At first, I was surprised so few people answered this one. But it's tough (I've talked about the difficulty of defining "butch" before). So, kudos to those of you who took a stab at this one. At the end, I riff a little about my own definition.
Answer #1: (from Mainely Butch, who posted it on her site):
Butch is fierce, strong and rough, yet gentle. Butch is no-nonsense, yet silly sometimes. Butch is a generally tough exterior, yet a sort of teddy bear on the inside. Butch is that feeling that you need to fix everything…even when you know you can’t. Butch is not crying in public…at least trying not to! Butch is steeling emotions on the surface, and dealing with them when you are alone. Butch is getting up and doing what needs to be done even when you are sore, hurting and really don’t want to do it, but you do it anyway – because you are Butch. Butch is never letting them see you sweat. Butch is shopping in the men’s department and anguishing over which dressing room you’ll be banned from. Butch is avoiding public bathrooms as much as physically possible and using them at great risk of possible violence. Butch is brushing off (and secretly smiling) all of the “sirs” and “young man” comments that those in the unknowing world dish out to us. Butch is standing up for what is right, even if it means getting our asses kicked. Butch is good. Butch is true. Butch is flexible and giving. Butch is whatever defines you, or how you define it for yourself.
To me, butch means a nontraditional female who may be rougher, larger, or carry some other traits that are considered "masculine," whether she overtly identifies as masculine or not. She may have been a tomboy as a girl, and she may have been either picked on or encouraged for wearing swim trunks, climbing trees, fighting, or otherwise playing the way boys are understood to play, while seriously distrusting the inherent message being conveyed when adults would point her towards dolls, dresses, curtsies, flutterings of the eyelashes, and any other cutesie-poo behaviors ("Why can't you be just like Shirley Temple?!").
As this 'boyish' child matures, she may try to fit in and become feminine at the urging of society, but, especially if she is gay, it likely does not work out easily or to her satisfaction; hence you now have an adult butch woman in whatever manifestation that takes, be it celebratory and accepted in the queer community; shunned upon and difficult in localities (or times) lacking that community; grudgingly and with a distaste for labels but just accepting "I am what I am"; or perhaps placed within a neat "butch-femme" courtship dynamic which allows her to take on traditional male roles in a relationship thus not feeling lost from societal norms.
The above is not a prescriptive definition; it is only a description of how "Butch" seems through the window of my life.
Prior to the blossoming of gay culture and butch lesbian acceptance (or at least to its availability to me) I would silently insist that I knew a butch woman when I saw one. My third grade teacher. Alice from the Brady Bunch. Even Jodie Foster in Freaky Friday -- I recognized this girl actress to be akin to me. To me it seems like many of those butches in the past, though beloved, might often have felt put upon to act the stooge, being clumsy or "not good at sewing" or "exasperated with men." I now believe the stooge act to have been necessitated by the times, and that these women, gay or not, had a lot of secrets and were probably tougher than most Dads I knew.
Butch, as I see it, is not a style, a flavor, a haircut, a dating tactic, or even an attitude. It's the visible reflection of the way that girls who became gay women (or trans men) struggled and learned to do so on their own terms, rejecting the pre-packaged notions of femininity offered to them in their youths as the required counterpart of masculinity. It is an attempt to be a whole person, even if that whole person does not "fit in" to what is expected of one's gender.
Now, with the growing acceptance of butches (slow be it coming), the definitions will shift from Butch as a reaction to society, to Butch as a choice, even a label. The shift of acceptance should be celebrated and differences encouraged. We must never reject someone [just] because their labeling system does not match our own.
I define butch as a part of sexual orientation (not that you can't do butch on butch but it is still sexual I hope). If you identify as butch, you are butch.
That said, I like to think I know butch when I see it. This is what I look for:
- Some visible leaning toward handsome rather than pretty (this is on the surface, such as haircut, clothes, shoes, accessories or lack thereof).
- Some level of "Sir Gallahad" in comportment and body language that feels authentic
- When playing, reads as a tomboy
- Some contradiction or complication between gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation that queers everything. This could just be expressed by some dysphoria or total dysphoria when forced to look "femmy" or it could be an inability to claim to be a butch and a woman or a butch and a lesbian - i.e. just ID as butch.
To the masculine of center, as well as any where in the spectrum from bio-male to FtM transexual, to FtM transgender, to hard Butch (passing for male) to soft Butch Male ID, to Boi (male ID) to butch female ID, to tomboi femme. There is in some way an over lapping of of masculine and feminine.
Back to BW:
I thought these answers were all thought-provoking. Before I started this blog, "butch" always meant female to me. After all, if it didn't, then wouldn't a lot of straight cis men be "butch?" What would that mean for those of us in the queer community? I like the idea that "butch" separates me from being a man--for me, it's a way of being a woman--a particular type of woman that I know and love and recognize.
But I soon learned that my thinking was too narrow: there are plenty of non-gender-binary folks who ID as butch. And this makes complete intuitive sense to me. Which leads me to think that when I say "butch," I'm talking chiefly about a non-"male" form of masculinity--that is, about socially "masculine" attributes divorced from identification exclusively as a man.
At the same time, can I tell someone who IDs exclusively as male that he is not "butch?" I don't feel that I have that right, any more than I have the right to tell a woman in a skirt and heels that she is not "butch."
If I lack any right to "police" butchness, then isn't the label "butch" only about understanding one's self, not about understanding others? And isn't this ultimately true about all labels? (If my white octogenarian grandfather chooses to ID as a young Chinese-American lesbian, who would I be to stop him? At some point, does this just get silly?)
At the same time, if every straight cis guy started saying the word "butch" instead of the word "masculine" or "dude" or however he describes himself, I'd probably turn to a different term to describe myself (internally and to others). This leads me to think that the term "butch" is not just to describe myself; it's also relational--a way to explain to myself and others what my "ethos" is--how I exist in the world.
Whether you're butch or not, dear readers, how do you define it? Do any of the definitions above appeal to you? Do any bother you? What does "butch" mean in terms of sex, sexual orientation, and/or gender?