On misperceiving someone as femme or butch

May 8, 2008  |  essays

I often have conversations with folks who say that they have been perceived femme or butch, and they really don’t like it. That tweaks me a bit, for various reasons, not the least of which is that I spent years flat out telling people, “I identify as butch,” and I would still get the response, “oh, you’re not that butch,” or “you’re not really butch.”

These identities are deeply socially constructed and policed, on all sides – those of us who do claim them, those of us who don’t. They’re loaded, complex, and largely misperceived.

Calling someone femme or butch is not necessarily intended to be insulting – sometimes, it is meant with much love and praise. But if you don’t identify as such, it can feel insulting, regardless of the intention.

This happened again recently, and it got me thinking: here’s why it doesn’t have to feel insulting, regardless of the intention.

1. This is about them, not you

Maybe you don’t identify as “femme” or “butch” at all, maybe you see those labels as confining to who you are and how you want to express yourself. Great! Good for you. Celebrate your whole self, in any way you like, you betcha.

[Hopefully you simultaneously realize that it’s possible for others to find liberation and freedom inside of those categories, too, and that you don’t force your philosophy of rejecting gender identities onto others. But that still never means that you have to work within that framework.]

This other person calling you these things may simply be working within the framework where they see everyone on the feminine side of the gender galaxy as femme, and everyone on the masculine side as butch.

But ultimately that is not about you – that’s about their framework. That doesn’t make your framework wrong, and that doesn’t make your perspective, presentation, or philosophies any less valid.

This is about them, and their worldview, not about you and yours.

2. Misconception of the terms

My gender-activisty self gets my boxers in a twist, because being called femme or butch is NOT AN INSULT.

These words are loaded – I get that. And sometimes, it can actually be intended as an insult – but we don’t have to take it that way.

But think about what we perceive someone else to be implying when they call us butch or femme. Where is that coming from? Who is filling that in?

It’s like someone calling you a dyke or a fag or a queer. The person slinging the insult could mean deviant, sinner, immoral, freak, but those of us who have reclaimed these words can look beyond that to laugh it off and say, “yep, that’s me. Gotta problem with that?” (Clearly, they do have a problem with that. But that’s not your problem, it’s theirs.)

Same with butch and femme: these words have deeper, personal meaning to some people, and it’s possible to take the time to go inside of the words and figure out what they hold, figure out their power and their detriments. If we knew more about the way these words worked from the inside, perhaps we would get to a place when calling someone – who doesn’t identify as one of these terms (more on that in a second) – femme or butch doesn’t make us bristle and cringe.

Because it doesn’t have to.

Here’s my basic thoughts on what we think it means when someone calls us femme or butch:

a) Femme does not mean whiny, controlling, manipulative, vulnerable, stupid, weak. Butch does not mean insensitive, thick-headed, macho, violent, emotionally stunted, controlling. Those are sexist misconceptions, and we don’t have to use those categories that way.

b) Just because you look one way one day, doesn’t mean you can’t look a different way another day. Gender is fluid, identity categories are fluid. Unless you’re chosing to identify as one of these categories, no one else can put you into these categories for you.

So, maybe this person calling you “femme” actually does mean that they think you’re weak, controlling, etc – well, then, so what? They are inaccurate on two accounts – i) that’s not what femme means, and ii) that’s not who you are (I am assuming).

They might be implying that they think you’re a high-maintenance bitch, or a thick-headed lug, but that doesn’t mean that you are. That’s just a downright insult couched in genderphobia, and you can call them on their ignorance, not take it so personally, and move on with your life.

3. Identity vs Adjective

We severely lack language to describe gender, and since we largely perceive gender to be a spectrum of masculine/feminine, butch/femme, male/female, calling someone femme or butch is simply an adjective – a way to describe which side of the binary gender scale they are perceived to fall on.

(I wish we had names for all the gender galaxy quadrants and solar systems and orbits and such, but they’re almost too big, too multi-faceted, to categorize and map. Goodness knows that won’t stop me from trying …)

In my opinion, identity categories can only be chosen by those they are describing. I think this applies in various socially charged identities – race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality.

The only time someone calls me butch and it is an identity, not an adjective, is when I myself have chosen butch as a way to describe me.

Again, the speaker here could actually mean it as an identity – but that’s about them, not about me.

Often, describing someone as femme or butch is a simple observation of their physical style – short hair vs long hair, slacks vs a skirt, heels vs boots. (Sometimes it’s much more suble, of course, as someone wearing short hair, slacks, and boots can be seen as femme.)

Usually, I’ve found the use of this word as an adjective is not entirely inaccurate (at least, not at that particular moment). The problem is that it is implying all these other things about behavior and gender performance that are then perceived to be ongoing and permanent within that person, and that’s just not true.

This is precisely the reason why I use the words to describe someone that they chose for themselves, and if I don’t know how they identify, I don’t assume.

So, in conclusion:

It really doesn’t have to be an insult, and using those terms as an insult is, in my opinion, a sexist misunderstanding.

Just because someone else doesn’t understand these categories, doesn’t mean that you don’t – even if you reject them. No need to take it personally, no need to educate them in their misconception – just let it go, don’t let it bother you, move on.

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7 Comments


  1. I really like and appreciate your division between identity and adjective. It clears things up for me in a productive way. But I don't think it's that easy (for me) to just move on when someone, regardless of negative or positive intention, is attempting to name me for me. Actually, it's even more complicated (for me) when it isn't meant as an insult, but as an identity tag on my person- that I don't claim. That's where I get stuck.

  2. #3 gets a big hell yeah from me! one of the things i love about this distinction is that the adjective someone uses to describe you doesn't (have to) have any effect on the identity you hold. in this vein, i love it when friends or lovers say, "look at you being butch," because it is a total validation of the fact that i am femme (identity) even if what i'm doing/wearing/etc. is "butch" (adjective). yes, in some ways using butch or femme as adjectives is very gender stereotyped, but i think it allows a range of usage that really musses up that simplicity. (now, i can also see where this would piss some people off 'cause it's a little like being patted on the head and told you're cute, but i kinda like that.)

    which leads me to my second point – as the title says, if it does piss you off, it's probably a matter of misperception. so, please, tell me. give me the chance to fix it before you get offended. because, while i might incorrectly call you butch, femme, whatever, i won't do it a second time if you say so. also, mind, if i don't know how you identify, i am definitely using those terms as adjectives.

    also, sinclair, i love you for saying "gets my boxers in a twist."

  3. Wow! Keep this up and you will have to quit your day job.

    You do write the best blog.

    Thoughtful, clear, and concise. Write a book.

  4. Very very thoughtful, and accurate post. As a masculine woman who is married to a self identified femme woman I often am perceived as butch, and I'm generally fine with that – what I'm not fine with is people who perceive me that way and then don't accept my "non-butchness" for lack of a better term.

    There are many who for whatever reason think that because my wife is femme then I MUST be butch, because really, what is a femme without one. We've both had some interesting conversations around that school of thought – while I certainly realize that there are similarities between how I present and some butch identities and how we are "seen" by the world, inside I know there is a world of difference.

  5. I don't think this post is very fair.

    Everything you say is true, but the reverse is true, too, which renders it sort of meaningless. When someone tells you you're not butch, it's about them and their worldview, not you or yours, yet it bothers your (well, I'm guessing it bothers you, based on your first paragraph). Since I'm not butch or femme, isn't it just as fair for me too feel upset and misunderstood when someone mislabels me? I, too, have spent some time flat-out stating my gender identity as neither butch nor femme, and people have ignored me, too. Similarly:

    My gender-activisty self gets my boxers in a twist, because being called femme or butch is NOT AN INSULT.

    Definitely not, but neither is being called not butch or not femme, right? So why feel upset when someone does that? Because they're wrong, because it's not you — they've misunderstood you, possibly willfully, and that hurts.

    I have no doubt there are some folks out their who consider the words insulting (just like some people consider "gay" to be insulting), but for me (and others too, I'd wager), the frustration I feel at getting labeled that way is result of the simple truth that I don't feel butch or femme; I'm not butch or femme. My not-butch, not-femme identity is as emotional and intrinsic as anyone's butch or femme identity is, and I spend a similar amount of time carefully crafting my appearance to reflect that. It feels bad to me when someone calls me butch (or femme, though that very rarely happens) not because I think there's anything wrong with being butch or femme, but because it's not me — I feel like the person saying that doesn't understand me, and like I've failed at gender expression. I'd imagine this is similar to how a butch person would feel if someone told her she were femme, or not butch. It's the same thing.

    We severely lack language to describe gender, and since we largely perceive gender to be a spectrum of masculine/feminine, butch/femme, male/female, calling someone femme or butch is simply an adjective – a way to describe which side of the binary gender scale they are perceived to fall on.

    Yeah, but it can hurt my feelings when someone's perception of me doesn't match my inner sense of myself, just like it can hurt a butch or femme person, or a trans person.

    When someone perceives and labels me as femme or butch, it feels like getting my heart stepped on the same way it does when someone perceives and labels me as straight. That sick, sinking feeling I get when out with a male friend and someone treats us as a couple, or out with my girlfriend and people assume we're just friends — not because there's anything wrong with being straight, but because it's not me.

  6. Interesting stuff here. I'd also like to point out that the terms butch and femme are often used in a way that implies more than identity, namely who it's expected the person in question is interested in dating. If I'm "butch", it's often assumed I want to date "femmes". If I'm "femme" it's assumed I'm not the one wearing the strap on, that my butch will do it for me, etc.

    My point is, I think many people, my femmey self included, that don't like being categorized into one of these two labels, don't like the male female sexist stereotypes that go along with them. I get that these words mean much more than that, but a lot of people in the queer community don't understand that.

    As much as we'd like to say there aren't different rules in the queer community for butches and femmes, there are many of the double standards that exist for straight men and women. These can feel very limiting and demeaning.

    Overall, I think we should respect how people identify. I love your butch identity. I miss old school butches. But everyone has a right to be offended by what feels uncomfortable for them, even if it's what happens to be precious to you. Those anti-label folks have just as much validity as anyone.

    [Of course the anti-label folks have just as much validity as anyone – and of course, it can be offensive when people call me something that is not me, regardless of what that is (butch, femme, not butch, not femme, a jerk, a sexist pig, not a feminist – anything). That should've been my point #1, right out of the gate, and I'm sorry to have skipped it. – ss]

  7. Wonderfully written.

    I do like that you pointed out that these are loaded words. Two years ago, I would have been confused (although not upset) at being called a "Femme" (for me personally, it is capitalize, as compared to being femme), because I associated Femme with the social construction of feminine (I have a post on this somewhere, when I came out as a Femme). I didn't understand the complexity of gender and orientation identity, and would have been like "what? I rarely wear lipstick and just found out what Coach is – why the hell do you think I'm Femme."

    I feel that the words Butch and Femme are similar to other reclaimed words; queer, dyke, fag, etc. Depending on who you are talking to, you'll get very different responses. I post a CL ad on the East Coast saying I'm queer, people are like "yeah, whatever." I post a CL ad in Denver saying I'm queer, and I get messages (true story) that say things like "you're really a homophobic man, aren't you? Don't ever use that term!" and "are you really a lesbian? If so, why call yourself queer?"

    We become comfortable with terms we use ourselves, or that people we care about use. Goodness knows I'm fine with the term Genderqueer (mostly because of J), yet 95% of the people I talk to have no clue what it means, even after I attempt to explain it.

    So yes, I agree. Butch/Femme/etc are not bad things to be called, but when someone tells your your identity is something other than it is (like when people call me straight or bi, or tell you you're not really butch enough…or when someone is called a Femme when they really aren't), it can be hard to take.

    Besides, we know all Femmes are pillow princesses…and who the hell would like to be that ;)?

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