At a family reunion, I met my cousin’s new husband. My cousin, who was very pregnant at the time, went inside to lie down, asking me if I wouldn’t mind introducing her new hubby around.

One of the first couples I introduced him to was my cousin MP* (Butch for Mary Paige) and her partner, Netta. They’ve been together for years, and Netta is a frequent and welcome guest at all family get-togethers, even coming to gatherings alone when MP can’t make it.

As we walked away from them, Stan said, “So, I guess your cousin’s the guy, eh?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, one of them’s always the girl, and one of them’s always the guy, right?”
Wrong, I wanted to say. I was about to accuse him of projecting a heterosexual relationship pattern onto my cousin and her partner when I had a thought: It was true that Netta looked a bit more traditional—she wore skirts, had long hair, and often wore jewelry and makeup—I had never thought of it that way, and it seemed insulting somehow. But then I started thinking, is this a common perception? Is there some truth to it? Do homosexual relationships somehow just replicate heterosexual ones, with the only difference being the couple is of the same anatomical sex?

The butch/femme aesthetic has recently made its way into mainstream culture via famous butch-femme couples such as newlyweds Ellen Degeneres and Portia di Rossi. In fact, not all members of the lesbian community approve of such relationships; butch/femme subculture, it seems, is one of the most contested in the GLBT community.
In a culture that privileges visibility as a political strategy, femmes in particular are often regarded with suspicion. A femme, after all, is visually indistinguishable from a ‘typical’ heterosexual woman; she is an invisible lesbian. Other lesbians feel that femmes, in ‘passing’ are being cowardly, and shirking their political duty as lesbians to openly thwart the norm, an oppressive feminine aesthetic. Instead, they argue, femmes are reinforcing the constraints and gender stereotypes that other lesbians are trying to break down.

There are those, however, who would level the same charges at the ‘butch’ identity as well. Aren’t butches just women ‘in drag’—females trying very hard to look like heterosexual men? Aren’t they male-identified, and therefore prone to all the dominating tendencies of the gender they emulate?

But criticism doesn’t come from within the GLBT community alone. Straight homophobes have used butch/femme relationships as proof that homosexuality isn’t a real sexual orientation; rather, it’s a warped heterosexuality, a pathology that could and should be ‘cured’.

A number of theorists have written on this topic, most of them defending this sort of relationship configuration. Nestle defends butch/femme relationships, insisting that they are “complex erotic statements […] filled with deeply lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, love, courage, and autonomy” (Butch-Femme Relationships , 97). Sue-Ellen Case indicates that butch-femme couples are more about parody than replication: They are “playfully inhabiting the camp space of irony and wit, free from biological determinism, elitist essentialism, and the heterosexist cleavage of sexual difference” (Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic, 128). Judith Butler points out that “butch/femme parodies the notion that there is such a thing as an ‘original’ or ‘true’ gender identity” by appropriating hetero norms and showing how they can be used subversively, i.e.: these identities do not belong to, and cannot be confined to, heterosexual relationships ( Gender Trouble,174). The juxtaposition of anatomical sex and gender, Butler believes, is real source of butch/femme desire.
The one lesbian theorist who doesn’t agree is Sheila Jeffreys, who views anything possibly modeled on heterosexuality as inherently oppressive. “Heterosexuality,” she says, “is a sexual desire that eroticizes power difference” (Unpacking Queer Politics, 86). Butch/femme desires, then, are also defined by inequality. She suggests that we need to make equality sexy instead.

There is some unintentional agreement between Butler’s and Jeffreys’s statements. As one femme quoted by Butler puts it, she likes her boys to be girls.

Creative Commons License