What do the terms “butch” and “femme” mean?
First of all, let’s talk about labels. In the LGBTQ community, labels can be both beneficial and harmful. For a lot of people, labels are too specific to capture their fluid identities. A recent survey found that 20 percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ, but don’t consider themselves “gay”, “lesbian”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “man” or “woman”. In other words, more than one label is required to adequately describe an individual’s gender and sexuality – so why have these labels in the first place?
While they certainly create boxes, labels also create community. They allow a person to identify with others who are similar to them, and help create a frame of reference that fosters a sense of understanding among those who aren’t. But it’s important to use labels correctly and respectfully – and that means understanding what they mean.
The terms “butch” and “femme” emerged in the early twentieth century as a way to categorize the most prevalent identities among lesbian women. It can be argued that the question, “who’s the boy and who’s the girl?”, often directed at lesbian couples, stems from this era.
Femmes are lesbian, bisexual, and queer women who identify as what’s considered “traditionally” feminine, emotionally and/or physically.
Butches are lesbian, bisexual and queer women who identify as what’s considered “traditionally” masculine, emotionally and/or physically.
While many women today embrace these labels, it’s impossible to escape the limitations and generalizations that they present. It was originally thought, for instance, that women who identified as butch lesbians were attempting to replicate men, but this is very much not the case. They’re simply challenging the norms our society has put in place by presenting themselves in a way that’s different from what’s expected of them as women. Femmes, on the other hand, are often accused being “too straight” – a statement that successfully demonstrates not only the shortcomings of labels, but the shortcomings of our language itself.