Who Has It Easier, Butch Lesbians or Femmes?

The many faces of lesbianism.
Would you rather deal with sexism or homophobia?

Photo by shipfactory/Shutterstock

Is life simpler for a lesbian whose appearance conforms to the expectations that society has for females? Or, do women who cut their hair short and wear men’s clothing have it easier? While at first it might seem that masculine-appearing women would have the harder time (something that is certainly true of effeminate gay men as compared with their butch counterparts), the full picture is far more complicated. Butch or masculine-of-center lesbians may experience more homophobia, but femmes are far more vulnerable to simple sexism. In the end, it’s hard to say who has it tougher in a culture that can be both sexist and homophobic.

If there’s one thing that distinguishes LGBTQ people from other marginalized minorities, it’s our ability to pass as straight, and thereby shield ourselves from prejudice based on outward appearances. But some of us pass more easily than others, and in the case of queer women, the ones who read the gayest are those who fit the stereotype of the mannish lesbian. Although butches are often misunderstood as “trying” to look and act like men, most will tell you that the thing that’s always felt impossible to them is looking and acting like other women. Being unable to pass makes butch women targets for the slurs, dirty looks, and disapproval of strangers. Getting a haircut in a new town is fraught with worry, as is shopping for clothing and, for some, using the ladies’ room. Most of the butch women I know have a story about having faced prejudice at work or in a job interview. (I have one, about the supervisor at my first post-college job.) Within the lesbian community, I’ve often heard feminine women proudly proclaim that they “like girls who look like girls,” a statement that goes beyond personal preference in its implicit endorsement of the idea that women are supposed to look one way and one way only. It’s bad enough to hear that sort of thing from homophobes.

But there’s another side to the butch experience in a culture that devalues femininity and overvalues maleness. As a butch woman, far from hating men, I have the luxury of liking them as individuals. That’s because, other than overt homophobes, men tend to treat me with respect and dignity. I can count the times I’ve been catcalled on the street on one hand, with two fingers left over. My opinions are not routinely ignored in conversations, regardless of the gender balance of the group. The friendships I form with men are never complicated by the need to deflect unwanted sexual advances, and male acquaintances don’t assume I know nothing about a topic before I’ve clearly demonstrated my ignorance. My honorary male privilege extends so far, in fact, that I have to actively remind myself to challenge sexist comments and resist the temptation to bond with guys over how silly and incomprehensible other women are. This is not generally true for femmes, who have to put up with the full complement of boorish male behavior and who often find their identities challenged by men who refuse to take “I’m lesbian” for an answer. And men aren’t the only offenders— some butch women exhibit enough sexism and boorishness to rival any man’s, just like some femmes try to police overly masculine gender expressions.

In many cases, a benefit in one situation can be a detriment in others. The same butch woman who is yelled at for being in the “wrong” bathroom one day may easily avoid the line for the Ladies by waltzing unchallenged into a men’s room on another. A femme may sail through a job interview at a homophobic company, only to find herself made miserable by constant pressure to keep her beliefs and personal life secret or risk losing her job due to her sexuality. Geography makes a huge difference, as does profession, luck, and individual factors like charm or physical attractiveness. However, it does seem worth taking the time to recognize that, for women, failing to conform to the societal expectations for femaleness isn’t always a negative. Butch women have it easier in some ways, and it’s important to recognize that.