The protagonist of Pretty Boy is Desiree Broussard, a seventeen-year-old butch lesbian living in New Orleans in the 1950s when butch and femme was de rigueur in the queer sub-culture.  Butch and femme are terms that describe masculine and feminine traits, behaviors, styles, expressions and self-perception in the lesbian, bisexual and gay subcultures.  Butch represents the traditionally masculine counterpart (the male role in heterosexual couples) and femme the traditionally feminine role (the female role in heterosexual couples). While some gay or lesbian couples may comprise a butch-identified individual and a femme-identified individual, not all gays or lesbians identify as butch or femme.

The word femme is the French word for woman and refers to a feminine lesbian in a butch/femme relationship. (Femmes are sometimes confused with lipstick lesbians, a modern term describing feminine lesbians who are attracted to and partner with other feminine women.) The word butch, meaning "tough kid," is possibly an abbreviation of the word butcher.  Though butch became the word used for masculine lesbians in the 1940s, people also use the term to describe a masculine person of either gender.  Stereotypes and definitions of butch and femme vary greatly, even within tight-knit Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) communities.

When used to describe a lesbian, butch denotes masculinity beyond the typical tomboy.  Like effeminate men, society links butch women to homosexual communities and stereotypes, and it is common for females with a butch appearance to meet with social disapproval.   There is also the term soft butch or chapstick lesbian for women whose masculine traits are not as defined as a traditional butch.  

 Prior to the middle of the 20th century in Western culture, homosexual societies were mostly underground or secret, a fact that makes it difficult to determine how long women have taken on butch and femme roles.  Butch-femme relationships were the norm and particularly prominent in the working-class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, while butch-butch and femme-femme were taboo. Ki-ki was a pejorative term to describe lesbians who were neither butch nor femme or who switched roles.

In the 1940s in the U.S., most butch women had to wear conventionally feminine dress in order to hold down jobs, donning their starched shirts and ties only on weekends to go to bars or parties as "Saturday night" butches. The 1950s saw the rise of a new generation of butches who refused to live double lives and wore butch attire full-time, or as close to full-time as possible. This usually limited them to a few jobs, such as factory work and cab driving, which had no dress codes for women. Their increased visibility, combined with the anti-queer rhetoric of the McCarthy era, led to an increase in violent attacks on gay and bisexual women, while at the same time the increasingly strong and defiant bar culture became more willing to respond with force. Although femmes also fought back, it became primarily the role of butches to defend against attacks and hold the bars as queer women's space. While in the '40s, the prevailing butch image was severe but gentle, it became increasingly tough and aggressive as violent confrontation became a fact of life.

The presumption that the butch is the physically active partner and the leader in lovemaking inherent to butch-femme relationships was. Yet unlike the dynamics of many heterosexual relationships, the butch's foremost objective was to give sexual pleasure to a femme. The ideal of the stone butch, or untouchable butch captures the essence of this emotional/sexual dynamic. To be untouchable meant to gain pleasure from giving pleasure. Thus, although these women did draw on models in heterosexual society, they transformed those models into an authentically lesbian interaction.

The origin of the term dyke is obscure, and students of gay history have proposed many theories about the word’s beginnings. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first recorded use of dike, dyke in 1942, in Berrey and Van den Bark's American Thesaurus of Slang. The usage of dyke has widened in recent years to encompass queer women in general. Social historians have proposed several theories for the origin of dyke.  One is that it was an abbreviation of morphadike, or morphadite, a dialect variant of hermaphrodite, commonly used for homosexuals in the early twentieth century. Some suggest it derives from the late-19th-century slang use of dyke (meaning ditch) for the vulva.

The term bulldyker, from which dyke may have been shortened, first appeared in 1920s novels connected with the Harlem Renaissance. For example, in the 1928 novel Home to Harlem, Claude McKay wrote: "[Lesbians are] what we calls bulldyker in Harlem. ... I don't understan' ... a bulldyking woman."  In African American parlance, some called a man who was a great lover a bulldyker.  Bulldyking woman and bulldyker became terms for women who resembled a bulldyker, a male stud.  From the context in the novel, Home to Harlem, the word was crude and pejorative.  

Bull is also a common expression for masculine and aggressive (as in bullish), and bulldyke implied a "masculine woman". Another theory claims that the word bulldyker was a term used for bulls used to impregnate cows.  Bulldagger is another American pejorative slang to describe a masculine lesbian. The terms bulldyker and bulldagger are interchangeable. While many insist the term is African American, Southerners of all colors have called lesbians bulldagger for decades.  At one point, the terms bulldyke and dyke were derogatory; however, dyke has become a more neutral term, but is offensive when used in a derogatory manner by those outside the LGBT community.

Another common term to describe masculine lesbians is stud.  The word stud originally described a sexually promiscuous man who was successful with women.  Among African American lesbians, the stud is a dominant lesbian, usually butch. A stud typically dresses more masculine, and enjoys masculine activities. The term stud denotes black masculine lesbians, while butch designates white masculine lesbians.

For more information on butch/femme, read The Persistent Desire, A femme-Butch Reader edited by Joan Nestle and Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapvsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis

Special thanks to Angela Brinskele, Director of Communications at The Mazer Lesbian Archives, for the amazing butch/femme images.

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