SUPPORTING BUTCHES SUPPORTS ALL LESBIANS
Bev Jo, Linda Strega, and Ruston
We originally wrote this chapter as two articles that countered the increasing glorification of male-identified femininity and role-playing in most Lesbian publications and among individual Lesbians.1 This reactionary trend is part of the growing acceptance of heterosexist values among Lesbians in all the countries we have information about. We have to fight it, because ignoring it means contributing to it.
Butch oppression is a difficult issue to deal with because there are so many conflicting definitions of what it is to be Fem or Butch. Butches are the Lesbians who, as girls, rejected patriarchal male rules to feminize, and refused to play the role designed by men for women. Fem Lesbians are those who accepted that male-defined feminine role, to various degrees, as girls.
We use the term Butch oppression (and Fem privilege) for what many Lesbians call “roles” and “role-playing.” “Roles,” as it’s usually used, implies that Butches and Fems have equal power or that only Lesbians who define themselves as “Butch” or “Fem” are in roles. But this is a political issue of power inequality — and is as serious and real as any other inequality that Dykes work to change. Our language should name the real core of the issue. “Butch oppression” makes it clear that Fems have the power and the privilege over Butches.
We use the word “roles” to mean the basic core identities of Butch and Fem that all Lesbians have developed in childhood (and which are not a result of genetics or hormones.) We say “role-playing” to mean deliberate role-playing as well as all the ways Fems maintain power over Butches, including sexual and social behavior, political beliefs, appearance, self-image, and manner.
We want to make it clear that we’re against role-playing. Acknowledging Butch oppression does not mean supporting role-playing. To think that it does is like saying acknowledging Lesbian existence supports stereotypes against Lesbians. When we talk about all Lesbians being Butch or Fem, we’re using these definitions to make it possible for Butch oppression to be fought. Just as it’s impossible to fight classism if some Lesbians claim to be class-free, it’s impossible to end role-playing as long as some Lesbians deny they’re in roles.
Butch and Fem roles are very complex. The terms are loaded, the definitions are contradictory, and, more than any other issue among Lesbians, the thought of it brings up intense Lesbian-hatred. To admit your role in a responsible way means declaring your commitment to strong Dyke identity, which takes a lot of courage. Unfortunately, most Lesbians who openly identify themselves as Fem (and to a lesser extent, Butch) aren’t doing it responsibly, or even accurately. They’re just glorifying role-playing as “sexy” and “fun.” But role-playing, including the intense versions played by Lesbians who deny they play roles, is hurtful and damaging to Lesbians, individually and as communities.
The male origin of femininity is clear. We agree with the basic feminist writings of the early 1970′s that rejected all forms of femininity. Men demand that females caricature ourselves for men’s benefit. Identifying and rejecting that crap is the way to find our true, innate female selves. Even non-Lesbian feminists worked on these politics in consciousness-raising groups in the past.
We are so subjected to the propaganda of femininity being natural womanhood that it can be hard to see through the lies. For instance, growing up with caricatured images of female cartoon animals from our earliest memories has an impact. Look at real wild female animals – not the poor inbred pets with pink bows in their fur – and you see none of the mannerisms and movements that we’re taught are intrinsically female.
Yet many Lesbians, including those who consider themselves radical, still admire and emulate that male facade. They’ve embraced femininity, calling it the core of their identities. Even though femininity is so clearly a self-absorbed, narcissistic, unnatural state, these Lesbians believe that it is true femaleness, and so they set up Femness as the acceptable norm for Lesbians.
Besides the obvious signs of femininity in clothes, makeup, and mannerisms, and in articles glorifying femininity in Lesbian and feminist publications, there are also subtle undercurrents of feminization among Lesbians. In this chapter, we confront both the obvious and the subtle. Looking past the tangle of lies we’re taught from the moment we’re born means facing the fact of being Lesbian in a whole new way — a reality that’s far removed from the world of “normal” het women.
There are differences among Fems: The extremely feminine Fems are at one end of the scale — they internalize male ideals of womanhood, which requires continually viewing themselves as if through men’s minds until men’s ideals feel like their own. At the other end, Dyke-identified Fems are repulsed by most aspects of femininity. Fems’ Lesbianism is obviously a major resistance against male values and male appropriation of females. But our basic femininity and recognition by the het world as “women” remains. (Since we’re two Fems and one Butch, we generally use the terms “we” when writing about both groups.) We can choose to grow less feminine in thought, action, manner, looks, and clothes. However, nothing can change the fact that Fems grew up feeling accepted as real girls and real women, and so were spared the agony, punishment, abuse, and self-doubt of being ostracized as “abnormal.” Most likely, the reason girls become feminine is the same reason Lesbians choose to remain feminine, go back to being more feminine, or pressure other Lesbians to become feminine — that is, so they can fit in, feel acceptable, and not think of themselves as unnatural.
I’ve often heard Fems say, in defense of men who claim to be Lesbians, “You have no idea what it feel like to grow up never feeling like you fit in or belong.” Yet, unlike most of these men, that is exactly what Butch girls feel like growing up. But typically, men’s feelings are considered more important than females.’
Most Butches who acknowledge being Butch clearly remember hating and resisting femininity when we were little girls. This is more than being a “tomboy,” which many Fems claim to have been. A Butch’s resistance brings extreme punishment: she’s described as abnormal, queer, a woman-who-wants-to-be-a-man; she’s often beaten, raped, institutionalized, psychiatrically tortured (including being subjected to electroshock, drugs, and psychosurgery), and/or disowned by her family, for not “acting like a woman.” Her resistance does not EVER win her the privileges that men keep for themselves. Because men know she’s indeed a female, and a most rebellious one, she’s made an example of for all females contemplating resistance. She has “stepped out of her proper place” and “gotten above herself.” Butch oppression originates with men saying, in effect, “This is how patriarchy punishes resisters.”
Many Fems, especially Separatists, are strongly Dyke-identified and genuinely want all Dykes to have equal, loving friendships and relationships. Adoration of femininity is no more acceptable to Dyke-identified Fems than it is to aware Butches, and that’s why we (Linda and Ruston), as Fem Dykes, are as willing to fight Fem privilege as Butch Dykes are. Becoming aware for the first time that being Fem puts you in a position of privilege can be disturbing, but that hasn’t stopped many Fems from taking that new awareness as a chance to strengthen our Dyke identities and work toward stronger Dyke communities.
For many Dykes, the very mention of Butch and Fem is upsetting because it seems to prove male lies about us. One of the most common stereotypes of Lesbians is that we “play roles.” Therefore, many Lesbians insist roles don’t exist or that only the most “unfeminist,” “uneducated,” “male-identified” Lesbians “play roles.” Roles are supposed to be a thing of our “sleazy,” “perverted” past that feminism cured. These condescending, Lesbian-hating politics discredit and malign anyone who dares to try sorting out the complex truth, which is that most women, whether Lesbian or het, choose to be Fem from girlhood.
Since the 1980’s, there’s been a glorification of role-playing. Some newer Lesbians think of roles as a trendy game, imitating mainstream hets’ reactionary return-to-the-1950′s nostalgia (with 1950′s racism, Queer-bashing, and stagnation). Some Lesbians we’ve known who were unconsciously playing the Fem role began to be conscious and deliberate about it when they realized it could increase their privilege. So roles are either considered a reactionary topic we should avoid or the key to the hottest Lesbian sex, especially if played in an sado-masochistic setting. Also, there are a lot of Fems who think it’s fun to play at being Butch, the same way some class-privileged Lesbians make a game of downward mobility. Some of these Fems are the most vocal about being “Butch,” which adds to the general confusion about roles. They are also the most likely to harass other Fems for being feminine.
All these misconceptions make it very hard to even begin dealing with roles in a responsible, political way. But it’s essential to do it because, otherwise, we won’t have equality among ourselves. The issue of Butch oppression is as complex as any other political issue that involves hierarchies among Lesbians. As with any other inequality, ignoring it doesn’t make the problem go away. It persists, affecting how each of us thinks and feels about herself and other Dykes. It affects our political work, our friendships, and our interaction with lovers. Exploring the truth about Dyke identity, including Butch identity, is the only way to learn to truly value and love each other and ourselves as Dykes.
Dykes who want to deal with roles aren’t responsible for roles existing. We’re just describing them and trying to fight injustice. We don’t want Lesbians to feel shame, guilt, fear, embarrassment, or to take offense. We’re writing to free Dykes from those feelings. Nor are we confirming male and het lies about Lesbians. We’re trying to make sense of a confusing situation that causes pain and oppression for Butch Dykes. Dealing with any issue of inequality is hard and can be painful. No matter how unjust, the status quo of injustice is familiar and can seem safer. But the damage is severe, while the gains from fighting Butch oppression mean happier, safer, stronger Lesbian communities for all of us.
Some of the oppressive behavior we describe may be similar to something you find yourself doing. If you realize that it’s just a way you learned to act and identify with, and isn’t who you are deep down inside (otherwise you wouldn’t be a Dyke), then it’s possible to stop being oppressive without feeling personally threatened. And if you sincerely care about the Dykes you’re oppressing and causing pain, it’s possible to let go of old ways of behaving and change without feeling resentful or bad.
Every Dyke we know, both Fem and Butch, who’s had the guts to bring up Butch oppression and Fem privilege has been attacked to her face and in the Lesbian press, and has been subjected to ridicule, condescension, slander, social exclusion, and loss of friendships — all in an effort to suppress the truth. Obviously we care very much about this issue and are deeply convinced of the accuracy of our understanding, if we’re prepared to risk this sort of reaction. Fems have usually been the most insulting, because this issue threatens their power over Butches. Those who fear loss of privilege usually become enraged.
Coming out as Butch is as terrifying and difficult as coming out as a Lesbian or a Separatist without support. The reactions are similar to what happens when someone brings up class in a group for the first time. She usually meets with angry resistance, denial, hostile jokes, unfair accusations, and ostracism by the privileged, which crushes opportunities for major, positive changes in how we think of ourselves and each other. This destroys our chances for personal happiness and Dyke unity. Such reactions focus sympathy on the outraged Fem, when it’s the Butch who needs support.
Fems who deny that roles exist are actually saying Butches don’t exist. Most Lesbians deny Butch oppression the same way that most het women deny Lesbian oppression. Some Butches also deny that roles exist or that Butches are oppressed, because for Butches, thinking about it brings pain, self-hatred, and fear of exposure to the surface, and because exploring Butch oppression can bring retribution from Fem lovers and friends.
When roles are acknowledged by radical feminist Lesbians, they usually assume that only Butches “play roles.” Fems aren’t considered “Fem,” but are thought of as “just ordinary Lesbians,” because we merge into the mainstream concept of normality. Being more feminine makes us more like females are meant to be in a male-run world. These male standards have been taken for granted for so long that they’re usually assumed to be “natural.”
If we realize that femininity confers privilege, and therefore social power, and not nurturance, fragility, softness, and warmth, we won’t fall for feminine games. If we realize that resistance to femininity makes openness, honest directness, a sense of realness, emotional intensity, passion, and Lesbian loyalty more possible, we can release and develop more of those qualities in ourselves and in our communities. If we don’t reject femininity and the Lesbian-hating, self-hating politics it reflects, we’ll never have fair and equal personal or political relationships, because we won’t be loving and valuing each other as Lesbians. Discussions about Lesbian ethics will remain an abstract fantasy as long as love and friendship are based on unethical game-playing, manipulation, and objectification.
Butches as Scapegoats
Butches have kept Lesbianism alive and visible over the centuries and should be an inspiration to us all. Butches who are out in times and places where females are openly owned by fathers or husbands are extremely brave. They are the first to be attacked, persecuted, imprisoned, and killed during the worst times of female and Lesbian repression.
Butch oppression is simply a more extreme version of how all Lesbians are treated by a heterosexist world. Men and het women often use the term “Butch” interchangeably with “Lesbian.” Men and het women scapegoat Lesbians for male crimes. Lesbians are portrayed as girl-molesters, when it’s men who are the rapists, and when Lesbians ourselves are among the many girl victims of rape by male relatives and strangers. Men have succeeded in diverting attention away from their own violence, teaching women to displace their real rage at and fear of men onto Lesbians. Scapegoating Lesbians enables the het woman who shrinks in revulsion from a Dyke on the bus or who shouts insults at a Dyke at work, to live with, look after and defend a man who beats her and rapes her daughters.
This scapegoating is central to Lesbian oppression. It’s become clear only recently that most females are victims of rape by male family, making it obvious that most males are rapists. The enormity of this terrorization is why males find it necessary to divert attention from their crimes, in order to maintain het women’s devotion. Butches personify Lesbianism, so the most rage and fear is redirected at us. Butches are portrayed, by hets and Fem Lesbians, as hardened abusers of females, when it’s men who are callously gynocidal, and when Butches ourselves are prime targets of male violence, as well as abuse from het women and Fems.
The existence of roles has been so distorted and lied about by hets, and Butch identity is so deeply linked with Dyke identity and Queer oppression, that just mentioning the issue often calls forth denial, raw pain, anger, and confusion among long-time Dykes. It also calls forth a stream of anti-Butch stereotypes from reactionary ex-het Fems who haven’t rid themselves of the lesbophobia of their het years.
Butches have the right to come out as Butch, yet when we do, reactions by other Lesbians are often identical to how hets react to any Lesbian coming out. In spite of all the pressure, there have always been Dykes who identify as Butch, as well as Butches who won’t, just as there are Lesbians who are clearly out and others who prefer to be called “women,” or “womyn.”
For decades, I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you identify as something other than Butch?” by threatened Fems. (The last who asked me that was one third my age.) Can you imagine asking another oppressed, marginalized, and invisiblized Lesbian why she doesn’t just give up her identity so she won’t make those in the dominant position uncomfortable?
A Lesbian-focused analysis of Butch oppression has to be based on what we know about heterosexism and Lesbian-hatred. Who first accused Lesbians, especially Butches, of being “like men?” Who first accused Lesbians of imitating heterosexual couples? Who is the most interested in destroying our self-esteem and making us appear repulsive to ourselves and others? Who is the most invested in discouraging girls from resisting femininity and heterosexuality? Who uses Lesbians, especially Butches, as scapegoats? We know men’s lies, and we know we can extricate ourselves from yet another network of lies that damages us at the very core of our Dyke identities, and at the heart of our relationships with each other. Butches are not like men. Lesbians are not the same as het couples. Analyzing “roles” among Lesbians really means analyzing Fem privilege, Butch oppression, and the heterosexual hierarchy that exists among Lesbians. Instead of assuming that Butches are in a role while Fems are just “being themselves,” we need to recognize that it’s Fems who have accepted the artificialities of a role, while Butches have resisted accepting those artificialities.
Het women consider themselves to be the norm of what it means to be “womanly,” just as Fems consider femininity the standard by which all Lesbians should be measured. This means that many, perhaps most, Fems don’t even consider themselves to be Fem. They think of themselves simply as “Women,” “Womyn,” or (for the most radical) “Lesbians” or “Dykes.” That’s similar to how het women don’t think of themselves as feminine women or het women, but simply as “women.” It’s left to us as Lesbians to say that het women don’t represent us all, that they aren’t “the Females,” but are just one kind of female — otherwise we end up accepting their implicit definition of us as non-female. In the same way, we need to assert that Fems don’t represent Lesbianism or the ideal Lesbian.
We’ve been bombarded with feminine standards since we were born, so many Butches also believe the propaganda that Femness is the “normal” way to be. This is similar to how the cultures of the class-privileged can seem more real and even cozily familiar to poor and working-class Dykes than our own cultures, because of media propaganda.
Butch oppression is so ignored that most Lesbians insist on simple definitions if anyone dares to bring up the subject. When easy explanations aren’t possible, they conclude that the issue isn’t real. After all, why should most Fems care when they’re not the ones being hurt? Denying the reality of Butch oppression is like denying any inequality — denial ensures the continuation of the oppression.
Butch oppression isn’t given validity as a political issue. Even otherwise radical Lesbians make jokes about Butches and put us down in a way they would never do with other oppressed groups. Although some Lesbians are opposed to classism being discussed and fought, for instance, at least there’s a recognition that classism exists in patriarchy and also among Lesbians.
Often Fems, and even some Butches, not only deny that Butches are oppressed, but say that we’re oppressive to Fems. Old myths die hard, especially when the male and het world all around us constantly pressures us to believe them. The fact is that more Fems fit negative Butch stereotypes, including being “male-identified” and “like men,” than Butches do. Fems who single out Butches this in way are acting like the men and het women who say that Lesbians are as cruel and horrible as men. Fems may find this a “terrible” thing to say, but how do they think Butches feel to be told such things about ourselves?
We should know by now that believing stereotypes distorts our perceptions. For example, a Fem who isn’t expressive or talkative may be perceived as “shy” and “vulnerable” while a quiet Butch may be called “sullen,” “cold,” and “aloof.” A Fem who shouts in anger may be perceived as “strong” and having a right to her feelings, while a Butch raising her voice in anger is likely to be perceived as “violent” and “domineering.”
Butches are no more perfect than any other oppressed group. If being perfect were necessary for someone’s oppression to be acknowledged as real, and fought, no injustice would be fought. There are always a few individuals from every oppressed group who happen to fit the worst stereotypes of that group, but that doesn’t make the stereotypes true or mean that group or those individuals deserve oppression. The fact is that there are nasty individuals from all groups, and just as many or more individuals from the privileged group also fit the oppressed group stereotype. Responsible Lesbians would never say classism is irrelevant because they know mean working-class Dykes and kind middle-class Dykes. Butch reality is so distorted and misrepresented that many Lesbians forget to apply what they’ve learned about their own and others’ oppressions to this issue. For this reason, one way to avoid being unintentionally reactionary is to temporarily substitute Butches in your mind with a recognized oppressed group when you think or talk about roles.
Each of us has internalized some degree of anti-Dyke propaganda, which we take out on ourselves and on each other. The main targets are Butches, who are also the most pressured to internalize self-hatred. But the strong Dyke inside every one of us is punished, repressed, and damaged by fear, hatred, and ambivalence towards Butches — whether as Butches we internalize it against ourselves, or as Fems we externalize it against Butches. It’s way past time for us to say No to heterosexual demands that we hate our Dyke selves and Yes to our love for each others’ enduring, wild, determined female/Dyke selves.
“So Give Me a Definition”
A definition is both easy and difficult. When we describe Butch and Fem identities, some Lesbians immediately recognize what we mean. Those who do want to understand will recognize themselves and other Lesbians. For others, no definition satisfies them unless it’s a stereotype. Those who want to avoid the issue or “just don’t understand” are expressing their resistance to the truth, just as some het women don’t understand how anyone can be a Lesbian. The complex realities of our role identities can’t be reduced to a brief glib sentence or two. This entire chapter is our attempt to define and explain roles.
For those with awareness of roles, it’s obvious. You can usually tell when you first meet someone whether she’s Butch or Fem. Sometimes you can tell just by hearing a Lesbian’s voice. It’s much easier, for instance, than identifying someone’s class background when you know nothing about them. Yet, for Lesbians who aren’t aware of roles, it can seem difficult at first.
One way to work out someone’s role is to notice how you feel around her. What’s your gut reaction? Who do you feel effeminate in relation to? When do you feel like a clumsy clod? How “Queer” or how “normal” do you feel around a Lesbian? When do you feel “like yourself”? Butches and less feminine Fems tend to feel awkward or crude when they’re around the extremely feminine. Fems, including the least feminine, tend to feel more feminine around a Butch.
Butches are more likely to recognize a Lesbian’s role because Butches are so oppressed by roles. Fems who’ve also suffered because of other Fems’ role-playing may recognize roles more easily, too. Butches tend to know more about roles and about Fems — just as other oppressed groups tend to know more about the oppressor’s culture than vice-versa. Extreme Fems also recognize immediately who’s Butch and who’s Fem, for their own predatory reasons. Extreme Fems are the most obvious role-players. Some are so feminine that they look like drag queen extreme Fems, while others are more subtle. They may look like strong Dykes, but their actions reveal their oppressive attitudes. Extreme Fems generally treat Butches as sex objects, treat less feminine Fems as if we were of no consequence, and treat other extreme Fems as rivals.
Butches are closer to what all females would be like if we didn’t live in patriarchy. Butches are more like what we’d all be if we weren’t subjected to intense male feminization. Butches express femaleness and Lesbianism more naturally, while Fems’ femaleness and Lesbianism is channeled through the acquired values of femininity. Fems share those feminine values with men and heterosexual women while Butches’ ways of being are furthest from those of men and het women. But there are exceptions. The institution of heterosexism has many aspects. Making one decision to resist male rule doesn’t mean someone makes them all. Some poor and working-class het women from rural areas who do hard physical labor have less of the typical feminine mannerisms, (although that has changed in the last few decades since pressure has been on such women to feminize even more). And there are Fems who accepted some degree of femininity but never became het, while there are Butches who were het and even wives and mothers. But there’s a higher percentage of Butches who never were het than Fems. And there’s a higher percentage of Butches who are oppressed by racism and classism.
Since most of the many Lesbians who came out through the WLM are Fems, Butches are in a minority. Nowadays, it’s possible to go to a Lesbian event and find yourself in a crowd of a hundred Fems and five Butches.
Even though many radical Lesbians say they reject the most obvious femininity of the Fem stereotype, Fem is still overwhelmingly the image presented in Lesbian publications and books, and on CD covers and in films: long hair, often dyed or bleached, in the styles clearly designated for women by men; plucked eyebrows; cosmetics; earrings; long, painted fingernails; dresses, skirts, and high heels. Besides these images in photographs, there are also drawings of exaggerated femininity.
Even when the image is supposedly more “Lesbian,” with short hair and pants, there’s usually some male-identified womanliness — a touch of feminine jewelry, long fingernails, a “dainty” unnatural hand position, and/ or an expression that’s commonly found on models: narcissistic, arrogant, coy, seductive, cute, graceful, or posed sweetness, rather than plain Dyke directness. A few images project a “proper” motherly or grandmotherly expression, which is also acceptably feminine. Most Lesbian feminist media stars are clearly Fem (although this was less true in the early 1970′s). Many look het, but even those who look like Lesbians convey their Femness by the tilt of their head, their facial expressions, and the way they talk. Many Fems speak in a higher-pitched voice than is natural for them.
On virtually every leaflet or advertisement we’ve seen for Lesbian conferences, meetings, support groups, and dances, the image is clearly Fem (sometimes including in ads for Butch events!). This is a political statement saying who the organizers consider representative of our Lesbian culture, and who is welcome and who isn’t. This not only excludes Butches, but Dyke-identified Fems as well. It’s as elitist as high prices and lack of sliding scale, which say, “for the moneyed only.” When the common images are also of thin, young, able-bodied, class-privileged, European-descent gentiles, then even more Lesbians are excluded. But while there’s some growing consciousness about including groups of Lesbians other than the most privileged ones, there seems to be a decrease in including images of obvious Dykes. (We suggest it’s better to not use any images of Lesbian faces or bodies on ads than to use ones that exclude any oppressed Dykes.)
Fems generally fit the image of how a woman is “supposed” to be, and Butches don’t. Notice how much ease or unease a Lesbian feels with feminine apparel and how easily she passes or could pass for het. We can all change our appearance, but body language is revealing. Fems are more likely to move and make gestures in ways that are traditionally feminine, playing with their hair when talking, even if it’s only an inch long. Some Lesbians think the fad of shaving their head as a political statement makes them look more Butch, but it’s almost always a sign of being Fem. It requires constant maintenance and is actually just a variation on feminine fussing with appearance. Also, it’s not unusual for a Fem to dress and wear her hair clearly like a Dyke one year and look very het the next. Looking Out has been a fad for many, but fads pass, and many Fems ultimately reveal a craving to follow the drag-extreme Fem ideal. Dyke-identified Dykes, whether Fem or Butch, are repulsed by that crap.
Fems are more likely to be obsessed with their looks and what they like and dislike about their bodies. They’re more likely to spend a great deal of time preparing their appearance, as if they’re going on display for the male gaze, just as het women do. They’re also more likely to notice other Lesbians’ appearance and make critical comments about how they look.
Fems are also more likely to act “motherly.” We’ve never met a motherly Butch who wasn’t an actual mother, but we’ve met many motherly Fems who aren’t mothers. And Butch mothers tend to be less in the motherly role of being critical and policing. But that doesn’t mean that non-motherly Butches and Fem Dykes aren’t loving, caring, protective, and nurturing. Contrary to het propaganda, those are Dyke qualities, not inherent mother qualities.
Butch and Fem identity go much deeper than the superficiality usually talked about. Some Butches convince themselves they’re not Butch because they’re good cooks, or they like doing craftwork, making a cozy home, and hate sports, and/or are intimidated by mechanical tasks. Some Fems think they’re not Fem because they hate femininity and are comfortable doing traditionally “male” work like carpentry and mechanics. A more accurate way to recognize roles is by noticing who has the power in social and intimate relationships. Fem privilege carries a lot of clout in Lesbian social interactions.
One Honest Fem’s Self-Recognition List
1. When I first meet another Lesbian, if all other things are equal (more or less), I feel less difference with Fems. Even when there are other differences between us, such as ethnicity or class, when it comes to roles, Femness is an area of similarity. With a Butch, I feel the potential barrier that any major difference creates. We’re on different ground. We can’t assume we know how each other feels — we can assume our experiences have been very different and that as a result we’re likely to feel different about a lot of things. That’s true of any two Lesbians, but every difference in privilege and oppression widens the gap and requires more conscious effort to achieve understanding and closeness.
2. Until developing a radical Dyke politics, I never had any qualms about identifying as a “woman” and had no trouble being accepted as one by hets.
3. I feel myself moving like a Fem, and automatically using some feminine gestures. They’re not exaggerated, but are obviously different from how Butches move and act.
4. I don’t pass as het, but I feel relatively confident I could pass as het if necessary — not a polished version, but adequate.
5. Feminine activities like sewing, needlecrafts, cooking, and other things designated as “woman’s work” feel like something that belongs to me and to my sphere of activity. Some I enjoy, some I’m indifferent to, and some I hate, but somehow they all “belong” to me. I remember the years it took to train me in some of those skills, and how bitterly I hated most of them at first, but in the end I accepted them as “second nature.” No one thinks it’s odd to see me doing these activities, while Butches who are comfortable and skilled with this kind of work are often teased and ridiculed by both Butches and Fems.
6. Often, Butches show friendliness to me by acting protective, solicitous, even deferential. They don’t usually act that way toward other Butches.
7. I can tell that I’m less uncomfortable among het women than Butches are. I don’t need to be as on guard, because het women don’t act as scared, hateful, or predatory (flirtatious) toward me, especially if a Butch is present — they focus on the most Queer Lesbian present. If I’m alone with het women, they sometimes do act that way. However, no het woman has ever pretended after a long conversation that she thought I was a man, which has happened to Butch friends who are very obviously female.
“But I Don’t Play Roles”
It makes sense that some otherwise responsible Lesbians don’t want to acknowledge that we’re all either Butch or Fem because:
1) Hets use this as propaganda to obscure their outrageously extreme role-playing;
2) Dykes don’t want to admit doing things that seem to confirm het stereotypes of us;
3) “role-playing” is a negative stereotype of Dykes who came out before feminism, and so they are looked down upon by the newer ex-het feminist Fems;
4) sado-masochist Lesbians and “Lesbian” porn glorify role-playing;
5) the even newer ex-het Fems who came out after the WLM (and who are therefore much less oppressed as Lesbians) often think it’s campy, cute, thrillingly “naughty,” and trendy to play with roles.
Of the many Fems who deny being Fem, some claim to be Butch, and others claim to be neither Butch nor Fem. How can any Dyke consider herself role-free? To anyone with any awareness of roles, it’s easy to identify the role of even someone you don’t personally know just from a photograph or from a Lesbian’s voice and way of speaking. When you’re privileged, you can take your position for granted, but when you’re oppressed, you can’t avoid noticing it. Whether or not a Dyke chooses to identify her Femness, she should be aware that Butches are treated as Butches no matter how we identify. She should at least notice and resist the ways she’s treated as more normal (Fem) by both hets and other Lesbians.
Some Never-het Fems associate Femness with heterosexuality and are understandably unwilling to identify as Fems, but they still benefit from Fem privilege, although to a lesser degree. A sound analysis of heterosexism among Lesbians clarifies both issues — Butch oppression and Never-het Dyke oppression.
Some Fems claim it’s “masochistic” to identify as a Fem, because they accept and perpetuate the lie that “Fems are oppressed by Butches like women are oppressed by men.” The truth is that Butches are oppressed by Fems similarly to how Lesbians are oppressed by het women. Fighting femininity is an essential part of fighting sado-masochism. Accusing politically responsible Fems of self-hatred because we acknowledge Fem privilege is just another way of trying to silence discussion about Butch oppression. Should everyone just grab whatever privilege they can with no concern for who pays for it? Lesbians who refuse to use our privilege, and who fight injustice — whether about Butch oppression or any other issue — should be respected for our courage instead of being called masochistic. Fighting inequality benefits everyone. Who wants to live in communities where some feel good about themselves at others’ expense? We should all feel good together.
Many Fems claim that Butches are more privileged and admired in Lesbian communities. Some Dykes do support other Dykes to stop being feminine and to be Dyke-identified in appearance and behavior. But that doesn’t mean Butches are considered superior. Similarly, working-class culture occasionally getting respect doesn’t mean that the working class are considered superior or now have privilege over the middle-class. Oppression is real and observable. Privilege means gaining real, concrete advantages.
When Fems complain about “pressure” to look and act like Dykes, it’s like het feminists complaining about being “pushed” to come out. There’s far more pressure on us all to feminize — in the male and het world, our families, and Lesbian communities as well. The support to be more Dyke-identified is minuscule compared to that. [And, in 2011, nonexistent.]
Butches are under unrelenting pressure to look more “normal,” by mothers, other family members, co-workers, and even lovers and Lesbian friends. If we do feminize ourselves, we are rewarded by being told how much “nicer” we look. Many Butches have succumbed to this pressure over the years.
Ironically, some Fems who are temporarily playing at being “Butch” pressure other Fems and Butches to act more “tough” (their erroneous image of Butchness). They’re the ones we’ve noticed being the most likely to make nasty anti-Fem comments and jokes (another part of their erroneous image of Butches), which isn’t the same as honest resistance to Femness. It’s scapegoating other Fems for your privilege. A Fem we knew who used to make frequent anti-Butch comments was told why this was oppressive; she then tried to make herself appear more “Butch” and began making anti-Fem comments. It’s much more acceptable for Fems to reject femininity than it is for Butches, who are perceived as “going too far.” In fact, the Lesbians who are most praised for being “Butch” are usually less obvious Fems. This makes identifying Lesbians’ roles more difficult, especially when newly-out Fem Lesbians are inclined to think of almost all longer-out Lesbians as “Butch.”
Anti-Butch attitudes are taken for granted among Lesbians. At a Lesbian forum in San Francisco, the audience cheered when it was announced that several members were Fems, and they cheered again when another Lesbian described herself as a “recovering Butch.” U.S. gay papers print many personal ads making statements like, “feminine Lesbian wants pretty Lesbian who looks like a woman,” or “no Butches, please.” In one such ad2 the Lesbian stated her bias clearly: “I’m most comfortable in this straight world acting straight. I truly dislike the gay scene, roles, Butches, dykes … etc. I’m not secretly looking to ‘come out,’ so no helpful offers please. My closet has always been, warm, cozy, and exciting.”
We’ve occasionally seen some support of Butches in Lesbian and feminist publications, although it’s still vastly outnumbered by anti-Butch statements. In criticizing a play about “Lesbian battery” for showing the victim as “obviously more femme” than the abuser, one reviewer wrote, “It is necessary to note … that the [Lesbian] abuser can as easily be a 5’2″ woman with a high voice and big dimples as she can be the tough “Butch” image.”3 In a workshop on Lesbian identity at the First Encuentro (Gathering) of Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Lesbians in Cuernavaca, Mexico, “Several women noted that it is generally the Butch that is regarded with distaste. We need to accept the Butches among us and … thereby reject heterosexist attitudes.”4 De Clarke wrote about Butches:
I’ve never seen Butchdom as a cardboard replica of masculinity; never met a Butch who felt to me, socially, like a man; never felt from a Butch the sense of violence that underlies most male social congress … Many Butches of my experience have an almost exaggerated gentleness … I contrast this with the all-out violence of which women are capable who believe themselves weak and powerless … Butches come in for a lot of teasing … aggravation …To me it feels like queer-baiting, but from dykes … it’s a kind of violence to refuse a Butch her identity.”5
“Just Don’t Use Those Words!”
Like other inequalities among Lesbians, Butch oppression isn’t something the privileged — in this case, Fems — have the right to “disagree” exists. Butch oppression does exist, and Fems either act honestly and responsibly about it or they refuse to, which is the luxury of the privileged. When even the most well-meaning and otherwise radical Fem says, “I don’t agree with the issue of Butch oppression,” she’s denying the existence, identity, experiences, and lives of Butches. It’s more honest to say, “I don’t want to be responsible about my Fem privilege. I don’t want to face up to Lesbian oppression,” rather than to liberally act like it’s just a “matter of opinion” for Fems to deign to make decisions about. Butches simply don’t have that luxury.
We use the terms Butch and Fem because, although we’re not certain of their origin, it’s likely Butches chose them as a way of expressing their oppression. Butch isn’t only a political term, it’s an identity. To delete the term is to delete that identity. To replace it, as some Lesbians have suggested, is to gloss over reality with euphemism — it’s as closet as calling Lesbians “wimmin-loving-wimmin.” Butch, like Dyke reclaims an insulting, “shocking” word as a term of pride and courage. And to soothe Fems’ discomfort by deleting Fem is to delete Butch and the entire issue. Fem accurately reflects the origin of Femness — femininity. When Fems say, “I agree with some of your points but not those words,” they remind us of Ruston’s het sister who said, about Ruston being a Lesbian, “I don’t mind what you do — just don’t use that word!”
The Big Sell-Out: Lesbian Femininity
In the 1980’s, a decade of reactionary politics, femininity became an accepted value among many Lesbians. Even many politically radical Lesbians, who I would most expect to support Lesbian self-love and self-respect, who usually call male bullshit for what it is, began to openly admire feminine ways of dressing and acting. Femininity! A patriarchal hype if there ever was one — a phony ideal created by men, not by Lesbians — an ideal that almost all heterosexual women embody to please men.
Femininity is not an inborn aspect of femaleness. Our most innate qualities as females can never be developed through the restraining, artificial posing, game-playing and mirror-gazing that is femininity. Men have taught women what they want women to be –they call it “feminine” or “womanly.” As Lesbians, we need to be awake enough to realize that this male invention is masculine to the core, no matter what it’s named, no matter how many women go along with the lie. Femininity is not truly female; the similarity in the words is a lying male trick.
Lesbians’ acceptance of anything “feminine” is part of the weakening of Lesbian politics — a Lesbian parallel to the right-wing trend of het politics. The same is true of the popularity of sado-masochism among many Lesbians. In fact, sado-masochism encourages the re-acceptance of femininity as a “positive” “erotic” style among otherwise radical Lesbians. I’ve heard shallow reasoning that if some Lesbians “enjoy” femininity and “can’t stop wanting it,” then it’s better to go ahead and accept it. That’s the kind of irresponsible, reactionary politics too often supported by psychotherapy. It’s the same liberalness that supports Lesbians going het, becoming bisexual, and having babies. It’s the same self-destructiveness that leads Lesbians to accept thinness as a standard, that calls the slow suicide of dieting “eating healthy” and the self-punishment of over-exercising “staying fit,” and that encourages Lesbians to worry about the effects of aging on their appearance. Those are all male, het values — feminine values. They all revolve around how men want women to act and look, and they all derive from male desires to control female behavior.
Those Lesbians who act out the feminine model and claim it’s a contribution to Lesbian culture, a flowering forth of their “real selves,” are of course Fems, and most often Fems who were once heterosexual. They haven’t gotten rid of old het values, which are now resurfacing in this reactionary time.
The het media is full of stories about the het feminist who “realizes that she doesn’t have to give up being a woman to be a success in life,” who “regrets having tried to be like a man,” and is now “rediscovering the excitement of feminine seductiveness, the fun of dressing up in high heels, make-up and skirts, and her deep need for the joys of motherhood.” Doesn’t sound too different from lots of Lesbian media, does it?
Fem Privilege—Who Pays for It?
During the past decade, I’ve read many articles and stories written by Fem Lesbians that celebrate Fem role-playing as positive, fun and erotic. It’s not just the writings that alarm me. I’ve encountered the same trend at Lesbian social and political events, even among otherwise radical Lesbians. By contrast, articles I’ve read about being Butch show conflict, self-questioning, self-criticism and pain. The same contrast occurs in most discussions I’ve had with other Dykes about Fem and Butch identity, and is one of the many indications that Butches are in an oppressed position relative to Fems.
I’ve been identifying myself openly as a Fem since 1979, when I joined in gradually developing a political analysis about Butch oppression and Fem privilege with a few Dyke Separatist friends. I define myself as a Fem, not because I admire and enjoy femininity or want to develop my Fem qualities but because I recognize that, like most girls, I accepted feminine training as a small child. Why I didn’t resist, when Butch girls did, is now unknown to me, part of the forgotten past. (I do know it wasn’t because I was more oppressed or more heavily pressured than Butches I’ve met.) What’s important to me now is how that choice affects me and other Lesbians in the present.
Being accepted as a “real girl” by the het world, and therefore by my own self, has given me the bearing, manner, and lack of doubt about being a “real woman” that Fem privilege bestows (even though I don’t now identify as a “woman” but as a Lesbian or Dyke). I try to avoid oppressive Fem behavior, but I know that because of my history I will always be Fem. If I claimed to have become Butch because I now reject Fem clothing and behavior, that would be as untrue and offensive as a class-privileged Lesbian saying she’s poor or working-class now because she doesn’t have much money and rejects classist values.
Is it possible to be neither Butch nor Fem, as most Lesbian feminists claim about themselves? From my observations, no. (By Butch and Fem I mean the core self-identity chosen in girlhood– not role-playing, which is about acting out a part which may or may not be your core identity.) Every girl is faced with the choice of either submitting to feminization and being accepted, or resisting and being punished. The pressure on girls to feminize themselves is universal and unrelenting. It exists in every patriarchal culture, and I don’t know of any culture in the world today which isn’t patriarchal. The styles of femininity vary in quality and degree from culture to culture, but in every patriarchal culture “woman” is defined by her allegiance and orientation towards male values and desires.
Patriarchy’s idea of “woman” is not based on true female biology as men claim. “Woman” is actually an artificial, social definition invented by men. It defines what men want females to be—a submissive being who bonds emotionally, mentally, and physically only with men. According to this scheme, if you’re not a woman (namely, a male-identified female), then you’re some kind of deficient man, or trying to be a man; you’re “unnatural.” So, Lesbians, by choosing to bond with other females instead of with men, are defined by hets as being “like men.” (Notice that only Lesbians really give primary allegiance to other females. Het women and all men give primary allegiance to men. The comparison of Lesbians to men is inaccurate even regarding the choice of who we bond with.) Butch Lesbians, who not only bond solely with females but completely reject femininity, are even more viciously defined as being “unnatural” and “like a man.”
I believe that Butch and Fem roles are chosen at such an early age (they can be observed in four-year-old girls) that they have a profound effect on how we feel within ourselves, how we interact with each other, and how we’re treated by the het world, for the rest of our lives. A small girl is surrounded by only two models of gender behavior: she lives in a world that says and believes, “Women dress and act like this, and men dress and act like that.”
If a girl cannot and will not accept the artificial trappings and mannerisms of the feminine role, everyone around her begins telling her she’s doing something wrong and unnatural. As she gets older and still resists femininity, the accusations intensify. When her Butch (and possibly Lesbian) identity becomes obvious, she’s labeled a deviant, a freak of nature, a man in a woman’s body. She isn’t supposed to exist. She’s a threat to the Big Lie of “feminine woman,” and so men and their women collaborators make up all kinds of ridiculous, hateful fictions to explain away her existence. The pressure is meant to humiliate and bully her into accepting femininity, and it must put her through soul-shaking self-doubt, even if she knows other Butches. Because so few females totally reject femininity, she usually doesn’t meet other Butches for many years, but faces the onslaught alone, during the most vulnerable years of her life—her girlhood and adolescence. Sometimes Butch girls are partially accepted in their families and among friends, but as a kind of mascot or pet, not as an equal. After all, it’s helpful to have an outcast around, someone who’s at the bottom of the pecking order for those further up to feel superior to.
[Now in 2011, well-meaning liberal parents are being misguided into labeling daughters as young as four years old “transgender” if they resist femininity. These parents tell their daughters that they’re boys trapped in a girl’s body, and start them on a track towards hormone injections and surgery and, therefore, a lifetime of destroyed health. No alternatives are suggested. No one tells the girls that it’s natural for females to prefer the freedom and dignity of trousers instead of dresses, and to want active and adventurous play. No one tells them that Lesbianism is a possibility and a good way to live. The parents, and their social workers and medical supporters, think they are “liberal” when they name a girl “transgender,” but they are not “liberal” enough to accept her as a young Butch or a Lesbian. In fact, their destructive enforcing of gender roles is not liberal at all, but extremely reactionary.]
Meanwhile, girls who accept femininity—the vast majority, unfortunately—are accepted as “real girls” and encouraged to take pride in their feminine ways. There are degrees of femininity, of course. Some Fem girls accept the complete emaciated drag-extreme Fem sex-object ideal while others take on just enough feminine identity to still be accepted as real girls. But, because of hets’ fanaticism about “real womanhood,” they do set a rigid line. Any female who refuses to make at least some concession to feminine requirements is over that line—that is, she’s denied the right to be called normal. Not only is she “not really a woman,” she’s pushed outside the bounds of normal society, which judges that it owes her nothing and has the right to destroy her. She’s become a danger to male rule instead of a saleable item in the het marketplace and/or a cooperative representative and promoter of male-defined “womanhood.”
Fem privilege is based on retaining a claim to that “normal” standing that Butches are completely denied. Even though Fem Lesbians are seriously oppressed as Lesbians, we’re still treated by hets as if we’re more like women than Butches are. Butches receive a more extreme version of hets’ insistence on seeing Lesbians as unnatural. When young Butch and Fem lovers are found out by angry het guardians, who gets the most blame and punishment? You know it’s not the Fem. The usual interpretation, as we all know, is, “That disgusting bulldagger shouldn’t be allowed around decent innocent girls.”
Because Fems, in varying degrees, fit more closely the male-created ideal of “real woman,” we’re more privileged than Butches, both in the het world and in Lesbian communities. Because Butches have rejected feminine conditioning more completely, they’re treated as being more queer, more suspect, more “unnatural.” (Ex-het Fems get more “normal” privilege than Never-het Fems, and ex-married Fems and mothers get even more privilege. An ex-het Butch and a Never-het Fem are in a position to oppress each other, but when they’re both Never-het or both ex-het, the Butch will be more oppressed than the Fem.) Hets don’t relate to Fem Lesbians with the same degree of vicious queer-hating. Even though we do get it, especially if we’re dressing and acting in a more Dyke-identified way, it’s never as bad as what a Butch gets. As is always the case with oppression, we’ve internalized these privileges and oppressions, so that Butches and Fems alike tend to treat Fems as if we are more “real women,” more deserving of care and attention. Meanwhile, Butches are viewed as being “male-identified.” What could be more insulting, untrue, and oppressive?
Feminine Lesbians Treat Butches As Non-Women
Some of my understanding about Butch oppression comes from how I’ve been treated by het women, by more feminine Fems, and by anti-Separatist Fems who think of Separatists as being like the worst sort of men. At those times, I’m treated a little bit as if I were Butch, as if I were very queer and not quite female. Not a nice feeling. While it’s happening it’s made me feel, in weaker moments, as if there might really be something monstrous about me. The effects of being viewed as unnatural go deep, no matter how much I know they’re wrong, no matter how strong I am—and I am strong and politically aware. It’s insulting and objectifying to be seen as being like your worst enemy—men—and to have your female reality and individuality denied. That’s the kind of thing that’s done continuously to Butches.
Fems seriously injure Butches when they believe and act on Butch-hating stereotypes. Some of those stereotypes are obviously negative ones: that Butches are abusive, dominating and insensitive, like men; that they oppress females, like men do; that they don’t understand real females; that they don’t experience female oppression; that they are obsessed with sex, like men are. Other stereotypes are claimed to be positive, but are just as damaging: that Butches have special erotic power; that they are mysteriously physically stronger and emotionally invulnerable; that they enjoy doing hard physical tasks and protecting Fems from danger and from unpleasant experiences. Believing any of these stereotypes is not respectful — it’s objectifying.
Many Fems falsely assume that Lesbians value Butchness more highly than Femness. That’s similar to class-privileged Lesbians romanticizing poor and working-class Lesbians and feeling sorry for themselves because they’re “the wrong class.” If you pay attention to how Lesbians actually treat each other, it becomes obvious that Fems are treated more like “real people,” “real women,” while Butches are treated as more queer, more in need of Feminism.
Women’s Liberation feminism is concerned with making heterosexuality more comfortable for heterosexual women. Why should any Lesbian want to support this heterosexist reformism which, of course, supports the male idea that femininity defines femaleness? Accepting that unquestioned male definition is why most ex-het Lesbians who came out in the WLM think that Butches are in a role, but that Fems are not. Like with other privileges, Femness is considered the norm. And of course it’s those with the privilege who have the power to define what the norm is. Butches are usually considered unfeminist by ex-het Women’s Liberation Fems and are accused of not being “woman-identified”—an indirect way of saying not “womanly.” This is insulting and oppressive, because they’re saying Butches are like our oppressors.
The fact is, Butches are more truly female-identified than the Fems who criticize them. It’s Butches’ rejection of femininity that offends these Fems. Never does it occur to such Fems that they themselves are the ones who need to become more female-identified, that is, more Lesbian-identified. The “womanliness” they value so much isn’t basic to female nature at all: Butches’ independence from male definitions is more truly female. Most ex-het Women’s Liberation Fems have been too arrogant, because of their het and Fem privilege and lesbophobia, to realize that it’s they who have something to learn from Butches who are lifelong Dykes.
I’ve met many ex-het Fems who, because of their lesbophobic assumptions about roles, think Fems are oppressed by Butches. When I asked one ex-het, ex-married Lesbian mother what she meant by saying she, as a Fem, felt oppressed by Butches, she answered that it was “an extension of how I was oppressed as a heterosexual woman.” This Lesbian is unfortunately far from unique in thinking of a Butch as another sort of man, and she’d been a radical Lesbian for years when she said that. Het attitudes and het privilege don’t vanish upon coming out, even after years of being a political Lesbian: they have to be recognized, analyzed, and consciously resisted just like other oppressive beliefs and behaviors.
The same Fems who think of Butches as oppressive imitation men also often romanticize Butches as lovers: wanting to be pursued and swept off their feet, wanting to be the one who is made love to and not caring to focus the same attention on her lover; wanting to experience the Butch lover as Other, as some kind of opposite, as mysteriously more powerful, stronger, braver. The honest admiration and respect that a Butch could arouse in another Lesbian, Fem or Butch, gets distorted into a het-like power game—an addiction to inequality, with the Fem in the power position and pretending not to be. It’s not honest, it’s not respectful, and it sure isn’t love.
There are also degrading eroticized anti-Butch attitudes which are accepted unchallenged among Lesbians, like the following description of a sex video advertised prominently in the May, 1985, issue of a local Lesbian/Gay newspaper: “For the lesbian s/m connoisseur — butch is taught a few manners in femme worship.” Anyone having a hard time recognizing the hatred in this ad needs only to substitute the name of any other oppressed group for “butch” and the corresponding privileged group for “femme” and feel what your gut reaction is. (The depth of Lesbian oppression is such that it’s often easier for us to react emotionally to an issue which isn’t particularly and solely about Lesbians.)
It’s wrong to exploit Butches’ courage and risk-taking, letting them do most of the work of maintaining Lesbian visibility and take the worst punishment from the het world, while they are used by Fems to celebrate the Fems’ “power to attract.” What about Fems trying to develop some of those Butch qualities they sometimes claim to admire? Many Fems have done that, but the trend toward femininity is eroding support for de-feminization and replacing it with strong pressure to feminize.
What about Fems recognizing our privileged and oppressive position? What about trying to stop the sexualizing of power imbalances? What about acknowledging that acting out of privilege is, of course, going to feel more comfortable, but that that doesn’t make it all right? That privilege is why many Fems are now saying “I enjoy being a Fem,” while Butches express conflict, soul-searching, discomfort, self-criticism and pain about their role.
Fems Who Think They’re Butches
Discussions about Butch and Fem identity often become confused because many Fems think they are Butches. Butches are a small minority, and there are many misconceptions about what true Butch identity is. So, many Fems are mistakenly assumed to be Butches, or believe themselves to be Butches, if they’re less feminine than other Fems. Some Fems who are also privileged in other ways, like looks, thinness and class, get positive attention from other Lesbians by playing at being Butch. They may be admired for managing to act “Butchy” without “going too far,” but they certainly don’t experience Butch oppression. There are also Fems who want to be like men and think that means they are Butches.
Then there are more oppressed Fems who get pressured into a Butch-like role and are objectified as sexual and emotional servicers by more privileged and more feminine Fems. When two Fems are lovers or friends, if one is more oppressed because of being darker, fatter, older, having less looks privilege, less ethnic or class privilege, less or no het experience, or being more Dyke Separatist, she’s likely to be considered the less feminine of the two, and therefore “the Butch.” This just adds to her existing oppressions. Her feelings won’t be considered to be as important or as sensitive as her lover’s, her lovemaking may not be reciprocated, and her lover may interpret everything she does through the distorted screen of lesbophobia, because “the Butch” in the couple is the one who’s considered more queer than her lover. She’s more likely to understand the nature of Butch oppression as a result of being treated like a Butch at times, although she’ll never experience as much Butch oppression as she would if she was actually Butch.
The Het Woman’s Uniform vs. Lesbian Identity
I’ve been criticized by Fem Lesbians who wear some form of Fem drag and want to know why I don’t “dress up,” why I “want to wear a uniform.” This offensive, militaristic male imagery is openly Lesbian-hating—they’re the ones wearing the male-approved feminine uniform. They complain about how terribly pressured they feel to wear Dyke clothes, yet in every case these Fems aggressively initiated talking about clothes. I don’t go around confronting Lesbians who dress feminine, nor does anyone else I know who feels the same as I do about this issue: we’re usually too busy defending ourselves against attacks on our lack of femininity. Meanwhile, I often hear feminine Lesbians praised for their “courage” in displaying their femininity. Where’s the “courage” in perpetuating male and het values?
One Fem, an ex-het, ex-married mother, gave me a lecture at my own kitchen table about how the “Dyke look” (Butch) is really a European-descent middle-class “uniform.” She claimed that racially oppressed Lesbians and poor and working-class Lesbians like to “dress up” Fem. (She herself is European-descent, working-class, protestant-raised.) For her, apparently, racially oppressed Butches and poor and working-class Butches either don’t exist or don’t count. Not to mention myself, sitting in front of her, a working-class Fem who hates feminine clothes and rejects the idea that Fem drag is “dressing up” in any positive sense — I also didn’t count.
Why do our critics assume I and other Dykes don’t know what a “uniform” is? None of us want regimentation. And why are the ancient, universal cultural traditions we’ve developed as an oppressed people shown such disrespect? Many oppressed groups of people express their cultural identity and recognize each other through wearing traditional clothes unique to them, with individual variation according to taste. People who invade others’ lands and suppress their cultures forbid traditional clothing as one of the first steps of genocide. Reclaiming traditional clothes is often one of the first steps in resisting cultural destruction. They’re worn as a statement of pride. Dykes wear Dyke clothing for similar reasons. Yet the same liberal men and women and het-identified Lesbians who’d never dream of attacking other peoples’ cultural style don’t hesitate to attack us for ours.
The clothes I and other Dykes wear aren’t the kind men designate for women. They’re clothes that are cheaper, sturdier, warmer in cold weather, less constricting and more protective—the kind of clothing that men would like to reserve for themselves. Wearing them is not only more comfortable and functional, it also makes it more obvious to anyone who sees me, including other Dykes, that I’m a Dyke. They also make it easier for me to defend myself if a male attacks me. My Dyke clothes free my movements to be more natural to myself, because they don’t require the artificial constraints that feminine clothes do: the smaller steps, legs kept together, restricted shoulder movements, the fussing with hair, jewelry, and make-up that we’re used to seeing in women. (When I refer to restricted body movement, I’m not talking about inherent physical ability. Whatever one’s physical ability, clothing can either restrict or allow maximum use of one’s body.) My clothes aren’t “male” clothes, they’re Lesbian clothes. They symbolize Dykes’ deep refusal to be men’s sex-toys. And because they’re forbidden to us, they also represent our refusal to follow men’s orders.
Those who understand patriarchal dress codes are aware that the seemingly more reasonable feminine slacks and blouses that many Lesbians accept still conform to male dictates. For example, if they weren’t specifically for women, feminine shirts wouldn’t be called “blouses.” This isn’t a word game—clothes designated for women have fewer pockets, are less well-made, and often more expensive. Even “unisex” clothing reserves better quality, convenience, and comfort for the men’s and boys’ versions.
I call feminine clothes “drag” because they’re a game-playing het costume. Het women’s lives are based on lies that are repeated and acted out so often that the truths about themselves as females and potential Lesbians are deeply buried. Het women are dead to themselves as true females as long as they choose to remain het. They don’t know what the needs of a female soul are, or they wouldn’t be het; they wouldn’t be nurturing their very enemy. Then why are so many Lesbians imitating het women? Or in some cases, going back to values they had when they themselves were het?
Hets often assume that feminine-looking Lesbians are really bisexual or het. I don’t think that assumption is 100% het ignorance. Feminine clothing, hair styles, behavior, obsession with dieting and with male-approved appearance are all forms of social communication that say, “I’m willing to please men,” or at the very least, “I accept men’s dictates in dress and behavior. I’m not as queer as a Butch. I’m really rather normal.” Generally, Fems can pass as het more easily than Butches. But Fems who reject feminine values and try to be visibly out are treated as more queer than other Fems. We’re in a position to be oppressed by Fems who are selling out, and we’re more natural allies for Butches.
Some Fems enjoy the fact that men and/or het women like their Femness. Some ex-het Fems are still caught up with male approval, even if it takes the form of thinking, “You men like what you see, but you can’t have me any more.” I’ve actually read that written by a Fem in a “Dyke” publication, and I’ve heard Lesbians talk that way. Lesbians who play those sexual games with men are making both the games and the men more important to them than Lesbian identity and solidarity. Other Lesbians use feminine clothes and behavior simply to make themselves safer from queer oppression, trying to blend in more with het ways. Whatever the reasons, it’s all at the expense of Butches, who by being the most blatant and public resistance fighters against heterosexist values, by not catering to het approval at all, become the targets for the most intense punishment from the het world. After all, if even other Lesbians (Fems) are willing to play that part of the het game—are willing to dress and change their bodies (dieting, shaving, altering their hair) as men dictate—that supports the het pressure on Butches to do the same, not to mention the racism, ageism, looksism, and fat oppression involved in doing those things.
Femininity isn’t a harmless diversion or form of self-expression. It’s not creative, it’s not “freeing,” it’s not daring or sexy. It’s just the same phony heterosexist crap. It means spending time, energy and money on nail polish, perfume, hair styles, dresses, diets, body-shaping exercises, poses and games; fantasizing yourself as the center of sexual attention, making everything into a sexual game, getting yourself further and further away from female reality, from real female Lesbian power. It means identifying more and more with het values and choosing to see yourself through men’s eyes. Shit, you could be that woman in the lipstick commercial: Just substitute a Butch Lesbian for the man that’s panting after her. If your lover or friend doesn’t want to play that game, you’ll teach her how much “fun” it can be. How much time and interest does this leave for forming truly loving Lesbian relationships, building strong Lesbian communities and fighting patriarchy?
I don’t understand the pleasure some Fems claim to get from feminine drag, but I know it’s connected to heterosexist privilege — that is, it’s het-created, het-approved, het-rewarded and anti-Lesbian. I don’t know why most girls accept feminine training when it’s possible to resist it as Butch girls do, but I do know from experience that Fem Lesbians have the choice and ability to recognize the lie for what it is and to reprogram ourselves. Our politics change our feelings about a lot of things. Think of certain movies or books you enjoyed before you became more politically aware — ones that disgust you now, because your gut feelings respond to your present knowledge. I feel that way about the feminine clothes I admired as a little girl. I feel angry about the clownish, yet sexually suggestive crap pushed on unknowing little girls — miniature versions of what adult het women wear to advertise their availability to men to be fucked.
Living with Integrity
Feminine clothes and games aren’t something that can just be tacked onto a Lesbian’s otherwise-political life without affecting her and other Lesbians in deeply damaging ways. Those feminine things began as, and continue to be, male-oriented signals and symbols. They’re the results of female submission and collaboration. We can’t transcend or reclaim them. They’re in no way neutral, they’re loaded with meaning. They’re actually masculine in the extreme. Any pleasure that’s gotten from femininity is enjoyed at the expense of Lesbians who are oppressed by it, especially Butches, who are made to feel like misfit minorities in their own communities. Fems reveling in femininity also oppresses Lesbians like me who’d feel miserable and degraded in feminine drag, and who’ve experienced the queer-baiting game-playing of extreme Fems. Fems who glorify femininity also make it harder for Lesbians like me to be understood and respected when we identify ourselves openly as Fem and discuss Fem privilege and Butch oppression. We’re less likely to be considered genuine Fems who know what we’re talking about. Not all Fems want to cultivate femininity. Many of us are resisting it wholeheartedly. We’re trying to strengthen our Lesbian identities, not weaken them.
Lesbians who dress and act feminine also make life harder and more dangerous for the rest of us in relation to the het world. They make blatant Lesbians an even smaller minority who are therefore easier to discriminate against, harass, scapegoat, and brutalize. It makes it harder for us to get and hold jobs, welfare or disability income, to be rented apartments, to attend schools, to get medical care, to go anywhere, to even just walk down the street. If all Lesbians were obvious Lesbians, we’d all be safer. There’s a hell of a lot of us, and we’d be a force to be reckoned with.
Most importantly, choosing to be an obvious Lesbian is about living with integrity. A Butch’s choice to resist femininity is the choice of a female who’s being true to herself, choosing to be as alive to her female self as possible, regardless of the punishments inflicted on her as a result. I find in that resistance a key to Dyke power, Dyke beauty and Dyke love.
The original version of this article was published in the Fall 1985 issue of the journal Lesbian Ethics. I have not updated it, except for one bracketed paragraph. Many thanks to Alix, my lover, for helping me revise it for clarity in 2011.
“Roles” = Butch Oppression
From the beginning of patriarchal rule, women who accepted the feminine role devised ways to manipulate the male oppressor through that role, as much as they could within the narrow limits of an oppressed position. What’s appropriate when dealing with the oppressor is, however, inappropriate and cruel when used against other Lesbians. It’s particularly cruel towards Butches, who are at the bottom of the heterosexist hierarchy.
Fems begin oppressing Butches in girlhood, which is why we have some of the same painful experiences with each other now as we did with other girls in the past. Beginning in girlhood, the most feminine little girls are at the top of the heterosexist hierarchy among their peers, and are already active in punishing Butch and less feminine girls through the many hostile games we all remember from our own pasts. They form exclusive cliques to ostracize and attempt to isolate the undesirables, and they ridicule the less feminine and the determinedly unfeminine. They slander less privileged, less feminine girls, deliberately damaging those girls’ chances for friendships and acceptance by others, and they show off their feminine accomplishments and attributes in ways that make everyone else feel clumsy and inferior.
These are the girlhood versions of extreme Fems. As Lesbians, extreme Fems don’t always wear extremely feminine clothes and trappings, though they’re the most likely to. It’s their behavior that most distinguishes them as extreme Fems. Because their femininity makes them more acceptable, more normal-seeming by het standards, and because most Lesbians have deeply internalized het standards, extreme Fems’ power and manipulations are seldom recognized as such. An extreme Fem usually has many friends and staunch defenders, some of whom are hurt by her over and over. Somehow she’s seldom perceived as being responsible for the pain, ruined relationships, and damaged political work she leaves in her wake. The Lesbian we knew who said, “It really is different with Lesbians than it is with men, isn’t it?” was an ex-het extreme Fem who left a swath of heartbreak and self-hatred among Lesbians she had manipulated and abandoned. Despite this minimal realization that Lesbians aren’t men, several years later, she’s still up to her old tricks, is considered very Lesbian-identified anyway, and still has friends who feel she’s a fragile soul who needs their protection. Lesbians don’t have to keep being vulnerable to this kind of heterosexist abuse from other Lesbians. If we can analyze and understand what’s going on, we can refuse to participate in it.
Although not all Fems are extreme Fems, all Fems do identify with each other as being other than Butch. This kind of bonding occurs within every privileged group, because there can’t be an in-group without an out-group, and it takes in-group cooperation to maintain the lie of superiority. That’s why a Fem who calls attention to Fems’ oppression of Butches, and is determined to fight that oppression, angers other Fems and is subject to their efforts to silence her. Fems who break Fem bonding get punished.
Even less feminine Fems always have the option of “pulling rank” and engaging in an occasional extreme Fem display, and many do so. The unquestioning, arrogant, smug assumption of superiority over Butches is an oppressive quality shared by almost all Fems, and that alone supports Lesbian-hatred among us to a degree that’s damaging to all Lesbians and devastatingly cruel to Butches. This is similar to how classist attitudes are ingrained in many class-privileged Lesbians. They may not consciously think they’re superior to poor and working-class Lesbians, yet they act condescending and authoritative.
The Original, Real Role Players: Men and Het Women
It’s men and het women who truly play roles. Their roles are so much a part of the dominant male culture that they’re taken for granted and considered to be natural. Men project onto females all of their own deficiencies (such as cowardice, illogic, inanity, dishonesty, treachery, and pettiness), and they push onto females an array of male-invented feminine mannerisms and styles that encourage weakness, dependence, submissiveness and general fuckability. Such is the role of “woman,” yet we’re supposed to believe it’s natural to want to mince along on stilted shoes, face masked with stinking, lurid chemicals, nails bloody talons, dieted-jazzercized-depilated-plastic surgeried bodies encased in exposing dresses, voices unnaturally high, gestures “cute” and aggressively flirtatious, and minds focused on pleasing men at any cost.
Meanwhile, men, who are raping female-kind, destroying life on the planet, and in quieter moments simply boring everyone to death, pretend exclusive possession of all valued qualities: strength, courage, nobility of heart, directness, honesty, wit, loyalty, intelligence, and independence. They also steal all comfortable, freedom-giving, attractive, and dignified clothes for themselves.
These are truly grotesque, exaggerated roles, reversals of reality, invented by men to maintain control over females, and accepted by their collaborators, het women. Lesbians don’t “play roles” like hets do. We’re not “like men and het women.”
The fact that male drag queens (including MTFs) can pass as women should convince all Lesbians that femininity’s not natural. Some models in women’s fashion magazines are reputed to be men in drag.6 Some drag queen entertainers have said they “make better women” than any woman could. [Interestingly, in 2011, many men claiming to be women are saying the same thing.] It’s possible that men’s wish for females to look feminine reflects their own secret desire for themselves and other men to look like that. We suggest that if men so love dresses, makeup, and high heels, they should all wear them. (Just don’t claim to be female.)
Question Fems, Not Butches
Feminine females, accepted and rewarded for cooperating with male dictates, are given the job of teaching and enforcing male-invented womanliness in other females. So het women praise femininity and punish resistance to it, on behalf of men. They protect men’s exclusive access to dignity, safety, comfort, and physical freedom. Fems, as part of the Fem role, carry on this policing behavior in Dyke communities to varying degrees, punishing Butches and pressuring us overtly or covertly to become feminine.
Asking why Butches are Butch is the same as asking why Lesbians are Lesbians.
This question treats the Butch as an alien, incomprehensible being in a side show, to be psychologically analyzed. It’s like Lesbians’ families asking, “What did we do wrong to make you that way?” — as if they deserve the credit for our turning out so wonderfully. It’s insulting, oppressive, and patronizing for anyone to say they know what “caused” us to be what patriarchy considers bad or wrong about us. It’s the old, standard, “some terrible thing must have happened to cause that girl to become a sick queer.”
The theory that we’re shaped only by forces outside ourselves denies that we have power to make decisions and be responsible for our own actions. Asking “what caused Butches?” comes from the attitude that Butches are “abnormal” and Fems are “normal.” For instance, some Fems become obsessed with thoughts of male hormones when they see a Butch with facial hair, and forget that just as many Fems have beards or shave, not to mention all the het women who’ve had electrolysis. Why don’t those Fems make the mistake of thinking of male hormones when they see very thin Fems with small breasts? It’s because lack of female fat is admired by men, and female facial hair isn’t.
The only approach that makes sense is to start from the conviction that Lesbianism is every female’s natural, inborn state and that there are relentless attempts to condition it out of us by the greatest propaganda machine in existence: the institution of heterosexuality. We should instead ask “Why do most females become het?” It then becomes obvious that Lesbianism involves not only love for females, but also resistance to, and rebellion against, heterosexual indoctrination.
Heterosexuality is a vast and complex institution, and heterosexual conditioning has many facets. In order to become a successful Real Woman, a girl must reject other girls and become feminine, het, wife, and mother (the latter two preferably, but not necessarily, together). At some time in their lives, most Lesbians choose one or more of those roles. Many were wives, and some are mothers; some chose to be het but resisted marriage and motherhood. Some are never het, but did accept femininity enough to fit in as “normal.” There’s certainly tremendous pressure to be feminine, but the fact that some Lesbians completely resist it makes it clear that it is a choice, in the same way being het is a choice.
If het women didn’t cooperate with the teaching to be het, all females would be Lesbians. Similarly, if no Lesbian accepted the teaching to be feminine, we’d all be Butch. Butches, like Fems, live in patriarchy. We’re not saying Butch is our natural state, but that it’s much closer to our inborn, natural state, and that only a small minority of little girls refuse to let go of their original female essence. We can’t know what we’d be like if we lived in a Dyke-only world but, in the absence of het conditioning, there would be no such thing as femininity, and we’d all be more similar to how Butches are now.
Although most Fems we’ve talked with say they don’t remember choosing the feminine role in girlhood, most Butches clearly remember rejecting femininity and being punished for it as early as two years old. We’re not trying to blame little Fem girls for making bad decisions. After all, we had no political support and couldn’t know the full meaning of our choices. We’re saying that Fems must stop scapegoating Dykes who refused the easier path of “normality” and who’ve been viciously punished for that. We’re saying that ex-het Dykes (both Fem and Butch) must now act responsibly about the consequences our choices have meant for Never-het Dykes, and Fems must face the consequences our choices have meant for Butches. Ex-hets and Fems shouldn’t wallow in guilt or self-recrimination—we should change our politics and truly support Never-het Dykes and Butches, who’ve been forced to pay for the acceptance we bought.
The Lie That Rape Causes Roles
“Lesbians who were raped when they were girls become Butch” / “Lesbians who were raped when they were girls become Fem.”
We’ve heard each of these contradictory theories from Lesbians who were trying to explain “roles” in the same way that Lesbianism is often “explained” by psychiatrists. The first lie reinforces the stereotype that it takes something horrible to create a Butch. It’s difficult to disprove since most Butches are victims of family rape and other assaults. The fact that most Fems also are victims makes the second lie sound plausible, but that’s also offensive because it implies that Femness is created by oppression and Butchness is created by having more privilege. The fact is that both Butches and Fems are attacked as little girls, as are most het women. To focus on one denies the experiences of the other, and obscures the reality that most girls are sexually assaulted.
Passing As Het
We have a responsibility to not pass for het, especially in places where hets are more liberal about queers. It’s privileged arrogance to throw away the chance to help build Dyke community by being out. Many Lesbians manage to look acceptable enough to men and het women to get jobs, yet are still recognizable as Dykes to the Dykes who see them at work. There are other choices that make it possible to keep a job besides looking like a drag queen extreme Fem. The Lesbians who go out of their way to look het get benefits from men and het women that are won at the cost of oppressing Dykes who are less willing or less able to pass. Meanwhile, many extreme Fems and het women eagerly dress up like drag queen extreme Fems, old sexist dress codes are reinstated, and both Fems and Butches who can’t or won’t pass are unable to get or keep jobs. (And yes, there are a few Butches who do try to pass as feminine for jobs, but they don’t really convince anyone.)
Lesbians who choose to pass as het sometimes act insulted and falsely claim to be “oppressed” if other Lesbians don’t recognize them as Lesbians. But it’s not safe for us to make that assumption about them. Lesbians exist in every culture in the world, and we find each other by looking definably different from het standards. Those of us who are clearly out are more likely to be disowned by family and het friends, evicted, fired from jobs, arrested by police, beaten, raped, and/or killed for being Lesbians. We face huge risks, but to be closeted feels like a form of suicide to us. If every Lesbian refused to pass as het, our tremendous numbers would make the world safer for us. And those Dykes who can’t pass, no matter how hard they try, would be in less danger.
It’s no coincidence that in every country we have information about, whatever the traditional local style, the look that’s forbidden to females is the same look that’s widely recognized as Lesbian. This is the appearance that’s reserved only for men, and is considered “cross-dressing” for females. Since it belongs to men, it is more dignified, practical, and comfortable that the styles that men demand women conform to.
One of the most common identifying characteristics for being a recognizable Lesbian is to have short, natural (neither permanented nor straightened, dyed nor bleached) hair. We mean the type of hair that even oblivious hets identify as Lesbian, not “crew cuts.” It’s Lesbian-baiting to act like being out means you have to adopt a ludicrous male military appearance. Critics of short hair accuse us of focusing on “trivial issues,” yet their outrage makes it clear that hair style is anything but trivial to them.
Femininity pressures women to be obsessed with their appearance in time-consuming and self-hating ways. And women pay an enormous amount of money to maintain feminine hair styles. Racist attitudes pressure racially and ethnically oppressed females with tightly curled hair to have their hair straightened, or at least made more loosely curled with burning, corrosive, carcinogenic chemicals. And, although the oppression is far less, females with more “acceptably” straight hair are sometimes expected, depending on current styles, to make their hair curly in order to be more feminine. Very few females have escaped having their hair drastically altered when they were little girls, so that they could “look their best,” and most have chosen as adults to alter their hair.
There are fashions which have been called “Lesbian” or even “Separatist” when they’re just another counter-culture kind of femininity. One of these is the “tail,” “fag tag,” or mullet, where the hair is worn short in the front and long in the back, either all the way across or with just a narrow section hanging down. This fashion is popular among Gay men (who originated it), punks, and now mainstream het men and women. It’s become so trendy that even young boys in nuclear families wear it. (By 2011, the mullet has become a mainstream media joke.) The Lesbian who has it may think she’s being blatantly out, but the style says, “I may be a Lesbian, but then again, I may be het or bisexual. Either way, I don’t want anyone to get the impression I’m a Dyke.”
It’s a symbol of rebellion against male directives for Lesbians to refuse to change the natural appearance of our hair and to refuse to grow it long, preventing men from easily grabbing it. It’s also a symbol of ethnic and racial pride for Lesbians to refuse to straighten their hair in imitation of northwestern European hair texture. Some racially and ethnically oppressed Lesbians wear their hair in longer styles that reflect their culture but still make it possible for themselves to be recognized as Dykes. They do this by wearing styles of hair and clothing that aren’t specifically feminine.
“P.C.” and “P.I.”
Politics that support femininity either assert that Femness is an oppression, which makes it difficult for politically responsible Dykes to argue against it—or they assert that femininity is simply a matter of personal taste and preference, which implies that anyone objecting to it would have to be a dictatorial powermonger. (No Dyke has the power to stop others from selling out. As the oppressed, all we can do is object.)
Heterosexist Lesbians aren’t usually content with being oppressive—they like to boast that they’re “P.I.” (“Politically Incorrect”). That way they can pretend they’re original, brave, and revolutionary, instead of passively conforming to male rule. Lesbians who admire and follow such male-defined politics as femininity, “Lesbian” porn, sado-masochism, passing as het, supporting “Lesbian” pregnancy, or protecting boys’ and men’s “rights” to be in Lesbian space often pride themselves on being “Politically Incorrect.” Those who protest the selling out are considered boring bullies. After all, it’s easiest to silence someone by turning them into a joke. Interestingly, these are the exact same tactics that European-descent men and het women use to ridicule anyone who protests the status quo, whether by fighting racism or objecting to people wearing fur coats made from the bodies of endangered species.7
The few truly brave Dykes who are fighting the patriarchal onslaught against our communities are treated as if we were in power, even though encouraging and supporting our Dyke looks and behavior is far less common in our communities than criticism of Out Dykes. This is a typical male mind-fuck. It’s the Lesbians who are following men’s directives who are “Politically Correct” in a male-run world, and they derive privilege from that correct role. It’s as if they came into radical Dyke communities wearing crosses and other right-wing symbols, saying, “We’re so brave to stand up to you all.” There’s nothing courageous in wearing the feminine uniform (whether the old conservative or the newer trendy styles), repeating the ancient heterosexist propaganda, and doing just what women are supposed to do in patriarchy.
These anti-political politics aren’t just anti-Lesbian—they’re usually oppressive in every other way as well, as this excerpt from a Lesbian personal ad shows: “Politically Incorrect and proud of it … 5’4”, 135 lbs, green eyes, platinum blonde hair, good-looking, very intelligent … Dislike: … stereotypical dykes … man-haters. Seek women who is: Caucasian, pale-skinned, slender, 25 to 30+, … physically fit … pretty … Okay if you wear a pound of mascara … The more exotic you are, the better.”
Who’s Calling Who “Male”?
Looking like a Dyke does not mean we’re trying to look like or be men. Dykes who aren’t trying to gain privilege by looking het are often mistaken for men or boys because we don’t look like men’s definition of “women.” Even Fems are occasionally called “sir” by hets if they’re wearing Dyke clothes, short hair, no make-up, no earrings, etc. Yet it’s Butches who are accused by Fems of “trying to be men.” Fems, as well as Butches, have sometimes tried to pass as men when traveling or out walking alone at night because it was far more dangerous not to. This is just common sense, and Lesbians often approve a Fem doing it, but not a Butch. Why the double standard? Something unfair is going on when there’s one standard for Butches and another for Fems. Feminists admire females who take traditional male jobs, especially “professional careers,” and don’t accuse them of “wanting to be men.”
Butches are clearly, visibly Dykes. We’re sometimes mistaken for men not because we want to be men, but because no one believes females should be so solidly, sturdily ourselves, the way men are allowed to be. And also, people are trained to just not think – Lesbians who refuse to look feminine shake most men and het women to their foundation. We frighten men, and we remind het women of whole other worlds of possibilities.
It’s ironic that many Lesbians who accuse Butches of “being like men” actually like some men. They just don’t think females have the right to be any of the positive ways patriarchy reserves for the male image.
Being taken for a man is deeply insulting and queer-baiting. It doesn’t mean that the Dyke is getting any male privileges or power. Butches live under female oppression as well as under the worst of Lesbian oppression. If Fems defend themselves against the “Lesbians are men” attack by explaining that it’s one of the many anti-Lesbian stereotypes, why can’t they defend Butches in the same way? Why can’t Fems understand that Butches get more of this treatment because Butches have always been the most obvious Lesbians?
Many Fems, particularly Never-het and other Dyke-identified Fems, are treated as more queer by extreme Fems. And even the most extreme Fems know what it’s like to be treated as perverts by het women. That gives them a little taste of Butch oppression. Any Fem who says she doesn’t understand at all what it’s like to be Butch reveals how much het privilege she has, and how much she considers Butches as Other, alien, and beneath her.
Butches are not like men. Butches don’t think, look, or act like men. Butches don’t have the privileges and power of men. In terms of the heterosexist hierarchy, we’re the least privileged of all Lesbians, and therefore of all women. Men, het women, and Fem Lesbians never treat Butches as if we actually were men, because that would mean giving us privilege. When they call Butches “male,” they’re being extremely cruel, smug, arrogant, dishonest, and oppressive. The Lesbian-hating of this stereotype is outrageous. Most Fems take part in this mass, community abuse of Butches, which has disastrous consequences, causing Butches emotional pain, deprivation, isolation, fear, illness, and death. [By 2011, there is a much higher percentage of Butches we’ve known who have died – way out of proportion to their numbers.]
Butches are treated as the queerest of the queers. In the patriarchal hierarchy, men are at the top, next are wives/mothers, single het women, celibate het women, next are bisexual women, then extreme Fems who emulate and identify with men and het women, next are Dyke-identified Fems, and finally Butches are at the bottom. (As we said in Chapter 3, this hierarchy is also affected by how long we’ve been Lesbians, when we came out, and past het privilege. Also, we’re in no way minimizing the significance of racial, ethnic, class, nationality, physical ability, fat, looks, and age oppression. Dykes who are oppressed in any and all of these ways are additionally oppressed if we’re also Butch.)
Just as, among Lesbians, the “normal” Lesbian image is a middle-class stereotype, the “queer” Butch image is often classist. When Butches are said to be “like men,” the image presented certainly isn’t that of the male lawyer, doctor, or business executive. It’s more likely to be the stereotype of a working-class truck driver who hangs out in bars, is uneducated, uncultured, rude, tough, cold, and violent. These aren’t just anti-Butch and anti-Lesbian lies, but classist lies as well. Meanwhile, the model for femininity is based on the upper-class WASP het woman ideal.
A few Butches may appear to have a fractional share of something that’s usually reserved for men, such as a non-traditional job, but the vast majority of females who’ve moved into such high-paying work are het; a few are Fem Lesbians. The very few Butches in those jobs are much more oppressed on the job, just as we are everywhere else. The only females who seem to have attained executive, upper-class positions as the heads of companies and high status in governments—often by being daughters or wives of powerful men—are, again, het women.
Butches who’ve tried to pass as men, or who are taken to be men, or who’ve done any or all of the things used to “prove” Butches are “male-identified,” don’t prove anything except that, in patriarchy, if you don’t accept the role of “womanly,” you’re labeled “manly,” whether you like it or not. Parents, relatives, teachers, and other girls who treat a Butch girl as an imitation boy aren’t causing her to be Butch; her resistance to femininity was chosen by her much earlier in life. What they’re doing is abusing her by refusing to acknowledge her as a female. She’s never given the privilege a boy has —she’s just treated as an abnormal girl.
In what way is a Butch girl thinking she’s “not a woman” different from adult Dyke Separatists and radical Lesbians rejecting the term “woman” for ourselves as a political act? (Except that choosing to reject a mis-definition is easier when you’ve had a chance to acquire a clear analysis and political support.) Can’t the young Butch’s early rejection of femininity be seen as an intuitive awareness that “feminine” usually means “heterosexual” and all the other disgusting things that go with it? Isn’t she instinctively realizing much earlier, and without political support, that all the outward symbols of womanliness and heterosexuality, and the internalized values that support them, also mean fuckable, dependent, unthinking, submissive, and ultimately passive? Young Dykes who perceive that crap for what it is and rebel against it without support, in spite of constant punishment, are to be admired and respected. That’s courage!
Because some Butches have bound their breasts, Butches are called “male.” In a world where men and boys stare and grab at females’ breasts on the street, making humiliating comments, it’s not odd that a Dyke would want to conceal and protect her body. Isn’t it more questionable to wear padded, push-up bras in order to elicit sexual attention from men – not to mention implants that destroy the immune system and which now many women are buying for their teenaged daughters, as well as other plastic surgery, to make them more sellable to men? Who but the truly male-identified would: wear apparatus that pushes her breasts out and up into men’s faces; ruin her back, pelvis, and feet by tottering about on high heels; squash her body into a girdle; painfully remove the fur on her body or face; wear make-up that looks like bruises across her cheeks or that mimics sexual excitement; poison herself and anyone within breathing distance with chemicals that disguise her female aroma; or wear a dress that exposes her body and makes her less able to escape from rape? Who else would deliberately starve and torture (“exercise”) herself to look weak, powerless, unfemale, and thin enough to please men? And who else would believe that looking so undignified and ludicrous is being “fashionably beautiful”? One Fem we know was on a local Oakland, California, television show about “Butch and Fem roles.” Even though Lesbians had in the past spent many hours explaining to her much of what we’re saying in this chapter, she wore het paraphernalia and make-up and explained she was a Fem because “I feel like a girl.”
Bev: Using make-up does males’ dirty work in other ways, too. Where do Lesbians think cosmetic chemicals come from? Besides the fact that most cosmetics are “proven to be safe” (which they of course are not) by torturing and murdering millions of animals, Lesbians don’t usually consider what it’s like to work or live near cosmetics factories. I have a higher risk of developing cancer or liver disease because of growing up a half-block from such a factory. My working-class neighborhood was daily subjected to the nauseating, caustic fumes that literally blistered the paint off cars. It’s no coincidence that factories are built only in poor and working-class areas.
Studies have shown that in the U.S., 884 ingredients used in cosmetics have been reported to the government as “toxic substances.” Of these, 314 are reported to cause biological mutation, 218 to cause reproductive complications, 778 are capable of acute toxicity, 146 are reported to cause tumors, and 376 ingredients cause skin and eye irritation. But the U.S. cosmetics industry is a 17 billion dollar business so, “… there are no inhalation tests to determine perfume safety, only skin tests, and neuro-toxic effects are not examined.”8 [These quotes are from 1990. It’s much worse now.]
The Lie That Butches Bond with Men
This is a particularly offensive stereotype, considering that men are Butches’ enemies. Many of the Butches we’ve known haven’t ever been friends with men, while many of the Fems we’ve known have. Why are the few Butches who are friends with men focused on, when it’s het women as a group who literally, physically, bond with men? What of their collaboration? Het women are intimate with men in ways that no Lesbian could ever be. They welcome men into their bodies, and create and nurture men. Some even collaborate with males in the beating, abduction, rape, and murder of other females. If any Lesbians bond with men, it’s more likely to be ex-het Fems than Butches. Many ex-het Fems maintain close relationships with ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends. Ex-het Fems are also more likely to become bisexual or return to being het. Of the many Lesbians we’ve known who’ve gone het, all were Fems, and almost all had been het. Men and hets are more comfortable with Fems than with Butches, because that’s how they want us to be: the more Fem and het-identified a Lesbian is, the more comfortable patriarchy is.
Butches as Sexual Objects
One of the major stereotypes of Butches is that we objectify Fems. This again compares Butches to men, when the reality is that it’s usually Fems who sexually objectify Butches. Butches are more likely to take the risk of initiating being lovers than Fems are, which is courageously Lesbian. When Fems appear to be more aggressive, they’re often in fact trying to get the Butches to do the initiating. A Fem at a Lesbian forum said about coming out, “You don’t go with men, after you grew up thinking you would. Then you let a woman touch you, and that’s really scary.” What goes on in a Lesbian’s mind when, rather than talking about coming out through desire to love and touch another female, her focus is on letting a Lesbian touch her! This is a common attitude—the Fem is the one who is loved, and the Butch is the one who loves. The way some Fems come on to all Butches and ignore other Fems sexually is similar to the way many het women flirt with all men and ignore other females. It’s also similar to the way men objectify females, viewing them only as things to be used for sexual conquest. It’s personally and sexually invasive to assume Butches welcome this impersonal and inappropriate attention.
One Butch we know was approached at a party by a Fem who’d recently come out. They worked together and there’d been no sexual interaction between them. Our friend thought of this Lesbian as just an acquaintance. Suddenly the Fem said, “Put your hand on my breast.” The Butch was stunned. She had no interest in touching this Lesbian in any way. She felt verbally molested, but presumably was supposed to feel flattered. Another Dyke we know was in a bar when a Fem she barely knew and wasn’t even in a conversation with deliberately rubbed her bare breast across our friend’s arm. These tricks must have worked with men in this Lesbian’s past.
When a Butch and Fem become lovers, the Butch is more likely to make love to the Fem than vice-versa. Some Fems never reciprocate their lovers’ passionate attentions. Many do, but often not with the same intensity and focus that they enjoy from their lover. Is it any wonder that some Butches become reluctant to accept lovemaking from Fem lovers, when all have experienced rejection, indifference, and half-hearted going-through-the-motions? It also doesn’t help that many Fems are attracted by the stereotype of the “stone Butch,” without any awareness that Fems have created and maintain that stereotype for their own benefit, and that it causes a great deal of pain to Butches.
Many Fems want to believe that Butches get something out of inequality in lovemaking. Some Fems even insist that a Butch doesn’t need to be made love to because the Fem’s orgasm mysteriously causes her Butch lover to have an orgasm at the same time! (Wryly referred to by a Butch friend as “the Phantom Orgasm.”) Again, Fems are perceiving Butches to be some kind of man. After all, don’t men prefer to be the active partner in sexual encounters with women? Doesn’t it give them power over women? But Butches are not men. (In Aotearoa, Dykes sarcastically refer to Fems who don’t make love to their lovers as “flat-on-their-back-fairies.” Fairy is an Old Dyke word from Aotearoa for Fem. In the US, the term is “pillow queen.”) What is more hateful and cruel than making your lover feel that you can’t beat to touch her? Is this a woman who can be trusted to be a Lesbian?
Femininity teaches women to imagine themselves the center of sexual attention, the alluring flower meant to attract rewards from excited, attentive, and loving admirers. Of course, that’s het fairy tale crap. The het woman’s costume and perfume are meant to attract men, and men’s attentions are far from loving. Most Fems don’t want to attract men, but many have internalized that image of themselves as an alluring center of sexual attention, and they simply substitute Butches as those they want to attract.
But Butches are not men. We’re females, we’re Lesbians, and our lovemaking has absolutely no connection or resemblance to men fucking women. A Butch focuses her attention on her lover’s pleasure, and her lovemaking is a way of creating strong emotional, psychic, and spiritual intimacy with her lover. Men don’t make love — they use women’s bodies to masturbate themselves and to establish dominance over them — they fuck women. The physical realities of the two activities are completely different. Considering the profound emotional, psychic, and spiritual differences as well, comparing Butches to men in intimate sensual relationships is glaringly illogical and insulting.
It would be more accurate to say that, in many cases, a Butch making love with a Fem is similar to a Lesbian making love with a het woman. The most het-identified Fem’s lovemaking is like a man’s — her focus is on her pleasure alone, with no concern for her lover’s. When she does touch her lover it’s with the intention of “fucking” her and dominating her. It’s the most insensitive, harsh kind of Lesbian lovemaking. The Butch is set up as The Queer, and her female needs and desires — physical, mental, emotional, and beyond — are ignored, because she’s not perceived as being female. Does this sound like a safe situation for a Butch to say, “I really want you to make love to me the way I make love to you, even though a lifetime of queer and Butch oppression would make it hard for me to believe you really meant it”? Not likely. So, many Butches have accepted being “stone Butches” out of loneliness and desperation, and have given up on ever finding equality and real love.
Some Fems are pushed into unequal lovemaking by lovers who are more Fem. These Fems experience some of the pain, frustration, humiliation, loneliness, and self-hatred that unreciprocated passion creates, and they can understand from that what Butches go through all the time.
Passive Fems Avoid Their Own Lesbianness
By being lovers only with Butches or pushing Fem lovers into an oppressed Butch role, a Fem can avoid her fear of her own Lesbianism. When a Lesbian initiates making love to her lover, she directly faces the fact that she’s a Lesbian. But if she’s made love to and doesn’t reciprocate that love, then she can feel less queer. In fact, by being passive in Lesbian intimacy, she is less queer. That makes her lover “the real queer.” This is especially true of Butches but also affects Fems in the Butch role. The common het stereotype of Lesbian couples is that one is “the real Lesbian” (the Butch) and one is a het woman who’s been forced or seduced into the relationship by the Butch. This oppresses Butches, not Fems.
Fems who are involved with Butches and do nothing to fight the oppression of Butches go along with that stereotype whether they mean to or not. When they go out into the het world with their lover, they’re not thought of as being responsible for the relationship — they’re perceived as het and temporarily involved with a Lesbian instead of with a man. As insulting as this is to the Fem, it’s far more insulting and dangerous to the Butch. This unequal situation can be avoided only if the Fem takes equal responsibility for being a Lesbian and for being in a lover relationship, which means acting and looking like a Dyke.
Think about how het women flirt with us, act scared of us, believe and spread Lesbian-hating lies about us, patronize us, treat us like perverts or as if we’re stuck in a childish state” — that’s how many Fems treat Butches. Many ex-het Fems have said that it took them a long time to come out because they met Butches and were terrified, so they went back to men. Now, that’s really taking responsibility for yourself! Weren’t they scared of men? Why not?
While many Fems are passive because of irresponsibility, some have much more destructive motives. Some Fems who lived with or married men when they were het actually want their lover to be in a “male role.” They may push their lover to act like the ex-husband/boyfriend, to make love in a way that feels like fucking, because they haven’t stopped thinking like men’s women. Since Butches have much less social power than Fems, particularly ex-het Fems, they’re vulnerable to being pushed around by them, including being forced into the Fem’s fantasies — especially since part of the Fem role is authoritativeness toward Butches. For example, it’s usually male-identified ex-het Fems who talk about liking to be “fucked hard” and who like their Butch lover to use a dildo. An Old Dyke friend recalls, with pain and anger, being made to feel “like a walking dildo.” She tells of the countless times such Fems have said to her, “I’m a Lesbian at heart, but my body is still heterosexual and wants a prick.” We believe that this is clearly what dildo use is about. Instead of experiencing the exquisite sensation of your lover’s body or her feeling yours, a silicon prick is used instead. You can certainly feel more by touching and being touched, so the only reason we can think of for using an object that is in the image of what rapes and is imitated in weapons from guns to nuclear missiles is simply lesbophobia/Lesbian-hatred.
When a Butch is told all her life that she’s not really a woman, and is taught to hate herself, is it surprising that she would take a “real” woman’s word for what women like in lovemaking? Some of the ways Butches are stereotyped come not from the ways Butches look or act, but from the fantasies, desires, and pressures of het-identified Lesbians. These are the ex-het Fems who, when they talk about “past lovers,” include men. These are the Lesbians who came out for reasons other than their love of females. They “just happened to fall in love with a woman this time,” or they want power over others that they can’t get with men, or they want to play out a male-pornographic fantasy. (Most Lesbians we’ve known who like to read porn have been Fems.) By never making love to their lover, but only being made love to, Fems like this can fantasize they’re really with a man. Then they turn around and accuse their lover of being “male-identified”! It’s horrible that Lesbians like these, who operate totally out of male and het values, and fuck over Lesbians, are accepted as nice role-free Lesbians while Butches and, to a lesser extent, Dyke-identified Fems, are persecuted for their Lesbianism, by other Lesbians.
Fems sometimes ask, usually with hostility, “Well, why are most Butches lovers with Fems, then? And how come lots of Butches admire feminine Lesbians?” The answer is internalized oppression. It’s not unusual for other kinds of oppressed Lesbians to be attracted to Lesbians from more privileged groups. For instance, some working-class Lesbians are lovers only with class-privileged Lesbians. Resistance to femininity comes at a high price — total lack of support — which breeds self-doubt and self-hatred. In that situation, the more privileged and acceptable are always more highly valued than those who remind you of yourself, and you gain a little protection from oppression by getting their friendship and approval. Also, Butches are in a small minority, so we meet more Fems. Some Butches do succeed in becoming lovers with each other, and those we’ve met have said that theirs was the most equal relationship they’d experienced, and that they’d been able to help each other nurture self-love. However, Butches who are lovers with other Butches are harassed by both Fems and Butches, including being lectured to that they should be with Fems and that they aren’t “real” Butches or are less Butch than the “real” Butches who are with Fems. Sound familiar? Lesbians are told that “real” women are with men.
Extreme Fems are often remarkably callous towards Butches and Dyke-identified Fems. Many Dykes have experienced extreme Fems’ het-style sexual games, but they can be very difficult to confront. Extreme Fems’ sexually suggestive comments and jokes can seem like harmless play. An extreme Fem commenting on the vulval appearance of food or flowers may be considered charming, while a Butch saying the same words is likely to be called “sex-obsessed.”
Any Dyke who directly asks an extreme Fem if she’s flirting is also likely to be called “sex-obsessed.” Meanwhile, the extreme Fem gains popularity through manipulation, pretending attraction to Dykes she’s not interested in. She may “accidentally” rub her breasts or pubic region against a Dyke or place her knee between the legs of a Dyke while dancing, her manner clearly flirtatious. The Dyke may feel vulnerable and confused, wondering, “Am I imagining this? Does this mean she’s attracted to me? If I respond with interest, will she deny what she’s doing?” The extreme Fem will very likely respond with surprise, feigned fear, ridicule, or anger.
This type of covert sexual manipulation borders on molestation, because it’s an uninvited invasion of physical boundaries that’s done in order to gain a power position. It’s especially harmful to family rape victims or any Dyke who’s had her reality repeatedly denied. Yet this intrusive Fem seductiveness is admired by many Lesbians, and falsely thought of as “sexual honesty” and “being daringly out,” when it’s nothing more than the way “liberated” het women act with men. Lesbian sexuality should be genuine, Dyke-loving, and egalitarian.
Extreme Fems often set up competition by flirting with several Dykes at the same time and then enjoy being fought over. They may also maintain power by stringing along several lovers at once without giving any their full attention, acceptance, or intimacy, and then harassing their hapless followers for their reasonable jealousy.
The Lie That Butches Are Tough, Closed, Mean, Violent, Unemotional
Every Lesbian has to be tough to survive. We’re threatened and attacked, verbally and physically, because we’re Dykes. The more out we are, the more likely we are to be attacked, especially physically. Even when we’re not being overtly attacked, we’re stared at, made to feel like outcasts, and are the objects of angry, disgusted, hating, patronizing, leering, or ridiculing looks. Even if no male or het woman is being horrible at a particular moment, we’re still constantly assaulted by a het, pornographic, male world, with male fetishistic fantasies of females in store windows, on billboards, and in all the male and het media. A Dyke can’t be all fluffy and sweet, with a soft, open face, when she’s walking through a virtual mine-field. Fems also have to protect ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and psychically against this assaultive het world, although to a lesser extent, and as a result could be accused of being “mean, closed, and tough.” When Butches are similarly self-protective, our behavior is used to prove male lies about Butches being “hard.” Yet the het world is much more hostile and dangerous to Butches, especially to those who are further oppressed by racism, anti-Semitism, ethnicism, classism, ageism, ableism, fat oppression, and looksism.
It’s a basic political principle that it’s not all right for those with more power to stereotypically label those with less power. A Fem who accuses a Butch of being “suspicious,” for instance, should ask herself instead what it is in her own behavior that the Butch has reason not to trust. There’s plenty, if the Fem is doing nothing to fight Butch oppression, and is making the usual assumption that it’s the Butch with “the problem.” Treating someone as “abnormal” is an excellent reason to not be trusted. Fems treat Butches this way all the time, with very rare exceptions. Butches have more than enough reason to relate to the general world with great distrust, and we also have plenty of reason to not trust Fems the way things are at present in Lesbian communities. While Butches are frequently and publicly insulted in Lesbian publications and elsewhere, with almost no one speaking out in our defense, we would be most unwise to completely trust Fems.
Butches are told we’re “unemotional, tough, and cold,” because we’re not Fems. These accusations have very little to do with what each individual Butch is actually like. Fems, being feminine, are perceived as “soft, vulnerable, and emotionally expressive,” which is often far from the truth. Fems aren’t “oppressed” by this womanly stereotype — they’ve chosen to live it because of the privilege it gives for appearing to be “normal women.” In reality, Fems are more often tough, mean, and less genuinely emotional than Butches are. It’s tough, mean and closed to act oppressively to Butches. Extreme Fems who won’t even try to be close to other Fems, and who try to make Butches fill all their needs, are especially emotionally distant. Fems who’ll only be close to lovers or Lesbians they’re attracted to are impossible to be friends with.
Extreme Fems sometimes behave in stereotypical feminine ways by throwing scenes, screaming, using tears to manipulate others, and generally acting like drama queens. This doesn’t prove that Fems are “open” and Butches are “closed.” Throwing scenes isn’t real emotion—it’s pushing other Lesbians around, intimidating and silencing them by using theatrical power plays or cruel outbursts that show no consideration for other Lesbians’ feelings. These displays are learned behavior, deliberately used for effect. It’s not from being genuinely upset, which all of us feel sometimes and need to express. The same Fems who use tears to manipulate other Lesbians are likely to ignore or ridicule a Butch who cries. That is the more male behavior.
None of the Butches we’ve met conform to the “tough, closed” stereotype. Butches are often more present, warmer, and more emotionally supportive than many Fems. We’ve met as much or more genuine warmth, sensitivity, and willingness to deal honestly with feelings among Butches as among Fems. Butches’ solid Dyke identity gives them a personal realness that no amount of femininity will ever confer. To be more Lesbian is to be more true to our natural female selves, while to be less Lesbian-identified (more het-identified) is to be further from our real selves. The further you are from your real self, the less capable you are of being honestly direct, and the less capable you are of being really close to another Lesbian.
Portraying an entire group of Lesbians as all having the same characteristics is objectifying and denies individual personalities and differences. Just as there are many sorts of Dykes, there are many sorts of Butches. As long as Fems are projecting stereotypes onto Butches, Fems will never be able to truly communicate and be close to us. This is the Fems’ failing, not the Butches’! It’s also the Fems’ loss, and the Butches’ oppression.
There’s also a stereotype of Butches being drunks, which reflects the common stereotype of Lesbians as alcoholics. In our experience, recovering alcoholic Butches are more likely to be open about being alcoholic and having stopped drinking than Fems. This makes alcoholic Butches more visible than alcoholic Fems, of whom there are many. This stereotype is also used against many other oppressed groups, since using alcohol and drugs is a common way of trying to cope with oppression.
Unfortunately, being bombarded with hatred causes self-hatred. Many Lesbians end up believing Lesbian-hating lies. They may think they’re queer because of emotional or hormonal problems. Some Butches believe the same. A few may even agree with Butch-hating lies, but no one should use Butches’ internalized oppression to believe the lies. No Dykes should be repeating those lies any more than they should repeat stereotypical lies about any oppressed group. Saying, “But some Butches are like men,” is like saying, “But some working-class Lesbians are dirty, lazy, stupid slobs.” Just because someone says something derogatory about themselves or about someone else doesn’t mean it’s true.
Butch Oppression Hurts All Dykes
No matter how often the stereotypes of Butches in particular, and Lesbians in general, are proven to be untrue, the lies are still spread, and damage is still done. Why? Because Lesbians are the only threat to the world-wide rule of patriarchy, and Butches are the most obvious of Lesbians — the Dykes who most clearly refuse to cooperate with male domination of the world. Why do Lesbians themselves participate in the male assaults on our resistance struggle? One of the reasons is that patriarchy is based on hierarchy and inequality, divide and conquer. Females are split up into many different groups and taught to be antagonistic, ridiculing, and hating towards anyone who’s beneath them in the het hierarchy. We learn this as little girls in our schools, families, and religions. Part of the conditioning to become “real women” is being taught to police and bully other girls on behalf of the male power structure. That’s why even young girls can be so cruel to anyone who is different.
Why is it that het women, who exemplify the feminine ideal, are perceived as “emotional, loving, open, soft, and expressive”? It’s because they get close to, are open to, and love males. As a group, they sure as hell aren’t that way with Lesbians. The feminine stereotype is a lie. Het women are closed emotionally, because they won’t be intimately open with other females. Lesbians, especially Butches, are falsely stereotyped as “closed” because Lesbians are not available for intimacy with men. No matter how intimate and warm we are with each other, we’re still called “distant, closed, emotionally frozen,” because closeness between Lesbians doesn’t count—only loving men and boys (especially sons) is counted as “feelings.” Individual het women can be as cold and vicious as they like, but as long as they’re a wife and mother, they qualify as “gentle, warm, feeling,…womanly.”
Of course not all het women act hateful. We know some who are dear friends and allies, but still, het women as a group operate this way and all benefit from institutionalized privilege.
Non-Separatist Lesbians, though they don’t hate and avoid men like Separatists do, still don’t fuck with men. That’s basic to Lesbian identity. No matter how nice non-Separatists are to men, they’re still viewed by men and het women as the mean, hard Lesbians of the stereotypes. Even more so are Separatists, who are so “cruel and harsh” as to have the guts to perceive men as the rapists and murderers they are. We supposedly “lack compassion” and are “hard and vicious” because we hate males, while rapists and murderers are the objects of universal womanly loyalty, and love. Het women breed, feed, clothe, clean for, fuck, love, and support those rapists, and so are considered “loving, natural, open, and womanly,” instead of being accurately perceived as the Lesbian-hating, female-hating collaborators they really are. Meanwhile, Lesbians who dare to challenge het women’s hatred towards us are called “woman-hating” or “misogynist — the lie of reverse discrimination.
The world we live in calls hatred and cruelty “love,” while calling courage and wit “cruelty.” Lesbians, especially Butches, are set up by men to be the universal scapegoats for male crime. Understanding this makes it clear why we’re stereotyped as harsh and mean. Stereotypes should always be analyzed to find out who they profit — then we find out why the stereotype exists. That’s more important than picking apart every individual component of each stereotype. Once we grasp why it exists, the entire body of lies automatically loses credibility. So whenever a Fem is tempted to treat a Butch as the stereotype, she should realize that, whether she wants to or not, she’s doing it on men’s behalf. Hopefully that will make it clear to her that she must stop. If she refuses to stop oppressing Butches because she doesn’t want her own Fem privilege to be threatened, she should realize that her actions are ultimately supporting men to go on abusing herself as a female and Lesbian.
Butches need to become more aware of Fem privilege and Butch oppression, not in a self-hating way, but by realizing how we’re oppressed and by caring about the oppression of other Butches. Part of that means developing solidarity with other Butches and unlearning the Lesbian-hatred that leads to valuing Fems more. The old pattern of being attracted to and falling in love with manipulative, game-playing, “attractive” extreme Fems doesn’t hurt only ourselves, it hurts other Butches as well. It’s essential to not fall for the thrill of Fem flirtation that has no love or real caring behind it. That also means fighting the urge to be trusting and protective of Fems who are actually being oppressive to you or others. For some Butches, that means changing a lifetime of believing that the most feminine Lesbians are the most female-identified. It means being true to your own self and to all Dyke-identified Dykes, Butch and Fem.
Dyke-identified Fem friends and lovers can be true and trusted allies to Butches, as the authors of this book prove. Reacting with rage towards all Fems doesn’t help fight Fem privilege. It can make things worse, as well as being unfair. Dyke-identified Fems shouldn’t get the brunt of a Butch’s lifetime of very understandable anger about Butch oppression. Extreme Fems usually make sure they’re not around to deal with any of it. It also doesn’t help to insist your lover is Butch when she isn’t. (Both Butches and Fems do this.) Dyke-loving Fems can love and support our Butch friends and lovers best by supporting and encouraging their resistance to Butch oppression, and by rejecting femininity.
Lesbians who haven’t challenged their internalized anti-Lesbian attitudes are less able to be emotionally open and intimate with other Lesbians, because of the fear that Lesbian-hatred causes. Real intimacy with Dyke friends and lovers requires acknowledgment, acceptance, and pride in our Lesbianism. Dyke joy and intensity, love, and well-being are our rewards. To remain lesbophobic is to leave in place barriers to intimacy that no amount of therapy or drugs can ever get rid of. Only Lesbian-identified politics, which means really caring about other Dykes will remove those barriers.
1 Our politics about Dyke Separatism, strong Dyke-identity, and Butch oppression made an international Dyke connection for us and is how Linda and Bev met Ruston.
Ruston: From when I came out, I was aware of a feeling of “similar” or “opposites” in Lesbians’ friendships and lover relationships, including my own. However, I still believed “roles were in the past” and denied Butches’ existence. But several Lesbians courageously came out to me as Butch over the years, and as my understanding of Lesbian (including Never-het and Old Dyke [Lesbians who came out before the Women’s Liberation Movement]) oppression grew, it became clear Butches were oppressed. Even while recognizing I was a Fem, I found that the game-playing of other Fems badly affected me. I met no-one who shared these politics until reading Bev’s article “Roles: Butch and Femme” in 1982 in the Lesbian Insider/Insighter/Inciter (U.S.A.).
Bev: In the U.S., with the support of a few other Separatists, including my best friend Linda, I came to the same conclusions. I wrote an article in the original Lesbian Insider/Insighter/Inciter about roles (No.5, Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 1981). Even though I presented the topic in a cautious, exploratory way, the article was met with hostility by many Lesbians. Ruston, who was also a Separatist, saw my article and wrote to me to share support. Ruston dared to say that she knew that Fems were in the privileged position in relation to Butches, which supported my and Linda’s ideas.
Linda: By 1983, I was alarmed by the increase of overt femininity and Butch-hatred among “radical” Lesbians, and by the resulting pain and damage to Dykes I love. I wrote an earlier version of what is now Part II of this chapter, “The Big Sell-Out: Lesbian Femininity,” which was printed in Lesbian Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall, 1985. Together the three of us wrote the sequel, (which was partly based on an unpublished article of Ruston’s), printed in Lesbian Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall, 1986, as “Heterosexism Causes Lesbophobia Causes Butch-Phobia,” now incorporated into Parts I and III of this chapter.
2 Coming Up, San Francisco, California, November 1988.
3 Tracy McDonald, review of “Behind the Curtains,” off our backs, 17:8, Aug./Sept. 1978, 19.
4 Elena Popp, “First Encuentro of Feminist Lesbians,” off our backs, 18:3, March 1988, 32.
5 De Clarke, “Femme and Butch: A Readers’ Forum” Lesbian Ethics, 2:2, Fall 1986, 96.
6 Wilson Key, Media Sexploitation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 24-26.
7 Tony Bizjak, “The Hip Social Manifesto: New Dictums of the ‘Politically Correct.’” San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 1989, B3. Bizjak includes a list describing “P.C.” versus “P.I.” positions, ridiculing people who say “Persons of Color” rather than “minorities,” and “Asian” instead of “Oriental.” He says it’s “P.C.” to have a “housemaid named Bob” rather than a “housemaid named Maria,” to be for “affirmative action” instead of claiming “reverse discrimination,” and to be for “animal rights” instead of “animal deaths.”
8 Research by Karen Stevens, The Reactor, A Publication for the Environmentally Sensitive 4.1, Jan.-Feb. 1989, (P.O. Box 575, Corte Madera, CA 94925, U.S.A.), 2.