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how butch/femme subcultures allow gay women to thrive

Whether reclaiming femininity from the male gaze or rejecting feminine gender norms by embracing butch, the subculture is intrinsically radical: it empowers lesbians to renounce patriarchal standards of beauty.

by Megan Christopher
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26 September 2019, 12:31am

Navigating womanhood as a lesbian comes with many frustrations. In a society where social spaces and media narratives centre around heterosexuality, ‘girl talk’ is often seen as a straight activity, a way to discuss everything from heteronormative dating to obsessions with Timothée Chalamet. It’s easy for a woman with no romantic interest in men to feel isolated. In response to the alienation that gay women may feel from this, some lesbians choose to embrace their own interpretation of womanhood in the form of two popular labels: butch and femme.

Butch/femme is a subculture with no strict rulebook, though there are commonalities within the expression of each identity. Butch women often embody what we traditionally regard as masculinity, wearing short hair, loose clothing, trousers and shorts -- think Orange Is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria or Lena Waithe. Femme women tend to embrace femininity; dresses and skirts, make-up and perfume -- more along the lines of Portia de Rossi or, if you’re into Glee, Santana Lopez.

Despite misconceptions, being femme is not about trying to ‘pass’ as straight. In fact it's far from it. In donning femininity at least partially for the gaze of other women, femmes are able to reclaim a kind of womanhood that’s too often automatically equated with heterosexuality. Similarly, the rejection of feminine gender norms by butches is intrinsically radical: it empowers lesbians to renounce patriarchal standards of beauty, giving them relative freedom to present in whichever way they feel most comfortable.

“Being a femme is my way of recognising that my brand of femininity is performed for women, by me, a woman," explains Lily, a 21-year-old based in Washington, DC. “The ways that I get to project myself are fundamentally tied to that.”

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C, a 25-year-old femme, agrees. “I slowly began reclaiming myself as feminine when I realised I liked presenting this way,” she explains. “Femme became more than a gender identity. It was how I desired butches, and it was how I thought of myself in relation to lesbian history.”

Butch/femme labels have existed in lesbian circles since the 1940s, when working class bars provided safe havens for women to explore their gender presentation away from prying eyes. Many middle and upper class lesbians refused to associate with the bar scene, fearing the association would impact their ‘respectable’ image. As a result, these environments became dominated by female manual labourers -- it was much easier for butch women to avoid oppressive dress codes as a taxi driver or a factory worker.

Today Lexie, a 25-year-old butch from Canada, finds her label validating. “Being butch helped me find myself and be comfortable with my appearance," she says. "I think the community needs to stay open to those of us who do, especially for gender non-conforming lesbians. We're really out on our own, taking up space in a world that doesn't know what to do with us.”

The historical backbone of the butch/femme subculture has held up across the decades. 95% of lesbians polled in a 1990s survey are at least aware of the terminology. But still, in a society where the gender binary is being dismantled, it should be noted that many gay women don’t identify with either term. Indeed recent discourse has indicated a shift in the perception of labels within the LGBTQ+ community. Increasing numbers of young people are finding empowerment through the outright rejection of terms like “gay”, “bi”, etc, finding them too narrow and restrictive. Some have even dubbed the butch/femme community as heteronormative in its own way, arguing that these labels -- and the visual expression of them -- mimic heterosexuality rather than reject it.

In the 1950s lesbian community, butch and femme women were often assumed to pair up, with butch/butch and femme/femme couples often shamed by others. Obviously, that archaic expectation comes from a narrow understanding of what butch/femme cultures mean. “For me, being butch isn’t about trying to be a man or replacing a man in a relationship with a woman,” says Jade, a 22-year-old butch lesbian from Wales. “It’s about navigating my life as someone who goes against what society tells us women should be. I don’t want to be pretty, soft, pristine and perfect. I want to be my real self and because of who my real self is, I have to defy those things to achieve it.”

“[Being femme] is a source of pride because I get to express my love for butches and what they bring to our community, says Lily. “I don’t see femme as really existing without butch. They’re part of a symbiotic culture.” The cultural significance of the femme identity is echoed by Samantha, a 20-year-old lesbian who began identifying as femme after reading up on lesbian history. Awareness of this culture helped her embrace her sexuality and gender expression. “When I realised that I can dress pretty for girls and be femme it was really freeing,” she says. “It was like a light bulb moment. I just became so much more comfortable in myself and in my identity as a lesbian.”

Butch/femme empowerment particularly thrives when interacting with a wider, exclusively lesbian culture -- one which focuses purely on women and attraction to women. Participation within wider butch/femme culture is not a given for all lesbians. Shar, a Singaporean butch lesbian, attributes her tenuous relationship to her gender expression to her country’s censorship and homophobic laws.“I struggled a lot with femininity,” she says. “So when I saw butches on Twitter and Tumblr it instinctively made sense to me why there are butch lesbians, and how this identity is also about negotiating a [traditionally cis-het] womanhood that doesn't include you. Unfortunately, I do think that butch/femme -- at least for me as a Singaporean, where lesbian culture is invisible due to censorship -- is largely articulated through very Eurocentric media and narratives. It can be really alienating.”

In days gone by, lesbians would have to forage for a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s out of print lesbian classic Stone Butch Blues. For today's young lesbians though, it's the internet and social media that has helped to re-ignite the popularity of butch/femme, with Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit as particular hubs.

“I’m glad that I’ve finally found people and organisations online that I can look up to and take inspiration from with my butchness,” says Jade, who says that her small hometown in Wales had little in the way of butch representation. “It was difficult and lonely to navigate it with no one there who understood, but growing into it these last few months has felt incredibly freeing. It’s like finally knowing myself after years of confusion.”

Butch/femme identifications provide lesbians with the scaffolding to express their true selves. Yet as a butch woman, navigating dating can sometimes be difficult. Declarations of “no butches/mascs” are common on dating apps such as Tinder and Her. A general lack of positive mainstream media representation reinforces the idea that butch women are undesirable, compounded by the often violent consequences that gender non-conforming women may face for simply being who they are. Butch/femme subculture provides an arena for butch women to be themselves proudly, and a community where their butchness is treasured.

Within this subculture, a community-wide understanding has developed; as lesbians, we will present our identity however we wish to. “There are different ways of survival and means to express lesbian desire within a society that’s always going to be heteronormative,” concludes Shar. “For me, it’s about trying to feel at home with myself. Butch/femme is a way of living and surviving within a womanhood that is ours to claim. It’s a way of reworking alienation into something that we can be proud of."

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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