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date: 04 April 2020

Latina and Chicana Butch/Femme in Literature and Culture

Summary and Keywords

Latina butch/femme literatures and cultural productions are essential components of the lesbian, gender, queer, and ethnic literary canons of the late 20th century. While butch/femme—a term that references particular lesbian sexual cultures and queer female gender practices—emerged within working-class and lesbian-of-color communities roughly in the 1940s, Latina lesbians in the 1980s and 1990s began to use the anthology form to pronounce boldly how their lesbian sexualities, erotic desires, and alternative gender expressions mutually informed their racial, ethnic, and class-based identities. While anthologies created the space to engage butch/femme and its racialized class meanings of butch/femme, the growth in women of color feminist theories further catalyzed writers to contextualize their earlier provisional embrace of Latina butch/femme, which feminist, lesbian, and ethnic nationalist ideologues variously derided. Still, while Latina lesbian cultural production and literary output increased, engagements with butch/femme were veiled, with some accounts paralleling the larger social unease with what many believed enforced the reproduction of oppressive heterosexual dynamics. While photographic images indelibly document the ubiquity of butch/femme lived practice, the literary archive of explicitly imagined and referenced Latina butch/femme is limited, and its overall force lies in its suggestive discursive qualities and a late 20th century iconic set of authors with which it is associated. Key writers of the period tended to meditate extensively on Latina butch gender and sexuality concerns, while it was not until the turn of the 21st century that the Latina femme garnered the same in-depth critical treatment. The decoupling of butch/femme also enables an expansion of discrete critical and creative femme and butch offerings, while writers settle into unequivocally evoking the erotic grammars of butch/femme gender and sexuality in forms of poetry, novel, and film.

Keywords: butch/femme, femme, butch, lesbian sexuality, queer desire, Latina sexuality, sexual cultures, lesbian feminism, lesbian sub-cultures, Chicana lesbians, women of color anthologies

Defining Butch/Femme

Butch/femme is a terminological couplet that historically references a gender and sexual culture exclusive to queer gender identity practices and sexual partnering among lesbian and queer women. As a signifier of lesbian sexuality, butch/femme presumes the romantic, erotic, and intimate partnerships created between women who identify as butch, and women who identify as femme. In its sexuality register, butch/femme draws explicitly from the libidinal to mean sexual, romantic, and emotional affinity founded on a mutual respect for the roles that butches and femmes independently occupy and the complementary connection they together forge. Commonly, this sexual etiquette amounts to butches serving as the dominant or aggressive sexual agent complemented by the femme serving as the less active and passive sexual agent. While butch/femme roles tend to fall within these parameters, there is also evidence that butch/femme sexual roles can be porous and supple practices, as discussed later in this article. The unarticulated, syntactic slash [ / ], which weds butch to femme is as much a part of the designation as each of the gendered, sexual terms themselves, and placing butch before femme in the order of butch/femme often marks both a habitual and deferential reference for the term’s historical usage. While unspoken, the slash works textually to convey the interdependent relationship between the butch and femme duo, emphasizing the cultural practices that emerge originally and historically from such a union.

As a term of queer gender orientation and practice, butch/femme designates how butches and femmes rely on an array of transgressive and performative masculinities and femininities, respectively, to express and embody the self/duo identity.1 Accordingly, butch/femme alludes to the masculinity embodied and projected by the butch, and to the femininity embodied and projected by the femme. In particular, the butch’s female masculinity expresses a non-standard gender identity because it intentionally misaligns with the social prescriptions of gender conventions for women. The femme’s performance and embodiment of femininity is a deliberate effort both to expand the terms of expected lesbian codes of gender expression and to expose and subvert conventional meanings associated with proper womanhood. Erotic sexual compatibility and complementary gender identity matter to the establishment of butch/femme. Because it is a twin designation, butch/femme should be understood as both a gender and sexual term that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—or LGBT—communities have commonly used to acknowledge the prominence of butches and femmes in queer and lesbian cultures, as well as the distinct sexual and gender idioms of butch/femme engagement. Accordingly, butch/femme sheds light on the inextricable relationship between sexuality and gender, which are two related yet distinct social systems that structure society and confer power.2

Historical Contexts: From Bars to Books

As a complex mode of gender and sexuality, butch/femme has origins in working-class and women-of-color communities.3 In the decades prior to the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements, the spaces of the bar and the private home served as sacred sites where butch/femme social interactions and culture developed.4 Many lesbians and gay men, including Latina/os, formed community and found reprieve in private social circles and subterranean scenes, serving as the main locales where working-class and women of color gathered and where butch/femme culture thrived. While homophile organizations in major metropolitan cities like San Francisco and New York were beginning to organize and address homophobia, many of these efforts were primarily comprised of white lesbians and gay men.5

Rather than adopt gender neutrality, lesbians inhabited distinct and dichotomous gender and sexual roles to carve out social space and mark their public presence—spaces that enabled the rich culture of butch/femme to emerge. In this way, butch/femme was a technique to communicate, acknowledge, and validate lesbian sexuality through a shared cultural grammar of self-representation. Without this shared idiom, building lesbian community would have been at stake. Lesbians of color and working-class lesbians, already socially marked because of their deviant sexuality, racialized difference, and lower social class status, especially abided by the codes of butch/femme culture. The affective flair and expressive beauty of butch/femme allowed working-class and lesbians of color to assert agency over their sexual and gender identities and mold its culture creatively and collectively. Perhaps in response to heterosexist and ethnic norms, lesbians of color wielded butch/femme to push back against a society that historically deemed them perverse, threatening, and ugly. After all, popular and academic discourses circulating in the mid-20th century were ripe with racist stereotypes that cast Latinas and black women in particular as naturally prurient, fatefully poor, and thus unredeemable.6Lesbian sexuality, then, was the ultimate social failure, especially for those working-class and women of color whose race and class already positioned them beyond the purview of propriety and social protection.

The exposure of butch/femme to the social environment beyond these sub-cultural spaces also heralds the moment when feminist, LGBT, and ethnic-racial social movements grew in political scope and scale. With the 1970’s rise of feminism, butch/femme became suspect, and many lesbians abandoned their investment in it due to the burgeoning lesbian-feminist cultural mandate that dictated an embrace of traditional, pre-modern, and non-erotic forms of femininity and femaleness at the expense of masculinity and maleness.7 While some lesbians remained staunchly devoted to butch/femme, many others chose instead to champion movement rhetoric that repudiated butch/femme for its seeming replication of heterosexual gender hierarchies and unequal power differentials. Claiming that butch/femme merely lifted and reproduced the oppressive qualities of hetero-patriarchy, women and lesbian-led social movement groups attacked butch/femme by barring aesthetics and embodiments associated with butch/femme culture. Such exclusions meant that butches should refrain from relying on masculine gender expressions and femmes should compromise showcasing their supreme femininity. Using heterosexual norms as the framework through which to interpret lesbian and queer women’s culture, however, was deeply flawed. Lesbian cultural practices like butch/femme often emerge in resistance to dominant norms, norms that are not always accessible to non-heterosexual women to inhabit or embody by virtue of their lesbian sexuality and non-normative gender. Sub-cultural actors also cannot entirely shed the influence of the socially dominant, and consciously or not, they may riff on normative prescriptions as a means to access some version of the dominant, or they may attempt altogether to reinvent such versions. Furthermore, these ideas failed to consider that historically, as Davis and Kennedy concluded, butch/femme is a quotidian strategy of survival that working-class and women-of-color lesbians specifically construct in part to resist their violent encounters with a homophobic, racist, and classist society.

Working-class and lesbians of color interested in taking up women’s and gay liberation causes realized that mainstream feminists and lesbian groups were universalizing “women’s experience” to mean white, middle-class, and gender normative women. Similarly, women of color and working-class women did not find in the socialist and ethnic-based movements a space to affirm their growing feminist ideologies or lesbian sexual politics. Butches and femmes critiqued the narrow visions of feminist and lesbian movement work and also pointed out the myopic lenses of the social movements for ethnic self-determination.8 Lacking a social movement outlet that was committed to lesbians of color including those who would not sacrifice butch/femme culture, women of color, most of whom identified as working-class, constructed their own groups to explore the relationships among race, class, gender, and sexuality. Thus, while in the late 1970s into the 1980s mainstream feminists and lesbian-feminists advocated that women abide by gender neutral codes of behavior and aesthetics, lesbians of color began to vocalize their specific racialized and class-based expressions of lesbian and non-standard gender and sexuality, of which butch/femme had always been centrally a part. In effect, mainstream movement makers revealed that they had not developed an analysis of how gender and sexuality concerns are compounded by race and class, or how racism is inflected by misogyny and homophobia. The ideological splintering between each of the social movement camps inadvertently led to one of the most prodigious 20th century cultural moments for working-class women and lesbians of color, who infused new life into social activism and cultural critique—and no less than at the hands of two editors self-identifying as a queer Chicana and another as a Chicana butch lesbian or dyke.9

The Anthologies of the 1980s and 1990s: Latina/Chicana Sexuality and Politics

The 1980s and 1990s may be popularly hailed as the decades of the sex and culture wars, but among women of color, these periods of time could be considered the decades of the feminist of color anthology: the multi-authored volume of self-identifying women of color replete with testimonial essay, poem, criticism, short story, manifesto, dialogical exchange, and visual art. Anthologizing practices became popular publication sites for many marginalized communities that, in a post-Civil Rights era, did not have the privilege or access to esteemed presses or formal publishing resources.10 The early 1980’s anthology launching off the decade is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.11 Originally published by a small, independent press, This Bridge is one of the first texts to collect and publish the voices of US women of color who explore with emotion, candor, and insight the convergence of their race, class, sexuality and gender complexities. Anzaldúa and Moraga, the publication’s editors, intrepidly proclaim their racialized queer and lesbian Chicana sexuality. Although there is but one reference to butch/femme, the case can be made that This Bridge should nevertheless be considered an early and nascent site of Latina butch/femme thinking outlined in the sections below.

Cherríe Moraga and Butch/Femme Erotics

In the essay“La Güera,” published in This Bridge, Moraga recounted her young adulthood experiences with white racial-passing and educational privilege. It is her lesbianism, however, that as an adult she realizes has provided her with a reflexive and intellectual capacity to relate to other people’s oppression as well as to confront her own internalized oppression. She writes about the parallel dangers to which black women and dykes—the reclaimed and thus much more oppositional, queer term for lesbians that is often hurled as an insult—are subjected on account of their racial, gender, sexual markings, “What I am saying is that the joys of looking like a white girl ain’t so great since I realized I could be beaten on the streets for being a dyke. If my sister’s being beaten because she’s black, it’s pretty much the same principle.12 Although Moraga in this passage does not outright identify as butch, it is noteworthy that looking like a “dyke” in public means that she cannot be mistaken for looking gender neutral and sexually straight. Moraga does not provide any other descriptive details about her gender and sexuality presentation in this essay, but it is plausible to discern that because she cannot retreat into gender normativity and thus be granted the privilege of an unmarked heterosexual identity, her gender presentation likely depends on a masculine embodiment. Furthermore, while at the time of This Bridge’s first publication the general public may have not been exposed to Moraga as a butch presenting lesbian, it is widely known that Moraga has used butch or dyke to self-identify and butch/femme to theorize erotic lesbian desires.13 Given these contexts, another way to return to Moraga’s statement about “being a dyke” in public is through the recognition that a butch/femme couple, similar to the butch-presenting lesbian, cannot escape the public attention on their conspicuously transgressive coupling. This sets the stage for what she writes a few pages later, where she describes and laments the insidious ways that internalized forms of racism, homophobia, and sexism unwittingly affect lesbians of color,

I have not wanted to admit that my deepest personal sense of myself has not quite “caught up” with my “woman-identified” politics. I have been afraid to criticize lesbian writers who choose to “skip over” these issues in the name of feminism. In 1979, we talk of “old gay” and “butch and femme” roles as if they were ancient history. We toss them aside as merely patriarchal notions.14

Here Moraga expresses a frustration with feminist and lesbian politics, which at the time sought to prohibit butch/femme cultural practices. Pensive in tone, this is Moraga’s most direct reference to butch/femme as well as the initial utterings of her theoretical critique that lesbian feminism’s affront to butch/femme effectively became complicit with the anti-sexual/erotic stance of conservative politicians and establishment thinkers. Readers can sense that Moraga begins cautiously, citing her trepidation as well as fear of retribution for calling out what had become widely accepted gender and sexuality dogma. She builds steam, however, and attests to the absurdity of feminists who decry “butch and femme roles” as outdated (ancient history) and misogynist (patriarchal).

A year later, Moraga republished “La Güera” in her collection, Loving in the War Years, where she also included butch/femme themes in “Pesadilla,” a short story about the violent homophobia that butch/femme attracts, and “The Slow Dance,” a sensual meditation on her unrequited desire to lead a woman on the dance floor. In another of Loving’s essays, “Inocencia Meant Dying Rather than Being Fucked,” Moraga issued a critique of lesbian-feminism’s ideological stranglehold. This latter piece cites an excerpt from a 1982 editorial that Moraga published in the radical feminist periodical, Off Our Backs, in which she issued a much more forceful, exacting critique of lesbian feminist’s deep discomfort with butch/femme.15 She writes,

Further, I have come to realize that the boundaries white feminists confine themselves to in describing sexuality are based in white-rooted interpretations of dominance, submission, power-exchange, etc. Although they are certainly part of the psychosexual lives of women of color, these boundaries would have to be expanded and translated to fit my people . . .16

This post This Bridge comment on racialized sexuality—that all sexualities are constituted through rather than independent of race and racial difference—reveals Moraga’s mounting interest in turning to, rather than away from, discourses of desire to theorize lesbian of color sexuality. Given the power-laden dynamics of butch/femme, it is also clear that Moraga is no longer shying away from bridging the symbolic and the material, the erotic and the political. Her comments about the need to fundamentally redefine Latina/Chicana sexuality as a means to contemplate it outside of white gendered conceptualizations bring into sharp relief the inadequacy of universally regulated white norms of sexuality. In this new and under-construction referential universe, Latina/Chicana sexuality, whether straight or heterosexual, is situated as entrenched in the lexicons of power. This analysis extends to butch/femme, which traffics in forms of erotic, sexual, and emotional power; thus, butch/femme cannot be conceived of or regulated through “white-rooted” interpretations that are loosened from a working-class foundation. Collectively, Moraga’s early ruminations set the groundwork for the next decade’s anthologizing practices, some of which become much more explicit in their appraisal of butch/femme.

The 1990s: Sex, Sexuality, and Latina/Chicana Butch-Femme Traces

By the early 1990s, butch/femme in the larger lesbian community had begun to experience a renewed cultural interest that Latinas in part galvanized. It is difficult to imagine nuanced engagements of butch/femme sexuality like Joan Nestle’s Persistent Desire: A Femme/Butch Anthology (1992) or Sally Munt’s Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender (1998) without Juanita Ramos’s 1987 Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (An Anthology), The Sexuality of Latinas edited by Norma Alarcon, Ana Castillo and Cherríe Moraga in 1989, or Carla Trujillo’s edited collection, Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About published in 1991. Each anthology thematically organizes multiple Latina and Chicana perspectives to uncover, interrogate, and trouble issues of sexuality with which self-identified Latinas, Chicanas, and some Latin American women geographically situated outside of the United States have grappled. In Ramos, readers meet, from a variety of Latin American countries, women whose testimonies comment on the pain and consciousness that accompany the race, class, and gender social effects of Latina lesbian identity. Two years later, Alarcon, Castillo, and Moraga devoted their anthology to stories that highlight familial, inter-personal, and community struggles due to the nexus of ignorance, shame, and silence regulating Latina sexuality.

Trujillo’s anthology introduced to its audience a trove of Chicana lesbian creative and critical offerings and one of the few articulations of butch/femme in 1990s Latina works. Trujillo described the collection’s opening story, by Cherríe Moraga, “La ofrenda” as one that “addresses butch-femme in a topic not often brought up in the community: the high incidence of cancer among lesbians.”17 Trujillo points out that the first of its four thematically structured sections, “The Life,” opens with a Moraga-penned tale in which butch/femme and lesbian health concerns constitute its primary subject matter. Trujillo’s introductory comments are noteworthy because they comprise one of only two utterances of butch/femme throughout Chicana Lesbians. One can surmise, however, that based on Trujillo’s account, butch/femme desires, cultural practices, and embodied representations implicitly and flexibly manifest in the pages of Chicana Lesbians even if left largely unannounced. For example, reading Moraga’s “La ofrenda” without Trujillo’s instructive insights one might deduce that its narrator, Lolita, is as butch as the clearly delineated queerly masculine character, Tiny, and thus there is no butch/femme content given the sexual albeit exploratory exchange between the two.

Trujillo’s remarks provide the context through which to read Moraga’s story as well as the remainder of the prose, poems, interviews, and essays, including Ana Castillo’s “La Macha: Toward a Beautiful Whole Self,” where she explores the nature of Chicana lesbian desire and the abiding gender and sexual roles that Chicana lesbians perform. Castillo delves into a lengthy discussion of “the butch-fem dichotomy” in the section of the essay sub-titled “La macha #3: lover of women.” In it she argues that Chicana butch/femme roles unwittingly reproduce oppressive heterosexual dynamics mainly because Chicana lesbians have not come into an appropriate resistant social, political consciousness concerning their gender. She states, “Ultimately, the butch-fem dichotomy has more to do with woman’s social and political immobilization, than how women really love and love each other in their intimate relationships.”18 Castillo makes her argument primarily by examining conventional gender roles, in particular the “costume” “cross-dressing” and “cross-gender identification” exhibited by Chicana butches. She emphasizes that, although lesbians may resist gender social norms through their attire and social behavior, their gender transgressions do not necessarily preclude their sexist emulations of Chicano patriarchs. She concludes that regardless of feminine or masculine identification, Chicana lesbians are inclined to model the machismo of Mexican culture in their intimate relationships out of a habitual adhering to the status quo—that is until they become autonomous, self-determining subjects. According to Castillo, transcending strict sex roles, of which she conceives butch/femme to be a part, will unburden lesbians from conventional gender norms and heterosexist culture.

In this way, Castillo seems invested in relegating butch/femme to the annals of an imagined pre-feminist lesbian history much like white lesbian feminists had done in previous decades. At the same time, Castillo also acknowledges that butch/femme may upend traditional power exchanges between masculine and feminine partners in the following comment, “the ‘butch,’ the woman who chose male costume, postulation, and perhaps a cross-gender livelihood, did not necessarily dominate the relationship, certainly not in the way in which a man is permitted by society to do.”19 These seemingly paradoxical analyses gesture to how Latina/Chicana butch/femme in the early 1990s may, on the one hand, still be regarded as a retrograde practice that has not quite capitulated to its contemporaneous feminist edicts. On the other hand, Castillo’s double move can be read as indicative of the unspoken state of Latina and Chicana butch/femme: while it is certainly practiced and embodied by its devotees, cultural critiques and literary producers ambivalently and cautiously regard it, rendering it a coded aspect of queer and lesbian desire.

Butch/Femme, Femme/Butch: A Distinguishing Anthology

In Joan Nestle’s 1992 edited collection The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, Cherríe Moraga and Amber Hollibaugh issue a lucid critique and stage a rousing conversation that candidly explores butch-femme sexual power dynamics and queer female erotics. The essay, “What we’re Rollin’ Around in Bed with: Sexual Silences in Feminism, A Conversation toward Ending them” is divided into three sections, the first of which takes issue with feminism’s inadequate theorization of sexuality. This section titled “The Critique” brings into sharp relief how lesbians get the short end of the proverbial stick in feminist theorizing due to lesbian-feminism’s championing of a women-centered, “nonsexual” lesbian identity. According to Moraga and Hollibaugh, feminism not only re-inscribes heterosexuality as normative, with its undue emphasis on concerns like marriage and the nuclear family unit; but, moreover it is an antiseptic movement that delimits fuller engagements of all types of female sexual pleasure as well as lesbian desire. At the end of the section, Hollibaugh and Moraga declare that feminism must confront its implicit anti-sex stance and spark new feminist discourses in which women similarly socially situated—working-class lesbians, white and Chicana respectively—could more fully and frankly participate.

Taking their very own instructions to heart, Hollibaugh and Moraga orchestrate a dialogue in the second section titled, “The Conversation.” This section begins with the proclamation that, for feminists to construct a meaningful lesbian sexual theory, they must recognize and validate that roles and role-playing—and the power that inheres within them—are central rather than peripheral aspects of lesbian sexuality. To this end, their discussion proceeds with personal reflections and pointed debates on oft-forbidden sexual topics like capture fantasies, sado-masochism, butch-femme seduction, and the dialectics of emotional pain and carnal pleasure accompanying taboo sexual desires. Prompted by Hollibaugh’s assertion that femme is an active rather than a passive identification, the conversation delves deeper into the subtle qualities and symbolic meanings of butch/femme to which each author has been exposed or has experienced. After discussing some key insights about butch/femme power dynamics—that butches can emotionally heal a femme lover through providing sexual pleasure; that femme identity requires a conscious thus active surrendering of her power to her butch lover (overturning Moraga’s previously held belief that femme is “passive” and “unassertive”); and that butch/femme roles exist as balanced eco-systems of pleasurable power exchanges—Moraga changes the tenor of the conversation when she reveals a dual desire to be in control as a butch and “to be handled in the way I described I can handle another women.”20 Moraga explains that during sexual encounters she usually takes on a dominant butch role position, but she has yearned to release herself from only occupying this controlling leading role. This can also be read as a resistance to yield to what Moraga has conceived as the passive position of the femme tantamount to powerlessness and culturally represented in figures like the feminine docility of La Virgen de Guadalupe and the traitorous temptation of the maligned La Malinche. These longings follow from her ruminations about what it has meant to identify “as a butch queer from an early age,” which stands in stark contrast to Hollibaugh’s white femme identity.

I didn’t really think of myself as female, or male. I thought of myself as this hybrid or something. . . For me, the way you conceive of yourself as a woman and the way I am attracted to women sexually reflect that butch-femme exchange—where a woman believes herself so woman that it really makes me want her. But for me, I feel a lot of pain around the fact that it has been difficult for me to conceive of myself as thoroughly female in that sexual way.21

Moraga’s admission uncovers that while butch/femme among Chicana/Latina lesbians may appear rigidly designed and followed, there exist more nuanced erotic relations due in part to how butch/femme inextricably connects to gendered self-notions. In this case, Moraga’s sense of a non-normative gendered self clearly informs the ambivalence with which she navigates her lesbian sexuality, which is already fraught with class and racial meanings. The notion that butch women endorse both an anti-man and hatred of femininity agenda distorts the kind of feminist masculinity to which self-identified butch women may aspire. These comments also shed light on why the Latina/Chicana “butch” in butch/femme appears to be both the authoritative voice and primary subject through which the public learns about butch/femme culture. In other words, accounts like those of Moraga’s in their attempt to pry apart butch from femme as a means to complicate the discussion of butch/femme inadvertently adjust the focus to spotlight the racialized, gender non-normativity of the butch and her experiences, which often render the “femme” under-regarded and under-theorized. This may also attest to the lack of reference to, and embrace of, “butch/femme” in Chicana/Latina literary and cultural production despite the prevalence of its lived experiences and practices.

In the final section of their piece, “The Challenge,” Hollibaugh and Moraga recommend that feminists reinstate consciousness-raising groups “to create sexual theory in the same way we created feminist theory.”22 This manifesto-like call to action urges feminists to theorize sexuality that, much like the form of Hollibaugh and Moraga’s dialogue, would sincerely and adroitly address under-acknowledged class and racial social factors in which butch/femme would inevitably figure. Both in doing and in being, Hollibaugh and Moraga demonstrate the vitality of butch/femme exchanges and the varied and contentious understandings of butch/femme.

In another Latina/Chicana butch authored piece from Persistent Desire, noted writer and formidable activist Jeanne Cordova chronicled, in “Butches, Lies, and Feminism,” her experiences growing up in Los Angeles as a mixed-race (Irish and Mexican) butch lesbian. Interspersed with analytical contemplations and structured by a timeline that documents how she realized, rejected, and ultimately embraced a butch identity, Cordova shares the decades long process to come to terms with her butch-ness amidst her family’s rigid gender prescriptions and feminism’s shallow reckoning with sexuality. When Cordova grows increasingly discouraged that she will be able to find a validating outlet of her lesbian sexuality and butch gender embodiment, she enters the convent. Not long after, she leaves convent life and asserts that, while her time there served to confirm that indeed she was a lesbian, it did not function to affirm her butch-ness.

Claiming to have discovered “paradise” upon finding camaraderie at a lesbian bar in Pico Rivera, a working-class suburb about 15 miles east of East Los Angeles, Cordova recalls,

Unbeknownst to this would-be gay virgin, Pico Rivera was the home of the biggest, baddest dykes in East L.A. In Mexican-American culture, the dykes were butch, and the femmes weren’t. But what did I, ex-nun, know of such things? I was a ‘gay girl.’ I thought the life was simple.23

Like her lesbian feminist contemporaries, Cordova observes that butch/femme is firmly rooted within working-class, lesbian of color communities. In this case, Cordova names Mexican-American culture through the hailing of geographic place and social space—East L.A., Pico Rivera, and the lesbian bar—and the gendered markings of race, class, and sexuality. In these few passages, Cordova conjures the vivid sights and scenes of working-class, Chicana butch/femme that provide a sense of hope to her young, errant butch self. Cordova concludes her essay with a hearty and earnest expression of gratitude to the many femmes—and her own inner-femme—that have avowed her butch self and never wavered from believing in the lesbian magic of butch/femme connection. Notably, this essay would serve as the inspiration for a film eponymously titled, Jeanne Cordova: Butches, Lies, and Feminism, directed by Gregorio Davila and premiering at LGBT film festivals in the summer of 2017.24 Much like her essay, the documentary film details the difficulties and delights of Cordova’s coming into her butch, lesbian, and Mexican-American subjectivity.

Finally, Rocky Gámez’s “From The Gloria Stories” is a short, comical story in Nestle’s volume about a working-class, Tejana butch named Gloria, and her friend, Rocky, a Chicana lesbian who has left her local environs for an undergraduate education. Rocky serves as the narrator who through an exchange of letters learns of Gloria’s recent marriage to Rosita and their intention to have children. Upon returning to her hometown and spending time with Gloria, Rocky is surprised to learn that Gloria, who Rocky describes as someone who “never went beyond aspiring to one thing, and one thing only. . . [s]he wanted to be a man,” indeed believes that she has impregnated her newlywed wife.25 Rocky urgently provides Gloria with a rudimentary biology lesson, crushing both Gloria’s queerly imagined male procreative capacity, and her devotion to the woman who quite obviously has betrayed her. Although Gámez makes no direct reference to butch/femme desire, the author’s short story, like other Latina cultural productions during this period, centralize the interiority of the butch character(s) while the feminine objects of desire bolster or undermine butch subjectivity.

Collectively, these anthologies prioritize emotional, sexual, and spiritual butch ontology, a focus that paves the way for a growth in butch literary productions and butch/femme cultural output, including visual arts.26

Imaging Latina Butch/Femme: The Imprints of Visual Art and Photography

In 1991, when Third Woman Press published Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, it featured on its cover Ester Hernández’s 1988 serigraph titled “The Offering/La Ofrenda.”27 While butch/femme may not have been a pronounced topic within its written pages, the cover art may have more convincingly conveyed the paramount significance of butch/femme to Chicana cultural practices that the enunciated contents left to interpretation. Hernandez’s print is of a masculine of center woman whose exposed fleshy back spotlights a tattoo of the revered Virgen de Guadalupe/La Virgen de Guadalupe much like the many Chicano and Latino males who pay permanent homage on their bodies to this archetypal figure of Latina/o pride and perpetual maternal protection. Starting from the mid-point of her neck, moving down the length of her entire back, and continuing out of view into her buttocks’ region, La Ofrenda lays in stark contrast, however, to the legions of Chicano and Latino men who inscribe on their bodies this same image.

As the title makes plain, there is an offering; and this sacred act of veneration can be read in two ways. First, there is the Chicana butch’s bodily reverence to adorn the entire length of her back in the image of La Virgen, an act of temporal and bodily sacrifice that mostly men perform. The other act of giving here is Hernández’s inclusion of an actual offering in which a woman’s outstretched hand holds a fully bloomed crimson rose at the back of the butch and thus in the middle of her La Virgen tattoo. The butch woman sports a lesbian-like haircut reminiscent of the 1980s, replete with its full yet spikey pompadour, short shaved sides, and tapered bottom. Contextualizing this image on the cover of a book about Chicana lesbians, we can surmise that the image features a butch lesbian whose femme lover offers a red rose—the ultimate signifier of love and desire. This potential butch/femme reading, which Hernández had not intentionally meant to signify, created such controversy that Hernández revoked permission to use La Ofrenda in subsequent printings of the text. In a later edition of the text, editor Karla Trujillo wrote of her disappointment in the image’s unavailability.28

Butch/Femme in the Photography of Laura Aguilar

In 1992, the photographer and artist Laura Aguilar completed the Plush Pony series, a black and white photo essay documenting the Latina working-class “regulars” of a bar in El Sereno, a neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles.29 The series came on the heels of another of Aguilar’s photographic compilations, the Latina Lesbian Series (1985–1991), which in similar documentary portrait style captures in black and white a range of self-identified Latina lesbians whose images are each bordered by personalized, handwritten, and signed messages. In each photographic series, Aguilar prominently features butch/femme presenting subjects; in her Latina Lesbian series butches and femmes are featured individually as self-possessed subjects staring fiercely, freely into the camera lens, whose lives we can provisionally contextualize given the textual accompaniments. In the Plush Pony series, femmes and butches pose as solo subjects or share the spotlight with friends, lovers, and fellow butch buddies or femme comadres. The photo titled “Plush Pony #15,” features a butch/femme couple who pose holding each other tightly in an affectionate embrace as the taller femme perches her cheek lovingly against the butch’s adoring eyes, extinguishing any measure of distance between them. The same tall femme appears in “Plush Pony #7,” this time playfully kicking her high-heeled foot across for a black-dress wearing, shoulder baring femme’s grip while a butch is happily flanked between them; a frisky trio of support. In effect, Aguilar composes through her camera work a visually exquisite narrative of the heterogeneous, unique, and under-regarded culture of butch/femme. In particular, the Plush Pony series with its assortment of individual, duo, and community images is ostensibly one of the only visual testimonies to the thriving life of Latina/Chicana butch/femme of the 1980s and 1990s. Critically lauded for these photo series as well as her oeuvre of arresting self-portraits, Aguilar has said that she was drawn to this community as a potential photographic subject because while she had known many Latina, Chicana, and Latin American lesbians, most were academics or industry professionals. Aguilar was attracted to the quotidian beauty and multi-faceted reality of working-class Latina lesbians who found the Plush Pony a relatively safe space for queer bodies to exist and transgressive sexual desires to materialize outside of the queer-phobic and ethnocentric glares of the respective Latina/o and mainstream lesbian social zones. Illustrating the beauty of butch/femme through her thoughtful treatment and unconditional interactions with many of the local lesbians who frequented the Plush Pony, a bar once infamous for its queer clientele of jotas, mariconas, manfloras, and other Spanish-language pejoratives for the word lesbian—Aguilar’s work provides a striking and sublime glimpse into the joyous lives that butch/femme working-class Latinas/Chicanas sustain despite their marginalized existence.

Performing Butch/Femme: Adelina Anthony’s Performance and Film Oeuvre

Latina and Chicana Butch/Femme in Literature and Culture

Figure 1. Adelina Anthony as La Profesora Mama Chocha in “Mastering Sex and Tortillas!”

In the early 2000s, the self-identified two-spirit Xicana lesbian artist Adelina Anthony began to stage the critical, comedic solo show, “Mastering Sex and Tortillas!” Originally premiering as part of the 2001 UCLA conference, Otra Corazón: Queering the Art of Aztlán, Anthony’s two-act performance became part of a nationally successful touring show in which a Chicana femme character and a Chicana butch character separately take center stage. With Adelina playing each of Mastering’s main characters, the opening act begins with the high-femme presence of La Profesora Mama Chocha (Figure 1), a fiercely dedicated diva pedagogue whose advanced specialty is Chicana lesbian sex and seduction. Mama Chocha struts around the classroom in her sexy mini-skirt, fitted red suit jacket, and black high heels comically attempting to teach her students—the audience—How to Become a Tortillera, the seminar in which they are enrolled. Through slapstick comedy and audience involvement, Anthony performs the unabashedly high-femme, hyper-sexual, and high-drama character whose lesson plan on eating panocha is compromised by phone calls from Dolores, a jealous lover, and Papi Duro, the second act’s butch character. It is important to note that Anthony’s Mama Chocha is de-linked from a butch partner; in fact, she describes Dolores as a “lipsticky-lesbiana” who wears black panties and “femme fatal chanclas” and thus as a lesbian who clearly does not inhabit a butch or masculine aesthetic.30 In fact, given Mama Chocha’s self-proclaimed expertise in giving pleasure to—rather than receiving pleasure from—a lesbian lover, we might rightly assume that Dolores is also a femme-top, a distinct category of a feminine lesbian who is sexually aggressive and often initiates sex. This is significant because in the Chicana/Latina lesbian archive, writers and thinkers have afforded the butch of “butch/femme” a depth of analysis, an ample taxonomy, and queer interest to which the singular femme has not been treated.31 In effect, Anthony’s Mama Chocha complicates Chicana/Latina femme representation by extending the possible sexual subjectivities with which a femme may identify and that may be detached from butch desire.32

In Mastering’s second act, Anthony introduces the old-school, Chicana butch character Special Agent Papi Duro, who enters the stage wearing a trench coat, a fedora hat, and a gun-holster filled with dildos. As an F.B.I—Fearless Bucha Investigator—Papi Duro is hosting a “vulva training” to groom the next wave of agents who can continue the “under covers” work of her generation. Before she assembles a new crew of F.B.I.s, Papi Duro reminisces about the variety of movidas, or moves, she has had to deploy in the name of El Movimiento Chicano. Through recalling tales of sexually pleasing desperate Beverly Hills dames toward guaranteeing their financial donations, or substituting in the bedroom for the over-worked, under-appreciated Chicana movement organizers, Papi Duro’s erotic service work represents not only high-jinx comedy but is also a high stakes intervention. Anthony relies on storytelling as a technique to insert into the historical record Chicana/Latina butches—subjects who are, on the one hand, either entirely absented from 1960s social movement archives and popular remembrances or relegated to injurious, dubious states of existence. In this way, Anthony’s performative re-narrativization also functions to cast Chicana butches, racialized queer masculinity, and erotic desire as formative to the revolutionary politics of 1960s–1970s ethnic-nationalist movements.

Anthony’s discrete comedic acts in the early 2000s indicate that cultural producers are as interested in extricating “femme” from “butch/femme” as they historically have been with decoupling butch/femme. Anthony also represents Latina lesbians as witty, riotous, and historically significant subjects. This marks a critical shift in the representations of Latina butch and femme lesbians from a primary focus that bemoans the fraught and ruinous qualities associated with non-normative gender and sexuality to those that highlight a greater agency, complexity, and heterogeneity. Latina butch/femme has suffered from similar representational limitations with a few exceptional examples including Anthony’s exuberant spotlight on butch/femme dynamics in her 2016 feature-length film, Bruising For Besos. Set in the urban, multi-cultural milieu of Los Angeles, this dramatic film follows the story of lead protagonist, Yoli, a Xicana butch lesbian with Tejana roots, who is attempting to construct a present, productive life among an expressly queer women of color and transgender community. As the plot unfolds, the audience encounters what prevents Yoli from living out her desires: unresolved childhood trauma, the reality of a low-wage telemarketing job, a disrupted sense of artistic purpose, and an unfulfilled love life. Catalyzed by a dark and titillating romance with the feminine, sexy, and non-lesbian identifying Puerto-Rican Daña, Yoli’s direct experiences of emotional and physical abuse eventually render her in an embattled state of despair.

While a main purpose of Anthony’s film is to draw meaningful attention to the silence surrounding inter-personal violence and the resulting challenges to sustain healthy LGBTQ communities of color, the film also offers one of the most unconcealed, complex portrayals of Latina butch/femme. Bruising captures butch/femme gender and sexuality in rich aesthetic and textual detail as it takes shape over the course of the film, beginning with the first sultry gaze of Daña, who through this gesture invites Yoli’s pursuit (Figure 2). The following scene marks their first conversation dedicated to butch/femme banter—a scintillating exchange of quips and flirtations acknowledging mutual desire and impending passionate potential—and culminates in a steamy car make-out session only to be interrupted by a police officer. As their lusty romance continues, it is clear that Yoli and Daña not only individually embody many of the gendered traits that are typically associated with butches and femmes, but they sexually and emotionally relate via a butch/femme dynamic. Anthony develops their torrid connection in part by focusing on their explicit sexual encounters, which showcase butch/femme desire and its power-laden erotic manifestation. Yoli as a self-possessed, emblazoned butch sexually performs with confidence to bring pleasure to both Daña and herself, while Daña’s bodily response is affirming. Their sexual chemistry is central to the narrative arc, including the scenes that are set outside of the confines of a bedroom—the mountain hike, the queer dance club, and the church visit, for example, which remain driven by an erotic, emotional butch/femme dynamic.

Latina and Chicana Butch/Femme in Literature and Culture

Figure 2. Yoli and Daña dance scene, from Bruising for Besos (2016), directed by Adelina Anthony.

At the same time that it pays tribute to the everyday beauty of Latina butch/femme in similar fashion as Aguilar’s photographic portrait series, the film also dramatizes the harm that queer of color communities inflict on each other and thus endure as a result of unresolved traumas originating in structures like the family and the state. It is crucial to recognize that Anthony’s depiction of butch/femme is a departure from earlier representations that merely hint at its pervasiveness among working-class Latinas, that inadvertently pathologize its attributes, or that emphasize and ponder butch subjectivity. Due to the volatile dialogic exchanges between Yoli and Daña that eventually escalate into physical and emotional violent reaction, viewers may perceive that butch/femme dynamics are partly to blame or are inherently problematic. However, Bruising prioritizes exploring the root causes of Yoli’s trauma through the use of flashback scenes in which elaborate puppets re-enact a young Yoli’s formative childhood experiences of witnessing and being subjected to paternal abuse. Additionally, Anthony balances Yoli and Daña’s main plotline with representations of diverse sexual and non-sexual dyads that are essential to Yoli’s narrative arc, including the friendship between Yoli and her best friend, Rani, who is a trans man; and the encounters between Yoli and the polysexual femme, Nerea. The film offers a quotidian depiction of Latina butch/femme culture that, despite an audience’s identification with the terms butch/femme, or knowledge of butch/femme cultural practices, many audiences simply have not seen as intricately illustrated as Anthony’s filmic representation.

Plays, Poems, and Cuentos: Locating Butch/Femme in the Literary

Alongside the surge of anthologies in which butch/femme appeared and received some overdue critical treatment, a handful of Latina authors published stories, plays, and poems that evoke butch/femme suggestively or thematically. In her three-act play, Giving up the Ghost, Cherríe Moraga writes of a love affair between its two female characters, the twenty-something, masculine of center Marisa, and the sensuously feminine elder beauty, Amalia. The third character of the play is Marisa’s younger self, Corky, whose aesthetics in the stage notes emphasize her butch presentation, “She dresses ‘Cholo Style’—khaki pants with razor-sharp creases, pressed white undershirt. Her hair is cut short and slicked back. She approaches the upstage wall, spray can in hand, feigning the false bravado of her teenage male counterparts.”33 As an adult, Marisa’s styling takes on a different masculine flair, and she has seemingly grown out of the impetuous baby-butcha self that she had clung to growing up in an East L.A. barrio. The plot unfolds with Marisa falling deeply in love with the doña-like Amalia, a Mexican-born artist who reluctantly mentors the fledgling artist, Marisa, before their connection enters the terrain of butch/femme desire and power play.

MARISA: Hay un hombre en esta mujer. Lo he sentido. La miro, cocinando para nosotras. Pienso. . . ¿cómo puede haber un hombre en una persona, tan feminine? Su pelo, sus movimiento de una serenidad imposible de describer. . . .34

MARISA: Con ella, me siento como un joven lleno de deseo. I move on her. She wants this. This worn denim and metal buttons are cotton and cool ice on my skin. And she is full of slips and lace and stockings. . . .

AMALIA: Quítate los pantalones.

MARISA: And yet it is she who’s taking me.35

In this erotic interlude, Moraga captures the complex dynamics of butch/femme sexual coupling in which traditional notions of masculinity and femininity are subverted and redefined, doubly enabled by how butch women take or lead their sexual objects of desire and how femmes exercise their own alluring erotic power. Written in 1986 and first staged in 1989, the play’s butch/femme content is implicit but is essential to Corky/Marisa’s character development. Moreover, while Marisa may have distanced herself from the showy, Cholo masculinity of Corky, her desire to find pleasure in the warmth of a grandly feminine woman has never ceased, a dawning that Marisa and Corky recall in an earlier dialogue in this same scene:

MARISA: It’s odd being queer. It’s not that you don’t want a man, you just don’t want a man in a man. You want a man in a woman. The woman part goes without saying. That’s what you always learn to want first. Maybe the first time you see your dad touch your mom in that way. . . .

CORKY: ¡Hiiiijo! I remember the first time I got hip to that! My mom standing at the stove making chile Colorado and flippin’ tortillas. . .36

CORKY: Kina like she’s sorta hassled ‘n’ bein poquita fría, tú sabes, but she’s really digging my dad to no end. ‘N’ jus’ as she comes over to him, kina tossing the tort onto the plate, he slides his hand, real suave-like, up the inside of her thigh. Cheezus! I coulda died! I musta been only about nine or so, but I got that tingling, tú sabes, that now I know what it means.37

While this scene may stand out for its obvious Oedipal meaning—Corky/Marisa relay their forbidden maternal object cathexis and site of paternal identification—it also establishes the fluctuating and fragmented textual presence of butch/femme, which is a commonplace practice of the Latina literati of the 1980s and 1990s. While Moraga would continue to represent butch/femme in this style, this paved the way for Latinas by the 2000s to tend to butch/femme politically and poetically in a less dubious fashion.

In Forgetting the Alamo, or Blood Memory (2009), Emma Pérez uses the form of a historical novel and its butch Chicana cowgirl protagonist, Micaela Campos, to redress the dominant colonial narrative of mid-19th century borderlands history. The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of Micaela, a young butch on a relentless quest for revenge. Pérez endows Micaela with a purposeful masculinity that must doubly bestow her with an inflexible gender identification and thus an invaluable disguise to ensure her passing in the public domain. The novel can also be read as a Latina butch/femme alternative Western love story between Micaela and the black/indigenous, feminine character, Clara. In this way, the novel serves not only to re-imagine what happened in the aftermath of formative violent historical moments—the massacres and battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto leading to the solidification of Anglo territorializing and Mexican, Native, and African-American dispossession—that continue to frame modern Texas and U.S. history, but to dislodge the notion of de-colonial revisionist projects as empty of queerness. In Forgetting, the reader encounters queerness not only through Micaela’s masculine gender embodiments, but in the passionate and forbidden desire awakened between Micaela and Clara, who meet near the end of the first third of the novel. After their first kiss, Micaela admits that her narrow mission to avenge the brutal murder of her family becomes distracted with hopes of settling down to build a family with Clara.

The butch/femme erotic and emotional connection between Micaela and Clara intensifies during their second encounter when Micaela enters a Galveston saloon surprised to find Clara working as the dealer, who furtively assists Micaela to win the fortunes of the gambling table. Once the bar has cleared out, they finally acknowledge one another as mutual objects of desire. Pérez describes Micaela’s ecstatic experience in the following exposition:

At the end of a narrow passage, she shoved me into a room against a wall and as she bit my lips and tongue, she removed my jacket and pushed me on the bed unfastening my trousers. I darted up securing the buttons she loosened but she was persuasive and her yearning was as fanatical as mine, and although I wrangled with her for a moment, more for fun than anything, I finally gave up and gave in. I let myself be pulled back down and I did not rise from that bed or leave her room for days. To be with her meant my inner turmoil subsided momentarily and I was hopeful again about some kind of future for me but only if she was in the future I envisioned.38

Micaela’s physical resignation aligns with a particular butch/femme dialectic in which butches may reluctantly agree or wholly object to the less active sexual position in butch/femme sexual etiquette, while femmes offer reprieve through their firm caretaking capacities. Although Pérez does not reference the terminological couplet anywhere in the novel, Micaela’s tender and raw female masculinity to which Clara is drawn, and Clara’s sensual and savvy femininity by which Micaela is enthralled, are unambiguous signifiers of butch/femme erotic and emotional relationality.

Verónica Reyes, a self-identified “Chicana feminist jota poet from East Los Angeles” pays lyrical tribute to butch/femme in several poems within her monograph, Chopper! Chopper!: Poetry from Bordered Lives.39 In “Marimacha,” Reyes details how Carmen, a “Xicana Butch Dyke” stylishly and fearlessly traverses the urban streets of East L.A, where she prides herself on having “earned the respect of a true vato.” Carmen reflects on her early formative butch self and savors memories of making out with “her main ruca” Josefina, described as “Era Mujer, all mujer. Firme. Nice smooth curves.”40 In “A Xicana Theorist,” Reyes narrates the protagonist’s search for a space where she can find authentic connection and calm. Comparing a queer Latina bar to the space of an academic institution, Reyes lingers on the enabling, affective site of the queer bar where butch/femme rites of passage happen and thus a whole, integrated sense of self can fleetingly be reached. “Panocha Power!” is a Chicana butch poet’s call to arms propelled by an inspired poetry reading.41 Reyes’s narrator/poet invokes history and memory to spur the crowd into joining her in honoring queer of color occluded pasts because “it was los puertorriqueños, the drag queens, las butch dykes. . . we are stonewall!!!”42 In between her impassioned repetition of the anthem, “Panocha! Power!” are stanzas that position non-confirming, racialized queer figures as essential to early iconic queer histories, of which butch/femme are part, “so the femmes with red nail polish and black dresses wrapped in rebozos. . . gritaron for their rights with all their corazones ‘we got panochas and we love panochas!”43 Finally, in “The Queer Retablo Series: Butch-Femme Dialogue” Reyes composes a refined ode of seven short stanzas revering the ineffable transmissions and aesthetic objects of butch/femme life. Much like the sacred art makings of the Mexican folk tradition by the same name, Reyes’ poetic retablo is an unspoken dialogue, a series of forbidden glances and inflamed sensual exchanges that worship at the altar of butch/femme love and desire. Taken together, Reyes’s poems stretch the meanings of butch/femme into an unabashedly delightful terrain where pleasure, politics, and place comingle.

Discussion of the Literature

The field of literature that engages Latina butch/femme is an emergent project due to the historically disarticulated and insinuated butch/femme archive of literary, visual, and other cultural productions. Due to this paucity, few scholars have theorized Latina butch/femme history, cultural practices, and literary, visual, and performative productions. Gender, sexuality, and queer studies scholars interested in Latina butch/femme in general have focused their research on Chicana iconic and subterranean writers, Latina butch or Latina femme subjectivity, queer performance art, and to a lesser extent Latina butch/femme history and cultural production.

Most prominently, scholars Sandra K. Soto and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano mine Cherríe Moraga’s literary oeuvre for its racialized lesbian and queer significances. Yarbro-Bejarano pays explicit attention to how Moraga grapples with her racialized butch subjectivity and butch/femme lesbian desire. Soto in particular explores via an expressly queer reading practice how Moraga’s claims to Chicano nationalism and a butch brownness signify a much more contradictory narrative of subjectivity than historically attributed to her writing. Yarbro-Bejarano also wrote “Crossing the Border with Chabela Vargas: A Chicana Femme’s Tribute” for the edited anthology Sex and Sexuality in Latin America (1997). This succinct chapter pays homage to the belated, beloved singer, who through “lesbianizing of the music and lyrics, especially of the heterosexual male subject of desire” offers Yarbro-Bejarano a popular site of butch/femme erotic identification and fantasy.44 Catrióna Rueda Esquibel approaches the subject of Chicana butch/femme in her close readings of lesbian fictions and representations of racialized queer genders while Melissa Hidalgo attends to Anthony’s Mastering to consider the autonomous subjectivities that her Chicana femme and Chicana butch characters perform on stage. Juana María Rodríguez locates the queer erotic desires and sexual politics of Latina butch/femme as a central research site in her 2014 Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings and in a similar style to Soto and Yarbro-Bejarano, she situates her Latina femme subjectivity as a critical point of departure. Uniquely, Rodríguez identifies ephemeral sites such as pleasure, gesture, and intimacy including butch/femme erotics to imagine how a meaningful politics can occur outside of normative authority structures. Future areas of scholarship might explore the overlap between Latina and other lesbian of color butch/femme cultural productions, especially given the preponderance of Chicana butch/femme. There is also a significant archive of two Latina lesbian magazines, “esto no tiene nombre” and “conmoción” that creative writer and librarian tatiana de la tierra co-created and published in the 1990s. Featuring nominal butch/femme content, these two publications incorporate Spanish-language poetry and essay as well as original artwork and photos. Scholars relying on Latina/o/x queer studies, queer of color studies, and trans studies approaches might also return to iconic butch/femme texts of the 1980s and 1990s or retrieve eclipsed objects of study like zines or print work, while expanding into a wider range of mediums that are emerging in digital and online forms in which butch/femme acquires new affiliations and affinities.

Makers: Cherríe Moraga.

This PBS produced series features interviews of prominent cultural makers. In her interview, Moraga touches on a range of themes including her family history, early lesbian desires, sense of non-normative gender identity, and finding an outlet in writing and teaching.

Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, Third Woman Press.

The first edition of this Karla Trujillo edited anthology features Ester Hernández’s 1988 serigraph titled “The Offering/La Ofrenda.” The image is significant for its rendering of the Virgen de Guadalupe tattooed onto the back of a masculine woman, which generated heterosexist critiques and threats. Later editions no longer featured Hernández’s image.

Vincent Price Museum: Laura Aguilar.

This museum adjacent to the campus of East Los Angeles Community College hosted photographer and multi-media artist, Laura Aguilar, in her first full exhibition. Titled “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” the retrospective held September 2017—February 2018 highlighted Aguilar’s Plush Pony Series that spotlights butch/femme culture and community.

Adelina Anthony’s Bruising for Besos.

The feature-length film, Bruising for Besos, focuses on a Chicana butch protagonist whose scorching romantic relationship with a Puerto-Rican femme ignites into revelations about past family violences and unresolved traumas. Produced by AdeRisa Productions, the film showcases Chicana-Latina butch/femme sexual desire and queer of color community cultures.

Further Reading

Alarcón, Norma, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga, eds. The Sexuality of Latinas. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Asencio, Marysol, ed. Latina/o Sexualities: Probing Powers, Passions, Practices, and Policies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Balderston, Daniel, and Donna J. Guy, eds. Sex and Sexuality in Latin America. New York: New York University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Bost, Suzanne. The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature. London: Routledge, 2013.Find this resource:

Danielson, Marivel T. Homecoming Queers: Desire and Difference in Chicana Latina Cultural Production. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

De La Tierra, Tatiana. “Activist Latina Lesbian Publishing: Esto No Tiene Nombre and Conmoción.” Aztlán 27, no. 1(2002): 139–178.Find this resource:

Esquibel, Catrióna Rueda. With Her Machete in Her Hand: Reading Chicana Lesbians. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Gaspar De Alba, Alicia. Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master’s House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition (1st ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Harris, Laura, and Elizabeth Crocker, eds. Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls. New York: Routledge, 1997.Find this resource:

Munt, Sally, and Cherry Smyth, eds. Butch/Femme: Inside lesbian gender. London: Cassell, 1998.Find this resource:

Nestle, Joan, ed. The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Boston: Alyson, 1992.Find this resource:

Pertusa, Inmaculada, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Ramos, Juanita. Compañeras: Latina lesbians: An anthology. New York: Routledge, 1994.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, Juana María. Queer Latinidad Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces. New York: New York University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York: New York University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Soto, Sandra K. Reading Chican@ like a Queer: The De-mastery of Desire. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Sexuality and Chicana/o Studies: Toward a Theoretical Paradigm for the Twenty-First Century.” Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 (April 1999): 335–345.Find this resource:

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. The Wounded Heart: Writing on Cherríe Moraga. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) See Sue-Ellen Case, “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 294–306.

(2.) Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (1st ed.) (New York: Basic Books, 2000); and Gayle Rubin, Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

(3.) For more on working-class and lesbian of color butch/femme history, see Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Sara L. Crawley, “Are Butch And Fem Working Class and Antifeminist?” Gender and Society 15, no. 2 (April 2001): 175–196.

(4.) See Leila J. Rupp, A Desired Past: A Short History of Same Sex Love in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women (New York: New York University, 2009).

(5.) Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (New York: Penguin, 1991).

(6.) See, for example, Oscar Lewis, The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family (Random House, New York, 1961).

(7.) See, for example, Lillian Faderman, “The Return of Butch and Femme: A Phenomenon in Lesbian Sexuality of the 1980s and 1990s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 2 (1992): 578–596.

(8.) See Alma M. García, ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings (New York: Routledge, 1997).

(9.) Where appropriate, I use “Chicana” and depart from using “Latina” due to the preponderance of Mexican-American women self-identifying as Chicanas who were at the forefront of producing literary, artistic, and cultural texts that are foundational in the study of butch/femme. For more on the preferences of “queer” and “dyke” over “lesbian,” see Gloria Anzaldúa, “To(o) Queer the Writer—Loca, escritora y chicana,” Living Chicana Theory, ed. Carla Trujillo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 263–276; and Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1983).

(10.) For more on lesbian and women of color anthologizing practices, see Cynthia G. Franklin, Writing Women’s Communities: the Politics and Poetics of Contemporary Multi-Genre Anthologies (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

(11.) Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, was first published in 1981 by Persephone Press, in 1983 by Kitchen Table Press, and subsequent editions by Third Woman Press. The fourth edition, published by State University of New York Press (Albany, NY) in 2015 is the referenced text in this essay.

(12.) Moraga, “La Guera,” in This Bridge Called My Back, 24.

(14.) Moraga, “La Guera,” in This Bridge Called My Back, 28.

(15.) Cherríe Moraga, “Played between White Hands,” Off Our Backs (Washington, DC: n.p., 1982).

(16.) Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1983), 126.

(17.) Carla Trujillo, “Introduction,” in Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, ed. Carla Trujillo (Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1991), x.

(18.) Ana Castillo, “La Macha: Toward a Beautiful Whole Self,” in Trujillo, Chicana Lesbians, 36.

(19.) Castillo, “La Macha” 38.

(20.) Hollibaugh and Moraga, “What We’re Rolling in Around in Bed With,” 249.

(21.) Hollibaugh and Moraga, “What We’re Rolling in Around in Bed With,” 249.

(22.) Hollibaugh and Moraga, “What We’re Rolling in Around in Bed With,” 252–253.

(23.) Jeanne Cordova, “Butches, Lies, and Feminism,” in Nestle, The Persistent Desire, 278.

(24.) Jeanne Cordova authored three books including the Lambda award-winning, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution (Midway, FL: Spinsters Ink, 2011).

(25.) Rocky Gámez, “From ‘The Gloria Stories,’” in Nestle, The Persistent Desire, 202.

(26.) See for example, Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Boi Hair: A Short Digital Video about Short Hair (2005), prod. Alma Lopez; and Mind If I Call You Sir? A Video Documentary on Latina Butches and Latino FTMs (2004), prod. Karla Rosales, StickyGirl Productions.

(27.) See the first edition cover of Trujillo, Chicana Lesbians.

(28.) See Carla Trujillo, “Introduction,” in Trujillo, Chicana Lesbians.

(29.) Rebecca Epstein and Sybil Venegas, eds. Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017).

(30.) Adelina Anthony, “Mastering Sex and Tortillas!” (Unpublished manuscript, 2006).

(31.) For an example of a Chicana butch taxonomy, see T. Jackie Cuevas, “To(o) Queer the Chican@s: Disrupting Genders in the Post-Borderlands” (Diss., University of Texas, Austin, 2010) who writes of Moraga and Gámez’s work, “These authors utilize the figures of the strong butch, failed butch, baby butch, and proto-queer tomboy to expose and embrace the sexual and emotional vulnerability of Chicana borderlands butchness” (p. 45).

(32.) See Adelina Anthony Las Hociconas: Three Locas with Big Mouths and Even Bigger Brains (San Francisco: Kórima Press, 2013); and Marivel T. Danielson, Homecoming Queers: Desire and Difference in Chicana Latina Cultural Production (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

(33.) Cherríe Moraga, Heroes and Saints & Other Plays (Albuquerque, NM: West End Press, 1994), 6.

(34.) Moraga, Heroes and Saints & Other Plays, 22.

(35.) Moraga, Heroes and Saints & Other Plays, 22.

(36.) Moraga, Heroes and Saints & Other Plays, 21.

(37.) Moraga, Heroes and Saints & Other Plays, 21.

(38.) Emma Pérez, Forgetting the Alamo Or Blood Memory (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 108–109.

(39.) Verónica Reyes, Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives (Pasadena, CA: Arktoi Books, 2013), 112.

(40.) Reyes, Chopper! Chopper! 14–15.

(41.) The word “panocha” translates from Spanish to English as “pussy” as in “vagina.”

(42.) Reyes, Chopper! Chopper! 77.

(43.) Reyes, Chopper! Chopper! 78.

(44.) Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, Daniel Balderston, and Donna Guy, eds., “Crossing the Border with Chabela Vargas: A Chicana Femme’s Tribute,” in Sex and Sexuality in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 34.