Lesbian stereotypes, reclaiming language, and activism

July 1, 2008  |  essays

Yet another case in point: Butch, skinhead, wife-beating, pint drinkers? “Butch, femme, dyke – what kind of lesbian are you? Jeni Quirke explores the negativity surrounding lesbian stereotypes.”

Hey, sounds like a pretty good idea, exploring negative lesbian stereotypes, yeah? Right away, I’m skeptical of her inclusion of “butch” in that title, but I’m curious. Let’s read.

[L]esbians and bisexual women are also guilty of holding stereotypical generalisations and assumptions about each other based on appearance and personality. The words ‘dyke’, ‘baby-dyke’, ‘lipstick lesbian’, ‘pretend lesbian’ and ‘political lezza’ are too often thrown about the lesbian community, at work, in the pub or even from a friend to a friend in a jokey and cheeky way.

So why is this still happening, in a supposedly very tolerant and gay friendly society? It’s quite straightforward for all involved – stereotypes[.] … [W]hy do lesbian and bisexual women also carelessly use the terms ‘butch’, ‘femme’, ‘dyke’[?] … Is it internalised homophobia? … most women don’t even realise they have it or are displaying it.

So, when words to describe lesbian identity categories – such as dyke, baby dyke, and lipstick lesbian – are used by heterosexual or gay men who are excluded from and based in ignorant assumptions about the group, it is because of stereotyping, but if lesbians actually use these terms, it is from a place of internalized homophobia.

The use of words such as ‘dyke’, ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ from a lesbian individual or group are almost always meant in a negative way. Often, the only positive times you will hear the words spoken will be from a lesbian who is referring to herself, such as ‘Yeah I’m a butch dyke, but so what? It’s who I am.’ For the individual and for onlookers this proud and defensive statement will seem a very noble and bold thing to say. This it is, but it could also encourage the use of such stereotypes by heterosexual and non-heterosexual people.

So here she’s saying, when I define myself and call myself what I want to be called, when I reclaim the words for myself, it appears to be “very noble and bold,” but really it’s encouraging stereotypes. Who cares if it’s empowering to me in a development of my own gender identity, in putting myself in a historical and cultural context where I recognize the gendered struggles of my foremothers and forefathers and and forebabas and forepapis, really it’s just an invitation to oppress me. Not buying it.

If we are using offensive terms to one another in our own community, then what chance is there that straight people and gay men will stop using them? Are we re-enforcing the terms? And if so why are we doing this to each other and to ourselves? … Possibly the thought that ‘stereotypical’ lesbians such as ‘butch dykes’ are re-enforcing people’s generalisations and giving lesbians a bad name. … Could it be that society on the whole has become addicted and accustomed to using labels or labelling[?]

So now this author claims that butch dykes are giving lesbians a bad name and reinforcing stereotypical lesbianism. Oh, I recognize this tune.

And also, a word about labels: where we are in our cultural identity history, right now, in the West in the early 21st century, we reject labels. Pretty much entirely. Constantly, people are saying “don’t box me in,” “don’t restrict me,” “I’m bigger than that box,” “I’m more than a label,” et cetera. We are not addicted and accustomed to labels. I absolutely think it’s true that labels can be restrictive and limiting when applied without any leniency, and I think it’s true that culturally, we used to have more of a sense of defining people by their gender, age, race, economic status, ethnicity, family history, class, social status, religious beliefs, et cetera – by all of the factors of social hierarchy. But this is precisely what the various activist movements of the 20th century have been working to change, and in many ways, it absolutely has changed. Labels are generally now seen as bad and restrictive.

The well-known and common female stereotypes such as femme , butch and dyke are only there so other people and sometimes even ourselves use to categorise all the ‘types’ or ‘breeds’ of lesbians neatly away into a fileable drawer. [Emphasis added.]

Oh, now I’m just sad. The only reason butch exists is so others – or “sometimes even ourselves,” (implying, of course, how sad that is, that our internalized homophobia is so bad that we limit ourselves so awfully) – can categorize us?

Goddammit, this is just so inaccurate. There is a long history of butch, femme, and genderqueer WARRIORS who are changing laws, making strives, marching in protests, fighting for rights, being visible, working hard, raising kids, making families, contributing to thriving communities, loving, living, and being ourselves.

And now, this perspective of the author of this article becomes even more transparent: the things she is saying here are flat-out gender-phobic. Probably out of ignorance, rather than intentionally malicious, but still. This author clearly cannot imagine that any femme, butch, or dyke would ever be authentically empowered by these labels (as opposed to falsely empowered through internalized homophobia) or claiming them out of some sort of intentional, conscious, educated, contextualized narrative of queer culture, life, identity, and empowerment.

I haven’t even started about the power of reclaiming words, here, which this author completely discounts as even remotely possible. Yes, the word “dyke,” for example, has been used by outsiders to marginalize and oppress people within that group. But part of the process of legitimizing that identity is to take the words that have been used to oppress us and revision them to be valuable, which, by proxy, revisions the identity as valuable as well. This also deflates the potential of the insult: if the word no longer has any negative connotations, and someone shouts “dyke!” from across the street, we can recognize that he’s a) being blatantly and ridiculously homophobic, b) attempting to insult us, and c) stupid and ignorant if he thinks homophobia is acceptable. It’s much easier for this type of encounter not to sting, and not to be taken seriously, when we are used to throwing around the words that are attempted to be used as insults.

Aside from that, there’s the linguistics of it all: “lesbian” sounds like the technical term, like dentifrice instead of toothpaste. It sounds like something you could contract or pick up, it’s long – three syllables – and fairly awkward in the mouth. “Dyke,” however, is short, powerful, with strong, shit-kicking consonants that pops on the tongue. Stronger, tougher, thicker, more powerful.

The author of this article closes with this:

We should all join and work together to end other people’s preconceptions, generalisations and stereotypes by not doing it in and to our own community.

Yes, I agree in part – we should end preconceptions, generalizations, and stereotypes. But what this author is describing is not “doing it in and to our own community” necessarily. People – everyone, women and lesbians and yes, even dykes – have our own agency, our own ability to define for ourselves who we are and what we are doing with it. To speak from outside of a community who uses this language intentionally about the choice of using this language is belittling and offensive, implying that I couldn’t possibly know what I’m doing by using this language.

And I know some of you are thinking, “well, Sinclair, you’re a bit different than the average butch, after all,” but ya know what? I haven’t found that to be true. I have found that most butches I know are incredibly intentional about their identities, and have beautiful things to say about what it’s like to navigate the world as a butch-looking woman, often even if they don’t identify with the label, culture, or politics. Same with the femmes. Butch and femme are no longer default identities to which one gets shoved into the minute one comes out as a lesbian. Queer, dyke, butch, femme – those words are marginalized, othered, looked down upon in many ways. It takes work to come to them, work to claim them, and work to keep them functioning.

This author, like the majority of folks out there – lesbian communities notwithstanding, unfortunately – are missing some key elements and understandings of the history of gender radicalism, what it means to reclaim language, and what it means to adopt these identities. Articles like this really get my boxers in a twist because they appear to be a conscious, intentional analysis of what’s difficult or challenging within the lesbian communities, but in fact, they are reinforcing gender misunderstandings and further marginalizing those of us who do play with gender intentionally, celebrationally, and beautifully.

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11 Comments


  1. the author's mention of lesbians as "wife beaters" comes from this question, asked of a gay man:

    What do you think of when you hear the word lesbian? A gay woman….butch, skinhead, tank top, wife beater, pint drinkers….but more often than not, just a gay woman.

    who is obviously referring to the shirt style. duh.

    this serves to exemplify how muddled and shallow her analysis is. I was very offended by the repeated reference to masculine women (in the media, on the street, and those that self-identify as butch) as "reinforcing negative lesbian stereotypes", or suggesting that they feel forced to conform to heteronormative roles, or that their masculine expression is a form of internalized homophobia.

    oy. somebody needs an little gender theory. I say we enforce a mandatory SSU enrollment.

    [Oh man, that is exactly why (among other reasons) I hate calling A-shirts "wife beaters" - I actually read that entire article thinking that the quote actually referred to domestic violence between married lesbians. Sheesh. Also, love the idea of enforced SSU enrollment. Like rehabilitation training. :) Feels like a fine line between education and gender policing, but hopefully it's obvious I'm on the side of educating! - ss]

  2. oh dear lord.

    is that author actually a dyke? (or as it seems she would prefer, a 'lesbian') has she ever been part of the, or a, queer community in any way?

    is she british? they 'get' butch/femme/queer a lot less over here.

    i wholeheartedly (and this was one occasion where i can say that truthfully, as my heart filled as i read what you wrote) agree with your analysis of the article, have you sent any kind of response?

  3. edit:

    oh god. i want to die.

    that article was from a publication based in the city i currently live in!

    i *know* virtually all the women in the photos used to illustrate it.

    when i regain my composure, something must be done.

  4. oh!

    the (other) thing that bothers me about the article is that it’s drawing a completely arbitrary line between “good (or okay) labels” and “bad labels.” sure, the way it’s written seems to say that all labels are bad – i won’t go into that because i think you summed it up fantastically. in reality, it says “lesbian” is the only acceptable label for a, well, lesbian. yes, label. ’cause if femme is just a “breed” of lesbian, lesbian is just a “breed” of woman.

    also, i really hate the word lesbian. i said something referring to myself as such recently, and jamie pointed out to me that she’d never heard me say that before. she thought it was because maybe i didn’t identify that way (knowing my history and wishy-washiness with regard to definitions). nope, it’s mostly ’cause i feel exactly like you do about the linguistics of it.

    [Agreed on the term 'lesbian' ... it's not my favorite. I'll use queer/dyke/lesbian, usually in that order, but I rarely use 'lesbian' to describe myself. Reminds me, though, of the Deep Lez movement, which I've recently heard of: " 'lesbian' is resurrected as a potential site of radical identification, rather than one of de-politicized apathy (or worse, shame)." - ss]

  5. I'm going to file that article with my collection of writing on what it means to be a woman by the Mills & Boon Collective. As a proud queer femme I can only laugh at this absolutely tragic gender phobic trash. Internalised homophobia?! Look in the mirror love.

  6. "The well-known and common female stereotypes such as femme , butch and dyke are only there so other people and sometimes even ourselves use to categorise all the ‘types’ or ‘breeds’ of lesbians neatly away into a fileable drawer."

    "And also, a word about labels: where we are in our cultural identity history, right now, in the West in the early 21st century, we reject labels. Pretty much entirely. Constantly, people are saying “don’t box me in,” “don’t restrict me,” “I’m bigger than that box,” “I’m more than a label,” et cetera. We are not addicted and accustomed to labels."

    This reminds me of all the arguments over the use of the word "chubby chaser" on the BBW sites: some people love it, some people hate it. But the truth is, we have to call it something just so we can find one another. For a long time I didn't know how to search for or articulate what I wanted because I had no idea what it was called. Words go both ways: it was extremly empowering when I discovered the "language of fetish" because for the first time I could articulate what I wanted, no matter the politics involved.

  7. Some of the things the writer wrote kinda hit home but I saw it from another perspective. Give me a sec to try and explain…

    I kept thinking "If you replaced 'Dyke' with 'Nigger' You'd be offended "(meaning me myself). I grew up being called that hateful word but no one ever really shouted "Dyke" at me. I was always blatantly a masculine Queer (under any type of title). But that was never something in my area people focused on. They were homophobic but focused more on their racism where I was raised.

    I have never EVER agreed with the reclaiming of the word Nigger or any spelling you choose to validate the use of it. So why is it I felt/feel okay using Dyke, and reclaiming that word? If I replaced all the stereotypes for lesbians with ones for a black person, and changed a few of her comments in the article, to deal with Racism instead of homophobia would I agree with her?

    I think I would, and I am wondering now why I never had these thoughts when I first started embracing my queerness? Why is it Dyke is okay with me but not Nigger? they have both historically been hateful words that people now use casually. Could the argument be made that her comments on "well known lesbian stereotypes" be made about well known Black (or minority) stereotypes and how they reinforce racism? (ie. things like self hate and imagery… do we really want all of these hair styles or are we still hating on ourselves because of the comments made about our natural hair?).

    This is just some stuff I've been thinking about while working, since I first read what SB posted this morning. Anyone have comments or thoughts?

    I'm not saying her article was right/wrong, nothing's that black and white, but it got me to thinking.

  8. lyric – i think there's a lot of history there that might explain those disparate reactions. to me, the word "nigger" immediately brings up thoughts of kkk, slavery, shit like that. "dyke"? i got nothing. to me (personally – i realize this may not be true for others), it doesn't have very much history. it's a fairly new word…it's kind of like there hasn't been the time for all the hate to soak into it, like maybe it can still be washed out.

    plus, i've never (that i can recall) heard someone use "dyke" as an insult in real life. i can't say the same for "nigger." also, perhaps, i'm in no position to reclaim the latter. i might feel differently if i were – i've always been much more sensitive about insults to others than to myself.

  9. It's interesting that i wrote the article so many months ago and I have only just come across this page now.

    Thank you all so much for your comments and criticisms – they are all very interesting!

    I will say one thing… I don't think the article can be said to be right or wrong, correct or incorrect…

    I am a lesbian, and not a femme one, and not a butch one.. somewhere inbetween and I am also very proud to be a lesbian!

    I think that any writer, lesbian of course given this subject matter and 2,500 words to fill it would all write something completely different.

    My take on lesbian stereotypes was simply my take and yours would be yours…

    [Of course, I would never attempt to say that you aren't proud to be a lesbian. The difference between my perspective and yours, however, is that your perspective invalidates, marginalizes, and stereotypes my perspective, and I don't think my perspective does that to yours. You are welcome to reject butch/femme roles *for yourself* all you like, I don't care about that. It doesn't work for some - or even most - people, and that's fine! But invalidating my own experience is discounting a whole different level of analysis of gender and agency. - ss]

  10. One more thing… this is the Butch Chronicles so I take it you are all butch lesbians.

    Don't you think it would be interesting to see what the femme lesbians thought of my piece and to see if their thoughts were completely different to yours or the same…

    Just a thought…

    [I am the only one who writes this site, though I do occasionally have guest posts, and I identify as butch. There are many, many different readers and commenters here at this site, in all sorts of configurations of gender, and many of the commenters who left notes on this post do identify as femme, and have the same perspective I do. - ss]

  11. The profusion of labels today is not a sign of an addition to labeling, but a rejection of it. We have so many labels because we must describe ourselves in depth.

    Sinclair gives a self-description as a "chivalrous kinky writer, queer butch top" at the top of this page, but just a few generations ago the only labels anyone would have let someone like that have were words like "crazy" and "deviant".

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