What is butch? Traditionally, in lesbian culture, the word ‘butch’ refers to a woman whose gender expression and traits present as typically ‘masculine’.
Being butch is about playing with and challenging traditional binary male and female gender roles and expressions. The contemporary Western idea of butch gained a formal identity in 1940/50s American underground lesbian bars, where the butch/femme dynamic both mirrored and subverted the expected gender norms of mainstream society.
Yet butches have been around, challenging societal understandings of gender roles, across cultures and throughout history.
Butch is not just one thing, as most queer cultures across the globe have their own variation of the term specific to their own social context (such as location, race and class). Some of the more recognisable terms include: Masculine of Centre, Stud, Boi, Soft Butch, AG, Dyke, Stone butch, Daddy, Tomboy, Camionera, Futch, Stemme, Top.
Butch can mean many things to other LGBT subcultures as well, but today, to talk about what butch means to me, I’m looking at it as a cis lesbian woman.
Being butch isn’t just about clothing and presentation.
But being butch isn’t just about clothing and presentation, it can also be about lifestyle and taking on ‘masculine’ roles and careers – or jobs which in their time were thought of as ‘male’.
Anne Lister is an example of this, and the subject of recent BBC period drama, Gentleman Jack. She was a 19th century landowner, industrialist and adventurer, whose diaries recorded her relationships with multiple women. She presented in male clothing and occupied male spaces afforded to her by her wealth and social standing.
There are historical records of other women who lived outside of people’s expectations of them, including seaman William Brown, a Grenadian sailor who reportedly served in the Royal Navy for 11 years before being discharged for in 1815 for ‘being a female’.
There is also a tradition of female husbands, recorded in many precolonial African tribes such as the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, the Zulu of Southern Africa, the Nuer of East Africa and the Nandi tribe of Kenya. They were, to varying degrees, afforded the same rights and standing as men within certain male-dominated cultures, occupying leadership positions, owning land, amassing wealth and taking wives of their own. For some this meant adopting male clothing, mannerisms and titles.
As a black African woman, my butchness used to be something restrictive, and it further compounded the complex elements of my identity that were created by moving from an African to a Western society. As a masculine presenting person, this was a misinformed method of holding on to my history and traditions. I believed I had to be dominant, resilient, reserved, stoic, and muted, perpetuating ideas around African machismo appropriated from the male figures around me who themselves had a fraught relationship with their own masculinity.
I had a damaging understanding of what masculinity was, which led me to reject anything feminine because I associated it with weakness, fragility and being docile - all things I perceived as negative.
It wasn’t just about being masculine, it was about being an alpha male and embracing harmful stereotypes of what a man should look like, because even though I wasn’t one, I wasn’t that kind of woman either. I was trying to mould myself into ideas and a culture that wasn’t necessarily good for anyone. It was not designed for me and actually, my butchness posed a direct threat.
I am discovering that being butch isn’t about fitting into expectations, it is about shattering them.
I recently read an interview with Tabitha Benjamin, who runs trans-inclusive lesbian club night, Butch Please, where she stated, ‘Butch, for me, is nothing to do with being masculine. It’s actually something about being really feminine, about identifying as a woman’. This really resonated with me.
While I still have an extensive blazer, brogue and bowtie collection, increasingly I am playing with colour, patterns, feminine clothing, jewellry, make-up, traditional African clothing, and how to embody butchness while still wearing a pair of hot pink ‘pum pum’ shorts.
Butch, for me, has previously been about how I am perceived, something that’s out of my control, a label imposed upon me. I am now claiming autonomy over that. Sometimes I find it funny that people think of me as butch at all. I wear “boy clothes” and have short hair, so I guess I can see why if we’re oversimplifying things, but I am finally able to embrace being a flamboyant flouncing camp sissy dyke too. I am discovering that being butch isn’t about fitting into expectations, it is about shattering them with the heel of my glitter Doc Martens.
Increasingly, it’s becoming more important to appreciate, represent, celebrate and protect butch identities.
As with any identity that challenges expectations, butch people can often receive antagonism or backlash for simply being themselves.
This can be in the form of verbal or physical attacks, being repeatedly and pointedly called ‘sir’, being challenged in bathrooms or told to stay out of ‘female spaces’.
All of these things have happened to me, and I’m sure they won’t be unfamiliar experiences for many other butch people.
This is what happens when people try to apply narrow and inflexible definitions of what ‘womanhood’ is. Most of us will never fit into that mould; we were never meant to and as long as it is something that is used to oppress rather than allow freedom - I, personally, have no desire to fit in.
Today, butchness to me means strength.
Today, butch to me means strength. It means standing up for what I believe in and protecting those who need it, when they need it.
It means knowing when to stand aside and support, resisting, trailblazing, nurturing, learning, growing, being emotional, being vulnerable, and laughing.
All these things have been embodied by the strongest womxn I know, butch or otherwise, and it’s linked directly to their womanhood. Butch to me does not mean simply ‘masculine’, it is a complex and empowering expression of identity. It is a badge that I wear with pride, thanks to other incredible womxn, all who have proudly worn their own butchness on the lapel of their blazers before me.