A couple of weeks ago a young butch friend of mine asked me if I would help her out with her art-school homework. She said she was doing a photo project, taking pictures of older butches. You know, like, documenting her elders.
Sure, I thought to myself, I know several older butches who I could hook her up with. A couple of them have moved to the Sunshine Coast, like they do, but I could certainly track them down, no problem.
It slowly dawned on me that she was referring to me. I was the older butch she wanted to document. At first this realization made me laugh, and then it made my right knee ache, like it does.
I am 42. She is 21. I can’t help but do the math. I had been out of the closet for three years already by the time she was born. I was navigating my way through the gender binary blues when she was learning to do up the Velcro straps on her first-day-of-school shoes. She has probably never dialled a rotary phone.
More and more at my shows, young butches and barely whiskered trans guys have been coming up and telling me that my books and stories helped them get through high school, or even junior high. They thank me for being a role model. This makes me feel simultaneously honoured and terrified. It makes my heart sing to know that they had what I didn’t even know I needed when I was a kid: someone they could imagine growing up to be like. It makes my heart pound to know that this means I now have to somehow be worthy of this kind of respect.
How can I possibly be a role model when I feel like I am just now starting to fit into my own skin? When I am still stretching and bending the space around me to make room for myself? How could I possibly give advice away when I just got my hands on it?
I find it way easier to imagine whispering any wisdom I may have gleaned from the last four decades into the ear of a younger me. If I could magically tell my younger self something I know now that I wish I had known then, what would that be?
First of all, I would tell myself not to be too proud to ask for advice. Remember, you don’t have to take advice just because someone has given it. Of course, my 21-year-old self may not have taken the time to listen to present-day me, but I will continue, regardless.
Dear younger self: floss your teeth. It turns out you will eventually be a working artist, just like you always dreamed. A man named Stephen Harper will one day rule this land, and he will care nothing for artists or queers or even healthcare. You need teeth, and you alone will be financially responsible for them. Floss is cheaper than even your commie pinko East End lesbian dentist will be.
Quit smoking. Please see above. I am not going to say this again. Okay, I am. Quit smoking right now.
Your mother is worried that no one will like you or hire you or even love you if you look “like that.” She is wrong. This next bit is really important: she does not mean to intentionally do you harm or cause you to fear who and what you truly are. She worries because she fears what the world might do to you, and because she doesn’t know any successful tattooed butch storytellers with biceps and a brush cut. Yet. But one day she will, and she is going to love the hell out of future you. Trust me on this one.
Do not cave in to pressure from mainstream society to fit in. You do not, and will not ever, fit in. One day you will realize you don’t even want to anymore, and that your difference is inherently tied to your beauty, and your bravery, and your giant, mystical, invisible brass balls. You will love these balls, and they will swing majestically between your ears, inside the head you will hold up proudly.
Do not cave in to pressure from the queer community to fit in, either. Make your own decisions, and trust your own heart. Being butch is not just a bus stop on the highway to transitioning. You will learn to love your butch self. If you do ever decide to go on testosterone, build yourself into a good man. The last thing the world needs is another misogynist prick. Be the man your father accidentally taught you to be, even if it was only because you didn’t have a brother to help him out in the shop.
Make and keep long-term friendships. You will need them, and they will need you. This is one of the most important things you will ever do in your entire life.
Whenever possible, be polite. In the long run, your good manners will serve you better than even your most righteous rage.
Find a tailor, and be good to them. Get your pants hemmed properly, and learn what it feels like to have your clothes really fit your body. People come in all shapes; clothes do not. This is a wrong that can be easily righted. The world is going to try to squeeze you into many things that do not fit you, but your clothes need not be one of them.
Seek out a mentor. Listen to what they have to say, and then follow your own path. Keep a journal because one day someone is going to look up to you and even ask you for advice, and you are going to wish you had taken better notes.