Butch is a synonym for faux-hyper-masculinity, and can be applied to men or women. It can be a synonym for 'Old Guard leather', and many leather-men are butch.
Butch and femme are terms often used in the lesbian and gay subcultures to describe a person's approximate adherence to traditional masculine and feminine gender roles respectively, within a same-sex personal relationship, or to describe an individual generally. Femme is also frequently used in the transgender community.
Butch and femme attributes
The terms butch and femme often are used to describe lesbians. Gay men and straight women are not typically included in this definition, though they do try to make claim.
The term butch often is used to describe certain lesbians, though the term is also used for gay men. Butch can entail a closely cropped hairstyles, overtly masculine clothes, and attitudes involving deliberate machismo, and chivalry. Femme can entail long or femininely styled hair, skirts and other feminine clothing and/or a demure, nurturing attitude. These typical stereotypes can vary. Power femmes can be anything that empowers them to be the idea of femme energy. Demure can be part of that. So it is an evolving concept of empowerment within the community.
It is not uncommon for a butch-looking female to actually be mistaken for a male. "Butch" denotes a masculinity displayed by a female beyond that of what would be considered a "tomboy". It is not uncommon for butch-looking females to be looked down upon by their peers or people they come across - the outward physical appearance of a butch female can often be ridiculed or frowned upon as it does not meet social norms. A butch-looking female could be compared to a "flamboyant" gay male in the sense that their choice of clothing, style, speaking and thoughts can make it quite obvious that the individual is homosexual and/or attempting to mimic the opposite sex.
Among the subcultures composed of butch gay men is the "bear community". Gay men who are more femme are sometimes described as "flamers". Femmes are sometimes confused with "lipstick lesbians" which generally are understood to be feminine lesbians who are attracted to and partner with other feminine lesbians. Conversely butch lesbians may be described as a "bulldyke" or simply just "dyke." The usage of "dyke" has widened in recent years to encompass gay females in general. At one point both were considered derogatory; "dyke" has become a more neutral term, but may still be taken as offensive if used in a derogatory manner or by those outside the LGBT community.
For western lesbians, butch-femme has had varying levels of acceptance throughout the 20th century. The practices of 'femme on femme' and 'butch on butch' sex preferences are sometimes repressed by cultural mores, notably in cultures where masculine bisexual male tops who have sex with effeminate male bottoms or transwomen are considered straight and in the old school US working class lesbian butch-femme scene.
Alternate conceptualizations of femme-butch persons suggest that butch and femme are, in fact, not hetero-mimicries or attempts to take up so-called 'traditional' gender roles. In the first instance, this argument situates 'traditional' gender roles as biological, ahistorical imperatives - a claim that has been contested by writers from Sigmund Freud to Judith Butler, Jay Prosseur, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and many others. These authors take up gender as both socially and historically constructed, rather than as essential, 'natural', or strictly biological. Specifically with regard to butches and femmes, lesbian historian Joan Nestle argues that femme and butch may be seen as distinct genders in and of themselves (See The Persistent Desire, 1993). Elsewhere, it has been argued that butch and femme are 'read' as imperfect copies of heterosexual gender roles due to the uncritical assumption that masculinity and femininity are inseparable from genetic male-ness or female-ness. For example, to suggest that a butch woman is attempting to annex heterosexual male power or privilege - a claim levelled by some radical feminists (see Sheila Jeffreys and others) - fails to take note of the social censure levelled at individuals who reject social and cultural imperatives that link biological sex with what Judith Butler calls 'gender performance'
Butch and femme in history
The butch-femme pairing in relationships was more common among lesbians of older generations. In Debra A. Wilson's documentary The Butch Mystique an older woman named Matu says that this was because in the past a woman was in physical danger if she was obviously with another woman in a romantic capacity, and butch women felt that being tough was necessary to protect themselves and their female companions, leading to a reputation of toughness and pejorative terms such as "bulldyke" and "diesel dyke" that accompanied it.
Prior to the 1970s, some feminist theorists pronounced "butch-femme" roles politically incorrect, because they believed that all butch/femme dynamics by necessity imitate heterosexist gender roles, leading to butch-femme relationships being driven underground.
However, "inherent to butch-femme relationships was the presumption that the butch is the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking....Yet unlike the dynamics of many heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a femme. The essence of this emotional/sexual dynamic is captured by the ideal of the "stone butch," or untouchable butch....To be untouchable meant to gain pleasure from giving pleasure. Thus, although these women did draw on models in heterosexual society, they transformed those models into an authentically lesbian interaction." (Davis and Lapovsky, 1989)
Antipathy towards female butches and male femmes could be interpreted as transphobia, although it is important to note that female butches and male femmes are not always transgendered or identified with the trans movement.
Many young people today (in the homosexual community) eschew butch or femme classifications, believing that they are inadequate to describe an individual, or that labels are limiting in and of themselves. Some people within the queer community have tailored the common labels to be more descriptive, such as "soft stud," "hard butch," "gym queen," or "tomboy femme." Comedian Elvira Kurt contributed the term "fellagirly" as a description for queer females who are not strictly either femme or butch, but a combination.
Lesbians and genderqueers who identify as Butch or Femme have experienced a renaissance as the Internet has brought the butch-femme community together. To be either butch or femme challenges traditional gender roles and expectations about appropriate gender presentation and desire, and expands the concept of what it means to be female. Some femme men and butch women regard themselves thus as genderqueer for that reason, but many others do not. Moreover, some genderqueer people identify their gender primarily as butch or femme, rather than man or woman.
- Davis, Madeline and Lapovsky Kennedy, Elizabeth (1989). "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community", Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past (1990), Duberman, etc, eds. New York: Meridian, New American Library, Penguin Books. ISBN-0452010675.