Butch as a personality type

Butch and femme are a very misunderstood topic, even among lesbians. I think that’s because only a small number of lesbians are these types—we come in all different kinds besides these, so lots of lesbians don’t know what these are. I have started getting annoyed at the number of times I see butch and femme being used as superficial masculine or feminine presentations that can be taken off or put on like an outfit. Butch does not mean “the one with the shorter hair” and it doesn’t mean you happen to have put on a flannel shirt today. Neither does femme mean that you happen to have put on lipstick today.

Being butch is a lifelong personality trait. A butch begins life as a tomboy and is immediately obvious as being different. She grows into a lesbian who looks blatantly gay and can’t hide it no matter what she does. It’s not just about her clothing or haircut. She’d still look butch if she tried to wear women’s clothing. That might make her look even more butch. It’s because she has an unmistakable personality, that comes with ways of thinking and relating and certain mannerisms that are automatic to her that she cannot turn off. This is really hard to explain to people. When people try to explain it, it always ends up sounding vague. I asked a friend of mine if she would try to explain what it means to her to be butch. She thought about it for a while and wrote this:

“What does ‘butch’ mean to me?
How do I define something that is innate, that is as much a part of me as hair and eye color, as automatic as my heartbeat or breathing?
It is not something I ‘put on’ every day, like a watch or a ring, nor can I take it off. It cannot be hidden with a dress or a skirt, or a hairstyle–in fact, those things make my butchness even more blatantly obvious.
I want to ‘get this right,’ I want to define myself in such a way that there is little, or nothing, to question. I think that starts with ‘what I am not.’
First and foremost, I am a masculine woman, I am not ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body.’ I have never felt that way. While I knew from a child that I was not like other girls, I never attributed those differences to being male. I was a girl who liked ‘boy’ things, the clothes, the toys, the play that focused on ‘boy’ games. Yes, that made me different from other girls, but frankly, not all other girls, and the differences only became apparent when they moved on to the things most girls become interested in–their appearances, their crushes, their standings in the various cliques in school.
I did not move on. I kept the clothes and the sports, traded my toys for a junker of an International Scout truck that was nearly as old as I was, and developed full-blown crushes, but on other girls. I didn’t find this odd or disturbing, it just ‘was,’ but I also was fortunate, because the girls liked me back. I was not scary to talk to like their boy crushes, they could lean-in while I smiled and joked and put them at ease while we practiced our flirting without the fear of rejection. It was win-win.
There was no internet, no resources for gay kids when I was growing up, we learned like most teens learned about anything–on the street. I first heard the term ‘baby butch’ when it was bestowed on me on my first (illegal) night in a gay bar, by a drag queen hiding me from the cops who’d come in to ‘check out’ the place. I’d never heard the term, of course I hadn’t, I didn’t know I was actually gay until the year before. There was, back then, still the distinction of butch and femme, though the lines were only just starting to blur between the two.
I am a butch, all grown up now, and not much different from the baby butch I was years ago. There is no ‘performing’ on my part, I am not ‘playing a role’ and I never have. I have no doubt of who I am, what I am. I am a woman who loves women and, over time, I have learned that women are as diverse as snowflakes, that even if a woman loves women, it does not mean that she will love a butch. For some women, or maybe more than some, we are ‘too gay,’ ‘too masculine.’ ‘Too much like men.’ And so, we are dismissed out-of-hand.
No one seems to like labels, though there are plenty to hand around. Personally, you can label me a butch, gladly, because I’m too damn old to care if that offends anyone, and maybe a little happy if it does. There is also a label for a woman who loves butches, who actively seeks them out, and that is ‘Femme.'”
*     *      *
There is a line from Stone Butch Blues that I want to mention. Jess is trying to explain to Theresa that she is different from other lesbians. She calls herself a he-she, a word that I personally don’t like at all, but it explains how she feels. She says “They don’t call the Saturday night butches he-shes. It means something. It’s a way we’re different. It doesn’t just mean we’re lesbians.” (p. 147–148.)
There is a difference between Jess and a “Saturday-night butch.” The Saturday-night butch goes to the lesbian bar wearing a suit, but doesn’t necessarily look masculine in her day-to-day life. Jess has something about her that she can’t turn off. She can’t just put on a different outfit, what’s different about her would still be visible. That’s what I mean by having a butch personality.
Any woman can put on a suit, or go around without makeup, and that doesn’t make her butch. Butch doesn’t just mean “not performing artificial aspects of femininity.” It’s a lesbian personality type and a lived experience.
Some butches call themselves “outside the gender binary” because their “gender” is not what people expect from women. I understand what they mean by that, but I don’t feel comfortable explaining it that way myself. Butches are women, they have a rare, but still legitimate, female personality type, and they do not need to identify outside of womanhood.
Regardless of how she explains herself, a butch always needs to be with a woman who understands her. A woman who is embarrassed about the way she looks or who thinks she is “too blatant” or “too gay” and should “tone it down” is not a suitable partner. She needs to find someone like me, who finds her natural self sexy and irresistible and who is proud of her just the way she is.
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26 thoughts on “Butch as a personality type

  1. I agree with ALL of this except that Butches ONLY partner with Femmes. Some of us prefer partnering with ither Butches, a unique energy but also completely understood with similar sensibilities…abd some of us enjoy being with BOTH Butches and Femmes. I appreciate both, though my relationship preference is Butch on Butch. Euther way, I ONLY want to be with womyn who are Butch and size accepting, and don’t want me to “femme up” or “tone down”, like she said, and appreciate me exactly the way I am!!! I will share some of my Butch poetry to clarify better what prose cannot always express.

    -FeistyAmazon-Butch DykeAmazon

    Liked by 5 people

  2. This is always an interesting topic for me, because I’ve lived a very “butch” life (I very much relate to your friend’s history and perspective) but I never felt “butch” myself. I’ve had to use the word butch to describe myself and my experiences because there’s no other word for it, but I never felt it really was me, even when I tried really hard to embrace it.

    Previously, I always thought Butch and Femme were two opposing states, or existed on a kind of butch/femme spectrum – either way, Butch meant “masculine woman” and femme meant “feminine woman.” Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology really clarified things for me, though, and though these words are still useful, I find her explanation of the “Hag” more woman-centered and less male-defined.

    If femininity is a male invention, forced on women through female socialization, then a “butch” woman is essentially a woman who – for whatever reason – is not affected by female socialization. She is never “feminized” and so exists in her natural state. As such, she doesn’t have much choice as to how to present herself outside of what is not feminized, and so ends up seeming “male”. So the “butch” – or as Mary Daly puts it, Hag – is the default natural woman, and all other women are feminized by socialization to a greater or lesser degree.

    I think a lot of women find this intimidating, because female socialization is so deeply ingrained that it’s terrifying to think that it’s not innate. So it’s easier to describe butch women as being “masculine” and removed from the typical female experience, when really, they’re not removed at all, and never sent down that road of wondering if they are, possibly, male. That’s the beauty of Mary Daly working outside of male-defined words, even removing “androgynous” as an option. If men have defined both masculinity and femininity, we have to try to see women as innately existing beyond of those descriptors. Though I do think women can fall prey to becoming “masculinized” as much as they can fall prey to being “feminized.” What unfurls when we exist outside of these categories entirely?

    Just some thoughts, as my mind was so blown open by reading this book. I at last feel like there’s a space where I can exist, and it’s also the space where the women I’m most attracted to exist. (Is this Butch on Butch? Or just the absence of anything coded feminine? Hag & Hag perhaps!) I actually think more women can exist in that space than we presently believe, we just have to make room.

    Or at least keep talking about these things, and keep spinning.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I disagree – but not with what you’re actually saying. Even for gender critics, there’s a strong tendency to view gender as a binary. As we know, it is not, and perhaps that leaves a hanging question about what it is. You’d have to start with a detailed definition of what ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ means – and immediately find yourself in a tangle of cultural habits & personality traits. If it’s in the walk or the gestures, I can show you millions of men displaying the traits we call feminine. If it’s in a decisive character and leadership qualities, here are millions of women with just those supposedly masculine assets. In short, I don’t believe there is an *essential* woman or man beyond the physiological binary. Only essential humans! Everything else is personality & culture.

      It’s virtually impossible to shrug off cultural suppositions entirely (possibly even dangerous, unless you live on an isolated rock.) But we must keep questioning them.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I don’t find detailed definitions of masculine and feminine to lead to a tangle of cultural habits and personality traits. Personality traits like, as you mention, walking gaits or gestures, or leadership qualities, etc. are innate personality traits. When I talk about butches existing away from the effects of female socialization what I’m talking about are the ideas of what is feminine that are forced upon women by men. Some of these things may indeed be natural innate qualities (like a woman can be naturally soft-spoken or naturally nurturing or naturally overtly sexual) but when those ideas are a blanket statement across ALL women, those are the ideas that have to be pulled back and questioned: i.e. women being as youthful and “pretty”, women being objects of sexual availability, women being submissive, women being responsible for domestic and emotional labor, etc. In this case those aren’t unique personal traits, but rather what women have been forced to take on as “femininity” ascribed to their sex. It’s that enforced femininity that creates the binary you speak of.

        When you strip socialized femininity from a woman and just have a woman, you’re then working *outside* the binary, with a human being we really don’t know much about because no woman totally escapes female socialization. It’s inflicted on her from birth until death (save for that isolated rock!) But butches somehow manage to evade socialized femininity on many levels, and therefore give us an example of a woman in her natural habitat with only her personality traits, unaltered by proscribed femininity. I believe a large number of women internally exist like this, and women in general have been moving towards that state as we’ve been able to free ourselves from oppression and make autonomous choices in how we live.

        Does that mean every woman would end up “butch?” Not at all! But that question might be one reason why we we keep working on defining these words, while always grounded in the knowledge that a woman begins and ends as an adult human female in all her various and glorious forms.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting article. It reminded me of a friend I had years ago, late 70’s who was, what would be described nowadays as very butch, Short hair, dungarees, motorbike. Actually rather like PeachYoghurt of the vids https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvEBxEqM43Y-IU3nUW4ymQQ. She was however very definitely straight on her own terms and very much under her control.. She didn’t give a damn, wore what she wanted, was a strong feminist and took no shit from men,

    I was a couple of years younger than her and rather intimidated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We only *need* these words for the same reason we need other words that describe personality types. We need them for when we are describing our personalities. If you don’t want to use these words, you don’t have to. And for the record, I think that most lesbians are neither butch nor femme. There are all different personalities among lesbians.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good article. It’s difficult to explain myself to some people, especially inside of the LGBT umbrella. I get dissed for being Butch, told that I just want to be a man – which is the furthest thing from the truth – and told to “tone it down”. How would I change my personality? Me trying to tone it down would be like putting lipstick on a pig, it is still a pig. And I would be super uncomfortable. Thanks! ~MB

    Liked by 1 person

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