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Butch, Please

What was once a way to describe a woman with short hair, no makeup, and men’s clothes is now more of an aesthetic fueled by an attitude and sense of confidence in yourself. It is an umbrella term that includes multiple identities like soft butch, hard butch, stone butch, chapstick lesbian, studs and more. It is also not just women who identify under the banner but also non-binary peeps and trans-persons!

Robert LeRoy Parker, an icon of the ‘Wild West’ era, was the leader of a gang of outlaws known as the ‘Wild Bunch’ in the Old West in the USA. His life and death have been the inspiration for many films, television and literature, but his most popular contribution might just be to modern lesbian vocabulary. He was colloquially known as Butch Cassidy.

Through his name the American slang word ‘Butcher’ became common in the early 20th century, meaning ‘tough kid’. The abbreviation of this gave us the word ‘Butch’, which according to the Oxford dictionary means a lesbian of masculine appearance or behavior. But as always, there is more to it than meets the eye.

What was once a way to describe a woman with short hair, no makeup, and men’s clothes is now more of an aesthetic fueled by an attitude and sense of confidence in yourself. It is an umbrella term that includes multiple identities like soft butch, hard butch, stone butch, chapstick lesbian, studs and more. It is also not just women who identify under the banner but also non-binary peeps and trans-persons!

The word was first popularized in the 1940s, alongside what is widely accepted as its counterpart, ‘femme’, which has come to be a reference to a queer person of feminine appearance or behavior, in the working class bars in places like Manhattan and San Francisco. These spaces provided a safe haven for sapphic women to explore their gender presentation away from judgemental eyes. Even though it was a space that middle and upper class lesbians of the time avoided, the butches at these bars could be spotted in “men’s” clothing and short hairstyles, while displaying suave, chivalrous manners when interacting with their femme counterparts.

Also read:The Gaysi Guide to Dressing Like a Lesbian

This was prevalent well up to the 60s and 70s, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that till butch women became a topic of conversation in the USA again. This was at the height of second wave feminism in America when the conversation around butches, but in particular the dynamics between between butch and femme women, was gaining prominence. In short, the feminists were just not here for the butches! They pilloried butchness as inextricably misogynist and butch-femme relationships as dangerous replications of heteronormative roles.

From its emergence among working-class lesbian bar culture in the 1940s to its resurgence in the 1990s, this subculture has an interesting and rich hidden history in American sapphic culture, but there are prominent butch women in histories all over the world.

Also read: Butch, Not Gay

In their book ‘Butch Heroes’ author Ria Brodell sets out to find people like them. “I was looking for people in history with whom I can personally identify — people who were assigned female at birth, had documented relationships with women, and whose gender presentation was more masculine than feminine,” Brodell explains in the book’s introduction. The language around queer identities has largely evolved since some of these butches strutted their boots. Today some of them could have been identified as lesbian, bi, pan, trans, nonbinary, genderqueer or intersex. But at the time the language wasn’t so nuanced, so Brodell choses to identify them as butch.

In Brodell’s work we meet D. Catalina “Antonio” de Erauso (1592 – 1650) who was born in Spain to an aristocratic family. She was raised in the convent, but before taking her vows she fled dressed as a man to sail and fight in the Spanish army. Once she was caught she was popularly called the Lieutenant Nun. She famously petitioned King Philip IV for a military pension citing her 15 years of service and even sought permission from Pope Urban VIII to dress as a man due to her ‘virgin status’. Both of which she successfully received!

The book also brings to us the story of Okuhara Seiko (1837-1913), an artist of the late Edo period of Japan. Her birth name was Setsuko, but she changed it from a feminine sounding name to one with no indication of gender. She is described as masculine and chose to wear men’s clothes and keep her hair short. During her time, women were not permitted to study painting so she arranged to be adopted by an aunt to move to Edo (now Tokyo) to pursue her artistry. Seiko was the first female artist to have an audience with the Empress of Japan!

Also read: Femme + Butch = Futch!

The book sheds light on how butchness has always existed in women’s history (or should we say, her-story) all over the world, even if it wasn’t called that at the time. Today butch women are a regular part of pop culture. We had the iconic singer K.D. Lang who plagued women’s sexual confusion in the early 90’s with her haunting mezzo-soprano voice. Her 1993 August Vanity Fair cover shoot with Cindy Crawford remains iconic to pop culture enthusiasts even today.

The second coming of straight women questioning their sexuality came with Ruby Rose, who rose to stardom in 2015 after appearing on Orange is the New Black as everyone’s favorite prisoner Stella Carlin. Since then, Butch women have been a part of Western pop culture regularly, especially in film and television. Granted most of the time it has been in the form of secondary characters with trope-y story lines, but they are there, rocking the pixie cut and sporting a pair of flannels.

But the most popular butch of all time, one most people think of when asked who the first butch women they ever saw was, is Ellen Degenres. Her fall from grace is well documented and frankly well-deserved, but her impact on the LGBTQIA+ community, in creating a space for queer people and in particular butch women, cannot be ignored.

To this author though, and to lots of other Hindi-speaking queer women as well, the first time we saw a butch woman on-screen was Komal Chautala in Chak De India! She has long been part of the discourse on queer-coded characters in Bollywood, largely due to her abrasive push back in conforming to the gender binary during a conversation with her father as shown in the movie.

Also read: Celebrities that were our Queer Awakening

In an article for Vogue India titled “How Bollywood’s LGBTQ+ agenda studiously ignores transmen” we hear about Omar’s story of how they as a transman felt seen by Komal’s character. Back in the day, in 2007 when the movie was released, Komal was seen more as a “tomboy” rather than butch. The difference between the two changes depending on who you ask. Some say tomboy is more of a phase while butch is a lifestyle, some say tomboy is more about material things like clothing choices, hairstyles and other personal preferences, while butch is more of an attitude about who you are and your identity. The biggest difference between the two, when colloquially addressed, remains that tomboys are straight women and butches are queer.

Since Komal, we have had more robust and out there butch women in Indian film and television. In the popular Amazon Prime TV show, “Four More Shots Please!” we have Umang, a bisexual fitness trainer. Her muscular built, tattooed arms and IDGAF attitude is the best example of butchness we have for brown women. Netflix’s Ajeeb Dastaans is an anthology series that gave us the short story titled Geeli Puchhi. Here we meet Bharti, who’s butch physical appearance paired with vulnerability in her storyline as a Dalit woman and a sexual abuse survivor, helps bring a more nuanced approach to queer butch women on the screen.

Also read: How House MD Led to my Trans Awakening

While these characters embrace their butchness they are played by women who are neither queer nor butch. A problem that exists in entertainment industries everywhere. Social media then becomes a place for more authentic butch representation. Through social media we have had the identity of butch further classified, think of butchness as a scale where on one end we have the soft butch, someone with more softer features, long hair, likes minimal makeup, rocks the white tee and denim look. Maybe someone like Kristen Stewart. On the other end is the hard butch, definitely more muscular in built but not necessarily, someone whose wardrobe is filled with flannels, wears their hair in a pixie or buzz cut, and dons lots of leather! Maybe someone like Sara Ramirez.

Even the gym girlies trend on social media, not something only queer women have embraced but all women who enjoy looking muscular have, is a trend that owes its existence to butch culture. Feminine masculinity presents itself in various forms. And yes, queer women dominate this conversation and butchness is an extension of the same.

Within the butch label we have soft butch and hard butch but other trends have emerged regularly like the chapstick lesbian or the hey mama lesbains or even studs, a word prominently used by butch women of color in the western world. Butch can mean anything and everything to the people identifying with it, if they want it to! It is feminine masculinity in all its glory and this women’s day we are embracing it!

The theme of International Women’s Day 2024 is Inspire Inclusion, and I hope this piece has inspired you to include our lovely butches in the conversation! The fact remains that we need more in your face butch representation! And all kinds of butch representation, really. So what are we waiting for? Women’s Day?

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Yashaswiny Dinkar is like fire. She is a psychologist, writer and a Koda enthusiast. (Koda = pet dog = soulmate). Her laugh, energy and enthusiasm are infectious. The high decibels of her voice are comparable only to her affection and consideration. It is evident in the way she educates people about feminism, pushes for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and spreads awareness about mental health. If someone tries to hurt people she cares about, her fire can burn them to ashes. She is driven to achieve her goal of becoming a published author and does not let any opportunity pass by. But she does not push other people down in the process but instead illuminates the path for them. Yashaswiny Dinkar is a happy bonfire, a soft candle flame, a protective flamethrower and a guiding torch. Yashaswiny Dinkar is fire.
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