Hate to break it to you, but Butch and Femme is ALSO Gender


Much has been written on the butch/femme dynamic and whether it is incompatible with Women’s Liberation. Indeed, much has been written about “the Butch Identity” and “the Femme Identity,” including by Lesbians like Dirt and Bev Jo who are extremely gender (transgender) critical. Bev Jo suggests that the “Butch Identity” is the “true woman identity” because it does not cater to the Male Gaze, thus concluding that Butches are somehow more oppressed than Femmes (who, presumably, are Femme because they want to cater to the Male Gaze).

There is a lack of recognition, it seems, among these transgender-critical activists that Butch and Femme are also gender. And although you might arrive at a different conclusion about the relative harms or benefits of Butch and Femme as “beauty” or “cultural” practices by Women than the conclusion you would reach about a grown man deciding he’s a lady and trying to enter women-only space (I know I would), it seems somewhat dishonest to not acknowledge that Butch and Femme are both part of the Big Ball of Crap We Call Gender.There are at least two aspects to this debate one can explore. First, the actually personal. You are a Lesbian. You self-identity as Butch (or Femme). You find “the Other” to be sexually attractive and you seek to partner with them.

That’s awesome.

Have a great time.

I am happy for you.

I am not interested in parsing your desire in this post. That is, this aspect of the debate is not the subject of this post. You might want to do that, but your personal attractions are yours. Enjoy!

Secondly, and more importantly for this post, the Butch/Femme dynamic is a topic worth critical examination outside of your personal desires.

That is, radical feminists have the obligation to examine what these concepts of Butch and Femme mean and represent in our culture (just like we examine harmful beauty practices like wearing makeup, shaving, high heels, uncomfortable clothes, etc.).

Like, we need to critique images like this:

This Image Ruined My Life.

As Feminists, we need to ask questions constantly, here are some discussion topics:

How the world perceives and treats you, and what that says about our society and who it values.

How the Butch and Femme identities are two sides of the same Gender coin that limit the full potential of who a Woman can be.

How Butch and Femme are the same gender that we critique when we critique Transgender.

It’s not any different.

If you think it’s different, how? On what basis? Because you know what “the natural state of Woman” is?

Do you have a time machine?

Can you take me for a ride?

The ever-quotable Ariel Levy says something in Female Chauvinist Pigs that I like to quote, a lot, because it fits in with a lot of what we talk about when we talk about (Trans)Gender:

Americans gave up the idea-or tried to, or pretended to-that there are certain characteristics and qualities that are essentially black and essentially white a long time ago. At the very least we can say that it would be considered wildly offensive and thoroughly idiotic to articulate ideas like that now. Yet somehow we don’t think twice about wanting to be ‘like a man’ or unlike a ‘girly-girl.’ As if those ideas even mean anything. Like which man? Iggy Pop? Nathan Lane? Jesse Jackson? Jesse Helms? It is a staggeringly unsophisticated way to think about being a human being, but smart people do it all the time.

Butch and Femme are not “special” or immune from criticism because Lesbians do it. Indeed, one might argue that Butch/Femme paved the way for Transgender, with numerous formerly self-identified butches (Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg) having moved on to the Trans identity.

I used to be Butch. Now I am a man.
I used to be Butch. Now I am a man.

And the “oppression” that “Butches” experience is not more worthy, more important or more oppressed than the oppression “Femmes” experience – it’s all rooted in misogyny, but instead of focusing on the Problem (i.e., Patriarchy, i.e., Men), some Women in some Lesbian communities decide to make the Femme the enemy of the Butch.

What garbage. What a zero-sum game.


This is identity politics.

Hey, Butches, did it ever occur to you that when you are discriminated against, it’s because you are  “visibly lesbian” based on cultural stereotypes of what a “Woman” (i.e., heterosexual Woman) is supposed to look like?  So it’s not actually Butch Oppression from which you suffer – it’s misogyny. Did it ever occur to you that gender non-conforming straight Women have similar issues? (Here’s a hint – they do).

And Butches, Femmes get massive harassment that we often don’t (I don’t identify as Butch, but I get “read as Butch” enough that I think I can include myself here, although I am sure some True Butch Gender believers will say “oh she’s not really Butch.” What the fuck ever.) Let’s look at street harassment, for example. I have “Femme” friends who get ass-grabbed, breast-grabbed, asked if they are “working.” This is rooted in, again, misogyny. It’s different than the kind of street harassment I get (I get called “dyke.”)

Is that their “Femme Privilege” for “catering to the Male gaze”?

Is that “their fault”?

Does it matter how we get street harassed? Is one more important than the other?

Do you realize that you sound like Trans activists?

Until we see each other as Women, all impacted as Women by the Big Ball of Crap We Call Gender (remember, gender? a tool, an intentional strategy to ensure Women know their role as breeder and whore?), you are engaging in meaningless exercises of who is Teh Most Oppressedests.

Butch as identity politics! Just like Transgender activists.

Just stop.

There is no “natural state” of Womanhood in Western culture. We are all fucked in the head by our culture. Every last one of us.

If we can understand that, and then turn our gaze to “the reason” for why we are all fucked in the head (HELLO GENDER. HELLO PATRIARCHY), maybe that it a place to start.

Oh, and try some compassion. Meet Women where they are at, not where you think they should be.


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34 Responses to Hate to break it to you, but Butch and Femme is ALSO Gender

  1. Marti386 says:

    Wow, Brennan. I gotta say………..AWESOME!!!

    I NEVER thought I’d say that to you but………HELL, it was a GREAT article!! You may be the very first radfem I’ve ever seen who actually had the guts to admit that butch and femme identities are ALSO parts of gender expression. This was a very good article. Congrats! I wonder how the rest of the community will react, though. You may be opening up a can of worms.

    The only problem is, while admitting the problem is great and all, what’s the next step? Where do we go from here? How does anyone NOT conform to gender roles in one way or another? Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.I mean, even if we sit right in the middle zone between feminine and masculine, that’s STILL gender, because you still needed the two gender extremes on both sides of the spectrum in order to REACH the middle. This was always my biggest problem with radfem ideology. It points out the problem, but so far I’ve NEVER heard any satisfactory SOLUTION. How do we NOT display gender, when the two gender system is ALL we have? And EVEN if we added other genders, how would they NOT be just a mixture of the previous two? Maybe this could be the topic of a future article?

    Oh, and I noticed that your other blog is going dark. I hope that wasn’t because of me. I never asked wordpress to block your blog. I don’t really believe in that. I just asked that they request you take down my personal email info (they state that info is never made public).

    Maybe if radfems wrote more stuff like THIS, instead of using trans people (and trans women in particular) as scapegoats, we might find more common ground. If trans women weren’t on the defensive against radfems all the time, we might actually be able to listen to you. And vice versa.


    • bugbrennan says:

      Stop talking to me. Thanks.

      • Marti386 says:


        Redacted comment from Mr. Dirk, an Internet stalker who cannot take no for an answer.

        Mr. Dirk, I don’t wish to engage with you, please stop commenting here. Thanks.

    • The solution is to destroy gender. Simple. As Brennan has said before:

      “What are the behaviors and roles considered appropriate for one’s sex?

      If you are a Feminist (even a Liberal Feminist or a Fun Feminist), the answer to this should be “There are no behaviors and roles considered appropriate for my sex because Females can be and do anything.””

    • Brunhilda says:

      If men didn’t attack women all the time and oppress us, then we women wouldn’t have to fight constantly for basic human rights. Newflash: transwomen are men.

  2. abigdyke says:

    Thanks for clearly articulating the reason for the butch dysphoria I have been experiencing over the past several years. Butch has often been something attributed to me by others, and I think it is really easy to move from “playing with gender” and joking around about it to seriously considering taking it on as an identity. I read Butch as a Noun a few years back, and left with the feeling that it’s so not me. However, in absence of radical feminist community, or sometimes even within it, as you so astutely point out, it’s pretty easy to fall into the gender trap.

    And yes, the wisteria is clearly “high femme.” Although the overalls kinda killed it.

  3. yes, I do like this post a lot, what has me puzzled at times, is someone like myself who tries not to gender, technically that is a gender from outside views, I don’t gender items, I like what I like and to me thats it, I don’t use items to show people I am a certain gender even when it comes off as such, since pronouns and peoples thoughts don’t bother me much, to me, it is agender, but in society, I still seem gendered, if that makes sense?! good read, and still love the overalls…

  4. mhairi says:

    Good post, Cathy.

    I entirely agree, Butch and Femme are also gender, gender subsumed into the gender of “woman”. The problem is tho that we cant escape gender, because others gender us.

    To my mind, gender is your personal way of expressing your sex, sexual orientation and sexuality all mixed up (like a subtle universal handkerchief code) Patriarchy, heteronormativity and cisnormativity combine to have the only acceptable genders in alignment of [woman = female+attracted to men+submissive] and [man=male+attracted to women+dominent]. Deviate from these and you will be “punished”.

    I am aware of your trans* stance, but insisting that woman=female; man=male traps us into those genders that we don’t control, nor can we get rid of. The emergence of other genders – such as Butch and Femme is a demonstration that even those who try to break the alignment, cant rid themselves of gender, they are gendered regardless.

    If we truely want to destroy gender we need to render it useless for the patriarchy, for at the moment it functions to prop it up, and the biggest barrier to that is female=women; male=man. Once that is broken, gender can no longer operate as an ideological control on females.

    • bugbrennan says:

      Female is woman and male is man. Changing the meaning of words does nothing except gaslight women. You need to change the meaning of stereotypes.

      • mhairi says:

        Female is woman because we make it so.

        Female is a biological sex; woman is a social gender.

        They dont *have* to be the same, but it is damn helpful for patriarchy if everyone believes they are, because then they can use female reproductive capacities – gestating, lactating, birthing, reascribe them in different forms to the gender women (women are nurturing, designed to feed people, facilitate others etc), and then use that to control all females.

        Seperating female and woman is a step forward in the destruction of gender. It is this binding which is holding us back

      • bugbrennan says:

        Woman means adult human female. Your feminism is semantics. It’s not doing anything.

      • mhairi says:

        Repeating things only makes them true so long as no-one questions – you can get away with that for so long, but eventually there becomes a critical mass that can see through it.

        It is *your* feminism that is semantics. You insist that the concept of “woman” is inextricably bound with “female”, but why – seriously why do we have that word? Why do we just not refer to females – child females and adult females. It would save us having to refer to [women and girls] when we discuss things like violence.

        We do it because we recognise that female is a biological condition; where woman and girl is a social condition. Yes, they are bound together in common thought, but *why*, why do we always gender females as women – even when they choose another gender like “butch” or “femme”, which you recognise is a gender identity, why do we *still* insist that they are women.

        Whittig suggested in the 70s that the way to escape being a woman was to stop fucking men. In the 1970s, “woman” was “male sexual partner”, so gay men were given an ambigious feminised gender, while the promoted gender of a lesbian was a butch, which was seen as a “not-woman” The original political lesbians were trying to *escape* being women, not holding onto that gender for dear life.

      • bugbrennan says:

        No. You have a shallow understanding of radical feminism. Words are words; women’s oppression will still exist even if you call it apple’s oppression. Until we dismantle these systems, we will have no forward progress. But keep telling yourself, for example, that transwomen are women, that’ll fix things.

    • Brunhilda says:

      Female is a word that refers to egg-producing organisms on the planet earth. Eg., a hen is a female chicken. A doe is a female deer. A bitch is a female dog. A woman is a female human.
      Your argument literally makes no sense.

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  8. Hannah B says:

    I doubt we’ll ever be able to create a new meaning of gender, as we can only build ideas based on what we already know. If we did create something entirely new it would be utterly incomprehensible. Even a phoenix rises from its own ashes…

    Keep challenging the orthodoxy and keep thinking.

  9. shediogenes says:

    @mhairi bovine babies are calves, they grow into adulthood and are called cows (female) and bulls (male), a castrated bull is a steer. let’s keep going… kid (baby goat/capricine) female= nanny or doe, male= billie or buck, doe and buck are also used to reference adult (female and male, respectively) deer, but the babies are fawns. Colts, mares, stallions, geldings; chicks, hens roosters, you get the picture. Notice anything in common among these few examples? Male and Female are used to distinguish sex throughout both the animal and plant kingdoms, save for those species that reproduce asexually by splitting their cells and basically cloning themselves. Now try this one, a child, grows into an adult human, and the biological distinction between an adult HUMAN FEMALE and an adult HUMAN MALE in our language is… thats right, you got it, Woman and Man.

    Bitch (when NOT refering to an adult canine female), thats a social construct.
    Cow, bird, chick, “a fine lookin filly”, “what a total dog”, “she’s a beached whale, Shamu, comin through”
    Pejoratives used against women, casting us as less than human, or just our body parts, or refering to us according to what they would like us to be (slutwhorehococksuckeretc.) are so commonly used to refer to us. No way I’m giving up Woman. It’s the only time we are spoken of or to accurately.

  10. Savantace says:

    @”DOES THIS WISTERIA MAKE ME SEEM MORE FEMININE.” The person in that photo greatly resembles Emilio Estevez. He’s cute.

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  12. Betsy Brown says:

    Thank you for doing your part to rid the world of that Big Ball of Crap We Call Gender.

  13. tnt666 says:

    How to disobey all gender rules and dress non gender: dress for the weather and the task at hand. Forget about the “appearance” and “likeability” of clothes. If you pay hundreds of dollars for clothing, then you’re kind of forced to “like” the clothing. But if you shop in thrift shops, it is much easier to be detached from the importance of clothing, it becomes just a convenient covering instead of some statement about “identity”. This is no different from religious “identities” who they MUST wear certain religious attires. Clothing should be strictly utilitarian. My thighs rub, so a skirt is NEVER an option for me, makes it real easy. I would not be caught dead with a tie, males HATE ties, they are suffocating. Performing “female” is a full-time job for some, at least the males tie scam is restricted to work hours.
    Hanging out in nudist clubs in summertime is a also a great neutraliser, or going for hikes in the forest. All this clothing appearance stuff is all a matter of civilisation, and as DGR says, tear down civilisation.

  14. MaryMacha says:

    Wow, thanks for clarifying some things. I’ve been wondering for a while now what exactly it is that makes me a little uncomfortable about the b/f dynamic. I get IDed as butch. My girlfriend, who is a self-professed femme very much identifies and pigeon-holes me as butch. However, I don’t feel attached to the term. I actually don’t care about it as an identity and it’s very annoying when I get shamed by said gf for doing something that is not strictly “butch, whatever the eff that means. My interests and tastes are all over the gender map

  15. Bev Jo says:

    Isn’t it the mark of a liar and coward to knowingly misquote and misrepresent Radical Lesbian Feminists in an effort to trash their work? We (Linda Strega, Ruston, and myself) in our book, Dykes-Loving-Dykes (now updated at my blog), were among the only Lesbian Feminists who said Pat Califia was not only not Butch, but a bisexual pornographer who brought sado-masochism into our community. We never used the term “male gaze,” or said the rest of what is attributed to us. We objected to the posturing of Fems like kd lang.

    Why not have the courage to quote us directly? But of course that will never happen, when slander is the goal…


    • Hi Bev – You aren’t actually discussed in this blog post at all. Me disagreeing with your analysis doesn’t make me a liar or a coward – it makes me someone who disagrees with you.

      “Butch” is only understood in a gendered world. I know that upsets you, but that’s not my problem.

    • PS – You “objecting to posturing” of other women kind of demonstrates the point. You think there is some “butch essence” that only you and other innate butches like you can discern. In observing you now for a few years on social media, the only thing I have gotten from you is that someone can only be “innately butch” if they agree with you. I know you really believe what you are saying, but it’s fictional.

  16. montepuma says:

    I has for a long time been looking for the dyke/butch/femme and here she is all tree of them, thank you sister in heart and soul ♀♀ from a senior Dyke

  17. monteveritas says:

    great writing I recon my self…love to you sister from a senior Dyke ♀♀

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  19. Marjorie Bishop says:

    O my this whole subject makes my head spin. First I am a butch not because society labels me that though they do but because I label myself that.
    Second does nobody ever talk about the primates we share 97% of DNA with. They have distinct roles between the male and female. Males DO act different than females in the monkey groups. Does that count for something? What is so wrong with individuals acting differently? What is so wrong with being feminint or a mother and being able to connect with your child that has been proven in science and neuro biology and psychology that a male cannot. And on the flip side men can connect with their children in ways that a female can’t. Why is that a bad thing?.Do we not think that nature knows what it ia doing when it makes only.ONE way to make a child. You must have male sperm and female eggs. Do we not have different levels od estrogen and testosterone is us that do regulate a lot on how we feel and in turn how we act? Jesus people its 2017. Can we bring a little bit of science into the convo.

    • Badhbh Catha says:

      You are mixed up, sister. Gender and sex are different. There is nothing inherently “feminine” about being caring. There is nothing inherently “masculine” about having short hair.

      You’re a butch because you want to be part of an identity group. good for you. It’s not innate.

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