Katherine R. HIESTAND and Heidi M. LEVITT
Butch Identity Development: The Formation of an
The present article explores the gender identity development of butch lesbian women, as
conveyed in semi-structured interviews. A grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967)
analysis of the women’s developmental experiences was performed. From these results, a
model was formed that illustrated the process of their gender identity development, in
interaction with the development of their sexual orientation. Butch gender identity
development is posited as a healthy process complicated by the societal pressures to
conform to gender roles, and is offered as an alternative to a diagnosis of gender identity
Key Words: disorder, gender identity disorder, identity development, model, lesbian,
MODELS OF IDENTITY FORMATION
The development of minority identities has become a topic of concern for
therapists and researchers alike, and models of identity development have been
generated to represent gay, lesbian, and black identities among others (e.g. Cross,
1971; Troiden, 1989). These models have been hailed as achievements that can
sensitize social service and justice providers to clients’ needs, and draw attention
to the complexity of minority identities. Little research has been conducted,
however, on the intersection of different minority identities, or the development
of transgendered identities – the topic of concern in the present article.
The first identity formation models were developed to characterize the typical
phases in the development of racial identities (e.g. Atkinson et al., 1979; Cross,
1971; Helms, 1984). Since that time, a number of models have evolved describ-
ing the development of gay or lesbian identities (e.g. Chapman and Brannock,
Feminism & Psychology © 2005 SAGE (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi)
Vol. 15(1): 61–85; 0959-3535
1987; Coleman, 1981–82; Fox, 1996; McCarn and Fassinger, 1996; Minton and
McDonald, 1984; Sophie, 1985–1986; Troiden, 1989). Cass’s (1979) model of
homosexual identity development will be described here, for exemplary pur-
This first model of homosexual identity development included six stages. The
initial stage, labeled confusion, was characterized by individuals’ recognition that
they might have thoughts or feelings that indicate homosexual attraction. When
they begin to consider the possibility of a homosexual identity, they move into
the second stage, comparison. During this time, they compare themselves to both
homosexual and heterosexual others, ultimately concluding that they may be
homosexual. Progressing to the third stage, tolerance, individuals seek out
the company of homosexuals, while working to overcome their own negative
feelings related to homosexuality. Once they are able to view homosexuality in a
more positive light and apply that identity to themselves, they enter the fourth
stage, acceptance. Affirmation of their homosexuality and the valuing of homo-
sexual culture above heterosexual culture mark the fifth stage, pride. In the final
stage, synthesis, individuals recognize that homosexual identity is only one aspect
of themselves and, as it shifts from being the dominant focus of their identity,
heterosexual and homosexual cultures come to be valued equally. Cass’s (1984)
survey provided validation for this model, demonstrating that individuals can be
distinguished by stage characteristics and providing support for the predicted
ordering of stages.
One limitation of most identity development models, including lesbian identity
models, is that they focus upon an isolated social identity, like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.
As such, they have been critiqued for failing to incorporate aspects of multiple
identities, and assuming its members compose a homogenous group (Fukuyama
and Ferguson, 2000). The relationship between intersecting identities, however,
may be complex, leading to different processes of development. For instance,
when considering gender identity development, the effects of both gender and
sexual orientation may be important to consider.
Gender theorists have differentiated these terms (e.g. Unger and Crawford,
1993). While ‘sex’ describes physical traits, and ‘sexual orientation’ describes
sexual attraction to others, the term ‘gender’ is used to describe the changing set
of qualities that are culturally assigned to social categories such as masculine or
feminine. In addition to these concepts, some gender theorists have begun to
study specific ‘lesbian gender identities’. For instance, Halberstam (1998a)
defined ‘butch’ as a gender identity independent from male and female identities,
and as ‘the mutual construction of both biology and social role’ (p. 119). Rubin
(1992) defined butch as ‘the lesbian vernacular term for women who are more
comfortable with masculine gender codes, styles, or identities than with feminine
ones’. Although some writers may use the word transgender as a synonym for
transsexual, more often this word is used as an umbrella term to refer to any iden-
tity that falls between male and female genders (e.g. Feinberg, 1998; Halberstam,
1998; Martin, 1996; Nestle, 1998). Also, this term is being embraced by butch
62 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
women themselves (e.g. Strickland, 2002) including many of the participants in
this study who identified as ‘transgendered’ or ‘transgendered butch’. Numerous
writers describe how the claiming of this gender identity can interact with sexual
orientation and influence it (see Feinberg, 1996; Innes and Lloyd, 1996; Rifkin,
2002; Weston, 1993). A model that describes the development of this identity
may lead to an enriched understanding of butch experience and suggest how
gender may influence the development of sexual orientation. Such a model also
would shed light on the debates within feminist theory about the meaning and
politics of butch gender identity.
Relationships based on a butch–femme dynamic have not always been
accepted within a feminist context. Faderman (1991) described how butch–
femme identities, popular in the 1940s and 1950s, became viewed as antithetical
to the feminist desire to eliminate gender differences. With the advent of the
second wave of feminism, a butch–femme couple was seen as mimicking and
embracing the very type of gendered relationship that proponents of the feminist
movement sought to abolish. During the 1970s and much of the 1980s, butch and
femme identities became all but invisible behind the androgynous aesthetic that
was more coherent within the feminism of the time. In the 1980s, however, these
identities began to re-emerge in select communities in the United States
(Lapovsky-Kennedy and Davis, 1993). At this point, these identities took shape
within a post-feminist cultural context and, unlike the gender conformity that
existed in the 1940s and 1950s, they were characterized by the greater gender
flexibility and the feminist awareness that existed within the more modern lesbian
communities (Levitt and Hiestand, 2004).
Butch–femme identities are still the subject of debate within feminist dis-
course. Some theorists fail to recognize the complexity inherent in these identi-
ties. For instance, Jeffreys (1989) described butch–femme as merely a sexual
dynamic: ‘Those lesbians who are revalidating butch and femme are not dis-
covering that they are innately butch or femme, they are engaging in an erotic
communication based on sado-masochism, the eroticising of power difference’
(p. 179). Other theorists (e.g. O’Sullivan, 1999) refer to butch–femme as ‘role-
playing’ and view these dynamics as an aping of heterosexuality instead of a
creative quest for authenticity. In spite of this resistance, the plethora of writing
and websites (e.g. http://butch-femme.com, http://www.butch-femme.net, http://
www.butchfemmesociety.com, and http://www.butchfemmeworld.com) that have
emerged over the last two decades are testament to the growing popularity of
these identities. As well, other gender theorists, (e.g. Crawley, 2001) see femi-
nism and butch–femme as entirely compatible and in research on butch–femme
communities high percentages of women have identified as feminist (Levitt and
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 63
BUTCH GENDER IDENTITY
To date, the study of lesbians’ childhood experiences is fairly limited.
Hershberger and D’Augelli (2000) remarked that no research based on repre-
sentative samples had focused specifically on sexual orientation prior to puberty.
In their earlier study D’Augelli and Hershberger (1993) found that awareness of
same-sex attraction occurred prior to puberty – at an average age of 10 for both
males and females – and became increasingly clear with the onset of puberty. On
average, youth self-labeled as gay or lesbian at about age 15. The mean age of
awareness of sexual attraction has been found to be the same for both homosexual
and heterosexual youth (McClintock and Herdt, 1996). Using a factor analytic
procedure, Swann (2001) found that lesbian identity development is composed of
two distinct, yet inseparable parts: internal identification and membership within
a lesbian social group. Her finding supports the lesbian gender identity models,
which tend to conceptualize this process with corresponding stages (e.g. Cass,
1979; McCarn and Fassinger, 1996). It is unclear, however, what this develop-
mental process is like for individuals who experience their gender as atypical on
top of these sexual orientation differences.
Most of the literature on butch experience, mainly biography, poetry, fiction,
and erotica, has been written within the last 15 years. In 1992, Nestle edited what
now is considered the classic butch–femme anthology, laying a foundation for
others to follow (Burana and Due, 1994; Munt, 1998; Soares, 1995). Within
psychology there has been little theoretical or empirical study of butch develop-
mental experiences, other than Strickland’s (1999) autobiographical account,
describing the development of her own butch identity.
The few research studies have focused upon isolated factors that have con-
tributed to a sense of difference in childhood. Butch women have reported
exhibiting more gender atypical traits during childhood than women who self-
identified as more femme (Singh et al., 1999). Survey research also has indicated
that they become aware of their sexual orientation earlier than femme-identified
women (at an average age of 14.6 versus 21.9; Levitt and Horne, 2002).
Although the impact of these experiences of difference upon women’s identity
development has remained unexplored, atypical gender development has been
addressed in the context of gender identity disorder. This disorder has been
defined by the American Psychiatric Association (2000) as ‘strong and persistent
cross-gender identification accompanied by persistent discomfort with one’s
assigned sex’ (p. 535). In addition to the argument that gender is culturally deter-
mined and should not be confused with biological dysfunction and medicalized
(see Feinberg, 1996), there are concerns about the effects of this classification
that pathologizes butch or masculine girls. ‘The illusion that femininity belongs
to women in a way that masculinity does not is simply the result of the com-
pulsoriness of that particular gender performance for women’ (Calhoun, 1995).
In our culture, masculine women tend to be stigmatized as ‘lesbian’ and, in this
way, gender and sexual orientation often are conflated. Garnets and Kimmel
64 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
(1993) describe how ‘heterosexuals often restrict their gender-role behavior for
fear of being labeled homosexual’ (p. 290) Without affirmative models of trans-
gender identity development, gender expression outside of the male–female
gender dichotomy may remain under the rubric of disorder.
The purpose of this article is to describe the developmental process of butch
gender and relate the implications of this work to the existing literature on lesbian
sexual orientation development based on the common developmental experiences
of women who identified as butch. It elaborates upon part of a large study by
Levitt and Hiestand (2004) that focused mainly on social and interpersonal
experiences of butch-identified women in relation to theories of essentialism and
constructivism. The present article presents data that was not included in
that study and relates these findings to a literature relevant to developmental
The participants in this study were members of a lesbian community in Northern
Florida. It was a separatist community to the extent that activities (offered
throughout the week) were open to women only – and it was assumed that par-
ticipating members identified as lesbian. Twelve individuals who self-identified
as butch were recruited by placing advertisements in the lesbian community
newsletter, and through the use of ‘snowballing’ recruitment, meaning that some
interviewees referred other participants to the project. Demographic information
for the participants is presented in Table 1. This community mainly was com-
posed of white women and the composite of participants interviewed reflects this
demographic. Of the women interviewed, one participant identified herself as
Latina, two as Jewish, one as Italian and the rest identified as ‘white’. Participants
ranged in their ages (23–67 years, mean = 38.9) and in their duration of time in
the local community (2–25 years, mean = 12.9), and held a variety of occupations
(including professional, managerial, clerical, labor, healthcare, and artistic pro-
fessions) and geographic backgrounds (women from Northern and Southern
states as well as a woman of South-American descent). Diversity in participant
characteristics is a strength of grounded theory approaches as researchers seek to
diversify sources of information to develop results that are as rich and encom-
passing as possible (see Patton’s principle of maximal variation, 1990).
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 65
An exploratory style of interviewing made use of open-ended questions and
non-biasing prompts. Although the authors conducted the analysis together, the
second author, who had been part of this community for approximately one year
at the time, conducted the interviews. These ranged from one to three hours in
The central question of the interview was, ‘What does it mean to you to be
butch?’ The present manuscript examines responses that were relevant to the
question, ‘What was your process of developing a butch identity?’ The inter-
viewer made use of prompts to encourage the women to describe the ways this
identity influenced their interactions within mainstream society, lesbian commu-
nity, and romantic relationships, as well as how they experienced it internally.
Grounded Theory Analysis
The analysis was conducted using the original version of grounded theory (Glaser
and Strauss, 1967) that was supported by Rennie’s (2000) argument for its philo-
sophical coherence. This inductive method has been advanced in psychological
research as a way to explore subjective experience and facilitate the development
of theories. In accordance with Rennie et al.’s approach (1988) to the analysis
of psychological data, interview transcripts were divided into meaning units
(see Giorgi, 1970), each of which communicated one main idea. Each unit was
assigned a label that described that idea. Units were grouped into categories using
a process of constant comparison in which each label is compared with every
66 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
Age Years in
Community Relational Status Ethnicity Occupation
38 9 Single White Acupuncturist
38 20 Single White Scientist
45 15 In relationship White Screenprinter
42 12 Single Latina Professional
27 7 In relationship Greek/Jewish Management
26 11 Single White Cook
41 21 In relationship Italian Health Worker
23 2 In relationship White Gardener
42 25 Single Jewish Entrepreneur
44 2 In relationship White Manager
62 10 In relationship White Medical Professional
39 21 In relationship White Mechanic
* Demographics are not listed in the order that they appear following quotes in this
article, in order to protect anonymity.
other label. Categories then were compared to the other categories in a similar
fashion and higher order categories were created. These higher order categories
then were compared and grouped, and this process continued until a single ‘core
category’ was created that reflected a concept central to the phenomenon.
Memoing was used throughout the analysis to record shifts in hypotheses and
to record theories that developed during the analysis. Memoing was used to
heighten awareness of personal biases in order to limit their influence upon the
data analysis. Data collection was halted when new categories did not appear to
be forthcoming despite the addition of interview data – that is, at ‘saturation’. In
this analysis, the last three transcripts did not add new categories to the hierarchy,
indicating that the model had reached saturation and the analysis was thorough.
Three checks were utilized to increase the credibility of the results. First, follow-
ing each interview, the participant was asked to consider whether the information
they shared would have been different with an interviewer with other demo-
graphic characteristics (e.g. was butch, Latina). In addition, they were asked
whether there were questions that were not asked that would clarify their gender
experience, and also to comment on whether there was anything about the inter-
viewer (e.g. being femme) or the questions that constrained their responses.
Information that was shared in response to these questions was incorporated into
the hierarchy. This check enabled the interviewer to obtain descriptions of butch
gender experiences that were as complete as possible and to limit any restrictive
effects of the interviewing context. Participants reported that they thoroughly
shared their experiences, with two participants reporting that they would not have
been as forthcoming with someone who had not been a member of the commu-
The process of consensus between researchers added strength to the claim of
credibility. The researchers met weekly throughout a period of one year to dis-
cuss the process of analysis. The researchers each offered their perspective to
this process of analysis. One was a femme-identified lesbian who was an active
member of the community in question and was the interviewer, and the other was
a butch-identified lesbian who was able to bring her lived gender experience to
the process of analysis.
Once the hierarchy was complete and the core category generated, the second
author returned to the community to meet with three women from the community
and obtain feedback on the results of the butch research and a corresponding
study of femme identity (Levitt et al., 2003). In this analysis, feedback given by
participants was viewed as additional data that could shed light upon (or force a
reconceptualization of) the understanding and/or lend confidence to the investi-
gators’ analysis, but that should also be subject to the same scrutiny as other data.
Of the three women, one was butch-identified, one was femme-identified, and the
other identified as androgynous. The androgynous and femme participants
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 67
believed the models represented their own experiences of butch women. The
butch consultant, who had been a participant in the study, thought the model
fitted her experience of her identity and captured her experience of other butch
The results in this article focus upon one of the dominant categories from the
analysis of the interviews on butch identity. It was entitled, ‘Growing up as a
butch lesbian: Coming to terms with being different’. Within the larger study, six
68 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
Growing up as a butch lesbian: Coming to terms with being different
Categories N* Subcategories
Being a butch child 10 Parental information
Dress as an issue – pressure to be feminine
Being a boy or a non-girl
Young butch thoughts, about self and sexuality
Experiences Specific to 5 Felt alone or different from other women, seemed
Tried to seem heterosexual or dated boys
Pressure to be feminine
Harassment from other children
Teachers were overall supportive
Puberty as a betrayal of body
Coming Out as Lesbian 11 Coming out as lesbian
Realizing you are a lesbian
Being lesbian or being butch first
Learning about Butch- 10 Butch role models
Femme – or Coming out as butch
Coming Out as Butch-femme are complex genders
Butch Early butch-femme experiences, or experimenting
At first didn’t understand butch-femme
Having butch-femme rules explained to me
Rules are unspoken
Butch-femme as playful
Becoming Comfortable 6 Butch identification became increasingly
Being Butch comfortable
Recovery, support groups that aid in becoming
comfortable with being butch
Overcoming negative views of being a butch lesbian
Overall Endorsement 11
*Number of participants, out of 12, who contributed meaning units to this category
other categories described aspects of butch experience that were less germane to
the topic of gender development, focusing instead upon stereotypes of butches,
the quality of butch genders, the belief that butch gender is essential, aesthetic
aspects of butchness, emotional commonalities, and social relationship experi-
ences (see Levitt and Hiestand, 2005). The present category included five lower
categories and 24 subcategories that will be described in turn (see Table 2).
Being a Butch Child: A Time of Inarticulate Gender Conflict
Some of the earliest memories of the participants included feelings of perplexity
about their gender differences. Often these feelings had occurred as young as five
or six years, with one respondent tracing an awareness that she was ‘more like a
boy’ back to age three. At the time, participants were unable to understand these
feelings but often reported a sense of being ‘different’ from other girls and
privately questioning their status as girls. They often felt restricted by the gender
role expected of them as young girls. During these years, however, they had no
words with which to describe their conflicted feelings and instead reported a
sense of uneasiness when expected to act feminine.
Tomboy as an early identity The respondents recalled becoming ‘like a boy’
or being ‘a non-girl’ throughout their childhoods (n = 9). They spent much of
their time with boys, and adopted these gender norms: ‘All my friends were male,
and I just pretty much took it upon myself to socialize myself as a male, as far as
gestures and behaviors [were concerned]’ (P-03). Within their childhood play,
they preferred games and activities that typically were associated with boys, and
preferred to play the male role in make-believe games. ‘I was very handy with
the girls because playing house, playing doctor, anytime there was a male role
needed, I filled that role really well . . . No matter what we were playing, I was
the guy’ (P-10). They adopted masculinity as a primary identifying characteris-
tic, considering themselves to be ‘tomboys’ (n= 10). Often they were mistaken
to be boys, and at times they encouraged this perception. ‘I lived as a boy. I
dressed in boy clothes and led people to believe I was a boy. I hung out with the
boys and I flirted with the girls’ (P-10). Some of the women remembered wish-
ing to become a boy. ‘Because I used to, when I was a child, really really really
want to be a guy. I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed to be turned into a
boy’ (P-08). Another woman recalled, ‘I wished that she [mom] would send me
back to Sears and Roebuck’s so they could make me into a boy’ (P-09). Others
did not wish to be a boy, but knew they wanted to express their gender differently
somehow. ‘I didn’t want to be like the girls but I didn’t want to be a boy either.
But I liked girls. But I didn’t want to be a boy and I really didn’t know what that
meant’ (P-06). As they compared themselves to the only gender categories they
knew, ‘boy’ and ‘girl’, they were unable to find their place within either category
and struggled to find a way to represent their internal sense of gender:
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 69
I just thought that I was supposed to be a boy. Because I always got, from my
parents and my family, ‘Dress like a girl, act like a girl, be like a girl, do like
this, do like that’, you know. It was always ‘Like a girl’, which meant that I
wasn’t like a girl. I was more like a boy and that was not right. I’m not like a
girl; I’m more like a boy. But, I am a girl. So what does that mean? (P-04)
A shared quality of these tomboys was their struggle to find labels that neither
restricted their masculinity nor denied their female sex. Even within the ‘tomboy’
category, they felt bereft of a personal gender identity.
Emotional hardships The respondents remembered having to wrestle with
challenging emotions throughout childhood. In particular, they recalled confu-
sion, fear, and wonder at what about their gender seemed wrong. Feelings of
isolation were common. ‘I felt that I was the only person like this because I had
just, almost no contact with anyone else who was this way’ (P-04). Because this
difference was apparent to them before they could articulate their experience and
seek the support of others, they feared being rejected for their gender non-
conformity. ‘I just was really withdrawn and pretty shameful, I didn’t have good
self-esteem . . . I frequently thought I had been born the worst possible thing a
person can be born. I was just all wrong, a complete mistake’ (P-10). The pain
during this period was pervasive.
Positive influences of being a tomboy Fortunately, the respondents also
remembered aspects of their childhood that were more positive. In particular,
some of the butch children (n = 4) were pleased they had developed skills that
many girls lacked:
I think I took pride, I was very prideful, and I think that has to do a lot with my
parents always telling me to be proud of who I am. And my experience was
always being very standoffish and saying ‘Well, [if] you have a problem with it,
stick with it. I don’t give a damn. This is who I am.’ (P-02)
This self-assurance bolstered these butch children, providing them with a sense
of legitimacy within an otherwise conflicted identity.
Parents striving to balance opposing reactions The participants reflected on
challenges their parents faced due to their gender differences. Parents were
thought to experience two contradictory pressures as they sought to support their
daughters’ wishes, but wanted to mold them into socially acceptable (i.e. norma-
tively gendered) individuals. During childhood, their fathers tended to be sup-
portive of their tomboy-ness, sometimes treating them more as sons (n= 6). ‘He
[father] kinda encouraged me to fish and stuff, hunt, stuff like that. Like I was
his son’ (P-12). For some of these cases (n = 4), the father’s acceptance waned,
however, when the daughter reached puberty:
70 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
[In] the relationship with my father, he would treat [me] as a boy and I didn’t
know, sometimes, I think I was not very clear on what the hell I was . . . I knew
I was a woman because I’d been told that, but early in your formation people are
not telling you that you’re not supposed to do this. But then when I started to
grow breasts and my father realized I was really a woman he went like ‘Wow’
so our relationship really changed. And that was really hard for me. And that
was probably around 14, 15. It was really hard for me that he was my best friend
and then he suddenly figured that I’m a woman so he should treat me in a
different way and then he started telling me ‘No, don’t do that’ and ‘Don’t lift
that’ and all my life I’d been doing this. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what
are you talking about? You didn’t tell me that last year, or all the rest of the time.
So why is now an issue?’ (P-02)
Interviewees thought fathers were uncomfortable continuing in the same manner
of relating as puberty had suddenly cast them in an unfamiliar gender role.
Although fathers were described as introducing certain stereotypically masculine
activities to their daughters, the women’s interest in these tasks was thought to
have been pre-existing, resulting from that very early sense of difference. In cases
where there was no father or husband, the three interviewees described fitting a
stereotypically masculine role in the house. ‘I took care of my mother. My whole
childhood, I was my mom’s partner’ (P-08).
Some of the participants (n = 4) described their mothers as non-traditional
women, using descriptors such as ‘strong’, ‘independent’, and ‘aggressive’. They
described admiring their mothers for these traits and experiencing more freedom
to assume a wider range of gender traits. While having more supportive parents
made their childhoods easier, the women did not attribute to their parents any
direct influence upon their gender.
The most common conflict between participant and parents (n = 10) was the
negotiation of their style of dress, occurring most often with their mothers. All of
the respondents had an affinity for ‘boys’ clothes’, such as jeans, t-shirts, and
tennis shoes, and resented being made to wear skirts, dresses, jewelry, and
I couldn’t stand wearing girls’ clothes. I felt such an aversion to . . . not
just skirts and dresses but to anything that had like a little frilly thing or a little
flower on it or the sleeves were like the little things. I mean I just had this major
rejection; I just wanted to wear flannel shirts, boys’ t-shirts, Levi’s. (P-11)
Another participant described her sense of discomfort in feminine clothing. ‘I
would always choose clothes that tended to be more comfortable for a male.
Anything else just feels awkward. It’s like being in drag. If I had to wear a dress
and heels and things like that, it’s like being in drag’ (P-01). Many of them
remembered almost daily fights with their mothers over what they would wear to
school – creating household tension that never dissipated. ‘My mother and I went
around every night about what I had to wear . . . it was a weird argument . . . it
was a huge fight, all the time’ (P-01). Some respondents were allowed to dress as
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 71
they pleased, perhaps only being pressured on specific occasions; others were
pressured to wear skirts despite their discomfort. The struggle over clothing
exemplified the conflict they experienced, which continued to intensify through-
Experiences Specific to School: Increasing Social Pressure to Conform
As the participants entered junior high, they experienced more pronounced diffi-
culty finding ways to remain authentic to their internal sense of gender due to
increasing social pressures that continued through high school. Many of the inter-
viewees (n= 8) recalled feeling distinct from more feminine classmates, and
accompanying feelings of increased isolation. ‘I did not fit in with the girls. I
didn’t look like a girl, I didn’t play like a girl, I didn’t belong with the girls . . . I
didn’t belong with the boys by then either . . . It was all just really weird and so
I kept as low a profile as I could at school’ (P-10). A few more fortunate teenaged
participants found friends whose genders were non-conforming as well, but this
was the exception, not the rule.
In retrospect, the women described their younger selves as appearing lesbian,
and some believed teachers were aware of their emerging sexual orientation. A
few participants were certain that they were seen as lesbian. ‘It was a female
coach . . . who talked to my mother at the time – but she said something about –
“Do you realize that your daughter might be a lesbian?”’ (P-08). The girls expe-
rienced humiliation in these situations, as they often had not claimed a lesbian
identity and understood it as shameful.
Although by high school most of them (n = 8) had begun to recognize their
lesbianism, often these women tried to be heterosexual by dressing femininely
and feigning interest in boys, or dating (n = 5). ‘When I was in high school I
figured it was time to, you know, maybe go out with a guy. And this guy I liked
asked me out and we went out. I never slept with him because I never was
attracted to him’ (P-07). In spite of their attempts, a few women had memories of
experiencing peer pressure, particularly from boyfriends, to be appear more
feminine. Also, most of the women remembered being harassed by unfriendly
students (n = 7); in particular they were called nasty names. ‘They called me
queer, that kind of stuff – so I already had a reputation even as a little kid of being
queer’ (P-10). While a few of their teachers were hostile, they remembered their
teachers as being more supportive overall than their classmates.
Puberty as a betrayal by the body In addition to the parental and social
challenges that puberty brought, it also complicated the participants’ relationship
with their bodies, making it more difficult to maintain fidelity to aspects of their
gender that they considered to be masculine. Differences between them and their
male peers became more pronounced:
72 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
And then when puberty hit I was really confused because all of a sudden there
was a difference in physicality, as far as secondary sexual traits coming out . . .
There was the split between guys and girls or whatever. It [puberty] was like
betrayal. What I mean is that my guy friends were able to express their interest
in the opposite sex and I wasn’t . . . I felt like my body was betraying my mind
because until then it had been very convenient like – everyone thought I was a
boy. And I remember that the whole lovely bra issue was fabulous . . . cause it
was the final [straw] of ‘OK. I cannot will this away. I am a female.’ (P-03)
Despite the desire to pass as heterosexual, only two of the butch women
remembered having crushes on boys, and none reported having sexual and
romantic relationships with men. This lack of interest in men as potential love
interests led the butch women to develop identities as lesbian.
Coming Out as Lesbian: Coming to Terms with One Aspect of Difference
Coming out was important to the respondents, and often was described as the first
step in being true to themselves. Most of the women (n= 11) came out to them-
selves as well as to others during their late teens or early twenties (range = 12–22
years old, mean = 17.3 years). Participants tended to come out to a few close
friends or family members first, then slowly expanded the group of those to
whom they confided their sexual orientation. Some parents were not pleased:
She [mom] sent me to a hypnotist and to a bunch of different psychiatrists . . .
Once they had started with the psychiatrist stuff the environment at home was
really tense and it was ruining my family. My mom told me[that] if I told my
brother I was a lesbian, that I would be kicked out of the house. ‘This was a
secret and we were gonna fix it.’ (P-10)
Others’ parents were more accepting, some admitting they suspected their daugh-
ter was lesbian even before she came out to them. ‘I came out to my parents when
I was 14 because they wanted me to be dating. And I said “Mom, I don’t like
boys. I like girls.” She says “I knew you did. As long as you are happy, that’s
all”’ (P-09). The interviewees each relayed their family’s reactions, revealing
very different responses. ‘I think it [my lesbianism] feels like a personal failure
in some way. Like “Why didn’t my girl be a girl? I must have failed in some-
how”’ (P-11). ‘I’m my parent’s friend, buddy, security. They are totally into me,
and I think they’re damn glad that I’m available to them in a way only a lesbian
daughter could be’ (P-10). One woman noted that to this day her parents have an
easier time dealing with femme lesbians, who are more gender typical, than with
butch lesbians like herself. Participants described closer and more satisfying
relationships with parents who accepted both their gender and sexual orientation.
Although the women came out as teenagers, most of them believed they had
been butch their whole lives (n= 9). ‘[Being butch], it’s genetic. I think it’s
feeling comfortable in our bodies, I really think it’s a genetic expression. We are
comfortable enough and safe enough to express ourselves or we shut down’
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 73
(P-11). Coming out as lesbian helped them understand and accept their sexual
orientations, but there remained these more longstanding gender differences to
Learning about Butch–Femme
Awareness and exploration of butch as a gender identity Butch identification
only developed for the participants after entering the lesbian community. First,
the women needed to overcome negative stereotypes about lesbians, and par-
ticularly butch lesbians. Coming to terms with being butch was described as a
process closely linked to developing a sense of pride in being (and looking like)
For many of the respondents, the turning point in this process was meeting
other women who identified as butch. Their exposure to butch–femme flirtation
and social dynamics helped them re-construe butchness as a sexually desirable
aesthetic. As most of the women had coded their gender difference as undesirable
and struggled to minimize it most of their lives, this insight initially took many
of the women by surprise.
Butch role models were vital for many of the respondents (n= 9) exploring a
butch identity. The interviewees recalled mentors who ‘taught them the ropes’,
gave them examples of confident butch identity, and cued them into butch–
femme social norms:
One thing that happened was that I had a woman who, pretty much, wanted to
take me under her wing and sort of be the butch role model or whatever for me,
and she tried to, like mold me in her image or whatever, teach me the ropes of
being butch, somewhat. ‘This is how you dress. This is how you act. This is how
you drink.’ Things like that. (P-03)
Another function of the butch mentors was allowing the participants to feel loved
and secure in their identity, acting almost as a parent:
It starts out as ‘I just happen to have this friend who’s older’, and then a
‘maternal/paternal type thing’ into a ‘friend thing who happens to have more
experience.’ It’s more like having an older sibling, sort of . . . who’s willing to
share that [broader experience] with you, and who obviously cares about you,
and has a love for you . . . I guess it’s almost like they become your gay parent
. . . (P-03)
Through exploration with older butches, negative feelings gradually were dis-
pelled, and butch became a viable and prideful identity.
Understanding of butch–femme dynamics The participants were asked to
explain the butch–femme dynamics that were experienced as so freeing. The
respondents provided three main understandings of butch: (1) butch and femme
are gender definitions that are as complex as male and female genders; (2) femme
74 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
gender is aligned with femininity while butch gender incorporates masculinity,
but they are distinct from male and female genders; and (3) these identities
involve both gender and sexuality. These genders were not characterized by
physical differences, such as strength, but rather with a type of sexual energy that
could be identified in the ways women moved and expressed themselves. These
gender differences could be heightened consciously when in flirtation. ‘The
woman I’m with now is very definitely a femme and we definitely play a lot with
the butch and femme roles, so in my life it can be playful’ (P-10).
Upon entering lesbian community, some women understood these genders at
once, while others had to rely on members of the community to explain it to them.
Sometimes these rules were learned through mistakes:
I would ask anybody to dance. It [lesbian gender] didn’t matter. But the butch
girls would not dance with me and the femmes did. And I just thought ‘Phooey!’
But I didn’t know it was a butch–femme thing, I thought ‘What in the hell is
your problem?’ . . . I didn’t understand . . . I would have conversations and
somebody said, ‘Well, she’s a butch, she’s not gonna dance with you!’ And it’s
like, it never occurred to me. It was just like an awakening. (P-06)
As many assumptions of butch–femme interaction remain unspoken, all the
women learned the subtleties of these norms while in lesbian community.
Although these expectations sometimes created an unwanted social pressure,
most often they were experienced as creating the freedom to be who they had
been. ‘I don’t know, but I’ve always been butch. It’s like I didn’t have that word,
or an understanding, until I got into the community’ (P-09). Within the context of
an affirming community, the women were able to learn about the butch–femme
dynamic, and make mistakes without much consequence. While learning about
butch and femme dynamics, they developed a sense of pride in their attractive-
ness, experimented with different aspects of butch gender, deciding which
aspects to claim and which to leave.
Becoming Comfortable Being Butch: Internalization and Affirmation of Butch
As they spent time with women who were comfortable with gender diversity, the
respondents came to adopt a butch identity that felt authentic. This identity
allowed them to integrate their gender presentation with their female body, and
to understand themselves as women. They felt more sexually attractive and
experienced greater self-acceptance:
I just watched these women, and the more I watched them the more it made me
feel comfortable to be who I was. Because that’s who I was, but I never felt like
it was okay. And so, once I thought it was okay, was given permission, to be me,
everything just fell into place. I kind of came into myself, as soon as I decided
this is who I am and who I’m going to be and I’m tired of pretending to be some-
body else. It all felt very natural for me. (P-04)
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 75
Once they recognized and valued a butch aesthetic, they could begin to play with
their gender expression and enjoy expressing their gender in non-traditional
This valuing freed participants to develop a representation of gender that
captured their internal sense of gender, to appreciate themselves as sexually
attractive within a butch aesthetic, to more easily negotiate the meaning of their
gender with others, and to understand their gender expression as a political act
meant to push the boundaries of gender norms. The sense of a legitimate
gendered-self had far-reaching implications, allowing the women a confidence
across their personal understanding and social interactions (see Levitt and
Hiestand, 2005, for a more thorough description of these implications).
The Core Category: The Quest for Authenticity
The data presented in this study resonate with the core category from the analy-
sis, describing butch identity as a quest for gender authenticity. Throughout their
childhoods, participants strove to be authentic to their internal sense of gender
while negotiating developmental experiences that forced them to present their
gender in an incongruous manner. As the participants often were pitted against
their parents in this struggle, they had to conceal their sense of self from those
most important in their lives. Unable to clearly articulate the nature of their
difference, many women experienced a strong sense of deception complicated by
a social isolation that grew stronger throughout their youth, until they were
able to find a community that embraced a range of gender expressions, provided
nurturance, and supported them in their quest.
In this study, the butch-identified participants described integrating two forms of
difference in their process of development: gender atypicality and a lesbian
sexual orientation. From early in their childhoods, butch-identified participants
recalled a sense of gender difference that was experienced as an essential aspect
of their identity. Attempts to better understand and accept this difference were
characterized by a desire for personal authenticity, guiding them to eventually
adopt a butch identity.
Readers should exercise caution when generalizing from the results of this
study. Although the participants in the study were diverse in a number of areas,
including age, class, and occupation, the sample was fairly homogenous racially.
Also, all the women were affiliated with the same lesbian community in the US
at the time of the interviews (although they had diverse geographic origins), one
that valued gender diversity and butch identities (see Levitt and Horne, 2002).
The study is valuable, however, as it constructs an understanding of butch
development that is absent from the literature. It casts light upon a type of lesbian
76 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
identity that often is marginalized within both homosexual and heterosexual
cultures and can build an appreciation of the complexity of developmental
processes for individuals with multiple minority identities. As well, it can provide
a basis for future research built upon an empirical model of butch women’s lived
An Alternative to Gender Identity Disorder
Although there is a growing body of research on attempts to change sexual ori-
entation, with most studies documenting failed attempts or changes to celibacy
(Bell et al., 1981; Haldeman, 1994; McConaghy et al., 1981), there is little
research on the effects of attempts to change gender expression (see Fausto-
Sterling, 2000, or Scholinski and Adams, 1997, for case study descriptions). The
effects of gender transgression, however, are beginning to be documented. Gay
men who appear more ‘feminine’ and lesbians who look more ‘masculine’ have
been found to report higher levels of discrimination and physical violence than
those who conform to gender expectations (Herek et al., 1999; Levitt and Horne,
2002), as their gender is read by others as a sign of their sexual orientation. The
present study documents the experiences of women who suffered strong pres-
sures to alter their gender throughout their development, only to develop an
affirming sense of gender later on in life.
The participants’ descriptions of their childhoods appear to fit the criteria for
gender identity disorder (GID), a diagnostic label predicated upon a binary model
of gender and the subject of much controversy. Ehrbar (2001) observed that the
DSM-IV criteria for GID, utilizing gender stereotypes to code play, activity, and
dress, can result in simple gender non-conformity in children being classified as
a mental illness. He argued that the need to classify gender itself is problematic
as it encourages parents to alter their children to coincide with socially con-
structed expectations. Findings in this study illustrate how disturbing these
pressures can be. Repeatedly, women reported that their butch gender identity
helped them to develop a positive sense of self-esteem and to surmount the feel-
ing that they were ‘a mistake’. Critics (e.g. Zevy, 1999) have considered this
diagnosis to be a form of homophobia that ‘labels as pathological what might
be “normal” behavior for lesbian tomboys who are in the process of forming an
identity which will fit their future self-identification and object choice’ (Zevy,
Gender theorists challenge the notion that there are only two genders (e.g.
Butler, 1990; Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Broadening our gender spectrum, instead of
trying to force individuals to conform to the gender expression assigned to their
biological sex, can allow young transgendered individuals to find support more
easily than many of these participants. Psychologists will be on the cutting edge
of this process and an understanding of alternative gender development can assist
them in both advocacy and counseling.
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 77
A Model of Butch Identity Development
The results from this study suggest a model for butch gender identity formation.
This model of butch identity development organizes the two intertwined pro-
cesses of gender expression development and sexual orientation development
described in the results of this article. Although these stages will be presented in
the order that they typically appeared, we wish to stress that their ordering can
depend on individual factors. We also want to make clear that the model is not
meant as criteria to judge whether a woman is butch or not, but rather is meant to
highlight some of the unique challenges that many butch lesbians may face. This
butch developmental model will be described in relation to the model of homo-
sexual identity development described previously (Cass, 1979).
Stage one: Gender conflict Ten of the butch women recalled a sense of
gender difference dating back to pre-school years. It emerged earlier than their
sense of sexual orientation and led to an early sense of gender identity confusion.
This confusion left participants feeling isolated from other children, an emotion
that tended to be exacerbated by conflict with parents over adopting a more
feminine appearance. These reports are supported by Levitt and Horne’s (2002)
survey of lesbians (butch, femme, androgynous, and non-identified) in a butch–
femme community, finding that a sense of gender was reported prior to an aware-
ness of sexual orientation (on average at 13 years as opposed to 19 years). While
the butch women reported same-sex attractions or ‘crushes’ during this stage,
they were non-sexual in nature and did not demand the same concern as their
gender identity. These women therefore had a strong sense of difference before
they were aware of their sexual orientation so, although the emergence of
this awareness may be similar to Cass’s (1979) ‘confusion stage’, an awareness
of sexual orientation was secondary to the initial gender difference that many
participants had struggled with throughout their childhoods.
Stage two: Collision of gender conformity and sexual orientation pressures
As they left grade school, the pressure to be feminine intensified, coming not only
from parents, but from peers and teachers as well. Halberstam (1998a) describes
this ‘dilemma of the aging tomboy’:
Teenage tomboyism presents a problem and tends to be subject to the most
severe efforts to reorient. We could say that tomboyism is tolerated as long as
the child remains prepubescent; as soon as puberty begins, however, the full
force of gender conformity descends on the girl. (p. 6)
Because of their enduring gender transgressions, they often were labeled as les-
bian or ostracized.
Most of the women had a clear sense of their sexual orientation by the time
puberty came to pass. The fear of their gender stigmatization redoubling, how-
ever, forced many participants to disguise their gender and/or sexual orientation
78 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
during this stage. Not having terminology to describe their gender difference, it
tended to be conflated with their sexual orientation.
Stage three: Gender awareness and the distinguishing of differences Next,
the women sought out other lesbians and became increasingly embracing of their
sexual orientation, typically while their gender differences remained unnamed.
Cass’s (1979) comparison and tolerance stages are similar, except that butch
women may begin experimenting with both differences, albeit with sexual orien-
tation at a more conscious level. Butch women’s early and convicted adoption of
a lesbian identity distinguished their experience from that of femme lesbians,
interviewed in a counterpart study (Levitt et al., 2003), almost all of whom had
been romantically involved with men for periods of time or identified as bisexual
prior to identifying as lesbian. This finding also is supported by the survey study
(Levitt and Horne, 2002) that indicated that butch lesbians tend to come out
earlier than femme lesbians.
The critical event that enabled the participants to return their attention to their
gender identity development was contact with other butch-identified women.
This contact enabled them to question their internal sense of gender and differ-
entiate sexual orientation and gender. Role models and friends helped them to
step out of their isolation and affirm their gender difference.
Stage four: Acceptance of lesbian identity leading to gender exploration For
all the participants, the conscious exploration of their gender only began after or
simultaneously with the adoption of a lesbian identity. Although they may have
reached Cass’s (1979) stage of acceptance of their sexual orientation, they were
beginning to explore lesbian gender. In this stage, participants actively sought out
the butch–femme community, and strove to understand this identity. While
women recognized the similarities between themselves and other butches, this
label was not yet adopted. Negative stereotypes harbored toward butch women
were only shed through continued contact with a supportive social network. As
women began to consider the possibility of identifying as butch, they experi-
mented with different presentations of butchness, resolving questions about
whether they were ‘too butch’ or not ‘butch enough’ within the reference group
of the butch–femme community.
Stage five: Gender internalization and pride in sexual orientation During
this stage women adopted a butch identity and appeared to have become com-
fortable assuming a butch gender expression that was aligned with their internal
sense of gender. Butch women experienced an increasing sense of solidarity and
commitment to other butch women during this period. Although there may be a
tendency to elevate lesbian culture, as in Cass’s (1979) pride stage, this stage did
not appear to entail the elevation of butch gender identity above other lesbian
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 79
Stage six: Gender affirmation and pride After adopting a butch identity, the
participants experienced a growing sense of pride about the gendered aspects of
themselves for which they were shamed for so long. They took joy in enacting
aspects of their gender that had long remained dormant, and pleasure at the sub-
versiveness of butch–femme interactions. Women became more open with others
about their gender, and more comfortable maintaining a butch gender presenta-
tion across different contexts. Embracing the feminist motive of creating visibil-
ity for lesbian and butch women, a sense of purpose emerged as their gender
performance was construed as a political act, stretching the gender envelope.
Stage seven: Integration of sexual orientation and gender difference At this
point the participants were able to integrate their identity as butch into their sense
of self, along with their identity as a lesbian. In this stage, women came to feel
comfortable with their butch identity and had integrated it among their many other
identities. Unlike Cass’s (1979) stage, synthesis, which suggests that being les-
bian comes to be seen as one among many equally important aspects of the
person, however, butch identity appeared to retain a primary position within the
participants’ identities. The routine instances of gender discrimination that butch
women encounter may have kept this identity forefront, although it became
easier for some of the women to cope with these situations. At this point the
women appear to have developed the lived-experience, self-knowledge, social
support, and politicized perspective to more comfortably negotiate their continued
gender development. They could engage in an internal quest for authenticity and
then decide how to self-present, given their own needs and the interpersonal
factors within a given context. This model emphasizes the role of both construc-
tivist and essentialist models of understanding. It is not only an internal sense of
gender difference that leads to butch identity, but the symbolizing and social
understanding of that difference that is continually being negotiated with others.
Implications for the Mental Practitioner and for Gender Theorists
By valuing butch identity as a healthy and positive, albeit socially stigmatized,
gender, the place of psychologists becomes one to challenge socially discrimina-
tory practices and to replace prejudicial attitudes with an understanding of differ-
ent gender experiences. By labeling ‘butch’ as a separate category of gender (see
Ardill and O’Sullivan, 1990; Crawley, 2002; Levitt and Hiestand, 2004), we
recognize that specific traits are associated with this gender (as is the case with
masculine and feminine genders) and seek to support butch women’s positive
identity development. Women in this study described great distress when parents,
therapists, or teachers attempted to alter their gender presentation. They reported
increased self-esteem, however, when assisted to develop a sense of pride within
their chosen gender presentation. One woman relayed the importance of finding
an affirming therapist, after longstanding pressure from her parents and non-
supportive therapists to alter her gender:
80 Feminism & Psychology 15(1)
I told her [my mother] that I would kill myself if I had to go to another shrink
and she either had to accept me or I was gonna kill myself . . . And so she asked
. . . if I would go to one appointment with this last doctor. [She said] if I didn’t
want to go back, she would never ask me to do that again. I totally made myself
up as a guy and we went . . . and my parents went in first and then they came out
and I went in and the shrink says, ‘I understand you’re a lesbian and I think
that’s fine. We need to talk about your self-esteem and how you’ll live with your
parents.’ I thought, ‘Oh! Okay, I’ll stick with this guy . . .’ So my whole family
went into therapy . . . Thanks to this therapist, she [my mother] got to grieve and
I got to grow into my identity. (P-010)
Instead of pathologizing their experiences as ‘gender identity disorder’, therapists
can offer positive models of non-traditional genders and support clients in
developing a gender presentation that feels comfortable to them. Additionally,
therapists can propose strategies to aid clients in combating the prejudice and
discrimination they may face. Clients can be referred to resources on line or to
groups that advocate for gender-queer expressions (see http://gendertalk.com/ or
http://www.butch-femme.com/). As well, different exercises can help therapists
assist clients to recognize positive aspects of butch gender identity and experi-
ence solidarity with others (e.g. Levitt and Bigler, 2002).As a result of continued
research and advocacy, a growing acceptance of diversity can allow all genders
to be recognized, nurtured, and affirmed. In learning about the oppression that
butch women face, therapists may realize that they do not grow up with the same
sense of privilege as many men in our culture and instead develop sensitivity to
their separate developmental experiences.
This research supports the finding in prior research that butch women become
aware of their sexual orientation difference earlier than femme women (e.g.
Levitt and Horne, 2002) and sheds light on this process. It appeared that our
participants’ early sense of gender difference may have been confounded with
their sexual orientation difference. Because of their gender, they often were
labeled as lesbian before they had developed a sense of sexual desire, by them-
selves and by others. Then, as they developed lesbian sexual orientations in
adolescence, they more actively sought support for this pronounced sense of
difference in the lesbian community.
Although we have conducted research on both butch and femme identities (see
Levitt et al., 2003; Levitt and Hiestand, 2004), this developmental model only
extends to the butch participants. While the responses by the butch participants
typically included similar early memories of gender difference, parental and peer
interactions and sexual orientation difference, the responses by the femmes to the
same set of questions typically did not. For most of the femme participants, a
sense of sexual orientation difference tended to emerge later, after a history of
heterosexual identity and behavior. The stories of their childhoods did not display
the same degree of coherence as the butch women’s stories and did not appear to
support a childhood model of development.
The major contributions of the butch development model over general models
of lesbian development, such as Cass’s (1979), include the description of these
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 81
women’s early sense of gender difference, its importance in their lives, and the
ways these experiences of difference are compounded with sexual orientation
difference through their process of development. These findings compel us to
examine gender as a potential target of misunderstanding, both within the
lesbian-feminist debates over butch–femme as well as within society as a whole.
The need to reconceptualize the construct of gender becomes clear, especially for
feminists who challenge other’s thinking on this topic. By problematizing gender,
we place those who experience a strong internal sense of gender atypicality in a
vulnerable position. If women’s personal exploration and expression becomes
suspect instead of valued and supported, our profession may restrict women’s
development and compromise their self-esteem. Instead, feminists can educate
society that gender difference should not be problematized, but rather it is oppres-
sion based upon gender that should be denounced.
The authors thank the courageous women who participated in this study as well as the
Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada for their support.
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Katherine HIESTAND, MS, is a graduate student at The University of
Memphis. She conducts research with Dr Levitt examining the development,
expression, and meaning of gender identities, particularly within gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Additionally she is examining the
impact of such identities on other issues such as healthcare and feminist
ADDRESS: Department of Psychology, 202 Psychology Building, The
University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee 38152-3230, USA.
Heidi LEVITT, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at The
University of Memphis. She conducts research that examines the construction
and evolution of gender identities and expressions, particularly within gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered subcultures. As well, she conducts research
on psychotherapy processes and domestic violence.
ADDRESS: Department of Psychology, 202 Psychology Building, The
University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee 38152-3230, USA.
HIESTAND and LEVITT: Butch Identity Development 85