Gender by any Name Always Stinks

butch-femme-LGHaving been educated into radical feminist analysis by a group of incredible Australian lesbian feminists who collectively have a very clear view that the butch/femme hierarchy in the lesbian community as one that is unhealthy to lesbian relations, it surprised me to discover, both online and in real life, a push to incorporate butch/femme ideologies into lesbian feminist practice and theory. The push seems to be from a strong concern that women classified as ‘butch’ are a class of women who are specially oppressed under male supremacy and that they are being transitioned out of existence.

So what is ‘butch’? There seems to me to be two different definitions of what constitutes a ‘butch’ woman within some rad fem circles. One definition is that a ‘butch’ woman is a woman who has never engaged in behaviours that are considered feminine; ie wearing a dress, or being fucked by a man. According to the women who use this definition, ‘butch’ is not relational to ‘femme’. A ‘butch’ woman theoretically exists outside of male supremacy and ‘butch’ women prefer to socialise with and have relationships with other ‘butch’ women. However, in practice, ‘butch’ is relational to women classified as not-‘butch’, that is, women who do engage in behaviour that is considered feminine. ‘Femmes’ become necessary in order for ‘butches’ to differentiate themselves from, and hold themselves above.

I find this definition of ‘butch’ problematic for many reasons. Firstly, there is no such thing as a woman (or man) who has never engaged in behaviours considered feminine. Under this definition, no woman on earth is ‘butch’, as no woman can exist without engaging in behaviours falsely categorised as feminine. Pretty certain that every butch woman has cried at some point in their life, or held another being tenderly etc. Universal human behaviour has been falsely split into masculinity and femininity. To paraphrase Mary Daly, a person who has been socialised into masculinity is a person who has lost half of themselves. As feminists we seek to destroy the hierarchical gendered categorisation of human behaviour so that behaviours classified as feminine are not devalued or lesser than… but part of normal human behaviour, not relational to gender.

If the radical feminist idea of gender is that it is universal human characteristics that have been falsely categorised and placed into a hierarchy of masculine over feminine is true, then a practice which seeks to eradicate behaviours that are perceived by society to be feminine would potentially render a woman masculinised, therefore a woman who has lost half of herself, not a true woman in the sense of free from male supremacist thought and action. Though in theory these women claim to exist outside of relation to women they see as conforming to femininity, I often notice self-labelled ‘butch’ women talking about ‘other’ women in a disparaging and very superior manner. To me, it seems obvious that these women see ‘butch’ as better than other women who are not perceived as ‘butch’ essentially keeping the false categories and hierarchy firmly in place.

The second definition of ‘butch’ is in relation to ‘femme’ within the context of lesbian relationships and the wider lesbian community. These feminists believe that gender is damaging only within a heterosexual/heterorelational context. They put forward the notion that gender is not only safe within the lesbian community, but necessary, and an intrinsic part of every lesbian relationship. From a brief discussion with a proponent of gender role playing/identity within lesbian relationships it seems like a very convoluted way of tacking gender onto lesbians with little rhyme or reason.

From what I could gather, the butch/femme thing in this definition is largely about appearance. A woman who wears a dress is ‘femme’, a woman in pants/short hair is ‘butch’. I don’t really understand how categorising women into gendered identities because of clothing choices is in anyway meaningful or necessary for lesbians seeking liberation. Also, surely any relationship forged upon, and beholden to, the aesthetic appearance of the women involved is an incredibly shallow way of relating.

It seems that within this community a lot of attention is paid to ‘loving the butch’ and women classified into ‘femme’ will often exclaim about how much they love ‘butches’. I find this quite disconcerting as it reads like the worship of the cult of masculinity, which is surely something that we, as lesbian feminists, are trying to escape. And this again shows up the hierarchy involved as it is less often that I see ‘butch’ women exclaiming about how much they love ‘femmes’. When this occurs, I find it disturbing for similar reasons. We should not be worshipping the cult of femininity either, as it is a building block upon which women’s oppression is founded.

As I was writing this article, a young woman wrote the following post in a feminist facebook group. I feel like this exemplifies the problems caused by engaging with gender, even within the lesbian community.

i had a run-in with a lesbian who was butch/”trans” … and very condescending and abusive towards feminine women. she liked to walk around with a strap-on under her pants, admitting she liked to feel “above” women because of it, and practically used it as a weapon against her girlfriend. i also recently got out of a relationship with another butch who was very abusive in a similar way. i was bullied by her for my previous experiences with men, but she had the same experiences as me. i felt like i was shamed for being feminine as well.

what the hell is this? self-hate? they both seemed to kiss their male friends’ asses too, all while blatantly emotionally abusing their female friends. i love butches, don’t get me wrong, but i’m a little apprehensive now. both of these women said they were feminists, albeit the first one subscribing to queer/trans BS. the one with the strap-on dealio actually graduated with a women’s studies degree (tho that doesn’t account for much), but she was also involved with radical politics so i don’t know how the hell she thought this shit was ok. she loved BDSM and literally beating the shit out of women, especially drunk women who found themselves at her place. i had to take a woman she was sleeping with home once, who was way too drunk, who she tied up and did God knows what else to. after that i refused to be anywhere near the abuser. my ex, though, seemed more put off by feminine images or “beauty”, whereas the first one seemed put off by body or sex.

i feel a little traumatized from what i’ve been through with these two. to make matters worse, they lived together at one point and the strap-on chick liked to hit on me and touch me without my consent. i was scared to defend myself because of her anger and passive aggressive attitude, so to not cause any trouble i just kept my mouth shut and asked my girlfriend to say something to her. considering my past experiences with men and how they guilted me, shamed me, buillied me into shit i didn’t wanna do, i kinda attributed that to this person because she was so aggressive and obsessed with her strap-on or whatever. but my ex didn’t care to do anything to make her stop touching me. she would literally say “i don’t want to mess up my living arrangement”. so you’re practically offering me to your friend?!

I want lesbian feminism to be a safe place for lesbians, like the young woman above, who have been harmed by gender within the lesbian community. We need to be providing young lesbians with the tools to be able to sort through the damage that queer and pomo ideas have had on lesbianism. The idea of ‘butch’ will not protect women from transitioning, but a vibrant, healthy, loving and diverse lesbian community will. There are as many genders as there are people which renders gender completely meaningless to lesbians, feminists and women in general. As lesbian feminists we want to make gender meaningless to the world and we will start with our communities. True sisterhood is loving women, without recourse to ‘butch’ and ‘femme’. Not ‘butch’, not ‘femme’: WE ARE WOMEN!!!

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20 comments
  1. Excellent post. I don’t agree that there are as many genders as there are people (as it isn’t innate but social) but other than that this is ace. I considered myself a tomboy growing up and later realized that this is patriarchal bullshit. I can be as radical as I like and still wear a flowing garment, fancy that! The people you speak of in this post are really just perpetuating patriarchal hierarchy.

  2. Chloe C said:

    This is a fantastic post! I love the breakdown of these meaningless definitions and the proposition that there are as many genders as there are people. Actually bouncing off of what is said in the comment above, I think it makes sense that there shouldn’t be such rigid boxes to define gender because it is merely a social concept. It’s like saying that everyone has their unique personality and just adding gender into that because at the end of the day, that’s all it is.

  3. allecto said:

    I agree with you about the gender thing. It is meaningless outside of male supremacy and it is false. What I meant was that everyone is a combination of different behaviours and characteristics that are neither masculine or feminine. There are tons of different ways of being human not just two but infinite… that is what I was trying to say but badly.

  4. Ah, gotcha, allecto. I didn’t really think you meant it in the same way as the Gender People (I call the pomo/(gender)queer/translobby people that) –but they do say that as well, so I couldn’t resist saying something. When they say it, I always lose my shit a bit since they’re so close to understanding a sliver of important truth (if there are ‘infinite genders’/’gender is a spectrum’, this effectively means there *is* actually no gender), but then they swerve just before they hit the bullseye, and end up in Total Bullshit Land again!

  5. I really enjoyed this, Allecto! Thank you so much.

    To paraphrase Mary Daly, a person who has been socialised into masculinity is a person who has lost half of themselves.

    This is a critical point, thank you for the reference. Gender bifurcates our personalities in unnatural ways, warping our true selves.

  6. Loved this post and especially the point that butch can only exist in relation to not butch.

  7. I’m back because I want to highlight this point too. I ❤ gender theory!

    … there is no such thing as a woman (or man) who has never engaged in behaviours considered feminine. Under this definition, no woman on earth is ‘butch’, as no woman can exist without engaging in behaviours falsely categorised as feminine. Pretty certain that every butch woman has cried at some point in their life, or held another being tenderly etc.

    Placing so much importance on how you are externally perceived and categorized according to the false constructs of heteronormativity seems very self-involved. And not political in the least.

    CRYING and HUGGING and SYMPATHETIC LISTENING are human behaviors, not female ones. They are NECESSARY to human emotional survival (and community building). So rejecting them on a personal level, merely *because* they are traditionally associated with females, without further analysis or consideration is just foolish.

  8. I did NOT love this post.

    “I want lesbian feminism to be a safe place for lesbians, like the young woman above, who have been harmed by gender…” Sorry, but this young woman was harmed, but not by gender. She was harmed by women who have bought into patriarchy and misogyny. I know many female-identified butch lesbians, and this kind of behavior would NEVER be acceptable to them.

    I find many of the ideas in this post problematic, one in particular is that butch=queer. Female-identified butch lesbians don’t normally ID as queer, they ID as women, as lesbians. Another is that there is a butch femme “hierarchy”. Maybe in some relationships women choose to create/accept a hierarchy, after all, we’ve all been socialized in patriarchy. And maybe some butch lesbians feel they’re better than, more important than, femme lesbians, after all, lesbian does not equal feminist and lesbians can also be (and often are) misogynist.

    That butch lesbians, as described, exists does not mean butch lesbians, as a class, feel that way or that it’s some kind of “butch tenet” or that femme lesbians like to be abused. Your definition of “butch” is also of issue. In simplest terms, a butch lesbian is a “masculine-looking female”. Gayle Rubin says, “The co-existence of masculine traits with a female anatomy is a fundamental characteristic of ‘butch’ and is a highly charged, eroticized, and consequential lesbian signal.”

    I think if you actually talked to some butch lesbians, rather than basing your theory on one story from a woman who had a couple of really fucked up relationships, you’d gain a better understanding. And, if the very idea of gender is a social construct, there’s no way anyone COULD be “socialized into masculinity” since masculinity doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist. And is “butch” a gender? It might be a gender identity.. And… and… and…

  9. Heart said:

    Excellent, Allecto. Rock on, my sister. ❤

  10. allecto said:

    Lydia said: “In simplest terms, a butch lesbian is a “masculine-looking female”. Gayle Rubin says, “The co-existence of masculine traits with a female anatomy is a fundamental characteristic of ‘butch’ and is a highly charged, eroticized, and consequential lesbian signal.””

    So ‘butch’ can not exist without gender (looking masculine, masculine traits) and feminists are opposed to gender, therefore ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ are both inconsistant within radical feminist theory. Radical feminists are opposed to gender and seek to get rid of it. As I said in the original post: I don’t really understand how categorising women into gendered identities because of clothing choices is in anyway meaningful or necessary for lesbians seeking liberation. Also, surely any relationship forged upon, and beholden to, the aesthetic appearance of the women involved is an incredibly shallow way of relating.

    The reason I wrote this post is because of conversations with women who engage with ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ ideas within the lesbian feminist community which suprised me utterly. I had no idea that when I went to Michfest I would meet so many amazing radical lesbian feminists who were into butch/femme. Yes, I have read their writing, and yes I have talked to them. I simply disagree strongly with them about this particular issue and I thought it was important to write about my own perspective.

  11. allecto said:

    ehungerford said: “CRYING and HUGGING and SYMPATHETIC LISTENING are human behaviors, not female ones. They are NECESSARY to human emotional survival (and community building). So rejecting them on a personal level, merely *because* they are traditionally associated with females, without further analysis or consideration is just foolish.”

    Absolutely. The obssession within some sections of the lesbian community with categorising behaviour is bizarre. When we place gender onto behaviour we are limiting the personhood of ourselves and those around us. Gender is intrinsically antifeminist and will always be damaging to women.

  12. allecto said:

    Thanks Heart. *hugs*

  13. Preach it, sista.

  14. Marie-France Lesage said:

    In almost every discussion of gender I am encountering these days, I think far too much emphasis is being placed on subjective perceptions divorced from historical context — and not enough on underlying biological realities (the natural variations of human beings.)

    To clarify, if a female person has a strong facial bone structure, wider and more muscular shoulders, narrower and less pronounced hips, smaller breasts, larger hands, a dislike for fussy clothes, a more taciturn personality (reserved in groups or around strangers, not naturally outgoing, comfortable or “playful” in party situations, more business-like in working situations and generally less chummy) and also happens to be sexually/emotionally oriented towards other females, is that person automatically “butch” because she doesn’t fit our cultural stereotypes of “femme”? What if she has all the above characteristics but she is sexually oriented towards males? Is she automatically “a closet case” because she fits our superficial cultural stereotypes of a “butch lesbian”?

    Conversely, if a person has softer, more delicate facial bones, narrower shoulders, wider and softer hips, fuller breasts, smaller and more delicate hands, a fondness for ruffles, florals or clothes that are in brighter colors, a naturally cheerful, playful and outgoing personality in parties and groups, is first to grab up any nearby babies and start talking baby-talk at them a mile a minute (more obviously nurturing and chatty with small children) and also happens to be sexually/emotionally oriented towards other females, is that person automatically “femme” because she doesn’t fit our cultural stereotypes of “butch”? Does the fact that society doesn’t automatically read her as “butch” make her any less of a “real” lesbian?

    Let’s mix it up: what if the woman in the first example adores pink and works as a baby nurse? What if the woman in the second example hates pink and works as a day-trader?

    When these conversations come up, I think of the all-too-male men of the court of Louis XIV: elaborate and fussy high-heels, long and curly wigs, yards of ruffles and lace at neck and wrist, powder and rouge, beautifully embroidered brocades in a rainbow of peacock colors, perfume and jewelry — every external sign read as “femme” in Western cultures today, but they were raping the servant girls, starting massive, stupid and destructive wars and engaging in family-destoying duals over prostitutes and mistresses like every other generation of entitled males in Patriarchy.

    I hate to see HUMAN characteristics automatically sorted into “gender” buckets. I especially hate to see these HUMAN characteristics used to enforce sex role stereotypes or to further the oppression of women (and by women I always mean female human beings.)

    I am not “butch” or “femme” or “androgynous”. I am not “feminine” or “masculine”. I am certainly NOT “queer”.

    I’m just me: a fully-rounded, complex, unique and biologically female human being who would like everyone to stop trying to sort me into a gender. Fuck gender. Gender is for societies that can’t love and embrace the complexity and nuances of human reality.

    That said, if other women are comfortable with the labels of “butch” or “femme” — or have come to accept these labels as their lot in this lifetime because that’s how everyone around them has always read them — then I can understand not wanting to stand up to the juggernaut of labeling. It’s not for the faint of heart, and I very often keep my mouth shut and go along because I don’t have the energy to fight it at every turn — certainly not all day, every day. It’s exhausting.

  15. That was a really insightful and worthwhile comment, Marie-France. Thank you. You are right that anatomy is usually not taken into account as much as it should in such discussions. I agree with you on so many levels and have also often thought about the way the superficial trappings of modern femininity used to be considered masculine in many places and eras. I especially liked the little paragraph starting with “I’m just me”. I would print that on my shirt if I thought it helped!

  16. Marie-France Lesage said:

    Thanks sistertrinity — but others think I’m a privileged, ignorant, woman-hating, lesbian-hating monster for having a skeptical/critical and historical analysis of the butch/femme framework. I find all of this in-fighting to be exhausting and counter-productive.

  17. Yes, I noticed. I also find this a real pity. I wish that at least within certain circles, people wouldn’t be so quick to identify each other as ‘the enemy’. I think a lot of society’s misogyny/homophobia is projected onto this critical stance, as is the case with trans- or any gender critical thought outside of RF circles. People get incredibly defensive when they perceive something to be attacking their identity, and fail to hear the actual meaning. I also find it curious that some really deny that there is any gendered nature to the butch/femme labels. I mean, one of them is French for ‘woman’, the other is probably derived from ‘butcher’ and is a nickname/name for men, and many individuals who identify as either speak of the ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ identities that are attached to these words. butchvoices.com says, “Masculine of center (MoC) is a term, coined by B. Cole of the Brown Boi Project, that recognizes the breadth and depth of identity for lesbian/queer/ womyn who tilt toward the masculine side of the gender scale and includes a wide range of identities such as butch, stud, aggressive/AG, dom, macha, tomboi, trans-masculine etc.”

    It’s not like you or allecto are disparaging anyone. We’re simply talking about what we’ve perceived so far. And what we are talking about is geared toward building a world in which you can have all the buzz cuts an muscular physique you want without ever, ever being called ‘masculine’ or ‘like a man’ for it, which I would have thought should be pleasing to all those involved, apart from actual misogynists and homophobes (whose displeasure is of course sweet music to us).

  18. Marie-France Lesage said:

    Oh, well — in for a penny, in for a pound: To me both butch and femme are gender schticks.

    From the urban dictionary: “1) Yiddish slang meaning ‘gimmick’ that has come to mean ‘someone’s signature behavior.’ In the 1940’s, Jewish comedians in the Catskills referred to their comedy routines as their schtick. 2) presentation or sales pitch, from yiddish slang, implying phoniness or slickness, lack of substance with focus on style.”

    It’s this “focus on style” aspect of butch/femme that seems very inauthentic to me. It is wholly derivative from Patriarchal gender norms — enacting either a capitulation or a rebellion — but the people performing butch/femme somehow either can’t see it or don’t want to admit it.

    I hate schticks, as a rule. I tend to rebel against them as a matter of principle.

    Here’s an example outside of the butch/femme discussion: when I lived in Southern California a while back I was invited to several “industry” parties by an old friend (he is an insider, I am as far an outsider to that world as a person can be.) Anyway, every time I went to a party with him and his partner I found all these people striving super-hard to project a very “hip, urban, cool” persona — wild hair styles and colors, one-off jewelry made by artists and not off-the-shelf, bizarre facial make-up, but 99% of them, male and female, were wearing black. It cracked me up because in the midst of all this striving to project “I’m a very creative and unique person” they were also (consciously? unconsciously?) super conformist — 200 people in a room and they’re ALL wearing black. So the next time I went to one of these oh-so-trendy parties, I wore an orange and pink print house dress and brown walking shoes, no make-up, no jewelry, just me with clean hair and a scrubbed face in my favorite knock-around summer-weight house-dress with my bike shorts underneath, the kind of thing you might wear to Safeway on a Saturday morning before dropping the books off at the library and picking up the cat at the vet. People stared at me all night, came up and demanded “Who are you? What do you do?” and in general acted like kittens with a doberman puppy in room: hissy, curious, mesmerized, offended. They were there to jostle for position, to ‘see and be seen’, to make a big impression and I was futzing with their schtick by simply opting out of the whole thing.

    That’s what I strive to do with gender: opt out. I listen to the still, quiet voice inside of me and to the best of my ability in the moment, I opt out of performing gender altogether.

    If thinking that butch/femme is a gender schtick and opting out of performing gender schticks makes me a hateful, horrible, anti-woman, anti-lesbian creature? Oh, well. I don’t mean anyone any harm; I’m just trying to smash the fucking Patriarchy.

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