Butch and Femme Culture Should Be Lesbian Exclusive
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A Brief Summary of History and Lesbian Culture
A written record of LGBT history has always been hard to come by mostly because of the suppressed nature of it. There are a few historical figures scattered throughout pre-20th century like Anne Lister, a landowner and historically claimed lesbian who married a woman in 1834; Public Universal Friend, a preacher in the 1700s that rejected gendered pronouns; Lili Elbe, a woman born in 1882 that was the first trans woman to receive gender reassessment surgery. Most figures of record lived in the 1900s, figures like Gladys Bently and Marsha P Johnson and Harvey Milk no longer cornerstones of the LGBT community but well known to the public.
In the simplest of definitions for this article, a butch lesbian is a woman that presents masculinely in appearance and assumed certain roles in a relationship, and a femme lesbian presented more femininely and assumed somewhat opposite roles, both of which went hand in hand. They are and were two halves of one whole, complementary in every way. Historically these roles were very strict, and they were used often to maintain the surface image of a heterosexual couple for safety reasons. As time went on, butch and femme became more and more expressional than for straight-passing safety.
In a society that is hetero-centric and strict in gender presentation, both of these terminological counterparts were ways for lesbian women to reclaim both femininity and masculinity for themselves. A lot of the history of being butch or femme revolves around presentation for women exclusively and rejecting men, and while a large part of this subculture, this is not the only meaning of the words. Butch or femme presentation if for consumption was and is for women alone, but the words as time went on served a deeper sense of self-service. The idea that femme and butch identities cannot be used by anyone but a lesbian because of their service towards other women ignores the individual and personal relationship with these labels lesbian women have had. So while part of the definition, this is not the only reason these subcultures should not be appropriated by other women-loving-women. To say only, ‘it is about presentation and consumption for women alone’ is true, but reductive and not the whole history.
I can only speak on my personal experience of identifying as butch and trying to present butch, but it’s more than service or strict roles. In lesbian history, butch meant one was masculine and took the role of a ‘giver’ over a receiver in many senses of the word. It meant chivalry and protection and strength, values that I carry in myself and hope to embody. Being femme meant having these same qualities of care and mutual protection and displaying them in different ways. While strict interpretations of what these roles mean have changed, their foundations remain the same. Subculture labels to give meaning to common lesbian experiences and relationships with themselves, society, and one another.
At the very heart of this was decades of history where these labels were invented for protection from society. It’s sad to say it, but much of LGBT culture had to do with secrecy and different expressions so as to avoid persecution. Femme and butch couples were the norm, so as to pass as straight couples in public without fear of violence. While in some places public displays of affection can and will lead to violence, in many urban spaces lesbian couples face much, much less persecution.
Why Lesbian Subculture Should Remain Lesbian Specific
I believe that these subcultures should be used exclusively by lesbian women, and doing anything else ignores much of the history of these words. There is plenty of history of butch and femme being used as lesbian terms, but where is the reasoning that they should stay so? Why can’t they be more widely applied?
It’s important to have distinct subcultures and labels for lesbians and lesbians exclusively, given the rich history these terms have. The argument can be made for bisexual women using these terms and the slur “dyke” that’s been commonly reclaimed by some lesbians, but ultimately bisexual women cannot reclaim these because they did not belong to them in the first place. Biphobia both in and out of the LGBT community is a wildly important problem, however, lesbians also face individual kinds of discrimination. This is not to denounce the struggles and bravery of all bi women or to brush aside the necessity of subculture for bisexual people. This is just to say that instead of merging terminology into an incomprehensible mass that disregards the inherent communal need for individuality, we develop individual and complementary cultures.
When one uses the word “femme” or “butch” they carry with it decades of lesbian pain and history, a history that is misrepresented when anyone but a lesbian lays claim to it. And we need to keep this history to preserve lesbian culture, to keep what little history we have and to form more. Butch and Femme while not all about service were still counterparts for women who exclusively loved women and who embodied masculinity and femininity in their own individual ways as lesbians.
This is why butch and femme subculture should not be appropriated by non-lesbians. It’s important to our history and important for our self-preservation. While the LGBT community is indeed a community, those letters stand for something all their own. Just as there is a lesbian exclusive culture there is a wide range of specific cultures for other identifiers in the LGBT community. A culture belonging to gay men, a culture belonging to trans men, a culture belonging to trans women. It is this balance of independence and individuality as well as and unity that is essential to formulate and maintain the bonds of our community.
This kind of specificity isn’t harmful and isn’t erasing any of the cultures of other GBT people, it is simply asking that lesbians are allowed to remain specific to words that were historically ours for the purpose of identity and individuality in the community. As lesbians are an especially persecuted group within the LGBT community, being marginalized for being women and for being independent of men in a male-centric society, it is not evil to ask for independence. Being butch or femme is something to be held onto dearly by lesbians, something to be kept in the palm of one’s hand that can speak for centuries of lesbian experience and lesbian experience only. Considering this, is it so terrible for terminology to be exclusive to lesbians?
I don’t want the keeping of lesbian subcultures exclusive to be a deterrent for any other women-loving-women in the LGBT community. I think all of us should build upon our individual histories as well as our experiences as a group. There is a wealth of bisexual history in our world, amazing amounts of gay history, and yes, a treasure trove of lesbian history. I also encourage the making of history, I encourage the creation of new subcultures and new media and all the information we can get our collective hands-on. We are brought together to be a community and draw strength from each other as much as we do from our individual histories. We are strong individually, and we are unstoppable when we stand together.