Butch is an LGBTQ+ masculine gender expression or gender identity. While many people who identify as butch use the term in reference to their gender expression, others claim it as a nonbinary identity in itself, notably Leslie Feinberg, who defined butch as a gender neither male nor female. Butch is an identity that emerged in lesbian and bisexual culture in the 1940s, before there was a stark distinction in the community between types of women who were attracted to other women. Stereotypically, butches take the dominant role in relationships with femmes. Many lesbians have complicated relationships with gender, and may identify as simply butch. Butch is an identity that can be held by people of various queer sexual orientations and can belong to both cisgender and trans individuals.
Depending on the community in question, butch people may call themselves by different terms. In LGBT communities of people of color, there may be a preference for the words aggressive (ag for short) or stud, with much the same meaning as butch.
Etymology[edit | edit source]
The origin of the word "butch" is uncertain. The word butch, meaning "masculine", may have been coined by abbreviating the word butcher, as first noted in George Cassidy's nickname, Butch Cassidy.
"Butch" can be used as an adjective or a noun to describe an individual's gender or gender performance. A masculine person of any gender can be described as butch, even though it is more common to use the term towards females with more masculine traits. The term butch tends to denote a degree of masculinity displayed by a female individual beyond what would be considered typical of a tomboy. It is not uncommon for women with a butch appearance to face harassment or violence. A 1990s survey of butches showed that 50% were primarily attracted to femmes, while 25% reported being usually attracted to other butches.
Attributes[edit | edit source]
There is debate about to whom the terms butch and femme can apply, and particularly whether transgender individuals can be identified in this way. For example, queer theorist Jack Halberstam argues that transgender men cannot be considered butch, since it constitutes a conflation of maleness with butchness. He further argues that butch–femme is uniquely geared to work in lesbian relationships. Stereotypes and definitions of butch and femme vary greatly, even within tight-knit LGBT communities. On the other hand, the writer Jewelle Gomez muses that butch and femme women in the earlier twentieth century may have been expressing their closeted transgender identity. Antipathy toward female butches and male femmes has been interpreted by some commentators as transphobia, although female butches and male femmes are not always transgender, and indeed some heterosexuals of both genders display these attributes.
Scholars such as Judith Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling suggest that butch and femme are not attempts to take up "traditional" gender roles. Instead, they argue that gender is socially and historically constructed, rather than essential, "natural", or biological. The historian Joan Nestle argues that femme and butch may be seen as distinct genders in and of themselves.
Difference between butch and male[edit | edit source]
Although butch is a masculine identity, it isn't the same thing as conventional manhood or masculinity. There are differences, particularly in how conventional manhood and masculinity involve conformity, whereas the MOGII qualities of butch make it subversive.
Butch gender expression through clothing doesn't follow the rules for how to dress conventionally as male or masculine, and in some ways is intentionally different. Butch clothing doesn't look the same as conventional men's wear. See the main article about these clothing differences.
Masculinity is different than maleness. Butches are different than transgender men. Although transgender men were assigned female at birth (or sometimes intersex), and some identified as lesbian before recognizing that they were trans men, the difference is that butch lesbians generally identify as women, and feel attracted to women, whereas trans men identify as men, and may or may not feel attracted to women.
Transgender butches[edit | edit source]
While the term "transgender butch" could apply to a masculine trans person, regardless of gender assigned at birth, the term is often used in a more specific sense to describe a person who was assigned female at birth, has a masculine gender expression, and experiences gender dysphoria while identifying as butch rather than male or another gender. Transgender butches may identify as genderqueer or nonbinary; some claim butch as a specific nonbinary identity. Transgender butches may also identify as lesbians or dykes independently of their gender identity. A similar term is "stone butch", which describes a butch who prefers to avoid genital stimulation in sexual settings, sometimes due to gender dysphoria.
Other terms[edit | edit source]
Some women in lesbian communities eschew butch or femme classifications, believing that they are inadequate to describe an individual, or that labels are limiting in and of themselves. Other people within the LGBT 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 LGBT women who are not strictly either femme or butch, but a combination. In the 1950s and 1960s, the term chi-chi was used to mean the same thing.
Those who identify as butch and femme today often use the words to define their presentation and gender identity rather than strictly the role they play in a relationship, and that not all butches are attracted exclusively to femmes and not all femmes are exclusively attracted to butches, a departure from the historic norm. Besides the terms "butch" and "femme", there are a number of other terms used to describe the dress codes, the sexual behaviours, and/or the gender identities of the sexual subcultures who use them. The meanings of these terms vary and can evolve over time.
A butch woman may be described as a "stone butch", "diesel dyke" "bulldyke", "bull bitch" or "bulldagger" or simply just as a "dyke". The term boi is typically used by younger LGBT women. Defining the difference between a butch and a boi, one boi told a reporter: "that sense of play - that's a big difference from being a butch. To me, butch is like an adult...You're the man of the house." There is also an emerging usage of the terms soft butch "stem" (stud-femme), "futch" (feminine butch) or "chapstick lesbian" as terms for women who have characteristics of both butch and femme. Lesbians who are unisex and neither butch nor femme are called "androgynous" or "andros".
Another common term is "stud". A stud is a dominant lesbian, usually butch. They tend to be influenced by urban and hip-hop cultures and are often, but not always, Afro-American. In the New York City lesbian community, a butch may identify herself as AG (aggressive) or as a stud. In 2005, filmmaker Eric Daniel Peddle chronicled the lives of AGs in his documentary The Aggressives, following six women who went to lengths like binding their breasts to pass as men. But Peddle says that today, very young lesbians of color in New York are creating a new, insular scene that's largely cut off from the rest of the gay and lesbian community. "A lot of it has to do with this kind of pressure to articulate and express your masculinity within the confines of the hip-hop paradigm..." The AG culture has also been represented on film by Black lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees' 2011 work, Pariah.
Stone butch[edit | edit source]
Going back to at least the 1960s or 50s, a "stone butch" is a masculine lesbian. A "stone" is one who has a sexual role in which they enjoy bringing pleasure to their partners, but do not like being touched on their own genitals. Being "stone" in this way can be connected with sexual trauma, gender dysphoria, or the asexual spectrum (not feeling certain types of sexual attraction).
In relation to gender, a femme lesbian named Rachel Tessler wrote in 1996 that "some stone butches are almost beyond butch. They're almost in a kind of territory between genders, beyond being women. I think some stone butches aren't really women, in the way that they think about people."
Soft butch[edit | edit source]
A soft butch, or stem (stud-fem), is a lesbian who exhibits some stereotypical butch traits without fitting the masculine stereotype associated with butch lesbians. Soft butch is on the spectrum of butch, as are stone butch and masculine, whereas on the contrary, ultra fem, high femme, and lipstick lesbian are some labels on the spectrum of lesbians with a more prominent expression of femininity, also known as femmes. Soft butches have gender identities of women, but primarily display masculine characteristics; soft butches predominantly express masculinity with a touch of femininity.
The "hardness", or label depicting one's level of masculine expression as a butch is dependent upon the fluidity of her gender expression. Soft butches might want to express themselves through their clothing and hairstyle in a more masculine way, but their behavior in a more traditionally feminine way. For example, these traits of a soft butch may or may not include short hair, clothing that was designed for men, and masculine mannerisms and behaviors. Soft butches generally appear androgynous, rather than adhering to strictly feminine or masculine norms and gender identities. Soft butches generally physically, sexually, and romantically express themselves in more masculine than feminine ways in the majority of those categories.
In addition to a soft butch's gender expression through her outward appearance, she also has a distinctive way of sexually expressing herself. Soft butch women might want to have a more passive role sexually or romantically in their relationships, which is generally associated with feminine sexual behavior. This is an example of how a soft butch's sexuality and outward appearance are not completely masculine, but have some feminine traits. Conversely, stone butches are less fluid in their sexuality and do not want to receive sexual contact from their sexual partners. This desire to express both masculinity and femininity through one's gender and sexuality is clearly seen in soft butch women, but also across many people of a variety of sexual orientations.
Flags[edit | edit source]
There is no universally-accepted flag for the butch identity, but several have been proposed. Below are some of them.
Notable butch people[edit | edit source]
There are many more notable people who have a gender identity outside of the binary. The following are only some of those notable people who specifically use the word "butch" (or a close analog to it) for themselves as a gender identity.
- Ivan E. Coyote (b. 1969) is a Canadian author who has written extensively about being transgender and being butch. They have made significant contributions to the representation of queerness in literature. They have won the ReLit Award for Best Fiction (2007), and the Stonewall Honor Book Award (2017). They describe themself as "a trans person who doesn't fit neatly into the gender binary," and they identify as butch.
- Leslie Feinberg (1949 - 2014) was a revolutionary communist and activist for transgender rights. Feinberg identified as a butch lesbian, in the sense of a queer masculine transgender identity neither female nor male. Feinberg's novel, Stone Butch Blues (1993) won the prestigious American Library Association Award for Gay and Lesbian Literature and a LAMBDA Literary Award (Leslie Feinberg).
- Kelli Dunham is a comedian, writer, and nurse. Dunham is a genderqueer woman,/nonbinary, transmasc, and butch.
- Sonalee Rashatwar is an American Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has given talks internationally about sexuality, fat positivity, disability justice, racism, and more. They identify as a soft butch enby.
- Sinclair Sexsmith is a writer and performer. They identify as a "White non-binary butch feminist dominant". Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.
Butch characters in fiction[edit | edit source]
See main article: Nonbinary gender in fiction
There are many more nonbinary characters in fiction who have a gender identity outside of the binary. The following are only some of those characters who are specifically called by the word "butch" (or a close analog to it) as a gender identity, either in their canon, or by their creators.
- Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, a semi-autobiographical historical fiction novel about a butch named Jess Goldberg. The story focuses on the trials and tribulations she faces growing up in the United States before the Stonewall riots. Feinberg defines butch as a gender identity neither female nor male.
- Orange is the New Black included a main character, Carrie Black, who is a butch lesbian. The word "butch" is tattooed on her arm.
- An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon. The author has said, "Aster is an intersex butch lesbian, but maybe agender. Theo is a nonbinary trans woman. These are my interpretations, but arguments could certainly be made for other classifiers."
See also[edit | edit source]
External Links[edit | edit source]
- Butchtastic: Butch, Genderqueer, Genderfluid, Genderfuck and Trans Blogs to watch out for
- Debonair Geek's Blog: Deep Thoughts
- Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
- Susan's Place Transgender Resource Wiki: Butch and Femme
- Susan's Place Transgender Resource Wiki: Soft Butch
- Susan's Place Transgender Resources Wiki: Stone Butch
- Butch Voices, "a grassroots organization dedicated to all self-identified Masculine of Center people and our Allies"
- Urquhart, Evan (24 April 2015). "A Dispatch From the Shifting, Porous Border Between Butch and Trans". Slate Magazine.
References[edit | edit source]
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