By Shaley Howard
There was definitely a time when claiming you were a butch lesbian was politically important—and fashionable. You were the obvious gay woman. You were expressing your gender identity with pride, and intentionally pushing back against the extreme sexism in our culture. To be a butch lesbian defied and challenged a heteronormative and sexist culture that had clear gender constructs of masculine and feminine.
Back then the dichotomy of butch/femme was normal within the queer community and a very important step in pushing societal boundaries. Simply by presenting oneself in an overtly masculine way in a culture where women were suppose to act and look “feminine” was unusual and took courage.
So where are all the butches?
As a self-identified butch lesbian who’s a bit older, I’ve be fortunate enough to witness a lot of transformation—not only in how heteronormative society has changed and embraced LGBT culture and people, but also how we as a community have expanded our awareness and definitions of gender identity and expression. Nowadays, individuals can choose to describe themselves in ways that more accurately describe how they feel both inside and out. But back in the 1980s and 90s that was not the case. There were relatively few LGBT organizations. The first openly gay organization I discovered was in college, called the “Gay Alliance.” Lesbian was added later, renaming it the more inclusive “Gay and Lesbian Alliance.” Today we have the much more inclusive alphabet soup descriptor of LGBTTIQQ2SA.
“By default butches lived, and still live, in the in-between, embracing both masculine and feminine, whether intentionally or not.”
The identity of ‘butch’ can be described in a multitude of ways. Simply put, a butch lesbian is generally someone whose gender expression and behavior is stereotypically more masculine, yet whose gender identity is female. Of course this is a simple and limited description. Butch identity can be much more complex and fluid. I’ve known many women who appear conventionally feminine yet are more ‘butch’ than I could ever be on the inside.
Butch lesbians historically have been a strong force in changing dynamics and helping to shift the boundaries of perceived gender and identity. Back then, gender identity was very much seen in a dualist paradigm. You were this, or you were that; you were a man or you were a woman. By default butches lived, and still live, in the in-between, embracing both masculine and feminine, whether intentionally or not. This ambiguous, in-between place of butch is confusing, and certainly a major threat to a patriarchal, heteronormative society. Butches forced our culture to examine its sexist and homophobic attitudes and beliefs.
In a time when institutionally enforced homophobia was more commonplace, a way to combat the challenge of being openly gay (and especially butch) was by not allowing the heterosexual world inside our gay umbrella. Heterosexual men in particular were seen as the “enemy.” If we were unsafe in larger society, then we would make our own, welcoming society, off limits to “those men.” There was, and to a certain degree still is, a feeling of betrayal if anyone outside tried to enter our world. I’m certain many bisexuals especially remember how hard it was to be accepted in the lesbian community. If you were bisexual, common thinking was that you could easily go back to our archenemy—straight men—therefore you were an outsider. Persona non grata for all intents and purposes.
Perhaps it’s true that there aren’t as many self-identifying butch lesbians around nowadays, but I think instead of focusing on “where are all the butches,” maybe we should look at why it’s so challenging to let go of the notion that gender expression and identity has to be limited to a butch/femme dichotomy—and that anything outside that framework is the enemy. Many within our community still believe that allowing too much gender fluidity is threatening. These are fear-based ideologies that need to be reexamined.
I’ve heard many within our community blame—yes, blame—the ever decreasing number of butches on the fact that so many would-be butches have come out as transgender. That the “lack” of butches is due to so many butches transitioning, “watering down” our lesbian community. Are you fucking kidding me? First, throwing around the idea that transgender people are diluting the diversity of the queerness, especially butch lesbians, by supposedly buying into the heteronormative stereotype (i.e. becoming men), joining the patriarch and abandoning the butch community—is a very dangerous idea. An idea that I believe is absolutely wrong.
Being transgender is not a choice or a phase. This lack of acceptance and feeling of being betrayed by transgender people—especially transgender men in the “where are all the butches” conversation—is solely based out of fear. That fear on one hand is valid in that there are many threats to the queer community still. But it’s also misguided in that it is directed toward individuals who are and always have been a part of our community’s strength.
I’ve spoken to numerous friends who have transitioned, and I’m appalled at how we treat them, our brothers and sisters. Many who have come out as transgender shared that their lesbian “friends” no longer consider them part of our community because they now identify as men. One friend even considered shaving off his beard so the lesbian community would accept him again. A beard that he was head-over-heels excited about when it started coming in.
“We’re clinging to a past that was important for us, but also restrictive and brutal in many ways.”
So I ask myself, are we that caught up in the idea that being queer today is still some sort of dichotomous construct? Are we that insecure that the butch population is decreasing so feel we need to place blame instead of accepting and embracing progress and change? We’ve fought tirelessly for equality and acceptance in this heteronormative culture, yet when diversity and change blossoms within our own community we apply the same restrictions and discrimination we’ve experienced all our lives.
I cannot imagine the challenges my transgender brothers and sisters have had to face in such new and unchartered territories of self discovery; what they endure physically, emotionally and psychologically in a heteronormative culture that is overwhelmingly intolerant of transgender people. Think back on the struggles of just deciding to come out of the closet as lesbian or gay. Think of the pain of not being accepted by friends, family and coworkers. Remember the isolation and loneliness of not having or being able to find community. Given our journey and history of oppression, it strikes me that we should be the ones embracing and defending everyone who is a part of the LGBTQ community—not blaming, pointing fingers, and causing derision.
I love and embrace who I am as a butch lesbian, but I struggle with this hype over where all the butches have gone. Nowhere. Butch women are still here. And even if the identity of butch isn’t as central or popular as it used to be, it takes absolutely nothing away from my butch identity. Embracing the enormous progress we as a community have made over the years in expanding our awareness and ability to embrace gender fluidity seems much more important than concerning ourselves with where any particular identity has gone.
In asking the question, “Where have all the butches gone?,” we’re clinging to a past that was important for us, but also restrictive and brutal in many ways. Instead of feeling that loss, maybe it’s ultimately something we gained in that everyone is better able to self-identify in ways that feel authentic. Maybe we should be asking ourselves different questions altogether. Maybe the better, more positive solution might be to ask ourselves, “Are we supporting diversity within our own queer community? And if not, how can we?”