Femme Queer, Butch Queer

I have a certain perception of internal dynamics within the queer community, a recurrent perception that makes me want to build it into a fully-formed theory, if possible. I’ve reflected on it enough that I feel it’s time to express my thought and see if anyone can corroborate it, or if I jus be trippin.

My perception comes from participating in the trans community; I’ve engaged a little with the lesbian and gay communities, but not as much yet as I would like to. I want to know their perspective on this, because I know they have one; at least it’s widely discussed in the lesbian community. Maybe even lesbian theory. (BTW, can anyone recommend a good source to start with lesbian theory?)

Because I’ve dealt with it among trans people, and heard about it happening with lesbians, it felt safe to generalize it and just talk queer theory.

Kate Bornstein on gender theory: When you’ve demolished the exclusively binary gender system, there are lots more modes for pairing up than just straight male/female: for example, butch/femme, top/bottom, sub/dom, etc., all without reference to gender or sexual orientation. Maybe Bornstein means we don’t need to get all hung up on a couple different ways of relating, when there’s such a wide variety of alternatives. If more people were down with this liberating concept, there wouldn’t be homophobia or transphobia.

So within the trans community, I am sometimes made to feel second class for being femme, when some of the butch persuasion make their preferences normative. It can even become a political power issue.

There, I got that off my chest. I didn’t present it as a rant, but as an exploration toward queer theory. It needs more development. A good constructive debate has been known to contribute to building up theory. Wanna take a crack at it? Have you noticed any butch/femme power issues within a queer community?

Certainly: gay men who are not femme hold a certain amount of social hegemony over those who are – not only in the queer community (“if I wanted a woman I’d be straight!”) but in the society at large (there’s a certain amount of evidence to the effect that a major motivation in random gay bashing is gender variance, not simply evidence of actual homosexuality).

It’s recently interested me how, among lesbians, there’s both butch-over-femme and femme-over-butch snobbery, but among gay men, butch-over-femme snobbery far outweights femme-over-butch snobbery, to the extent that the latter exists. My guess is that it’s a microcosm of the girls-can-act-like-boys-but-not-vice-versa tenor of society.

IME, butch-over-femme snobbery outweighs femme-over-butch in the lesbian community, as femmes are often seen as “passing” or being “secret agents”, thus not carrying their weight in the fight for visibility. OOH, there is a point to that – some femmes do make the effort to pass. OTOH, femmes are just as important as I think we help fight stereotypes in a major way. There is, of course, femme-over-butch snobbery, which is generally of the mindset that butches really “want to be men” and encourage stereotyping.

Lesbians also often divide into two camps – those who enjoy and/or support the butch-femme aesthetic, and those who mock it as heterosexual playacting. IME, you most often find lesbian-feminists in the latter group group (“If I wanted a man I’d get one!”). In that vein, it’s been my experience (and this is a wide brush), that most of the transphobia in the lesbian community springs from the side that denounces the butch-femme roles. With that said, while transphobia was a big problem in our community, I think it’s getting better with the emergence of more FTMs and their supporters, and so the detractors of butch-femme are fading out as fluid gender roles and identities gain more ground.
Johanna**, you commented that you’re made to feel second-class as a femme in the trans community – did you mean as an MTF versus a FTM or as a femme in the MTF segment? I wasn’t aware such a split occurred in the MTF community (though it shouldn’t surprise me, obviously).

. . . My favorite Dr. Seuss book ever.

I thought it was one of Irwin Shaw’s sequels to Rich Man, Poor Man

I will not be straight in a box
I will not be straight like a fox
I will not be straight in a house
I will not be straight like a mouse.
I will not give up my dental dam
I will be queer just like I am.

chatelaine, I was referring to a butch/femme dynamic within the MTFs. I haven’t seen any discussion about this, ever. I brought up the subject because I’d heard it discussed in the gay and lesbian communities, and then noticed it happening among MTFs, and wondered how come no one else noticed it. I thought it might be generalized for queer theory as a whole.

You say femme dykes are put down for “passing”? Oh, the irony! The irony! I felt marginalized among MTFs for precisely the reverse reason. They tell me I can’t “pass” unless I butch up more. I get criticized for not passing.

Yes, exactly. More: It reflects the male domination of society as a whole, the assumption of male privilege that is apparently so deep-rooted it doesn’t go away even when you switch from male to female.

Feminist issues of society at large are reflected in the queer microcosms. We have been brought up in a world where the female was second-rate in the power structure for ages. Feminism has made great achievements in a short time, but gender inequality runs very deep in our upbringing, so it isn’t surprising when our alternative communities reproduce the same issues, as long as we don’t consciously work on changing them.

What concerns me is patterns of power-over by which a dominant group marginalizes a perceived lesser-status group, and whether feminist theory can contribute to equality and personal empowerment for all. Riane Eisler’s work has been a big help to me on this issue, and the Reclaiming tendency of Witchcraft that puts Eisler’s ideas into practice. Reclaiming is the only space I’ve found that successfully eradicates the power-over dynamic and promotes real feminist democratic equality for all. This is why I mostly hang out with them rather than transgender organizations. Reclaiming is the most trans-friendly space I’ve ever been in.

In society at large, I am a feminist. Now I’m finding that within the MTF trans community, by the same token, I have to be a femme-inist and insist on my equal status with the butches.

BTW, can anyone recommend some good introductory lesbian theory?

This one likes to squeeze a tit;
This one likes to lick a clit;
This one dresses like a lass;
This one does him up the ass!

Here’s a queer who’s into frottage;
Here is one who likes to “cottage”
In a toilet, in a car…
What a lot of queers there are!

But that’s no reason why they can’t be frieeeeeends!
—Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahomo


Hey, it’s not just anyplace a straight guy can quote show tunes and not have everybody assume he’s gay.


I’m very tempted to contribute some Seusslike prose, but I’m afraid some folks would be too sensitive to find it funny.


ROFLMFAO!!! Thanks, guys!

I have nothing of my own to contribute to this (I can’t speak to butch/femme because it’s a binary I understand even less than I understand male/female) but I would like to post a link to my friend Elise Mattheson’s speech for BECAUSE. She’s talking about a lot of the weird gender and legitimacy issues that she perceived in the queer women’s community in it. (Femmes in the thread may appreciate her poem Femme Thang as well. I believe I showed it to matt_mcl a while back.)

Without getting too specific here:

I’ve come to be at least casually aquainted with a number of gay performers of either gender. There are, of course, a great number of wonderful pieces of theater and musical theater that don’t require the actors to fit at all neatly in “traditional” gender roles; but the great majority of the “classics”, as well as a fair percentage of newer works, do.

Many actors, gay or straight, can affect a femme or butch persona almost effortlessly, but there are certainly some butch ladies and fey men who have a rather difficult time not getting typecast*, in no small part because they can’t quite pull off a “straight” persona that casting directors find convincing.

Needless to say, the queer actors who can “pass” as needed are getting the lion’s share of the work. Then there are those folks who will fly across the country to a small city to audition yet again for Matron “Mamma” Morton (even if it means they don’t eat that month), because that’s the only sort of part they get cast in.

Those who get work are often resented by those who don’t. And those who don’t are often sneered at by those who do. The yeoman performer’s world is a viciously covetous and ambitious one indeed.

I can’t say to what extent this segment of the population displays behaviors more broadly applicable, but I have to wonder if butch/femme snobbery is, to some degree, a reflection of socio- and economic status, where the less-mainstream wear their ostracism (however much they experience it) as a badge of honor, and the more mainstream lord what spoils come with acceptance over their peers.

Probably overly simplistic, but I thought I’d take a stab at it.
*I don’t know many hetro performers who find their career aspirations being hindered for seeming “too straight”, in most circumstances.

So, Loopydude, that’s show biz, I guess. Would you extend the lessons learned in the theater world to society at large? As in “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women (and other gender variants) merely players”? Some say gender is just a performance. All gender; it’s just that when you’ve been consistently shown and practiced the same gender since early childhood, you forget that it’s something you once had to practice. It becomes so accustomed and unconscious, you forget that it was learned behavior. A transwoman, from the time of her realization, begins practicing female gendered behavior consciously. How this compares to theatrical acting ability bears considering.

I don’t want to put down others. I just do not want to be put down for who I am. I’m not auditioning for a role in a play. It doesn’t matter how skilled my acting ability is. In my real occupation, I’m quite skilled at what I do and I have earned the admiration of my colleagues because I’m so good at it. Fortunately, success in my line of work does not depend on my gender presentation, only my brain.

In the background of my mind, I can hear David Byrne yelping “I don’t have to prove that I am creative!

Speaking of the theater, I keep thinking about Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines in Twelfth Night and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Viola and Julia disguised themselves as guys. Of course, in Shakespeare’s time the female roles were played by male actors. So the layered genders are a guy playing a woman pretending to be a guy. The second two of these three have to be both manifested at once, while the original maleness is muted. The resulting maleness is an artifice two steps removed from reality. Man, gender is no joke. It’s a bafflingly intricate form of art.

I feel blessed because I was accepted among a retreat of queer women, a roomful of highly brilliant and aware lesbians, who made no distinction between me and them. I was a founding member of our lesbian radical art collective. Zines and an anthology are in the works. When they liked the lesbian erotica I started writing in our impromptu writing workshop, I finally allowed myself to own the lesbian identity I had always wanted. Then on the plane home from this retreat, I opened a book and read the following passage:

“It took me five years of uncertainty to believe that I could be good enough to be a lesbian, could equal the qualities I saw in others. I was helped by recognizing that the particular group of lesbians and nonlesbians I worked with shared progressive political commitments around, for example, race and class.”

(Jeanne Adleman, “We Never Promised You Role Models” in Dyke Life: A Celebration of the Lesbian Experience, ed. by Karla Jay. New York: Basic Books, 1995, p. 80)

Well, that just says it all for me.

The group of queer women I spent the weekend with had two or three femmes besides me, one screaming butch, and one woman who simply does not identify as anything but queer. Most of them were not differentiated along a butch-femme spectrum. That’s a taste which some lesbians go for while others don’t, I guess.

The butch lady did indulge in this heterosexual playacting, as you called it, Liz. She made it fun for me, playing butch to my femme, she was a perfect gentleman for me. I went along with it because I liked the attention and it was all in fun, not serious. She held the door for me, led me in dancing, and recited seductive Urdu love poetry. I try not to take the butch-femme identities all that seriously. It isn’t the be all and end all of queerdom, just one facet, and playing is optional. I aligned myself with femme because I like to dress up pretty and my nature is very gentle; I’m just going with what feels comfortable to me. However, I don’t want to turn it into an identity issue with power-over, politics, and such nonsense. Girls just want to have fun.

Well, now I am vaguely ashamed. All I did this weekend was yard work.


Sheesh, ya’ll aren’t a damn master(mistress?) race- you’re just a bunch of chicks who dig chicks. Have fun & be happy with who you are, but don’t make yourselves out to be some Holy Chosen of the Goddess.

If a right-wing C’tian posted such comments about his/her people, the SDMB would rightly echo with the howls of derision.

Ted, dude, you never heard of the sheer guts it takes to go against the grain? The willpower you have to have to say you exist? Now, if you break away, if you’re persecuted, and you find someone to belong with, a social group that’ll accept you after all your life walking in the wilderness, shunned by all… don’t you think you’d feel like you’d do anything to belong?
And don’t you think it takes some guts to stand up against these people who finally accepted you… most of the way… and say that you’re not a reflection of them, but a part of them?

As for a right wing christian? Nope, I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree here. If one of you were having trouble with your faith, I’m willing to think a lot of us would stand by you, and help you find what you were looking for. Doesn’t matter if we’re agnostic, atheist, or devout. It’s about helping people.

Course, until you run into that trouble, you’re going to have to take my statement on faith.

Slacker!!! :smiley: