NARRATING AND NEGOTIATING BUTCH AND FEMME:
STORYING LESBIAN SELVES IN A HETERONORMATIVE WORLD
SARA L. CRAWLEY
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Sara L. Crawley
This dissertation is dedicated to Dianne, Lisa, Jen, Aneeza, and, especially, Barbara, and
all the women-mentors, lovers and friends-who have changed my life so measurably and
so much for the better.
Seven years in the making, this project rests on the shoulders of many people and,
after so much work and dedication from so many, I am compelled to acknowledge each
in sufficient detail. I extend my sincerest thanks, respect and appreciation to each of
them, listed in no particular order.
First, I wish to thank the thirty-seven women who shared their time, ideas, politics
and personal stories with me. Their commitment to feminism, equality and civil rights
overwhelms and inspires me. I know I have not always agreed with each of them, but I
hope each is satisfied that I treated her words with care and utmost concern for her
private thoughts, and for the advancement of lesbian communities and LGBT movements
I would like to thank the people who supported me administratively and
emotionally through my studies. I have most appreciated the support and joviality of
Kanitra Perry, Paula Ambroso, Dottie Faibisy, and Sheran Flowers. I would also like to
recognize the othermothering and community support of Mrs. Johnson, who asked me
how I did on my first day of teaching, and Lois, who never failed to smile.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who helped me transcribe my interviews
without whose help I would still be working in some dark, cramped room. Much thanks
go to Debbie Wallen, Mark Cohan, Laurel Tripp, Liz Fakazis, Marcela Pineros, and
Personal, heartfelt thanks go to Mrs. Matthews, my third grade teacher, who first
told me I should get a Ph.D. Never doubt the importance of what you say to an eight-year
old. We are listening.
Many people worked to provide financial opportunities to support my graduate
work. Among those are Art Evans at Florida Atlantic University, Mike Radelet, Barbara
Zsembik, Mary Ann Burg and Angel Kwolek-Folland at the University of Florida, and
Suzanna Rose at Florida International University.
I have collected many mentors and colleagues throughout my graduate studies
who commented on subsections of my work or took the time to chat about my interests.
They include, but are not limited to, Lynn Appleton, Norman Denzin, Carolyn Ellis, Tace
Hedrick, Dorothy Leland, Doni Loseke, Susan Mann, Pat Martin, Aurora Morcillo,
Marcela Pineros, Darin Weinberg, Kath Weston, Tom Wilson, and Barbara Zsembik.
Among the many mentors I have met, I owe the largest debt to the hard work of my
dissertation committee members: Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera, who work tirelessly to
liberate sociology from those who see it so close-mindedly as solely an academic pursuit;
Kim Emery, who pushed me to look far past "the data" to a level of theory that boggles
my mind; Jay Gubrium, whose theory and whose embodied person I have been so
fortunate to know; and, especially, Kendal Broad, who served as teacher, mentor, co-
author, editor, cheerleader, and friend. A special thanks are extended to Connie Shehan
who not only serves as co-author and mentor, but also rescued my dissertation defense by
sitting in as my sixth committee member.
In a cast of hundreds, there are but a few who have cared for my public and
private self as I advanced through graduate school. These are the people who have
sustained me, encouraged me, kicked me in the butt, held me when I cried, listened when
I burst with frustration, and sometimes lent a few bucks when I really needed it.
First, thank you to my parents, Mary and Harold Crawley, who have been the
inspiration for my education and who set the bar for excellence and dedication so high by
their own example. If anyone is solely responsible for setting this goal, it's Mom and
Dad. I continue to shoot for the standard they have achieved in being such amazing
Thanks go also to my sister, Cindy Crawley, for her generous dedication to my
post-Christmas bills for the last several years. Leave it to Nin to understand that a break
in semesters is not a pretty financial thing. I thank her also for pushing me to understand
that straight women work just as hard to get legitimation from the patriarchy.
Many thanks go to the UPI Coons-Mama Kane, Ray, Thomas, Mike, Deb, Paul
and Savannah Kate, Tom, Art, Jerry, Donna, Mark and Doug-for allowing my absence
these past five years. The hardest part of graduate school was missing all of them. I
missed them and my home every day. I will forever regret that I cannot recover those
Of all the people who helped me finish this degree, those who deserve my deepest
appreciation and humblest thanks are the graduate students at the University of Florida
whom I have had the greatest fortune to know. In my graduate training, I most value their
collegial spirit and friendly support through my coursework and teaching training. They
have all kept me (relatively) sane in an insane place. Many thanks go to Chris Faircloth,
Mark Cohan, Eileen O'Brien, Lara Foley, Carla Edwards, Toni McWhorter, Laurel
Tripp, and Leslie Houts (and also Liz Fakazis who shared in my dissertation woes like
any valued member of my cohort). I learned how to teach and how to research from them.
As much as I value my graduate cohort, certain folks supported me far past any
academic experience. Thanks go to Toni McWhorter, who gave me a roof in the toughest
of times. Barnacle was always available with a hug when I needed it. Thanks go
especially to "the family"-Susan Eichenberger, Melanie Wakeman, Lara Foley, Helena
Alden and Barbara Bonanno. They have listened to my ratings, fed me, counseled me,
instructed me, and suffered my often inflated ego on so many occasions. You are the
reason I survived.
Last, a thank you goes to Barbara. She taught me an aesthetic that I never knew.
She is my present and my future.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A CKN OW LED GM EN TS ................................................................................................. iv
A B ST R A C T ....................................................................................................................... xi
1 "YOU KNOW WHEN YOU SEE IT, BUT YOU CAN'T SAY EXACTLY WHAT IT
IS": ENTERING THE DEBATES ABOUT BUTCH AND FEMME: A
LITERA TU RE REV IEW ................................................................................................ 1
A Brief History of Butch and Femme............................................................................. 4
Engaging the D ebates ..................................................................................................... 7
W hat Are Butch And Femm e? .................................................................................... 7
Butch and Femme as Lesbian Gender.................................................................... 7
Butch and Femme as Sexual Identities................................................................... 9
Are Butch and Femme "Real" or Performance? ....................................................... 12
W ho does butch and fem m e? .................................................................................... 16
What Do We Want to Know About Butch and Femme and Who Is Asking the
Q questions? ..................................................................................................................... 20
Community Studies: What's It Like Where You Are? ............................................. 20
Positivists: How Can We Measure Butch and Femme Accurately? ......................... 21
Philosophies, Politics and Theories: Is There a Lesbian Subjectivity? .................... 22
Dyke Description: Let Me Tell You How I Feel ...................................................... 24
Changing the Analysis: Butch and Femme as Narrative Resources for Storying Selves
........................................................................................... ................... ....................... 2 6
2 LOOKING UP AT DISCOURSE: INTERPRETIVE THEORIES AND
METHODOLOGIES OF SELF PRODUCTION.......................................................... 30
Understanding a W orld of Stories................................................................................. 31
N arrating Social Selves................................................................................................. 33
Butch and Femme and Heteronormativity.................................................................... 36
The Coherence of Heteronormativity as a Going Concern........................................... 38
Looking Up at Institutionalized Heteronormativity...................................................... 41
Storying Lesbian Selves in a Heteronormative World-Tactics and Methods .............. 46
A N ote A bout M e.......................................................................................................... 51
3 "THEY STILL DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY I HATE WEARING DRESSES!": AN
AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC RANT ON DRESSES, BOATS, AND BUTCHNESS......53
Dresses.............................................. ............................................................................ 58
W eddings.................................................................................................................. 58
Star Trek.................................................................................................................... 61
M arching Band...................................................................................................... 62
"You're A Young Lady."................................................................ ..................... 63
Funerals ..................................................................................................................... 66
W aterskiing ................................................................................................... .............. 67
"You've Never Done A Day's W ork.". ............................................................ 68
"It's Not My Boat; You Need To Be Talking To Her." .................................... 69
San Francisco ............................................................................................................ 70
"Most Men Couldn't Even Put A Boat In That Slip That Well.". .................... 71
A W ell-Trained W omen's Crew ............................................................................... 72
Butchness ...................................................................................................................... 74
Dressing Down Today? ............................................................................................. 75
Butch For W hom ? ......................................................................................................... 82
Harleys ...................................................................................................................... 82
Sisters ........................................................................................................................ 84
4 "MEASURING" SELVES: THE NARRATIVE ORGANIZATION OF BUTCH AND
FEM M E AS PUBLIC PERFORM ANCE ..................................................................... 88
The Story of Public Butch and Femme-Discourses-in-Practice ................................... 91
Butch Looks and Behavior............................................................ ........................ 93
Femme Looks and Behavior ..................................................................................... 96
The Butch/Femm e Scale and the Butch/Femme Game ............................................ 98
The Discursive Practices of Narrative M easuring.................................................. .... 103
M easuring Competence ............................ ..................................................... ........ 105
Some underlying assumptions for narrative measurement .................................... 106
Stigma, Bifurcated Consciousness and Accountability .............................................. 110
Butch Stigma........................................................................................................... 110
Femm e Stigma........................................................................................................ 113
Bifurcated Consciousness....................................................................................... 115
Heteronormativity, Science and the Coherence of Vertical Orientation .................... 119
5 "IT'S NOT THAT": THE (LIMITING) NARRATIVE ORGANIZATION OF BUTCH
AND FEM M E AS PRIVATE SELF..................................................................... ...... 129
Sexual Stories : "W hat" W e Begin W ith.................................................................... 130
(Hetero)Sexual Stereotypes: "W ho's the M an?" ....................... ...................... 130
Lesbian Sexual Stereotypes-"Tops" and "Bottoms" ..................................... ......... 134
"The Hows"-Producing Related-To-But-Different Sexuality.................................... 137
"It's Not That"-Inability to State Butch or Femme Specificity............................. 137
Sense of Realness or Origin.................................................................................... 143
Feminist Narrative Editing-Changing the Discourses-in-Practice............................. 149
Encouraging Flexibility and Accepting Difference................................................ 150
Sexual "Energy" and the Importance of Naming................................................... 154
W hy Reiterate Butch and Femme? ......................................................................... 156
Heteronormativity and the Lacking Erotics of Sameness........................................... 161
6 TIME AND MATERIALS: AGE, FEMINISMS AND MATERIAL EXPERIENCES
IN SELF STORIES ..................................................................................................... 169
Relating Institutional Persons to Reflexive Selves..................................................... 169
Lesbians Over 30 .................................................................................................... 174
Lesbians Under 30 .................................................................................................. 177
Stories About Time..................................................................................................... 180
"We're All Just People"?-Material Experiences in Self-Production......................... 190
Sexism and Sexual Safety....................................................................................... 191
Racism ..................................................................................................................... 194
Classism .................................................................................................................. 197
Homophobia ............................................................................................................ 199
Sexual Maturity or Youthful Protest?-Explaining Sexual Stories .......... ................... 202
Life Course ............................................................................. ............................. .... 202
Political Generation Feminisms' Second and Third W aves ................................. 204
Second W ave's Awakening................................ .................................................... 205
Feminism 's Third W ave .......................................................................................... 206
A Final W ord on Butch and Femme over Time ............................ ............................. 210
7 THE RELEVANCE OF BUTCH AND FEMME AS NARRATIVE SELVES: WHAT
LESBIANS CAN TEACH SOCIAL SCIENTISTS ...................................................212
The Analytic Importance of the Self .......................................................................... 214
A Final W ord on Findings and Future Directions .............................. ........................ 216
LIST OF REFERENCES.............................................................................................. ... 219
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ....................................................................................... .... 230
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
NARRATING AND NEGOTIATING BUTCH AND FEMME:
STORYING LESBIAN SELVES IN A HETERONORMATIVE WORLD
Sara L. Crawley
Chair: Jaber F. Gubrium
Cochair: Joe R. Feagin
Major Department: Sociology
This dissertation concerns how lesbians narrate butch and femme as parts of self
and as means to participate in communities and disrupt institutions. It begins with the
assumption that butch and femme are narrative resources for storying selves. Drawing
from a constructionist perspective, the project is concerned less with what butch and
femme are, than with how they are used to make sense of lesbian lives. Hence, butch and
femme are understood as useful ideas emergent from the local experiences of women
with non-normative sexual interests living in a heterosexist, deeply gendered everyday
world. The project is based on focus groups and couples and individual interviews with
lesbians in and around a suburban, university town. It is argued that the notions of butch
and femme tell us as much about the world in which we all live as about the individual
lesbians themselves. Butch and femme are produced through the process of making sense
of nonconformity in a heteronormative world. This is an interactional and interpretive
process narrated as reality. Butch and femme derive from the limited and limiting
discourses available for storying women's sexuality coherently, yet they are actively
produced as resistant to those discourses and specific to lesbians. The results of my
project suggest three important findings. First, often the coherences to which others hold
us accountable are at least as salient in the production of self and personhood as are our
own ideas of ourselves. Second, the heteronormative paradigm remains the only
coherence system for understanding sexuality and gender. Third, the voices of individuals
in their everyday lives illuminate the advancements of feminist politics and an
understanding of the meaning of time. Ultimately, this project is a testament to the
importance of narrating self as a means for individuals to actively participate in the
production of making sense of the world.
"YOU KNOW WHEN YOU SEE IT,
BUT YOU CAN'T SAY EXACTLY WHAT IT IS":
ENTERING THE DEBATES ABOUT BUTCH AND FEMME:
A LITERATURE REVIEW1
A popular T-shirt in the 1990s read simply "Butch on the Streets, Femme in the
Sheets." As a product of popular culture in these supposed post-feminist, postmodern
times, this slogan implies many pertinent concerns for the development of lesbian selves.
First, it claims an out, in-your-face, public persona for lesbians in this heterosexist
culture. Second, it continues to foreground sexuality as a significant factor in lesbian
identity. Third, it refers to lesbian history by continuing to value butch and femme2 as
lesbian-specific phenomena. And, in my estimation, most curiously, it suggests a revision
to that history that allows for new means of lesbian selves. While butch and femme used
to mean very specific public and private personas, now "butch" and "femme" can be
modified to describe a host of self-definitions that need not be consistent or definitive or
rule-bound. The assertion of "Butch on the Streets, Femme in the Sheets" as an identity
on one's T-shirt-clad chest claims the right to define one's own sexuality and present it
1 An earlier draft of this literature review was previously published in 2001 as "Are Butch
and Fern Working Class And Anti-Feminist?" Gender & Society 15:175-96. It is
reprinted here with permission from Sage Publications.
2 I am uncomfortable with the incessant pairing of butch and femme as inseparable
(i.e.,"butch/femme"). Walker (1993, footnote 9) addresses this concern as follows, "I
choose not to hyphenate butch and femme in order to construct identities that exist
separately as well as in combination. To me, the hyphenated version seems to preclude
considering the terms independently of one another or in other combinations (such as
butch-butch and femme-femme)." I agree and will use the phrase "butch/femme" only
when I specifically discuss a system of dichotomous pairings or interaction.
boldly in public, visible to lesbians and members of a dominant, heteronormative culture.
It is a naming of oneself-a narrating of gendered and sexual possibilities.
As lesbian notions of gender and sexuality, butch and femme are interesting
because they have been so pervasive in lesbian communities. Whether eager proponents
or outspoken opponents, lesbians in the United States have debated the meanings of butch
and femme for decades. This is still true today. Indeed, in all the interviews that I
completed and the many impromptu conversations that I have had over seven years of
researching butch and femme, I have never met a lesbian who had not heard of butch and
femme. I have met (and interviewed) lesbians who seriously disagreed with butch or
femme practices; lesbians who knew about butch and femme but did not associate
themselves with those ideas; and lesbians who identified their deepest essence as butch or
femme. But I have never been met with the question, "Butch? Femme? What do you
mean?" Curiously, on those occasions when I have asked lesbians to define the terms, a
good bit more difficulty ensues.
As it turns out, defining butch or femme seems to be a rather slippery issue among
lesbians. Indeed, asking for a definition tends to invoke debate much more than
resolution. The debate tends to have specific parts but no definitive end. And, although
I've never received a blank stare when asking, "What do butch or femme mean to you," I
have also rarely received a decisive answer. One narrator sums up this problematic when
she says, "You know when you see it, but you can't really say exactly what it is, you
know?" (Sam and Jo, couple interview line 99-100)
Given the relative public silence about lesbianism in dominant culture and the
well-recorded history of the fight by lesbians and gay men in the 20th century to create
public space and legitimacy, it is quite remarkable that, on the one hand, knowledge
about these two constructs could be so pervasive among lesbians, and, on the other hand,
the determination of what butch and femme are could remain unresolved. For these
reasons, I argue that butch and femme are not about just butches and femmes, as is often
assumed by researchers who study only butches and femnmes. Instead, I see butch and
femme as ways to speak gender and sexuality for lesbians.
Butch and femme are not about those lesbians. For that matter, they are not just
about lesbians. Butch and femme are about the way that gender and sexuality for lesbians
are made coherent in this Western, postmodern, heteronormative culture. As non-
standard gender representations and as non-standard sexual identities, butch and femme
may teach us quite a lot about heteronormativity.
The chapters within represent a theory of how lesbians produce gendered and
sexual (and also class-based and racialized) selves through narrating butch and femme.
But my focus is as much on the cultural context in which selves can be produced as on
the production of selves themselves. Simply put, my project is to ask lesbians how they
think about their place in the social world as lesbians and to analyze their talk to
illuminate how heteronormative discourses affect the narrative production of lesbian
selves. The research question that I pursue is: What is the narrative organization of butch
and femme? That is, how does heteronormativity provide an organized pattern through
which lesbians are instructed and instruct others to understand their experiences as
lesbians? Through this project, I examine the relationships between 1) individuals and
discourses, 2) individuals and communities, and 3) material and symbolic realities. I
begin with a brief history of butch and femme in the 20th century United States and a
summary of the debates about butch and femme.
A Brief History of Butch and Femme
Butch and femme emerged during the formation of many semi-public, lesbian
communities throughout the United States in the early and middle parts of the 20th
century, especially during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Adam 1987; Faderman 1991;
Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993). Butch and femme provide a unique organizing
system of personal representation, interpersonal interaction and community participation.
While butch and femme are difficult to define, and many authors hesitate to do so, Rubin
(1992) gives a particularly good description of them as follows:
Butch and femme are ways of coding identities and behaviors that are both
connected to and distinct from standard societal roles for men and women.
... "Femmes" identify as feminine within the larger culture; butchess"
identify primarily as masculine or prefer masculine signals, personal
appearance, and styles. (467)
Rubin's definition places butch and femme within the broader cultural context of
mainstream gender norms, but it also notes a distinction. Thus, femmes tend to conform
with gender norms for women with the exception of forming emotional and sexual
relationships with women. Butches tend toward gender nonconformity in dress and action
as well as in sexual relationships with women. Because they are non-compliant with
mainstream gender or sexual norms, butch and femme are defined by Rubin as categories
of "lesbian gender." Rubin also notes that butch and femme as stereotypical categories
are conceptual frameworks that have organized lesbian communities. The practice of
butch or femme and butch/femme interaction have varied over time and by individuals
and couples from complete immersion to partial compliance to complete avoidance.
A key question is why butch and femme emerged during the historical period that
it did. One should remember the American history into which this brief lesbian history
falls. World War II was of particular importance to a history of women. Not only was
Rosie the Riveter a harbinger of second wave feminism, but she also symbolizes
women's freedom from male dependence, especially for lesbians. Women's involvement
in World War II, whether in military service (D'Emilio 1983) or in factory jobs
previously reserved for men (Gilmartin 1996), created a space for women to define
themselves as workers and as independent sexual entities (D'Emilio 1983; Faderman
1991). Although lesbian identity was formative in the U.S. in the decades prior to World
War II, the geographical and financial opportunity to create lesbian communities reached
a necessary peak for the formation of public and semi-public lesbian communities during
and immediately after World War II (Faderman 1991). A similar effect was taking place
among gay male subculture as well (D'Emilio 1983). This physical possibility of public
gathering created the space for lesbian subcultures to emerge. Butch and femme emerged
with those subcultures (Faderman 1991; Gilmartin 1996; Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis
Many lesbian communities of the 1940s, '50s and '60s had strict rules for their
participants-each woman was expected to assume either butch or femme and couple with
an opposite partner. In these communities, women were discouraged from remaining
undecided, and no couples were to consist of two butches or two femmes (Faderman
1991; Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993; Stein 1997). Butch and femme came under
fire with the advent of late-1 960s and '70s feminisms, especially radical feminism, in
which the feminist project is seen as the elimination of masculinity (Abbott and Love
1972:173; Jeffreys 1989 and 1996; Stein 1997:80). Feminist censure of butch and femme
assumed that they were recreations of patriarchal gender norms in which butches were
necessarily using power over femmes, in the same manner that heterosexual men were
viewed as wielding power over women. Pratt (1995) discusses the radical feminist
perception of butch and femme as follows: "Often a lesbian considered 'too butch' was
assumed to be, at least in part, a male chauvinist. ... Frequently a lesbian who was 'too
femme' was perceived as a woman who had not liberated her mind or her body (19)."
Authors writing about 1970s lesbian communities tend to concur that butch and femme
did disappear or at least go underground during that period (Adam 1987; Case 1989;
Franzen 1993; Jeffreys 1989; Pratt 1995; Rubin 1992; Smith 1989; Walker 1993).
With the widespread and lasting impacts of feminisms, a researcher might expect
the disappearance of butch and femme to be lasting as well. But, according to many
authors, that has not been the case. In the late-1980s and 1990s, butch and femme are said
to have reemerged significantly (Case 1989; Faderman 1992; Jeffreys 1989 and 1996;
Morgan 1993; Stein 1997; Walker 1993; Whisman 1996). In what has become known as
the post-feminist era, debate has centered around whether the reemergence of butch and
femme are part of what Faludi (1991) describes as the "backlash" against feminisms or
whether 1990s butch and femme are different and more acceptable to feminists than
butch and femme of prior decades. Whisman (1996) suggests that lesbians of the 1990s
aligned politically and culturally with gay men, often as part of "queer" or
lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered movements (LGBT), rather than with straight
feminists as was the case in 1970s and 1980s with radical feminism. Thus, the emergence
of feminist and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered civil rights movements provide a
political tug of war for lesbian concerns in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Engaging the Debates
The literature on butch and femme is not a simple one to review. It originates
from many disciplines, contains political arguments for and against butch and femme,
and is written by academic and non-academic authors. With a variety of political and
scholarly interests bound up in the literature, there appear to be at least three important
debates throughout. The first is a descriptive foregrounding of either gender or sexuality
as significant in explaining how butchness or femmeness should be understood. The
second debate is whether butch and femme are real or performed. And, the third is who
may be involved in practicing butch or femme. After outlining these debates, I describe
the various scholarly interests represented in the debates and conclude this chapter by
outlining how this study will be situated in the debates.
What Are Butch And Femme?
Although authors tend to agree about the time frames in which butch and femme
behaviors have been exhibited most noticeably and about feminisms' major impact on
butch and femme behaviors, they do not agree on what butch and femme are. How do
authors explain their existence? Explanations of butch and femme tend to foreground two
aspects: butch and femme as lesbian gender and butch and femme as sexual identities.
But is it gender that influences sexuality or sexuality that influences gender?
Butch and Femme as Lesbian Gender
Many authors concentrate on what has come to be seen as the beginning: the
stereotypical butch and femme (and the definitional butch/femme) of 1950s bar culture.
Faderman (1991) interprets the emergence of butch and femme among working-class
lesbian communities as the result of gendered participation in working-class culture in an
era in which the "parent-culture roles [were] exaggerated between men and women"
(170), leaving lesbians no other models to follow. Although Faderman valorizes
femmeness as a more aggressive sexuality than that exhibited by other women of the
1950s, she views butch and femme largely as heterosexual imitation with butchness as a
means of obtaining status as defined by mainstream culture. Faderman implies that these
1950s butch and femme women were simply not aware of any form of organizing into
couples except heterosexual roles as taught by mainstream culture.
The interpretation of butchness and of butch/femme as socialized gender roles
caused many feminists of the 1970s to oppose butch and femme. The feminist argument
against butch and femme hinges on the notion that butch and femme are not exclusively
lesbian but are attempting to recreate patriarchy (Abbot and Love 1972: 93-8; Jeffreys
1989 and 1996; Smith 1989; Stein 1997). Jeffreys (1989) writes, "It is the basic building
block of feminist theory that women's oppression is maintained by the social construction
of masculine and feminine roles (176)." Jeffreys goes on to argue that butch/femme as a
dichotomous system of pairing is interpreted as the same as, if not reproduced from,
patriarchal norms constructed to oppress women or femmes by giving power to men or
butches. For Jeffreys (1996), all gender, including butch and femme, is dominance and
submission, which is the origin of all sexism.
Other interpretations of 1950s "butch and femme as lesbian gender" view butch
and femme not as gender roles but as gendered constructions that attempt to claim power
from an oppressive, dominant gender structure that benefits heterosexual men. In a study
of working-class bar culture in Buffalo, New York, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Lapovsky
Kennedy and Davis (1993) suggest that butch and femme developed as an organizing
system to combat the oppressive structure of gender by creating space for working-class
lesbian communities in the pre-civil rights, male-dominated, heterosexist society of that
time frame. Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis suggest that one reason that butches developed
their personas was as a necessary means of gaining respect from heterosexual men. The
display ofbutchness signaled the intention of, and often resulted in, literally fighting for
the right of lesbians to patronize the only bars available to them, usually heterosexual
bars in the seedy sections of town. In this interpretation, butch and femme are forms of
lesbian gender that attempt to break down the gender structure of mainstream culture.
In addition to sparking supportive arguments regarding butch and femme as
gender constructions, radical feminist censure of butch and femme also sparked responses
that interpret butch and femme more centrally as aspects of sexuality. Critics argue that
radical feminism tends to interpret issues narrowly through the perspectives of its middle-
class, generally white authors such that radical feminism does not represent the interests
of all lesbians, many of whom view lesbianism as a sexual identity.
Butch and Femme as Sexual Identities
Some of the early objectors to radical feminism's censure of butch and femme
(and some more-recent objectors as well) suggest that butch/femme is a complex system
of erotic interaction between intimate partners (DeLombard 1995; Hollibaugh and
Moraga 1981; Morgan 1993; Nestle 1981 and 1992; Walker 1998 and 2001). These
works tend to view butch and femme as one's essential (essentially lesbian) sexual
identity and butch/femme interaction as a "natural" result of these innate interests. In
describing herself and refuting the supposed oppression of femmes, Nestle (1981) defines
a femme as "a woman who loved and wanted to nurture the butch strength in other
women (21)." Supporters of butch and femme as sexual identities discuss the kind of
"love" and "nurturing" that occurred between butches and femmes, the origins of those
sexual urges, and the gendered practices that resulted from sexual interests and marked
one's sexual interests to prospective others.
Curiously, the literature discussing butch/femme sexuality treads somewhat
delicately around the composition of that sexuality. As Hollibaugh and Moraga's (1981)
title "What We're Rollin' Around in Bed With..." alludes to, silences around sexuality
have made it difficult to bring the discussion of lesbian sexual practices into public view.
Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis (1993) accomplish this discussion through the words of
their narrators. One butch narrator, D.J., describes a butch's sexual role (during the 1940s
and 1950s) as follows, "I treat a woman as a woman, down to the basic fact it'd have to
be my side doin' most of the doin' (191)." In this colloquial sense, butches were expected
to be the active partner while femmes were the recipients of butch advances. Indeed, the
butchest of butches, the stone butch, was purported to be so involved in that role that
stone butches would not allow themselves to be touched sexually by femmes at all
(Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993).
Of course, the kinds of practices engaged in are very unclear beyond the
discussion of active/passive partnerships. It remains unclear as to what body parts were
touched or not touched (clitorises? vaginas?) with which body parts (fingers? tongues?)
and whether other implements were involved. The discussion is largely encompassed by
descriptions of urges "to do" or "have done" and what comprises active or passive
engagement. One gets the impression that-not surprisingly-lesbians learned sexual
practices more via sexual experiences than discussion. I address this point more
specifically in Chapter 5.
Proponents of "butch and femme as sexual identities" address the implicit critique
of active/passive sexual practices as potentially imitative of heterosexuality. Lapovsky
Kennedy and Davis (1993) are quick to point out that, although butches were the "doers"
and femmes were recipients, the purpose was for butches to give pleasure, not to take it
as a heterosexual model suggests. They write, "Yet, unlike what transpires in the
dynamics of most heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give
sexual pleasure to a femme. It was in satisfying her femme that the butch received
fulfillment (191)." Thus, they argue for a revision to the paradigm that "active" means
"taker" while "passive" means "out of control."
Other authors provide interesting revisions to the standard notions of
active/passive erotic constructions. Nestle (1992) views butch/femme as "a lesbian
specific way of deconstructing gender that radically reclaims women's erotic energy
(14)." For Nestle, butchness and butch/femme are signals to dominant society of
women's erotic independence from oppressive heterosexual norms. Hollibaugh and
Moraga (1981) also argue positively for the erotically-charged nature of butch/femme
and suggest that feminists should begin to discuss why that eroticism has been shunned.
Both authors speak of sexual identity as being established very early in life and of the
attraction of opposite sexual identities as part of "natural" sexual desire.
Expressing a supportive position on butch and femme sexuality, Newton and
Walton (1984) articulate a popular view that is not often advanced by academic authors.
They suggest that many radical feminists who participated so fervently in erasing gender
norms were the same women who had been involved in butch and femme communities in
prior decades. These women were simply repressing the butch or femme sexual identities
that they held prior to becoming active in radical feminism. One woman retrospectively
expresses this sentiment:
At the height of my college cruising, I was attending Take Back the Night
meetings dressed in Mr. Greenjeans overalls, Birkenstocks, and a bowl
haircut that made me look like I'd just been released from a bad foster
home. There is nothing more pitiful to look at than a closeted femme.
(Walker 1993: 866)
In another work, Newton (1984) discusses how the earlier proto-type of the butch
lesbian-the "mannish lesbian"-"symbolized the stigma of lesbianism (560)." "Cross-
dressing for Hall [Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness, in which the lead
character is a woman who cross-dresses during the W.W.I era] is not a masquerade. It
stands for the New Woman's rebellion against the male order and, at the same time, for
the lesbian's desperate struggle to be and express her true self (570)." For Newton,
butchness is a way of displaying one's sexual identity (one's "true self") via displaying
gender non-conformity. Additionally, this display of non-conformity is not play or
performance. It is real and it has consequences.
Are Butch and Femme "Real" or Performance?
A primary issue for proponents of butch and femme is the experience of
"realness" of these identities. Feminist political arguments against butch and femme as
"roles" and theoretical arguments that understand butch and femme as gender constructs
rely on the assumption that butch or femme could be developed and, hence, are not
innate. The notion that butch and femme could be constructed appears to contest the
"realness" of the phenomena. Proponents of butch and femme tend to take issue with
these theorists and argue that butch and femme feel innate and that they are not actively
controlled or developed. One may work to more actively display a true self, but the true
self is seen as real and original and not consciously developed.
The concept of performance has been applied to re-emergent 1990s butch and
femme, describing them as erotic play or symbolic critiques of gender-as styles rather
than identities or essences (Case 1989; Faderman 1992). Arguably more fluid and
assumable than previously, butch and femme in the 1990s do not necessarily follow the
same strict rules of conduct that governed them in previous decades (although some
would argue they still do). Performance theorists argue that individuals may assume
butchness one day and femmeness the next, or change from butch to femme or vice versa
from one relationship to the next.
Faderman (1992) interprets current butch and femme as erotic play or
performance that develops erotic tension via dichotomous positions. She suggests that
newer butch and femme may be reactions to drab clothing styles introduced by radical
feminism and that feminisms have created a more egalitarian setting for butch/femnme
interaction such that butch/femme is now based on erotic play more than power relations.
Faderman's (1992) feminist interpretation of 1990s butch and femme suggests feminists
should accept them as erotic play and, thus, not threatening to feminist ideals.
Unlike Faderman's interpretation of 1990s butch and femme as absent of power
relations, many authors have argued for feminist interpretations of butch and femme that
accept them as means of symbolically combating dominant gender norms (De Lombard
1995; Case 1989; de Lauretis 1994; Lamos 1994; Morgan 1993). Case (1989) offers an
interpretation of contemporary butch and femme as campy, erotic play that deconstructs
dominant notions of gender. She writes:
In recuperating the space of seduction, the butch-femme couple can,
through their own agency, move through a field of symbols...playfully
inhabiting the camp space of irony and wit, free from biological
determinism, elitist essentialism, and the heterosexist cleavage of sexual
For Case, butch/femme, when taken together, present a critique to dominant
structures of male power (i.e., possession of the phallus). Case suggests that the notion
that two women can create an erotic sexuality without men falsifies the heterosexist ideal
that sexuality is and must be about men. In her analysis, butch and femme are not
identities as much as representations-styles that reduce gender to nothing more than
playing dress up. For Case, it is this ability to view gender as play that subverts notions of
biologically determined gender. De Lauretis (1994) agrees with Case and asserts:
... butch-femme role-playing is exciting not because it represents
heterosexual desire, but because it doesn't; that is to say, in mimicking it,
it shows the uncanny distance, like an effect of ghosting, between desire
(heterosexually represented as it is) and the representation; and because
the representation doesn't fit the actors who perform it, it only points to
their investment in a fantasy-a fantasy that can never fully represent them
or their desire... (109-110)
Newton (1996), an anthropologist who has studied gay male camp, critiques
Case's argument and disagrees that butch and femme are simply camp. Newton suggests
that 1990s butch and femme may possess some elements of camp, but that 1950s butch
and femme were strikingly absent of the theatricality that was present in gay male camp
of the same era. Speaking about butch and femme prior to the late-1980s, Newton writes:
It [butch/femme] was utterly serious, always "for real," completely
different in feeling and tone from the fabulous and bittersweet excesses of
the camp drag queen. ...And until performance theorists came along, no
one positioned lesbian butch-femme as comparable to drag queen-centered
camp, primarily because it had so lacked the element of humor and light
theatricality, the self-conscious play which Case [quoted above] endowed
The work of Judith Butler provides what might be understood as an important
compromise in the debate over "realness." Butler (1996) also equates butch and femme to
drag but not as a theatrical performance. Rather, Butler suggests that drag, including
butch and femme, is performative as is all gender. Butler sees all gender as a constant and
repetitive imitation of an ideal the can never be met. Butler writes, "...gender is a kind of
imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the
very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself (185,
emphasis in original)." So, for Butler, gendered discourses incite performative repetition
of an ideal that is itself non-existent-for lesbians or for heterosexuals. But, their constant
repetition and reproduction becomes part of self and, thus, feels natural and original. In
this sense, Butler's notion ofperformativity is not theatrical, yet it illustrates how
discourses produce subjectivities.
Butler suggests that butch and femme are also performative but that they are
subversive of heterosexual gender imperatives because they cite a gendered sexuality that
cannot exist under those imperatives. Butler writes, "Reconsider then the homophobic
charge that queens and butches and femmes are imitations of the heterosexual real. Here
'imitation' carries the meaning of 'derivative' or 'secondary,' a copy of an origin which
is itself the ground of all copies, but which is itself a copy of nothing (185)."
Drawing on Judith Butler's notion of performativity, Kraus (1996) suggests that
lesbians of the 1950s used butch and femme as categories of sexuality that were
performed and constantly negotiated. Negotiating butch and femme as sexual identities
was the "desire work," a term Kraus has coined, these women performed to create lesbian
communities. Kraus's argument is much like that of Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis, but
Kraus views butch and femme in terms of sexuality, rather than political resistance to
male dominance. Kraus does not view them as erotic play, but discusses them as real
identities to the communities that constructed them and argues that their performances
had real implications for their performers.
Who does butch and femme?
Judging from the consistency of discussions about 1950s butch and femme, one
might expect most lesbian communities of that era to have been ruled by them. However,
some authors suggest some lesbian communities rejected butch and femme. Faderman
(1991) differentiates between butch and femme maintained by working-class lesbians and
the supposed rejection of butch and femme by middle- and upper-class lesbians.
Faderman suggests that, even if "one woman in a couple may have been more naturally
aggressive or more prone to traditionally feminine activities (175)," these differences
were expected to be downplayed, because middle-class lesbians had rules of "propriety
(181)." Faderman writes, "It was crucial in the middle-class lesbian subculture to behave
with sufficient, though never excessive, femininity and not to call attention to oneself as a
lesbian in any way (181)." Newton's (1993) ethnography of the growth of Cherry Grove,
Fire Island, from the 1930s to the 1980s also records a division between working-class
butch and femme lesbians and an older class of wealthy "ladies." Newton suggests that
affluent women avoided butch and femme to hide their stigmatized, lesbian identities
from their families. Although it is not specifically stated, Newton's narrators also imply
that they distanced themselves from butch and femme to avoid association with vulgar,
As Faderman and Newton suggest, social hierarchies were expected to transcend
sexual urges. Gilmartin (1996) provides insightful testimony from the life history of her
middle-class narrator, P.J., who frequented working-class lesbian bars in Colorado in the
1950s and 1960s, yet emphatically insists, "We Weren't Bar People." Gilmartin
concludes that P.J. did indeed engage lesbian communities and share cultural spaces with
working-class lesbians but took great pains to separate herself from both the symbolism
of working-class culture as less sophisticated and the potential for being publicly
recognized as lesbian if she presented herself in certain ways. In my own research
(Crawley 2001), social class seems to be an indicator, not of whether one has interests in
butch and femme erotics or performances, but in whether and where one is willing to
express them. In a review of hundreds of personal ads from the mid-1990s, advertisers
who indicated a middle-class status were less likely to call themselves butch or femrnme
but no less likely to be seeking a butch or femme lover. Consistent with Gilmartin, my
research suggests not so much a difference in engaging certain sexual practices, but a
reluctance for middle-class lesbians to align with what is perceived as working-class.
Some authors attack middle-class centered, radical feminist arguments as elitist
(Smith 1989; Walker 1993). Newton and Walton (1984) note the white, middle-class
nature of "the modem feminist movement." They suggest it is this middle-class influence
that encouraged the "anti-sexual and anti-difference" stance of "the movement" and that
"the movement" was ultimately elitist. Walker (1993) agrees:
The rejection of butch and femme styles by middle- and upper-class
women was frequently tinged with the condescending implication that
"role-play" was evidence of the backwardness, conservatism, and
confusion of working-class lesbians, who were generally depicted as
victims of patriarchal brainwashing. (875)
Similarly, Smith (1989) suggests that radical feminism rejected butch and femme
because radical feminism had its roots in the "class-bound and anti-sexual lesbian
movement of the 1950s and 1960s," largely headed by the assimilationist organization,
Daughters of Bilitis. Smith suggests that the downplaying of lesbian sexuality and similar
rejection of butch and femme by radical feminists were a result of their dominant,
middle-class backgrounds that de-emphasized sexuality. Thus, Smith argues that women
who identify as lesbian for emotional and sexual reasons, especially women of color and
working-class women, may not feel represented by this brand of feminism, including
radical feminism's condemnation of butch and femme.
Another argument centers not so much on elitism as on the difference between
assimilationist and radical politics. As discussed above, Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis'
(1993) study of a working-class lesbian community argues that, as lesbian gender, butch
and femme are a radical political statement about the dominant structures of gender and
sexuality. For their narrators, being butch all the time was a refusal to submit to dominant
gender imperatives; it was a working-class act of subversion.
If a discussion of butch and femme and social class is difficult to resolve, a
discussion of race is nearly non-existent. Reading the literature on butch and femme in
the U.S., one gets the distinct impression that to be lesbian is to be white. Although some
ethnographies record the existence of lesbians of color in largely white butch and femme
communities-for example, Buffalo, NY (Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993)-and others
record black lesbian communities that remained largely segregated from white
communities-for example Memphis (Buring 1997)-it is unclear how black lesbian
identities or the identities of other lesbians of color have been specifically impacted by
the influence of racism. Several authors of Black Feminist Thought have discussed the
complicated interplay of race, class, gender and sexual orientation for lesbians of color
(Clarke 1981; hooks 1989; Lorde 1984; Omosupe 1991). But the relevance of butch and
femme to lesbians of color remains unclear and understudied.
Buring's narrators explain that butch and femme were Eurocentric terms that were
sometimes adopted by black lesbians during the mid-century but sometimes not. Buring's
narrators suggest that "bulldagger" was a much more common (although pejorative) term
for lesbians within African-American culture. Omosupe (1991) agrees on this point.
Additionally, Buring adds that younger narrators discussing lesbian communities of the
1980s and 1990s rejected butch and femme terms altogether. Walker (2001) explains the
politics of erasure for femmes and for lesbians of color as particular issues that make
visibility difficult. She writes:
Each of these assumptions contributes to the double invisibility of the
lesbian of color within the white lesbian community; she is invisible first
as a lesbian, and then there is no perception of her sexual style. .. .That is
to say, while a butch woman of color might not be recognized as a lesbian
because she is not white, she might be perceived as lesbian because her
sexual style is considered 'blatant.' A femme woman of color, on the other
hand, will probably not be recognized as lesbian, first because she is not
white and then because she is not butch. (207)
In my own experience, the recording of experiences for lesbians of color is
difficult because so much segregation exists between white lesbians, who tend to have
access to and control of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered resources, and lesbians of
color, who often choose not to assimilate into those largely white spaces to access
"lesbian" communities. The denial about de facto segregation in contemporary U.S.
culture is immense and remains more than a social problem. Clearly, it is a research issue
and, hence, an impediment to knowledge production as well.
What Do We Want to Know About Butch and Femme and Who Is Asking the
Much of the difficulty in sorting out the debates about butch and femme, as well
as most debates about gender and sexualities, results from the multi-disciplinary origins
of the debaters. The authors are writing from different disciplines; hence, they are
engaged in different kinds of projects. Although butch and femme comprise a common
topic, not all authors are trying to accomplish the same scholarly or political goals. In this
section, I outline the basic varieties of knowledge projects produced on butch and femme.
I sum up my discussion by locating this project both inside and outside those categories.
Community Studies: What's It Like Where You Are?
Ethnographies, or community studies, are a common style of research project that
records the existence of specific communities during particular historical periods. This
project style is undertaken, by historians and anthropologists alike, to record the social
practices of people in certain geographic regions. Some excellent examples of community
studies involving lesbians include Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis' (1993) study of
Buffalo, New York during the 1940s, '50s and '60s; Buring's (1997) study of 1950s to
1990s Memphis; Newton's (1993) study of 1930s to 1980s Cherry Grove, Fire Island;
Gilmartin's (1996) study of 1950s and '60s communities in Colorado; and Franzen's
(1993) study of Albuquerque during the period 1965 to 1980.
The academic project of community studies is simply to document the existence
of certain cultural practices. The communities are expected to stand as testaments only to
their own existence. Hence, none are expected to be "representative" of phenomena in
any other place or time and especially not to reference some all-encompassing idea of
human existence. The best we can hope is to collect as many studies as possible to
identify likenesses across time or place.
Positivists: How Can We Measure Butch and Femme Accurately?
Positivists begin with completely different assumptions. The positivists work to
verify and measure specific phenomena-for example, butch and femme among lesbians-
including other factors correlating with their identification. These scholars tend to assume
that any lesbian identified as butch or femme is somehow true or real and assume the
fixity of these identities-a fixity that transcends time or place. Among this group, the
social and political conditions required to allow for butch and femme to exist as identities
are often assumed or ignored. True to their positivistic stance, these scholars tend to be
more methodologically concerned with accurate measurement. Presumably there is
something real to measure.
The research tends to rely on large-scale surveys administered to self-identified
lesbians with a vast field of questions to be answered. Included in past positivistic
measurements of butch and femme are: the correlation of butch and femme with social
class (Weber 1996); sex roles and power balance in relationships (Caldwell and Peplau
1984; Lynch and Reilly 1986; Rosenzweig and Lebow 1992); the existence of "butch-
femme dichotomies" among gay men (Haist and Hewitt 1974); and whether butch and
femme correlate to why non-lesbians may dislike lesbians (Laner and Laner 1980).
I, too, may be counted among the researchers intent on "counting" butch's and
femme's existence among lesbians. In my article "Are Butch and Femme Working-Class
and Anti-Feminist? (Crawley 2001)," I count the existence of the terms butch and femme
in lesbian personal ads over three decades. While my study was certainly empirical, I
hope it can be seen as not so adamantly in search of "accuracy" as it is concerned with
historical trends of how lesbians report their identities to each other. In this way, I see it
as tracing political trends, hopefully without falling prey to the general critique of overly
A serious critique of this school of thought is the possibility of "accurately"
measuring so slippery a subject as one that is historically-situated, as subjectivity
theorists suggest. Regardless of the putative "objective" nature of these studies and
belying the politics that do exist in them, many of these studies include politically loaded
language in their results. For example, "no evidence of role-playing" was a finding of
more than one study (Caldwell and Peplau 1984; Lynch and Reilly 1986). The theorists
that I describe below would take exception to the attribution of butch and femme as role-
playing, suggesting a concern for the heterosexist assumption that is implicit in
attributing butch and femme to "role-playing" (i.e., imitating heterosexuality).
Philosophies, Politics and Theories: Is There a Lesbian Subjectivity?
Much less concerned with interpreting "data" about lesbians, a variety of scholars
from many disciplines are engaged in theoretical arguments relating to the existence and
political impact of lesbian subjectivities. This project considers the possibility of the
existence of the category "lesbian" (usually in 20th century U.S. culture), often including
the political factors that coalesce to produce both the category and the person (Bulter
1990 and 1993; Case 1989; Emery 2002). This project theorizes "lesbians" as a social
category of late 19th century/20th century invention. Often based on Foucaldian notions of
subjects and subjectivities, this project begins with an assumption that runs counter to
liberal political thought. A rational actor is not presumed. In this project, lesbians do not
create their subjectivities or agentically fashion their identities. Rather, discourses of
desire and gender incite a certain kind of subject to exist. Lesbians do not define
themselves. Rather, historically available discourses (roughly defined as prevailing
political and social ideas) define and produce "lesbians." The project is not about how
individual lesbians define themselves and their communities, but about how certain forms
of thought allow for lesbians to exist as a category. As a result, this project focuses on
histories and discourses as much as the lesbians who purportedly occupy them.
A related project focuses on lesbian politics and responds to Freudian and
sexological thought of the early 20th century that understood female same-sex eroticism
as pathological or underdeveloped psychosis (D'Emilio 1983; Emery 2002; Faderman
1981; Ned Katz 1995). As a result, much scholarly theorizing has worked to produce a
credible moral position for female same-sex erotic expression. The project among these
writers is to understand the available subjectivities of lesbianism and the historical
conditions that made each possible. For example, some issues include: "What is she like?
(Ainley 1995);" "What are the politics of looking like what you are? (Walker 1993, 1998
and 2001);" "Can there be a masculinity without men? (Halberstam 1998);" and "How
shall we imagine lesbian sexuality in the 1990s? (Creith 1996)" This project focuses on
the cultural representations of lesbianism, especially via media.
In both projects, understanding the relationship of texts to knowledge production
is of primary concern. A common, anecdotal critique of this style of work (and I think a
common concern of some of its authors) is that this project is often not accessible to the
lay reader. The lived experience ofbutchness or femmeness is overshadowed by the
expertness of the theories provided. Individual lesbians are all but silent. The last
category in my schema of lesbian knowledge-making attempts to address this problem.
Dyke Description: Let Me Tell You How I Feel.
Concurrent with the advent of second wave feminism and lesbian and gay civil
rights movements, lesbians seem to have been compelled to write about their own
experiences as the official and authoritative record of lesbianism. (See for example Abbot
and Love 1972, Grahn 1984, Martin and Lyon 1972). Much of this work has the feel of
authors frustrated over the "incorrect" representation of themselves and their lives in
(largely positivistic) academic texts and politically-motivated popular texts, especially
during the late 1960s to early 1980s era. These authors base the legitimacy of their
writings on their own life experiences. Some activist scholars wrote in this style to call
for political attention to feminist censure of butch and femme (Hollibaugh and Moraga
1981; Nestle 1981). More recent examples still wrestle with feminist ideals and the
appropriateness of pursuing butch or femme interests (De Lonbard 1995). Other
examples of this style include collections of dyke descriptions of many non-academic
authors, often with some editing and analysis on the part of the more academically
trained editor (Ainley 1995; Burana, Roxxie and Due 1994; Harris and Crocker 1997;
Nestle 1992; Weston 1996).
These works incite academic theorists to include lesbian voices critiquing
academic theory as not descriptive of "real" lesbian lives (Esterberg 1997). But as dyke
description has developed, more traditionally trained academics have gotten into the
game by combining personal life experiences with analyses. (Hollibaugh 2000; Munt
1998a and 1998b). These works have now become both deeply theoretical and personally
empirical. Again, I find my own work relating to these genres as one of my own
publications is produced in this style, which combines academic analysis with personal
testament (Crawley 2002). I include that article as Chapter 3 of this dissertation.
This dissertation relies on all these projects to complete my task. But it utilizes
only strategic instances of each to attempt a different project. I am sympathetic to the
goals of many of these projects. I applaud efforts to document lesbian history in
communities to include these histories in the knowledge base of human experiences. I
also applaud efforts of lesbians to record their own lives. If academics strive to document
and analyze human experience, surely lesbians' records of their own lives will be
valuable in this project. I find it useful to "count" lesbians, given certain ethical
parameters and credible assumptions. Counting is another form of documenting and is
invaluable in evaluating certain measures-for example, social inequalities. I am
especially intrigued by theories of lesbian subjectivities. I find the relationship between
discourses and individuals a defining interest of sociology. I agree that discourses create
limited subject positions, which greatly complicates the possibility of a free-thinking,
rational actor. But I worry about the disappearance of the individual from theories of
lesbian subjectivities. A free-thinking, rational actor with full autonomy and agency may
be a simplistic notion. But as sociologists well know, individuals do speak. As Blumer
asserted, the empirical world has a tendency to "talk back" to social science. Blumer
One errs if he [sic] thinks that since the empirical world can exist for
human beings only in terms of images or conceptions of it, therefore
reality must be sought in images or conceptions independent of an
empirical world. Such a solipsistic position is untenable and would make
empirical science impossible. The position is untenable because of the fact
that the empirical world can "talk back" to our pictures of it or assertions
about it-talk back in the sense of challenging and resisting, or not bending
to, our images or conceptions of it. This resistance gives the empirical
world an obdurate character that is the mark of reality. (22)
Here Blumer still gives the academician too much legitimacy, in that his
description places academicians as the scribes of "our" social science. But he offers an
important reminder that the empirical world talks. Individuals do speak and, although
their stories may be constrained by publicly available discourses, they still participate in
the telling. My project is not so much to argue about authorship as it is to listen to
lesbian's self stories. By listening to their stories of self, I hope to learn, not just about the
ways that self is constructed, but what stories of self tell us about the discourses that
make them possible.
Changing the Analysis:
Butch and Femme as Narrative Resources for Storying Selves
In this dissertation, I have two goals. First, I intend to listen and take seriously
lesbians' ideas of themselves. As a self-described lesbian and one who is sympathetic to
the lives of women who are non-normatively sexual, I want to believe lesbians and allow
them to tell me what is pertinent regarding whom they think they are in the social world.
Second, I ask not whether butch and femme are "real" (that is, the origins of urges) but
why the need for realness is important. That is, I use lesbians' stories of self to analyze,
not so much lesbians, as the discourses that lesbians have at their disposal to story a self.
More specifically, I investigate how lesbians narrate butch and femme as parts of
self and as means to participate in communities and disrupt institutions. I begin with the
assumption that butch and femme are narrative resources for storying selves (Holstein
and Gubrium 2000). Drawing from a constructionist perspective, the project is concerned
less with what butch and femme are, than with how they are used to make sense of
lesbian lives. Hence, I understand butch and femme as useful ideas emergent from the
local experiences of women with non-normative sexual interests living in a heterosexist,
deeply gendered, everyday world. And, I argue that the notions of butch and femme tell
us as much about the world in which we all live as about the individual lesbians
Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) notion of the narrative self we live by works to
explain how butch and femme as narrative resources can be both elective and not fully
conscious. It borrows from and augments Foucaldian notions of subjectivity by attending
to how the individual process of person production works, all the while understanding
how the available subject positions provide options for what may be understood as
socially possible. In this way, we can understand both the individual experience of person
production as well as the disciplining of individuals into proscribed subjectivities.
The project is based on interviews with focus groups, couples and individuals
with lesbians in and around a suburban, university town. I purport that the narrators of
my project represent, not just a geographic community (although I recognize that certain
features of this community will reflect some traits of the rural/suburban South, where it is
located), but a position in suburban US life that straddles a national LGBT "community"
replete with a barrage of nationally available media, stigma from the dominant US
culture, local community organizing, relationship issues, and a search to define self and
make sense of the world. It represents not so much a place (although I am proud to offer a
queer viewpoint that is not from hyper-urban New York or San Francisco) as it is
discourses and experiences that allow lesbians in suburban settings to construct stories of
In this introductory chapter, I have summarized the literature and debates on
butch and femme to date. Chapter 2 of the dissertation outlines the amalgamation of
methods that I used for this research. In this chapter, I briefly discuss a variety of
interpretive approaches proposed by several authors and explain how each aided in
completing my analysis in these chapters. Taking seriously the notion of a "sociology of
stories" (Plummer 1995) and storied selves (Holstein and Gubrium 2000), I provide my
own story of self in Chapter 3, both to situate myself in relationship to my narrators and
to advance a theory ofbutchness as an interpretation and display of ableness for female-
bodied persons. In the remaining chapters in the dissertation, I analyze the talk of my
narrators and address in detail the self "stories" of my narrators.
Chapter 4 demonstrates how the discourses surrounding butch and femme
encourage a sense of measurement of public lesbian selves. In doing so, I note the ways
in which lesbians continue to be held accountable to heteronormative notions of gender
and sexuality and produce a scientistic standard around which conformity and
subjectivity can be understood.
Chapter 5 focuses on the production of private lesbian selves and the limited
language available for understanding sexuality outside of heteronormative models.
Noting the pervasiveness of physical science metaphors, in particular "opposites attract,"
I argue that butch/femme becomes a default model for understanding lesbian sexuality,
given that any possibility of an erotics of likeness or sameness is squelched by
accountability to heteronormative models.
Finally, in Chapter 6, I discuss some variations of self-narration among lesbians
based on material circumstances including class, race and age difference. Having noted
these differences, I make some conjectures about the impacts of second wave and third
wave feminisms on lesbian political generations. In sum, I hope this project informs
lesbians and theorists how an analysis of everyday talk can illuminate the power of
discourse and of individuals' discursive practices.
LOOKING UP AT DISCOURSE:
INTERPRETIVE THEORIES AND METHODOLOGIES OF SELF PRODUCTION
Although this project is based on a theoretically well-developed interpretive
tradition in sociology (for a brief review of the interpretive tradition, see Holstein and
Gubrium 1994), there is no singular, easily identifiable method that I utilized in
accomplishing this project. Indeed, a step-by-step methodology that produces a concrete
answer is anathema to the interpretive tradition. Instead, I used the ideas of many
methodologists working within the interpretive tradition, piecing together their various
additions to the interpretive paradigm, to address my research question. Ultimately, I
want to know how lesbians come to understand self and what those stories of self tell us
about the everyday world in which we live. Tactically, I accomplish this through focus
groups, couples and individual interviews, fieldwork and autoethnography. Hence, this
chapter on methodology proposes to explain, not just the actual research techniques that I
employed, but the theoretical underpinnings of those approaches.
In this chapter, I investigate how selves are produced through talk. In doing so, I
address how we can theorize the construction of symbolic selves while honoring the
world of material experiences. I begin by introducing Plummer's (1995) interactionist
notion of "a sociology of stories" to explain why sexual and gendered life stories are
relevant to understanding culture. Next, I discuss the usefulness of theorizing storied
selves and introduce Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) notion of the "self we live by,"
which is created through interpretive practice. In order to attend to feminist concerns of
inequality, I augment the discussion with Dorothy Smith's notion of "looking up" at
institutions from the perspective of the individual. Having established a methodological
agenda, I conclude by outlining the research design and parameters and some "real
world" complications to that design that recognizes the sometimes messy issues of being
both researcher and community member.
Understanding a World of Stories
In Telling Sexual Stories (1995), Ken Plummer produces a decidedly
interactionist theory of the social world when he writes, "Society itself may be seen as a
textured but seamless web of stories emerging everywhere through interaction: holding
people together, pulling people apart, making societies work (5)." Reality, for Plummer,
is a world of stories we tell to each other and ourselves to make sense of our lives. Our
stories comprise our experiences, thoughts, feelings and the narratives available to
produce them. They provide for us the means for everyday people to understand everyday
lives. Plummer sees stories as a prime site for social science investigation. Hence,
researchers are not describing a concrete reality (in which positivistic Scientists, with a
capital "S," are interested) as much as a social reality produced by and for everyday
people. Nonetheless, this social reality has consequences for human interaction (Thomas
and Thomas 1928). It becomes real.
Plummer's main concern is the production of sexual stories. He notes a
proliferation of sexual stories in the late 20th century. He wants to know, not so much
what kind of sex is practiced, but what kind of knowledge is available about sexual
interaction to produce changes in the ways sexuality is understood and discussed. What
kinds of stories are being told? Why are they being told now, as opposed to some point in
the past? What stories are not told? Through analyses of stories about sex, Plummer
attends to not just sexuality but a cultural climate that makes certain kinds of discussions
possible. In a very nearly Foucauldian approach, Plummer concentrates not so much on
how the discourses/stories produce certain kinds of subjects but on how the stories
themselves could have come into being. Like Foucault (1977 and 1978), Plummer is
concerned with the specific discourses that are available at specific points in history. But
he wants to know how a variety of new stories proliferate from those discourses. He
provides a five step generic process for the telling of sexual stories: imagining,
articulating, inventing identities, creating social worlds and communities, and creating a
culture of public problems.3 Through this process, Plummer notes that in the everyday
world, people make sense of their realities through the only discourses available to them.
Plummer would understand the production of butch and femme as just such a
sexual story. Butch and femme emerged in the mid-20th century-in the very historical
moment in which Plummer notes a proliferation of sexual stories. It is interesting to note
that although butch and femme are often discussed as gendered constructs as I noted in
Chapter 1, they appeared on the social landscape as a sexual story-one of butches as the
sexual performer while femmes were the sexual recipients (Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis
1993). Myriad other stories have augmented butch and femme stories since then,
including different accounts of sexual aggressiveness and their relationship to gender.
Whether sexual urges rule gendered performances or gendered interests rule sexual
practices, it is clear that the language of sexual urges and gendered interests are
3 It is worth noting that Plummer does not see this as a simple linear process with distinct
phases. Rather, he is simply identifying the generic parts of the process that allows sexual
stories to emerge through social interaction.
inextricably intertwined. But sexual stories are not just free floating discourses about
social worlds; they are intimately crafted stories of self. Plummer writes, "The focus here
is neither on the solitary individual life (which is in principle unknown and unknowable),
nor on the text (which means nothing standing on its own), but on the interactions which
emerge around story telling. Stories can be seen as joint actions (20)." People are
understood as active producers of stories. Hence, a theory of social selves is necessary.
Narrating Social Selves
Holstein and Gubrium (2000) provide just such a notion of a narrative self by
noting that the self is not simply an abstract process or structure that can be referred to in
unitary terms. Instead, they ground the self in the everyday, local world as an
interactionally-produced entity by which individuals understand their experiences. They
suggest that social selves should be understood as "selves we live by." By this, they
mean the self is a story about ourselves that individuals agentcially create from socially
available narrative resources-locally produced social narratives that explain experiences
and positions in the culture (i.e., identities). Their theory is based in a pragmatist tradition
of modem theories of self, which bears a brief explanation here.
The modem notion of self has been a key sociological concept for nearly as long
as sociology has existed. Although other pragmatists theorized about the self, Mead's
notion of self is a distinctively social and, hence, sociologically useful one. Mead's
general thesis is that the self emerges through social interaction. Arguing against Freud's
internal ego and Watson's social conditioning theories, Mead's (1934) notion of self is
neither existent prior to social interaction nor wholly determined by social institutions. It
is mutually implicated in and constructed through social interaction. Mead writes, "The
self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises
in social experience (140)." Mead's assertion is that the self exists (it is a social object or
"thing") but only because of its production through social interaction. The nature of self
as object is of central importance to Mead because, as an object, the self exists apart from
the body or natural entity. It exists as a social entity-an entity of language, neither before
nor separate from the meaning making that occurs through language.
Mead characterizes the production of self as an internal conversation using
significant symbols. Social interaction is comprised of meaningful symbols (i.e.,
language) offered as "verbal gestures." Mead suggests that thought begins with an
attempt to predict what an "other" is thinking and then proceeds with an individual
expression of how to react to the predicted thoughts of others. As a reaction to the
behaviors of others, Mead's understanding of thought is one that must be emergent
through social interaction. Neither thought nor self can exist outside the social world.
Borrowing from Mead, Blumer (1969) took off with this notion of "objects" in
"the 'worlds' that exist for human beings" in his development of the "position of
symbolic interaction (10)." Blumer is concerned with the process of meaning-making
through interactions among individuals. His notion of the social world is the world of
meanings that actors construct and use for interaction. Further, Blumer argues that the
self emerges in everyday social interaction. This tradition provides just the support that
Holstein and Gubrium need to describe thinking, creative selves that are bound by the
social stories available to narrate lives.
In Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) formulation, the self is accomplished through
the process of interpretive practice, which is comprised of both discursive practice and
discourses-in-practice. The notion of discursive practice borrows from
ethnomethodologists the idea that selves are not just a substantive thing but also a social
accomplishment. They are practices to be "done." The aim is to note how members
speak themselves into existence via their own use of theory-produced as stories of self.
Using their own discursive practices, how do they accomplish the selves they set out to
But Holstein and Gubrium also want to know about substantive constraints on
constructing that self. This is their notion of discourses-in-practice. Using a Foucauldian
notion of cultural discourses, they describe how narratives about self are constrained by
the local discourses that are already in place in the local, everyday experience. Selves
cannot be freely bandied about. They are constrained by meaningful discourses, or
narrative resources, from which members must borrow. Narrative resources are the
stories from which we draw in discursive practice and are constrained by the discourses-
in-practice that regulate the available stories to be told. For example, "man," "woman,"
"heterosexual," "bisexual," are linguistic resources that define for us the meaning of
bodies and the varieties of sexuality that may define them. It is unfathomable to speak of
gender or sexuality existing outside many of these predefined notions.
One further theoretical note should made before trying to understand how butch
and femme are storied. The process of interpretive practice is one that must always take
place within local culture (Holstein and Gubrium 2000). The world of our experience is
a local one-one of tactical interaction for each of us. Because it is formed through our
interactive experiences, the culture that is available in the local, everyday setting is the
framework that we must use for understanding our experiences. Hence, it must be clear
that interpretive practice is always situated within local culture for each individual.
Thus, interpretive practice is both creative and constrained. It is accomplished in
the local, everyday experience of interaction and reflects the story of self that each
individual uses to make sense of their experiences.
Butch and Femme and Heteronormativity
Butch and femme, then, are stories that emerge from a particular location within a
historically-specific social system (the intersections of gender and sexuality for women
with same-sex desires in a patriarchal, heterosexist, Western culture). Patriarchally
proscribed notions of gender (Lorber 1994) 4 and compulsory heterosexuality (Rich 1986)
are discourses that limit and constrain the ways in which intimate interaction can be
imagined, discussed, and made coherent (Jeffreys 1996). Ingraham (1996) pushes these
concepts together to argue that gender theorists should not speak of "gender" but rather of
"heterogender" because dominant constructions of gender are so bound with notions of
sexuality as to "naturalize the institution of heterosexuality (179)." Richardson (1996)
agrees, referring to "heteronormativity" or the "institutionalized ...form of practice and
relationships, of family structure, and identity. It is constructed as a coherent, natural,
fixed and stable category; as universal and monolithic (2)." With the pervasiveness of the
heterogendered discourse, there is no possibility of stepping completely outside this
coherence system. However, there are ways to negotiate within it.
4 An incredibly large literature provides both theory and empirical evidence of the notion
of patriarchal gender. Lorber's Paradoxes of Gender (1994) provides a very useful and
extensive review of that literature.
Through the artful process of self-production, lesbians use aspects of the
heteronormative discourse. That is, lesbians create self through the culturally mandated,
institutionalized sexual story to which we are all bound and which makes all gender
coherent. But through notions of butch and femme, lesbians also restructure and critique
the heteronormative system. Holstein and Gubrium (1997; 2000) note that selves are not
just produced in totality but, rather, are artfully constructed and narratively composed.
Through the process of composing a self, a member uses several narrative tools. One, in
particular, is narrative editing, in which members actively retell a familiar tale however
with unfamiliar twists. Holstein and Gubrium (2000) write, "[People narrating self]
needn't reproduce particular coherences, even if there are local imperatives suggesting
that they do so, although storytellers are accountable for veering off locally preferred
courses (113)." Fortunately for lesbians, occupying non-normative sexual status provides
an opportunity to narratively and interactionally edit dominant notions ofheterogender.
Heteronormativity may be constraining, but, as Holstein and Gubrium (2000) add, the
telling of personal stories (that is, narrative practice) allows individuals to exert agency
by actively constructing themselves within the regulatory constraints of the coherent
discourses. Hence, as actively constructed non-normative positions in the normative
discourses of gender and sexuality, butch and femme actually talk lesbians into being.
Butch and femme are pervasive and persistent over time as constructs, not because they
imitate heterosex, but because the regulatory regimes of heteronormativity have been so
ever-present and oppressive in 20th century U.S. culture. Once "butch" and "femme"
categories have been talked into being, they become narrative resources for the further
future production of selves, communities and political resistance.
The Coherence of Heteronormativity as a Going Concern
Before moving on, I think a brief note on coherence is important. Narrative
resources must always be coherent within the discourses on which they depend. They are
not free floating and randomly created. They work within the pervasive discourses that
make a particular culture coherent. To argue that narrative resources must be coherent is
not to suggest they are accurate, real or removed from political interests. In fact, quite the
opposite is true. Linde (1993), a linguist, notes that coherence is "a property of texts" (12)
that has more to do with the familiarity of actors with a particular kind of story or setting,
than any absolute truth. Coherence is largely a context in which speaking can be
understood. Linde writes:
Coherence must also be understood as a cooperative achievement of the
speaker and the addressee; it is not an absolute property of a disembodied,
unsituated text. The speaker works to construct a text whose coherence
can be appreciated, and at the same time the addressee works to reach
some understanding of it as a coherent text and to communicate that
Here Linde addresses speech acts in much the same way Goffminan (1959)
described performative presentations of self. Both theorists suggest that actors/speakers
are responsible to each other to accomplish a coherent interaction. Hence, both must use a
recognizable context to accomplish an interaction with an other.
Linde goes on to say that, linguistically, this is accomplished via coherence
systems-a "global cultural device for structuring experience into socially sharable
narrative (163)." The interesting feature of Linde's notion of coherence systems is the
interplay between "expert" knowledge and "common sense." She writes:
A coherence system of the type discussed here is a system of beliefs that
occupies a position midway between common sense -the beliefs and
relations between beliefs that any person in the culture may be assumed to
know (if not to share) and that anyone may use-and expert systems,
which are beliefs and relations between beliefs held, understood, and
properly used by experts in a particular domain. A coherence system is a
system of beliefs derived from some expert system, but used by someone
with no corresponding expertise or credentials. (163, emphasis in original)
In making the claim of a difference between "experts" and lay persons, I do not
believe Linde intends to reify some hierarchy of knowledge. At least, that is not my
intention. Rather, the distinction provides for the means by which so-called expert
knowledge can be taken out of theoretical context by a lay person. My colleagues often
differentiate between scholarship and what might be called "pop sociology or
psychology." For example, the notion that men are from Mars and women are from
Venus is patently ridiculous to a scholarly gender theorist, but nonetheless it is used to
support any number of political interests, given that the book suggesting such an idea
(Gray 1992) was widely discussed in the popular media. Probably originating from
Freudian notions of gender difference, it greatly misreads the scholarly work produced on
gender, especially the well-developed literature on the essentialism/constructionism
debate. Still, in practice, individuals nationwide probably use it to theorize their own life
situations because it seems to shore up the existence of gender difference in U.S. culture
Thinking of heteronormativity as a coherence system offers not just a notion of
how these ideas are spread as discourse, but a means of understanding how the original
works of Freud, Kinsey, and others have been read and interpreted and reinterpreted by a
variety of "experts" and lay theorists for a variety of political interests. In addition to
academically produced theory (which, of course, is also embroiled in political concerns
but at least hopefully is bound by some ethic of procedure and depth of analysis or
critique), the concept of coherence systems provides the voice of the lay person in
theorizing from the narratives available through so-called common sense. Noting the
potential for misinterpretation is not so much about who gets it right or gets it wrong but
how lay persons use theory that is mediated by the politics of popular media sources. For
as Linde argues, we can only speak of what makes sense, not only to the speaker but to
the listener as well.
Linde's notion of coherence systems as a means for theorizing everyday lives
illuminates how particular stories about sexuality and gender persist over time even with
little scholarly support. As Rubin argues in "The Traffic in Women (1975)," Freud's
psychoanalytic theory of the preeminence of the phallus may work as description of the
social world but it is no justification for men's on-going political power. Nonetheless,
individual men (and often women too) continue to justify their own sexist behavior based
on some essentialist belief that possession of the penis is somehow better than possession
of a vagina. With little scholarly utility, Freudian theory still pervades common sense
understanding and usage. Sex is still understood as something men do to women (Frye
1992) and gender is still understood as inherent in the body (Lorber 1993, 1994, and
1996). Speaking through the discourses of heteronormativity is to some degree required
for notions about sexuality and gender to be coherent. Indeed, lesbians may well wish to
express selves that are outside ofheteronormativity, but doing so may render them
Nonetheless, I have been in a quandary as to how Lorber (1994) and others can
talk of gender as institutionalized and yet there is no institution-no place to go, no
building to house the texts. How, then, can gender be institutional? Everett C. Hughes
(1971) provides the solution by recognizing that "institutions," as the preferred object of
analysis for sociologists, have been over-legitimized as actual places or definable
organizations. Instead, Hughes is interested in more ethereal arrangements he calls
"going concerns," which he defines as "having existed at least long enough to have been
seen" and as "having a present existence and an historical dimension (54)." The
coherence ofheteronormativity becomes a going concern for individuals speaking their
selves. The institutional character of gender/heteronormativity derives from the
commitment of people to keep speaking it-to continue to use it as a coherence system.
Unfortunately, as the only coherence system that is widely available, most individuals are
left with little choice but to reference heteronormativity and, hence, maintain it as a going
concern. Heteronormativity, then, as institutional coherence system, perpetuates itself as
a going concern for members as they speak their ideas, concerns, interests and selves into
Looking Up at Institutionalized Heteronormativity
In this project, I begin from the view of the individual looking up at the
institutionalized going concern of heteronormativity. In writing what she calls a
"Sociology for Women," Dorothy Smith (1987) suggests a method (which she calls
institutional ethnography) of "looking up" at institutions from the individual's point of
view.5 Smith argues that this method illuminates the workings of institutions by noting
the processes of participation in those institutions. She wants to understand how "social
relations exist as extended sequences of action which link together individuals'
5 While Dorothy Smith expressly speaks of a "Sociology for Women" and "institutional
ethnography" in her book The Everyday World as Problematic, the notion of "looking
up" at institutions from the perspective of the individual was one she communicated
during a group discussion of Institutional Ethnography that I attended at the August 2000
meetings of the American Sociological Association in Washington, D.C.
experiences and institutional processes (Grahame 356)." Smith's assumption is that
institutional discourse is in the speech of those participating in and ruled by that
institution. Institutional language is there because it is practiced and it is available and
because to avoid using institutional language would render the interaction incoherent.
She envisions institutional processes as the "relations of ruling" that affect individual
experience as "bifurcated consciousness."
Smith's overarching concern is for the oppression of women, understood through
women's lived experiences rather than through extralocal structures of knowledge. She
situates her work as feminist standpoint research. Centrally concerned with
understanding raced, classed and gendered oppression (in the Marxist sense), it is
definitionally a critical perspective (Calhoun 1995; Denzin 1994). Smith suggests that
late capitalism has helped to create a social atmosphere in which such ideas as markets,
government, and politics become reified into larger-than-life structures with anonymous
actors that remove consciousness from the everyday, local world. She defines the
relations of ruling as follows: "When I write of 'ruling' in this context I am identifying a
complex of organized practices, including government, law, business and financial
management, professional organization, and educational institutions as well as the
discourses in texts that interpenetrate the multiple sites of power (3)."
This complex ordering of social life creates an atmosphere in which emphasis is
placed on the "extralocal," rather than the local. Further, the extralocal, disembodied
relations of ruling exist largely as institutional discourses that organize everyday lives.
Institutional discourse exists beyond the individuals who participate in institutions.
Smith writes, "The relations of ruling are rationally organized. They are objectified,
impersonal, claiming universality. Their gender subtext has been invisible (4)."
The rational, universal understanding of institutional processes creates what Smith
calls bifurcated consciousness-a split between the knowerr" and the "known." She
writes, "Forms of consciousness are created that are properties of organization or
discourse rather than of individual subjects (3)." Consciousness is removed from the
individual and given to systems. Smith writes:
Entering the governing mode of our kind of society lifts the actor out of
the immediate local and particular place in which she is in the body. She
uses what becomes present to her in this place as a means to pass beyond
it to the conceptual order. This mode of action creates a bifurcation of
consciousness, a bifurcation, of course, that is present for all those
participating in this mode of action. It establishes two modes of knowing,
experiencing, and acting-one located in the body and in the space that it
occupies and moves into, the other passing beyond it. And although I
have made use of the feminine pronoun in general, it is primarily men who
are active in this mode. (82)
Importantly, Smith sees this consciousness as a gendered consciousness in that the
relations of ruling are largely structured by men and exclusionary of women's voices.
Since women's lives are often required to be centered around the local and men can often
escape their relationship to the local, bifurcated consciousness is particularly troubling for
women. Women's voices are often excluded from the realm of the extralocal, public
ruling apparatus, yet their experiences in the local are not taken as a basis for knowledge.
Hence, men not only control the ruling apparatus, they largely own knowledge.
Billed as a "sociology for women" (Smith 1987) and a "strategy for feminist
inquiry," (DeVault 1999) Smith's critique of current sociological practice is a
distinctively feminist one (Olesen 1994). In particular, she is critical of the notion of
objectivity that establishes a knower/known relationship in which scientists are called to
observe respondents and report on them from the distance, producing knowledge for the
ruling regime, rather than knowledge for women.
To address the shortcomings that Smith notes in current sociological practice, she
devises an alternate method, institutional ethnography, as a feminist method of inquiry.
Institutional ethnography is a means of putting the everyday world at the center of study.
The everyday world is taken as the site of study-the problematic-of sociology (Grahame
1998). In this way both the relations of ruling and the world of the everyday (as
organized by the relations of ruling) are exposed. Smith writes:
Locating the standpoint of women in the everyday world outside the text
(in which the text is written and is read) creates a whole new set of
problems to be solved, problems of the relationship between text and
reader, problems of how to write texts that will not transcribe the subject's
actualities into the relations of ruling, texts that will providefor their
readers a way of seeing further into the relations organizing their lives.
(emphasis added, 47)
To create an institutional ethnography, a researcher must start from the narratives
produced and practiced in the everyday world. The researcher must engage in
observation of everyday practice and in interviewing people about their local, everyday
livesfrom the standpoint of experiencing those everyday practices and narratives.
Using institutional ethnography, one does not view "the field" as a site, the thing
studied, or become overly concerned with the poetics of representation. Instead, Smith
compels us to study localpractice in order to shed light on the discourses and organizing
structures that hold these local cultures in place. The aim is to understand local practices
from the standpoint of practitioners so as to understand the actual structuring powers of
The works of Smith, Plummer and Holstein and Gubrium segue nicely because
they have much in common. All three envision themselves as pragmatists-interested in
the everyday world of social interaction. Their interests lie not in texts themselves but the
narratives produced through locally-situated, historically-specific social interaction.
Plummer is especially consistent with Holstein and Gubrium's approach. Both find a
basis in Foucauldian notions of discourse within interpretive notions of social practice.
Their differences lie largely in their divergent focus. Holstein and Gubrium are concerned
with the kinds of selves that can be narrated within specific local cultures. They address
the narratives that produce certain types of individuals: What kinds of identities are
available to exist within cultural settings? Plummer focuses on the stories told by
individuals with greatest concern for what can be learned about the social context: What
do the individuals' stories tell us about the historical moment?
Similar to Plummer, Smith is more concerned with what individuals' narratives
tell us about social settings-in particular for Smith, institutions. But her departure from
Plummer is her overarching, feminist concern for women's condition of inequality. Here,
she is more true to her Marxist background than the Foucauldian leanings of Plummer
and Holstein and Gubrium. Smith's ultimate concern is to describe why women
experience the social world so differently from-and less favorably than-men. Also a
feminist standpoint theorist, I share her overarching concern. I believe sociologists fail to
describe the social world when they neglect to include an analysis of its major organizing
principles-gender, race, class and sexuality. Hence, Smith's concerns are a useful
addition to Holstein and Gubrium's and Plummer's approaches. Yet, Smith's approach is
not without its problems.
Smith's reliance on Marx leaves her less well situated to describe the creative
agency of actors. It focuses very well on the constraints of institutions but neglects the
possibility for individual negotiation within restrictive institutions. Her description of
power continues to focus on institutional forces, implying that group action against
institutions is the primary means for true social change. What I demonstrate in later
chapters is that, through using interpretive practice (i.e., individual and community talk
that produces new interpretations of reality), lesbians attempt to move beyond the
discourses that constrain them. Hence, change can begin to happen on the individual level
as well as through community action and social movement participation.
Using all these approaches in concert allows me to address agentic actors and
oppressive institutions. Using Holstein and Gubrium's approach, I focus on the selves
that are available within institutional discourses. Using Smith's and Plummer's
approaches, I focus on institutional settings and discourses available during specific
historical moments. In this way, I hope to describe lesbian experiences of gender and
sexuality and the broader context in which they occur.
Storying Lesbian Selves in a Heteronormative World-Tactics and Methods
In this dissertation, I collect lesbian stories about butch and femme. I do so by
interviewing women interacting in lesbian communities about their experiences with
butch and femme-positive and negative, personal and observed, participating or
avoiding. In short, I listen to what lesbians have to say to each other and to me about
butch and femme. I listen to how they produce their interpretation of themselves, with or
without butch or femme, and I listen to how butch or femme as institutional discourses
shape or constrain their ability to interpret themselves freely. I did not restrict my
interviews to lesbians who self-identified as "butch" or "femme" or some form of those. I
wanted to hear what a variety of lesbians had to say about butch and femme. Hence, this
dissertation is not the story of butches and femmes. It is the relationship of the ideas of
butch and femme to lesbian stories.
Taking the notion about storying selves seriously, my goal is not to find a specific
thing about butch or femme or lesbian sexuality or gender. Rather, my goal is to let the
members speak for themselves-to let the stories flow.
As a feminist researcher, I am not trying to maintain objectivity (Fonow and Cook
1991). I cannot go as a third person observer into "the field."6 1 live in "the field." I met
many of my narrators casually or through work settings before seeking narrators. As a
result, many narrators know me, and some of the context of my life and research. I have
played softball and basketball with some, had my hair cut by one, gone to bars and
concerts and dinners with various, gone to faculty organization meetings with one or two,
gone to student organization meetings with many, lived in the same neighborhood as
some and crossed paths with most in bookstores or restaurants or on the street or on
campus. I lived and worked in the general area of my interviews for four years. Often, my
narrators would refer to situations or acquaintances that we may have had in common.
Often, they would question me about my identification or relationships or sexual
interests. Surely, this is not a situation of objectivity.
6 In the classic sense of anthropological study, cultures are studied as foreign objects to
the researcher (Abu-Lughod 1991; Atkinson and Hammersley 1994). Interviewing and
fieldwork are used to "discover" the existent setting as a natural world in itself. [For
examples of these kinds of methods, see Emerson, Fretz and Shaw (1995); Lofland and
Lofland (1995).] Critiquing such an approach, postmodernist ethnographers are more
occupied with how the process of doing anthropology itself "writes culture" (Clifford and
Marcus 1986). Griffith refers to this as the insider/outsider debate, in which she calls for
researchers to more critically examine our positions as both insiders and outsiders (1998).
She is not satisfied with understanding the researcher as either insider or outsider, but
compels us to understand our positions both inside and outside the local.
As an active interviewer, I recognize that during each interview session I have
already asked narrators to step outside their everyday lives just by asking them to reflect
upon themselves (Holstein and Gubrium 1995). Surely my interventions cannot produce a
"natural" setting. So the interviews that I undertook were purposefully unstructured,
lasting varying lengths of time, with no specific goals except to ask members to talk
about themselves and to talk about butch and femme.
Nonetheless, I did have a general set of questions from which I worked to spur
members to think about certain general topics, which were garnered from the literature on
butch and femme as reviewed in Chapter 1. The general topics began with "what does the
term 'butch' or the term 'femme' mean to you?" and proceeded by prompting members
to think about historical aspects of butch and femme, their relationship to appearance
and/or sexuality, race and class, inner feelings, perceptions about non-lesbians and their
conjectures about ideal communities. The questions were designed to prompt members to
think about both themselves and their place in lesbian communities. But members were
allowed to move the discussion in any direction while I actively interacted to ensure I had
a clear understanding of their accounts. If members did not discuss a particular issue, I
asked them to think about its relevance. Sometimes, members launched into a new
discussion of that relevance. Sometimes, they simply said certain aspects were not that
relevant for them. In either case, the prompting was not used to ask them to "get the
answer right" so much as to ask them what they thought. How do lesbians perceive the
existence or lack of existence of butch and femme in their lives?
I think a brief statement of ethics is necessary. As sponsored research through the
University of Florida, I adhered strictly to the rules and guidelines of the Institutional
Review Board to protect the ethics of the project and the confidentiality of the
participating members. I adhered strictly to the process for obtaining consent and have
been constantly vigilant of the need to maintain confidentiality. As a result, only
pseudonyms have been used in this dissertation. No actual identities will be used except
for my own.
I pursued multiple types of interviews-focus groups and individual and couples
interviews. My interest was to invoke members to speak in a variety of settings where
their status as lesbian might be relevant. I wanted to know how members talked in
community settings, how they interacted in couples and what they thought of themselves
on a most intimate level. Where possible, I completed focus groups and asked those
participants to participate in couples interviews followed by individual interviews.
However, this method was not strictly adhered to as some members were not available
for the entire barrage of interviews. Some members completed all three interviews, some
participated in only an individual interview or only the focus group interview or only the
In total, I held three focus groups that loosely reflect the major social groups for
lesbians in the area; and my partner and I participated in one group meeting in which I
was invited to both participate as a member and ask others to reflect about their thoughts.
I also held eight couples interviews and twenty-seven individual interviews (of which 2
took place via e-mail).
Demographically, my narrators were relatively diverse with the exception of one
dimension-race. The vast majority of my narrators are white (34), two are African
American and one is Asian American. The extent of the racial divide in the area surprised
even me. Although I did some exploratory work to include more women of color, I
determined that racial communities in the area were largely separate, such that pursuing
more communities would, in effect, entail pursuing more than one project. I was
concerned that giving short attention to interactional communities that are not my own
might risk misunderstanding sub-cultural differences, or worse, imposing white notions
on non-white communities. So, I chose to limit my study to the community settings with
which I was already familiar. I address race briefly in Chapter 6 but largely leave the
issue of racial difference to future studies. Hence, it is important to be clear that this is
largely a study of white lesbian culture.
In most other respects, my narrators were largely diverse. They ranged in age
from 19 to 71. At least five have children (ranging from small to adult). They come from
various class backgrounds-from odd jobs to trades to professions and business owners to
being independently wealthy. They come from all over U.S. and include two of
international origin. All identified as lesbian, including one lesbian-identified M-to-F
transsexual, although some mentioned they might identify as bisexual were it not so
difficult to do within lesbian communities. In terms of coming out, they ranged from
recently out to more than 40 years as lesbian. With respect to butch and femme, their
identities ranged from femme to stone butch to no specific identification, with many
permutations and combinations of identities.
A significant division did appear by age. Although I did not organize the focus
groups as such, the four group meetings were roughly divided into two groups of women
under 30 and two groups of women over 30. I delve into the issue of age difference in
In addition to my specific interview agenda, I also participated in any number of
occasions that augmented my ideas and experiences regarding this subject matter. This I
view as fieldwork. I participated in the organizations that I tapped for focus groups and
discussed my research and ideas with numerous community members on numerous
occasions. I held frequent conversations with many members of the local lesbian
community. I was continuously engaged in these discussions with many people-my
dissertation committee mentors, local merchants and business women, members of sports
leagues (some who are faculty mentors as well), friends, current and former students and
students referred to me by other faculty members, social workers, friends of friends, local
performers, other graduate students, among others. Indeed, I often found that, after I
completed an interview, I would receive invitations to shoot pool, go to lunch, go out to
bars, attend future discussion groups, go to house parties and any number of other
friendship building activities. In short, I was "in the field" constantly before the data
collection actually began and for two years after that.
In sum, the methods used to support this dissertation are an amalgamation of
interpretive methods. They were designed to proliferate opportunities to incite talk about
butch and femme, not to draw false boundaries around myself as a researcher or the
"results" of the research. Indeed, the research continues.
A Note About Me
On a more personal, political note, I prefer this methodological approach and the
notion of an agentic storied self because it gives a legitimate and knowledgable voice to
lesbians. As a lesbian, I recognize the political importance of allowing lesbian voices to
speak and be heard. Additionally, it is continually important to recognize that lesbian
experiences are related to dominant heteronormative discourses, not deviant from or
unaffected by those discourses. As a researcher, I appreciate that a sociology of stories
understands the storied nature of all sexuality and a notion of selves we live by suggests
that all people story selves for themselves. Hence, researchers are not separate from their
research site. Researchers also have selves that are storied (in some way, however
revisionist or radical) from the available discourses. In the following chapter, I take this
premise seriously and provide my own story of self, complete with an interactionist
theory of butchness.
"THEY STILL DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY I HATE WEARING DRESSES!":
AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC RANT ON DRESSES, BOATS, AND BUTCHNESS7
When something is about masculinity, it is not always "about men." I
think it is important to drive a wedge in, early and often and if possible
conclusively, between the two topics, masculinity and men, whose relation
to one another it is so difficult not to presume. (Kosofsky Sedgwick
Taking seriously the notions that selves are narrated in the everyday world and
that I, as a researcher and lesbian, live in the world of my narrators, I provide in this
chapter my own story of self. The notions "butch" and "femme" and expectations of
heteronormativity have been as salient for me in my coming out as lesbian and, indeed,
throughout my life, as they have been for any of my narrators. Hence, in relating the
stories of my narrators, it seems only fairplay to provide my own story of the way in
which I acquired butchness. In doing so, I argue that butchness can be understood as an
attempt to display ableness for female-bodied people. This theory of butchness as
ableness segues nicely into Chapter 4, in which I note how the talk of my narrators
produces the assumption of competence for butchness but not femmeness. In sum, my
autoethnography gives context to the assumptions regarding butch and femme that are
present in the everyday talk of lesbians. And so, I begin narrating how I understand
butchness in my own life story.
7 This chapter was previously published in 2002 under the same title in Cultural Studies
,-6 Critical Methodologies, Volume 2, Number 1, pages 69-92. It is reprinted here with
permission from Sage Publications.
This is not me. Of course, my face is pictured but it is not me. I look nice, don't I?
That's what I have heard often, "You look so pretty in this picture!" I don't see
beauty in this picture. I see the make-up my sister applied, the way she styled my hair, the
dress my parents bought, the daughter and granddaughter that every girl is supposed to
be, and the wife that every woman is supposed to become. What is not pictured is me. In
this picture, I am a prop in the collective fantasy of The American Dream (Butler 1993;
de Lauretis 1994). In this picture, I exemplify and reify the "natural" morality of
heterosexuality, contractual marriage and capitalistic success. It is a comfortable fantasy,
but it is no more "natural" than the lipstick and hairspray that I am wearing. It was never
me. I looked like that exactly one day in my life. I wasn't too happy about it then, but
what choice does a girl have?
This is me. I look good in a tux, don't I? Rarely have I heard that I could look
Tuxedos also produce a fantasy-an alternative dream, if you will-but it's a queer
one-harder to read, not as comfortable. The alternative fantasy makes it harder to
imagine "daughter," "sister," "girl"-and "wife" has a very different meaning than it did
before. This picture is closer to the me I see. It is closer to the fantasy I want to construct.
The Sara that I see in my mind doesn't wear dresses. She sails, drinks beer, studies hard,
dances, drives a truck, jokes with friends, among other things. I don't wear dresses
because a simple dress has the power to hide all those other parts of me.
It is through an understanding of my relationship to dresses, boats, and butchness
that I interpret the way I have negotiated a place in the world. I am a self-proclaimed
butch lesbian and I am continually mystified by the ways in which gender and sexuality
intersect and are constructed for people with non-standard gender presentations. This
chapter is an invitation into the images of my experiences that provide an analytic for the
existence of butchness.
I offer my story (Denzin 1992) not because I see myself as a particular exemplar
of lesbianism or even of femaleness. Quite the contrary, what is most useful about my
experiences is that they are whole unremarkable. My life is as everyday and
commonplace as anyone's. As an autoethnography, the story is not so much about me as
it is about the experience of gender and sexuality in late 20th century America. And,
although it is a life narrative about a lesbian, I offer it as potentially informative to
anyone who has acquired a Westernized, gendered self and critically reflects on them.
I also write by way of offering a theory of gendered selves. Specifically, I argue
that butchness in lesbians is a response to cultural notions about the appropriateness of
ableness for female-bodied people. Butchness is a practice in a sexist, heterosexist culture
that engages female-bodied people in the expression of ableness. This may not be the
8 In claiming my butchness as felt experience, I am going out on a limb politically. There
is a danger that this paper will be read as an assertion that my experiences may be
indicative of the experiences of all butches. That is not my intention. I recognize that
many other butches may not see me as butch or "butch enough" to represent butchness
for various reasons including some of the following. I do not work a job that requires
physical labor. I do not "pack" (the practice of wearing a harness and carrying a dildo in
one's pants in declaration of one's right to sexual agency and one's readiness to engage
in sexual interaction with a fem). I recognize myself as a woman by identifying as a
"butch lesbian" which renders me not qualified by some standards to represent
stonebutchness or transgender butchness. But it is not my intention to represent all forms
ofbutchness in this paper. I am only hoping to use my felt experiences to open new
theoretical directions. I should note that the "felt experiences" to which I refer are those
of a white, working-class butch currently living and working in a middle-class, academic
setting. Butch and fem may have different meanings to lesbians of color and I do not
intend to represent that experience. It is my opinion that the experiences of people of
color are significantly underrepresented in gay and lesbian studies and that more work
needs to be done on and by lesbians of color.
only experience or interpretation ofbutchness. But it is, I think, an original one and one
that speaks, not only about butches, but about culture, discourse, and a resistance that
gives rise to such a possibility. In theorizing the personal, I provide a frame of reference
for renewing a sense of how one can construct sexuality.
Always at issue is how to voice an argument. At 35 years old, I have been in
graduate school studying sociology for six years, concentrating my academic interests on
butch and femme in lesbian communities. Having read volumes of literature on butch and
femme, I have come away feeling that academic "texts" do not reflect some of my lived
experience. Often informing disciplines rather than lesbians, they do not reflect the
everyday, material knowledge that I feel regarding butchness.9 As a result, I choose to
put myself in the text (literally) by offering an autoethnography. I model this work after
the sociological contributions of Carolyn Ellis (1991a; 1991b; 1993; 1997; and 1998).
Ellis uses autoethnography to "find her voice, speak from her body, not from the body of
the paper (Ellis 1997:135)."
In this chapter, I speak through the voice of my embodied experiences as well as
through the voice of a gender theorist and sociologist. It is both personal and theoretical,
interweaving lived experience with how that experience, writ large, both is and can be
represented as being. Grounding this in personal experience, I present "scenes" from my
history (as I interpret them now, of course) and organize them to narrate for the reader the
story of gender and sexuality as I organize it for myself. In doing so, I attempt to show in
9 Two notable exceptions to this critique are Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis (1993), which
provides an oral history of the 1950s era lesbian community in Buffalo, New York, and
Munt (1998), which has collected several autoethnographic style texts by a variety of
authors. I hope this piece adds to the work that these two volumes provide.
the next two sections how I commonly understand the notions of "dresses" and "boats" as
metaphors for requisite femininity and able-ness respectively. Following this, I use
butchness as a resource to respond, both personally and theoretically, to a culture that
sees the female body as less competent than the male body. In the process, butchness
becomes an embodied display that critiques the preposterous notion that masculinity is
essential to any-body.
[Scene: It is 1996. Sitting around the dinner table at my parents' house, my
mother, my partner, and I are discussing an upcoming wedding of a close, female friend.
She had asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding and I found myself completely
frustrated over the lack of available choices with which that request left me. It was not
the first wedding in which I had been asked to be a bridesmaid from this close set of
friends. All of my friends from high school and college would be there and were well
aware of my life-long aversion to wearing dresses. It was a dilemma that I have always
hated: how to participate fully in a very important, very public day of a good friend
without committing the cardinal sin against my hard-won construction of self-feminizing
to suit normative gender imperatives. My partner and I had come home for the weekend
to visit my parents and our friends and take a two-day respite from the rigors of grad
school. We are catching Mom up on the latest news.]
"I have to wear another goddamn dress, I ranted at no one in particular, as my
partner nodded in agreement with my felt frustration. "Terri promised when we were at
Wendy's wedding that, when she got married, I could wear a tux. And now she is
"Oh, you know she can't really let you wear a tux to her wedding, my mom replied.
"I know, I replied. "It's not just her wedding. It's her mom's wedding too. I just
can't stand that I have to wear a dress. And everyone will be there-staring, I said,
"Oh, nobody will be staring, "my mom tried to console me.
"YES, THEY WILL. YOU KNOW THEY WILL. Everyone knows how much I hate
dresses and you know they will be watching me and laughing at how silly I look, "I
replied, surprising myself and my mom with more anger than I expected to express. I got
up and left the table frustrated and shaking with anger. "Goddammit, I thought to
myself, "I'm 30 years old and they still don't understand why I hate wearing dresses."
For many years I have been aware that I have one of two choices on these
occasions: (1) I can be in the wedding as a bridesmaid, choking up my own pride and self
respect and symbolically signifying the importance of my close friendship with someone
who is very important to me, or (2) I can simply attend the wedding as a guest, honoring
my own convictions about distasteful, heterosexualizing, sexist rituals and my choice of
personal presentation. Of course, this second choice calls into question the importance of
my friendship with the bride. After all, if I really cared about her as a close friend,
wouldn't I just buck up and wear the dress?
[Scene: We are in the backyard of a farm in rural, central Indiana on which I live
with my mom, dad and sister, Cindy. Open fields of clover wave in the wind on a warm
summer day. Our house is on a bend in the road with neighbors on one side and another
family at the end of our long, gravel driveway. Behind our house are several acres of
woods with trees to climb and a creek with a rock bridge. If you are good at jumping
from rock to rock, you might even keep your feet from getting wet. It is a fantasyland for
kids with endless possibilities of forts and wilderness survival and all kinds of adventure.
When the days get hotter than 80 degrees (Farenheit), we get to go barefooted. There are
several neighbor kids that Cindy and I play with. We are behind the house right now
playing with Danny. It's 1971, the first year that I know what a year is. I'm 5 years old.]
"Sara come here, Mom yelled from the house.
"What? I answered as I walked toward the back door.
"Come over here and put this t-shirt on.
"Because I said so."
"But it's hot. I don't want to wear a t-shirt."
"It's not that hot. Put this on. You should be wearing a shirt."
"But I don't want to. Why do I have to?"
"Because you shouldn't be running around without a shirt on anymore.
"Why not? Danny doesn 't have to wear a t-shirt. Dad doesn't have to wear a t-
shirt. Why do I have to? "
"Because girls need to wear t-shirts."
"Why? I don't want to wear a shirt."
"Don't argue. Put this on."
I, of course, did what Mom said. You have to do what Mom says. But I spent the
rest of the afternoon arguing with Mom's logic in my mind. "But, Mom... I don't
understand. That doesn't make any sense. It's not fair. I don't want to wear a shirt. Why
should I have to wear a shirt? What does being a girl have anything to do with wearing a
t-shirt?" It was so frustrating and illogical. Why did I get stuck being hot just because I
was a girl? It just doesn't make any sense.
[Scene: I am 6 years old and in first grade. Mom and I are in my bedroom as I'm
dressing for school. Mom and I are having an earnest chat as she sits at the foot of my
twin bed with the railing on one side. I stand amid the toys strewn around the floor.]
"Can't you just wear a dress to school once in a while?" Mom practically
Mom finally gave her last offer, "Ok. I'll make you a deal. You only have to wear
a dress one day a week."
"What kind of deal is that? I thought to myself. "What's in it for me? I thought a
deal was where both folks got something out of it." "But I don't want to wear a dress,
ever, I told her.
Poor Mom. I was never compliant on this issue. She didn't seem to understand
that you can't play at recess with a dress on. Besides, lately we had been playing Star
Trek a lot. It was Darren's idea because he liked it so much and he knew all the
characters. He wanted to be Mr. Spock so I got to be Captain Kirk. You have to be able to
run up and over mounds of dirt and dive behind them if you are going to play Star Trek-
especially if you are going to be Captain Kirk. You can't be wearing a dress to do that.
Your underwear would show. I got stuck wearing a dress that day but our "deal" fell
through. My persistence won out. I didn't wear dresses that year. In fact, I didn't wear a
dress again until seventh grade when I was inducted into the National Junior Honor
Society. You practically have to wear a dress for something like that. It's formal. At any
rate, that's my record so far-six years without wearing a dress. To this very day I'm still
working on it. (Damn weddings!) I'm going to break that record in about four more
[Scene: It's 1982. I am 16 and a sophomore in high school. We had long since
moved from Indiana to South Florida where my Dad's job had relocated. In high school,
marching band would become my passion-sort of like a religion. I played trumpet. It was
very serious. We had to have the halftime show polished. I wanted a leadership role. I
wanted my voice to count and I wanted responsibility. But there were few officer
positions available to sophomores. You could be a librarian or a quartermaster. Librarians
were primarily assigned to file the sheet music and keep track of who had it checked out.
Quartermasters loaded instruments on buses when we went on trips. Located in the center
of an auditorium-style practice room, I am standing on the podium in front of 100
students giving my electoral address for the position of Quartermaster. Why would
anyone want to file sheet music?]
"I have worked hard for this band and I'm prepared to work harder. I'll work
hard to keep the instruments in order and pack them carefully on the busses. I'll show up
early for games and stay late to pack up. I'll represent anyone's concerns in officer
meetings and communicate issues to the other officers and to Mr. Kidd. I want this job
and I'll work hard at it. And if anyone doesn 't think I can lift a sousaphone, say so right
now and I'll prove it to you once and for all. I have lifted them before and I can lift one
now. Please vote for me for Quartermaster. "
[I had been honing my feminist oration skills since seventh grade. It is now later
in the same year. Several officers are standing around the band room chatting while
waiting for an officer meeting to begin. One of the librarians is talking to me while others
are looking on.]
"Sara you should wear just a little bit of mascara. You have such pretty eyes. You
would look so much nicer with just a little bit of makeup, "Diana commented completely
"Won't that run when I sweat? I replied.
"Well, try not to do things that make you sweat."
"Uh-Huh!" I chuckled as I walked away.
How does one respond to that? Boy, did she have me pegged wrong. I worked
hard as Quartermaster that year. The following year I would be 1st Lieutenant and my
senior year I would be Band Captain-the highest officer that was not a drum major. I did
sweat quite a lot but my makeup never ran. I always remember band very fondly. I was
always glad that I had been an officer. I enjoyed having my opinion heard.
"You're A Young Lady."
[Scene: It's 1986. I'm 20 and looking for the dreaded summer job between
sophomore and junior years in college. I needed to save big cash that year because I
intended to spend the next summer studying in Innsbruck, Austria. My parents had
agreed to pay the summer tuition since the credits counted toward my degree but I had to
earn my round-trip airfare, Eurail pass and spending money for nine weeks. I needed a
job that paid real money, no more $3.35 an hour. The valet parking jobs for private clubs
on the beach were long since gone. I didn't have any connections at major companies. I
looked through the want ads for decent jobs and the pickings were slim. They all entailed
manual labor but that was fine with me. I needed money. I was turned away for several
jobs over the phone. I answered two ads in person. I'm standing at the reception desk of a
local, family-owned firm that offered $7.50 an hour for laying Italian tile. Behind the
reception desk is an elderly woman who appears to be a grandmotherly-figure helping out
with some office work]
"May I have an application, please, I asked.
"What job are you applying for?" she seemed confused.
"There was an ad in the paper for someone to lay tile. I wanted to apply."
"You can't apply for that job. You 're a young lady, she replied almost shocked.
"Can I at least fill out an application? I asked, thinking that someone else would
do the actual screening for the job.
"We only take applications from men for that job, she answered firmly.
There was nothing else that I could say. "They don't have a clue whether I can do
that job, I thought to myself as I turned and left. "I know that's illegal and there isn 't a
damn thing I can do about it. Goddammit!"
[I left that office quietly seething. It was pointless to argue. The next day I met
with the owner of a lawn maintenance company, expecting the same reception. We sat in
cab of his aging Toyota pick up in front of the parking lot of the convenience store where
his work crew took lunch break. He looked me up and down to determine my physical
"Do you think you can do the work? he asked.
"I'll damn sure give it a try, I told him.
"Well," he said. "I'm not sexist. I'll let you try it. Ifyou can't do it, just let me
know. I'll pay you and we can part company."
I started the next day and worked from 8:00 am to 4:30pm (with half an hour for
lunch) from early May to early August. As it turned out, he was only speaking for himself
when he said he wasn't sexist. Everyone else on the crew was overtly sexist. Because the
crew hated me for being female, I got to pull weeds all day long. I took shit from them
EVERY DAY. They said I slowed them down. They would supposedly have to do more
work to make up for my presence. I found out later that I only slowed down their crack
smoking. While I was pulling weeds, the crew boss would send one worker to crack town
to buy some stuff for them. When he returned, they would all get high in the backyard of
one of the houses we were working on. In the mean time, I was cutting 100 two-foot high
ball bushes by hand or laying a truckload of mulch or pulling weeds for 11 houses in a
row. I have never been in so much pain. I hated it. The muscles in my fingers swelled so
that my rings didn't fit until after the summer was over. I found out about the crack
smoking in the middle of the summer when the crew boss approached me in the middle
of a particularly large lawn to ask if I thought I could ride the mower. I was shocked.
What a stupid question. I had been driving the dump truck to haul the trash. What made
him think I couldn't drive a riding lawn mower? As it turns out, this new offer was only
extended because he was so high on crack that he was afraid he would drive the mower
into the lake. Apparently, the rest of the crew was just as high. Otherwise, riding the
mower would have been reserved for the "obviously more qualified" men. A few years
later my Dad told me he never understood why I stayed with that job. He said he had
never seen anyone work so hard. He said I looked "pitiful." I couldn't quit that job. I
wasn't about to. They would have been right. It would have been too muchfor a girl. It
wasn't worth the money.
[Scene: I am inside the living room of my grandparents house in north central
Indiana. It's 1987. I'm 21. It is the day of Grandpa's funeral and the whole family has
just returned to Grandma and Grandpa's house after the service. Grandma is sitting in her
chair blowing her nose and wiping the hours' old tears from her water-weary eyes. It has
been a difficult day for everyone and I'm exhausted by 3pm. One of my cousins is sitting
on the couch quietly. I just finished changing into comfortable clothes and collapsing into
an easy chair across the room. The living room is absolutely still. No one is quite sure
what to do or say. Other cousins, aunts and uncles are moving up and down the stairway
in the process of changing clothes also.]
"You look better now, Grandma says to me as she blows her nose again. She has
been bursting into tears at odd intervals all day and it's been so difficult to know what to
say or do primarily because there is nothing that can be said or done.
What do you mean ?" I asked surprised by her comment.
"Wearing jeans. "She pauses to blow her nose and catch her breath. "You look
more like yourself "
"I bought the suit just before I came up for the funeral, I said sniffling. "Mom
suggested I buy one since I will need one for interviewing soon." It seemed necessary to
buy a business suit with jacket and skirt to use for interviews after graduation next year.
"Well, it's a fine suit but I like you better in jeans."
"Me too. "My eyes began to tear again-for Grandpa and for me.
After all those years of her and Mom tag teaming me about the merits of dresses,
she finally admitted they just don't fit me. It was the best gift Grandma ever gave me.
She understood. Grandma died five years later. I wore pants to her funeral.
As you can see, wearing dresses has never been a picnic for me. I associate them
with the expectation that my female body can't do [insert any physical task]. Dresses
ARE femininity to me and I don't understand why everyone seems so hell bent on
expecting my participation in what I perceive as my own disabling. For me, the
appearance of femininity signals the appearance of disability. However, as I will discuss
later, dresses are not perceived as disabling by all women (my sister in particular), which
establishes a particular complexity to interaction. Before addressing this complexity, I
address my response to requisite femininity.
[Scene: It is 1984. I am 18. We are in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway
somewhere between Palm Beach Inlet and Jupiter Inlet on my friends' boat. It is summer
in south Florida and the sun is beating down. It is 95 degrees with 98% humidity and the
water temperature feels like bath water. Mike has just finished jumping wakes on the
hydroslide. We've all been rating his falls-1 is letting go of the ski rope, 10 is drawing
blood. He got about an 8 and decided it was someone else's turn. Bill already took a turn
and Thomas is driving the boat.]
"Hey, Sara. Your turn, Thomas calls out.
"Cool. I'll take a turn, "I reply as I lean over the gunwhale to tend to the ski rope
lest it get caught in the prop.
"Do you want skis or the hydroslide? Bill asks. He stands poised to hand me the
skis if I would prefer them to the board Mike has in the water.
"Hydroslide," I replied, "but you can hand me a beer though."
Bill shoots me a grin as he hands me a beer. I slip it in my ski vest. "Shit, that's
cold." I grin back at him.
Mike climbs in the boat as I jump over the side, beer and all. I kick over to the
board as Thomas motors the boat ahead to take the slack out of the ski rope.
"Bonzai!" I yell as Thomas hits the throttle. As the ski rope yanks me out of the
water, I pull the board under my knees and velcro the strap around my legs. In less than
10 seconds after the boat pulls me out of the water, I've opened the beer and commence
to drinking it while skiing. After about 30 seconds the air has sucked out 1/3 of the beer, I
have consumed the rest and I take my shot at wake jumping. How spectacular will my
Bill reaches in the cooler for a handful of ice and yells, "Duck, S, as he begins
to hurl ice cubes in my direction.
Ok, it's kind of silly and infantile but it was A LOT of fun. Somewhere there is a
picture of me just before I am about to take off on the hydroslide smiling about as big as
my face will smile. I've never looked quite so healthy in any wedding picture. In 1992,
Thomas, Ray and I took an outboard motor repair course. In 1993, Thomas and I got our
commercial captains licenses. (It was a 2-for-I at Sea School.) They are all the happiest
"You've Never Done A Day's Work."
[Scene: It is May 1983. I am just about to finish my junior year in high school. I
need a summer job. I've just parked in front of the local boat supply store which has a
help-wanted sign displayed in the front window.]
"Isaw the sign in the window about help wanted. I am looking for ajob, "Isay to
the man behind the cash register.
A very salty-looking, tanned old guy laughed out loud. "You want a job?" he
"Yes," I replied.
"Are you qualified?" he asked. "Let me see your hands."
"What? I asked, confused.
"Let me see your hands, "he said. "I'll tell you ifyou are qualified, he laughed.
Sensing where this was going, I tentatively opened my hands to let him see my
"See, you've never done a days' work, "hepronounced.
"Nevermind, I said and left quickly, thinking to myself, "What the fuck do you
expect, asshole. (I had already learned how to talk like a sailor.) "I'm a high school
student, idiot. What do you think my hands will look like? Besides, what do your hands
have to look like to sell boat bumpers and coolers over a sales counter?"
It was clear to me that he had seen a young, female person and concluded right
there that I couldn't be qualified. He didn't care that I knew a bow from a stem, had 2
years experience operating a cash register and an SAT score higher than he could count.
He wasn't willing to teach me anything.
"It's Not My Boat; You Need To Be Talking To Her."
[Scene: It is 1993. I am 27. Mike and I are standing in a boat store in the Florida
Keys looking for a boat part. At 25, I bought my first sailboat. She's beautiful-Tatiana,
an O'Day 25'centerboard sloop-red. I had been docking the boat behind Mike's
apartment in the Florida Keys and we sailed and worked on the boat together often during
that time. Mike and I are debating whether any of the parts on the shelf will work for the
job at hand. A store employee approaches us to help.]
"May I help y 'allfind something? the store employee asked.
"I need a replacement for this water strainer gasket," I said as I handed him the
He looked directly at Mike and asked, "Did you get this off the boat you're
"Yeah, "Mike said tentatively and looking in my direction.
"I need exactly the same piece, "I jumped in.
"Do you know the size of the part? he directed again at Mike.
Mike looked him right in the face and said, "It's not my boat and it's not my
money. You need to be talking to her."
The salesman was startled for a minute but then continued his line of questioning
directed quite carefully at me this time, "Uh, well, do you know what size you need? "
It was clear to all of us that he had made the standard faux pas. He assumed a boat
owner must be male.
[Scene: We are aboard a 28-foot sailboat on the San Francisco Bay. It is May. My
partner and I are on vacation with my ex-partner and her new partner. (I know. I know.
Ellen has a joke about this. That must be why it's funny.) We've rented a sailboat for the
afternoon from a marina in Sausalito. After displaying my captain's license to the
dockmaster and plucking down a credit card for the $1,000 deposit on the boat, I asked
the dockmaster for some local knowledge of the bay area and a run down of the specific
mechanics of the boat we had rented. He gave me a demeaning quiz on sailing knowledge
and very little else and we were off.]
"Wow, look how high it is, "Dianne said as she stares 150feet overhead. Kelly is
busy taking pictures of each of us and the surrounding bay and landscape.
"I can't believe we are sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, "said my partner
in awe at its enormity.
"A toast, "I offer, "to sailing and friends and San Francisco." We all raise our
wine glasses, sip and sit quietly for a moment.
"Shit yeah!" is the most appropriate thing I can think to say.
"Most Men Couldn't Even Put A Boat In That Slip That Well."
[Scene: We are at Lake Park Marina a few years after I purchased Tatiana. I just
finished sailing with my Mom and sister, both of whom are relatively inexperienced on
boats. They never had the interest in boats that I did and, hence, never learned what one
does when one is approaching or leaving a dock. We were done with our day of sailing
and I had just maneuvered the boat back into its slip. This was a municipal marina with
boats tightly packed in so docking is always tricky. But I am used to it and I steered the
boat into the slip pretty handily, backed down on the engine and grabbed the dock lines.
No sooner had we landed but a gentleman walked over to the slip.]
"I hope you don't take this wrong but that was a pretty fine docking job. Most
men could 't even put a boat in that slip that well."
"It's not my first day on the job, I saidflashing him a half smile, bowing up my
chest and fanning my tailfeathers as I had seen men do for each other from time to time.
"Well it was a pretty damn fine job, "he repeated and kept muttering about
something until he had clearly overstayed his welcome. "Well, have a nice day, "he said
I purposefully had let him dangle uncomfortably. I know he was only trying to be
nice but the implication of his "compliment" kept bothering me. The implication was that
most women couldn't be expected to dock a boat, let alone well. And, most men should
be expected to dock a boat better than most women. This has always perplexed me. I
have two hands and two legs. What should impede me from being able to sail a boat? It's
as if there is something missing from female bodies that makes them less capable. This
baffles me because I have never seen a sailing maneuver in which a penis is actually
utilized to pilot the boat.
A Well-Trained Women's Crew
[Scene: It is April 1995. I am standing on the back porch of a friend's apartment
with several friends gathered for our standard Friday evening beer fest. The humidity is
high but the breeze moderates the heat. I am standing with several mostly male friends
exchanging jokes and stories. Someone brought up the issue of the America3 Women's
Team, the first women's crew to compete for the America's Cup. They were to begin
racing in a few weeks.]
A friend and long-time sailor belted out, "A well-trained men's crew will beat a
well-trained women's crew every time."
"What? I half shouted.
"I said a well-trained men's crew will beat a well-trained women's crew every
time, "he repeated.
I stood silently unable to reply for a moment, then just walked off toward the
cooler to grab another beer.
Why were all men supposed to be better than all women? What is it about
sailing-a sport that requires technology in the vessel and skill of handling, but not purely
muscle-that preempted women's successful competition? He clearly believes that no
matter what women do, men are better. (See Crawley 1998 for my reply.)
Boats for me are freedom. They are travel and adventure and motion. I have this
odd love of motion. I never get seasick. I love the feeling of skimming across the water in
a power boat on a plane at 3/4 speed with my hair blown back so far the sun is burning my
scalp line; or sailing on a close reach with 15 knots of wind and the boat healed over 25
degrees; or simply feeling the waves lift my torso out of the water as I dangle from the
bow rail of a boat adrift, rising and falling with the waves. I'm not sure where this love of
the water came from. It has an interesting parallel to my sexuality. Neither of my parents
are boaters. I'm not sure how I got interested, although I can remember wanting a boat
since I was about 11 or 12.
One of the things I have learned most strikingly from my boating experiences is
ableness-my own ableness and the lack of ableness taught to or perceived of female-
bodied persons. I have learned that I begin each new task-fixing the rigging, changing the
packing on the prop shaft, finding and fixing an oil leak-with a measure of self-doubt.
Female-bodied people learn to attempt physical tasks with a self-imposed understanding
that I will try but it is likely that "I cannot."10 Each time I attack something new, I must
go through the process of proving to myself that I am able. And so, I have sailed boats,
built decks, repaired engines, ridden my bike 280 miles in 3 days, traveled Europe alone
among other adventures. My point is that I have had to learn that I am able. I have had to
teach myself that my body is not the frail, physically useless thing that was implied by
cultural messages all around me. The teaching of ableness to myself has come in slow,
painful experimenting with things that I was told I could not do. I had toperform
ableness to myself to teach myself that the cultural messages were wrong. Along the way,
I started receiving different social messages about what those performances of ableness
meant in terms of sexuality.
At 27, I finally came out as a lesbian. I say finally because I had had a
relationship with a woman 4 years earlier but was reluctant to think about "what that all
means." I was now beginning a relationship with another woman and was beginning to
recognize that it was becoming a pattern. From that point forward, self-acceptance came
relatively easily to me, fortunately. But coming out after having already formed one's
adult identity causes one to rethink all kinds of things. History is reconfigured ("Oh, now
that makes sense.") and all those lurking interests become possible, and sensible. Now
there seems to be no reason to feminize for anyone.
10 1 use the term female-bodied here very purposefully. As Young (1980) describes
through her notion of "inhibited intentionality (146)," all people who possess female
bodies, are understood to be "women" and are taught to restrict their body usage such that
they understand their capabilities more in terms of "I cannot" rather than "I can." Hence,
part of becoming a woman entails understanding one's (female) body as incapable.
Dressing Down Today?
[Scene: I had been working for a major insurance-related corporation for four
years. It's 8:45am inside a large corporate workspace with cubicles forming a maze
throughout the otherwise open floor. I have just arrived at work and am heading toward
the cafeteria for my morning diet coke. Walking down the hall amid several other
professionally dressed worker bees, I approach a male co-worker and friend who is
dressed in a man's suit minus the jacket. I am wearing a pair of linen pants and silk shirt.
I too had already shed my jacket.]
"Good morning, Mark, "I start.
"Well not exactly good but hi yourself, he replied with usual heavy sarcasm.
(Mark's glass was usually half empty.) "Dressed down today, I see, "he continues.
"Huh? I responded with morning grogginess.
"The pants. Are you trying to get fired?" He was joking about losing my job but
completely serious about implying I was dressed casually.
"Wait, I'm wearing the same thing as you, I responded a bit dumbfounded.
"Figures you would want to dress like a man, he quipped with his signature gay
"Good morning, Mark!" I pronounced as I rounded the door to the cafeteria
leaving this unwanted encounter behind.
One has to feminize to look "professional." Talk about your double binds (Frye
1983). This realization made the problem of whether to participate in weddings infinitely
more difficult. My response to my colleagues was to stop wearing skirts entirely. At 29, I
left the corporate world for an MA program in my home town. At 31, I entered a Ph.D.
program at the University of Florida and gave away my last "professional" skirt. (I had
long since stopped wearing them but had kept them in the closet, just in case.) At 33, I
participated in the last wedding in which I will ever wear a dress. I only have 4 more
years to break the record I set from first grade to seventh grade.
At 32, I began writing this chapter. In writing this chapter, it became clear to me
that I had been butch much longer than I had been lesbian. I didn't identify it as
butchness but I knew I was different. It wasn't until later that I learned to call my gender
struggle butchness. The term was a resource that had not been available to me earlier
(Gubrium and Holstein 1998). But I still refused makeup and dresses and any of the
trappings of femininity because they stifled me.
For me, butchness wasn't primarily about sexuality or even about lesbianism.
(However, my non-standard gender presentation has always caused others to question my
sexual orientation even before I became aware of my sexual interests. Gender and
sexuality discourses are so entwined that non-normative gender always calls sexuality
into question.) But I didn't know to call it butchness until I came out as lesbian. I do not
wish to suggest that butchness is not itself about sexuality. Certainly butchness has been
about sexuality historically and it continues to be in many ways, and it may be in ways
for other people that it has not always been for me.
For me, butchness has always been about having to prove that I can do whatever I
want to do-that my female body is not a restriction. For me, butchness is the display of
ableness. But the display is not just for everyone else, whether male or female. It is a
display of ablenessfor me too. In many ways, I have come to believe that they might be
right. The discourse about females' lack of ableness comes from so many instructors that
it is hard to reject. As Bartky (1990) outlines, in this panoptical culture, femininity is not
a trait that some women elect. It is a social control mechanism that is transcribed on the
female body by ever-judging eyes. Ever-present surveillance represses difference. The
judgment comes from everywhere. Until, eventually it comes from inside in the form of
self-doubt and self-judgment. In many ways, I have come to believe I might not be able.
The issue is not whether butchness is about gender OR sexuality, but rather that
butchness happens at the particular intersection of gender and sexuality for lesbians
interacting within a sexist, heterosexist culture. Butches are not "women" who want to be
"men." They are female-bodied persons who wish to gain social access to doing things
that traditionally only males have been allowed to do (e.g., work on engines, work in
construction, have their input taken as legitimate and authoritative). They wish to resist
the regulatory discourses-in-practice (Holstein and Gubrium 2000) of "women" as
passive and incapable, and desirous of and dependent on "men." To achieve that, butches
participate in those performances that the gatekeepers of those spaces-men-see as
granting legitimacy to the actor because it is those performances that give gatekeepers the
perception that one is able to do that job or activity. Weston (1990) writes, "In the face of
a weight of evidence indicating that a woman has the knowledge, skill, and experience to
do a job, employers and coworkers still have difficulty believing that she will be able to
produce (137, emphasis in original)." Hence, women are often disallowed access to
certain activities, especially jobs, because men perceive them as incapable (see also
Crawley 1998). One response to this conundrum for female-bodied people is to take on
the persona of ableness-butchness.
The conundrum goes something like this. Unless one performs a job, such as,
construction worker well, one may not be granted access to doing that job-and displaying
any sort of quality that is seen as "feminine" (which is always, already applied to female-
bodied people) is not permissible in that performance. I want to be clear here that I am
not referring to the physical accomplishment of the activity (i.e., driving a nail into a
piece of wood or learning to sail a boat) which may be, in fact, quite simple to master. I
am referring to the accomplishment of the accepted style of performing the task such that
the male gatekeepers of a setting perceive the task is done "well," that is, to the related
discursive and performative practice of masculinity (Gubrium and Holstein 1998). Hence,
butches have an interest in doing "masculinity" only to the extent that it performs
"construction worker" well. That is, they want to be seen as able. This is not the
performance of "man" but the performance of "construction worker" which is often
conflated with "man" since males are often the only people granted access to the job.
To perform "construction worker" or any other male-only activity requires years
of practice, potentially a life time. And, this practice is not performed only to the external
audience but often must be performed to self as well, since part of the audience that must
perceive the task to be done "well" is me. I must learn to convince myself that Iperform
the task "well."
This is how butchness is produced. Seeing or being a "woman" who performs
"masculinity" well is not a viable option in our regulatory regime (Butler 1993). She
cannot be "woman" if she performs "man" well and she cannot be "man" without the
appropriate "sex" so she must be something else-"butch." The reiteration of "masculine"
femaleness as "butch" to self and by others continually constructs that space where
females can accomplish certain tasks "well" and constructs those identities of butchness
for butches. Once produced as a non-standard narrative resource, butchness now becomes
available for future use among lesbians in local culture.11
In her book, Female Masculinity (1998), Judith Halberstam writes:
When gender-ambiguous children are constantly challenged about their
gender identity, the chain of misrecognitions can actually produce a new
recognition: in other words, to be constantly mistaken for a boy, for many
tomboys, can contribute to the production of masculine identity. It was
not until my midtwenties that I finally found a word for my particular
gender configuration: butch. (19)
Here she asserts that new, recognizable categories can be produced by the consistent
performance of coherent categories by the "wrong" people (i.e., women doing
masculinity). But one who engages in new category production may not know how to
understand the experience until it is given a name and communal context. (i.e., "Oh, I'm
like them and they call it...") In this instance, a new narrative resource is produced-
I do not believe that all females who engage in butchness are necessarily aware of
the pursuit of "masculinity" as access or ableness. But the need for repetition is clear. It is
this repetition that convinces butches that they are "essentially or naturally masculine."13
Thus, it is not that butches are born masculine but that they have been pursuing the
activities labeled as masculine for a long time. Since gender discourses categorize the
activity as masculine and masculinity must be performed well to participate in the
activity, butches view themselves as many others likely have-able as a masculine person.
11 Indeed, this paper also participates in constructing and producing the meaning of
butchness by defining it as ableness.
12 Halberstam also argues that female masculinity has always contributed to the
production of masculinities although if has largely gone unrecognized. This concept is
very compelling and deserves greater theoretical attention although I do not pursue it in
The interest in and pursuit of the activity becomes the defining feature to both the
individual and to observers that the butch is "naturally" masculine. Of course, it comes to
feel "natural" because it is so constantly practiced.
Let me return briefly to the personal theme running through this chapter. This is
precisely why I hate wearing dresses. In my experience, the path to constructing myself
as an able person who can accomplish many tasks in which a person of my "sex" is not
supposed to engage has been long, difficult, and sometimes painful. And, given the
regulatory expectations of femininity that I have had to side step, the path has
encompassed my everyday existence since my earliest memories of asking my mom to
explain to me why I had to wear a t-shirt to play outside. Since those early
understandings of femininity as restrictive and disabling, I have engaged in a constant
battle against expectations to build my self as not feminine, not unable but able, and not
constrained by my female body. At 35, the feminizing expectation that I have no choice
but to wear a dress in certain settings feels like a direct attack on the self that I have been
building publicly and inwardly for years. Dismissals that it should be "no big deal" for
me to do so add immeasurable insult to injury.
Wearing butch style is an announcement and co-optation of personal power. I
feel this power of resistance when I cut my hair razor short and wear ties, pants that bag
around my waist, thick leather belts, and "men's" underwear. This is a way that I
demonstrate to myself and others that I will not be feminized by expectations for clothing
and appearance. This is a way that I tell lesbians whom I do not know that I am one of
them and heterosexuals whom I do not know that I am not one of them. This is the way
13 This is effectively Butler's argument in Bodies That Matter (1993).
that I announce to the world that I hate wearing dresses and I illustrate to them all how
silly I would look in them. This is the way I announce to others and myself that, if
"masculinity" is ableness, then I am as able and capable of doing "masculinity" "well" as
Presenting myself as an out, butch dyke has exacted a change in the behavior of
others. Men now give me the respectful nod reserved only for peers. Women regularly
flash me the deferential, Daddy's-little-girl smile. Car parts dealers now speak directly to
me even when Mom is the one trying to get her car fixed. People seem to react to the
performance of masculinity, not the actual ableness. Yes, I can sail a boat and make a
majority of repairs on my own boat. No, I haven't a clue why some switches make car
engines overheat. In this, I have never been trained. But whenever I have been called
upon (or not) to address a particular situation, my abilities and knowledge have been
largely irrelevant in how others have treated me. Only the performance of masculinity has
changed others' reactions to my input. Performing masculinity seems to compel respect.
It's not that I wish to co-opt hegemonic masculinity at the expense of women. But I do
want the respect that is accorded only to men. I want it for me and I want it for other
14 1 want to be clear to recognize that females wearing masculinity also face potential
pitfalls. In addition to respectful treatment, I have also received extremely disrespectful
treatment, including epithets hurled out of car windows, strangers unabashedly staring,
and multitudes of women virtually running out of public restrooms. I am constantly
aware that my appearance may incite discomfort that could result in extreme physical
As for sexuality, I do not wish to diminish its importance. But it has not been a
large component of butchness for me. Nonetheless, identity invades the bedroom. In my
experience, butchness is not restricted to enacting a stereotypical heterosexual, male
sexual role in a lesbian couple. Indeed, through many years of discussing sexuality with
many lesbians, I have never heard any lesbian express an interest in "being the man"
sexually or in looking for a partner who will assume that role. Although much literature
describes some forms of butchness as the sexual initiator (Hollibaugh and Moraga 1981;
Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis 1993; Nestle 1992), I have never felt compelled to engage
that form of sexuality. (Nonetheless, I do support any female's interest in developing
sexual agency including some butches' interest in pursuing aggressive sexual
subjectivity.) In my experience, butch sexuality can be interpreted in many ways.
Freeing myself from the culturally prescribed feminine sexual self has expanded the
possibilities for my sexual self, never restricted my ability to engage in sexuality in a
particular way (as I believe heterosexual scripts did). It has expanded my understanding
of the use of my body for pleasure and contributed to understanding my sexuality as a
space in which I am free to explore.
Butch For Whom?
[Scene: Standing inside the local outlaw biker club clubhouse on Friday evening,
a friend and fellow graduate student, Dan, is showing me around the establishment where
he is a member and is doing participant observation field work. An avid Harley Davidson
enthusiast, he had invited me to the club to introduce me to his friends, enjoy a few beers
and show off his prized bike to me. As I am sitting astride the bike and Dan is revving the
engine, I am dutifully showing my admiration for such a fine machine and making a fuss
over certain features as I, of course, am expected to display my camaraderie with my
friend. A friend of Dan's and my partner are standing nearby watching the show. Shortly,
our small crowd of Harley admirers is approached by an unknown club member suitably
dressed in dirty blue jeans, an old t-shirt, leather boots and a bandana on his head.]
"Go ahead and really rev it, Dan said. "It's a Harley. That's what it's made
Upon his command, I gave the throttle a good crank and felt my body vibrate in
places I hadn 'tfelt before. "Son of a bitch!" I responded, again demonstrating
appropriate admiration for the massive machine that I was balancing between my legs.
Slugging his Budweiser and commenting on my obvious previous ignorance of
how much a Harley Davidson vibrates, the unidentified biker belted out, "Yeah, it's cool,
man. You just put your bitch on the back and, by the time, you get there, she's ready!"
Accompanied by certain lewd gestures, his comment could not be misconstrued.
Dan and I exchanged a few confused glances as an extremely uncomfortable
silence hung in the air where there had previously been deafening noise.
"Well, anyway, it's a nice bike, the unknown biker said nervously and he left to
return to the pool table where his girlfriend had been waiting.
Dan and I just stood there and giggled. Dan was perplexed as to whether the
unnamed interloper was talking to me or him. To me, it was readily apparent that he was
addressing me but I was equally unsure of his intentions. Did he realize that I am female
or did he mistake me for male? Did he assume that I am a dyke and determine that his
masculinist performance was hence appropriate? Was he aware that my partner was
standing there observing the entire incident? Later that evening after a few more beers, I
approached the man to ask him what he was thinking when he made the comment. He
stated sheepishly that he knew I was female but that he did not know why he said what he
did. Apparently, he just went on autopilot and did "biker" as he always did in such
circumstances. He offered a half-hearted apology and we shared a beer and a laugh over
it but the gender problematic remained unresolved.
[Scene: Having just arrived to visit me in grad school, my sister, Cindy, and I
stopped at the McDonalds near the Orlando airport to get her something edible after her
economy flight. While munching on fries, we are chatting to catch up on the news.]
"So what's new?" she asked after we had already covered the pleasantries about
"Not much. School is keeping me as busy as ever, "I replied.
"Are you still enjoying teaching as much as you were? she asked.
"Oh yeah, I replied. "Teaching rocks. Just the other day Igot to come out to my
students. I showed them a picture of me in a wedding dress and then a tux. That's always
"I bet that got their attention, "she giggled with me.
"Oh yeah. I like to keep them on their toes."
"Speaking of wedding dresses, Mom told me Leslie is getting married soon and
you're in the wedding." Mom makes it her job to keep us all apprised of each other's
"Yep. In March. I have to wear another bridesmaid's dress. It's so demeaning."
"It's not demeaning to wear a dress. It's only demeaning ifyou make it
demeaning. I think it is insulting to women for you to call it demeaning. Cindy was
"Well, you know how much I hate dresses, "I tried to stand my ground.
"Just because you hate dresses doesn't mean it is demeaning for all women to
wear them, she pronounced indignantly.
Caught off guard and slight dumbfounded, I decided to change the subject. "Well,
that's not until March. What do you want to do while you are here? "
Cindy's response caused me to seriously reconsider my thinking about dresses
and femininity. After all, what was I implying about her if I suggested that wearing
dresses and being femininized was demeaning to me? She likes wearing dresses at times
and has no issues with femininity herself. My existence as one who will not accept the
feminizing expectations force-placed on women problematizes her participation in such
feminizing rituals. How shall she and other normatively-gendered female family and
friends perceive my feelings? How does my problematic as a masculine female create a
problematic for their acceptance of femininity? Is it possible to create a singular theory of
gender while trying to encompass the lived experience of interaction? Perhaps our
problematic are simply different. My project is to unhinge the relationship between
female bodies and femininity while hers is to disconnect dresses, the signifier of
femininity, from the appearance of disability. In many ways, it seems to me that my
project might be easier to accomplish. I support the project of feminine women to undo
the signification of disability. Perhaps we should concentrate on paying more attention to
the overarching project-working to end assumptions of women's (and men's)
appearance of ableness, in favor of concentrating on each individual's actual ableness.
Nonetheless, our different projects often make interaction complicated.
Butchness is not a unitary, undifferentiated understanding of self. Ifbutchness is
created in and through interaction, it is clearly enacted differently for different audiences.
Given that gender is a regulatory regime in U.S. culture (Butler 1993 and 1996), then
interacting with heterosexual women and heterosexual men requires a different
performance and results in different performative experiences.
Additionally, part of the problematic of creating butchness is the lack of
normative, cultural space to understand and interact with masculine females. How is a
male to respond to a masculine female in a setting that has traditionally been all-male?
There is no typical experience from which to draw. Should she be unproblematically
accepted as "one of the guys" and the sexist bantering and "male bonding" be continued?
Should the entire group revise its practices to accommodate a gender non-specific
setting? The problematic is that there are no rules for how such a masculine female fits
into this space. It is new and confusing ground to be covered.
Female masculinity does not fit into the compliant performance of self that
Goffmian (1959) describes. If it is a critique to the regulatory regime of gender that Butler
discusses (and I believe it is), it only works as a critique because it is both recognizable
and unrecognizable at the same time. Although Halberstam argues that the masculinity of
females has a long history and has helped to construct what the entire culture knows as
masculinity, it remains a space with uncertain rules. If Goffminan describes conformity (the
maintenance of order), how do we understand the maintenance of non-conformity? What
are the rules for interacting with masculine females? If Goffinan is right, there are no
options beyond masculinity and femininity because nothing else is recognizable. Hence,
female masculinity is both uncommon and unavoidable-simultaneously recognizable and
problematic. Butchness disrupts the rules of interaction at the same time that it reifies
them. For those of us who enact butchness, it is necessary to avoid having our
bodies/selves understood as incapable but also problematic as a dangerous space that
challenges comfortable heteronormativity. The question is always whether to wear the
dress and lose myself or wear the tux and cause everyone else to question themselves. As
for me, I've tried the dress. From now on, I choose the tux.
THE NARRATIVE ORGANIZATION OF BUTCH AND FEMME
AS PUBLIC PERFORMANCE
When speaking of butch and femme as public self-presentation, notions of
women's equality and feminism become a significant concern for lesbians. Images of
butch and femme suggest a potential for power imbalance, yet most of my narrators
explicitly spoke about feminism or expectations for egalitarian relationships. They were
quite aware of the potential of political fallout from within the lesbian community for
aligning too closely with heterosexual ideals, for as the old feminist critique goes, why
would lesbians want to recreate gender roles that are patriarchal and oppressive to women
(Jeffreys 1989 and 1996)? If butch and femme are "imitating heterosexuality," butch
lesbians might be oppressing femme lesbians. Hence, lesbians are invested in not aligning
with what are purportedly heterosexual ideals. But, how can public butch and femme
appear similar to heterosexual masculinity and femininity and not be oppressive? How
can we theorize butch and femme as egalitarian?
In this chapter, I argue that heteronormativity as both discourse-or what Holstein
and Gubrium (2000) call discourses-in-practice-and discursive practice pervades
discussion of public presentations of lesbian self. As such, lesbians are not so much
borrowing from or imitating heterosexual paradigms as participating in the only paradigm
that is available to all of us.
It is important to note that public performances and discussions of butch and
femme include notions of both gender and sexuality-in public settings. In Chapter 5, I