Preface: This post exists because the topic has come up in a few places where I belong online, and I thought it might be interesting to share in a Spanish specific context.
There are some major issues with this topic though. One of the most important one is this topic does not appear to come up in a Spanish lesbian historical context in the same way it does in an Anglo-Saxon lesbian historical context. The references to a butch and femme history and culture in Spain tend to be exceedingly rare, even inside lesbian histories produced by lesbians, both those in the abolitionist feminist camp and those in the queer lesbian camp. It is one of those areas that really needs more research. The number of Spanish lesbians that are named as identifying or accused of being butch (as opposed to being some slur against lesbians) is also tiny. I can only find one such lesbian. 😦 Anyway, onwards to history.
Butch and femme Spanish lesbian history
A lesbian subculture was in place by the start of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. Lesbians tended to be divided into one of two groups, flappers imitated Carlota, from the novel Sab or butch lesbians with mannish manners. The flapper subset identified as European women, often worked outside the home where the found a degree of personal freedom, and were portrayed by outsiders as being almost Grecian in appearance. Because of their comportment with gender norms of the day, this group of lesbians faced much less societal degeneration as they were largely indistinguishable from their heterosexual peers. Butch lesbians were often associated with cigar smoking, alcohol consumption and imitating male behavior.
Butch/femme lesbian relationships existed in the Franco period and specifically in the 1950s. These relationships were not heterosexual replicas, superimposed on to lesbian relationships but instead were erotic and social manifestations of these women’s identity and relationships. These women, continuing a culture dating back to the Primo dictatorship, were revolutionary for their time. During the 1950s, butch/femme couples were on the front lines of lesbian visibility in Francoist Spain, meaning that among other things these women were subject to street violence alongside state intimidation and violence. Only later, starting in the transition period, would these lesbians be viewed as reactionary and anti-feminist for mimicking heterosexual identity.
Despite the persecution, lesbians were found in Badajoz in the late Franco and appeared to have their own subculture in the 1960s. Lesbian couples often had one member who was butch and another who was femme. The butch lesbian wore pants, with corduroy pants being particularly popular, at a time when it was suspect if a woman to wear pants because the gender norms of the day dictated women wear skirts or dresses. People were aware of what the lesbians were, would call them bolleras and tortilleras, would call them abnormal for being lesbians, and would be abusive towards them. If a woman defended them, their own sexuality could become suspect as a result.
Cultural assumptions around lesbians being more masculine women would be problematic in the democratic transition period. More masculine appearing women would often be accused of being lesbians for their appearance alone in ways that caused them harm and distress; at the same time, lesbians who did not fit into a butch mold were often completely ignored or considered lesbians by outsiders because they were too feminine and appeared to comply with societal gender norms for what a woman should be.
During this period, lesbians often rejected lesbian as an identity. Rather they were women who were sexually and romantically affective towards other women who wanted to be free of persecution and to be accepted for who they were. Many activists rejected labels like lesbians, but needed to deploy those labels in order to advance their own collective causes.
When lesbians did have their own identities in the early transition period, they were sometimes tied up in the femme/butch identity in the same way that gay men’s identities were involved in the queen/bear dynamic. This identity and lesbian culture was part of a holdover from lesbian culture of the early Spanish periods and specifically the Francoist, similar to that of many other lesbian cultures that had started to emerge in the early part of the twentieth century in Western culture. This identity, in other cultures and countries, often led to some lesbians to being labeled transvestites, because they only got rid of societally imposed gender regulated clothing in women’s only spaces or their own homes. While gay Spanish men were quicker to shed the queen/bear dynamic, Spanish lesbians clung to butch/femme identities for a much longer period extending into the late 1990s.
Lesbian concepts of self-identity began to change. By 1982, neither lesbians nor gay men had core identities of homosexuals, believing that this word was used by outsiders to define them medically in ways they did not agree with, giving it a derogatory connotation in Spanish society. Both groups had shifted to sex specific terminology, namely lesbians and gays. The closest Spanish equivalent for queer, marika, was not used at this time and the concept of queer was not and would core to Spanish homosexual identity for some time. Lesbian internal identity continued to hold on to the past, with the use of femme and butch identities continuing. Despite some changes in internal identity, external identity continued to be shaped by the church, politicians and medical professionals, creating additional stigmatization for lesbians. They could not take their newly formed identity out and be accepted without facing challenges from these entrenched powers.
The first “official” pride march in Madrid took place on 25 June 1977, about 18 months after Franco’s death and not long after the Barcelona march. Empar Pineda Erdozia participated, holding a banner at the during the march. Radical feminists and lesbians were part of the march. Despite a desire for visibility, many were fearful of misogyny and stayed at the middle or back of the march. Pineda was one of the cofounders of Colectivo de Feministas Lesbianas de Madrid. She was also the first lesbian to identify herself as such in an interview with Interviú magazine in 1980. Pineda is butch, and was teased mercilessly as a child for appearing to be so.
A lot of conversations around sex, and sex and relationships started to take place in the late 1980s. During the late 1980s, the Spanish feminist lesbian community that talked about sexuality began discussing topics like butch-femme relationships between lesbians, sadomasochism, and pornography for the first time. Spain went from a huge pro-sex movement where the majority was in support of pornography and prostitution to one that was much more divided on the issue by the 2010s. Efforts to actively change these attitudes started in the late 1980s. Those who were opposed to both were the minority in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lesbian feminist collectives, particularly CFLM, tried to change those attitudes and start tough debates on the topic.
The 1988 Jornades sobre Lesbianisme was organized by Coordinadora Estatal d’Organitzacions Feministes in Barcelona. A number of relatively controversial and taboo topics were brought up, including pornography, consensual violence, the staging of gender roles through the use of butch and femme identities inside lesbian relationships and sex toys.
Empar Pineda Erdozia was one of the cofounders of Colectivo de Feministas Lesbianas de Madrid. She was also the first lesbian to identify herself as such in an interview with Interviú magazine in 1980. Pineda is butch, and was teased mercilessly as a child for appearing to be so.
Pineda was born in 1944 in Hernani. Along with her six siblings, she grew up in a rural farmhouse. Her grandfather was very politically aware, and instilled this awareness in his granddaughter with whom he had a close relationship. As a child, she attended a school run by German nuns who required that she learn English. She graduated from high school in 1964, and moved to Madrid to attend Universidad Complutense because the Basque Country did not have any public universities at that time and her sister was already living in the city. Because of her political activities in Madrid against the regime, she was soon prohibited by the state from enrolling in any public university in Madrid or Barcelona. She then decided to attend the Universidad de Salamanca, and then transferred to the Universidad de Oviedo where she earned a degree in Romance philology. After completing her degree, she returned to Madrid and got involved again in underground Spanish politics with the Communist party and was introduced to feminist concepts by her Communist peers. During the 1970s in the democratic transition period, Pineda moved to Barcelona and ran in regional elections in 1977 and for municipal office in Barcelona in 1977. That same year, Madrid held its first Pride Parade. Pineda was at the front of the march, holding a sign. She also became involved in abortion rights in the early 1980s, participating in the “Yo también he abortado” campaign. She began working at the Clínica Isadora, a women’s reproductive health clinic that provides abortion services, in 1993, and continued to be affiliated with the clinic even after her retirement. She also continued to support lesbians with her work at Fundación 26 de Diciembre, a foundation and senior residence home to support older members of the LGBT community.