Why Butch/Femme Belong To Bisexuals As Well (And Bi+ History Resources!)
- August 12, 2019
As a bisexual person, I navigate a few misunderstandings in the maintenance of this brand. In particular, when lesbians see that I have a shirt labeled ‘Bi Femmes Club’, it immediately invites hostility. I probably hear “femme is a lesbian only word!” once a week.
The problem with this is: bisexual folks have always used butch/femme as identifiers. It’s ahistoric to suggest that only people with zero attraction to men participated in coining those words.
Bi+ erasure and the homo/hetero binary have made it so that people are unaware of bi+ folks’ contributions to sapphic culture. In fact, sapphic culture is often described as ‘lesbian’ culture. This is understandable; ‘lesbian’ presently signals a lack of attraction towards men when it was historically used to refer simply to women who were attracted to other women. In its modern context, however, our generous usage of ‘lesbian’ to refer to wlw furthers bi+ erasure.
In an age where porn is ‘lesbian’ and wlw subculture is ‘lesbian’, even when bisexual women participate, the idea that butch/femme aren’t for us is absurd. It collaborates with the fact that when a bi+ person is dating their same/similar gender(s), we’re perceived as lesbian, but we’re perceived as straight when dating a different gender partner. It pretends that there was an entire subculture of people with zero attraction to men, zero experiences with men, and zero proximity to men who therefore own butch/femme.
When working class lesbian and bisexual folks began using butch and femme, bisexual wasn’t even a common identifier. Pansexual sure wasn’t either. So people who had attraction to men were still often labeled as lesbians. That’s just the reality. Additionally, non-binary and gender non-conforming bisexual folks use femme because, while they may perform femininity, they are not women. This is important as the erasure of bisexual NB folks also occurs when we suggest that bi+ folks can only be attraction to boys/men and girls/women, not NB folks. This isn’t true either — bisexual has a lot of definitions, many of which acknowledge attraction to NB folks. One definition I enjoy using is: bisexuality is the potential for attraction to genders like your own and unlike your own.
I also think that lesbian politics and identity were transformed by the feminist movement to be very specifically about decentering men. This is powerful but also, not the entire point of being sapphic. A lot of that pressure to decenter men stinks of lesbian separatism from the 70’s — and the idea that only sapphic women who completely cut ties to ‘male privilege’ belonged in the lesbian political movement.
It creates a space where lesbians are viewed as the objective gatekeepers of words like butch and femme, whereas bisexual folks must get permission because our judgment is clouded by our attractions to men. This plays into tropes around bi+ women and femmes not being worthy of trust. This is biphobia. And particularly considering bisexuals have historically always used butch/femme, I’m not sure why we’d then need outside permission anyway.
Under patriarchy, I’m not sure anyone can entirely decenter men. Cishet men exist and wield power in this world. When people criticize me because I must be subconsciously centering or performing for men simply because I am attracted to them, it reeks of both misogyny and biphobia. It holds me to an impossible standard. And it sounds like when cishet men see women dressed up in public spaces and wonder aloud, “if women didn’t want our attention, why would they look like that?”
If you have an issue with bi+ folks using ‘femme’, consider that bisexual women and NB folks aren’t performing femininity (or sexuality even) for anyone but themselves. Granted, given the coercive nature of patriarchy, that’s hard to do. Even lesbian-identifying folks hit the occasional snag in this department.
Consider also that bi+ women can be primarily attracted to women, as bi+ doesn’t always indicate a 50/50 attraction split. Consider that our modern understanding of butch/femme has been shaped by biphobia. Consider that butch and femme have a history that the average person is unaware of because LGBTQ+ history isn’t taught in American public schools. Many of us are using definitions we learned on social media platforms and from our peers IRL.
I had a few weeks where wearing my own ‘Bi Femmes Club’ shirt gave me this sinking stomach feeling, even though I intellectually know the history behind these words. It made me hyperfocused on how others were receiving me, and about possible gaps in my knowledge when it comes to LGBTQ+ history. Gatekeeping makes bi+ folks feel bad about taking up space in the sapphic community but we deserve to be here. What is anyone accomplishing when they attempt to hoard these identifiers? Does that help us to tackle larger systemic issues, like homophobia, biphobia, misogyny, etc? No, not really.
If you’d like more information on bisexual history, or if this brings up any emotions for you, here are some resources/citations:
Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty, and Revolution by Paula C. Rust (1995, free on jStor)
Butch-Femme Interrupted by Cristina Stasia (2003, Journal of Bisexuality: Issue 3, $43 from Taylor Francis Online)
Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner (2013, $12-13 on Amazon)
Bi America: Myths, Truths, and Struggles of an Invisible Community by William Burleson (2014, $6 to rent and $13 to buy from Amazon)
Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around The World by Robyn Ochs and Sarah Rowley (2005, prices vary)
ESSAYS/WRITING/BLOG POSTS/TUMBLR DISCOURSE
for anyone who says “butch” and “femme” are lesbian-only and not applicable to bi women! – Sapphic Sex Ed, Tumblr.com
I’m Bisexual, I’m Femme, And You Can’t Tell Me Otherwise – Janis Luna, Go Magazine
What We Mean When We Say “Femme”: A Roundable – various authors, Autostraddle.com
do you think bi women can use butch/femme/d*ke? isn’t there a specific history behind them for lesbians? idk, i just feel like the lesbian community can’t have any one thing or word to ourselves – Closet Keys Q&A, Tumblr.com
How I Stopped Performing My Bisexuality And Start Actually Living It – personal essay for Elle.com
Bisexual Women Are Not Your Fantasy – about the hypersexualization of bi+ women and femmes, for Into More
Stop Pretending Bi+ Women Exist For You – also about hypersexulization, for Killer and A Sweet Thang
Bi Girls Don’t Have To Pick A Side — But It’s Okay If They Do – about bi+ existence for Tinder’s Swipe Life
Gabrielle Alexa Noel is a bisexual writer, speaker, and creative with bylines in Elle, Huffington Post, The Independent, and others. She was featured in Go Magazine’s 100 Women We Love Class of 2019 and was a guest on the PBS show #MeToo: Now What? She is the creator and sole employee here at Bi Girls Club. Find her on Instagram and Twitter under the username @gabalexa. You can support her work by making a purchase from the store, sharing this post (or other essays she has written), or via Venmo transaction (@Gabrielle-Noel).
Bi Femmes Club Crop Top
A fitted crop top to pair with skirts, jeans, and much more. Made of 100% cotton, this crop top has a soft hand feel and light texture.
• 100% 30/1 combed cotton
• Form fitting
• Made in the USA
• Two colors: black and white
• Bottom hem has an unfinished, raw edge