Butch People Are Everywhere – So Why Are They Still So Misunderstood?

Designed by Anna Jay.
If you’re butch, you get a lot of shit.
We know logically that 'womanhood' is not one size fits all – and that 'femininity' is not the default. But butch and masculine-of-centre women and non-binary people are noticeably absent from the cultural conversation, even as the focus on LGBTQ+ representation is more visible than ever before. Butchness is simultaneously hyper visible in public and invisible in media representation. This week we're hoping to change that, as we explore and celebrate all the different forms and experiences that butchness takes, with our week of content lovingly titled 100% That Butch.
Butch identity (and its femme counterpart) has its roots in the working class lesbian bar culture of the '60s and '70s, though the labels 'butch' and 'femme' have existed since the 1940s. These bars were havens for women to explore not only their sexuality but also their gender presentation, in relative safety. As many middle and upper class lesbians didn’t want to associate with bar culture (for fear of tainting their image), the scene came to be dominated by working class manual labourers. Their areas of industry gave butch women far more freedom to cut their hair, wear trousers and generally avoid the gender policing other women were subject to. This laid the groundwork for butch fashion.
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This divide between butch/femme culture and middle and upper class lesbians became more pronounced as time went on, with people arguing that butch/femme relationships were a form of 'brainwashing' as they mimicked heterosexuality. In Leslie Feinberg's semi-fictional cult classic novel Stone Butch Blues (which you can read for free here), Theresa (a femme) is mocked by a newly formed group of university-educated lesbians. She tells the protagonist that "they draw a line—women on one side and men on the other. So women they think look like men are the enemy. And women who look like me are sleeping with the enemy. We’re too feminine for their taste." This idea that butchness is a choice to 'look like a man' and, therefore, sets women back, pervades to this day.
In the 21st century, shifting attitudes and understandings of queerness have diversified identities, introducing more and more people to more fluid ways of understanding their gender and sexuality. From trans masc to genderqueer to non-binary, many who originally identified as butch have reformulated how they understand themselves. While this is only a good thing, it’s important to note that butchness for both cis and trans people hasn’t gone away and that to be butch does not necessarily mean you are a cis lesbian or rigidly within the gender binary. 'Butch' as an identity can seem old fashioned in the age of gender aliens, but that’s less to do with butchness itself and more to do with prejudice about what butchness means. As Laura Bridgeman writes: "I always felt butch, although it did have negative connotations. Butches were seen to be moody, aggressive, violent. People to fear – not hot."
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This quote comes from a conversation we’re publishing later this week between Laura (or Dr. B) and Krishna Istha about the intersection of butch and trans identities. There is an urgency to having these kinds of conversations publicly as mainstream media representations of what it is to be trans have helped perpetuate a rise in transphobia and gender policing that affects the lives not only of trans people but of anyone who is what Hannah Gadsby calls "gender not-normal". In recent years, there has been a push by transphobic pockets of 'feminists' to put a divide between cis lesbians and trans people based on transmisogynistic lies about trans women, and transphobic ideas that trans men are 'lesbians in denial'. As this conversation shows, this divide is simply not real and exists only to further alienate and harm trans people. And it harms the very cis lesbians it claims to 'defend' too – on Friday we're publishing a feature unpacking the myth of 'butch privilege' and how gender policing results in a specific, targeted form of harassment and misogyny towards butch people.
The lack of visibility not only has political consequences, it has personal consequences too. Today we publish a story celebrating butchness as a form of beauty, and exploring how the lack of media representation has to this day affected the sense of self for butch and gender nonconforming people. Later in the week, we dig further into the way gender presentation interacts with body politics, fatness and desire, and in a separate piece we interview several people about the importance of butch and tomboy style in their lives. And tomorrow, we’re talking about what it means to be butch and pregnant in a world that tells you motherhood is only for feminine women.
As a lesbian I spend a lot of time thinking about homophobia, queerphobia and what needs to be done to improve the lives of people in my community. There are so many things we need, and deserve, but something I always come back to is the internalised homophobia I learned as a teenager. While I understood that being a lesbian was a bad thing, it was being butch that was really repulsive. To reject not only men but what you’re taught as womanhood was so against the rules, it was disgusting. It was a lesson that was ingrained in me so deeply that I refused to look directly at my sexuality until a girl kissed me at 19. From that moment, I unlearned that prejudice quickly. And while I have faith these attitudes are slowly changing, I know firsthand that they're not changing fast enough. Because I am femme, I am far less likely to be subject to homophobia when I’m on my own. But this is not true for my wife when she’s alone, or when we’re together; it’s not true for the butch women who are pushed out of women’s bathrooms or the non-binary people who get constantly invalidated in the press. It is a prejudice that comes out in violence and hatred towards people I love the most and frankly, I’m sick of it.
My hope is that this week will be part of that shift, by celebrating HOW multifaceted butchness IS. I have tried to include as many perspectives and voices as possible and I hope this can be part of a wider shift in media, women’s media in particular, and that this is only the first step. To everyone involved, thank you, and I hope I have done you justice.
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