What Does "Stem" Mean on TikTok? Get to Know the LGBTQ Label

Bianca Piazza - Author

Mar. 31 2023, Updated 3:17 p.m. ET

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We all know what STEM means: It's an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. According to Southern Illinois University, STEM education "is an interdisciplinary approach that helps students succeed in college and in their future careers" and features "hands-on, problem-based learning."

However, on TikTok and in the LGBTQ community, a stem is something entirely different. The math is not mathing, because neither numbers nor equations are involved in this definition. It's time for some queer education.

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What does "stem" mean on TikTok?

On TikTok, "stem" usually refers to a label prominent in the women loving women (WLW) community — which encompasses "women and woman-aligned individuals who experience sexual and/or romantic attraction to other women and woman-aligned individuals."

According to a glossary definition by queer dating app Her, stem is a blend of stud and femme. This begs the question, what do "stud" and "femme" mean? Stay with us.

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A stud lesbian is typically a Black or Latinx butch woman or non-binary person. Studs are known for gravitating towards a masculine aesthetic (Lena Waithe is a perfect example). The term dates back to the 1960s.

“Black women often get read as butch whether they are butch or not,” author and professor Roxane Gay told The New York Times. “Black women in general are not seen, so Black butchness tends to be doubly invisible. Except for studs: They’re very visible.”

“People tend to assume if you’re a Black butch, you’re a stud and that’s it,” she continued. That is not always the case; not everyone uses the label.

The New York Times writer Kerry Manders brilliantly described butch and stud identities as "a defiant repudiation of the male gaze."

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Source: TikTok/@ohshayshecute

On the other end of the spectrum, a femme lesbian fully embraces her femininity and typically dons feminine attire (think of famous queer ladies like Glennon Doyle and Sarah Paulson). An outdated but similar term is "lipstick lesbian.” As comically put by Her, a lipstick lesbian is "a gay woman who would choose high heels over Birkenstocks."

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The term "stem" is not reserved for everyone.

Today, a stem lesbian is often considered a "soft butch." So, yeah, she may have a killer collection of snapbacks and Pendleton flannels, but she also has the viral Makeup By Mario foundation and a gel manicure.

And while white queer women and non-binary people often call themselves "stems" or "studs" on TikTok [eye-roll], both terms were exclusively created for Black and Latinx communities. Personal use of those terms by white individuals is considered appropriation.

Source: TikTok/@yaadiiana
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White queer women and non-binary people should opt for labels like "butch" or "futch" (if they so wish) — the latter of which is a blend of butch and femme. We'd put queer icon and César Award winner Kristen Stewart (Spencer) in the futch category. Of course, we don't know if she actually identifies this way.

It's important to note that these labels exist to help queer individuals find themselves and their communities — they're not intended to box people into outdated binaries.

There are femmes who build furniture and studs who wear eyeliner, for instance. So, go on, explore your queer identity and play around with gender expression. While you do that, we'll be binging all six seasons of The L Word. We're coming for you, Shane!

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