Butch dikes…please explain. I’ve known and worked with a few, and I view them as another man. But, when it comes to the lesbians that love them….what’s the difference between a very masculine woman and a slightly effeminate man? Other than the obvious plumbing?

Thanks for the question, Carl.  Before I start, this is a good time for me to remind everyone that I’m not an expert, per se.  I am a lesbian, but I don’t have a degree in gender studies, and I’m not a doctor of psychology.  What I have to say comes from my own experience, or the experience of friends, when noted.

Let’s take a minute and flip the script.  Is there a difference, for you, between being married to a woman or a flamingly effeminate man?  Even someone who dresses in women’s clothes?  Someone with long hair and a soft body?

The plumbing is pretty important to me, and I’d wager it’s pretty important to you.  What we’re talking about here, though, more than sexuality, is gender norms.

I’ve said for a long time that it’s not the sleeping with people of the same sex that gets the gays into trouble, it’s the messing with gender norms.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “which one of you is the boy?”

For me, the answer has always been, “neither,” but the fact that I keep getting the question shows that there’s an expectation that a relationship will have a male-acting partner, and a female-acting partner.  Even if both partners are the same sex.

Let’s break down your question:

I’ve known and worked with a few [butch dykes], and I view them as another man.

Do you really?  Or do you view them as capable workers, equal to doing the same job a man would.  Do you work in a field that is traditionally dominated by male workers?  Women in those types of jobs, whether gay or straight often act in a manner similar to their male equivalents, either out of physical necessity, or out of social necessity.  Women doing construction work will develop the same muscles as men, and it wouldn’t make sense for a female construction worker to show up to a job site in a skirt.  Even long hair can be a safety concern.  Equally, it’s a heck of a lot easier for her to relate as “one of the guys” than to be seen as the wife or girlfriend or secretary, or anything secondary to her male counterparts.

Even in law school, women were generally and directly instructed to emulate men when interviewing for jobs, inasmuch as we should lower the pitch of our voices – but not too much – to appear stronger, more masculine.  (The lesbians, however, were instructed to become a bit more feminine.)

But, when it comes to the lesbians that love them….what’s the difference between a very masculine woman and a slightly effeminate man? Other than the obvious plumbing?

I think that you actually hit the nail on the head.  The obvious plumbing is the difference.  It makes all the difference.

You see, I want to be with a woman, physically.  Even if that’s with a strap-on and a pair of motorcycle boots.  When it gets down to brass tacks, it’s the plumbing that matters in the sexual part of the homosexual relationship.  In the emotional part of the relationship, it matters, too.  But even if the gentle, tender emotional side of a woman is something I might be able to find in a man, it wouldn’t be enough for me.  I would still want to be with a woman.  And a woman who sees herself as a woman.

Gender expression can get a little sticky, because there are so many variations that can occur.  What does it mean, exactly to be a woman?  What does it mean to act like a woman?   Does it mean having long hair?  Wearing dresses?  Cooking and cleaning?  Having children?  Does it mean tending a garden, and liking to knit.  Does it mean having large breasts and a big collection of shoes?

Some women like wearing suits, and some like wearing skirts.  Some like ties and some like scarves.  We are as different as any group of people o this planet.  Some women identify as “butch” because they feel most comfortable in their skin when they’re wearing work boots.  That makes them no less a woman than those who prefer the term “femme” and a case of lipstick.  It doesn’t change their gender – just their gender expression.

For example, I have short hair.  Sometimes extremely so.  I also play softball, wear fairly androgynous clothing, love a good pair of motorcycle boots, and enjoy knitting as well as gardening and cooking.  Most of my friends would say that my expression tends to the butch side, though I think I’m darn close to the middle.  My head is turned far more often by girls with short hair and jeans hanging on athletic builds, than women in skirts and heels.   But that’s not the case for everyone.  We all have different tastes – for ourselves and for the women we’re attracted to.

I think there’s something generational going on, as well.  The butch/femme dynamic seems much more common in older generations – that is to say older than me.  For a long time, there have been no real visible role models for gay people.  Books and movies and popular culture have been devoid of our presence, except in specific, formulaic ways.  So we had to figure out what it meant to be in homosexual relationships outside of any real community.  It makes sense that we would emulate our parents, our grandparents, and everyone we saw portrayed around us.  It makes sense that it would be more accepted for two women to be together in a familiar-looking situation.   If most relationships consist of one male partner and one female partner, it’s not a far leap to say that there are two definitions of a lesbian:  one male-acting, one female-acting.

It’s clear, however, that things have changed from a binary definition of what it is to be a lesbian to a nearly completely open definition.

I had it easy, really.  Yes, I grew up in Idaho, which was not the hotbed of lesbian community that you might expect, but I still had people like Martina Navratilova, and Ellen, and a few other women to look to.  And gay-straight alliances started popping up when I was in college.  In a safe environment, I was able to explore what a lesbian relationship might look like for me.  And I quickly discovered that it wasn’t a butch/femme dynamic that interested me most.  My definition was softer, more fluid, as were the definitions of many of the women around me.

And now, the youngest generation of queer kids not only explores what it is to be gay or lesbian, they also explore what it is to identify as a man or woman, or as both or neither.  Each day.

Again, this is my experience.  The butch/femme dynamic is so cliché, and such a part of the psyche of the lesbian community that some people have careers based on it.  It’s a handy shorthand, and a punchline, but in the end, a woman gets to define herself in whatever way she likes.  And no matter what she wears or how she acts, the expression of her gender makes her no less a woman.  At least, in my eyes.


1 Tracy Llanos { 06.09.10 at 12:28 pm }

This is wonderfully written, Kristin – love that you’re doing this!

2 Kenda { 06.09.10 at 12:29 pm }

Wonderful response my dear!

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