonded over having (allegedly) put on a few pounds, and how unattractive it made them. “I’m bigger than both of you,” I eventually murmured, “so you must think I’m a monster.” Oh, no, they assured me, “you’ve just got those child-bearing hips!”
Good, child-bearing hips. The structure of my frame says I’m meant to procreate. Is that why it took me until I was almost thirty to realize I didn’t want to?
I had this boyfriend in ninth grade that I adored. Sure, he had an anger problem and a way of making all his issues feel as if they were my responsibility, if not my fault, but I really did love everything about him. Everything about him was soft and gentle. I talked about how the moment I fell in love with him was when I realized he was crying with me over a fight within our friend group (precipitated, it occurs to me now, by a friend calling me a “two-timing slut,” “as a joke”).
He came out as gay three years later, long after we broke up. The fact that he’d never wanted to do more than gently smooch me suddenly made sense.
Meanwhile, I attributed the fact that I’d never wanted to do more than gently smooch him back to my being a girl. There seemed to be a sort of basic logic to it: soft boys and soft girls must like boys. Hard boys and hard girls must like girls. The idea that any of those dichotomies—soft/hard, boy/girl, straight/gay—might point to people who existed in a place of “both/and” or “neither/nor” didn’t occur to me until much later.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t question how those labels applied to me, personally, until much later.
After I graduated from college, I gained weight slowly but steadily—and the world didn’t end, as my adolescent self would have expected it to. I got rounder and softer, but also stronger, inside and out—surprising friends with how much I could carry when I helped them move, beginning to learn when and how to prioritize my own needs. If I could break the rule that thin was the only right way to be and come out the other side even stronger, even more comfortable in my skin, what other rules could I break?
The use of “queer” to mean “strange” dates back to the sixteenth century. I lost track of the number of times I was called “weird” as a kid and adolescent. Part of the weirdness was that I frequently had my nose stuck in a book, which means I first encountered the word “queer” in that older, “odd duck” sense, while reading. I think I encountered it in its derogatory sense the same way. The reclamation of the word as an umbrella term happened in the late twentieth century, around the same time I was growing up. I heard it at the first Pride festival I attended as a tween in the early 1990s, helping my mom staff a booth for the psychology clinic she worked at.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my French class was assigned a group project highlighting a region in France. I don’t remember the exact region my group was assigned; I just remember it was a region that produced leather. We were at one group member’s house, putting the final touches on the project. I have no memory of how this came up, but the group member dug out a pair of shorts his mom had kept around for decades: burgundy suede hot pants. I was usually fairly draped in fabric: baggy jeans; big t-shirts I tucked in, then tugged out a bit so they’d blouse around my waist; loose hoodies—but somehow the group decided the shorts would fit me. And indeed they did. Picture this, then: a mid-1990s camcorder slowly pans up an awkward teenager’s body as she models a vintage pair of hot pants. A voice-over—me? another group member? all four of us?—intoned the French word for leather: cuir. “Cuir, cuir, cuir,” we chanted in our best advertising voices—pronunciation shaped by suburban southern California, the edges of the consonants sanded off, the vowels pushed forward in our mouths, so we might as well have been saying “queer.”
I modeled vintage hot pants while a handful of people—myself included—chanted “queer,” like a ritual of invocation. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more apt origin story. I had my first crush on a girl sometime in the next year, though several more years would pass before I realized that’s what it was. Once awareness arrived, I tried various labels on, but none quite fitted. Queer always fitted me like those hot pants: unexpectedly but perfectly.
VII. Soft butch
Despite my fitting comfortably under the queer umbrella, I’d never really given all that much thought to the specifics of my gender identity and expression. I met a trans man when I was twenty-four who used the same nickname I do, which made it easier to see our similarities, but I knew immediately that his path wasn’t mine. Later that year I met someone who epitomizes high femme, and, again, I could immediately see both how perfectly she embodied that expression, and how poorly it would suit me.
The person I thought of at the time as my boyfriend, then my husband, used to joke that I was the man in the relationship—despite my tender heart, my frequent tears, my undeniable softness—but I was more or less content in just knowing what I wasn’t. It seems possible I could have stayed in that liminal place forever, but then, when we were in our mid-thirties, my wife came out as trans.
This is not a story of my adapting to my wife being trans. I’d always known we were both queer, and discovering I was married to a woman came more as a pleasant surprise than anything else.
What did happen, though, was that her coming out gave me permission to do more soul-searching, to try to pinpoint my gender identity and ideal gender expression. I first encountered the term “soft butch” in one of those joke “futch scale” charts—the ones that sort musical instruments or tropical fruits on a scale from high femme to stone butch—but it stuck with me. It didn’t seem to be something I was allowed to call myself, though: image searches on Google or Pinterest just led to rows of photos of beautiful slender white people with artful short haircuts and distressed jeans. Lots of Kristen Stewart and Elliot Page and occasionally Justin Bieber. I am definitely too old and too fat to try to emulate those folks! Eventually I lamented on Twitter that I was drawn to the soft butch aesthetic but didn’t know if I could pull it off, given that I’m not thin. I quickly received a slightly baffled but firm response from a genderqueer acquaintance that of course I could. In some ways I’m still a kid, seeking others’ permission to accept myself.
I realize as I write this that I’m wearing what might be my quintessential soft butch outfit—it fits me almost without my trying. Distressed jeans—a pair that I stole from my wife long before she transitioned. They fit my hips and thighs beautifully, which means I have to cinch a belt tight to make them stay up around my waist, but I know how to manage that now. A close-fitting t-shirt celebrating a punk band I’ve seen in concert a good dozen times. Hair pulled back into a messy bun. Fuzzy gray slippers with arch support, because I’m a middle-aged fat person, so of course I have plantar fasciitis. A gentle breath before a firm statement: the perfect mixture of soft and butch.
Rumpus original art by Cowboy Rocky.
Excerpted from Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, edited by Bruce Owens Grimm, Miguel M. Morales, and Tiff Joshua TJ Ferentini. Copyright © 2021 by Nora E. Derrington. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Jessica Kingsley Publishers.