On Being Left Out of Butch & Femme

August 13, 2010  |  advice, essays

From the Ask Me Anything questions from Sugarbutch’s 4th anniversary:

a) I often find myself at a loss when trying to slot myself into the femme-butch dichotomy – I don’t feel like I can identify with either. Yet I can’t really pass for androgynous (come on, boobs). so much of what I see in the queer world, in person and online, frames itself around being butch or femme and I feel left out. Is there a movement of queer people who *don’t* align themselves with butch or femme?

b) Some practical advice now…so there’s this girl. :D She’s a friend of a friend and there’s possibly something brewing there. (She knows I’m interested in her, she’s intrigued, hasn’t promised anything yet but would like to get to know me better). She’s overseas at the moment and won’t be back in my neighbourhood till August, baaaaaah. We’ve been chatting over Facebook and I’d like to send her some subtly flirty messages. Nothing too obvious or creepy, but what can I say that won’t either lose the flirtiness (I found that even when I explicitly say something meant to be flirtatious it gets read as normal!) or freak her out? Any ideas?—Tiara the Merch Girl from themerchgirl.net

There is a huge movement of queer people who don’t align themselves with butch or femme, and who don’t identify with androgyny, either. In fact, I think folks who do not identify as butch or femme make up the majority of the dyke/queer communitites.

It’s funny, because especially from the outside, it seems like that’s all lesbian or queer women’s culture is: butch or femme. Both for folks who aren’t a part of these communities and for dykes who are just coming out, that is a really common feeling. But once inside of it, there is tremendous pressure to present more androgynously—lots of pressure for more feminine folks to cut their hair very short, for example. An above-the-ears haircut is practically a rite of passage for queer women. And the tomboy often gets pressured toward body adornment, or comments such as, “If I wanted a penis / a man / a suit, I’d be dating men,” after a particularly short haircut, or a fancy dress-up night, or presenting a new strap on cock. (Not that that’s happened to me or anything. Not that I’m bitter.)

It depends on your geographic location, too. In some cities, queer scenes are dominated by butches and femmes. In others, the norm is more toward androgyny or practicality—I’ve been chatting about gender with a femme who grew up from Alaska and noticed that I did, too, and we both have some similar observations about what it’s like to grow up in a landscape that requires very particular tools to face the weather (like xtra tufs), so the edge of femininity as adornment is seen as very superfluous. And butch as adornment, too—I wore my city boots up there one of the last times I was there for the winter holidays, and complained about how the gravel and salt they constantly spray the streets with were really ruining my boots. Cufflinks, sportcoats, silk scarves—none of that is useful. You need flannel button downs, those very functional paisley handkerchiefs, fleece jackets, thick wool hats. This is the region (well, broadly—the Pacific Northwest) where grunge started, remember?

Point being, some cities are more butch/femme oriented than others. San Francisco’s queer scene is different than Seattle’s, which is different than Chicago’s and than New York’s (and Manhattan’s is different than Brooklyn’s). And the butches and the femmes are often very visible queers, especially since we seem to be the ones who are much more into deconstructing gender than the androgynous dykes. Not always, of course, but often: the current discourse in butch/femme communities tends to focus on why these genders work, why they don’t work, how to break apart identity alignment assumptions, what we’re doing to align with the trans movements, those kinds of things.

(Which is exactly why I am so drawn to this world of butch and femme … was I butch first, and the gender deconstruction came after? Or am I butch because I love gender deconstruction so much? Chicken or egg, who knows.)

And when we talk about a lesbian who is “visibly lesbian,” what do we mean? A lesbian who is butch-ish, or androgynous, leaning toward masculine. Someone not feminine, anyway. But those things aren’t actually the same: lesbian is a sexual orientation, not a gender identity. And until those things are more separated, we’re still going to have the butches (as the most visible queers) and femmes (as the most vocal queers, since if they do not define their sexuality with their words they get mistaken as straight) as some of the most obvious folks in the dyke worlds.

But that’s not to say that the other folks aren’t there. From my own experience, it seems that dykes and lesbians and queers who do not align with butch and femme are much more prevalent and many more than those who do. I’m trying to think if I have any support for this, some statistics I can cite or study I can link to, but I can’t think of anything (anybody else?). I wonder if it only seems like there are more non-butches & femmes than there are butches and femmes because that’s what I align with, so of course I presume that I am an outsider to the dominant lesbian culture. But I don’t think that’s only my perception—I’ve certainly talked to many, many other butches and femmes who feel similarly left out of the larger lesbian culture. Look at some of the big lesbian cultural reflections: AfterEllen, Curve magazine, Go! Magazine, Girlfriends magazine, The L Word, Dinah Shore. None of those reflect butch and femme identity regularly.

You have a place in these queer communities, lesbian circles, dyke scenes. You are just as legitimately queer, regardless of whether you have one singular gender identity to pull on or not. Don’t worry. You do not have to identify as butch or femme, and there are hundreds of blogs out there by queers who do not, many magazines and films and reflections of ways to be queer without aligning with any sort of gender identity. Check out Genderfork if you need a reminder of how many different ways of expressing queer gender there are out there. Find your own gender presentation, whatever feels perfectly good to you, whatever makes you feel the most you that you can be, whatever attracts the kinds of girls or boys or grrrls or bois that you want to attract.

What say you, Sugarbutch readers? Are there more dykes in the butch/femme world or in the non-butch/femme world? Do you feel left out of these identities? Is there a place for folks who do not identify as butch or femme in the queer world? Or do you, as a butch or femme, feel left out of mainstream lesbian culture? Is there a place for you in the larger queer world?

Second …

This girl thing. Well, it looks like I waited a long time, too long, because now it’s August and she might be back. I’m really slow on these Ask Me Anything questions, unfortunately. So maybe you can give us an update! What’s happening now? Did your flirty Facebook chatting work?

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9 Comments


  1. My perception of the SF dyke community is that it's very heavily dominated by Queers and Dykes (i.e., NOT butch- or femme-identified lesbians). Check out the tumblr blog lesbiansinsf.tumblr.com — that's a project done by 2 dykes in SF who take pictures of other dykes in SF … and most of them embody the sort of hipster dyke aesthetic which is so prevalent here. Not butch, not femme. (Which isn't to say none of them identify as butch or femme, because perhaps they do, but rather to say that there is plenty of room in the lesbian/queer world for folks who have a range of gender expressions to be recognized as queer.)

  2. For me – I've tried the (straight) feminine thing and felt like a drag queen; I tried being as masculine as I could when I came out and felt like I was trying to be cooler than I was. I've settled at a place where I'm okay with looking like a girly masculine-looking girl, if that makes sense. I may look like a boy, but it seems disrespectful to self-identified butches to say that just because I look masculine that I'm butch/a butch – "butch" is so much more than just looking masculine.

    My point is, there are also a few of us who don't fit into butch/femme and are somewhere in between on the gender spectrum (if there is one), but who also are deeply passionate about butch/femme identities and dynamics and strongly support and love them but without necessarily being them. I think femmes are incredibly beautiful and sexy, and even though I look boyish I still have terrible crushes on butches (oh, Ivan Coyote with her unbelievably thick Canadian accent, and Maddow in a suit and tie).

    Whatever it is, I'm so glad that butch and femme get a place in today's idea of lesbianism, across the world. It may look like a patriarchal copy of a heterosexual relationship, but once you step inside the world of gender, it's like someone's thrown a wild and exciting party so much more than what it looks like on the surface.

  3. I haven't been in Brooklyn long enough to judge, but judging from the large queer population at my college, I don't think butch/femme were identity markers so much as descriptions or descriptors. And insomuch as there were, there were many more self-identified femmes than self-identified butches. Mind, I'm basing this on the fact that I started a Facebook group for femmes at my college, and it exploded. Then a butch-identified friend (who is no longer butch IDed, actually) started a butch group, and it was about 1/4 the members.

    I identify as femme, and as part of femme community, but I don't know if I'd as a part of butch/femme community since I know/have known so many more self-IDed femmes than butches.

  4. From my experience, Chicago's scene is mostly lipstick yuppies, sporty dykes and a few young punky things, with some granolas out in the boonies. Butches and femmes are few and far between.

  5. I'm afraid I can't answer many of these questions, if any at all. But thank you for this. I feel left out quite often, like I'm not legitimate in this community if I don't peg myself one way or another. So thank you for talking about it in a public forum.

  6. Yeah, in my area queer folks seem to be more divided by intent than anything (social vs activist folks). But that's university, I guess. I've met very few people my age (early 20s) that identify as butch/femme, but quite a few that identify as butch OR femme. And what about those of us that are enamored with lovely butches (or femmes) but think of ourselves, personally, as neither? I know I always doubt my femmeness, especially with my disability – but external trappings are hard for anyone to keep up 24/7.

    I'm also in the bay area, so like someone else said, it's more about getting your hipster cred than anything – if anything being on the bisexual spectrum excludes me from the movement more than my gender presentation. I've heard many similar stories saying the same thing.

  7. More and more, as the impulse to do away with the burdensome identity markers and categories emerges with new generations of queers, I keep thinking that perhaps my identifying with overt butchness is key in the realm of political visibility. Also, I like the tension over authenticity and unique marks I place on butchness by the mere fact that it's me, my junk/baggage/awesomeness, that modifies the category of "butch."

    I'm from L.A. and like there's little in the way of butch visibility here, especially living in the penumbra of real L words and such. And I'm 34 and I know my queer working class genealogies and I'm proud to wear this burden.

    Also, I get called a unicorn because apparently butches are a hard species to pin down. It's kind of fun…

  8. I’m from Michigan, and my partner and I feel kind of “on our own” with the whole butch/femme thing. Especially where porn is concerned? Where is all the b/f porn?????? We are thinking of making our own. But we do not know one other couple who shares our butch/femme identity to the extent that we do!

  9. "And until those things are more separated, we’re still going to have the butches (as the most visible queers) and femmes (as the most vocal queers, since if they do not define their sexuality with their words they get mistaken as straight) as some of the most obvious folks in the dyke worlds."

    Hmmm… yes many (straight) folk initially read me as a straight girl with too many tattoos to be respectable, and require verbal correction, but then again, taking up space as visibly queer and femme can also be accomplished without words. . . (says she LOUDLY, lol)

    I found hanging out with drag queens really confused the heck out of the small town lesbians when I lived in a teensy city… they were always the only ones in the room having FUN consciously fucking with gender… still, it was kinda lonely for a queer femme with a penchant for deliberate butches… No one remotely my age id that way – instead, butch was used as a humorous and sometimes derogatory adjective. Which made me feel weird and sad and alienated. Eventually I gave up on finding a partner who identified as butch (after many misreadings and false starts – butches might be the most visible queers, but not everyone who is visibly 'butch' appreciates you reading them that way…) and moved to the big smoke to find other genderqueer butch and femme folk who get me…

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