in the late 90s and early 2000s, a large butch-fem community flourished online. the cyber age was embraced by butches and fems all around the world, who congregated in busy chatrooms and listservers, finding connection and companionship. this online community led to a new kind of “bar culture” that became part of our history as we know it today. it was online that new concepts around our identities were discussed, new terminology coined to describe our experiences, and broader understanding around gender diversity amongst us was able to be widely shared.
butches and fems who were socially active in their local scenes were able to strengthen country-wide and even international connections and friendships. for butches and fems who were isolated, this new virtual world gave them the opportunity to find others of like-mind and participate in the culture they were otherwise denied.
from this community, the butch-fem symbol was created. inspired by symbols denoting gender, this symbol was intended to capture the unique energies of butch and fem in union with each other.
the symbol was created by Rhon Drinkwater, a butch who utilised their technical skills to build the still-running butchfemmematchmaker.com website. recognising that our community needed an emblem that spoke to its singular and specific nature, Rhon drew on the concepts of yin and yang and the ways in which butch and fem gender intersect in order to design the symbol – reflective of the balance we find with each other. the circle represents fem energies, love and blood denoted by the red. the triangle is butch – inverted, as is custom when symbolising female – but intersecting the circle, in keeping with utilising the triangle as masculine. black speaks to strength and resistance. together, they two symbols become one whole.
at the time Rhon designed this symbol, the virtual butch-fem community included around 80,000 participants. Rhon shared it through butchfemmematchmaker and subsequently, the symbol was embraced – butches and fems had it tattooed onto themselves, wore it on t-shirts, carried banners in pride marches and had patches made for their motorcycle leathers.
the symbol largely faded from awareness over the last decade, as butch-fem culture and community was once again pushed underground, deemed unfashionable and outdated by the broader lesbian and queer scenes. the community that had thrived on message boards and chatrooms through websites like butchfemmematchmaker started to shift into facebook groups. whilst many of these butches and fems are still active in virtual social spaces, they have aged and become less visible in the LGBT community. there is a generation gap that means this symbol has been all but lost as butch-fem culture rises once more.
yet it is a doorway into a fascinating aspect of butch-fem history: how we embraced the digital age and used it to create space for ourselves – not just virtually, but materially as well.
for ten years, this online community had annual butch-fem balls coast-to-coast across North America, often drawing up to 300 attendees. people who had formed friendships and relationships online had the chance to meet in person, to socialise and share culture, commonality and camaraderie. even for those who had active lives in their local LGBT scenes, these balls were a rare opportunity to gather in a space exclusively catered for butches and fems, in large numbers, and be immersed in community. for those who were isolated, it meant so much more.
years before Slut Walk was conceived, ‘Slut Nights’ were a tradition of these gatherings, born from an encounter where a fem was berated by a bartender for her ‘slutty’ dress during a meet-up. Slut Nights were about dressing up in ‘gay’ finery and publicly flaunting butch-fem dynamics and relationships in resistance to shame and stigma. they embraced their sexuality and celebrated the erotic charge that exists between butch and fem. afterwards, a Black Tie ball would be held and the locales of these parties were always sexy and decadent – from Tippitina’s in New Orleans to the Paris Hotel in Vegas, the aim was big and bold, with a spirit of passion and hedonism.
like the bar culture of old, the butch-fem balls are now a thing of the past. but so many of those who were involved continue to quietly live their butch and fem lives, remembering those days with fond memory and longing. though I did not ever have the chance to attend, hearing about them stir in me the old, familiar feelings of desire – to be amongst my people. the internet has enabled community connection with a means of reaching each other across the globe, seemingly narrowing the distance between us, but still we yearn most to be amongst each other. so many of us still feel the void of material community. yet never before has the potential for bringing us all together been so great. I wonder now, with the resurgence of butch-fem culture, with new generations now embracing these identities as speaking to their reality in ways that aren’t otherwise acknowledged, what new means of claiming space for ourselves will be initiated.