Femme vs. Butch | Internalized Homophobia Poetry Therapy

Author’s Note: This poem addresses a lesbian community topic of femmes and butches. These terms are exclusively used by lesbians for specific purposes, but not all lesbians use them. Personally, I use “femme” and “lipstick lesbian.” This poem uses the term “tomboy” (mainstream use for straight girls) and “butch” (subculture use for masculine-presenting lesbians).

Resources explaining / discussing femme and butch lesbian subcultures.

IMPORTANT: Do not misinterpret “femme” and “butch” to decide: “Who’s the man and who’s the woman?” THAT IS NOT WHAT THOSE TERMS MEAN. There are plenty of femme–femme (aka me and my future wife) and butch–butch relationships.


“I think the world of you…”

Begins the Facebook message.

I have not read the rest.

Guilt.

Crushing guilt.

Not guilt from pretending to be bisexual,

Guilt from past anger and resentment.

This time?

Towards my own kind.


I knew you were a lesbian.

I’m not sure who else knew,

I never spoke the knowledge,

I didn’t hear rumors either.

“Tomboy” is a common style,

It doesn’t equate sexuality.

I don’t know how I knew,

Why I saw you as a lesbian.

If you were just a tomboy,

A girl who society thought:

“She looks and acts masculine,

But she’s still a straight girl.

Therefore no actual issue arises,

No threat towards our way of life.”

But you weren’t just a tomboy,

Were you?

You were butch,

A lesbian like me.

I was femme,

Terrified of my own kind.

Terror grew into anger,

Anger became resentment.

You were a good friend,

But a threat to my safety.*


Didn’t you understand we needed to be hiding?

Why couldn’t you conform to Western femininity?

Didn’t you know what they’d do if they found out?


I was always feminine.

Growing up:

I loved dolls,

I loved dresses,

I loved pink.

I looked like society wanted.

In teenage years:

I hated the Mormon version of feminine,

At least what I was exposed to in Utah.

I didn’t hate it enough to fight against it,

After all, my gender expression was safe.*


Why did you have to be butch?

Why couldn’t you be like me?

Why didn’t you conform to rules?


I was going to approach you,

“Hey, I think…we’re the same.”

I planned many opening lines,

Never spoke any of them.

How would that have gone?

What would you have said?

How about the follow-up line?

“Could you…not be so obvious?”

What a ridiculous and selfish thing,

Forcing you into a box to protect myself!

I outwardly aligned with “straight girl,”

But my inward emotions surely did not.

I knew I wasn’t acting on my lesbianism,

I didn’t know if you were acting on yours.

Since I could see your desire,

I was afraid others would too.

Since we were friends,

They’d link me to you.


Did anyone know?

Other than me?

I don’t know.

I do know:

I regret it.

I should have spoken with you.

Not the selfish way I imagined,

Instead — true understanding.

Butch and femme are subcultures,

“Lesbian” is what we actually are.

Homosexual women,

Presented in different ways.

If I had no hatred of what we were,

If I had a shred of belief it wasn’t a curse,

If I had given you a chance to see me —

In the same way I could see you —

We could have helped each other.


Disclaimer: The woman in this poem is now an out and proud lesbian, but I do not know if she uses the subculture terminology. It is merely how I viewed her during our high school friendship.

*Why was I afraid for my safety to the point where I felt strong anger towards a friend who was only kind to me? It was partially due to my personality disorder symptoms growing during teenage years, but it also reflected the very real threat of (pseudo-scientific) conversion therapy. In fact, the LDS church is famous for using conversion therapy — evidence is everywhere, but Wiki has a summarized list.

If I had been “outed” in high school, I would have been sent to my bishop (religious leader) to discuss resisting same-sex attraction. I’m 100% sure I would have killed myself after our first meeting.*

Explanations of Femme and Butch | Lesbian Subcultures

Below are some perspectives from other lesbians. These articles contain historically accurate descriptions of butch and femme, but also have the authors’ opinions on the subcultures.

  • .How Butch / Femme Subcultures Allow Gay Women to Thrive (2019)
    • “Whether reclaiming femininity from the male gaze with femme or rejecting feminine gender norms by embracing butch, the subculture is intrinsically radical: it empowers lesbians to renounce patriarchal standards of beauty.”
      .
  • Butch-Femme (2004)
    • “To give a general but oversimplified idea of what butch-femme entails, butches exhibit traditionally “masculine” traits while femmes embody “feminine” ones. Although oral histories have demonstrated that butch-femme couples were seen in America as far back as the turn of the twentieth century, and that they were particularly conspicuous in the 1930s, it is the mid-century working-class and bar culture that most clearly illustrate the archetypal butch-femme dynamic.”
      .
  • Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch-Femme (1993, 2010)
    • “The critique most often leveled against [butch/femme] role-playing in the lesbian community comes from the feminist belief that all role-playing replicates the very (hetero)sexual structure from which lesbians are supposedly free. The idea that one’s sexual identity might depend on or evolve from such role-playing is considered “unenlightened,” and a sign of one’s successful socialization into the dominant ideology.”
      .
  • Imitation and Gender Insubordination (1990) by Judith Butler (well-known philosopher and gender theorist)
    • “Is it not possible that lesbian sexuality is a process that reinscribes the power domains that it resists, that it is constituted in part from the very heterosexual matrix that it seeks to displace […] In other words, the negative constructions of lesbianism as a fake or bad copy can be occupied and reworked to call into question the claims of heterosexual priority.”
      .
  • “Why can’t non-lesbians use femme?” | On the Appropriation of Femme (2016)
    • “Femme is not some sort of exclusive club. It describes a specific social position. This position was named in a deep and well-documented lesbian historical context. I believe that should be honored, not dismissed or erased.”

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