Despite what the internet seems to think, butch lesbians do not have so-called “masculine privilege.”
The internet is a wonderful place for learning. You can pick up another language, a new craft, find recipes, and so much more – for free. Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to find and share information. And yet the internet is not without faults. Despite all the knowledge it spreads across the world, the internet is also a reliable source of terrible ideas – some of which seem to escape challenge. For example: the idea that butch lesbians benefit from masculine privilege.
This particular fallacy has been doing the rounds on Queer Twitter for too long. There’s even an article claiming “lezbros” practice toxic masculinity. And it needs to stop. Claiming butch women have masculine privilege is deeply harmful, because it erases the cause and consequences of discrimination they experience. So let’s break that argument down into little pieces that are small enough to fit neatly into the bin with all the other garbage.
Butch lesbians are women
Butch lesbians are women. The only reasons anybody would say otherwise are sexism and homophobia. How butches present and carry themselves through this world in no way contradicts their womanhood. This is because being a woman is not the same as or reliant on performing the feminine gender role. Being feminine is not the same as being a woman. Being a woman is not the same as being feminine. And women should not be boxed into femininity – as feminists have been arguing for centuries. There are so many ways to be a woman without being feminine, which butch lesbians do an incredible job of showing. (Seriously, you’re killing it.)
Being feminine is not the same as being a woman. Being a woman is not the same as being feminine. And women should not be boxed into femininity – as feminists have been arguing for centuries.
The fact is that lesbians who aren’t butch, bi women, and straight women can all stand to learn some valuable lessons from how butch lesbians live. Butches show us that life outside of the feminine gender role is freeing, desirable, and full of possibilities for women if we’re brave enough to claim it. And butch women are brave.
Butch women are brave
Butch lesbians are a pretty fantastic group of humans, overall. But, unfortunately, they face a huge amount of stigma. Even among their friends and family, butch lesbians can be stigmatized. Butch lesbians are punished in a thousand ways, big and small, for being unfeminine.
This pressure is a kind of coercion designed to force women back into the feminine gender role. The carrot is social acceptance. The stick is violence in varying degrees. But if women en masse escape the feminine gender role, the system of patriarchy will crumble. In a way, butch lesbians are the vanguard of the feminist revolution. And they deserve to be celebrated for it.
The carrot is social acceptance. The stick is violence in varying degrees. But if women en masse escape the feminine gender role, the system of patriarchy will crumble. In a way, butch lesbians are the vanguard of the feminist revolution.
In her revolutionary stand-up set, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby shares a harrowing account of the harms visited on her for being “incorrectly female.” She jokingly describes being called ‘Sir’ and read as male from a distance, gives a gracious response to the queer fans expecting her to come out as transgender (instead of embracing Gadsby as a dapper butch in a suit), and the brutal beating from a man outraged by the presence of a “lady faggot.” With a deft sort of humour, Gadsby highlights that butch lesbians are made into outsiders in so many different contexts – the result of which is almost invariably harm.
Only men benefit from masculine privilege
Masculine privilege is the result of being born male in any patriarchal society – so, pretty much the entire world. Male socialization begins at birth. And while it’s possible to unlearn it, not many men choose to – partly because unlearning gender is hard work, but mostly because they don’t want to give up the perks of masculinity.
Men are paid more than women and hold the vast majority of the world’s wealth. Men are overrepresented in everything from TV shows to governments. And when men marry women, they often have all the comforts of a home and the joys of a family without doing the bulk of domestic work needed to sustain either. Masculine privilege is huge. But butch lesbians – like all other women – don’t benefit from it. Quite the opposite.
Gendered socialization is significant. It’s why over a third of all women globally will experience violence in their lives. And it’s why the perpetrator of that violence is overwhelmingly likely to be a man. Even though butch lesbians present as masculine, they have not been socialized as masculine.
Butch lesbians haven’t been socialized into male entitlement or male dominance. And butch lesbians have female bodies, which mark them out as targets for male violence as surely as any other woman. Presenting as masculine isn’t an escape route from male violence, otherwise, a lot more women probably would. In fact, it can carry extra risk. Butch lesbians reject femininity, which can trigger violent and misogynistic backlash.
Butch lesbians haven’t been socialized into male entitlement or male dominance. And butch lesbians have female bodies, which mark them out as targets for male violence as surely as any other woman.
What About Femmephobia?
Part of the myth that butch lesbians benefit from masculine privilege frames them as having social power over femmes. Butch lesbians are periodically accused of “femmephobia” or “femme erasure”, viewed as an oppressor of femmes. And this is nonsense.
Femmes are not marginalized by butch lesbians. Femmes are not marginalized in relation to butch lesbians. Femmes are not even erased by butch lesbians – if anything, butches are erased in what lesbian representation exists. The L Word, the first mainstream TV show to center lesbian lives, was filled with femme characters.
Even Shane, whose sex appeal was undeniably inspired by the swagger of butch lesbians, was on the feminine end of an androgynous spectrum. Remember all that smoky eyeliner and chunky jewelry? They were there to mitigate the threat of butchness. In what limited lesbian representation exists in film & television, femmes are seen and butches are almost always invisible. Femmes are the ‘acceptable’ face of lesbian kind.
Presenting as feminine means having the potential to pass as straight. While passing might be uncomfortable for femme lesbians, it comes with certain rewards.
Records of butch/femme lesbian relationships from the 1940s onwards show a pattern of the femme working to support the couple because butch women were often denied employment. Passing as straight isn’t without reward, and that’s not a coincidence. We live in a heteropatriarchal society that’s invested in the rules of gender.
The people who are seen to comply are rewarded.
We live in a heteropatriarchal society that’s invested in the rules of gender. The people who are seen to comply are rewarded.
The Personal & Political
The politics of butch and femme lesbians aren’t comfortable, especially for the women who live them. But the most important politics are usually the least comfortable. And I can’t talk about butch or femme from personal experience. Alas, my commitment to purple lipstick and nail polish means I’m never going to be mistaken for a butch (except by my grandmother, who doesn’t like it when I veer too far from femininity).
But big boots, baggy clothes, and an undercut mark me out as “incorrectly female” more often than not, which precludes the possibility of femme. And being this type of Black lesbian, I can’t help but notice certain parallels. The politics of butch & femme are quite similar to the politics of darker & lighter Black skin.
Being this type of Black lesbian, I can’t help but notice certain parallels. The politics of butch & femme are quite similar to the politics of darker & lighter Black skin.
Black people with lighter skin face less discrimination than Black people with darker skin. Through the logic of racism, we’re seen as closer to human because of a perceived proximity to whiteness. And that added layer of discrimination dark-skinned Black people experience is called colorism.
Just as light-skinned Black people are the ‘acceptable’ face of Blackness, femmes are the ‘acceptable’ face of lesbianism. Femmes are seen as closer to the feminine ideal of womanhood than butches, nearer to being “normal” women. Claiming butch lesbians have masculine privilege over femmes seems just as ridiculous to me as running my mouth about being the victim of reverse colorism. It’s not a thing.
Being femme doesn’t result in a heightened homophobia or sexism; being butch does. Having lighter skin doesn’t result in a heightened racism; having darker skin does. Of course, femme lesbians are lesbians. Of course lighter-skinned Black people are Black.
Both hold true, and nobody is suggesting otherwise. But there are important questions to be asked about who holds the relative privilege in each group, and why that might be – because the answers hold the key to freedom for all of us.