Paige Schilt

Butch is Back? When Did Butch Go Away?

Filed By Paige Schilt | September 06, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: butch, butch/femme, lesbian history, Rachel Maddow, Village Voice

In the middle of the summer--on the day I was leaving for vacation, in fact--Bil Browning, our illustrious editor-in-chief, put an article on my virtual desk. It was the cover story for the Village Voice's queer issue, titled "Rachel Maddow, the New Sexy: the Butch is Back, with a Poster Girl."


Throughout my summer travels, I tried, unsuccessfully, to get this article out of my mind. But I can't seem to let it go. Thanks a lot, Bil.

It's not just because the author, Winnie McCroy, looks to TV producers and straight people as the arbiters of dyke culture. It's not because the article repeatedly evokes the stereotype of butches as "mullet coifed" man-haters who see "men as the enemy."

No, what irks me most is the way that this article--and loads of other trendspotting articles about the "new" butch--get queer history wrong.

According to McCray's lesbian history timeline, there was a dark, pre-Stonewall time when butch- femme reigned "as a survival strategy." Post-Stonewall, there was lesbian feminist androgyny, "a brief [butch] comeback in the 80s and early 90s, when lesbian activists donned Dickies and Doc Martens and took to the streets to protest," then Ellen, The L Word, and The Rachel Maddow Show.

In a way, I understand why McCroy's history of butchness has to be so shallow: if she fully acknowledged the complex, intergenerational nature of butch history, then she wouldn't have her hook. The story relies on a contrast between the "old," unfashionable, separatist butch and the "new," metrosexual, TV-friendly butch.

But a good hook is no excuse for bad history. And subcultures especially need our histories as a source of identity and identification. Sharing this history, which is evolving, is one of the ways that we build community, learn from our past, and envision our futures.

And the complexity of butch-femme history is a hell of a lot sexier than what you see on TV.

Picture-7.pngThanks to my wife, I'm connected to a family of butches that stretches across three generations. They've been recognizing each other, mentoring one another, sharing butch skills and wisdom, since the 70s. And, contrary to McCroy's assertion that butches of the 80s and 90s were "unconcerned with appearing glamorous," each has a distinct sartorial style. One of the objects that they've passed down from one generation to the next is a piece of furniture called a "gentleman's valet," which combines a rack for hanging crisply ironed trousers and shirts with a red upholstered cushion where a butch gentleman might pause to don some stylish shoes. Or polish some shiny black leather boots. Sigh.

Trendspotting articles about the "new" butch usually miss older generations of butch style. They also leave out the intellectual tradition of butch-femme writers, musicians, filmmakers, and performers. As a young femme, reading writers like Cherrie Moraga and Sue Ellen Case allowed me to begin to recognize my erotic self and to claim an identity that was not easily available in mainstream pop culture.

Hoping to share the richness of this history, I asked some friends to help me make a timeline of butch cultural production. We focused on the eighties to the present. Although you wouldn't know it from watching The L Word (or reading McCroy's article), there's actually been a consistent richness of butch and butch-femme cultural production over the last twenty years.

This list is non-comprehensive and personal. I'd love it if readers would add their own dates, artifacts, and icons.

1983: Cherrie Moraga publishes Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios.

1987: She Must Be Seeing Things (film)

1988: Sue Ellen Case publishes "Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic" in the journal Discourse. Dorothy Allison publishes the collection Trash.

: Phranc releases I Enjoy Being a Girl on Island Records.

1992: Joan Nestle publishes the edited volume The Persistent Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader.

1993: Leslie Feinberg publishes Stone Butch Blues.

1995: The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (film)

1996: The Watermelon Woman (film)

1997: Peggy Shaw debuts Menopausal Gentleman (performance).

1998: Sharon Bridgforth publishes The Bull-Jean Stories.

The Butchies release their first album, Are We not Femme?

Judith "Jack" Halberstam publishes Female Masculinity.

1999: Del La Grace Volcano and Judith "Jack" Halberstam publish The Drag King Book.

2001: By Hook or By Crook (film)

2003: J.D.'s Lesbian Calendar and Lynnee Breedlove's Godspeed.

2004: Le Tigre releases the butch anthem "Viz" on the album This Island.

Mind If I Call You Sir (film)

2005: Toshi Reagon releases Have You Heard? on Righteous Babe records.

2006: Alison Bechdel publishes Fun Home.

2007: Felicia Luna Lemus publishes Like Son.

2008: Ramble-ations, a one D'Lo show, has its L.A. premiere at Highways.

: Shunda K and Butch County rock gaybigaygay.

Super thanks to my friends, Mary Grover, Abe Louise Young, Kim Alidio, KT "el shy butch" Shorb, Mocha Jean Herrup, J.J. Martin-Hinshaw, Alex Barron, Taueret Manu, and Katy Koonce for their suggestions.

Photo of Rachel Maddow from

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When did Team Gina release "Butch/Femme"?

Thanks for this, Paige. What many butch lesbians consider the erasure of butch identity has been a concern for several years now, at least in the communities I know, and this highlights the need to recover a history.

There are, as I'm sure you know, on occasion, troubling moments when that anxiety about losing the history and the reality of being butch has manifested itself in transphobia, leading to some extraordinarily painful conversations. I haven't yet figured out how to have those conversations move in a productive manner. Sigh.

A lot of communities confuse butch and femme identities with masculine and feminine ones. And many butch signifiers are also male signifiers; many female signifiers are also non-butch signifiers.

For trans butches, this gets even more complicated. A butch in trans spaces may be mistaken for a trans man. In trans spaces and cis womyn's spaces alike, her butchiness may be mistaken for residual masculinity, with an unwillingness to fully accept herself, with an unwillingness to properly explore her identity, etc. It can still make it harder to deal with gatekeepers.

I am wondering if my in-between identity - more butch than femme, but still partly femme - would be considered part of that erasure? I don't want my identity to challenge yours. From what I've heard and read, pre-1970s lesbian culture could be hard on those of us in the middle. We need something which opens things up for people all along the butch-femme spectrum, and for people who move along it.

Hey, Yasmin, have you checked out the film Mind If I Call You Sir? It's a documentary with roundtable discussions between Latina/o butches and FTMs that touch on some of the issues that you raise about butch/FTM community relationships, identity, style, history. I think it's a really unsung treasure.

I tend to assume that identities are multiple, fluid, shifting--but still charged and urgent. For me, it's not contradictory to identify as femme, dyke, bisexual and a bunch of other things as well...or for someone (like my wife) to identify as butch and genderqueer and trans. To me, a butch history can be inclusive and evolving in terms of who is named by it. But I know that some folks experience these boundaries and categories as much more rigid.

For me, I'd rather think of butch history and style as productive and inspiring, even for folks who may not identify as butch or for whom butch was a "just stopping through" kind of place.

Hey, Paige,

I'm with you on multiple, fluid, and shifting identities and came into queerness with all of that seen as a given, at least in my circles - so I'm always taken aback when some lesbians express that kind of anger (and it is very real, sometimes vicious, anger) towards trans identities (and that's not to occlude the fact that "trans" can itself sometimes mean a very fixed idea of gender identity/performance). Interestingly, they seem more threatened by MTFs than FTMs. Anyway, all of that's just based on the (very difficult) conversations I've had. And I could be wrong, but I think the ire generally arises from lesbians approaching 50 and above. Which is not to say that all lesbians in that category feel the same way, of course, but there does seem to be a palpable generational attitude.

My tactic has been to try and understand where they're coming from - I get that a lot of lesbians, especially butch lesbians, who came of age in the 60s and 70s really had to struggle in different arenas - from workplaces to personal lives. AND I get the sense of anxiety about erasure in a genderqueer world. But I don't get the outright resentment towards MTFs in particular. I think it's transphobia, but I also don't know if it's always just simply that.

Oy. So I'm glad to hear about Mind If I Call You Sir?, which I'll check out. And I'm with Marja on "We need something which opens things up for people all along the butch-femme spectrum, and for people who move along it."

One thing that was really helpful in terms of airing and examining tensions between butch and FTM communities was a "town hall meeting" for dykes and FTMs at Gender Odyssey a few years ago. I wonder if they are doing that this year? Perhaps someone who is there right now can report?

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 7, 2009 1:47 PM

there does seem to be a palpable generational attitude.

Yasmin, interesting you'd say this. That's my "cohort," although I was at least a decade behind them in all of life's transitional events. I lived as a dyke from 1982-1989 in San Francisco, before coming out, first as bi then as FtM. At the time, among women I knew, butch/femme was considered "passé," which I believe left a lot of butch/femme women feeling confused, rejected, or even oppressed by their own community. The big "community issue" in the early 80's became AIDS, which many women threw themselves into on behalf of their "gay brothers," leading to resentment on the parts of some because gay men did not return the favor with breast cancer, which was a significant issue then as now. Also, S/M was a big issue among women. (Remember that?!) Even light S/M was publicly condemned among "more respectable" lesbians, viewed (officially, at least) as embracing internalized sexism and oppression.

Trans didn't impact the scene in a big way in the women's community in SF, I'd say, until the late 1990's, when a proliferation of identities, from "boi-dykes" to full-blown, post-op FtMs swept the ranks--especially among queer-identified, college-educated women in their 20's. Butch/Femme then regained popularity among the young, too. Even as this movement was forming, a schism broke out in the early-to-mid 1990's among FtMs which may have partially been along generational lines..."Straight-identified FtMs" broke away from gay and queer-identified (or queer friendly) FtMs, going so far as to start their own support group based in the East Bay. By the late 90's/early oughts, the SF support group, from what I heard, became composed predominantly of folks who didn't necessarily want to transition in a "traditional" way, with both top/bottom surgery and hormones, but preferred a partial combination or, in some cases, transition in name alone.

I'm not sure why I'm going into such detail, but I think it's significant that the generation you identified was on the cusp of this explosion of rapid, radical, confusing, contradictory, and messy changes which I, for one, embraced. Kind of like catching a wave. But not all my cohort felt inclined to surf: for various reasons, they dug their heels in, feeling their identity depended on more concrete, traditional definitions. To them, the confusion and deliberate blurring of gender and sexual lines was threatening.

Some may still feel betrayed by dykes, like me, and butches who transitioned; and fearful/mistrustful of MtFs. After all, the latter had or still have phalluses; and the former want them. Thus, they can't be trusted. The extreme version of this paranoia is Janice Raymond, who is on the leading edge of the cohort, in that she turns 60 this year.

Thanks, Brynn,

That helps a lot - and is jogging my memory as well. Oh, yes, I do now remember the anti-s/m politics! And tearing my hair out after reading Janice Raymond...

I agree with you, even with the best of intentions, with any historical exploration if it does not come from a participating member, you are bound to miss something thank you for factoring your perspective

1994: Team Dresch releases album "Personal Best"
1996: Set It Off (film)
2007: Team Gina releases "Butch/Femme" single and music video

This may be a stretch, but how about...
1961: West Side Story's "butch" character Anybodys

Andy Sandberg at SNL could probably do a good impersonation of Maddow --- if he hasn't done so already and I missed it.

Somebody call Lorne Micheals --- I've misplaced his number.

Ok, I may stumble over things as I am doing something very unusual for me and venturing into a space I am very much uninformed on.

First off, thank you, Paige, for the article. I enjoy stuff like this on a personal and even professional level.

It may have inspired me to dig more into the internal stuff and history of butchness myself.

Which might strike some as odd, given I'm not only extremely femme but also quite straight (well, to the best of my knowledge).

Surprisingly to me, I'm familiar with some of those hallmarks you listed.

And, in my personal privilege, never noted their importance as understandings of butchness.

Tells me I have a great deal to learn.

Fortunately for me, I like learning.

The subject has always had an interest to me, though, as I always saw myself as a sort of butch gal, and, indeed, when I started transition, I anticipated becoming butch.

I was wrong, but the interest remains.

Excellent thread to read. As I was glancing at the publication index, I realized that I had almost every one of them sitting on my book shelf. I agree that the true history must be preserved. For me, at my tender age of 52, the L Word hasn't a clue to what the term butch embodies. To wean it down to "who wears the pants in the family" does so much injustice to the whole subculture that exists. Someone once gave me a button that said, "I am a dyke; that's why I look like one." There was an ugly time in the early 80s when Lesbian Feminists scorned, no, vilified the true Butch-Femme relationship. Sad to say that the youngsters today can't really appreciate the sacrifices that were made pre-Stonewall.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 7, 2009 12:13 AM

identities are multiple, fluid, shifting--but still charged and urgent. For me, it's not contradictory to identify as femme, dyke, bisexual and a bunch of other things as well...or for someone (like my wife) to identify as butch and genderqueer and trans.

Paige, as usual, you said it so well!!! I couldn't agree with you more.

It's slightly different, but my doorway into this way of looking at the world is that I identify as both a mom and a man. I refuse to chose one; they are both too integral to my life and who I am. If other people can't handle it, that's their problem. The world being what it is, I just have to be careful they don't try to hurt me or my daughter.

Life became a lot easier and more satisfying for me once I let go of trying to enforce rigid categories and definitions for myself and everyone else, be they related to gender, sexual orientation, race, age, etc. I only wish I had more people around me also inclined to do so.

But aren't we past labels like "butch" or "femme?"

For example, in ENDA we're fighting for inclusion of "gender identity" and not just for trans people, but also those feminine men or masculine women who don't conform to the public's idea of what a man is or what a woman is.

By highlighting our differences, aren't we just reinforcing the "You are outside of the norm" theory? What does it matter if a woman wears lipstick, rides a Harley or both?

I understand there's historical context to consider, but the same can be said of slavery, sexism, and the Ford LTD. They all had their heyday, but that's long passed.

Bil, I understand what you're saying, but I still maintain that identities like butch and femme don't have to be exclusive or restricting. I think identities can be a source of pleasure and community without necessarily being about enforcing strict boundaries. Identities can be contingent and intersectional. I identify as femme some of the time, but it's not always the identity that's at the forefront, and it doesn't keep me from identifying with or being in coalition with people with different identities.

Besides, I think that libidos rarely follow a kind of humanist, let's not focus on our differences, logic. I mean, would you ask bears to move past all the labels they create to name different desires? When I say that identities are productive, I mean that--in part--they are productive of desires. And that's a very queer thing.

For examples of intersectional articulations of identity, I'd point folks to The Femme Sharks Manifesto and artist Allyson Mitchell's Deep Lez statement.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 7, 2009 12:46 PM

identities can be a source of pleasure and community without necessarily being about enforcing strict boundaries.

Exactly! That's not to say that there is not a deep source for the identity, nor that it's not integral to who a person is.

But it does mean you don't use the identity as the foundation of discrimination, hatred, or exclusion.

Excellent discussion, Paige!

Lewis Brightheart Headrick | September 7, 2009 10:14 AM

This article helped me to remember that, as a young man, the modeling I did on the style of masculinity I admired was from the butch guidance counselor at high school and the strong women in my family. The rough exterior presented to world and internal tenderness towards loved ones, were where I fled after being assaulted by a cop, and seeing the shutdown emotional world of men. I've joked that, now in my mid-fifties, married to a woman and with sons and granddaughters, that the only people that present more butch than I do are just few lesbians. But in that jest is the deeper truth, the velour clad boy and tender loving single parent had to borrow suitable armor to fend off the barbed attacks against my manner of being who I was inside.

2005: The Aggressives (film)?

Awesome timeline! I think its fantastic to begin this discussion.

I don't know if Rachel is bringing butch back, but she sure is bringing sexy back!

Another addition to this timeline

2009: Butch Voices Conference - Oakland, CA

Butch Voices is a grassroots organization dedicated to all self identified Butches, Studs, Aggressives, other similar identities, and their Allies. We, at Butch Voices, feel it is important to bring together our diverse communities, build bridges, make connections, and use our collective voices to gain better understanding of each other and promote positive visibility.

Who We Are
We are woman-identified Butches. We are trans-masculine Studs. We are faggot-identified Aggressives. We are noun Butches, adjective Studs and pronoun-shunning Aggressives. We are she, he, hy, ze, zie and hir. We are you, and we are me. The point is, we don’t decide who is Butch, Stud or Aggressive. You get to decide for yourself.

Mission Statement
To provide education, community support, positive visibility, and cultural activities to all self identified Butches, Studs, Aggressives, their allies, and the general public.

Attendees range from ages 16-73, with a multi-racial focus, multiple ethnicities, presentations, identities, pronouns, sizes, abilities - all represented.

Panels covering a wide variety of topics from checking our internal misogyny, butch burlesque, creating black fe/male masculinity, flirting, intergenerational panel, and more. Keynotes included Jeanne Cordova, S. Bear Bergman, and Malkia "Mac" Cyril. Performances, social networking opportunities, heartshares, and real community building. It was truly a transformative space for those who attended and need this type of support and community.

Check out the website for more information.

Joe LeBlanc
Conference Chair
Butch Voices

Oh, how I've missed these timelines since class! :)