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social sciences

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Joan Nestle, an author and activist who has written extensively on butch-femme, explored what it meant to be femme when this identification was wildly unpopular. In her 1992 anthology The Persistent Desire, Nestle examines in depth the femme experience, elaborating on the fact that "butches were known by their appearance, femmes by their choices."

As Nestle elucidates, butches and femmes appreciate and complement each other's physical and emotional differences--as well as their likenesses--in a way that no outsider could truly understand.

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A resurgence of butch-femme identities and relationships in the late 1980s brought this dynamic back to the forefront of lesbian culture. The resurgence of butch-femme may be due in part to the fact that gender fluidity has become much more acceptable in recent decades. After all, butch and femme are related not only to sexual orientation, but also to gender expression.

In recent years, "pansexual" and "polysexual" have joined "bisexual" as terms that indicate women's attractions to more than one gender. Another indication of that fluidity is the fact that one cannot always tell simply by looking whether a lesbian identifies as butch or femme. Butches are not necessarily tops; femmes are not necessarily bottoms; and butches and femmes are no longer expected to date only each other.

However, in spite of butch-femme's renewed visibility, many women now argue that "butch" and "femme" are labels that oversimplify, generalize, or pigeonhole complex identities into false dichotomies. Femmes have been dismissed both within and outside of lesbian communities as being "too pretty to be 'real' lesbians." And a common refrain among lesbians and bisexuals who do not understand the appeal of butch women is "If I wanted to be with someone who looks like a man, I'd be with a man!"

But, as Carol Queen puts it in the groundbreaking anthology Dagger: On Butch Women (1994), "male" traits in females constitute something else altogether--"something our gender-impoverished language doesn't offer us words to describe."

Teresa Theophano

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literature >> Overview:  Butch-Femme Relations

It is impossible to understand twentieth-century lesbian literature without recognizing the significance of butch-femme relationships.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressers have often been misunderstood and maligned, especially in societies with rigid gender roles.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cultural Identities

A growing body of scholarly and other work on Cultural Identities challenges the "naturalness," and even the political necessity, of a unitary gay and lesbian identity.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay and Lesbian Bars

The centrality of gay and lesbian bars to glbtq culture has been reduced in recent years, but they continue to fulfill important functions; and, in many areas, they remain the most visible manifestation of glbtq presence.

social sciences >> Overview:  Tomboys

Although tomboys must contend with the often false assumptions that they are lesbian or want to be male, for many the tomboy stage is the first manifestation of a gender-fluid life journey.

arts >> Carstairs, Marion Barbara "Joe"

Marion Joe Carstairs, a colorful gender-bending figure of the twentieth century, first gained fame as a speedboat racer in the 1920s.

literature >> Feinberg, Leslie

Political organizer, grassroots historian, and accomplished writer, Leslie Feinberg is a pioneer of transgender activism and culture.

literature >> Maney, Mabel

San Francisco artist and satirist Mabel Maney spins lesbian adventure tales out of perky feminine archetypes from the 1950s and 1960s.

social sciences >> Nestle, Joan

Through her writing, teaching, editing, and activism, Joan Nestle has devoted her life to promoting awareness of glbtq culture and advancing glbtq equality.


Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. Pittsburgh and San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1993.

Goodloe, Amy. "Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch-Femme Roles."

Nestle, Joan. "The Femme Question." The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Joan Nestle, ed. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992. 138-46.

Queen, Carol. "Why I Love Butch Women." Dagger: On Butch Women. Lily Burana, Roxxie, and Linnea Due, eds. Pittsburgh and San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1994. 15-23.


    Citation Information
    Author: Theophano, Teresa  
    Entry Title: Butch-Femme  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated February 2, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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