Are the labels really necessary?

Understanding lesbian labels and their purpose. Are we conforming to heteronormativity?

The terms femme, butch, stud, stem, (along with many others) are continuously thrown around when it comes to the lesbian community, with these terms seeming much more prominent in the past few years. But why? Where did they even come from?

The use of lesbian labels originated in the 1890s, with butch referring to a female butcher, “a hard-fisted woman of the people”. The term acting as a way to specifically identify homosexual women. As society assumed butch women were masculine, the labels acted as a way to highlight their lack of femininity, also deeming them outcasts within communities. Many of these assumptions about butch women are still upheld within the LGBTQ+ community. Such being that a butch women is not feminine, or butch women have a stereotypical appearance.

The purpose of these labels today acting as a way to prematurely judge someone; this judgement begining from their appearance, with this assumption made we then begin to subconsciously stereotype them. An example being- A woman with short shaven hair must be butch or hold masculine attributes.

These labels have become so entwined in our judgement that it can even influence our interaction with the person before having spoken to them.

The label “femme” comes from stereotypical views of a feminine lesbian, meaning they hold bold feminine attributes, one could even make assumptions about their interests and often their sexual desires.

The lesbian community (I speak predominantly of my experience in London’s LGBTQ+ scene) uses these labels to subliminally reinforce the notion of heteronormativity. Heteronormativity being the belief that heterosexuality, is the norm or default sexual orientation. It assumes that sexual and marital relations are most fitting between people of opposite sex.


So, how can lesbians use labels to reinforce a norm created from the model of a man and woman? How you ask! Although a lesbian couple is not adhering to heteronormativity in the physical sex aspect through the “ideal” sex of a man and women, we still let this model rule our thinking. The creation of these labels has allowed for the identification of the masculine, feminine, dominant, even sexually promiscuous lesbian.

In doing so we have created a way to match up those who can reflect or resemble the societal norm of a man and woman. An example being when a “butch” woman and “femme” lesbian are in a relationship people make assumptions of the butch woman holding all the masculine attributes and acting as the “man”, whilst their partner labelling themselves as femme indicates they play a feminine role within the relationship.  However, if we go on to think about the idea of two “femme” lesbians in a relationship many people can’t seem to understand how they function within their relationship. This being because society constantly reinforces this idea that we must have a masculine and feminine figure in every relationship or else its doomed.


So, with this being said I want to raise a few questions we need to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of these labels? why are they not essential in the heterosexual community? is this because their sex already tells us who is the dominant masculine and who is the feminine?

By declaring (or even acknowledging) we are homosexuals we break the socially enforced binary  of heteronormativity, so why then do we seek to create new labels with the only purpose to again; limit us and define us by inaccurate stigmas. Identities which then fail to  respectfully acknowledge us as individuals. If we as a collective hold onto such views that our identity can be defined by our appearance, we are encouraging the progression of stereotyping.


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