by Lee Rene

In the 1940s and 50s, butch/femme relationships were de rigueur in the queer sub-culture, especially for lesbians. They were notable at a time when straight culture labeled gays and lesbians as deviants and pushed them toward nocturnal existences in bars and underground clubs. A butch represented the male role while femme referred to the female role. Working-class butches lopped off their hair, rolled a pack of Camel cigarettes in their tee shirt sleeves, sported blue jeans and leather jackets in an era when girls were expected dress themselves in poodle skirts and angora sweaters. Like exotic dancers, butches were the ultimate sexual outlaws.

Prior to the middle of the 20th century, homosexual societies were underground or secret, a fact that makes it difficult to determine how long women have taken on butch and femme roles. The clandestine relationships were celebrated in underground pulp-fiction paperbacks bought by heterosexual males. Butch-femme relationships were the norm among lesbians and particularly prominent in working-class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, while butch-butch and femme-femme relationships were taboo in the sub-culture. Ki-ki was a pejorative used to describe lesbians who were neither butch nor femme or who switched roles. In contemporary times, some call women whose traits are not as masculine as a traditional butch either soft butch or chapstick lesbian (later lipstick lesbian).


In the 1940s in the U.S., society forced most butch women to wear conventional feminine dress in order to hold down jobs. "Saturday night" butches donned their jeans, tee shirts, or men's suits on weekends to go to bars or parties. The 1950s saw the rise of a new generation of butches who refused to live double lives and wore butch attire full-time, or as close to full-time as possible. This usually limited them to a few jobs, such as factory work and cab driving, which had no dress codes for women. Their increased visibility, combined with the anti-gay rhetoric of the McCarthy era, led to a rise in violent attacks on gay and bisexual women, while at the same time, the increasingly defiant bar culture became more willing to respond with force. The presumption was that the butch was the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking inherent to butch-femme relationships, the top to the femme’s bottom. Yet unlike the dynamics of many heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a femme. The ideal of the stone butch, or untouchable butch captured the essence of the emotional/sexual dynamic. To be untouchable meant to gain pleasure from giving pleasure. Although women involved in butch/femme relationships emulated heterosexual society, they transformed those models into an authentically lesbian interaction.

 The word femme is the French word for woman and, in gay culture, referred to a feminine lesbian in a butch/femme relationship. (Femmes are sometimes confused with lipstick lesbians, a modern term describing feminine lesbians who are attracted to and partner with other feminine women.) The word butch, meaning "tough kid," is possibly an abbreviation of the word butcher.  Although butch became the word used for masculine lesbians in the 1940s, people also used the term to describe a masculine person of either gender. 

When describing a lesbian, the term butch denoted masculinity beyond the typical tomboy. These women dressed in masculine attire, had male mannerisms, and often worked in jobs usually reserved for men. Like effeminate males, society linked butch women to homosexual communities and stereotyped them. Although modern culture has changed in recent decades and is more accepting of gays and lesbians, it was common for females with a butch appearance to meet with hostility at the hands of the police during raids of gay bars.  They were subject to cross-dressing laws and embarrassment of having their names posted in the city ledgers of local papers.

The origin of the term dyke was obscure, and students of gay history have proposed many theories about the word’s beginnings. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first recorded use of dike, dyke in Berrey and Van den Bark's American Thesaurus of Slang, 1942. The usage of dyke has  widened in recent years to encompass queer women in general. Social historians have proposed several theories for the origin of dyke. One is that it was an abbreviation of morphadike, or morphadite, a dialect variant of hermaphrodite, commonly used for gay men in the early twentieth century. Some even suggested the term derived from the late-19th-century slang use of dyke (meaning ditch) for the vulva.  

 The term bulldyker, from which dyke may have been shortened, first appeared in 1920s novels connected with the Harlem Renaissance. For example, in the 1928 novel Home to Harlem, author Claude McKay wrote, "[Lesbians are] what we call bulldyker in Harlem. Two things in Harlem I don't understand, that is a bull-dyking woman and a faggoty man." In African American parlance, some called a man who was a great lover a bulldyker. Bulldyking woman and bulldyker became terms for women who resembled a bulldyker, a male stud. Bull was also a common expression for masculine and aggressive (as in bullish), and bulldyke implied a "masculine woman." Some claimed the word bulldyker was a term used for bulls used to impregnate cows. Bulldagger is another American pejorative slang to describe a masculine lesbian.

The terms bulldyker and bulldagger were interchangeable. While many insist the term is African American, Southerners of every hue have called lesbians bulldagger for decades. At one point in time, lesbians considered the words bulldyke and dyke derogatory, but over the years, dyke has become a more neutral term, only offensive when used in a derogatory manner by those outside the LGBT community. Unlike dyke, bulldagger and bulldyke have remained offensive.

Stud is another common term to describe masculine lesbians. African Americans originally used the term to describe a sexually promiscuous man who was successful with women. Among African American lesbians, the stud is a dominant lesbian, usually butch. A stud typically dresses in masculine attire and enjoys male activities. The term stud refers to black masculine lesbians, while butch designates white masculine lesbians.

For more information on butch/femme, read The Persistent Desire, A Femme-Butch Reader edited by Joan Nestle and Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.