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    Defining the Butch-Femme Scene

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    Among the LGBT community, there are many different subcultures that have sprung up. Some of them stayed and even reached mainstream media, like drag performance and ballroom culture, while others fade into obscurity. Amongst the lesbian scene, there have been many different subcultures. One of the ones most often seen and associated with them has been the butch-femme scene. In simple terms, butch-femme are identities that some lesbians use to identify themselves, their style of dress, their attitudes, and relationship roles. What these are defined as changes throughout the mid-1900s, as well as changes with location. The changing definitions and ideology of butch has been discussed far more than those of femme, so this essay with focus on the former.

    To put it simply, butch-femme is a lifestyle and identity, often used by gay women and LGBT people of color. For this context, the term will be used in reference to how it is used in lesbian communities. Butch is a style of dress and mannerisms that are more masculine, what defines this style has changed over the ages. As the butch-femme scene began cropping up in American cities, butch women would take work in manual labor jobs when they could, often passing themselves off as men. The look of butch has changed much over time. For a long period, the fashion sense was very strictly masculine, often sporting more masculine hairstyles and working clothes, often presenting themselves as men to get jobs. Eventually, more androgynous looks came into the scene, “’Girl Scout counselors,’ some of us called them, who wore plaid shirts and REI pants. They could be camping in a minute. They had their back packs close at hand.” (Case 101) These looks are sportier, rather than a rough worker look.

    Femme is a style that tends to focus on feminine style, dress, and mannerisms, but done in a way to reject performing these actions for men. In the past, many femmes would take up sex work to support themselves and their lover, if they had one. They were often victims of sexual violence and mental illness.

    These identities have held importance in lesbian communities for a long time as gay people flocked together in cities. Issues surrounding substance abuse were rampant in the community, the main way that many LGBT people engaged with the community was done using drugs and heavy drinking. There were many who fell victim to substance abuse and died from an overdose. However, this was often seen as one of the only ways for people to connect to one another, “Addictions abounded and were explored with great gusto and we all kept returning to the magic circle that bounded those rites.” (Case 102) Addiction was a major problem among this community, one that eventually was met with a strong sobriety campaign, though the success of the campaign could be easily brought into question.

    Butches and femmes came in a variety of races, ethnicities, and economic statuses and often were segregated, as racism was and is also an issue within the community. Black lesbians, often feeling ostracized by the community, coined their own term, stud, which is like butch but specific to the experiences of black gay women. The image of butch and femme often changed with location, time, and wealth status. Adaptation to these identities had been a natural process but has usually been met with some opposition to change.

    In the 1970s, butch hippies began cropping up in places like San Francisco. The focus on this development of butch had a big change in attitude. Drawing from the peaceful and anti-war ideologies of hippie culture, these butches were known for softer clothing types and less aggressive masculinity. They also These ideas clashed with more “traditional” butches, ones who were dressed in working-class men’s clothing and more of emulating a more overbearing attitude. “The two groups regarded one another with suspicion.” (Case 99) In Maud’s, the now long-gone and formerly oldest lesbian bar in San Francisco, there sprung up tension between these groups and their ideologies.

    These butches came at a time of violence, with the Vietnam war and rampant homophobia across the nation. Just years had been the Stonewall riot and Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which was based in San Francisco. They promoted anti-violence freely, contrasting with the classic butches and femmes at the time “those classic couples seemed so apolitical, at the time of street demonstrations. They didn’t join them,” (Case 104) They did not participate in these rallying cries and it seemed some even detested these new ideas. “To be honest, sometimes, when we watched those traditional butch-femme couples waltz around the floor, they resembled our parents, saying the same things, like ‘cut your hair’ and ‘don’t listen to that loud, horrible music.’” (Case 104)

    In the end, this subculture seemingly died out. “In many ways, a certain sense of ‘butch’ did not survive this moment … When butch re-emerged out the other side of that betrayal, it did so with a vengeance – so vengeful, in fact, that it associated its demeanor with gay men and the masculine, rather than with styles among women … The masculine had been contaminated by its proximity to war.” (Case 106) The clashing of the hippie movement and butch-femme culture had an undeniable impact. Whether good or bad, it changed the view of butch and femme as less of lifestyle and put a bigger emphasis on choice of style. (Case 106) The contrasting styles made more people aware of its existence. Butches come in all sorts of styles, races, backgrounds, beliefs, etc., and today more than anything that is displayed in the community. These once tight-knit and often restrictive communities are learning to open up and embrace more difference, while remembering their history and using that as a way to empower themselves.

    There has long been argument over what qualifies as “butch”. The styles, mannerisms, and ideologies of these people have always been different from community to community, and constantly changing. It is hard to use a single term to define what butch is, particularly in appearance. There have been plenty of groups that have brought questions of change to the community, some having undeniable impact. The hippie butches brought ideas of political discourse and protest into the limelight, which many white butches had avoided before. No one can determine just what these terms mean, but it is important to acknowledge the changes and the subcultures that emerge from them and what those mean, because their impacts on the community stand out.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    Defining the Butch-Femme Scene. (2022, Nov 27). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/defining-the-butch-femme-scene/

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