Butch vs. Femme: What’s it All About?

By Jim Koury, Editor, Diversity Rules Magazine
© 2011 Diversity Rules Magazine.  All rights reserved

The December issue of Diversity Rules Magazine contained an excellent article entitled, “Femme Visibility.”  At the end of the article, definitions of butch and femme were placed, which were taken from a very reputable online source:  www.urbandictionary.com.  “Femme Visibility” appeared to be a rather innocuous topic and one that had never been touched upon in Diversity Rules.  A nice educational piece I thought.  Little did I realize that I would be immersed in the middle of the “butch-femme” debate with one writer saying he was “disgusted to call Oneonta my hometown if it’s home to such ignorant people as you.”

I have to admit I was taken aback a bit by such harsh and derogatory exclamations of disgust and contempt for me and Diversity Rules, with the writer stating, “Jesus Christ. I’m going to discourage my friends from reading your publication until such time as you can actually get your facts straight.”   Excuse me but there was nothing wrong with my facts, and the definitions used are commonly accepted ones for butch and femme.

In addition to the definitions obtained from Urban Dictionary and used in the article, there was the following definitions from the “Butch-Femme Network” a website exclusively dealing with the butch-femme dialogue:

Butch:  A culturally defined masculine female. The masculine gender expression can fall anywhere on a continuum that includes any and all of the following: masculine mannerisms, male clothing, haircuts, tastes, interest pursuits, thought processes and view of the world. May or may not be sexually aggressive (do-er vs. receivers). Is comfortable with the term “woman” as applied to themselves.

Femme:  A lesbian/queer woman who expresses the cultural norm for feminine appearance. May or may not wear makeup, heels, dresses. No particular personality traits: runs the gamut from soft, sweet and passive to bold, brassy & aggressive. Is very comfortable with her female body and identity as a woman. Embraces the Femme identity and may consider it separate from lesbian identity. May be attracted to other femmes as well as all types of butches, FtM’s and andro lesbians.

Additionally, information culled from a website entitled, “Butch-Femme.com” is focused exclusively on the terms in the context of women and their interaction with other women.  The site describes and defines, “Old School or Classic Butch-Femme,” “Power Femme,” “Stud,” and “High Femme” all in the context of women and their gender expression.  I was accused of totally disregarding the fact that butch-femme applies to not only lesbians but men and transgender individuals.  Certainly that is a given that it would not be so.  However, that does not mean that what was in the article was wrong.  It simply was one interpretation of many interpretations of what butch-femme means.

With that said, I find the reaction to the definitions provided in the article rather odd to be honest, given the fact that these high profile butch-femme sites contain the very same definitions used in the article within the same context.

This whole episode is uncannily similar to the debate and dialogue I had when I began to use the word “queer” with more frequency, to not only describe me but the broader LGBT community generally.  I got railed on by those who felt the term was obnoxious, derogatory and just not appropriate vs. those in academia and other more intellectual outlets that actually embraced the term.  I find this whole “butch-femme” debate quite similar and grounded in this extreme political correctness that is plaguing our society today.

I am an unabashed supporter of liberal causes.  I am on the front line of the fight for queer rights.  I speak my mind freely and openly and don’t hesitate at all to point out an injustice when I see one.  But I do have to draw the line when it comes to political correctness and the slaughter of the English language by those who feel words used for hundreds if not thousands of years, are all of a sudden bad and are seen as derogatory and oppressive.

It is not the word that is the problem it is the perception of those interpreting what the word means.  I literally walk on egg shells sometimes wondering if what I say is going to offend someone such as the case with “Femme Visiblity.”  A war of words has erupted with insults being hurled at me like I was some stupid fool just born yesterday and totally oblivious to the environment around me.

Demands for an apology swirl with threats of a letter to the editor of the local paper exposing my ignorance of such advanced intellectual thinking as it relates to the butch-femme debate.  Needless to say, no apology will be forthcoming, as what was provided was a legitimate definition  and characterization of “butch-femme” given the referenced and other information sources.  If a letter to the editor of The Daily Star is what one of my detractors related to this issue feel is the most prudent course, I say “GO FOR IT.”  I do need to to get more readers in the local central New York area anyway, so press is press, no matter where it comes from!

I welcome debate.  I welcome open, honest discourse.  If any person out there wishes to rebut the article and contribute their thoughts they may do so in the comment section following this blog post.  Additionally, I will provide space in the January issue for anyone who took issue with the definitions provided in “Femme Visibility” to detail their perceptions of this debate.

America is premised upon free thought and tolerance of others’ opinions.  That is what Diversity Rules Magazine is all about and will continue to be about!  As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  That is what we need to do more of instead of name calling and hurling baseless, silly threats to try to intimidate others.

15 thoughts on “Butch vs. Femme: What’s it All About?”

  1. I consider myself Femme (lesbian) my girlfriend considers herself Butch, your definitions seem accurate to me in the context they were presented…of course I do tend to be a bit 'old school' in some areas though…

  2. I do think that the butch-femme labels are typically associated with lesbians…even in somewhat of a stereotypical way unfortunately. However, the labels seem more about gender expression than anything else, which means they also extend to men and transgender individuals. I didn't read the original article, but did it include the actual website references from which the definitions were taken? That would provide a context for understanding. Also, just because a word has a historical context and definition doesn't mean that peoples' perceptions of the word can't change or evolve. Isn't marriage (as in gay marriage) a perfect example of this?

  3. Yes I do concur. I was just surprised at the severity of the criticism. But it is to be expected and I certainly can handle it! Thanks for writing … both of you! I believe in a healthy exchange of ideas. It's unfortunate that some resort to name calling and just plain rude behavior.

  4. There is no excuse for disrepect and rudeness. On the flip side, at least you know someone is reading and reacting to what you wrote, which is ideally what you'd want, right? 🙂

  5. Jim, since when did Urban Dictionary become suddenly "reputable"? Wiktionary, sure if one subscribes to the descriptivist view of linguistics, but Urban Dictionary? Come on. Entertaining, crude, funny, disgusting, laughable are all words I would use to describe the definitions provided on Urban Dictionary, but "reputable" would only apply in the context of "absolutely not".

    Second, given that terms like "butch" and "femme" are identity labels, one must be very careful in defining these labels if one does not belong to the group they are applied to. This isn't a matter of political correctness, merely a matter of showing a certain level of respect. If someone who identifies with those terms, then they have much more of a right to define those terms then you do. Just saying. Although I can't see the point of the rudeness towards you in this context, I do feel that you are on very sketchy ground in saying that these definitions are "commonly accepted".
    -Jeremy Redlien

  6. Well, from what I have read and from what conversations I have had, the definitions are quite on the mark but again, it's all interpretation of words and how we perceive ourselves, etc. etc… But this has been a good dialogue nevertheless.

  7. I have also found Urban Dictionary quite accurate but maybe I haven't looked up much lately. But either way, from what I can tell, the definitions are pretty accurate, especially in light of the definitions given at the two "butch-femme" websites I referenced. They seem fairly in sync. Again, I think we as a society place way too much focus and emphasis on labels. We need to just be more human and not get so damn uptight over what one thinks or does not think of one's particular label. Keep the comments coming!

  8. Jim,
    I would agree with you but you are defining identity labels for others, not for yourself. What gives you the right to define terms for others? I get twitchy whenever I hear the term "just get over it" because it's a reflection of the attitude of most bullies.

    While I agree, that humans have a tendency to spend too much time arguing over semantics, identity (and also identity politics) is a morass of ethical quandaries and unresolved issues. You are not going to solve this issue by telling people to just get over it.

    On a side note, it's been awhile since I've been to urban dictionary but when I studied it for my senior thesis for my philosophy degree I remember coming across hundreds of definitions that were written by those with the mentality of a grade schooler. Yes there were definitions provided by those who were legitimately interested in providing accurate definitions and I think I recall the legitimate ones having a slight majority. However, I've always thought of urban dictionary as an entertainment site, not as something I would turn to for accurate definitions and I'm saying this as someone who strongly argued in favour of the descriptivist view of linguistics.
    -Jeremy Redlien

  9. Well I just scanned my posts and I couldn't see where I said "just get over it." I am not ridiculing anyone's desire to associate with their respective label. All I am saying is that we are pre-occupied way too much on what one is supposed to be based on their label of choice versus more emphasis on being part of one human family, respecting everyone's differences. This issue has just highlighted the fact that while many proclaim to be open and accepting of others, they in fact are not so because they condemn others for not agreeing with their perspective on what their particular label means or represents. I just choose to not buy into the political correct stuff to the "nth" degree anymore. I mean no offense but I am not going to preoccupy my attention on thinking about whether what I say is going to offend "x, y or z." Too much effort is spent worrying about that rather than on the much larger issue of equality for all and just letting everyone be who they are without benefit of a label.

  10. But my main premise is still valid I believe. When we all start to think of everyone as individuals and part of the human race, that begins to chip away at the isolation and fear of those who are different. Idealistic yes, but all great movements begin with an idea grounded in a higher purpose. Getting beyond labels is that higher purpose or at least one of them!

  11. Labels have a purpose and some of us claim our labels as our identities. It's nice that you want us to be "part of one human family, respecting everyone's differences"…but you chose the definitions of butch and femme…and some people didn't like the ones you chose. Instead of being somewhat apologetic – what if this happened to you? – you are saying it has to do with "political correctness," which it does not. Political correctness is just about respect…that people have the right to be called what they want and to define said label themselves. I liked the definitions from the Butch-Femme site more than the ones in the article…they were less exact and allowed for the differences that exist within the ButchFemme communities. Imo.

    But name calling aimed at you? Unacceptable.

  12. I'm wondering if you've updated you perception of femme since you published this? Perhaps you've decided that we are an identity in ourselves, and not dependent on a butch-femme dynamic? Have learned about the actual *queer* aspect of this identity, of not just "expressing" cultural norms of femininity, but rather *fucking with them*… Choosing them as a challenge to binary norms from a position of power rather than submission… In a sense it is even a trans identity, if you will: FtF.

    Maybe you have realized it isn't necessarily a lesbian identity, but a bi identity, a trans identity, a genderqueer identity?

    Perhaps you've read up since then on femmes of color, such as Femme Sharks, and other manifestos, relating back to Stonewall and beyond, in terms of our femme roots?

    Just curious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *