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.'”
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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.