an argument for butch/femme

February 29, 2008  |  essays

Guest post from my best friend The Muse. We were discussing a post I found earlier today called “an argument against butch/femme,” which I may discuss more later, and she, brilliantly, sent me this.

That rhetoric is so frustrating. Why is it so hard for people to understand that for some, defining yourself can be liberating, not limiting. There’s so often a snobbery in queer women who feel they’ve transcended the societal expectations placed on them by rejecting femininity. Anyone who does it another way is clearly still oppressed, unenlightened.

I rejected my femininity too, for ten plus years, but that was mainly a rebellion against my hetero lifestyle. I was like, if men want me, they’re going to have to want me in spite of all this. I’m not doing them any favors, making it easy for them.

Realizing I was gay helped me back out of that contrary corner, but I still wasn’t sure where to go next. My first girlfriend was an andro dykey sort who really dug masculinity, and was a total bottom, so she often encouraged me to be more toppy, more masculine. “I like you so much better without makeup.” “Clearly you look femme, but your energy is very butch.” Haha.

After her, I knew I wanted a masculine girl. It turned me on. But I ended up with someone who rejected her masculinity, her butchness, and was deeply ambivalent about how she was perceived. One early morning she was going out for coffee, but first put on these dangly earrings. I remarked something like, “oh, aren’t you fancy, adding jewelry to your hoodie and jeans ensemble.” She looked at me, dead serious and a little sad, and said, “If I don’t wear them, sometimes people mistake me for a guy.”

So I was constantly conflicted about who I in was her context, since I was made to feel guilty for the very reasons I was interested in her. In turn, she gave me mixed messages about my femininity, sometimes rewarding it, sometimes rejecting it. Fairly often I was left hanging, frustrated and confused in the lingerie I’d bought for her amusement, feeling costumed and stupid.

After that one, I knew I wanted a self-identified butch, but I didn’t know how femme I was. Was I femme enough to get into the club? Would a real butch be satisfied with my level of overt femininity? I couldn’t really walk in heels and I defaulted to jeans 80% of the time, and I felt the need to apologize for that. I put up personal ads describing myself a “tomboy femme” or a “low-maintenance low femme,” which the butches I went out with tended to eschew. In spite of my ever-present jeans and my aversion to the huge collection of skirts in my closet, they thought I was femme. Definitely. “Just look at your perfect red toenails, and your cute little sandals,” one said. “That’s certainly not butch.”

But even dressing up for your reading at the Stain Bar that Sunday in September, I felt a little costumed. I had been in jeans at work and changed there, and walking down fifth avenue to the L train, I got lots of looks from people I passed. My gut reaction was to think, “oh, they think I look stupid, or like a slut, or maybe the tops of my stockings are showing…” It didn’t really occur to me that I might just look hot. It’s so much easier being under the radar in jeans, wow.

Two days later, though, I went on a date with a butch named Lee. For some reason, I decided to ditch the jeans and wear a skirt, tight busty sweater, fishnets, heels. I normally wouldn’t do that for a first date, preferring to set expectations low and give full disclosure that I’d usually be in jeans, that the dressing up was occasional. She even asked me, “so, do you normally dress like this?” and I responded, “no, I just wanted to look nice for you.”

Four hours later. After seeing the toppy look on her face that gets me instantly wet, makes me tilt my chin down and look at her wide and expectant through my eyelashes, my mouth dropping open a little, just before she leaned over and kissed me hard, interrupting whatever I was saying. After making out wildly in an overpillowed winebar, her hands running up my skirt and finding the baby pink band of my thigh-highs, looking at me surprised and saying, “oh, that’s nice.” After a shameless PDA marathon along 14th street, grinding up against brick walls and in the middle of the sidewalk and in dark corners and on subway platforms.

After all that, I was convinced of the utility of skirts. And heels, two and a half inches or more, that put her cock just below my clit when I’m up against a wall. Fuck yeah. A (high-minus? medium-plus?) femme was born.

So, it very much arose out of sex for me, this butch-femme thing. I finally had a context in which I made sense and felt hot, and I loved it. Still working out the details, but I feel more me than ever. And I got there without help from societal norms or heterosexual paradigms, which of course had been with me all along, and of no use whatsoever.

We definitely need to explain to these anti-butch-femme ranters that this is a subversion of the hetero masculine-feminine spectrum, not an emulation of it. The butch-femme identity is as queer as all get out, and other queers should respect that, and not hierarchize the “best ways” to be queer.

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7 Comments


  1. AMEN SISTA!

    That's what I'm talkin about — you know, reading this made me feel a bit better because I've often felt embarrassed that I was not "femme" enough – but completely WANTING to be!

    Thanks for writing/posting this!

  2. I hear ya!

    Coming out as femme has been a long process for me as well. Thanks for the validation. It's like the statement in an earlier post – I feel like I make more sense when I'm on the arm of my butch. My visibility and queerness are not questioned. My femininity is celebrated instead of mocked and the strait men get the picture – this is not for you. It gets more difficult navigating those streets alone sometimes, but some serious attitude will take you far in situations such as those. Rock it darlin'!

  3. thanks to all who commented, this is obviously a pretty personal post for me. I actually agree that the butch-femme dynamic isn't inherently subversive. what I mean to say is that it isn't necessarily a reproduction of hetero gender stereotypes. having come from the hetero world, I can say with conviction that my femininity only made sense to me in this particular queer context. so to me, it's definitely it's own thing, not an emulation.

    this post I was talking about, which Sinclair may expand upon later, was doing things like equating "masculiney" women to men, and said in the butch-femme dynamic one is "forced to choose a role."

    for me, that definition was very liberating, and I wasn't forced to choose it. and I was femme before I put on the skirt and heels, don't get me wrong. as it turns out, that part wasn't necessary for my identity, though it's certainly fun. "femme is in the fucking," I'm fond of saying.

    I also didn't mean to boil my ex's conflict with her masculinity down to gender-stereotyped accessories. I just meant to underscore that she was conflicted about the things I liked most about her, which put me in an uncertain position. I don't want to force anyone into a role either, so I took care to look for a self-identified butch the next time.

    I understand how butch-femme identity can be oppressive to those who don't fit neatly into categories, but that doesn't invalidate them for people like me, or mean that I am out to oppress those people myself. To each their own. I just want to be respected as being as queer as everyone else, even though at first glance I might not be visibly so.

    I remember sitting at a picnic with a bunch of lesbian friends, and they were going around the circle talking about "their type." the majority there liked femmes, and were femmes themselves. when it got to me, I said "butches," and I was instantly on the outside. "really?" said one. "but it's the person who matters, right?" another asked, "you mean, like, a tomboy? a sporty dyke?" and I affirmed "no, butches just do it for me. what can I say?" but it was not a popular orientation, and I could see the wheels turning as people considered whether I was "really" gay, or some kind of heteronormative pseudo-gay faker. and the butch femme community hears quite a bit of that type of reaction.

    to those people, I certainly don't mean to say "screw you, boneheads." but maybe the typical arguments against about butch-femme are a bit oversimplified, and we could all be more tolerant of others orientations, kinks, and experiences as being as valid as our own.

  4. I feel like so often these arguments go like so:

    “butch/femme is alienating to me! i feel weird about it! it feels a little politically suspect!”

    “but i find it empowering and hot! i feel great about it!”

    It’s frustrating to me because the one is not a response to the other. I admit it: don’t think there is anything inherently subversive about the butch/femme paradigm. Hot, sure, sexy, sure, but I don’t think it get subversive just because it is two women playing with masculine/feminine relations. Is any queer sex subversive? Is any queer gender dynamic subversive? I don’t think so. How is it more subversive to joke about needing a butch to kill a mouse than it is to joke about needing a man to kill a mouse?

    I think it is possible to say this without hierarchizing queerness or calling someone out as more or less queer.

    This doesn’t mean finding yourself as a femme or a butch or anything else is not empowering. Of *COURSE* it is empowering to find something that makes you feel hot and sexy. Of course it is empowering to find something that makes sense on your body.

    But that doesn’t make it subversive, and it doesn’t mean it works for everyone. I get annoyed by that shit about “pamper your femme! rub your butch’s tired strong muscles!” and I say this as someone who has identified very intensely with that gender dynamic. Butch/femme is not heterosexual in the classic sense but sometimes it takes up a lot of room. I think part of this is because it is a parallel, if a queered one, and sometimes I wonder if that parallel gives it some kind of privilege or weight. It looks, at least a little, like something we recognize from the rest of the world, even if it is a queer version thereof.

    I hate how sometimes some people who identify with these communities cast everyone in that light — “oh, she’s butch, but she likes to wear dangly earrings because she’s conflicted about being butch.” Maybe she’s not butch. Maybe she is conflicted about the difference between how she sees herself and how other people react to her and is trying to find a way of putting it together that makes sense.

    Not everyone finds their gender so quickly or within an aesthetic that has a name. Not everyone has a single coherent experience of themselves. Nothing is without its problematics and just because something is hot for you does not make it above criticism.

    This is probably incendiary, especially on this blog, and I know I am in part talking out of my own ongoing frustrations and complications with the butch/femme world. And I know that part of those complications come from me looking at “femme” and looking at “butch” and saying “woah, I don’t fit neatly in either of these things. Where does that leave me? How do I problematize this system?”

    If the response to that is “screw you, bonehead,” I tell you what: you’re definitely not part of any revolution I am interested in.

  5. this stuff drives me crazy, much like what you were talking about in your last butch/femme post. there is absolutely no point (and, i think, no way) in pulling rank on people in this sort of thing: “i’m more liberated/oppressed/’real’/whateverthehell than you. doesn’t that make me special!?”

    “There’s so often a snobbery in queer women who feel they’ve transcended the societal expectations placed on them by rejecting femininity”

    so…you’re expressing your enlightenment by rejecting what society expects of you as a woman in favor of what society expects of you as a dyke? (alternately viewed, rejecting what hetero-society expects for what queer-society expects.) go right ahead (’cause i totally dig that look), but please don’t pretend it makes you “better,” i’ve already said what i think of that.

  6. Thank you, Muse, and thank you, Sinclair, for keeping a space for these discussions.

    When I came out six years ago, I thought I was a total femme and my partner was a femme. Now that I'm single again, I find butches SOOOOOOO hot. (not sure where I am on the spectrum)

    What has changed?? Only my ability to be more open to the b/f dynamic wherever I find it.

  7. I'm sorry, it seems so so crazy to me that a woman who prefers to sleep with a butch could somehow seem "less gay" than a woman who sleeps with a girly girl. I'm not disputing the point, I just think it makes no sense! Long, long ago I made out with a guy (two, actually, and not at the same time!) and the experience is NOT THE SAME as making out with a butch. Period, end of story. A butch is a woman. A man is a man. Whether or not a woman is masculine, or packs, or whatever, deep down she has a woman's body and a woman's soul. If not, she would be somewhere on the trans end of things, right?

    I agree that the trans issue makes it harder to deal with these issues; I had a boss once who identified as a lesbian her whole life and then her beloved partner underwent gender reassignment surgery. It was (and is) really hard for her to deal with her perceived 'straightness', and I would concede the argument that they were 'passing' in a whole new way because of the surgery. So while you could claim that she was somehow 'less gay' than she once had been, at least outwardly, there is no similar reasonable argument for a femme who digs butches. I am totally not straight, and my dream woman is definitely a butch! And ditto the thanks for providing a space for us to hash this out.

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