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That's Ms. Butch to you: those old butch/femme games are so out of date ... not. Out writer-actor Guinevere Turner sizes up the varieties of lesbian identity now.

I was talking to a random straight guy recently about a writer he loves that I knew in college, and I said, "She was just a shy butch dyke." And he said, "Really? I always heard she was really attractive." Whoa, dude--what the hell are you talking about? I reminded him in no uncertain terms that "butch" and "attractive" are not mutually exclusive in my world, but it got me thinking about the butch/ femme thing and the different meanings people assign to those words.

I myself used to bristle at the terms--having always had the label "femme" slapped on to me. "You don't know me!" I would say. "You don't know who I go out with, what kind of underwear I am wearing, if I've ever had a manicure, and most important, how I have sex ..." And therein lies the rub, if you will--I think people who are not in the know think that being called "butch" or "femme" means a whole host of things that aren't necessarily implied: that one is the man and one is the woman, that one is sexually aggressive and one is sexually passive, that the "femme" really wants a man but has instead found a manly person who isn't an asshole to her, that the "butch" wants to be a man but has only a detachable penis to work with. (This last argument is all the weaker of late, since there are plenty of women becoming men if that's what they really want.) Anyway, I've known women who identify as butch and women who identify as femme who both fit and defy these stereotypes, from the femme who recently screeched at a dinner party for all to hear, "I am not a pillow queen!"--we all laughed but later wondered in private how that works with those nails of hers--to the butch who recently bragged to me, "Yeah, I'm the daddy in the relationship, but you wouldn't have known it to see her this morning," winking and elbowing me as I thought, Ewww... (just because I hate it when people have to find a way to let me know they had sex this morning, not because the idea of a butch on her back is unappealing to me).

Butch/femme. Top/bottom. Man/ woman. Provider/nurturer. Practical/ emotional. Car fixer/cake maker. Starfish/stud muffin. (Starfish, you ask? Think flat on your back with arms and legs in starfish-like positions.) We can all find pieces of ourselves in these dichotomies, but how do you look in a bridesmaid's dress?

Long ago my best friend and I decided that "butch and femme" really didn't tell us enough--that actually all relationships could be understood by asking, "Which one is the mommy and which one is the baby?" (No offense, butches, but when you break it down this way, you know where you usually end up.) Then we decided to take it one step further and say that all relationships can be broken down into dingo/ baby. Who is being carried away in whose mouth in the middle of the night? Think about it.

Try this butch/femme test on your friends: Say "Look at your nails." The butch curls her fingers inward, looking at them the way you would if you were checking for oil underneath. The femme holds her hand at arm's length and looks at the back of her hand, as you would if you were assessing an engagement ring. Another test is "Look at the bottom of your shoe." The butch folds her leg in front of herself; the femme throws her head over her shoulder and bends her leg back. It doesn't mean she can't change your tire--it just means she's a lady of some kind. Who knows? It's just a funny game.

Here's another fun game: It's Salem, Mass., circa 1692. The witch hunts are in full swing, and all you ladies are painfully aware that it's pretty much a lesbo hunt. The consequences of being deemed one are being burned at the you know what. Would you be the big old couldn't-hide-it-if-she-tried spinster who was first to go? Or would you be the married woman who's learned to "curb her appetites"? I like to look around a room full of lesbians and decide: Burned. Burned. So-o-o burned. Curber. Curber ... Etc. Who would you be?

There are of course a whole slew of lesbians who despise butch and femme labels--who find them oppressive and fight them tooth and nail. (These are often women who prefer to go out with women who look just like them. To these "samey-samey" couples, or "twinners" as I like to call them, I say, Go for it! Hey, that's a lifestyle choice too; just don't be surprised if people constantly mix up your names.)

When I told one girlfriend, upon first meeting her, that I was surprised at how butch her ex was (because of course I knew her), and she said, "Why does everything have to be butch/ femme with you?" I felt shunned, but later in the relationship she threw out, "Yeah, I've been known to get caught up in a little brother-on-brother love." This made me laugh.

What people have to realize is that if the butch/femme thing is done at all, it's done with a sense of irony. I know butch buddies who affectionately refer to each other as "he" but are not trans-identified. I have been set up with superfemme girls on blind dates (usually by fags, I must say) and had to explain to my "matchmakers," "Guys, come on, what do I look like, a lesbian?" Some people get that joke and some people don't. It's what the tranny ladies call "kai kai": girly-girl on girly-girl love. I have nothing against it--it's just not my thing personally.

I will admit that I sometimes still bristle when someone calls me a femme. Yes, I wear heels and lipstick and have long hair and throw like a girl. But I bristle for the reason we all bristle when someone is presumptuous: I don't want to be complicit with whatever that label means to you. Especially if it means weak or passive or helpless or anything one-dimensional. And really, like most things in life, it boils down to sex. Don't assume anything about me sexually; it makes me nervous.

And besides, I could change my mind about anything at any moment. Just because I did something once doesn't mean I'll do it again, and just because I've never done something doesn't mean I might not be up for it someday. And that includes changing your tire.

Turner is a Los Angeles-based writer-actor-director-warrior princess-smoker. This year her screenplays BloodRayne and The Notorious Bettie Page made it to the big screen.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Turner, Guinevere
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2006
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