A while back I was lunching with a friend and lamenting my lack of female companionship. I always go to this particular friend when I am in need of brutal honesty. Talk about going to the well once too often. She informed me that my persona non grata status among the ladies was due to my androgynous appearance. She suggested that I butch or femme it up if I planned on getting laid in this millennium. She went on (and on) to say that my andro “thing” was fine for the ‘80s, but it was tired in the “butch-femme” ‘90s.
For the next couple of days, I considered my friend’s advice. As I looked around, I had to admit that a lot more dykes were into this butch-femme lifestyle. The personal ads are chock full of women who know exactly where they stand on the butch-femme spectrum and exactly where they want their partners to be. Not too many gals declare themselves to be middle-of-the-liners like myself, nor do they often solicit our company.
Having been out for more than a decade now, I have always been aware of the words butch and femme, but I associated the terms with segments of gay culture, like the S & M and leather communities, and assumed that they related mainly to sexual behaviors and desires.
It became apparent after my little chat over lunch that either I had totally misunderstood the entire concept all along or there was a whole new butch-femme consciousness on the rise. I decided to use all of that spare time that I wasn’t using on dating to investigate today’s butch-femme culture.
In the old days you were either butch or femme or you got made fun of. Not so in today’s version of the culture: Now the butch-femme spectrum is very crowded. You’ve still got your stone butches and ultra or old-school femmes, but then you’ve also got your soft butches, tomboy femmes, stone femmes, butches of center, femmes of center, and many more—it seems like a new term is coined every minute. If you think I exaggerate, check out one of the Internet chat rooms on the subject.
The easiest interviews I had were with the stone butches and ultra femmes. Their expectations, roles, and fashion statements haven’t changed much over the decades. A stone butch wears men’s clothing, usually has short hair, and is the quarterback, not the wide receiver, in the bedroom—she does not like to be sexually touched by her partner. Her choice for a partner is usually an ultra femme. Such a woman wears very feminine attire, usually favors the use of makeup, and is likely to have long nails. In the sex department she is the perfect counterpart to the stone butch; she is not likely to break a nail during lovemaking.
The stone butch does the driving, unless she is visually impaired. She will also handle the car and appliance repairs if she is mechanically inclined. She is expected to open car doors for her femme and treat her partner in a gentlewomanly way. The ultra femme will allow her butch to drive even if she knows she is the better driver. She is responsible for decorating the home and organizing the everyday details of running a household.
With me so far? Pretty easy, right?
I now muddy the waters.
I asked several women who consider themselves to be soft butches what that means. I got all kinds of responses. Some, who looked very much like stone butches to me, said the mutual situation happening between the sheets is the determining factor between the “soft” and the “stone.” Others call themselves soft butches because they consider that to be their look; they tend to be the jeans-boots-and-flannel gals. Still others use the label because it leaves them open to attracting a wider variety of women than just obvious femmes.
So, who would you most likely find on the arm of a soft butch? Just about anybody. Many lust after someone more feminine than themselves, but I met some softies who found stone butches and other soft butches irresistible.
For most of these new breeds, sexual behavior is not tied to their identity. Nor is the label or style they choose indicative of the type of women they are attracted to. These labels refer mainly to how these women see themselves—the way they dress and act and think. This is very different from the notions of old that dictated that femmes and butches be attracted to their opposites. Even if you were a “butch in the streets and a femme in the sheets,” you would rather kiss a boy than admit it. And if you were a femme who was attracted to other femmes, you would have to be very discreet—and lonely.
Some femmes today are downright aggressive in the sack (and I mean that in a good way). You can’t always tell a femme by looking at her, either. Femmes come in many forms: There are punk femmes who may look like butches to many of us, corporate femmes, femme jocks, and femme earth mothers. By the same token, I have met self-described butches who look like suburban moms and cheerleaders.
But after talking with all these women, I wondered, with so many differing opinions about what makes someone more butch or more femme, were they successful in their quests for their mates? The answer was much simpler than I had imagined: Like everyone who has ideals, we end up falling for whomever we end up falling for. You shoot for what you think will make you happy, and if you find something different and it still makes you happy, then you adjust.
Ultimately, it didn’t take me long to decide that I would not and could not femme or butch it up to get a date. I mean, I could probably ask them what they wanted and then pretend to be whatever that was, but if I were good at telling women what they wanted to hear, I suppose I’d be married by now. Nope, I will just go on being that same andro freak I have always been and pray for the day that I become retro and popular once more.
From Curve (March-April 1996).