Recent surveys and commentary, mainly from the US, but also from here in the UK, suggest that younger generations have an increasingly fluid conceptualisation of their sexual and gender identities and are less likely to identify rigidly as either straight or gay, or as either men or women. A 2017 report in the US by the national LGBTQ organisation GLAAD, found that 20% of the 2037 18-34yr olds surveyed openly identified themselves as being part of the LGBTQ community and 12% did not use traditional gender/sex identities or pronouns, using terms such as non-binary instead.
Online surveying of 1006 13-26 year olds in the UK and the US by anti-bullying group ‘Ditch The Label’ relayed that more than half (57%) did not identify themselves under the category ‘straight’ and 76% stated that sexuality labels are no longer important (2017). Indeed, this cohort of digital natives, those born approximately between 1995 and 2003, often labelled in marketing as ‘Generation Z’ appear to be embracing sex, sexual and gender diversity in even greater number than the older Millennials. In a 2015 survey of 1000 13-20 year olds by a US marketing intelligence firm, their findings on gender identities were widely publicised, as 56% of the youth respondents reported that they knew someone who used gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘ze’, and 81% agreed that gender does not define a person as much as it used to. On sexuality, just over half, 52%, stated that they did not define as exclusively heterosexual (Innovation Group, 2016).
What do these apparent societal shifts mean then for the identities of lesbian, gay and bisexual? These are, by definition, usually understood as fairly fixed categories and are also often linked to an assumption of biological sex, with ‘lesbian’ commonly understood as referring to the same-sex preferences of females and ‘gay’ referring to the same-sex preferences of males. Will these terms slowly decline in significance or disappear altogether under the queer umbrella? This has certainly been the concern of some lesbian scholars and commentators, with Morris writing in her recent book on the disappearance of specifically lesbian or dyke culture in the US: “…replaced by the more inclusive queer, as a new era of thoughtful LGBT activists proclaim their disidentification with the categories woman and lesbian” [emphasis in original] (2016:2). My current research concern is with the declining significance of the identity of lesbian broadly, but more specifically, the decline of identities within that namely the lesbian gender identity of ‘butch’. In our arguably post-trans landscape, where sex, sexuality and gender categories are fluid not fixed, and independent of sexed bodily characteristics, what will happen to this particularly specific label for a particular coalescence of sex, sexuality and gender identities?
It is important to note that there is hardly a unified definition of what the term ‘butch’ means today or has meant historically, let alone what it might mean in the future. There is, however, plenty of classic and contemporary literature that provides a guide. To name a few, there is Joan Nestle’s 1992 classic The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, providing a collection of testimonies and reflections on these identities. Taking on the editing of a new collection, Coyote and Sharman published the 2011 Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Our British contribution to this field is Munt’s Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender (1998).
However, many texts purposely refrain from providing a definitive definition of butch. Indeed, as Rubin points out: “Attempting to define terms such as butch and femme is one of the surest ways to incite volatile discussion among lesbians” (1992:466). There is a reluctance to limit or narrow the huge variety of expressions by individuals who choose to self-define as butch, from drag kings, studs or aggressives, MTF (male to female) trans lesbian women or gay identified FTM (female to male) transgender men. As Rubin acknowledges though, most lesbians and those in the wider LGBTQ+ community, as well as the general populous outside it perhaps, might probably associate butchness with some degree of masculinity or female masculinity. Whatever that means – because of course there is no one type of masculinity either, as Innes & Lloyd underline: “class, race, ethnicity and geography all shape how masculinity is perceived” (1995:5). Acknowledging these specificities though, Rubin offers the following: “I will argue that the simplest definition of butch is the most helpful one. Butch is most usefully understood as a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols” (Rubin, 1992:467).
In the literature we find useful recurring defining themes: the naming of butch as a lesbian gender, distinct from, and not copying or aping, heterosexual gender; the masculine gendering of this gender identity; varieties of female masculinity. The admirable wealth of scholarship in the US by Heidi Levitt and her colleagues has explored these themes, researching femme and butch communities and bringing much needed validity and visibility to these complex lives and labels. In their 2004 interview research, Levitt and Hiestand highlight that: “As the distinction between being biologically male and having traits typically ascribed to men was clear, the word ‘masculine’ often was self-consciously selected as a poor substitute for the missing term for female masculinity. Butch was asserted as an independent gender – a gender that is often unrecognised, discredited, and disregarded, which forces them to be viewed through the lens of masculinity” (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004:610).
This is a complicated and complicating distinction when undertaking research in this area. When formulating the wording of my research for example, I was wary of discouraging involvement by those lesbians who felt that their identity was not defined by or in relationship to masculinity at all, masculinity being overwhelmingly associated with men and maleness. This association is obviously in complete contradiction to lesbians who are proud of their womanhood and femaleness. Alongside this was my concern also not to exclude those individuals who have precisely the opposite feelings; those who are masculine identified, or what is called masculine of centre (a term coined by B Cole in 2008) and for whom the label of lesbian, being associated with what used to be called ‘woman-identified women’, or simply the association with same-sex female attraction does not correlate with their sense of self and their bodily or sexual geographies.
Questions about the resonance and relevance of this classic and much stereotyped lesbian identity are not, of course, new questions. Perhaps the most well-known interrogation occurred during the famous ‘sex-wars’ of the 1980s, but arguably these debates cannot be separated entirely from broader critiques concerning the visibility and prominence of lesbians and lesbian culture generally, within the wider LG, LGB and now LGBTQI+ environments. Contemporary debates include so-called ‘border wars’ between butch and FTM trans identities; concerns over what is called ‘butch flight’; the forms and styles of various masculinities and the desirability of masculinity (or any gender) at all; the raced and classed specificities of butch identities, as well as whether lesbian gender identities are innate, socially constructed or both.
In my research I shall explore these questions and gather more testimonies as to the limits or utility of current understandings of female masculinity and butch lesbian gender identities; considering whether these terms are indeed redundant, out of date or even backward in some way. This work will also bring a UK perspective to a field that is dominated by data from the US, historically and currently. It is a deeply personal project, having myself identified as and with the term ‘butch’ since picking up a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s (1993) ‘Stone Butch Blues’ in 1995. I remember feeling validation and relief that there was a name for the way I was, and that moment remains as one of the most significant in my life.
It feels exposing to bring my personal life and identity into my academic work like this, but it is a project I have been trying to undertake for several years. In clubs, bars, seminar rooms and community groups I have debated and defended the butch gender identity with butch, queer and trans friends who were either hopeful or concerned at the apparent decline of lesbian classifications. We have wrestled with the question of what ‘butch’ is without the ‘lesbian’ label; we have taken on, kept or given up again the use of male pronouns; we have considered or taken up wholly or partly hormonal or surgical interventions to square our bodies with the circles in the mind, hips and breasts. But, as Cordova says in her chapter in Persistence (2011), some of us remain, we hold the butch line. This research returns me to the question of why.
Coyote, Ivan E. & Sharman, Zena (eds.) Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Inness, Sherrie A. & Lloyd, Michelle (1995) ‘GI Joes in Barbie Land: Recontextualising Butch in Twentieth-Century Lesbian Culture’. NWSA Journal. Vol. 7(3), (Autumn), pp. 1-23.
Levitt Heidi M. & Hiestand Katherine R. (2004) ‘A Quest for Authenticity: Contemporary Butch Gender’. Sex Roles. Vol. 50, No. 9/10 (May), pp. 605-621.
Morris Bonnie J. (2016) The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture. SUNY Press: New York.
Nestle, Joan (ed) (1992). The Persistent Desire: a Femme-Butch Reader. Boston, MA: Alyson Publications Inc.
Rubin, Gayle (1992) ‘Of Catamites and kings: Reflections on butch, gender, and boundaries’ in: Nestle, Joan (ed). The Persistent Desire: a Femme-Butch Reader. Boston, MA: Alyson Publications Inc, pp. 466-482.
Finn Mackay is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England. In her previous roles in Local Government she worked on anti-bullying projects for schools, including work on responding to and addressing homophobic bullying. A long time Feminist activist, she is the author of ‘Radical Feminism: Activism in Movement’ published by Palgrave. More information and the research survey can be found here.
Image Credit: All images used with permission. Thanks to The Butch Clothing Company for client shots www.thebutchclothingcompany.co.uk