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15 Aug 2006

design-a-label dykes

In this Read My Lips column, Dinah Gardner looks at the different but similar butch-femme-andro labels used in lesbian communities in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.

To say Shane, The L Word's butch stud, is popular with the ladies is an understatement. It seems every girl - lesbian and straight - wants to get in her pants these days.

Katherine Moennig plays Shane McCutcheon a hairdresser and the resident heartthrob in hit lesbian series The L Word.
Internet sites are crawling with "I'd go gay for Shane" t-shirts, shorts, vests and even hoodies for her bi-curious fans. Nice.

But when a bunch of dykes in a Decatur lesbian bar in Atlanta sat down to watch the first-ever episode of the Showtime TV series, they had nothing but curses - and pretty strong ones at that - for Katherine Moennig.

Some of the women even threw their shoes at the TV set.

"They were insulted," says my friend, Naomi. "Everyone was so excited that at last there's this lesbian show - a TV show about people like us. But it was such a disappointment.

"None of the women looked like us. They were all high-powered and glamorous.

"And then comes Shane - the show's so-called 'butch'. And she's this little slip of a girl and about as butch as a fairy. There was a roar from the bar and then a hail of shoes at the screen."

It's true that the sophisticated posse of pussies in The L Word bear little resemblance to real life lesbians. If it did I'd be rubbing shoulders - and other body parts - with wealthy heiresses, tennis stars and lothario-like hairdressers on a daily basis.

But does it matter that Shane is more elfin than diesel dyke?

What is the point of rigid labels like femme and butch?

And why can't we just be women who love women?

When I first came to Asia - about five years ago - the girls in Hong Kong dyke bars would ask me if I was TB or TBG.

"Eh?" I would reply.

"Well if you take your clothes off and let your girlfriend touch you when you have sex, then you're a TBG. If you keep your clothes on in bed, then you're a TB," they would explain.

"Hmmm," I pondered. "Well I generally take my clothes off and I expect the girl I'm with to take hers off too.

"Although I'd probably help her with that," I add.

I was pronounced a Pure Lesbian and relegated to a barren no-woman's wasteland.

TB's or tomboys were easy to spot. They wore baggy boy clothes, sported short spiky hair and spoke in gruff low voices. TBG's - tomboy girls - were girly, perhaps curly, and favored frilly skirts and glittery makeup. TB's dated TBG's and that was the way it was.

We poor Pures were generally rejected by both camps and spent long angst-ridden hours in bars smoking, drinking red wine and bemoaning how difficult it was to find a girlfriend. I was sometimes forced to pose as a TBG to get sex.

We dismissed TB's on the grounds that if we wanted something that butch why wouldn't we just date a man. And as for TBG's, well, I'm not carrying a hello kitty handbag for anyone.

All across Asia the branding is the same. As are the looks and the sexual expectations.

In China, which filched its labels from Taiwan, butches call themselves T or tomboy, the femmes go by the name of P, from lao po which means wife, while those of us inbetweeners are called Bufen (neither butch nor femme) - sometimes "N" online.

Like Bufen the vampire slayer, we stand alone to fight the forces of darkness. Or something along those lines.

In Thailand, lesbians are split into the butches, called Toms, the femmes, known as Dees and the Les who are femmes who love femmes.

In Singapore, the divisions have evolved into something a bit more sophisticated.

Eunice, who hails from the island nation and calls herself a femme of sorts, elaborates.

"Well a butch is someone who binds very much masculine looking; an andro is someone who doesn't bind per se but prefers to stick to sports bras to 'flatten' the chest. Andros retain a certain feminine characteristic. And a femme is a girly-girl.

"Then there's active - a broad word for andro and butches and passive for those that take on the more feminine role."

What Eunice is delicately describing here is division based on sexual position.

If you're butch then it's taken that you like being on top or active in bed. Passives or bottoms, are the femmes.

Now I've always wanted a nice bottom, but I've never desired a starfish in bed.

Lastly and ironically there are the No Labels, who can't help but label themselves anyway.

"They are usually pretty androgynous," adds Eunice.

I asked The Stud what labels are in vogue in the States today.

"The broader taxonomy refers to lesbians on the basis of age and outness and class, wealth, race even. Like baby dykes are the young dykes who look like teenage boys. Then there are softball dykes, who are the long-haired super-butch jocks. Lipstick lesbians are high femmes, bull dykes or bulldaggers would be high butch. Then there's the bizarre soft butch-hard butch distinction, which is, as far as I can tell, dictated by hair length and earring choice."

It all seems pretty harmless. Or is it?

Labeling helps young dykes feel like they belong. It gives them a kind of "uniform" or a "role" to adopt in this new community. Like a badge that distinguishes them from straight girls. It also helps them to identify themselves to other lesbians on the streets.

Says Eunice: "I know of many young lesbians who like to use a particular label on themselves. It gives them a sense of identity and identifies their role to other lesbians. It is especially helpful in a community where other lesbians limit their potential partners to certain 'types.'"

It's also pretty handy for online dating.

"It saves you wasting time when you are looking through personal ads," says Slim, my sex enthusiast dyke friend from Indonesia.

"I go for femmes, and it narrows down the search when people identify themselves," adds Slim, who calls herself andro.

The Stud, who goes by the Bufen brand, says she doesn't see anything wrong with labels.

"I think they're generally harmless and they're useful in indicating how you wish to be treated. I mean, I've gotten in fights with people who have called me soft butch because I don't think that's what I was going for at all. I get irritated, I guess, when people read me wrong.

"Like when really butch women come on to me like I'm a femme - being all chivalrous and swaggery. That really annoys me. If I wanted to be someone's 'little lady,' I'd wear a skirt."

I don't have the swagger down yet, but I toyed with the idea of asking The Stud to be my "little lady."

But then I imagined her in a skirt.

And it's that heterosexual paradigm - of little ladies and manly gentlemen, feminine and masculine; dominant and submissive - that labels perpetuate.

Labels are also maligned because they restrict what it means to be a lesbian.

Lizi, a British dyke in Beijing says they are like boxes.

"I don't like boxes because they oversimplify people it restricts them discovering themselves."

I'm with her on the discovery restriction, but I happen to like boxes.

Many lesbians start off aiming for the super butch or super femme look, but as they grow older the outlines start to blur and many morph into androgyny.

Says Eunice: "I've noticed that as lesbians grow and mature, most of them become more androgynous. This is partly because they are more comfortable in their own skin, and partly because of work requirements to look more ambiguous because tolerance of homosexuality in Singapore is not so great."

And androgyny is sexy because it removes the heterosexual element from attraction. In the end, this may explain Shane's mass appeal.

Moennig herself considers Shane androgynous.

"I wouldn't call her butch at all," Moennig told the Los Angeles Times last year.

"I don't think she has butch qualities, and she doesn't look butch. I think that's an easy label to make because she's not as feminine as the other girls. I'd call her androgynous because she is. And I'm androgynous."

Someone should probably tell those angry Decatur dykes.

Reader's Comments

1. 2006-08-15 20:35  
"I was pronounced a Pure Lesbian and relegated to a barren no-woman's wasteland."
you're quite right here...
somehow we just end up dating ppl we know who are our friends..cos thats the only pure lesbians we know.. cos its so hard to identify us..

and sometimes.. its just easier to be androgynous..
kinda hot too..esp if u look like shane.. ;)
2. 2006-08-15 20:49  
i still don't quite get the soft butch hard butch definition, could someone please elaborate??

but i do have to agree that as one gets older, one tend to morph into androgyny. i'm still in my teens, but i recall when i was 14, i used to sport short spiky hair and ridiculously oversized clothes which i thought fit really well (when they obviously were 3 sizes bigger), but now that i'm 18, living alone overseas and getting a bigger picture of the world other than tiny island nation, Singapore, I realized that being lesbian isn't about being the stereotypical butch/actives or femmes/passives, especially since being in a uni course where being a butch just isn't very well recieved, sometimes we have to change. but apart from conforming to an image that's more acceptable by the faculty, my "decision" to be androgynous was a direct result of self discovery -- that even though i may be more boyish then the average girl next door, there's still a feminine side to me, and i'm not afraid to show it. :)

whatever the labels, butch, femmes, hard or soft butches etc, i reckon lesbians are just lesbians. i.e women-identified women.

3. 2006-08-16 00:04  
Androgynous Rulez!!
Lolz.. Never i seen an article like this..
So interesting..

To say the truth, i HATE ppl to call me "Butch".. Cos' i'm not one..

Androgynous comes in two aspects. 1) Physical, 2) Emotionally(your thinking).

A person who have a fairly mix of both male and female looks, that's having the Physical Aspect of Andro. To say simply, people will debate on your sex on whether if you're male or female.. Lolz.. =p

As for the Emotion Aspect, it's referring to a person who have a fair mix of both male and female thinking. You can measure it by taking some online test (BEM Traits Test).

I'd read on some article tat if a person thinks that he/she is Androgynous in thinking, (unlike butch nor femme), this person is most probably in the Emotional Aspect. =p

So are you Androgynous?? I'm am wor..
4. 2006-08-16 00:05  
when we create our profile on Fridae, there's no selection for "andro". so the closest was "versatile". then again, versatile could mean so many other things.

after a while we know what "type" we are inclined to. sexual attraction. it has to come naturally. if u r attracted to the more feminine sort, you r not very likely to be attracted to the more "manly" gal. we can be frens with all sorts, but the bedroom is a totally different realm.

n there are some of us who like straight girls. ok, this is a taboo subject. but i'm still going to say it. symbol of raw femininity - untouched. attraction is a chemical reaction. some of us choose to deny it. some of us are afraid to pursue what we fancy. some of us get hurt going after what we believe in. if you insist on labels, there are many labels u have left out. women are complex. 3 or 4 labels are not enough.

n i agree that there are straight women who will turn gay for u, if u are hot enough. they like hot andros :) n they will tell u "it's not about a guy or gal. it's about the person.". n they will try hard to convince their straight frens about this concept. butches make straight gals melt too. but they are afraid, so afraid to accept u in a conservative environment. although deep down, u r the real "prince charming" they have been searching their whole life.
5. 2006-08-16 00:15  
i reckon that it's just a jargon that with good intention to differentiate the sub-categories of lesbian..

The core of lesbian..woman in love with woman..that matters
6. 2006-08-16 00:39  
It's just the labels.. although it does help in identifying who's inclined to what. Ultimately, it's how comfortable you are with who u are and of course the person u are with can accept that too, be it straight gals or not.. and i have more straight gfs than les.. and i'm not butch nor femme...
So does lables really matter??
Comment #7 was deleted by its author
8. 2006-08-16 01:12  
"Many lesbians start off aiming for the super butch or super femme look, but as they grow older the outlines start to blur and many morph into androgyny."


How very true...

9. 2006-08-16 01:13  
Post #7 besame says (Posted : 16 August 2006 1:09) :

It's an interesting article. I never really know the formal definition of labels...esp that bit related to bed :P

Hmm.. personally I think that looking and appearing a little more boyish during my younger days may be a manner of making a statement that I do not dare to dream of or recognise...ie GAY!

Perhaps subconsciously, I had always been gay since young and the idea about a gal liking another gal is abnormal as seen by the public and hence boyish dressing or actions permit me to balance out this bit of my emotions better?

But as we grow older, we have more knowledge about ourselves and what it is about (emotionally)loving a women. Perhaps we have grown to accept our sexuality more and hence not so resistance to dressing like a women, coz thats what we are afterall!

Maybe after having a relationship, we gradually realise that a gay r/s is juz as normal as any other r/s and that we do not need to prove to others that we are "normal" by dressing boyishly? ....pretending to be the recognised gender that has the "right" to love a women?!

To me, it is a liberation falling in love with the women I love. Coz that makes me feel comfortable for being who I am and dressing in the manner that I look best in.

Dressing is no longer an important means for me to balance out the mental discord I had about my own sexuality.

Hence, I agree fully with the comment that we evolve into more androgynous over time as we become more at ease with our sexuality.
Coz honestly, androgynous is much more easier to dress for then the extreme statements of butch or femmine! Haa...

Juz my 2cents worth of humble opinion ;)

10. 2006-08-16 01:25  
wow.. more articles like this would be interestin..
so wanna read them..
but i would say labels help when u are 'searchin' but it might also hinders if labels are not 'correctly' labelled, as its somehow a 'restriction' to oneself when in search.. irony.
oh well, love has no boundaries, no age; no race; no gender..
chemistry is impt though.. =P
Comment #11 was deleted by its author
12. 2006-08-16 01:34  
The butch identity is much more than oversized shirts and men's clothes, to make such a reduction is to do butch lesbians and those who love them great injustice. When we say diversity, let's mean it. Butch (and femme) is as legit an identity as gay and lesbian which are labels as well to describe a certain identity. To deny its legitimacy or existence for others because one doesn't subscribe to it smacks of homophobia and discrimination.

The Female Masculinity by Judith (Jack) Halberstam and The Persistent Desire by Joan Nestle are essential reading for anyone who is mildly interested in the butch-femme discussion. In fact, one of the chapters in the latter has a refreshing explanation of why a butch-femme r/s is not anything like a het. r/s as it is commonly misunderstood to be so.
13. 2006-08-16 02:02  
ahh... there we go again... stereotyping and labelling! a favourite asian past-time... and guess what? u have it from the americans... a nation not really nown for its modern attitudes on anything gay/bi or whatever...

the nonsense of the Eunice person is so grotesque that it really i would not recommend her going on the prowl outside singapore or the region... she would just be asking for trouble...

if u ppl cannot stereotype anymore, u probably die, right? ah well, its good for you to know that the very open and homophile americans are on your side...

14. 2006-08-16 02:44  
did anyone ever question how much do these labels worth? what if a femme falls in love with a femme or a butch happens to just develop feelings for a butch/andro, are they going to put these labels aside and go ahead under the power of love or will they give up whatever feelings they have just because they are going against the "lesbians tradition"?
15. 2006-08-16 10:03  
Excellent article :-) !
Comment #16 was deleted by its author
17. 2006-08-16 11:25  
mae asked: "what if a femme falls in love with a femme or a butch happens to just develop feelings for a butch/andro, are they going to put these labels aside and go ahead under the power of love or will they give up whatever feelings they have just because they are going against the "lesbians tradition"?"

Whoever said a butch can't go out with a butch -- or femme and femme? Remember when they said a woman can't go with a woman or man with another man? Or should that happen one of them must be a woman trapped in a man's body (for a male-male couple) or vice versa? But we know better, don't we?
18. 2006-08-16 11:30  
Just have to agree one grows out and become androgynous.

My partner and I used to be labeled as A an P but as time goes by realising the constraint country that we live in there are very little tolerence for gays and especially where concerns of your career are.

Her dressings became more femme and later our friends was asking us what's our label.

And I look at my partner and answer my friend:
' I don't know, no label I guess, or rather PL'

Its short and sweet. (:
19. 2006-08-16 11:39  

Are we reduced to campbell soup cans? I didn't know we are accommodities. I only know things are suppose to be grey....that's the best!
20. 2006-08-16 12:19  
label or no label
we are all women who loves women
men who love men

simple n sweet

just be what you are comfortable in
be it butch-like or femme-like or andro-like
as long as u feel thats right for you

i don't think many of us would like to be
those can food on the supermarket shelf
with a label marked with expire dates
21. 2006-08-16 13:16  
To those who love the soup can/ supermarket product analogies: Imagine going to supermarket one day and finding everything label-less... and having to open every can/bottle/box to see what's inside...
22. 2006-08-16 13:31  
An excellent article that addresses asian lesbian mentality spot on!! Love the way it was written. Witty, funny and direct wihtout being brutal. A masterpiece that's a joy to read.
23. 2006-08-16 13:59  
Y need the labels.. It only separated us in our community. As long as both of you love each, y bother the labelling...
24. 2006-08-16 14:11  
can I throw another angle in here.
Could it be that all this labelling is really due to the fact that Asian gay culture is still in its infancy compared to the west.
As Dinah points out in her article -look at the large number of labels that have evolved in the States. Is this not a response to the diversity of gay people?.Further -as they grow older many lesbians morph into adrogyny. I agree with the comments because as you become more assured with who and what you are -you have less need to associate with an obvious look/label/character.
As a gay man from London -I found it quite astonishing the labels that people feel they have to apply to you here-and the frustration that creates when they find out you don't quite fit the box.
Give it another 10 years in Asia and I think labelling will be long gone.
25. 2006-08-16 14:27  
i dun see a need for labels.

woman love woman.
guy love guy.
tats our world!

simple as ABC!
26. 2006-08-16 14:59  
i agree with u gooey!

i too do not c the need for labels. i am so amused tat most lesbians can go to the extent to label other lesbians! no matter how much u label others, at the end of the day when the clothes comes off, we are still sleeping with the same sex.

to me, i love being a woman and i love other women!
27. 2006-08-16 15:20  
omg... the article is so true to the andro community.it actually voices out what i wanted to tell the lesbians community.
Androgynous becomes such a norm nowadays, especially for the hard core butches.Because we mature and understand tat we lesbians dun need to be super hard core and label-ridden.and i feel its tiring to be a hard core butch..
Comment #28 was deleted by its author
29. 2006-08-16 16:06  
If it's tiring to be a hard core butch, then you are not meant to be one. I think being butch or femme is innate and authenthic, like FTMs and MTFs, it's tough, it hurts but it's authenthic to that certain individual and that's all that matters. I don't think anyone should feel compelled to live up to any "label" if that's not what they genuinely feel.
30. 2006-08-16 16:12  
why is it tiring to be a hard core butch? hehe don't mind me asking.

as for me i think this is a fantastic article. hopefully more articles of this sort would come out when fridae comes up with a womyn site only. :P

as for me i think being labelled the person you tends to make it easier for yourself to search for special someone. for example if you love women who dresses boyishly u'd just pay more attention to if she was dressed femininely. am i right to say that?

same as to why do men label themselves top and bottom when i assume that they work both ways?

if the straight world has men and women i don't know why the gay world can't have men and women too.. lol

my 1.5 cents.. :P

31. 2006-08-16 16:16  
I hate the label thing, Butch, active, passive, PL, Andro, femms.. huh? why so confusing. Labels are like can food. If I don't label myself, my friends will give me funny labels. Also, why can't a butch be at the bottom..? The butch can be lazy what.. hehe

Sometimes my gay friends will ask... are you "1" or "0". I tell them depends on my mood. haha
32. 2006-08-16 17:14  
To those who love the soup can/ supermarket product analogies: Imagine going to supermarket one day and finding everything label-less... and having to open every can/bottle/box to see what's inside...

absolutely right. That 's the diff! @@
Comment #33 was deleted by its author
34. 2006-08-16 17:41  
I am more of a butch on Mondays....an andro on Tuesdays....somewhat a dyke on Wednesdays....a TB on most Thursdays....perhaps a TBG on Fridays...could have been a 1 on Saturdays...call me multi-facade. I could be Shane! Ha!
35. 2006-08-16 17:44  
there are more and more lesbians in singapore and definitely in other countries. being an andro myself, makes me feel comfortable with myself and the society and family and friends. since god makes u a gal. why bother to act and behave, talk like a guy when u're actually a gal. if u want to be a les, just be a les . be yrself. be comfortable for who u are. why change yrself to a guy when u're a gal and u like gals. since u like gal, just go ahead. there is certainly no need to act and behave like a guy. hence, labelled as a butch/active. just be yourself. perphas, an andro is the best =]
36. 2006-08-16 17:52  
Well..Mmm...I guess it's up to him/her to discover her/his own partner. I mean to me it's not neccessary to tell the whole world that you're butch/femme/andro/PL/1 or 0...(or whatever names you have). Because all in all, it's still the love that matters and how comfortable you are between each other. I mean...sometimes a girly-girl may feel "boyish" at times and of course..the other way round as well. So, It's up to how individual wants to see themselves everyday...yea...:)
37. 2006-08-16 19:34  
theseeker: i never knew u had 1 for every day.. haha! lets see its wednesday today would i get to see the dyke in you? LOL! i'll be alt if ur willing to show ur dykey self.. :P
Comment #38 was deleted by its author
39. 2006-08-16 19:47  
okie... i really like this article.. well written... well, for me i guess its always easier to tell pple that im gay or im homosexual.. well, after all, the word "gay" is not only meant for the guys... =) i guess can kinda forget about the label.. cos i seriously agree with some1 who wrote here that, its the person who matters...
40. 2006-08-16 20:26  
from what i've observed from couples around me, i realised that lately, once you are labelled a butch, your girlfriends automatically slap you with the responsibilities of a guy.
what irks me is when girls go around calling their butch girlfriends " oh. that's my boyfriend, or thats my laogong."
if you wanted her to be a guy..just go get a guy!

if its possible i'd love to marry my gf, but if we do it in a church w a priest or a minister i'd rather he proclaim us "wife and wife"
cos after all, appearances aside, isn't lesbianism purely about girls loving each other?
and butches are, ultimately still females and do deserve to be treated with the same sensitivity and care as femmes want to be treated with, don't you think?
41. 2006-08-17 04:26  
Checklist anyone? Go nuts with the ticks....! ; P
42. 2006-08-17 12:13  
So what's up with these long list of labels?
What happened to the good ol' "Yep, I'm Gay!" statement..
43. 2006-08-17 14:44  
Bballistic: "what irks me is when girls go around calling their butch girlfriends " oh. that's my boyfriend, or thats my laogong." if you wanted her to be a guy..just go get a guy!"

Well, masculine lesbian or butch =/= man. Sometimes "boyfriend" might be used to recognise/ celebrate the butch's masculinity or as a friend suggested, it could be because of heterosexual conditioning, but when they get older and more comfy with their sexuality, they might be more comfy with using the term girlfriend.

Talking about abt being "wife and wife," how many lesbian couples will opt for both parties in white gowns? If one was to be in a suit, are we back to square one -- why marry a girl if she was going to be wearing a suit? Why not marry a man?
44. 2006-08-21 01:01  
" Talking about abt being "wife and wife," how many lesbian couples will opt for both parties in white gowns? If one was to be in a suit, are we back to square one -- why marry a girl if she was going to be wearing a suit? Why not marry a man? "

about this being in white gowns thing..
guess it all depends on what you're comfy with.
it does not matter does it.

at the end of the day ur a woman marrying another woman..you're a woman in love with another woman.. even if she's wearing a suit.

whats my label? i barely know these days.. but i guess i would be one of those lesbians who wld wear a white gown and so wld my partner. but even if my partner wld want to wear a suit. i'd still call her my wife..
and most importantly the one i love.. think thats whats most impt =)
45. 2006-08-21 17:42  
Once we die, our physical bodies will rot to the ground. Be it heaven or hell, we cant bring our dyke/andro/femme/bufen/whatnot outfits along with us. So... we should stop labelling each other and just appreciate everyone as a unique human being. :)

Cheers to simplicity.
46. 2006-08-24 17:12  
is not about who they are,
is about who we love!!!
isnt it?
47. 2006-08-29 13:53  
" Once we die, our physical bodies will rot to the ground. Be it heaven or hell, we cant bring our dyke/andro/femme/bufen/whatnot outfits along with us. So... we should stop labelling each other and just appreciate everyone as a unique human being. :) "

i agreed wif u...
48. 2006-09-18 13:59  
Good on ya Dinah!!
Great article on this labelling business going on with our own community.
butch or femme,soft or hard,top or bottom..its a form of self expression.
Forr those of us older dykes,it is not so important anymore.We are as your article puts it,'comfortable in our own skins'..
49. 2006-09-21 09:46  
I hate the idea of labels, I am a girl who happens to like other girls. I love Shane from "The L Word" and her androgyny, but I also love Carmen (Shane's girlfriend) because she is drop-dead gorgeous and beautiful. I say stop following stereotypes and love the person for who she is, not the length of her hair.
50. 2007-01-16 19:01  
Sexuality is fluid, whether you're gay or you're straight or you're bisexual...you just go with the flow.

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