Life Gender Butch? Please.

Butch? Please.

I’ve lived in Edmonton on and off for the past nine years. I’ve been a lesbian the entire time. But it’s only been six months since I officially joined Edmonton’s queer community. One random day in April, I decided enough was enough and I (cautiously) marched into the Pride Centre for a Women’s Social Circle dessert potluck. It was an intimidating but worthwhile experience. I met a lot of gay women that night, and I have met many more since then.

I consider my gaydar to be decent. Had I met these women under different circumstances, my rainbow alarm would have gone off for at least half. I am sure most people would agree with me when I say that the butchy lesbian is the most visible. She fits the stereotype we’ve all been taught to watch for… short hair, boy clothes, no makeup, no airs. She is easy to spot.

Recently, I’ve been made aware of a phenomenon called “femme invisibility.” This is where the girlier, make-up wearing, shoe loving ladies feel unnoticed by their fellow gay dames in bars and clubs and other potential hook-up situations. A friend once lamented to me that women never hit on her because they can’t tell she’s a lesbian on first glance. She told me that she enjoys hanging out with groups of obviously gay women because that is one way she can show the world that she is fair gayme.

I found this fascinating and surprising. Before I knew any (other) lesbians, I hadn’t really contemplated this point of view. I hadn’t given much thought to how different the “femme” experience must be from mine.


I don’t really think of myself as butch, but I am starting to realize that others see me this way. Last week, someone actually used the word “butchy” to describe me. She has gleaned this from the cues I mentioned earlier – I have shortish hair, and I tend to wear unisex or boyish clothes and no make-up. I walk like a lumberjack. I’m tall, and I’m thick, and if I wanted to wear heels, I’d have to borrow a pair from a drag queen. I understand why people interpret my appearance as they do. I just don’t think they’re seeing the whole picture.

A few weeks after my first visit to the Pride Centre, I found myself having brunch with a lesbian I had just met. (Clueless noob that I am, I didn’t realize I had agreed to a date, but that’s a story for another time.) Our conversation meandered into some interesting places, and at one point we talked about the butch/femme dynamic. I was told that, for all its fabulousness, and for all its badassery, Alberta’s queer community is still kind of traditional-minded. I was told that the butch/femme binary is taken more seriously here than in other provinces. As an “outsider” from the east coast, I had never considered that notions of gay identity might differ from place to place.

Just after Brokeback Mountain came out, I saw an interview with Jake Gyllenhaal, where he was relaying some of the things people were saying to him about the movie and his role. While discussing the relationship between the two main characters (Jack and Ennis), a viewer was asking Jake to define which of these two was the “man” in the relationship and which was the “woman.” And Jake’s response was, to paraphrase:

“Neither one of us is the woman. That’s the point.”


I wholeheartedly share this view. In my ideal relationship, neither one of is the “man.” There is no man. That’s sort of why it’s awesome.

It sucks to feel like you have to conform to stringent butch/femme roles that were modeled after antiquated gender roles. It’s even worse to know that not fitting neatly into either category means you’re an outsider in a group where you were finally supposed to be an insider.

I’ve not only been told that I look butch, but I’ve also been told that my appearance means certain assumptions will be made about me. To fulfill a tradional butch role, I am expected to pursue rather than be pursued. I am expected to ask women out, pick them up, take care of them. I should be confident and strong, and ready and willing to deliver an ass-kicking to protect my woman.

Friends, this just ain’t gonna happen.

I am a clumsy introvert with no car and minimal self-confidence. Any hint of even a verbal confrontation is enough to make me cry like a little girl and run in the opposite direction. And I would probably trip while running away, because see above re: clumsy.

It’s not really fair to expect the butchier girl to ask the femmier girl out. It implies that femmes are prizes the rest of have to work for. The world already rewards the girlier-looking lesbians for better adhering to society’s expectations for women. Validation as a woman in this world often feels like a struggle to earn. Now I have to earn dates, too?

Obviously, women on both sides of this coin have their problems. I’m not saying femmes have things easy – in fact, they experience unique challenges that I am thankful not to have to deal with. But I don’t like the idea of the lesbian community reinforcing a sexist stereotype – that a girl who looks like girls are “supposed to” is a brass ring; something to aspire to. Something above us.


She gets to sit back and wait to be flirted with, and I’m supposed to sack up and put myself out there. I have to think of something clever to say. All she has to say is yes or no.

The person answering the question always has more power than the person asking.

As I said near the top of this article, I don’t really think of myself as butch – at least, not in spirit. In my mind, lesbian identity is a spectrum, not a dichotomy. I have masculine traits, and feminine traits, if we insist on labelling them as such.

I don’t wear make-up, but neither does my (very heterosexual) mother. No one ever taught me how to put on make-up, but even if they had, my sensitive skin would probably not abide it anyway.

I feel self-conscious in dresses because I am built like a giant rectangle. I wear comfortable shoes and clothes because I like being comfortable. I can assemble IKEA bookcases like a champ, but don’t expect me to fix (or even identify) a car’s alternator.

I’m useless in a bar fight, but I’ll give you my coat if you’re cold. I’m not a great provider, but I can bake and I always give thoughtful Christmas gifts. I probably wouldn’t make a very good boyfriend, but I am certain I will be an awesome girlfriend. And if superficial reasons and expectations are the reason I am single, well, that just sucks.

Femmey girls of the world, I implore you. Buck tradition, get off your chairs and do the asking.

I am likely to say yes.

6 replies to this post
  1. Both my wife and I are pretty femme. We got married in Edmonton two years ago. Not all of Alberta is like this.

  2. Really great post, Mo – well written and very thoughtful.I’m glad you pointed out the fact that “lesbian identity is a spectrum, not a dichotomy.” As with any social construct, it’s so easy to forget this and allow heteronormative ideologies to unconsciously place individuals in boxes to try to make sense of this crazy world. Even for this gal sometimes …

    Interestingly, although I feel I fall more towards the femme side of the lesbian identity spectrum (I love any reason to get dolled-up), I can only think of one instance where I’ve ever been pursued by another female. And I’ve dated many a lady. It’s become the norm in my mind to be the pursuer, because I know if I wait to be pursued I could potentially be waiting forever. It seems futile. Mind you, I have clear ideas of what I want in a partner, and I’m your typical type A go-getter by nature … But rest assured, there ARE lipstick-loving, dress-donning ladies out there who buck the trend and feel more inclined to do the chasing than be chased.

    • Thanks for this insight, Kate Effing Fury! I find this news encouraging. Obviously none of us can see the whole picture on our own, which is why sharing our interpretations with each other is so important.

  3. Hey Moseph – another stellar post. And sack up? You totally win everything for that line :-).

    I understand what you’re saying about being categorized one way or the other. Back in the day, I tended towards more of a butch look, but with my own feminine twists (I do love shiny things, and tend to wear a lot of them). I heard a term once, I believe from Elvira Kurt – fellagirly. That’s kind of how I think of myself, which I believe I’ve shared with you. I look more typically feminine, and I mentioned my affinity for bling. I also cannot put IKEA (or any other DIY items) together, and I don’t like getting dirty. But I’ll hold the door open for you, send you flowers, put my coat down over mud puddles, and defend your honour if you’re being threatened (probably would involve a lot of girly slapping, but still).

    Essentially, I think we all gotta do our own thang. For some women, that may mean prescribing to the butch/femme binary, and for others, that may mean something in between. As long as we’re happy with who we are, does it really matter?

  4. I’m from the states, femme and in a Butch/ femme relationship. Both my girlfriend and I enjoy the almost role playing feel of this dynamic. Which plays itself out as her wearing boy clothes and opening doors, working on my car and in most respects, for lack of a better term, being the “man”. On the street we present as a very stereotypical butch/femme couple, and while I love every ounce of butchiness, I do not forget that she is a woman. She loves to get flowers, and she cooks far better than I do. Behind closed doors our dynamic is very fluid. She describes herself as a “butch princess” and I am totally a “femme prince”. I make a hell of a boyfriend. 😉

    It’s lucky that we found each other. In other dating scenarios, I have found women to be too ridged in their chosen role. I have always been attracted to feminine masculinity. There is an amazing piece called Why I love butches that sums up my feelings perfectly. But to your point…

    Do not despair. I am about as femme as it gets, and I typically do the asking. My experience is that butchier women are a shy bunch, and prone to staring without doing much more. For all their “swagger” they are just as afraid of rejection as anyone. It doesn’t help that I present as straight and so they are afraid to talk to me. I have dealt with the “femme invisibility” all my life. (I’m 31) So I guess I learned early that they weren’t going to come to me, or hell, even notice me, regardless of the fact that I flirt shamelessly. They think I’m just being “nice”. Ha! So I ask, and my femme girlfriends do the same.

    The way your describe yourself is so very much like my girlfriend. For years she felt “too butch to be femme, and too femme to be butch”, but THAT is exactly what I was searching for. And there are others like me. I’m sure your dream girl is just around the corner, and when the time is right.. she will do the pursuing. 😉

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