Out photographer Wendi Kali has been aware of the classic relational dichotomy of butch and femme for decades, but as she explored her own butch identity, the visually motivated artist had trouble finding images to which she could relate.
"From the research I've done, I've discovered that there are many photos depicting those identities from the '50s and '60s, a few from the '70s and even fewer from the '80s and '90s," Kali wrote on a blog post announcing The Butch/Femme Photo Project. "With this photo project, I wish to build upon the history of Butch and Femme by adding photos of the people who claim those identities today. I hope to show how the identities have evolved by photographing the many unique and individual expressions of them."
Thus far, the Portland, Ore.-based photographer has photographed 95 people, representing 35 cities across the United States and Canada. Kali also launched a Kickstarter page in hopes of funding travel to document butch and femme people in every corner of the nation. The project has already garnered more than $3,000 toward its $10,000 fund-raising goal, which must be reached by Friday for the project to win the pledges made.
"What I've discovered so far in this process is that not only is there a huge butch-femme community thriving in today's world, but also each individual within that community is a very unique expression of butch or femme," Kali tells The Advocate. "There isn't one way to be butch. There isn't one way to be femme. Those who claim those identities define them for themselves. What I hope to do with this project is give visibility to the butch-femme community in order to help others who might be struggling to find their place."
Read on to see an assortment of images featured in The Butch/Femme Photo Project, along with excerpts from interviews the author conducted with each subject. Kali welcomes inquiries from butches and femmes interested in participating, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mel and Erica
Fierce, feisty, femme
33 years old
"I dress up and do my hair and fix my makeup in the morning because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel confident and capable. And it makes me feel attractive to the people I am attracted to. I am crazy in love with my sexy-ass butch. When I move in the world, I want big butches with gray hair and crinkly eyes to pay attention to me. I move in that way, in the world. My lipstick isn’t for 50-year-old men who like feisty redheads. My mascara isn’t for meathead frat boys. My heels aren’t to make other women jealous or self-conscious. I ready myself for my days in the ways that make me most comfortable and confident. My femininity is subversive..."
42 years old
"Valid or not — my definition of femininity was based largely on what one wore on their body, be it dresses, makeup, or what have you. When I no longer became willing to kowtow to my mother's wishes that I 'dress like a lady,' I internalized what is defined as — but didn't really understand yet to be— butch. I learned later on that femininity had many more layered elements..."
Queer dyke and butch trans woman
26 years old
"Trans women and especially butch trans women are women too. We deserve to be treated and seen as equals, whether that is as community members or sexual actors. The 'cotton ceiling' needs to be dismantled, if feminism is truly about including all women."
Frances and partner (and fur kids)
Punky, funky, high femme
37 years old
"I hope that we never stop seeing femmes and butches in our big LGBTQ family. I hear folks talk about how great androgyny is, and I agree there is a wonderfulness about it. However, I love the nuances that a more dichotomized gender identity brings out. The way a butch with short hair smells, swaggers, and laughs. The way a femme smiles, dances, and creates mischief. We have to respect and understand people are far more than just their identity or perceived identity, but we must also hold on to the beauty of being queer and gender warriors."
Belinda "Boom Boom" Carroll
36 years old
"I came out in 1993, and I met a butch and ID'd as femme, but then went butch for a few years. After I started hanging out with queens, I realized that I love makeup and hair. I've realized recently that although femme in my dress, I'm a bit butch on the inside. It's an evolving identity. Femme does not equal precious and wilting. We are tough too."
Queer femme who happens to be a trans woman
44 years old
"My resistance [to my identity] was born out of love and the fear of being alone. I fell in love at an early age and spent years fighting my identity so I would be loved. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending, performing, and get locked in an image, an act."
Well-balanced, straddling the identities of butch and femme
38 years old
"I want people to know that whether I'm on top or on the bottom, whether I'm in lipstick or car grease, boxers or a lacy black thong, that I am strong, capable, independent, and 100% woman..."
Cajun, polyamorous, transgender, genderqueer, butch, feminist, top, rabble-rouser, word whore
39 years old
"I wish people knew or better understood that identity is not static. I wish others understood that because my identity is as it is, does not change anything about your own. That there are many ways to be butch, to be transgender, to be a feminist, et al. There are multiple definitions and expressions for our identities, and that is a good thing. The identities and words we use to describe ourselves is only the beginning of the conversation, not the be-all end-all about who we are. Identity is not only personal, but it is amazing, radical and political..."
Cisgendered queer femme
46 years old
"I came out in the mid-'80s, so there were only the options of either androgyny (the 'correct' way to be a lesbian) or the old fashioned butch/femme dynamic, which was frowned upon. I didn't make a very correct lesbian."
Jennie and Lisa
50 years old
"I've always thought of myself as a tomboy as long as I can remember. I always identified with boys better than girls. Couldn't understand their need for girly things. I just wanted to play ball and do boy things."
48 years old
"Being butch does not mean I want to become a man! Being in a relationship with another butch does not confuse our sex roles. There is no 'man' in our relationship, hence the word lesbian: a woman who loves women. A butch woman is still a woman. I love to receive flowers, my butch lover loves to receive flowers. We are two of the gushiest, sappiest women I've ever known."
41 years old
"I wish people knew that my identity is mine. Finally finding peace in who I am is not a confrontation to their way of life, nor their identification. At 41, I never thought the day would come when a person like myself could be close to having rights. Progress we made, progress we must make."