Lesbian Subcultures: Are you Looking for a Butch or Femme?
Whether it’s the femmes reclaiming femininity from the male gaze or rejecting feminine gender norms by embracing butch, this lesbian subculture is intrinsically radical, but how much do you know about it?
". . . a butch is someone who has taken on the best gendered characteristics of both woman and man, left a lot of the stuff born of misogyny and heterosexism behind, and walked forward into the world without apology."
The Butch/Femme culture within the lesbian community is deeply complex, and ever-changing. It has not remained the same since its inception in the 1950s and has always been a dynamic that many have struggled to adequately explain to those that don’t understand or are new to the community.
As a femme who loves butches in all their strength and vulnerability, this piece is written to give a basic context and understanding of the dynamics. It is important to remember that:
(a) No singular piece of writing can speak for all butches and femmes as we are part of an ever-changing, incredibly multifaceted community.
(b) Not all lesbians identify within a Butch/Femme dynamic. Lesbians are an incredibly diverse group of people, just like any other group within the LGBT2Q+ community. We exist in many facets and intersecting identities and no one should have any labels forced onto them.
Existing in Defiance
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “butch” means a “lesbian of masculine appearance or behavior", while “femme” means a “lesbian of feminine appearance or behaviour” but as always, there is more to it than that. From its emergence among working-class lesbian bar culture in the 1940s to its resurgence in the 1990s, this subculture has an interesting and rich hidden history.
The butch/femme culture emerged in the 1940s and 50s as a set of sexual and emotional identities amongst lesbians, but it is difficult to find accurate records of when exactly it entered the queer community as common use. Heidi Levitt explains that butch women “stretched the image of what being female can mean by appropriating signs of masculinity—but without being granted the social and economic power traditionally afforded to masculine males”. They still do today. Femme lesbians were “adopting a role of active social rebellion rather than one of weakness or passivity, femme-ininity took on a new form” as they expressed attraction for butch lesbians rather than men.
In the1940s, when working class bars provided safe havens for women to explore their gender presentation away from prying eyes, many middle and upper class lesbians refused to associate with the bar scene, fearing the association would impact their ‘respectable’ image. In addition, they often pressured butches to appear more feminine in an effort to blend in and seem less threatening to mainstream society. As a result, the bars became dominated by female manual labourers -- it was much easier for butch women to avoid oppressive dress codes as a taxi driver or a factory worker. From the 1940s through to the 1960s, butches and femmes were easy to recognize in the queer bars: the butches could be spotted with their men’s clothing, short hair styles and suave, chivalrous manners while their femme counterparts were more traditionally styled in dresses, high heels and makeup.
This distinct and highly visible queer cultural form was considered the norm amongst lesbians during the 1950s and any deviance from these identities were often stigmatized with women who did not fall into either category deemed as “confused”. Today, these women are often referred to as “switches” and make up a rare delight when one finds someone who can navigate both modes easily.
Additionally, the unwritten rules of butch/femme in this era dictated that butch/butch and femme/femme relationship were considered taboo. The butches with their tough exterior and lauded sexual expertise was expected to find a femme to devote their attention to and protect while the femmes, often mistakenly looked at as being passive searched for their perfect butch to care for. The couples frequently settled down into committed, long-term relationships and fought hard simply to be themselves in an era of extreme sexual repression and bigotry.
In the 1980s butch/femme became more widely used as sexually empowering terms, and not just for working class women. There were “butch bottoms” and “femme tops” who used the terms for their own pleasure. In the ballroom scene, queer people of color used the term in categories that measured masculinity, like “butch realness” or “butch queen”, and developed their own terms such as "stud", while it was the working-class and bar culture that one could mostly find the classic butch/femme dynamic.
Later twentieth-century identity politics however, linked closely to the lesbian feminist movement beginning in the early 1970s, dismissed butch/femme culture as politically incorrect. Many lesbians of this era critiqued butch/femme as a continuation of oppressive patriarchal standards and replicating heterosexuality by designating one member of a couple as male (the butch) and the other as female (the femme). Even today this argument is frequently aired. However, it is highly problematic because of its own assumption of heteronormativity--that is, the principle that heterosexuality is normal, and that all other forms of sexuality are only weak imitations of it.
Beyond The Dapper Suit And Tie: What Is Butch?
Many people misunderstand butches and they often face questions asking if they are just confused, or “trying to be men'', or questions about transition. While there are butches who have a complex relationship with gender, it is a common misconception that butchness is a signifier of (eventually or present) manhood. This assumption is based on equating gender expression with gender identity, however, outward expression is not equal to gender. Butches are simply another subset of lesbians, not something else entirely. It is no secret that, other than trans-identified members of our community, butches face some of the most overt homophobic violence. Many a femme has had to walk their butches into the bathroom and defend their right to be there. No institution or culture privileges butches and they are often routinely punished; both in their gender-non-conformity and in their status as a visible marker of lesbianism.
While it is impossible to define strictly the essence of butchness, one can examine characteristics that many butches share. More than simply a mode of dressing or a preference in the bedroom, butch identity is often based on their powerful energy. Rather than attempting to replicate traditional masculinity and heterosexuality, butches present a challenge to both in their rejection of how the dominant culture has decided a woman should look and act.
"I love butch girls. Girls with slick, shiny, barbershop haircuts, trimmed so short your fingertips can barely grip it. Girls with shirts that button the other way. Girls that swagger... Girls who get stared at in the ladies' room, girls who shop in the boys’ department, girls who live every moment looking like they weren't supposed to. Girls with hands that touch me like they have been exploring my body their entire lives... It is the girls that get called sir every day who make me catch my breath, the girls with strong jaws who buckle my knees, the girls who are a different gender who make me want to lay down for them."
The Shape Of Her Lips, The Short Of Her Skirt: What Is Femme?
Femmes are perhaps best described as someone who identifies as a woman and whose manner and style falls along the lines of what is traditionally considered feminine. Whereas butches are sometimes accused of trying to be men, femmes are sometimes accused of hiding in traditional femininity to pass as straight in the mainstream world. Femmes face what is known as “femme invisibility” where often they are not seen as queer and belonging to the community and often have to continuously “out” themselves.
The femininity of a femme is a unique one, one where the desires and autonomy of the femme in question are just as central as their desire for attracting the eyes of other women (traditionally for butches, but not always or entirely). The centering of women is what makes a femme unique from other women. While a femme’s looks and mannerisms may appear to be similar to that of traditional heterosexual femininity, it is really something else in its entirety.
While butch expressions may be centered around protection and strength, femme expressions are usually centered around care. Materially and historically, femmes were caretakers of their communities and their butches in their own ways. If a femme’s butch came home injured, the femme would provide a safe space, a place of comfort and healing bound together by a tenderness and love only found in this dynamic. If there was danger in using a public restroom, the femme was right there to stare down anyone who dared to suggest the butch was in the wrong restroom. Often femmes hyper-feminized their outfits in order to provide a safe contrast to their butches in public to avoid attacks. Joan Nestle once wrote that “[…] femmes helped hold our lesbian world together in an unsafe time. We poured out more love and wetness on our bar stools and in our homes than women were supposed to have”. Femme lesbians were, and still are, pillars of the community and subculture.
Butch/Femme Salons and Beyond
Today, from portrayals in media - Orange is the New Black, Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home - to the monthly butch/femme salon events, and women’s dances to your local queer potlucks, one can see a diverse array of butches and femmes on a fluid scale, expressing themselves in a myriad of ways, but still dancing the intricate dance of the butch/femme subculture.
Butch/femme relationships hold a valuable place in queer history. Born in the earliest years of the struggle to be allowed to exist, butch women were the protectors, femmes were healers; both were fighters. Together they persisted in the face of violence and persecution from outside of the queer community and doubt and mischaracterization from within. They rewrote the terms and conditions of womanhood, and rewrote masculine and feminine social roles. Butch/femme partners paved the way for lesbians to come by creating the first safe spaces for them to explore their sexualities and to find one another in lesbian bars. While today they may be somewhat redefined, they still hold a valuable place rooted in women’s history. As Joan Nestle said, “…history that has no place for femme-butch women will find itself impoverished”.
- Levitt, H. M., Puckett, J. A., Ippolito, M. R., & Horne, S. G. (2012). Sexual minority women’s gender identity and expression: challenges and supports. Journal Of Lesbian Studies, 16(2), 153-176.
- Nestle, J. (1992). The persistent desire. Boston: Alyson Publications.
- Levitt, H. M., & Hiestand, K. R. (2004). A Quest for Authenticity: Contemporary Butch Gender Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 50, 605–621
- Faderman, L. (1991).Odd girls and twilight lovers: A history of lesbian life in twentieth century America. New York: Columbia University Press
- Lapovsky-Kennedy, E., & Davis, M. D. (1993). Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The history of a lesbian community. New York: Penguin
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