Butch and femme are terms often used in the lesbian and gay subcultures to describe a person’s approximate adherence to traditional masculine and feminine gender roles respectively, within a same-sex relationship, or to describe an individual generally. Femme is also frequently used in the transgender community, see En femme.
Butch and femme attributes
The term butch often is used to describe certain lesbians, though the term is also used for gay men. Butch can entail short-cropped hair, overtly masculine clothes including possibly military dress, attitude involving deliberate machismo, and chivalry. Femme can entail long or femininely styled hair, skirts and other feminine clothing and/or a demure, nurturing attitude. These typical stereotypes can vary.
Among the subcultures composed of butch gay men is the “bear community”. Gay men who are more femme are sometimes described as “flamers”. Femmes are sometimes confused with “lipstick lesbians” which generally are understood to be feminine lesbians who are attracted to and partner with other feminine lesbians. Conversely butch lesbians may be described as a “bulldyke” or simply just “dyke”, however the term bulldyke is generally considered derogatory. The usage of Dyke has has widened in recent years to encompass queer females in general.
Lesbians or gay men are not always strictly beholden to being nor do adopt strictly butch or strictly femme roles. Many adopt elements of both. Relationships are not always butch/femme either, though these forms of relationships of course do exist. Many butch gay men will only date other masculine men, though others prefer femme men. Among homosexuals the practices of ‘femme on femme’ and ‘butch on butch’ sex preferences are sometimes repressed by cultural mores.
Butch and femme in history
The butch-femme pairing in relationships was more common among lesbians of older generations. In Debra A. Wilson’s documentary The Butch Mystique an older woman named Matu says that this was because in the past a woman was in physical danger if she was obviously with another woman in a romantic capacity, and butch women felt that being tough was necessary to protect themselves and their female companions, leading to a reputation of toughness and pejorative terms such as “bulldyke”, “diesel dyke” that accompanied it.
Prior to the 1970s, some feminist theorists pronounced “butch/femme” politically incorrect, because they believed that all butch/femme dynamics by necessity imitate heterosexist gender roles, leading to butch/femme relationships being driven underground.
However, “inherent to butch-fem relationships was the presumption that the butch is the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking….Yet unlike the dynamics of many heterosexual relationships, the butch’s foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a femme. The essence of this emotional/sexual dynamic is captured by the ideal of the “stone butch,” or untouchable butch….To be untouchable meant to gain pleasure from giving pleasure. Thus, although these women did draw on models in heterosexual society, they transformed those models into an authentically lesbian interaction.” (Davis and Lapovsky, 1989)
Antipathy towards female butches and male femmes can be interpreted as transphobia.
Many young people today eschew butch or femme classifications, believing that they are inadequate to describe an individual, or that labels are limiting in and of themselves. Some people within the queer community have tailored the common labels to be more descriptive, such as “soft stud,” “hard butch,” “gym queen,” or “tomboy femme.”
Lesbians and genderqueers who identify as Butch or Femme have experienced a renaissance as the internet has brought the butch-femme community together through large websites like Butch-Femme.com. To be either butch or femme challenges traditional gender roles and expectations about appropriate gender presentation and desire, and expands the concept of what it means to be female. Some femme men and butch women regard themselves thus as genderqueer for that reason, but many others do not. Moreover, some genderqueer people identify their gender primarily as butch or femme, rather than man or woman.
- Lipstick lesbian
- Girly girl
- Stone Femme
- Amazon feminism
- Judith Halberstam
- Soft butch
- Stone butch
- En femme
- Davis, Madeline and Lapovsky Kennedy, Elizabeth (1989). “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community”, Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past (1990), Duberman, etc, eds. New York: Meridian, New American Library, Penguin Books. ISBN-0452010675.
- Butch-Femme.com – Butch-Femme.com is a large, vibrant online and real-time community for dykes and genderqueers who identify within the many variations of Butch and Femme, as well as transgendered or FTM (female-to-male transexual). A quote from Daddy Rhon the webmaster of Butch-Femme.com: “Butch is about being who you are. It is not about ‘labels.’ We define who we are when we tell the truth about our lives. Butch, stone Butch, Femme, and stone Femme are natural gender expressions that are of the heart, having little to do with appearance or any stereotypical code of behavior.”
- Butch-Femme Socials of the San Francisco Bay Area is a social group that meets in SF and Oakland at local bars and other venues for meet and greets, in clubs for dancing monthly, and at leather events. We host game nights, movie nights, and some clean and sober events.
- Butch/Femme Society is New York City’s oldest and largest butch/femme social and support group. BFS is committed to providing social education, emotional support, and entertainment to the much ignored butch/femme community. Since 1989, we’ve strived for fair representation of every ethnicity, all age groups, and all social and occupational backgrounds. BFS has a strict non-exclusionary policy and is open to all lesbians and TG/TS who support the beautiful butch/femme dynamic.
- Straightacting.com is a site and forum, originally launched in Long Beach, California, USA in 2000, where homosexual men from many parts of the world discuss their butch-ness or femme-ness and many other topics. It includes a humorous quiz to measure this butch-ness or femme-ness.
- GLBTQ.com “Butch-Femme”