feature image via Wide Open Town: A History of Queer SF to 1965, by Nan Alamilla Boyd, courtesy of Mary Sager
As a femme lesbian woman, butch/femme is a part of my legacy and history and sits at my back, having a hand in the world that I live and love in. To call myself a femme, a lesbian, or a dyke without having some reverence and gratitude for butch/femme is to act as if my existence isn’t connected to a herstory and generations of women and queers before me. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t struggle with it or consider it the capital ’T’ truth. I do. I struggle with it myself and hold my own contradictions with it, as a femme who primarily and historically has dated other femmes. But all said and done, I love butch/femme.
I didn’t always feel this way. When I first came out as queer and trans, I held the frankly wrong belief that butch and femme were just heteronormative mirrors of the gender binary, but for queers (bless my heart). To be honest, I think so much of my initial rejection of butch/femme came from deep sources of internalized femmephobia and misogyny and rejecting dyke culture outright, throwing the gorgeousness out with the TERF bathwater.
In addition to the femmephobic, misogynistic world we live in, I was in a band and was a part of punk / DIY communities during my high school years that had a culture of understanding femme or femininity on the part of women as a manifestation of patriarchy or misogyny (or just uncool). While there were some exceptions, the femininity I saw appreciated most was straight or queer cis men who took on femininity or femmeness, much like the ways in which in queer communities femme feels more celebrated, ’radical’, and gender-fucking when it’s embodied by masc folks rather than from women. That said, there are amazing and badass dyke/queer/femme-identified punk women and to not acknowledge that would be a mistake.
All of this is within the context of queer/lesbian communities after the feminist / lesbian sex wars in the 1970’s and 80’s. Often when the sex wars gets discussed, people mostly talk about the debates around porn and sex work, but that was also tied into a broader discussion and debate over BDSM, butch/femme, trans lives and existence, and working to define what a ‘good feminist’ and ‘good lesbian’ was and is. As Joan Nestle, femme author and co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives wrote in her seminal 1987 book, A Restricted Country:
“Some Lesbians are more acceptable than others. Leather and butch and femme Lesbians, transsexuals, Lesbian prostitutes and sex workers, writers of explicit sexual stories – little by little, we are being rounded up. First we are distanced and told we are not feminists, even though many of us have spent years building the Movement. Then we are told we are patriarchal, that we are the voices of submission and dominance, that we are heterosexual lesbians. The doors close to us.
Lesbian purity, a public image that drapes us in the cloak of monogamous long term relationships, discreet at home social gatherings, and a basic urge to recreate the family, helps no one….By allowing ourselves to be portrayed as the good deviant, the respectable deviant, we lose more than we gain. We lose the complexity of our own lives, and we lose what for me has been a lifelong lesson: you do not betray your comrades when the scapegoating begins.”
It’s this part of our herstory that feels the most maddening and clarifying about why butch/femme matters — as a femme, as a trans woman, as a dyke. It was within that political moment that those of us who’s womanhood was on the margins were questioned during the struggle for rights, recognition, and inclusion into a system not designed or built for us. In that moment, our womanhood became seen as wrong or the problem: whether that’s because we’re trans women and not ‘real’ or ‘women-born-women’; or when women get paid for their sexual labor and use sex work to survive and thrive; or when butch women declare themselves to be masculine and reject cis and heteronormative standards for womanhood; or when femmes unabashedly love and play with femininity to step into our full power and claim it on our own terms — not on men’s or heterosexuality’s.
It wasn’t just a limitation of the gender universe of womanhood, it was also silencing the ways those experiences of women and gender non-conforming/genderqueer experiences of gender informed a queer, working class, trans, butch/femme, sex worker feminist politic that was expansive, transformative and revolutionary. It’s because I used to believe a history in which I thought we were in a new era, building queer and lesbian relationships and solidarity as cis and trans women, that cis dykes hadn’t chosen us back before. As it turns out, butches and femmes did. Joan Nestle’s piece was written in 1987, three years before I was born.
Finding Femme, Finding Home
I came to my femme identity in many ways. When I was younger, sex and sexuality was really confusing: I knew I was attracted to women, but straight cis sex never seemed that attractive to me at all and being a person who was assigned male at birth, I assumed to be queer I had to be attracted to men, which I wasn’t, really. The idea that I could be a trans woman who’s a lesbian didn’t even register as a possibility. A few years ago, after I came out as queer and trans, I talked to an older friend of mine, asking them if they knew I was queer before I did. Their response was, “It was obvious you were some kind of queer, but we didn’t know what — because you weren’t a gay man, obviously.”
Not long after I moved to Greensboro, NC for college, my old band broke up, which began a slow shift away from punk/DIY communities that was central to my life, making room for change and new ways of navigating and inhabiting the world. Around the same time, I began doing more community organizing and some of my mentors in that work were cis queer femme identified women who at first were people I looked up to. After coming out as trans and genderqueer, I realized that they were modeling the kind of woman, femme, and organizer I wanted to become.
It was a pair of dangly earrings that I tried on the towards the end of my first year at college that my mom gave me “to give to a girl” that made me feel power, joy, and longing across my chest, never wanting to ever take them off. It was the cis femme who I met when I was working a table at a conference who took me out to dinner with her cis butch partner the next day and later taught me how to paint my nails and six years later, the three of us are family despite the fact that we live on opposite coasts. It was the femmeships in my life who inspired me, made me feel seen and affirmed, and the relationships with partners, one of whom half-joked that as queer women we were becoming more lesbian through dating each other. It was the queers, femmes, butches, genderqueers, dykes, that made and make up my organizing community, my friendships, my ex-partners, and the people I build family with that make me inspired, feel seen and affirmed, alive in my dignity and wholeness.
It was butch/femme writing, books like Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, Persistent Desire: A Butch/Femme Anthology edited by Joan Nestle and her book A Restricted Country, s/he by Minnie Bruce Pratt, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Woman Dreaming Her Way Home by Amber Hollibaugh, and the newer anthology co-edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman: Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. In those books, I was able to find parts of myself inside other’s words and stories, even if they were and weren’t always written for trans girls like me. They were written for the unabashedly gay and deliciously dykey parts of me and I love the ways I can relate to the stories, even if it’s not fully. Despite that the stories of trans women who love other women and situate themselves within lesbian legacies like butch/femme still feel few and far between —as well as all the ways transmisogyny exists within queer and lesbian communities — butch/femme feels like my legacy that I get to claim too.
All of it created the way that my femme identity functions as a dare, a longing, and a political decision about how to move in the world. To me, femme is a queer gender with lesbian and trans lineages of femininities that challenge patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, cissexism, and white supremacy. It deeply informs my trans womanhood while remaining separate from it, shaping how I can inhabit a binary gender and play with it in a way that stretches past the lines patriarchy and cissexism puts in place.
With Gratitude and Struggle, I Reach Back and Step Forward
“I stand on the sandy road that runs between the two encampments, at the boundary of womanhood. I don’t want woman to be a fortress that has to be defended. I want it to be a life we constantly braid together from the threads of our existence, a rope we make, a flexible weapon, stronger than steel, that we use to pull down the walls that imprison us at the borders.” – Minnie Bruce Pratt, ‘Border’, s/he
Of course, to treat butch/femme as the end-all-be-all would be to do the same limiting of queer and lesbian gender brilliance and magical constellations of ways we can connect, build, and love each other. It would also be wrong to treat butch and femme identities as only in relationship to each other. So much good work has been done to de-couple butch and femme from each other — as a way to resist patriarchy within queer women’s communities, to make room for the variety of lesbian and queer women’s genders that exist, to expand and name the variety of desires that come within our communities, and to define themselves on their own terms. And of course, language is changing and shifting all the time so people can more accurately identify themselves on our own terms.
That said, as much as it’s is part of our collective herstory, I hope butch/femme continues to have a celebrated future and grows, thrives, keeps on pushing the boundaries of womanhood with unabashed queerness and unapologetic (and yes, persistent) desire. Because I would not be here, as I am, without that legacy and without those people — and for that I am grateful and loving even in the middle of hard, messy, complicated conversations where no one is asked to shrink or shirk their dignity.
Butch/Femme is important to me because butches and femmes writing and discussing what it meant to be who we are shaped my understanding of myself and how I can show up in the world. What I feel is politically possible, because some of that work has already been done and we’re not starting from scratch. That I get to reach back for lesbian and dyke legacies in addition to my trans legacies, and step forward with so much brilliance, lessons, and wisdom at my back.