Butch camp

On the discursive construction of a queer identity position


  • Veronika Koller Lancaster University




camp, gender identity, lesbian discourse


This paper analyses an article (Gulston 1980) that constructs a particular lesbian identity position by combining elements of female masculinity/butchness with a camp stance usually attributed to gay men. Beyond the text itself, the analysis also addresses how the article, which was published in a British feminist magazine in 1980, sets this identity in opposition to prevailing discourses on lesbian identity at that historical moment. More generally, the paper is intended to contribute to a data-driven discussion that links claims about the relations between language, gender and sexuality back to concrete textual evidence. Drawing on the discourse-historical approach (Wodak 2002), the analysis includes parameters such as social actors, evaluation, metaphor, as well as intertextuality and interdiscursivity. It shows how the author draws on earlier discourses and practices by setting up 1950s-style butches and femmes as social actor groups, while ironically alluding to 1970s lesbian feminist who criticised lesbian genders as an emulation of oppressive heterosexuality. Irony is a predominant feature in the text, realised by metaphors that draw on biologist notions of gender (e.g. BUTCHES ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES), and by extreme hypotaxis mimicking archaic speech styles. Apart from irony, the text also shows other features of ‘camp talk’ (Harvey 2000) such as innuendo, Latinate terms, or hyperbole. The text constructs a hybrid butch/camp identity while ironically drawing on essentialist notions of gender and sexuality, and can therefore be regarded as an early instance of queer discourse. How the author parodies and exaggerates lesbian feminist notions of butch/femme as a bygone 1950s cliché shows her as being ahead of her time. An analysis of her text is thus highly relevant for present-day scholars of language, gender and sexuality.

Author Biography

Veronika Koller, Lancaster University

Senior lecturer at Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster/UK


Anthonissen, Christine (2008) The sounds of silence in the media: When violator and violated withhold information. In Ruth Wodak and Veronika Koller (eds) Handbook of Communication in the Public Sphere (Handbook of Applied Linguistics 4) 401–28. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Austin, John Langshaw (1962) How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bender, Debbie and Due, Linnea (1994) Coming up butch. In Lily Burana, Roxxie and Linnea Due (eds) Dagger: On Butch Women 96–112. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press.

Brownworth, Victoria (1975) Butch/femme, myth/reality or more of the same? Wicce 4: 7–10.

Bucholtz, Mary and Hall, Kira (2004) Theorizing identity in language and sexuality research. Language in Society 33: 469–515.

Burana, Lily, Roxxie and Due, Linnea (eds) (1994) Dagger: On Butch Women. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press.

Butler, Judith (1990/1999) Gender Trouble. Second edition. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1991) Imitation and gender insubordination. In Diana Fuss (ed.) Inside/ Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories 13–31. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1997) Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge.

Cameron, Deborah and Kulick, Don (2003) Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Case, Sue-Ellen (1998) Making butch: An historical memoir of the 1970s. In Sally Munt and Cherry Smyth (eds) Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender 37–45. London: Cassell.

Cassidy, Christie (2004) Opening Pandora’s box. On our backs June/July: 28–9.

Connell, R.W (1995) Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, James (2005) Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender and Society 19(6): 829–59.

Core, Philip (1984) Camp: The lie that tells the truth. In Fabio Cleto (ed.) (1999) Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject 80–6. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

de Cillia, Rudolf, Reisigl, Martin and Wodak, Ruth (1999) The discursive construction of national identities. Discourse and Society 10(2): 149–73.

Dworkin, Andrea (1987/2006) Intercourse. New York: Basic Books.

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

Fairclough, Norman (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Longman.

Fairclough, Norman (2003) Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge.

Forrest, Katherine (2005) Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950–1965. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Garber, Linda (2001) Identity Poetics: Race, Class, and the Lesbian-feminist Roots of Queer Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gulston, Lorna (1980) Butch. Sequel 15: 8–10.

Halberstam, Judith (1998a) Between butches. In S. R. Munt and C. Smyth (eds) Butch/ Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender 57–65. London: Cassell.

Halberstam, Judith (1998b) Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, Radclyffe (1928/1990) The Well of Loneliness. New York: Anchor Books.

Hall Carpenter Archives Lesbian Oral History Group (1989) Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories. London: Routledge.

Halliday, Michael and Matthiessen, Christian (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Third edition. London: Edward Arnold.

Hart, Nett (1996) From an eroticism of difference to an intimacy of equals: A radical feminist lesbian separatist perspective on sexuality. In Lilian Mohin (ed.) An Intimacy of Equals: Lesbian Feminist Ethics 69–77. London: Onlywomen Press.

Harvey, Keith (2000) Describing camp talk: Language/pragmatics/politics. Language and Literature 9: 240–60.

Healey, Emma (1996) Lesbian Sex Wars. London: Virago.

Hoagland, Sarah (1982) Sadism, masochism, and lesbian-feminism. In Robin Linden, Darlene Pagano, Diana Russell and Susan Star (eds) Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis 153–63. East Palo Alto: Frog in the Well Press.

Jeffreys, Sheila (1989) Butch and femme: Now and then. In Lesbian Herstory Group (eds) Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History, 1840–1985 158–87. London: Women’s Press.

Jeffreys, Sheila (1996) Heterosexuality and the desire for gender. In Diane Richardson (ed.) Theorising Heterosexuality 75–90. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Jeffreys, Sheila (2003) Unpacking Queer Politics: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective. Cambridge: Polity.

Johnston, Jill (1973) Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jones, Lucy (2008) Language and identity in a lesbian group: A sociocultural linguistics approach. Paper presented at Sociolinguistics Symposium 17, Amsterdam, 3–5 April.

Kennedy, Elbeth and Davis, Madeline (1993) Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge.

KhosraviNik, Majid (2007) Actor, action, argumentation: Towards an amalgamation of CDA methodological categories in the representation of social actors. Paper presented at the Second Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference, Lancaster University, UK, 5 July.

Koller, Veronika (2008) Lesbian Discourses: Images of a Community. New York: Routledge.

Kuhnen, Stephanie (ed.) (1997) Butch/Femme: Eine erotische Kultur. Berlin: Querverlag.

Lakoff, George (2002) Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Second edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laporte, Rita (1971) The butch-femme question. In Joan Nestle (ed.) (1992) The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader 208–19. Boston: Alyson.

Livia, Anna (1995) ‘I ought to throw a Buick at you’: Fictional representations of butch/ femme speech. In Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz (eds) Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self 246–77. New York: Routledge.

Livia, Anna (2002) The future of queer linguistics. In Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Robert Podesva, Sarah Roberts and Andrew Wong (eds) Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice 87–97. Stanford: CSLI.

National Lesbian and Gay Survey (eds) (1992) What a Lesbian Looks Like: Writings by Lesbians on Their Lives and Lifestyles. London: Routledge.

Neild, Suzanne and Pearson, Rosalind (1992) Women Like Us. London: The Women’s Press.

Nestle, Joan (1981) Butch-fem relationships: Sexual courage in the 1950s. Heresies 12: 21–4.

Nestle, Joan (ed.) (1992) The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Boston: Alyson.

Nichols, Jeannette, Pagano, Darlene and Rossoff, Margaret (1982) Is sadomasochism feminist? A critique of the Samois position. In Robin Linden, Darlene Pagano, Diana Russell and Susan Star (eds) Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis 137–45. San Francisco: Frog in the Well Press.

Penelope, Julia (1983) Whose past are we reclaiming? Common Lives, Lesbian Lives 9: 18.

Queen, Robin (1997) ‘I don’t speak spritch’: Locating lesbian language. In Anna Livia and Kira Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality 233–56. New York: Oxford University Press.

Queen, Robin (2004) ‘I am a woman, hear me roar’: The importance of linguistic stereotype for lesbian identity performance. In Robin Lakoff (ed.) Language and Woman’s Place. Second revised and expanded edition, Mary Bucholtz (ed.) 289–95. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Radicalesbians (1970) ‘The woman identified woman’. Paper presented at the Second Conference to Unite Women, New York, May 1970. Reprinted in Sarah Hoagland and Julia Penelope (eds) (1988) For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology 17–22. London: Onlywomen Press.

Rednour, Shar (2000) The Femme’s Guide to the Universe. Los Angeles: Alyson.

Reisigl, Martin and Wodak, Ruth (2001) Discourse and Discrimination. London: Routledge.

Roof, Judith (1998) 1970s lesbian feminism meets 1990s butch-femme. In Sally Munt and Cherry Smyth (eds) Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender 27–35. London: Cassell.

Sacha-Savannah (1983) Message to readers. Sequel 33: 3.

Sedgwick, Eve (1990) Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Sontag, Susan (1964/1994) Notes on ‘camp’. In Against Interpretation 275–92. London: Vintage.

Stein, Arlene (1997) Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stryker, Susan (2001) Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback. Vancouver: Chronicle Books.

Stubbs, Michael (1997) Whorf’s children: critical comments on critical discourse analysis. In Ann Ryan and Alison Wray (eds) Evolving Models of Language 100–16. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

van Leeuwen, Theo (1996) The representation of social actors. In Carmen CaldasCoulthard and Malcolm Coulthard (eds) Text and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis 32–70. London: Routledge.

Warner, Michael (2002) Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Widdowson, Henry (2004) Text, Context, Pretext: Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wilkinson, Sue and Kitzinger, Celia (1996) The queer backlash. In Diane Bell and Renate Klein (eds) Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed 375–82. London: Zed Books.

Wodak, Ruth (1996) Disorders of Discourse. Harlow: Longman.

Wodak, Ruth (2001) The discourse-historical approach. In Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis 83–94. London: Sage.

Wodak, Ruth (2006) Discourse-analytic and socio-linguistic approaches to the study of nation(alism). In Gerard Delanty and Krishan Kumar (eds) The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism 104–17. London: Sage.

Wodak, Ruth (2007) Discourse studies: Important concepts and terms. In Ruth Wodak and Micha? Krzy?anowski (eds) Qualitative Discourse Analysis in the Social Sciences 1–29. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Wolf, Deborah (1979) The Lesbian Community. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Zimet, Janet (1999) Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949–1969. New York: Viking Studio.



How to Cite

Koller, V. (2010). Butch camp: On the discursive construction of a queer identity position. Gender and Language, 3(2), 249–274. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.v3i2.249