Sometimes a rude question is also a sincere one. Take, for example, an inquiry I hear quite often: Do lesbians really find butch women attractive? As a butch woman, it is impossible to ignore the implication that, for certain people, women like me are the least attractive creatures on the planet. Umbrage-taking aside, however, the question raises the issue of whose standards of beauty apply in a queer female context. And sorry, hetero guys, but they’re not yours.
In fact, butch lesbians often do quite well when it comes to attracting female attention. Better than our straight butch peers, at any rate: I have a friend who is straight, masculine-of-center, and perpetually aggrieved by how often women seek her out and flirt with her, as compared with the men she’s actually interested in. For whatever reason, it seems that masculinity in women is something that some ladies really respond to. While there are males out there with a penchant for butchness, the anecdotal evidence of my straight butch friend, not to mention the overwhelming femmeness of the women our mass media uses to attract male viewers and sell them products, strongly suggests that this is a somewhat rarer phenomenon.
I myself have felt a strong attraction to some of my fellow butch dykes. There’s a uniquely butch self-confidence, an insouciant swagger that draws my eye when I see butches out in public. This distinctive attitude and its charms may be due, in part, to the fact that every butch knows full well that she doesn’t look the way most people expect women to look, and yet she’s found the confidence to persevere in spite of the side-eyes and the disapproving thin-lipped faces of people marching past, eyes averted.
But that’s just me. In order to treat this question with the seriousness it deserved, I took the liberty of asking some of the more feminine, more conventionally attractive, lesbians of my acquaintance just what it is that makes butchness so darned irresistible.
“It’s like a pheremonic, energetic, physical thing,” my friend Madeline of the band Unstraight (or Ashley Blum when she’s not rocking), told me. “Androgyny is hot. Short hair, or mohawks, the way [butch women] dress, the way they wear their clothes, that attitude … it’s all just really, really, really hot. I can’t even tell you.”
“They make me nervous, but, like, in a good way,” said Cassandra Urquhart. (Full disclosure: She and I are married.)
The reason it seems so unlikely that many lesbian and bi women find butches attractive is that the commonly understood meaning of “attractive” is nearly synonymous with “gender-conforming,” especially for women. While an attractive man might have full lips or large, expressive eyes, a woman cannot deviate significantly from standard notions of femininity without being considered ugly.
In the queer community, however, this is much less the case. Queer culture has always recognized, and celebrated, people who deviate from the gender norms imposed in the dominant heterosexual culture. There is space among queers for drag queens, trucker dykes, and for anything and everything found in between (or totally outside of) those extremes of masculinity and femininity. This room in queer culture for gender-bending aesthetics also allows room for definitions of attractiveness that don’t hew closely to manly man-ness and feminine girlitude. An attractive butch woman is not a pretty girl wearing men’s clothing (although that, too, can be highly attractive). She’s something else—her own creature entirely.
What any given person does and does not find attractive is deeply personal—there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to feelings of desire. That is as true for heterosexual men who prefer their ladies thin and pretty as it is for lesbians who like their women masculine of center. Yet the dominant version of what is and isn’t considered attractive can bring a lot of baggage with it—ask any man who prefers fat women to thin, for instance, about the social stigma that can come with bucking societal expectations in that area. Straight people are too often guilty of defining attractiveness quite narrowly, refusing to open themselves up to the possibility that anything outside their narrow, highly gender-specific options could be attractive. Men in makeup can be sexy. So can shorthaired women in flannel.
In the interest of fully exploring the minds of women who find butches sexy, I also asked Madeline and Cassie how they felt about a related stereotype about butch women—that we are all obese and ugly.
“That’s totally untrue,” said Madeline. “First off, obesity isn’t ugly, even if it’s not my preference. But I have yet to date an obese or ugly butch woman, and I’ve dated a lot of butch women.”
“It’s not true that all butch women are fat and ugly,” Cassie agreed. “Although the butch women who I personally am most attracted to are the fat and ugly ones.”
Thanks, babe. Your preferences are noted.