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Femme Invisibility and Butch Marginality

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I am a little confused as to the definitions of butch and femme. I am assumming that we are speaking in terms of physical appearance.

Hi Teoria, nice to see your posts around! This place needs more prolific writers :)

The idea of "butch/femme" seems to be used in an extremely wide variety of ways. Yes, some people (especially younger lesbians, especially recently) definitely use it to refer simply to physical appearance... and in fact to many different kinds of physical appearance -- which can make it hard to figure out what the heck people are talking about when they say it!

But there are other uses as well. Particularly, it was an extremely important idea to many lesbians who were out before the 2nd wave of the women's liberation movement. To them, it was a complex way of creating culture and identity, not just a way of looking. In some ways it incorporated aspects of what are traditionally thought of as "masculinity and femininity", and in other ways it was totally different. It was a huge source of conflict between 2nd wave feminists and earlier lesbians. It's an incredibly complex thing that's still sort of not resolved, so I won't try to do it justice here. But a couple of good books that may shed some light on it are Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinstein and Zami by Audre Lorde.

I think it's really useful to distinguish between "masculine/feminine", which i take to mean all the cultural ways we distinguish men from women, and "butch/femme", which has some parallels but is really its own whole separate thing.

so although i wear clothes/haircuts/whatever that society says are supposed to be "boy" stuff, and work in a field that is traditionally considered to be "men's work", i don't consider that to make me "butch" in the "butch/femme" sense. i don't look like a butch dyke. sometimes i do look "like a guy" though. (actually i prefer to consider that guys look like me ;) )


Maybe it does have to do with the fact that I look like I fit into their little worlds. Then again, I have encountered criticism b/c of the way I look from other lesbians.

huh. that's really interesting (and really sad, too). what kind of attitudes have you encountered?


Everyone wants to know "Butch or femme?" Does it matter? Will it change anything? I just don't see the point in the labels.

*nod* yeah, i know what you mean. it's one thing to be free to identify as butch/femme/whatever as we choose, but it bugs me when people assume that everyone falls into that system somehow. I was just wondering about this in my last post. Do you find that this is increasing? When did you first notice it happening?


Nor do I understand how identifying with and embracing the softer side of being a woman makes you a supporter of the patriarchy.

*nod* for sure. Was this one of the criticisms you were mentioning above, or is this something you've read here on the board? i'm wondering where this comes from...


why do women feel they have to act and look like men to succeed.

hm... which women do you think feel this?

as far as connecting it back to the butch/femme thing, i definitely don't think butch women do it "in order to succeed". in fact, as you've mentioned in your message, it may sometimes be easier to succeed when we *don't* look butch.


What is wrong with looking femme?

nothing, as far as I"m concerned! In fact, I think that's why zami started this thread -- in support of how hard it can be for femme lesbians to get the recognition and support they deserve (because people, sometimes even in the queer community, assume they're straight).


And if we have to have labels, can we devise more appropriate labels? Butch and femme leave out so many things.

*nod* Just because some people use these labels, and find them helpful, I definitely don't think we all have to! There's absolutely nothing about claiming one identity that means another one is wrong. As someone who identifies as neither butch nor femme, I definitely support you in carving out whatever space is just right for you -- with or without labels.

take care,


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Okay Trouble in responce to your question concerning the criticism from other lesbians. I have had an experience where my sexuality was questioned based on my appearance. I was waiting at a bar while my (at the time) girlfriend was in the bathroom. We had just gotten there and I these two women were staring at me so finally I asked if I could help them. They wanted to know if I was gay or straight. I wasn't quite sure that was any of their business but pointed out that the girl I was there with was indeed my girlfriend. They stated that they just weren't certain and were wondering. And from there the conversation digressed after my (at the time) girlfriend returned. Somehow the conversation got going on norms and Sara (who of course couldn't resist the challenge) and I were accused of contributing to the insecurities women feel as a result of trying to fit into an image created by the male dominated media. From there the conversation went on to eating disorders and politics. It was a very long and drawn out debate. I just remember that I was initially drawn into a conversation where I was forced to defend myself against something I am against b/c of the way I look. I never forgot this conversation b/c it ticked me off.

It wasn't the questions that bothered me as I am open to any debate. It was the way the questions were presented and the general body language of those women. They had no right to judge me b/f they got to know me. The funny thing is that I have seen them around a few times since then and they have been pleasant. Maybe they had too much to drink by the time I showed up or maybe it was b/c I hadn't had anything to drink yet or maybe I showed up in the mist of a conversation and fit the physical description of the subject. But they soon found out that there is nothing superficial about me and that I am very secure and comfortable with who I am (so was my date, who decided we should accept the challenge. I always loved how we usually meant me with her support...Sorry, I digress). Anyhow, that is the story. Other instances are more inquiries and not neccessarily criticisms, they want to know how I identify (bi/straight/lesbian). I guess I didn't fit their stereotypical profiles. They usually would conclude with sentences like "Oh really, I wouldn't have guessed." But most women don't care or don't ask. They either assume I am or I am not or that are not interested, so the details are insignificant.

And one last note re my last entry, by "act and look like men" I meant gestures and verbalessences not neccessarily physical appearance. This was a preface to my next statement that women need to get in touch with their inner beauty and strength and that those two things contain the key to attaining whatever you desire. I know several very successful women, who got where they are b/c they are women not in spite of being a woman. I don't mean that they were handed the positions just for "wearing a dress" -so to speak. What I mean is that in the work place most women are afraid to be feminine b/c femme traits are considered weak and powerful, so they try to be "one of the boys." I don't even think this is a conscious decision. In the financial industry, there are people who refuse to work with a woman b/c they are not considered as financially minded or stable as men. This always made me laugh b/c most households I spoke with where headed by the woman. Actually, women were the greatest discriminators.

But even in an industry such as this one, a woman can succeed. Many have and do everyday. The most successful ways to counter something like that is not by trying to play on the field wit them. Admit that you are a woman. This will throw them off. That is when you turn it up a few notches and prove you are better for the job b/c you are not a man. This is why I don't understand why women try to hide the fact that they are women. It doesn't take a genius to figure out we are women so we should embrace it and enjoy it.

That is why I prefer women. I enjoy good company and want to embrace the wonderful nature of being a woman. Among other things of course.
"She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes" -Lord Byron


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whether the sexism charge is more common among younger or newly emerging lesbians /feminists than among older folks, i don't know... but my sense is that young lesbians are actually increasingly interested in the ideas of butch/femme. i remember starting to notice this about 3 years ago, and it seemed to be starting in the big cities and filtering out... like it was the new cool thing to try on for size. and now i find that women who are just coming out are extremely likely to at least try to fit themselves into one of the two.

Here's my 2 cents for what its worth, and please realize I'm NOT bashing anyone here, just giving my perspective as someone who's been out for a relatively LONG time. :D

Coming from an "older" lesbian who's been out since the mid 70's (and who vaguely actually remembers the Stonewall Riots), I can tell you I've seen the trends come and go a LOT in the last 25+ years. In fact, this was just the discussion a group of us had at a 'new' woman's bar that opened here in Baltimore a few weeks ago. The bar is actually one that was open over 30 years ago-closed in the 90's- and reopened by the original owners who saw a need for a 'safe' place for older lesbians to socialize. Many people MY age (early 40's) cant stand the 2 woman's bars partly BECAUSE of the assumption of roles that is pushed on us by the younger crowd, that is the 18- say the 28 year olds....usually either just coming out, or "playing" at finding out who they are. At one 'woman's' bar in particular, the crowd is usually 18-25, and bi, and they bring their straight boyfriends who spend the evening getting drunker and drunker, and end up in arguments with the older lesbians......usually the ones they admittedly refer to as "dykes", or "butches", and actually think its acceptable to refer to us that way before they know us. The women that own that particular bar would say to us that they wanted us to come there, and what could they do to make it a more pleasant place for the older women too? ....... hmmmmm...... okay, that's a totally different subject delving more into age and morals than butch/femme :? :wink: .

When I was coming out in the mid 70's, the only women in my area that really identified as 'butch' or 'femme' were the older women, the ones that came out in the 50's or 60's, so much of what I knew about it, I knew from them.....from their spoken history's, and from books like Stone Butch Blues and Ann Bannon novels. I've always thought of the labels as something that originated out of a necessity, a means to be out and survive with minimal harassment from the 'straight' world, especially in the 50's and early 60's. By the time I came out, it wasn't "cool" to identify either way, not out loud anyway. AND this could have been just a local cultural thing too. But all in all, it wasn't something that we really talked about other than in passing. Not that appearances didn't put some kind of a label on us, but ........ it just didn't matter. My ex was a gorgeous (to me) shorthaired, muscular, tattoo'd carpenter that rode a motorcycle. First glance said "butch", but DAMN that woman could wear a dress! :lol: And people that knew her (or took the time to get past the surface), knew this, and never said one word one way or another. Maybe it was the era of NOW and ERA, but .... nobody gave a shit.

I too have noticed this trend lately to the younger crowds showing more interest in bringing back the butch/femme thing. And personally.....I don't like it much. I guess I think that among my age group, it was always that we went toward whatever our features carried best and our comfort level as to our style of dress, and if we're talking about couples (as in "one person butch the other femme), it wasn't something assumed, it was just natural that sometimes one had a more dominant personality. Didn't mean that was the "butch" one. Does that make sense? Now, from what I'm seeing (again, this is just MY perspective), I'm seeing women that are absolutely beautiful and femme, going out of their way to be "butch". Shaved heads, wifebeater tanks, big pants around the butt, 'tough' speech..... its like at first glance, they're TRYING TOO HARD. It looks forced, often phony. And this isn't just my perception, its the perception of many older lesbians in my area. Its like, they're not being who they are, they're stuffing themselves into some weird roles, and it leads me to believe that this newer generation of lesbians are going to end up more fucked up and confused than my generation ever was, and that's a shame. NOT to mention, that it perpetuates the stereotype that is repugnant to many gays and lesbians that are trying to become respected and accepted in the hetro society. Assholes like Bush will point to this kind of thing as one of the reasons to NOT accept us into the mainstream (like we're not already there.....) I guess I just personally think that the roles that some younger women seem to want to FORCE themselves into will hurt them in the long run.

Now realize please that I'm not saying that roles don't have a 'legitimate' place in the gay/lesbian society. They do. But back in "the day," it strikes me that they were more personal, as were the reasons for them, as opposed to the modern way of "making a statement" that is my perception now. And my perception may be completely messed up, being that I have little regular insight to the younger groups way of thinking, but it IS my perception. Hope I havnet gone off on too much of a tangent, and that I at least gave SOME kind of new insight to the subject :)
Just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them to doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have.

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I'm getting a bit of a feeling from this thread that a lot of people feel as though labels present something of an automatic 'requirement' for you to measure yourself against them. If someone says the word 'butch', you must attempt to measure yourself against the 'criteria' of butch and fit yourself into a perceived spectrum. Take offence or act like there's something strange going on if you don't fit neatly into the categories.

To me that totally defies the purpose of labels. Labels make me hot because of the element of choice. I know that a person has the choice to identify as any particular word she wants to identify as, or a string of them, or none of them at all. Her *choice*, her consciousness of her identity, is what makes those identities special. There is nothing special about an identity imposed from the outside, or one you are awkwardly trying to force yourself into.

As a femmie femme from the land of femme, who adores (among other things) butch women (not butch-looking women, but women who deeply identify themselves as butch), I get kind of protective of my labels and the labels of my lovers. I don't want anyone who doesn't genuinely feel like a butch or a femme to go around labelling themselves as such because I feel like it detracts from what those words mean.

I would never, ever call someone butch unless they had called themselves that first, likewise femme. I don't think there is any meaning whatsoever to be gained by trying to force yourself into the spectrum, i.e "I am a femmey-butch... no! Wait! I'm a dykey butchey femme..." unless those words actually resonate with you.

I'm really interested in this topic. As a terribly young femme (I am twenty one) I find myself turning constantly to older lesbian communities for the respect and understanding lesbians my age seem to have not discovered yet. People who understand the meanings of labels beyond them being the current toy of the moment, like a fashionable brand name. I want to hear more.

N.B: I did not just 'come out' and try to fit myself into this category. Finding it and loving it has been a long and complicated adventure, one that I do not believe is ever complete.

If you read this far, you have just read my very first post to this community. I look forward to many more...


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sometimes i really just wonder if i should get *queer* tattooed on my forehead...

I think a lot of people dont know that I'm interested in women. This is probaby partially because I'm only out to my friends, not my family. But also I think my looks may have something to do with it. Apparently I dont put out the "gay vibe" I'd like to learn how to do it so I get approached by more women!

But what is the "gay vibe", I mean I'm in the same boat....no one knows that I'm intrested in women..and I have no problem with anyone knowing...it just has never come up...because people assume that I just have a boyfriend...in BK....you can really tell if a woman is intrested in another woman...I mean..places like The Village....it's really clear...I just don't fit into that circle..I kind of like being a "girl" in that sense...I like heels and bra's god dammit....so I can't figure out what the deal is...


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Hey tinker, thanks for all the thoughts! Definitely lots of interesting stuff in there... (I've picked up the piece about age and started a thread in Queer Politics, check it out...)

I think there's definitely a distinction worth making, between people having the *freedom* to explore butchness/femness if they want to, and having it *assumed* (by themselves or by others) that they must be pigeonholed somewhere on this continuum.


I too have noticed this trend lately to the younger crowds showing more interest in bringing back the butch/femme thing. And personally.....I don't like it much.

hm. that's really interesting. I definitely wonder about this... as I wander around trying to make choices about my gender presentation, instead of just falling into something or being pressured into something, whose history am I appropriating? It's a tricky thing. On one hand, I want to feel free to express myself. On the other hand, if I'm going to dis someone, I want it to be for a good reason, you know?? Not because I used some symbols I didn't really understand when I just wasn't paying attention! *laugh*

I don't know the folks around where you are, tinker, but like any group of people I suspect that there are some who are trying to use gender to subvert rules and open up some breathing room for all of us... and some who are doing it because it's cool for a few minutes. Or both, or something else entirely. I've been really excited lately to talk with people who are interested in busting up gender in specifically anti-oppressive ways... check out

Push magazine -- queer feminist subversions


And if you happen to be in the Seattle area, go see the Queen Bees!

So let's hear it -- how do you like to perform/present your gender? Does it matter to you? Do you do it on purpose or just go with the flow?



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As a feminine person, I find people often mistake me for straight. I found that putting on a rainbow triangle necklace at least helps give people the hint I am "not straight" *LOL* :)

As far as labels- just be who you are. I am sure I don't fit in completely with what most people would think of as "Femme". So just knowing the label and not getting to know me personally, someone would assume things that might not be true. But then again, that can be said for anyone. I think knowing a person is better anyways. :)

~ PetticoatLace


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i am femme & often get mistaken for being straight even when out in a totally gay space..i adore butch women ,always have , always will, yet i know for many butch-femme lesbians in the uk we are all marginalised & not only invisible , but ignored.

the lesbian culture in this neck of the woods has been over-run with the young 'metro-dyke clones' ...that anyone who does not fit into this stereotype is shunned , judged & rejected by our very own community.

femm-femme relationships are deemed acceptable, even some butch-butch ones ...just so long as the butches aren't too masculine in appearance...the rest of us feel we have no place to go & resort to finding small , out of the way venues to just be , the anymosity that flows out of the more 'mainstream' lesbian places is frightening & oppressive.

it saddens me that because i love butch women , our love is made to feel dirty & shameful , not by straight society , but by our very own so-called 'sisters'.

gay men are much more accepting of the different kinds of love , why are lesbians so different??
i don't suffer from insanity , i enjoy every minute of it


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hi, i'm new so yall must forgive me for barging on in. what really drives me nuts about all this is that this crap is all about the usual human meanness. it's a way of withholding acceptance, a more subtle form of bullying really. "but if i accept it, it's like saying it's okay and i'm encouraging the 'behavior'" who hasn't heard this kind of bs from some hateful waste of space. what i do with my body or my attitude or presentation ect, is my business unless it infringes on someone else significantly. i get sick of the same old dichotomous bs, thanks a lot greeks:) we all have basic human feelings. i don't even think someone should have the right to say someone else 'offends' them by the way they look. get a freakin life already! bite me.
i spent years trying to figure out where i fit in within lesbian/straight/girl/boy/whatever culture. i've done the self-politicizing dance to death. these labels should only be used by one's self and just for basic info. we are all more fluid whether we want to admit it or not. and we all deserve acceptance.
i came into this via the political bisexual movement, and i have to say, we should all just go over there:) intellectual political bisexuals don't care if you are a training boi or you shave your armpits or you only date men with vaginas. it's all about aesthetics. it's appearence, it should be fun, not a chokechain. and those of us who know about the older lesbians have to appreciate the sacrfices they made just to use and create those labels in the first place. when the cops are beating your face in you're not gonna give a shit about jane does' lack of make-up.
all this coming from a 'byke' who gets sick of all the intellectual and political jokeying. i like labels most of the time, and i'll be heartbroken the day there aren't any oldschool butches left. if you don't know why someone would be butch, get to know one. it's more of an identity that finds you than a concious choice. let people wear or be what is comfortable dammit! i wear make-up, but sometimes i have very short hair. i wear 'boy' clothes sometimes and have always been a 'tomboy' but i'm a raging drag queen inside. i sleep with men and call myself a lesbian. sometimes i shave, but i went 7 yrs without it. i'm more complicated than all that. i just want love like everyone else. try having a mowhawk in omaha. that'll teach ya bout how everyone feels free to tell you their opinion about YOUR appearence. ys, people think i'm straight. i've had lesbians attack me in public. guys call me a dyke when they're mad. people ask me which one of my aunts is the 'man' in the relationship. duh, neither! butches don't look or act like men, that's why they are called butches, not men. i can tell the difference, and so can most people with half a brain. people are just so damn ignorant. freakin a! can't a person just exist? i'm sorry i'm so verbose. guess i've been thinking a long time:)


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I am from the Old school. Brought out and up by Stone Butches. I myself consider myself very Butch.
Butch is not just in what we wear. It is in our souls, a fire of pride knowing what we are to a Lady. No I am not a man or want to be compared to one. It is in my head a very simple concept, honor,pride,repect and protect your Lady at all cost. This is the world that is getting lost today in all these definitions.
In Old school I mean when I'm with a lady she gets treated like one and mind you a Lady is a definition that goes not just by what she wears but her soul also.
And yes in the lesbian world today we are shunned, put out and looked at as freaks. Sad isn't it when our own kind shows us predujice that they themselves hate.

Jay - butch and just way to single for my own good

I am a little confused as to the definitions of butch and femme. I am assumming that we are speaking in terms of physical appearance. I honestly could not tell you exactly where I fall. I guess you could say I look femme. People who don't know me are suprised to hear that I am gay, yet those who know me are not surprised. In reference to your invisible question, I suppose that I am invisible to some degree. I can blend into either gay or straight worlds. Although as soon as I open my mouth, I stand out in a crowd as being just me. I think every woman blends in to some degree. I mean there is a little butch and femme in all of us (unless you are a Barbie doll). I find that looking femme makes it easier for some people to accept that I am gay. I don't know why, but it does. Maybe it does have to do with the fact that I look like I fit into their little worlds. Then again, I have encountered criticism b/c of the way I look from other lesbians. Everyone wants to know "Butch or femme?" Does it matter? Will it change anything? I just don't see the point in the labels. Nor do I understand how identifying with and embracing the softer side of being a woman makes you a supporter of the patriarchy. I see this as embracing the beauty that is woman. I mean we are different from men (still equal (if not at a slight advantage), but different), so why do women feel they have to act and look like men to succeed. Why can't we embrace our natural strengths as women. What is wrong with looking femme? And if we have to have labels, can we devise more appropriate labels? Butch and femme leave out so many things.[/quote]

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