Butch, Not Gay

February 10, 2009

When I was a kid, the apartment two floors above us was occupied by two ladies. They were both teachers. One of them was tall and stern-looking. The other one was short, roly-poly and generally jovial as you would expect someone of such a build to be. Both of them had short, cropped hair and they were always seen together.

I'd usually see them returning in the evening, with handbags and ubiquitous black bags, synonymous with Goan Catholics, presumably loaded either with students' papers or with vegetables and meat for that night's meal. I was a little scared of them, as I was of all teachers, even those who didn't teach me or even at my school.

Many years later an older neighbor-friend whispered to me in wise big-sister hushed tones,

They're lesbians.

I haven't seen them in years but I thought of them recently, when I started writing for Gaysi. I was about to say that I'd never known any lesbians closely but it occurred to me that perhaps I had. Or had I?

They didn't look like lesbians, which leads me to question,

What do lesbians look like?

A friend opined that they're generally tomboyish-looking and don't care too much about dressing in a ladylike manner. I retorted,

That described me in my teens too and I've never been a lesbian!

You know what I mean, she said and rolled her eyes.

Not really, I wanted to say. Did she mean they were all butch?

I ended up having a long debate with a lesbian friend over the meaning of the word BUTCH - an argument that unfortunately was never resolved.

The dictionary tells me that



a.(of a girl or woman) having traits of personality, dress, behavior, or appearance usually associated with males.
b.(of a male) decidedly or exaggeratedly masculine in manner or appearance.  
c.A haircut in which the hair is cropped close to the head.                                

The teacher couple did have short hair but they dressed in uniformly bland, printed blouses and skirts in sombre hues. Very teacher-like. I don't know about butch, much less lesbian.

Of the two other bonafide lesbians I know, one certainly fits the description, being completely characterised by her 'Don't take panga with me' style of dressing. Not even on the same planet at girly. The other one is...well, tricky. She's one of those 'smart-dressing' types. Which is to say that she never looks like she spends too much time on her appearance but looks good and tastefullly dressed anyway. I'm not sure that's any more butch than my teacher-neighbors.

I've heard a few ridiculous things like 'if you wear a single anklet on your left ankle, you're lesbian' which sounds suspiciously like someone tried to think up a female alternative to the 'earring in one ear - surefire gay' which is even more ridiculous.

Incidently I've worn a single anklet on whichever ankle I've felt like, for years. And sported every possible length of hair, with my current style alternating between casual mop and cropped chic. My wardrobe contains oversized sweaters, men's  dungarees and superbig shirts. Also skirts, leggings, frilly blouses, tank tops and other female paraphrenalia. And as an icing to the butch-cake, remember those ads for Ray-Bans years ago? 

They said only men could be pilots. They said Aviators were for men.

Hah! I love the big, circle-turned-triangular dark shades and who cares if anyone thinks they're masculine or not?

Hence I conclude that being butch has nothing to do with sexual preferences. A short haircut is just that - a statement of style, a yen for convenience perhaps but not necessarily an indication of homosexuality.

And I come back to the fundamental question of whether it is possible to figure out a woman's sexual orientation just by looking at her. I've written about Gaydar but I find that only applicable to men. What do you think?

I call myself a chronic thinker. A few centuries ago, I'd have been called a Thinker. Or burnt at stake for being a witch. My degree is my passport to the world of respectability. I moonlight as a troubled poet, a warrior princess and a closet sorceress. I am all of these and yet none of them is all of me. All I was born to be really, was a story-teller. Scheherazade, Galelio, Cleopatra and Salvador have passed through. This time round, just call me IdeaSmith.
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February 10, 2009
08:42 AM

Idea, I do not mean to slam into you on this, but I cannot help but think this piece very immature. I have told you this before but I will say it again here... all people come in all shapes and sizes and with all kinds of haircuts and accessories. Yes, there are screaming queens and hardcore dykes, but not all gay men or gay women fit that mold. I am not sure I even see the value of the discussion you are raising since there is not a point. It just seems like you are spending an awful lot of time trying to place people into boxes they simply do not belong in.

you obviously have a lot of questions, but the way you are asking them is not reflecting well on you at all. maybe you should sit down with one of your friends and work out all your issues.

Also, in many places the word Butch is rather offensive, so you might wanna be careful how you toss that one around. Butch, by definition, is a woman who dresses like a man and plays a certain role sexually. You cannot divorce the butch from the gay, and it is often now used derogatorily. it is like the old-school thinking that lesbians had to either be "butch" or "femme", and that was all there was. Now we know much more, and sticking people in a labeled bucket is considered pretty distasteful.

Again, I am not saying this to be mean, I just feel like you are searching for answers about homosexuality that might be best answered by someone you know rather than in this forum.

Aditi N
February 10, 2009
10:03 AM

It is immature :)) You cannot tell by looking at people what their sexuality is. You will follow the same law that any amount of guesswork follows: a 50-50% chance.

But more importantly, I want to know this: why do you want to be able to tell by looking? How does it matter to you if someone is gay or not?

I would much prefer if someone walks up to me and says "Are you straight or gay?" instead of standing at a party and gauging if my bad hair day was actually a sign of my being a "butch" lesbian. How shallow.

To put things into perspective for you, I'd ask you this: Would you be able to tell by looking at a person if they liked the missionary position or not during sex? Secondly, why would you want to be able to do that? It is private unless you plan on having sex with them.

February 10, 2009
10:21 AM

Why are you trying to out Gays/Lesbians when they are falling over each other to out themselves?

Gays/Lesbians can't seem to figure out if they prefer to be outed or closeted, follow don't-tell-don't-ask or want to be in your face. They seem to prefer two set of rules, one for political setting, another for social setting, and in the process, confuse the heck out of people as to what good manners are in dealing with them. But why bother about good manners when they are not?

February 10, 2009
11:03 AM

This happened to me almost 10 years ago. On the way to the San Francisco Airport in an airport shuttle, we overtook a huge pickup truck which was towing two jet skis in a trailer. We saw that the driver as well as the passenger were two women. There was a white couple seated in front of me. The wife told the husband that she was kind of surprised that such a huge truck with a trailer was being driven by a woman. The husband casually joked that it was San Francisco and the place of "dikes on bikes". I had never come across that expression before. Then at the airport, I picked up a copy of USA Today. Funnily enough, there was a mention of "dikes on bikes" in one of the news items. That was a day of revelation for me as far as that term is concerned.

sarah islam
February 11, 2009
12:42 AM

Uhh Ideasmith

I know you mean well but when you merrily write about your gaydar and gaysi (whatever that is) aren't you being a tad too nosy and ridiculous?

Like SS said, "you are spending an awful lot of time trying to place people into boxes they simply do not belong in". Why the h**l do you want to know if they are gay or straight?

Frankly I'm a little creeped out about your oh so merry tone when you raise such silly questions.

February 11, 2009
03:24 AM

@ smallsquirrel: Whoa, you really didn't like this post, did you? Yes, it is possible that my questions are not terribly intelligent but wouldn't you also say that a question unanswered is relevant, no matter what? What's more, I hear a lot of people discussing gaydar, gay men, whether a man is gay or effiminate or both while I see virtually no discussion about homosexual women. A lesbian friend even tells me that, "It's like we don't exist at all; we are not worth wondering about." Perhaps that's misguided but valid, nevertheless. I wasn't aware of any negative connotations of the word 'butch' and I think I've been fairly clear in my post about not adding any extra meaning to any of the words. If anything, I'm digging into what people think of this word and what I think it actually stands for. No offense meant to anybody at all.

@ Aditi N: I think there's a slight difference between wondering about a person's perferences in sexual positions and thinking about their orientation. Homosexuality or heterosexuality are not just sex-partner choices, they stand for different lifestyles, alternate ways of thinking. I think it is perfectly reasonable to want to know which of the two a person sits in, just to be able to understand them and where they're coming from, better. Personally I wouldn't choose to like or dislike a person because of their homo/heterosexuality but it might change the way I understand what they are saying and how I deal with them.

@ Kerty: I am not trying to out anybody. It is perfectly normal to think about other people and wonder what makes them, them. Sexuality is just one more parameter that makes a person uniquely them.

@ Ledzius: Interesting. I also wonder what lesbians think about being referred to as 'dykes'. Isn't it considered an offensive word? Yet, some of them seem to have absolutely no issues with it. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

@ sarah islam: I don't think so. Am I being nosy when I wonder about ethnic communities and they way the behave? How the traditions differ from one religious community to another? I call it a healthy curiosity about other people. And I don't know about you but a lot of people I know look at a man and talk about whether he's gay or not. I'm just doing the same thing with women.

February 11, 2009
08:47 AM

no I would not say that "a question unanswered is relevant, no matter what." honestly, there are a million questions you could ask me that I think you have absolutely no right to ask. and I think my sexual orientation is one of them. it does not matter to you. it should not impact your views on me, well... unless you are trying to date me, that is.

honey, really. trying to decide if someone is gay based on physical traits is really pretty offensive. and you have a bunch of people telling you it is offensive, and you're still not listening! I had two of my gay friends read this post and they rolled their eyes and were generally annoyed by the whole tone of it.

If you want to have a legitimate discussion about lesbians and lesbian culture, please try harder to find a topic that leads to enlightenment and not just more stereotypical viewpoints.

Vinod Joseph
February 11, 2009
09:05 AM


February 12, 2009
01:40 AM

Looks like I am siding with the devil here but hey since I very much belong to the Queer world, here are my two bits -

Firstly "butch" is NOT an offensive word. But in fact the most commonly used word in the Lezziedom. Guess, categorization is a universal phenomena after all.

Secondly, curiosity is not a bad thing. And IdeaSmith's post is just that. Being a lesbian, I look at it this way : if someone has a question...there is no harm in answering it no matter how silly or irrelevant it may sound.

Thirdly, In India what's lacking is awareness. Curiosities/Questions lead to information which in turn create awareness (at least we hope so),

Standing up for the rights of sexual minorities is what we seek but at times, people get offended for no reason at all. And this is what I see in this comment section.

PS : Aditi N, I think you are a rockstar. :)

Ayan Roy
February 12, 2009
01:52 AM

...And I come back to the fundamental question of whether it is possible to figure out a woman's sexual orientation just by looking at her...

Maybe not, but it may be slightly easier to figure out a woman's sexual orientation by the way she looks at you ;-)

Ayan Roy
February 12, 2009
02:07 AM

When I try to picturize "Butch" girls in my mind, instantly two prominent cinematic characters flash up:

*Sigourney Weaver as 'Ripley' in the 'Alien' sci-fi/horror series - where she has a "skin-head" haircut in Alien 3, and is a tough-ass fighter..

*Jodie Foster as a vengeful vigilante eliminating the goons in 'The Brave One' (nice film)

n.b. - both of them were portrayed to be straight in the films.

Aditi N
February 12, 2009
10:45 AM

Firstly, MJ: Thanks...you made my day! Usually I'm the only one calling myself that in the bathroom mirror so it helps when I find out that someone else agrees :D

Ideasmith you say this:

"Homosexuality or heterosexuality are not just sex-partner choices, they stand for different lifestyles, alternate ways of thinking"

I didn't say there was anything inherently wrong in your wanting to know. I wondered why you wanted to know by looking at people. I don't want to argue and belabor the point but do you not think there may be a some danger in assuming that a person's sexuality will give you an insight into their lifestyle, way of thinking etc.

Here's what I think: just get to know someone better. Find out about their way of thinking and lifestyle through conversation instead of guesswork. Several good ways of bringing up the subject of sexuality: discuss politics, current laws against gay marriage etc. You'll know from the person's answers what their views are about a certain subject.

If they seem pretty liberal then no harm in asking them if they are gay or straight. If they claim to be liberal and still seem offended by the question then they are either hypocritical idiots or are smothering themselves in the closet. Either way, its faster and a lot more accurate than guesswork, no?

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