Butch Lesbian - What is it? What does it mean?

Last Updated: 12/10/2021
9 min read
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Butch refers to an individual who identifies as masculine. Butch is an identity in the lesbian community. Butch lesbian typically refers to a butch woman who has a masculine expression. This can be either physically, mentally, or emotionally. 

Butch lesbians are women who have masculine gender performance and expression. The word butch may potentially be derogatory for women, but most butch women have reclaimed it as an affirmative label for their identity.

Butch can sometimes be used as a non-binary gender on its own. The label is most often associated with lesbians, but it is not exclusive to cisgender or transgender women in the LGBT community. 


Table of contents

Terminology

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term butch is among the slang words that stand for a tough young man or a lesbian of masculine appearance or behavior. 

The origin of the word butch is unknown, but it may be an abbreviation of the word butcher symbolizing manly stereotypes referring to masculine women. 

Butch can be both an adjective as well as a noun to describe gender identities and expressions. A woman exhibiting masculine traits like clothing, hairstyle, personality may be described as butch. There is an ongoing talk and debate on whether it is a gender identity on its own.

There are many stereotypes embedded when it comes to the butch identity. Some researchers argue it should belong exclusively to the lesbian community in order to keep butch visibility at the forefront. Others say the term butch means many things and does not have to mean lesbian. Butches do not have to be women, they can be transgender men or non-binary people as well who may be in relationships with femme girls.

The term transgender butch means people assigned female at birth who have a masculine expression while also experiencing dysphoria. Transgender butches may identify as non-binary or genderfluid, some simply prefer to identify as butch. 

Butch lesbians are often open about their sexuality. Butches identify as women and are often sexually attracted to femmes, women with a feminine expression. That said, they do not always have to date someone who is femme. There are many who choose to date other butches.

It is important to note that there is a distinction between masculinity and maleness. Even though butch is a masculine identity it is not quite the same as being male. Butch femme dynamic does not constitute gender roles in the bedroom. In fact, a study published on butch femme relationships underlined the fluidity in bedroom roles of lesbians

These individuals are typically masculine attracted to femme women in lesbian culture. They are not to be confused with trans men. Transgender men are AFAB, they identify as male or non-binary and may or may not be sexually attracted to women.

History

The word butch made its first appearance in history at the beginning of the twentieth century. Back then butch meant a tough youth. Eventually, in the 1940s the word was used to refer to lesbians who had a manly expression. It is not clear how the word made its way into the queer language.

There were many other terms used for and by lesbians to describe masculinity. Bull dyke was among the many terms to talk about women in relationships with other women. Butch-femme partnerships were labeled mama and papa in the lesbian culture of old Harlem. The terms butch and femme slowly crept into the language of working-class women during the wartime era in the United States. 

So what makes a lesbian butch? Does it mean that they only date femmes? History books say that butches primarily identify as masculine, preferring to wear male clothes as well as portray their appearance as manly. There was even criticism of butch or femme ladies in the late fifties from upper-class lesbian women. Many lesbians during those days felt that by wearing male clothing and appearing either masculine or feminine butches and femmes were replicating heterosexual relationships. There was even a push for butches to appear more feminine at one point.

A new generation of young lesbians in the sixties saw the rise of feminism in the university culture. They broke and challenged roles by choosing to wear clothing that was not typically feminine or masculine. These people stood up against violence, became open about their sexuality, and changed the course of history for gay, lesbian, transgender people of the future.

They were considered to be politically incorrect lesbian feminists of the 1970s. Butch femme relationships were no longer taboo with gender roles no longer in question. Butch and femme made a comeback in the eighties as empowering words to describe women, especially those in the working class. The ballroom scene coined butch realness, butch queen terminology. 

Leslie Feinberg who is an iconic butch writer published Stone Butch Blues in 1993. The book talks about homophobia, violent attacks, street harassment, exploration of butch and trans identities. It continues to be a breakthrough in terms of femme butch visibility. The book also gave roots to the term “stone butch” describing a lesbian who did not allow her partner to touch her sexually because of dysphoria. 

That same year Canadian butch icon k.d. lange was on the cover of Vanity Fair with Cindy Crawford shaving the singer’s head. Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian despite facing a backlash then, DeGeneres made a huge impact on the pop culture of the future. After her sitcom got canceled, Ellen made a huge come back in the 21st century with a daytime show that was funny and relatable. People could not wait to watch Ellen on TV rocking her influential butch clothing style.

The 21st century saw the rise of butch lesbians in the entertainment industry and pop culture as a whole. The Netflix TV breakthrough series Orange is The New Black that has many lesbians on screen gave us a hard butch Big Boo character played by Lea Delaria.

Butch continues to be a word primarily used to describe folks in lesbian communities who are attracted to femme ladies. It may also be used by other people like non-binary and genderfluid individuals. There are other terms that may also mean masculinity like boi, tomboy, soft butch, and more.

International Butch Appreciation Day is marked on August 18th every year.

Other Terms

There are other terms to describe butch persons. Some may be pejorative, but many have been reclaimed by the people in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Diesel dyke, bull dyke, dyke may be used as a synonym. There are also terms that fall under the butch umbrella like: 

Stone Butch

Stone butch means that a person does not like their genitals to be touched in life. The term originated in popular culture after the publication of Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. Stone butches tend to provide sexual gratification for their femme partners and in turn experience pleasure. They may also identify as non-binary, genderfluid, or agender. 

Stud

A word that specifically refers to a Black butch woman. The word stud is used to describe butch lesbian African-American woman, and should not be used to refer to a Caucasian butch. The terminology was influenced by hip-hop culture and fashion.

Soft Butch 

May refer to someone who is a bit more feminine and not as masculine in their clothing and style. The term does not refer to a femme woman but may be used as a synonym for chapstick lesbian.

Flag and Symbols

There is no universally accepted butch flag. Many people use the traditional LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. Variations of the butch flag have been posted online with the majority published on Tumblr. The butch lesbian flag is a variation of several lesbian flags, including the lipstick lesbian flag and labrys lesbian flag.

Butch flagButch flag

The most commonly presented butch pride flag has no description of colors, but people have tried to guess it with blue potentially representing masculinity. White being the color to symbolize all the people across sexuality and gender spectrums, purple standing for women who love women.

Butch lesbian pride flagButch lesbian pride flag

The inclusive flag for butch individuals was designed in January 2021 by Tumblr user nbgender. The colors represent the following: red-orange stripe for a variety of experiences between individuals. The light red-orange stripe stands for connection/community with butches. The small, light orange stripe represents non-conformity and connection to masculinity. The large yellowish-white stripe is for the rich history and butch femme culture and solidarity. The small yellow stripe represents stone butches. The yellow-orange stripe is for the connection/community to/with femmes. The orange stripe represents the inclusion of marginalized identities.

Butch alternative flagButch alternative flag

There is a butch symbol that was designed back in 2014 by a group of non-binary Brazilians. It showcases a commonly used male symbol which has much longer prongs. 

Butch symbolButch symbol

There is an alternate butch female symbol that may also be used by people who feel their identity is butch.

Butch woman symbolButch woman symbol

Pronouns

Butch women typically dress in masculine clothing, but they often use gendered pronouns like she/her. Butches are often thought of as being interested in manly activities. Think interests like sports, cars, hands-on jobs. Some butch individuals can even use male nicknames. There are some butch individuals that bind their chest and prefer to use neutral pronouns like they/them, xe/xim, ze/zim. 

Butches may be cisgender, transgender, or non-binary. There are transgender men and cisgender men that can also identify as being butch and use he/him pronouns. Butch men are generally associated with the biker subculture. They may be overly masculine with traits that may be thought of as uber manly. Their masculinity is generally over the top and can be compared to that of hyperfeminine in femmes. Butch men are often called leather men due to their keen interest in motorcycle culture.

It is always best to state your pronouns first and ask what pronouns the person prefers using in conversation. 

Am I a Butch Lesbian?

There are many labels that LGBTQ+ use. If you have a masculine expression, enjoy wearing male clothing, present yourself in a stereotypically masculine way you may be butch. 

Many people identify as butch in reference to their gender expression, some think of it as falling under a non-binary or genderfluid umbrella. If the term fits you well and you feel comfortable using it, then it may be the best label for you. 

Butch is an identity that can be held by a variety of people of all sexual orientations, identities, and presentations. You may find that terms like a stud or soft butch fit you better. Ultimately it is up to you to put a label on your expression and be comfortable with the use of the butch-femme dynamic. 

Even though butch folks are expected to be attracted to femmes, that is not a requirement to be a butch lesbian. Some butches are attracted not tied down to butch-femme ideals. Some are in relationships with other butch folks and those relationships are commonly labeled masc for masc or butch for butch. Being attracted to femmes is often a strong part of their lesbian identity and may be fitting for you, but again it is not necessary to have an attraction for a femme woman to be butch.

Supporting Butches

Traditionally butch individuals were viewed as tough and strong. That said, they can be very vulnerable and face violence in society. It is important to show allyship by using the right pronouns, helping raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, and promoting equality in your environment.

Joining LGBTQ+ organizations may help in providing support to butch individuals. It is wise to connect with queer groups who can provide more insight into the history and culture of butch lesbians. Most importantly, listening and offering assistance in raising awareness of LGBTQ+ issues is a sure way to show your support for butch people.

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"sky butch" flag

Butch lesbian pride flagButch lesbian pride flag

Butch flag by disastergayButch flag by disastergay

Alternate butch flagAlternate butch flag

Soft butch flag by plurgaiSoft butch flag by plurgai

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Julia Sotska is a former Senior PR Manager at Taimi. She hails from Toronto, Canada where she studied Communications and Journalism Broadcasting. Julia is an experienced journalist, TV producer, editor and communications manager. Her work has been featured in prominent publications in Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and more. Julia is passionate about LGBTQ+ and disability rights, mental health, wellness, and parenthood.

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