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Butch and femme are terms used to describe individual gender identities in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and cross-dressing subcultures to ascribe or acknowledge a masculine (butch) or feminine (femme) identity with its associated traits, behaviors, styles, self-perception and so on. This concept has been called a "way to organize sexual relationships and gender and sexual identity". It is sometimes assumed by scholars to be solely a lesbian dyadic system, with the individual identities of butch and femme dependent on each other for their existence; but this denies the personal experiences of many women in butch–butch and femme–femme relationships.
Both the expression of individual lesbians of butch and femme identities and the relationship of the lesbian community in general to the notion of butch and femme as an organising principle for sexual relating have varied over the course of the 20th century. Some lesbian feminists have argued that butch–femme is simply a replication of heterosexual relations whilst other commentators argue that, whilst it resonates with heterosexual patterns of relating, butch–femme simultaneously challenges it. Research in the 1990s in the United States showed that "95% of lesbians are familiar with butch/femme codes and can rate themselves or others in terms of those codes, and yet the same percentage feels that butch/femme was "unimportant in their lives"".
The word femme (alternative spelling: fem) is taken from the French word for woman. The word butch, meaning "tough kid" may have been coined by abbreviating the word butcher, as first noted in George Cassidy's nickname, Butch Cassidy. Butch gained the sense "male-like lesbian" in the 1940s.
According to Leslie Feinberg, historically a blue star has been used as a symbol of butchness. The butch web designer Daddy Rhon created a symbol of a black triangle intersecting a red circle to represent butch/femme sexuality which was first used at the beginning of the 21st century on the website butch-femme.com and has started to be used elsewhere.
There is debate as to who the terms butch and femme can apply, and particularly whether transgender individuals can be identified in this way. For example, Jack Halberstam argues that FTM transgender persons cannot be considered butch since it constitutes a conflation of maleness with butchness. She further argues that butch–femme is uniquely geared to work in lesbian relationships. Stereotypes and definitions of butch and femme vary greatly, even within tight-knit LGBT communities. For western lesbians, butch–femme has had varying levels of acceptance throughout the 20th century. People who prefer 'femme on femme' and 'butch on butch' relationships face discrimination and cultural repression within their own cultures. This was common in the mid-twentieth century United States working-class lesbian butch–femme scene, and today, it is notable in cultures in which masculine tops have sex with feminine bottoms.
Alternate conceptualizations suggest that butch and femme are not attempts to take up "traditional" gender roles. This argument situates "traditional" gender roles as biological, ahistorical imperatives, a claim that has been contested by Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and many others. These authors regard gender as both socially and historically constructed, rather than as essential, "natural", or strictly biological. The femme lesbian historian Joan Nestle argues that femme and butch may be seen as distinct genders in and of themselves, whilst Jewelle Gomez suggests that butch and femme were early instances of transgender.
Others[who?] have argued that butch and femme are "read" as imperfect mimicries of heterosexual gender roles.
Research shows that lesbians report greater satisfaction and less problems in their relationships when there is an equal power balance between participants; those relationships with a butch–femme dynamic were as likely to have power equality as other lesbian relationships.
"Butch'" can be used as an adjective or a noun to describe an individual's gender or gender performance. A masculine person of either gender can be described as butch. The term butch tends to denote a degree of masculinity displayed by a female individual beyond what would be considered typical of a tomboy. It is not uncommon for women with a butch appearance to meet with social disapproval. A butch woman could be compared to an effeminate man in the sense that both genders are historically linked to homosexual communities and stereotypes.[original research?] A 1990s survey of butches showed that 50% were primarily attracted to femmes whilst 25% reported being usually attracted to other butches.
Both heterosexuals and lesbians sometimes question the difference between heterosexual women and femmes. One femme says: "Femme is perpetually misunderstood and remains cloaked in silence and invisibility. Femme is a glitter-filled explosion of the gender binary. On a daily basis queer femmes must confront the pain of invisibility: we know what it feels like to be dismissed and not taken seriously, to have our very lives, families, and Identities questioned by queers and straights alike."
Prior to the middle of the 20th century in Western culture, homosexual societies were mostly underground or secret, making it difficult to determine how long butch and femme roles have been practiced by women.
It is known that butch–femme dress codes date back at least to the beginning of the 20th century as photographs have survived of butch–femme couples in the decade of 1910–1920 in the United States; they were then called "transvestites". However, according to the Routledge International Encyclopaedia of Women, although upper-class women like Radclyffe Hall and her lover Una Troubridge lived together in unions that resembled butch–femme relationships, "The term butch/femme would have been categorically inconsequential, however, and incomprehensible to these women."
In the 1940s in the U.S., most butch women had to wear conventionally feminine dress in order to hold down jobs, donning their starched shirts and ties only on weekends to go to bars or parties as "Saturday night" butches. The 1950s saw the rise of a new generation of butches who refused to live double lives and wore butch attire full-time, or as close to full-time as possible. This usually limited them to a few jobs, such as factory work and cab driving, that had no dress codes for women. Their increased visibility, combined with the anti-queer rhetoric of the McCarthy era, led to an increase in violent attacks on gay and bisexual women, while at the same time the increasingly strong and defiant bar culture became more willing to respond with force. Although femmes also fought back, it became primarily the role of butches to defend against attacks and hold the bars as queer women's space. While in the '40s, the prevailing butch image was severe but gentle, it became increasingly tough and aggressive as violent confrontation became a fact of life.
Although butch–femme wasn't the only organising principle amongst lesbians in the mid 20th century, it was particularly prominent in the working-class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, where butch–femme was the norm, while butch–butch and femme–femme relationships were taboo. Those who switched roles were called ki-ki, a pejorative term, and they were often the butt of jokes. In the 1950s, in an early piece of lesbian studies, the gay rights campaigning organisation ONE, Inc. assigned Stella Rush to study "the butch/femme phenomenon" in gay bars. Rush reported that women held strong opinions, that "role distinctions needed to be sharply drawn," and that not being one or the other earned strong disapproval from both groups. It has been noted that, at least in part, kiki women were unwelcome where lesbians gathered because their apparent lack of understanding of the butch–femme dress code might indicate that they were policewomen.
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."
Antipathy toward female butches and male femmes has been interpreted by some commentators as transphobia, although female butches and male femmes are not always transgender or identified with the transmovement.
Some young people today in queer communities eschew butch or femme classifications, believing that they are inadequate to describe an individual, or that labels are limiting in and of themselves. Other 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. In the 1950s and 1960s the term chi-chi was used to mean the same thing.
Those who identify as butch and femme today often use the words to define their presentation and gender identity rather than strictly the role they play in a relationship, and that not all butches are attracted exclusively to femmes and not all femmes are exclusively attracted to butches, a departure from the historic norm. Besides the terms "butch" and "femme", there are a number of other terms used to describe the dress codes, the sexual behaviours and/or the gender identities of the sexual subcultures who use them. The meanings of these terms can vary a great deal according to the particular sexual subculture, the geographical placement of that culture, the social network of those who use the terms and even the individual using the term. Likewise the meanings ascribed to these terms designating aspects of the butch–femme continuum tend to evolve over time. It must be noted, however, that many lesbians argue that terms such as "hard femme" and "soft butch" are appropriations of lesbian history and culture which has caused tension between lesbians of all ages and queer youths.
Femmes aka "lipstick lesbians" are feminine lesbians. A woman who likes to receive and not give sexually is called a "pillow queen". Conversely, a butch woman may be described as a "stone butch", "diesel dyke" "bulldyke" or "bulldagger" or simply just as a "dyke". The term boi is being used for a younger set of women. Defining the difference between a butch and a boi, one boi told a reporter: "that sense of play - that's a big difference from being a butch. To me, butch is like an adult...You're the man of the house." There is also an emerging usage of the terms soft butch "stem" (stud-femme), "futch" (feminine butch)  or "chapstick lesbian" as terms for women who have characteristics of both butch and femme. Lesbians who are unisex and neither butch nor femme are called "androgynous" or "andros". The usage of "dyke" has widened in recent years to encompass queer women 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. Another common term is "Stud". A stud is a dominant lesbian, usually butch. They tend to be influenced by urban and hip-hop cultures and are often, but not always, Afro-American. In the New York City lesbian community a butch may identify herself as AG (aggressive) or as a stud.
In 2005, filmmaker Daniel Peddle chronicled the lives of AGs in his documentary The Aggressives, following six women who went to lengths like binding their breasts to pass as men. But Peddle says that today, very young lesbians of color in New York are creating a new, insular scene that's largely cut off from the rest of the gay and lesbian community. "A lot of it has to do with this kind of pressure to articulate and express your masculinity within the confines of the hip-hop paradigm..."—Village Voice
Among the subcultures composed of butch gay and bisexual men is the "bear community". Gay men who are more femme are sometimes described as "flamers." "Homomasculinity" is a term coined in 1977 by gay activist editor in chief of Drummer magazine Jack Fritscher . The term describes a subculture of gay men who prefer masculine-identified men as legitimately as some men prefer effeminate men and drag queens. Equating the three self-fashioning identity labels "gay," "homosexual," and "homomasculine," Fritscher also coined "homofemininity" for lesbians to whom he opened Drummer magazine in the late 1970s by publishing writing about the Society of Janus and writing from Samois, a group founded by gay activists Patrick Califia and Gayle Rubin. Humanist Fritscher intended "homomasculinity" as an identity concept and never as an exclusionary concept as promulgated by Jack Malebranche in his latter-day book Androphilia. The term "homomasculinity" grew out of the gay-identity movement and the leather subculture of 1970's San Francisco. and is detailed in Fritscher's gay linguistics essay "Homomasculinity: Framing Keywords of Queer Popular Culture" presented at the Queer Keyword Conference, University College Dublin, Ireland, April 2005. Banjee or banjee boy is a term from the 1980s or earlier that describes a certain type of young Latino or Black man who has sex with men and who dresses in urban fashion for reasons which may include expressing masculinity, hiding his sexual orientation or attracting male partners. The term is mostly associated with New York City and may be Nuyorican in origin. This evolved into down-low culture.
Butch and femme socialisation originally took place in the working-class gay bars of the 1940s And 1950s and bars continue to be a primary venue for interaction to this day. In 1994, with the publication of the ground-breaking anthology The Persistent Desire: A Femme–Butch Reader, edited by femme Joan Nestle, the literary sphere opened to butch and femme identified people as a locus for discussion and debate amongst themselves.
In the 21st century the first national conferences in the United States began to be held for individuals who identified with butch and femme.
Since 2006, there has been a bi-annual National conference in the U.S. produced by a rotating collective of femmes. The Femme Conference claims to "seek to explore, discuss, dissect, and support Queer Femme as a transgressive, gender-queer, stand-alone, and empowered identity and provide a space for organizing and activism within Queer communities". Four conferences have been held, in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012.
Starting in 2009, a bi-annual conference for "masculine of center" people also began to be produced, under the title "Butch Voices". Two conferences have been held, in 2009 and 2011 and a third has been announced for 2013.
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