Non-Binary Lesbians Have Always Existed

So, what does non-binary mean?

Non-binary is any gender identity that falls outside the binary experiences of manhood and womanhood. It falls under the trans umbrella (though not all non-binary people consider themselves or identify as transgender.) Non-binary is a term that covers any gender identity outside of the binary and is not a single gender.

Let’s travel back in time to explore gender non-conformity in lesbian culture and how it connects to modern non-binary identities.

According to “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America” by Lillian Faderman, women would dress up in men’s clothing and work factory jobs in the late 1800s and many of those same women had “romantic friendships” with other women. These women can be thought of as the earliest butches in American Lesbian culture. Fast forward to the 1940s and 1950s, and lesbian bar culture comes alive, a space where butch/femme dynamic took a strong hold on gender identity and expression within these growing communities. Due to the drag laws at the time, police officers would wait at the bars to catch women in two or less articles of feminine clothing. The butch lesbians who wanted to express their masculinity had to try to “pass” as men in public, using he/him pronouns and going by men’s names.

Gladys Bentley, a butch entertainer during the 1920s and 1930s.

“Who was I now — woman or man? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices; it could never be answered if it had to be asked.” ― Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues

In the same decade, trans person and activist Riki Anne Wilchens coined the term “genderqueer”, the first non-binary identity label popularized in American culture. In 1995, they used the term to describe “anyone who is gender non-conforming” in an interview with In Your Face. Leslie Feinberg hirself once said “I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir’ because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions.” Ze acknowledged that they were “female-bodied,” but did not identify as cisgender, stating in 2006 within the same interview, “I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian.”

Infographic on lesbian transmasculinity by Jules Rylan.

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Jules Rylan

Jules Rylan

Fat, ashkenazi Jewish, non-binary butch lesbian writing about queer history, the Jewish experience, fat liberation, and anything else that crosses my mind.