The Persistent Argument: Why We Still Need Butch and Femme

The world is different today. Today, us queers can marry in any state of the union. We have a long way to go in terms of ending discrimination against all LGBTQ individuals, ensuring that our trans and non-binary siblings can live happily and safely, and addressing many of the problems of intersectionality within and outside of our community. But it’s a far cry from what life was like for us 60 years ago–clandestine bars, coded messages, scandals and arrests, constant shame and secrecy, and a deep, seeping sense of misery.

But even then, there was happiness. Friendships forged, soul mates found, and lives lived to the fullest. There was love and camp and culture and fun, even as a queer in the 1950s. One of the most unique and persistent expressions of culture to emerge out of seedy bars and decades of closeted oppression was that of Butch-Femme–a play of masculinity and femininity expressed by queer women that has existed for as long as society itself has, for as long as masculinity and femininity have been constructs.

So imagine my surprise as I read in article after article, blog after blog, penned by queer and straight individuals alike, that butch-femme is outdated, regressive, harmful, and dead. How have the triumphs of the last 10 years of the 21st century killed off a form of presentation and desire that has been in existence since antiquity?

Look–I’m glad we can discuss aspects of LGBT life and culture openly now. I’m glad we can all express our special little selves. I’m even glad that straight people are attempting to delve deeper into our culture than just “those gays, the LGBTs, them over there” (even if the results often make me cringe). But it tears me apart to hear someone who is supposed to be my peer, my family, my ally declare my form of identity and love an anachronism that needs to be killed off.

Butch-femme is not perfect. It’s not a utopia. But I don’t think it’s any more dangerous, outdated, or ridiculous than any other aspect of culture. It certainly is not dead–after all, I woke up this morning, still alive, and so did my girlfriend, and I’m still Femme, and she’s still Butch.

This is not the first time butch-femme has been attacked or condemned to the grave. Attempts to suppress our relationships have always existed; dressing in men’s clothing, appearing masculine, and going out in public with a fine-ass femme on your arm used to be illegal, apt to earn you an arrest, a beating, and unemployment. In the ’70s, lesbian-feminism decried butch-femme with a passion, claiming it to be unjust and oppressive and antithetical to “true” lesbianism. Adrienne Rich included on her famed “lesbian continuum” the love between women in all its forms–mother/daughter, sister/sister, friend/friend, lover/lover–but intentionally left out butch/femme.

And yet, butch-femme continued to exist. When The Persistent Desire was published by Joan Nestle, a femme who’d been kicked out of the feminist movement, it became clear just how numerous and varied butch-femme relationships were even after the lesbian-feminist purge, their so-called “death”.

Nowadays, the reason for butch-femme’s exile has been part of a revolutionary new system of understanding gender, gender identity, and same-gender relationships. This shift has been hugely important, and hugely beneficial, and has allowed countless trans, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people to live openly and happily. But the emergence of new labels, terms, ideologies, and ways of being should not mean the disappearance of–or the need to kill off–the old. Butch does not need to die for transmasculine, AFAB genderqueer, or masculine-of-centre to exist. Feminism and gender equality, same-sex marriage, and the acceptance of same-sex people do not need to kill Femme to reach their goals.

Misguided attempts to discredit butch and femme are based in stereotypes. If you believe that a butch is an AFAB person who “just wants to be a man”, then butch is unnecessary when medical transition is an option. If you believe that a butch is always deeply uncomfortable with a woman’s identity, then there are now the terms and means to live as someone with no gender, a fluid gender, or multiple genders. If you believe a femme is a self-hating sell out, then feminism and acceptance of gay sexuality should allow her to shed her femininity and become “liberated”. If you believe femmes are high-maintenance, apolitical, and shallow, and that femininity tied to womanhood has no place in a radical queer future, then femmes should bow out of The Movement. If you believe that butch-femme is a sad imitation of heterosexuality, then it should cease to exist as gay rights and acceptance expand.

Sometimes we put too much faith in terms, rather than meanings. One does not need to identify as genderqueer to queer gender. You don’t need to pick up a syringe of testosterone when you don a man’s wardrobe. No one should throw out their lipstick when they pick up their first feminist manifesto, and marriage equality for two women doesn’t mean we both have to be in white dresses–or in plaid and overalls. You can identify as a woman–and be masculine. You can wear makeup, miniskirts, and heels–and be a queer feminist. You can love your polar opposite in gender presentation and be just as important to the cause as the person who answers “No” to “Are you a boy or a girl?”.

There’s room for all of us. Just because we are living in a time of “gender confusion”–as one inept reporter put it–just because Caitlin Jenner can be on the cover of Vogue, Aydian Dowling can be on the cover of Men’s Health, and Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus can claim gender has no meaning for them…it doesn’t mean that Butch and Femme have been replaced or made obsolete. These gains can be made and celebrated without having to declare the death of another way of being.

If anything, butch and femme are more relevant, not less, because they are terms that can be used to describe masculinity and femininity without relying on a person’s gender. A butch person can, in this brave new world, be a he, or a she, or a they, or a ze. A femme person, likewise, can be a him, her, them, or hir. We can throw out the bathwater–oppressive cis/heteronormative gender roles–without the baby: personal expression, identity, and sexuality. We can have a cultural history and be it, too.

You can call it unnecessary, old-fashioned, passe, dangerous, meaningless, dead. I will never give it up. The chemistry is like a drug I just can’t quit, the pull of opposites attract plus the queering and shifting of what it means to be women, what it means to be gay. Yeah, it’s the 21st century–and we’re still here. We’re still ties and pearls, short cuts and long tresses, skirts and boots, lipstick and strap-ons, garters and boxers, leather and lace. We’re still women. We’re still queer. We still come home from that seedy bar and tear off each other’s intensely sexualized, analyzed, criticized garments. We still wake up next to each other, and I still play the Femme to her Butch.



5 thoughts on “The Persistent Argument: Why We Still Need Butch and Femme

  1. sweet and wonderful! we’ll be discussing your important article at a gathering of lesbians this week. thanks for your well crafted words and your heart!

  2. Thank you for validating our existence in the LGBTQIA community. My partner and I have run a dinner club for butches and femmes and welcomed others provided they respect it as a safe space for those of us who I.D. butch or femme since 1998. It is wonderful to read your acknowledgement of our lives and love; more folks need to learn about our role in womyn’s history and our culture.

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