Butch identity in context of lesbian culture has existed for a long time. The historic working-class lesbian community — and the iconic lesbian bar scene — included all modern sapphic identities. Although these spaces have dwindled since, a diverse butch community still remains. Back in the 1950s, 60s, and beyond, lesbian spaces had almost no men around. this created a separate world of people and relationships, giving way to an entirely new system of “gender,” of the ways they related to one another. Butches were those who took on a more masculine role. People who said that this dynamic “mimicked heterosexuality” were simply comparing butches to men, which couldn’t be farther from the truth!
Butch masculinity was — and still is — a unique kind of masculinity. In other words, it was something entirely new and had no static rules!
Equating butches to men is dangerous for butches and other masculine sapphic people. Not only that, but the conflation itself creates even more confusion surrounding the very simple ideas that i’ll be breaking down in a minute. When people say things like “why would a lesbian wanna be with someone who‘s basically a man?” it enables real life violence towards butches. men will justify harming us due to our masculinity and feminine lesbians will justify rejecting us. we end up completely alone in the world.
So, it’s the 50s, and being gay is basically seen as a form of gender non-conformity. Why? Well, you’re a woman, so you’re supposed to conform to the expectations of womanhood. Lesbians didn’t do that, and we didn’t want to do that, so we made spaces where we didn’t have to.
to undermine the power and authority of an established system or institution.
Since existing as a lesbian already challenges the traditional expectations of womanhood, a lot of lesbians found empowerment and freedom in further undermining the system of mainstream gender, its constructs, and its general power and authority over society.
Butches, who already felt masculine in a way much different from manhood, embraced this. Gender subversion became a staple of butch identity and culture. They presented masculine, as non-men. It felt powerful because it was undermining the exact gender system that oppressed them.
This subversion of gender gave rise to:
- using different pronouns, including he/him, they/them, zie/hir, and more
- dressing in traditionally masculine ways
- being called masculine terms like “boyfriend,” “husband,” and “dad.”
- taking testosterone to present more masculine
- getting top surgery
All of this was going on and butches weren’t weren’t men. In fact, butches do all of these things today and still aren’t men. it’s a matter of gender presentation, an intentional subversion of the established mainstream system of gender. But how does this affect gender identity?
As you can imagine, many butches began to consider “Butch” their gender identity. Their entire experience of gender was being butch. Don’t believe me? Here is a story from the neighbor of a older butch named Mary talking about this exact phenomenon:
That comment is on my historically cited article about how bar scene butch identity was a precursor to modern non-binary lesbianism. It goes into many examples and also explains the formation of non-binary terminology in the mid-1990s.
The truth is, lesbianism has always been a haven for free gender expression. The way butch identity normalized gender subversion opened a door. Now all lesbians of today, regardless of whether or not they identify as butch, can express themselves and identify however they want.
This genuine detachment from traditional womanhood, a feeling that still exists for many lesbians today, means that some of us don’t even identify as women in the traditional sense anymore.
And, like I said, this is not unique to butches. Even femmes of the bar scene subverted expectations of femininity, reinventing it for the gaze of people other than men. It challenged gender expectations. “Femme” & “butch” are deeply historical identities within lesbian culture.
Saying that lesbians can’t subvert gender by using alternative pronouns, presenting in unique ways, and identifying with gender labels other than woman, isn’t just wrong. It completely opposes everything about lesbian history. We’ve been subverting gender from the very start!
Lesbian bar culture was a safe space for butches to exist as masculine without any correlation to manhood. We were seen and understood by other lesbians. We expressed ourselves however we wanted, and so did the femmes, and so did the many lesbians who didn’t identify as either.
However, these spaces weren’t entirely secure. There were laws as early as the 1940s known as the “three article rule.” They made wearing less than a certain number of gender-conforming clothing illegal. You could be arrested. you could be assaulted. You could even be killed. When modern refuters and gatekeepers say butches only existed for “safety purposes,” it’s erasure. If butches were comfortable being femme, they would’ve been. Maybe they had to pass as men in front of cops, but they weren’t men, and they risked their lives to exist as butch. To say that butches of today or, by extension, that any other lesbians can’t express themselves in a way that’s comfortable is spitting in the face of every butch and femme, of every lesbian, that survived the police raids and discrimination and violence in order to freely exist.
You are not “protecting lesbians” by invalidating those of us who are connecting with this deeply ingrained part of our history. It’s okay if you don’t feel the need to subvert gender in the ways we do, but you don’t get to tell us what is and isn’t allowed, and history agrees.
Butches — and all other lesbians — are free to do what we want regarding gender identity & expression. If you aren’t going to read the history to try and understand that, then at least show some respect by not telling us we’re “fake” or a threat…
…because you’re wrong.