butch is not a dirty word

Gender diversity and fluidity has never been a more popular topic, so why aren’t we talking about female masculinity?

by Wendy Syfret
18 February 2016, 3:43am

Gender diversity and fluidity has never been a more popular topic than it is right now. But within that growing visibility, aspects of the queer community still remain shadowed. The representation of female masculinity is a topic that doesn't get a huge amount of attention; but for the team behind the new zine Butch Is Not a Dirty Word it's a voice missing in a broader conversation.

The writers and photographers behind the publication began the project as a way to reclaim the butch identity, and tell their own stories about what being butch means today. i-D caught up with editor Esther Godoy to speak about her experience as a proud butch women.

Hey Esther, why did you decide you wanted to make this publication?
It was a means of expressing my experience within the queer community here in Australia versus the queer community overseas. I found there was a lot of internalised homophobia around masculinity in women here. It took me a really long time to figure out that was was a community and internal issue, rather than just holding that shame within myself. I had those experience and issues, so I figured other people would have them as well. It was about visibility, community, expressing that and having that information there for other people to access.

In your editor's note you talk about how traveling to the US really helped you understand your own identity. But returning home you were stuck by how less receptive people in and outside of the queer community were to you presenting as a butch woman. That really struck me as Australians really like to think of themselves as pretty progressive across gender issues, but do you feel we're lagging behind other countries?
In the wider community, not at all. In terms of homophobia I think we are quite progressive. But what surprised me, and what was most painful, was experiencing those feelings in my own community—the queer community. I feel that we are always five or 10 years behind the States and Great Britain. That the thing I thought needed to be addressed the most.

I didn't expect you to say that, can you tell me a bit more about your experiences with other queer people?
I think it's not just female masculinity, within the queer community if you're too feminine or too masculine you're deemed to be not queer enough, too queer or you're just not accepted. Androgyny is highly valued and highly respected, as it should be, but along with that we should be inclusive of more feminine and more masculine people and see a broader spectrum of presentations.

Why do you think that is? You would think that as most people who identify as queer probably fought their own battles to be able to present how they choose, and hence be more understanding.
I think we just don't have the history, the queer community is a lot younger here than it is in the States and Europe. We haven't had that time to develope so we're still sort of looking through a lens. There are so many ways to be queer, and there are so many ways to present physically, socially and mentally. It's not one thing. But I think we've had a lack of exposure (to different ways to present as queer).

It's hard for me to say though as I'm relatively young so don't want to speak for people who have come before me. But from my experiences I would put it down to that—we're still young as a community.

What are misconceptions around female masculinity that you want to disrupt?
Historically people view masculinity as something that should be only sacred for men. People struggle to accept that masculinity and maleness aren't exclusive. A lot of people see masculinity in a woman and they're repulsed by it because they're not used to seeing a woman be strong or handsome or masculine in anyway. It's never been celebrated.

So much of the oppression of women is that women are expected to behave and look a certain way. It's all about breaking down gender roles and that takes time. Visibility is the key to that, it's about seeing people who are happy existing in this way. Personally it wasn't until I saw other people and had a working example that I was able to accept it (female masculinity) within myself and be proud rather than ashamed. Visibility is paramount to change and we're not going to get it from the mainstream media so you have to take the responsibility on yourself.

Talking about the media, the mainstream has really embraced conversations around gender fluidity in the past couple of years. But have you seen that wider dialog directly impact the experience we've been talking about?

It's absolutely helping and it's contributing. The way I see it though is that obviously gender fluidity which is amazing, but I often have people asking me how I identify or asking, "are you sure you're not a little bit confused? Maybe you're gender non-binary?"

That's not offensive, but it can be hurtful. It's saying as a woman you can't be masculine. To be masculine you have to be gender non-conforming. We've taken a giant step forward but I'd like to see more visibility around more kinds of identities.

Does female masculinity get lumped in with transgender and non-binary dialog?
Yeah absolutely, it's so complex you can't really separate it all out. There are a lot of people who identify as butch and don't identify as female—it's individual for everyone. But I'd love for there to be more conversation around masculinity within females. That's obviously because of my own personal experience, I guess I've felt a certain sense of invisibility.

Without seeing options presented it's easy to get confused over your own gender and sexuality, especially as a young person. You need it all in front of you, everything is valuable, I'm just trying to do my part. 

'Butch Is Not a Dirty Word' will be launching 18 March at Hares and Hyenas in Melbourne. It's available to buy here.


Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Georgia Smedley

queer culture