What’s in a Butch?

By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly

What is a butch lesbian? I’ve been hearing this question for years, and yet we still seem to be debating and talking about it. As a lesbian who’s been out forever, I’ve definitely noticed quite a few changes. Certainly 20-30 years ago, most people could have easily picked out the lesbians simply by pointing at the butch “looking” ones — you know, women with short hair, ladies who wore so-called “masculine” clothing like jeans, t-shirts, and big boots — plus they had attitude — and possibly a motorcycle. But being out then was a little more harrowing than today, and except for those who appear (and appeared) as more obvious-looking lesbians, many others tried to blend in. And I suppose defining lesbians as butch or femme in the past — by outward appearance alone — may have been more acceptable or easier. But lesbians don’t come in just two flavors, butch or femme.

As being openly gay has become more prevalent and acceptable (read: “mainstream”) over the years, it’s become harder to know merely by appearance who’s a lesbian and who’s not — which, in this writer’s mind, is a very good thing. With this societal progression, such a strict dichotomy of butch/femme identity is not only archaic, it also eliminates a huge portion of the lesbian population that does not fall under one of these two categories or — and this may sound crazy — may be a little of both?!

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are raised in a world, whether we like it or not, where we’re taught from an early age to categorize, usually beginning with dualist views of male/female, bad/good, Republican/Democrat, butch/femme, you name it. From there we break those into a multitude of subcategories. And to a certain degree, this does help us understand, learn, and move through life. The problem isn’t necessarily categorizing per se, but perhaps being unaware that when it comes to human beings, these categories are fluid. When we’re ignorant of these differences, we tend to pigeonhole and stereotype groups of people, even within our own community. All of this can lead to oversimplification, exclusion, and limitations on how we see individuals’ complex lives and identities.

But let’s talk about these butch stereotypes in particular one more time — please. I know there are many women out there that do consider themselves butch. But even the self-proclaimed butches have subcategories. You have the soft butch, the diesel dyke, the stone butch, the motorcycle butch, the dapper dyke, the transbutch, the sporty butch, and so on. But these definitions mainly target outward appearances. Is that ultimately what defines a “butch”? Or is it more about how “butch” lesbians walk through the world that defines them? Are these labels attached to their livelihood such as those who work outside, in construction or are mechanics? Or perhaps it’s their ability to express emotions? Do true “butches” maintain an air of stoic confidence and control, never crying, at least not in public? Maybe the real butches are the seemingly over aggressive, ball-breaking loud lesbians who love sports and drink pitcher after pitcher of beer at football games?

Isn’t it possible that ultimately there’s not one way to define a butch? Sure, you can use some of these examples above and claim “I’m more this way or I’m more that way,” but if we limit and fixate on a few particular categories aren’t we to a certain degree, selling ourselves and our community a little short? And frankly this whole butch/femme discussion ultimately comes down to one thing — sexism.

Think about it — where did all of these categories come from in the first place? They came from the bullshit idea that certain outward and inward characteristics define a man and certain ones define a woman.

According to stereotypes, women are overly emotional, they don’t like sports, they love the arts, they are weaker physically, and they’re great at domestic chores. Also, women are bad at mechanics and construction, do not excel in math or science, they love staying at home with the kids, they lack self-confidence and generally follow and they’re quiet and physically smaller than their male counterparts.

Men, on the other hand, are emotionally shallow, love sports, get bored with the arts, are stronger physically, are terrible at domestic chores. They love mechanics and construction, excel in math and science, loathe staying at home with the kids, are self-confident, natural leaders, and are loud and physically larger.

Interestingly, these classic male/female characteristics often are what we use to define the butch/femme dichotomy. We all know that these are not true; men and women do not fall under these categorically. Think about the women and men you’ve known throughout your lifetime who’ve shown inclinations towards both masculine and feminine traits. Lots of them.

It seems to me that the idea of “what is a butch” is about as fluid and wide as the spectrum for sexual orientation. Take this writer for example. From an outward appearance, many assume I’m butch, and sometimes I definitely feel, act, and look butch. Yet more often than not, I have many more “femme” qualities. I’m “Sensitive Sally,” I love flowers and romantic chick flicks, and honestly most “femmes” could easily kick my ass.

Instead of deciding what category someone fits into and assuming things, maybe just stop going down that road — or ask. If we are truly comfortable when someone tells us, “I’m butch or I’m femme, or I’m queer,” it should not matter. When it comes to labeling people, not just in the queer community but overall, society fixates on the need to define it. If we don’t care and are comfortable with our sexuality, sexual orientation and the idea that both men and women can have all sorts of masculine and feminine characteristics co-existing, then the insistence of defining what kind of “butch” you are becomes irrelevant to a certain degree.

Whether we consciously choose certain behaviors or characteristics or whether we’re inherently pre-disposed to them, our goal ultimately should be that we do not need to define ourselves or others by these constructs. If today you feel like a butch no matter what you’re outside appearance may be, then you’re a butch. If today you’re feeling more femme, then you’re a femme. In the words of “Frozen,” let it go.