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Lesbian Butch/Femme Society march in New York City's Gay Pride Parade.

Butch and femme (French word for woman) are terms often used in the lesbian and gay subcultures to describe, respectively, masculine and feminine traits. Femme is also frequently used in the transgender community; see En femme.

Butch and femme attributes

The terms butch and femme are often used to describe lesbians, but also occasionally gay men.

Butch is an adjective used to describe one's gender performance. A masculine person (of any gender) can be described as butch.[1]

Stereotypes and definitions of butch and femme vary greatly, even within tight-knit gay and lesbian communities. "Butch" tends to denote masculinity displayed by a woman beyond that of what would be considered a "tomboy." It is not uncommon for butch-looking women to meet social disapproval. A butch woman could be compared to an effeminate man in the sense that both genders are historically linked to gay communities and stereotypes, whether or not the individuals in question are homosexual.

For western lesbians, butch-femme has had varying levels of acceptance throughout the 20th century. The practices of 'femme on femme' and 'butch on butch' sex preferences are sometimes repressed by cultural mores, notably in cultures where masculine tops who have sex with feminine bottoms or trans women are considered straight and in the mid-twentieth century U.S. working-class lesbian butch-femme scene.

Alternate conceptualizations of femme-butch persons suggest that butch and femme are, in fact, not hetero-mimicries or attempts to take up so-called 'traditional' gender roles. In the first instance, this argument situates 'traditional' gender roles as biological, ahistorical imperatives - a claim that has been contested by writers from Sigmund Freud to Judith Butler, Jay Prosser, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and many others. These authors take up gender as both socially and historically constructed, rather than as essential, 'natural', or strictly biological. Specifically with regard to butches and femmes, lesbian historian Joan Nestle argues that femme and butch may be seen as distinct genders in and of themselves (see The Persistent Desire, 1993). Elsewhere, it has been argued that butch and femme are 'read' as imperfect copies of heterosexual gender roles due to the uncritical assumption that masculinity and femininity are inseparable from genetic male-ness or female-ness. For example, to suggest that a butch woman is attempting to annex heterosexual male power or privilege - a claim leveled by some radical feminists (see Sheila Jeffreys and others) - fails to take note of the social censure leveled at individuals who reject social and cultural imperatives that link biological sex with what Judith Butler calls 'gender performance' (see Bodies that Matter, 1993).


It is difficult to determine how long butch and femme roles have been practiced by lesbians as prior to the middle of the 20th century in Western culture, gay and lesbian societies were mostly underground or secret. Photographs exist of butch - femme couples (transvestites, as they would have been called then) in the decade of 1910-1920 in the United States.[2] Butch and femme roles date back at least to the beginning of the 20th century. They were particularly prominent in the working-class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, where butch-femme relationships were the norm, while butch-butch and femme-femme were taboo.[3] Those who switched roles were called "ki-ki," which was considered a pejorative term; they were often the butt of jokes.[4]

In the 1940s in the U.S., most butch women had to wear conventionally feminine dress in order to hold down jobs, donning their starched shirts and ties only on weekends to go to bars or parties. The 1950s saw the rise of a new generation of butches who refused to live double lives and wore butch attire full-time, or as close to full-time as possible. This usually limited them to a few jobs, such as factory work and cab driving, that had no dress codes for women.[5] Their increased visibility, combined with the anti-gay rhetoric of the McCarthy era, led to an increase in violent attacks on lesbians, while at the same time the increasingly strong and defiant bar culture became more willing to respond with force. Although femmes also fought back, it became primarily the role of butches to defend against attacks and hold the bars as lesbian space.[6] While in the '40s the prevailing butch image was severe but gentle, it became increasingly tough and aggressive as violent confrontation became a fact of life.[7] In the 1950s, ONE, Inc. assigned Stella Rush to study "the butch/femme phenomenon" in gay bars. Rush reported that women held strong opinions, that "role distinctions needed to be sharply drawn," and that not being one or the other earned strong disapproval from both groups.[8]

Starting in the 1970s, some feminist theorists pronounced "butch-femme" roles politically incorrect[citation needed], 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-femme 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."[9]

Antipathy toward female butches and male femmes could be interpreted as transphobia, although it is important to note that female butches and male femmes are not always transgender or identified with the trans movement.


Many young people today (in the homosexual community) 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." Comedian Elvira Kurt contributed the term "fellagirly" as a description for queer women who are not strictly either femme or butch, but a combination.

Lesbians and genderqueer people who identify as butches or femmes have experienced a renaissance as the Internet has brought the butch-femme community together. 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 a woman. Some femme men, femme women, and butch women regard themselves thus as genderqueer for that reason, but many others do not.

It is also important to note that those who identify as butch and femme today often use the words to define their presentation and gender identity rather than strictly the role they play in a relationship, and that not all butches are attracted exclusively to femmes and not all femmes are exclusively attracted to butches, although this was traditionally the norm.

Butch women in arts and popular culture

  • Judith, Rahab and Deborah female warriors in the Hebrew Bible
  • The Well of Loneliness, one of the first English language novels to explore the butch femme theme.
  • The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a set of lesbian pulp fiction novels from 1957 - 1962 in which a butch woman is a major character, and who became an archetype of butch identity in the US.
  • Sarah Dowling, a character in the 1969 novel Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller, set in 1816 Connecticut, is brought up by her father as a boy since he had no sons.
  • Frenchy Tonneau, a character in the 1985 novel The Swashbuckler by Lee Lynch who travels through several legendary gay meccas during the sixties and seventies when lesbian life changed forever.
  • Jess Goldberg, a character in the novel Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg published in 1993.
  • HBO-produced movie If These Walls Could Talk 2 presented a segment set in the early 1970s where a butch woman has a relationship with a feminist uneasy with the masculine-feminine power structure.
  • Nan Astley/King, a character in Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, published in 1998. Nan finds her affinity for dressing as a man by surprise, but she is more surprised by how natural it feels.
  • Kit on The L Word has a relationship with a performance drag king named Ivan in Season 2.
  • Butch Jamie, a film by writer/director/actor Michelle Ehlen, offers a comedic portrayal of a struggling butch lesbian actress who gets cast as a man in a film.
  • On the show A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Dani is a futch (femme and butch) lesbian.
  • HBO's Deadwood series had two lesbian characters: Calamity Jane played by Robin Weigert and Joanie Stubbs, played by Kim Dickens. Jane was a butch character and Joanie a femme.
  • Rosie O'Donnell
  • Big Boo on Orange is the New Black

Other terms and identities

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." The usage of "dyke" has widened in recent years to encompass gay women in general. At one point both were considered derogatory; "dyke" has become a more neutral term, but may still be taken as offensive if used in a derogatory manner or by those outside the LGBT community.

Banjee or banjee boy is a term from the 1980s or earlier that describes a certain type of young Latino or Black man who has sex with men and who dresses in urban fashion for reasons which may include expressing masculinity, hiding his sexual orientation or attracting male partners. The term is mostly associated with New York City and may be Nuyorican in origin.

"Homomasculinity" is a term coined by gay activist editor in chief of Drummer magazine Jack Fritscher in 1977.[10] The term describes a subculture of gay men who prefer masculine-identified men as legitimately as some men prefer effeminate men and drag queens. Equating the three self-fashioning identity labels "gay," "homosexual," and "homomasculine," Fritscher also coined "homofemininity" for lesbians to whom he opened Drummer magazine in the late 1970s by publishing writing about the Society of Janus and writing from Samois, a group founded by gay activists Patrick Califia and Gayle Rubin. Humanist Fritscher intended "homomasculinity" as an identity concept and never as an exclusionary concept as promulgated by Jack Malebranche in his latter-day book Androphilia. The term "homomasculinity" grew out of the gay-identity movement and the leather subculture of 1970's San Francisco. and is detailed in Fritscher's gay linguistics essay "Homomasculinity: Framing Keywords of Queer Popular Culture" presented at the Queer Keyword Conference, University College Dublin, Ireland, April 2005.[10]

See also


  2. Lesbian-Interest Vintage Photos
  3. Theophano, Teresa (2004). Butch-Femme. Retrieved on 2007-01-25.
  4. Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky; Madeline D. Davis (1994). Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Penguin, 212–213. ISBN 0-1402-3550-7. 
  5. Kennedy and Davis, 82-86.
  6. Kennedy and Davis, 90-93.
  7. Kennedy and Davis, 153-157.
  8. Bullough, Vern (2002). Before Stonewall: Activists in lesbian an gay rights in historical context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 139. ISBN 1560231920. 
  9. Davis, Madeline and Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky (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.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Jack Fritscher, Ph.D.

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