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Butch and femme (french term for woman) are terms often used in the lesbian and gay subcultures to describe the queering of traditional masculine and feminine gender roles. Femme is also frequently used in the transgender community, see En femme.
Butch and Femme attributes
The terms butch and femme often are used to describe lesbians, but also occasionally gay men.
Stereotypes and definitions of butch and femme vary greatly, even within tight-knit gay and lesbian communities. "Butch" tends to denote masculinity displayed by a female beyond that of what would be considered a "tomboy". It is not uncommon for butch-looking females to meet social disapproval. A butch woman could be compared to an effeminate man in the sense that both genders are historically linked to gay communities and stereotypes, whether or not the individuals in question are homosexual.
For western lesbians, butch-femme has had varying levels of acceptance throughout the 20th century. The practices of 'femme on femme' and 'butch on butch' sex preferences are sometimes repressed by cultural mores, notably in cultures where masculine tops who have sex with feminine bottoms or transwomen are considered straight and in the mid-twentieth century U.S. working-class lesbian butch-femme scene.
Alternate conceptualizations of femme-butch persons suggest that butch and femme are, in fact, not hetero-mimicries or attempts to take up so-called 'traditional' gender roles. In the first instance, this argument situates 'traditional' gender roles as biological, ahistorical imperatives - a claim that has been contested by writers from Sigmund Freud to Judith Butler, Jay Prosser, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and many others. These authors take up gender as both socially and historically constructed, rather than as essential, 'natural', or strictly biological. Specifically with regard to butches and femmes, lesbian historian Joan Nestle argues that femme and butch may be seen as distinct genders in and of themselves (See The Persistent Desire, 1993). Elsewhere, it has been argued that butch and femme are 'read' as imperfect copies of heterosexual gender roles due to the uncritical assumption that masculinity and femininity are inseparable from genetic male-ness or female-ness. For example, to suggest that a butch woman is attempting to annex heterosexual male power or privilege - a claim levelled by some radical feminists (see Sheila Jeffreys and others) - fails to take note of the social censure levelled at individuals who reject social and cultural imperatives that link biological sex with what Judith Butler calls 'gender performance' (see Bodies that Matter, 1993).
Among the subcultures composed of butch gay men is the "bear community". Gay men who are more femme are sometimes described as "flamers". Femmes are sometimes confused with "lipstick lesbians" which generally are understood to be feminine lesbians who are attracted to and partner with other feminine lesbians. Conversely butch lesbians may be described as a "bulldyke" or simply just "dyke." The usage of "dyke" has widened in recent years to encompass gay women in general. At one point both were considered derogatory; "dyke" has become a more neutral term, but may still be taken as offensive if used in a derogatory manner or by those outside the LGBT community.
Butch and femme roles date back at least to the beginning of the 20th century. They were particularly prominent in the working-class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, where butch-femme relationships were the norm, while butch-butch and femme-femme were taboo. Those who switched roles were called "ki-ki", which was considered a pejorative term; they were often the butt of jokes.
In the 1940s in the U.S., most butch women had to wear conventionally feminine dress in order to hold down jobs, donning their starched shirts and ties only on weekends to go to bars or parties. The 1950s saw the rise of a new generation of butches who refused to live double lives and wore butch attire full-time, or as close to full-time as possible. This usually limited them to a few jobs, such as factory work and cab driving, that had no dress codes for women. Their increased visibility, combined with the anti-gay rhetoric of the McCarthy era, led to an increase in violent attacks on lesbians, while at the same time the increasingly strong and defiant bar culture became more willing to respond with force. Although femmes also fought back, it became primarily the role of butches to defend against attacks and hold the bars as lesbian space. While in the '40s the prevailing butch image was severe but gentle, it became increasingly tough and aggressive as violent confrontation became a fact of life.
Starting in the 1970s, some feminist theorists pronounced "butch-femme" roles politically incorrect, because they believed that all butch/femme dynamics by necessity imitate heterosexist gender roles, leading to butch-femme relationships being driven underground.
However, "inherent to butch-femme relationships was the presumption that the butch is the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking....Yet unlike the dynamics of many heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a femme. The essence of this emotional/sexual dynamic is captured by the ideal of the "stone butch," or untouchable butch....To be untouchable meant to gain pleasure from giving pleasure. Thus, although these women did draw on models in heterosexual society, they transformed those models into an authentically lesbian interaction."
Antipathy toward female butches and male femmes could be interpreted as transphobia, although it is important to note that female butches and male femmes are not always transgendered or identified with the trans movement.
Many young people today (in the homosexual community) eschew butch or femme classifications, believing that they are inadequate to describe an individual, or that labels are limiting in and of themselves. Some people within the queer community have tailored the common labels to be more descriptive, such as "soft stud," "hard butch," "gym queen," or "tomboy femme." Comedian Elvira Kurt contributed the term "fellagirly" as a description for queer females who are not strictly either femme or butch, but a combination.
Lesbians and genderqueers who identify as Butch or Femme have experienced a renaissance as the Internet has brought the butch-femme community together. To be either butch or femme challenges traditional gender roles and expectations about appropriate gender presentation and desire, and expands the concept of what it means to be female. Some femme men and butch women regard themselves thus as genderqueer for that reason, but many others do not. Moreover, some genderqueer people identify their gender primarily as butch or femme, rather than man or woman.
- Lipstick lesbian
- Bear Community
- Girly girl
- Stone Femme
- Amazon feminism
- Judith Halberstam
- Soft butch
- Stone butch
- En femme
- Macho femme
- Drag king
- Theophano, Teresa Butch-Femme. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. URL accessed on 2007-01-25.
- Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky; Madeline D. Davis (1994). Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, 212-213, New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-1402-3550-7.
- Kennedy and Davis, 82-86.
- Kennedy and Davis, 90-93.
- Kennedy and Davis, 153-157.
- Davis, Madeline and Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky (1989). "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community", Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past (1990), Duberman, etc, eds. New York: Meridian, New American Library, Penguin Books. ISBN-0452010675.
- Daddy Rhon writer/artist and webmaster of Butch-Femme.com
- Butch-Femme Socials of the San Francisco Bay Area
- Butch/Femme Society
- GLBTQ.com "Butch-Femme"
- Butch-Femme Network
- Trans Butch Femme site with Information and forums
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