As a gay man, here's a question I get asked a lot, "Why are butch women always acting like men?" Either that or, "Do butch women secretly want to be men?" The other biggie is, "Why would someone want to imitate a man when they were born a woman?"
What I've come to discover over the years is that in the lesbian community there is a lot of ignorance (and very often intolerance) in regards to those people who are interested in exploring the more masculine side of themselves.
I am not totally sure where all the ignorance and confusion comes from, but my guess is it stems from internalized homophobia—people who are concerned with how gays and lesbians look to the outside world. Not surprisingly, those very same people who have a problem with butch-looking women, also have a problem with the way flamboyant gay men are represented in the media.
But the truth is, these representations (whether they be male or female) are just part of the diversity of who we are as members of the LGBT community.
Here's something to consider. One of my best friends is a very butch-looking straight woman. She often gets mistaken for a lesbian, especially when she’s hanging out with me. She is very aware of how she presents herself to the world and how a lot of people perceive her.
What she says is that her appearance has to do with being raised on a farm where overalls were the norm. She could be right, but then again, her sister was raised on the same farm, and she is very feminine.
I think it is hugely important to acknowledge that we all have elements of masculine and feminine within us, no matter what our sexual orientation. Just like there is a Kinsey Scale of sexual orientation, which goes across a spectrum, there is a scale of gender expression.
It's my opinion that being butch, femme, or somewhere in between is an inborn trait, much like sexual orientation. Personally, I was a hardcore tomboy growing up and loved dressing like Annie Oakley, gun holster and all. I never liked wearing dresses or playing with dolls.
Even as I entered my teen years, instead of clothes shopping on a Saturday, I preferred to go horseback riding and spend my time afterward in the barn feeding the horses. All of this behavior occurred long before I had any inkling of what being a lesbian was.
I did not choose to be this way, it is simply who I was born to be.
Some butches love to work on cars, watch football, and undertake carpentry projects around the house. Others do not. Some femmes like to work on cars, watch football, and undertake carpentry projects around the house.
All you have to do is turn on your TV and look at Ellen Degeneres and her wife Portia de Rossi to understand what I am talking about. Ellen, Butch-looking to a fault, and Portia, the epitome of feminity—are both lesbians.
So let's get it straight. Butches are women who just happen to feel comfortable expressing the masculine side of themselves. They do not want to be men. People who are born women and want to be men are called transsexuals
Dating Masculine Women Is Not the Same as Dating Men
I recently read a Facebook status update from an acquaintance that stated, “I don’t understand why lesbians date women who look like men. If you’re into chicks that look like dudes, just get with a dude.”
I was not only surprised that this status post was written by a self-identified lesbian, but also that most of the comments under the status lauded her assertion that lesbians should only date women who are feminine.
My acquaintance’s sentiment is shared by many and, as a feminine lesbian whose fiancé falls more on the androgynous side of the feminine-masculine spectrum, I’m often asked point blank why I just don’t date men. However, I’ve only been asked about my preference for androgynous women by heterosexuals and gay men, never by another lesbian.
It’s not that I think that lesbians are immune to adopting such archaic views, but I usually hear the opposite from them: that they think femme/femme and butch/butch relationships are “unnatural.”
Irrespective of who holds these views, both of these perspectives tend to be casually stated as matter-of-fact without giving any thought to how they might be rooted in the misogynous, gender-normative, and heterosexist values so deeply ingrained in our society.
Author Kristin Russo recently compiled a clever list of “13 Things Not to Say to Your Lesbian Friend“ for Cosmopolitan magazine’s website. Coming in at number 11 was “But if you like girls that look like boys... why don’t you want to date boys?” Russo’s response:
“I don’t know. If you like boys so much, why don’t you want to date my girlfriend who ‘looks like a boy’? Case dismissed, overruled, approach the bench, goodnight.” Her snarky comeback is quick shade to throw at someone who is not well versed in,
or may not even be able to begin to comprehend, the intricacies of sex (terminology used to categorize biological differences) and gender (standards created by society about the ways in which men and women are supposed to look and behave).
This may come as shocking news to some people, but it is a completely arbitrary, socially constructed standard that men should wear bow-ties and women should wear pearls, and not vice versa. Moreover, rules about how men and women should dress and behave are constantly changing, further evincing that these constructs are subjective.
It was once considered “unladylike” for “real women” (belonging to certain classes and racial groups) to do “manly” things, such as work outside the home and wear pants. (Some sources report that Vogue magazine did not feature a woman in pants until 1939.) Today, women are working outside of the home and continuing to make progress towards securing jobs traditionally held by men.
Additionally, there are plenty of feminine presenting women who wear jeans and/or pants on a regular basis. The power-pantsuit wearing senators and CEOs of today are not thought of as trying to “be like boys” because society has expanded its definition of what it means to be a woman.
There is a common misconception that all self-identified women, regardless of sexual orientation, who fall on the androgynous or masculine side of the gender spectrum present the way that they do in an attempt to “be men.”
(I emphasize regardless of sexual orientation because people also often conflate sexual orientation with gender expression. There are androgynous and masculine presenting women, such as model Elliot Sailors, who identify as straight.)
However, the reality is that none of the women I have dated have ever wanted to be a man, nor did I ever want them to be men. They were just being true to themselves and recognize that there is more than just one way of being a woman, similar to the trailblazers who dared to pave the way for us to become attorneys and wear slacks in the face of being told that these behaviors were reserved for boys.
Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London
and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.
Masculinity does not belong to men. A behaviour, a look, an attitude, women and non-binary people have as much right to masculinity as men do. In my own life, particularly as a queer person (and as a soft butch, apparently),
I am surrounded by butches, daddys, zaddys, studs, stems and masc femmes. These women embrace their masculinity and wear it with pride, but face misgendering, abuse on the street and endless presumptions from strangers.
In a world that still, for the most part, expects women to dress like that that little triangle-skirted logo on toilet doors (as a butch I know once said, “what’s that triangle, my c*nt?”) it takes bravery to present yourself like a man. And you’re likely to get chucked out of said women’s toilet if you do.
For these reasons, it can take a while to feel comfortable expressing your masc side as a woman. It can be a journey. We often think of the feeling of dislocation between inner self and outer self as particular to trans people,
A but you don’t have to be transgender to experience this. synergy between the way we feel and the way we look is arguably what we’re all striving for, and yet as a society we continue to police people in their search to achieve it;
if the way they want to dress doesn’t conform to what we deem cool within a subculture or social group, say, or appropriate within an institution, or else if someone’s appearance doesn’t align with what we perceive to be their gender.
However, times are changing, and it’s the people playing around with our preconceived notions of gender, the people proving that gender can be chosen not given, who are leading this change. Below, we met five of these people, five masc women who are unashamedly themselves.
When I meet Flo for our interview, she tells me that the day before, she looked up masculinity in the dictionary: “It says it means qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.” ‘Where does that put you?’, I ask, as she sits in front of me,
knees apart, in suit trousers, a belt and a white ribbed vest that reveals her armpit hair. She’s wearing no make-up, has a strong bone structure and her hair is slicked back to show it off. “I don’t know,” she says,“because I borrowed a lot of inspiration from my dad.
When I was growing up, he wore a suit to work every day. I looked at him and his suits, his ties, his garter, his shoes and his jewellery and realised, ‘that’s what I like’.”
Flo says that, during her childhood, gender was never foisted upon her; she was asked if she wanted to go to ballet class, but instead started playing rugby. Her parents never pressured her to behave in a certain way.
“There was never any issue when I was going out in the workshop with my dad or out in the vegetable patch and there was never any, ‘Oh can you wear a dress or you need to’,” she says. “I never felt constricted.”
“I totally conformed, tried to go super femme and I would say looking back I was uncomfortable in it. You hear girls saying they hate wearing heels and it’s painful but you still have to fucking do it. So you just do”
I tell her my experience was similar until I got to a school full of girls going through puberty. “That was my whole teenage life. I look at pictures of me as a kid and I had about three outfits and they were: my rugby kit,c
ut-off jeans into shorts and a t-shirt, and this blue camouflage outfit,” she laughs, that knowing laugh when you look back at how obvious a gay kid you were. “
Then I went to school and yeah, whether it’s influences of films like Mean Girls – I need to be in a clique, I need to be girly, I need to have this kind of attitude – whatever it was,
I totally conformed, tried to go super femme and I would say looking back I was uncomfortable in it, but it was like: ‘Well, okay this is what it’s like being a girl’. You hear girls saying they hate wearing heels and it’s painful but you still have to fucking do it. So you just do.”
It was only two or three years ago, at the age of 25, that Flo really start to behave the way she really felt on the inside, or rather undid the conditioning of school and society.
“After finding what you feel comfortable in through clothes, everything else comes, like your attitude, the way you hold yourself or how you introduce yourself.” People would make comments – especially “you walk like a man” or “wow, you look so different” – that have made her uncomfortable, not because of what they were saying, but the unwanted attention.
“It’s like, I’m not doing this for anybody else, or because I want credit,” she reflects. “It made me very conscious of having to keep up appearances all the time, but it also felt so good to be me that it didn’t really matter –
it seemed like there was finally a synergy between who I actually am and how I’m expressing myself.”
A few weeks after I met Flo, I speak to Emily, who presents in such a masculine way that she is often mistaken for a guy, especially when she uses women’s public toilets, where she is often told she’s in the wrong place. She remembers:
“The last time I wore a dress and heels I was 15 at a wedding. My mum remembers it as a really sad day because I was crying all day. I was so uncomfortable but I didn’t understand why.
I literally moved to London six months later, cut all my hair off and completely changed everything within a six-month period, which horrified my parents, but for the first time I was like: OK, I feel normal.”
Normal for Emily often means wearing a baseball cap, having tons of tattoos and wearing men’s clothes. When I ask her why she feels and presents as more masculine on the spectrum,
she says she doesn’t know, it’s just the age old nature, nurture debate. “I would never have any sort of change to my body. I’m happy with how I am and that I have boobs and wear men’s clothes – even if I’m misgendered at least once or twice a week.”
“I’m quite proud of being a butch gay woman to be honest, I’m proud of that as a label. I don’t find it offensive and everyone uses it really positively towards me”
For now, Emily identifies with the term ‘butch’, but it’s a term that she feels is dying. “When I was 16 and 17 there were a lot more lesbians that called themselves ‘butch’ or looked like that, especially in Soho,
but now it’s more rare. I’m quite proud of being a butch gay woman to be honest, I’m proud of that as a label. I just don’t find it offensive and everyone uses it really positively towards me.
My girlfriend loves that I’m like that and anyone I’ve ever dated loves saying it to me, ‘I love that you’re a bit butch and boyish’.” I suggest it’s context dependent – who is it that’s saying it? Emily agrees but adds, “people don’t shout ‘butch’ to me in the street, though, they shout ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’.”
When asked how it feels to have your gender be such a site of conflict, Emily says that she can see the good and bad. “Like, I hate people shouting at me in the street or saying shitty things but I also sort of get off on people knowing straight away that I’m gay.
That’s never a question!” she laughs.
“A lot of girls that I know that are queer or whatever, they still have to come out and that’s something I don’t have to do. Sitting down with my parents that first time was traumatic enough for me so it’s nice that I never have to worry about doing that again.”
“I was born down the road, in 1960 in Kensington,” says Carolyn, out of the Kensington flat where she works as a therapist. She got to doing the job through a lot of therapy herself: “I have a long history of drug, alcohol and gambling abuse,” she explains. “I used to be a body painter for people like Freddie Mercury, Duran Duran, Elton John.
There were a lot of drugs around. I got sober in 1991, so I’m nearly 30 years sober. After that I got married to a man and had kids, but then I came out as a lesbian. For the last 10 years I’ve been in a relationship with a woman. I consider myself a dandy, while my partner is extremely butch.” To Carolyn, a dandy is someone who is flamboyant, elegant, extroverted
and decorative but in a way that blends masculinity and femininity. “It’s to wear man’s suit with a frilly shirt or a diamond pin or lace sleeves, to take masculinity and add something that expands it a bit.”
She sees this as a natural extension of her style when she was younger. “I was one of the first punks around the King’s Road and had blue hair. I’ve never been very conformist in terms of identity or the manifestation of identity and I don’t look very conciliatory – I had a really strong face a broken nose, I’m very tall and so I’ve always played with how I dress.
I remember turning up at a party in about 1989 wearing a moustache and everyone was just horrified. I used to dress as a man all the time. When I was 19 I was working for Antony Price and I had a zoot suit and a bell boy suit. I remember going to the opening night of Heaven dressed as a man.”
“I used to dress as a man all the time. I remember turning up at a party in about 1989 wearing a moustache and everyone was just horrified”
Today, Carloyn wonders if she even seems as andogynous as she used to, despite the fact she’d never be found in a “big floaty dress” and insists on wearing lots of piercings. “I think I can often be mistaken for being an eccentric older woman,” she laughs.“
There’s a kind of eccentricity that comes with the menopause that allows you to do whatever you want, but I don’t have a need to conform to a gender stereotype and I never have.”
Never, I ask? She thinks for a moment. “My parents have been very upset over time, have I noticed it? Not really, no. I had a boyfriend who used to get really upset if I’d put the moustache on… if I could get away with wearing a moustache 24/7 I would, if I could get away with tattooing my face I would but as a therapist it creates rather a lot of issues!
She says she was a yoga teacher and ended up leaving because they demanded that she grew her hair and made her voice softer. “I just thought: Fuck that, I’m not interested in that. I don’t need to be someone else to suit someone else. Not at this age.”
M I Ro