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FloPhotography Jess Kohl

Pretty butch: masculinity doesn’t just belong to men

TextAmelia AbrahamPhotographyJess Kohl

We talk to four women and one non-binary person about why masculinity is a trait that they embrace, despite misgendering and abuse

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, but you don’t have to be transgender to experience this. A 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” – Flo

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, cut-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” – Emily 

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” – Carolyn

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.”


At 29, Chess identifies as nonbinary. Originally from Liverpool, Chess now lives in North London, where they work as a model and a dancer. They trained full-time in ballet growing up, where they were gendered “in quite a strong way”, although now, in contemporary dance, less so. There seems to be more literal room for movement. “It’s been quite a long journey but most days I feel confident and this is how I want to look,” they say, adding that the term that probably best fits them is not ‘butch’ but ‘androgynous’. “There are some days you have little blips and don’t feel so great and you’re like ’I look really girly today and I wish I didn’t’, but yeah, generally, I think I’m almost there.” 

The journey to get ‘almost there’ was not linear Chess tells me. First, they came out as a lesbian and started to explore their gender a bit more, freeing at first, but then found themselves confused about it. “For me, it started with how I felt when having sex with people and how my body felt with someone else’s. I would imagine having a man’s body. From there I decided I didn’t just feel like a woman or a girl, so I thought about transitioning to a man and I went down the whole NHS gender clinic route. I never went on hormones but I just went through the system and I just ended up doing more therapy instead. Then I changed my mind and settled in this more fluid position, being okay with feeling more feminine one day and more masculine the next. Now I’m realising it wasn’t that I wanted to change to be a man, it was more just that I wasn’t a woman, what I had been brought up to be just didn’t feel right.”

Chess came out as nonbinary a couple of years ago: “I suppose I feel like a girl and a boy, but nonbinary suits me best,” they say. When asked why they think that transitioning wasn’t the right decision for them, they find it hard to pinpoint an answer. “I think I used to focus more on wanting to fixing by changing my physical appearance, by changing my body. And now, I think more about thinking from deeper within the self to be okay with how I look.” They acknowledge this definitely isn’t a possible approach for everyone, but for them, it was “just about exploring my gender in different ways rather than making permanent changes to it.” 


In an MMA gym in King’s Cross Cherelle is shadowboxing. “I started boxing when I was 25, mainly because I was trying to impress someone. That didn’t work out, though,” she laughs. “I used to hang around with the wrong people, and I didn’t really have anywhere to go in life - I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t have drive and I didn’t really care. But when I walked into a gym, heard the bell ring, people shouting and swearing, and saw the discipline. Now I’ve been doing it for nearly eight years, and it’s the only sport I’ve stuck with.” 

Cherelle says that when she is boxing, she feels the most herself, totally exposed. “If you’re low in confidence, you’re going to get found out. If you pretend to be hard when you’re not, you’re going to get found out. If you’ve got emotional or anger issues, found out.” Now, it is a big part of her identity and how she sees herself: “I do identify as a boxer,” she says, explaining that, because she teaches boxing, she’s almost always wearing  shorts or tracksuit bottoms; “I mean, would I go into the ring and box in a dress?” It has transformed her physically, too. “Ultimately, any exercise will change your body, if you train hard enough. You’ll have abs, which is quite nice if you’ve never had abs before. You look at yourself in the mirror like ’Oh, who’s that?’ Seeing your body in such good shape is satisfying because you look good whilst being able to compete at a high level.” 

However, changing her body has come with criticism, particularly when she did a boxing interview with Behind the Gloves, “I was just in my gym clothes and in that environment, and then I just saw these comments asking if I was a man or if I was a woman. I did also see people defending me, which was nice but I just thought ‘Is that what we’ve come to?’ in that people can’t just be who they are? ‘So, I’m a tomboy because I wear shorts and go to the gym?’ That’s so clever. I’m a Christian, too, and for me, that means accepting people for who they are.” I ask if the comments hurt. “If I said ‘I don’t care what anyone says ever’ then I’d be lying. But you just have to remember that those who love you, don’t care about your sexuality or how you dress. 

“I’m not trying to masculine. I celebrate being female and I love being a woman. To me, being a woman is being strong, and just being yourself  and not caring what other people think” – Cherelle 

Cherelle thinks that misgendering or criticising sportswomen is symptomatic of a wider problem in society, whereby we try to regulate women’s bodies, or where we can’t accept a woman at the top of her game. “Serena Williams is the perfect example of this. She’s a woman who’s given a lot of stick for the way she looks, saying she looks like a monkey or a man. When you train for a sport, you train in a specific way to get the functionality that you need. So you are going to get stronger, and with that comes getting more muscular. For the sport she’s in, she’s got the perfect aesthetic. It’s not masculine, she’s an athlete. Why’s it OK for a man to be hyper-masculine with abs and everything? We should celebrate the successful woman that she is, she’s just had a baby and got into the Wimbledon final!” 

Sometimes, it makes her sad that she can’t be celebrated for being who she is. “I think it’s just what we’re taught, isn’t it?” It’s been in society’s psyche for a long time that women wear pink and men wear blue. But that’s a very difficult social construct to break; we need to stop teaching it in schools, and parents need to stop teaching it in the home. Society needs to stop pushing one idea of femininity, which I do think is happening, and you can see it in adverts nowadays.” At first, it’s always a struggle, she says, but believes we’ll get there. “Eventually, the world gives in but we have to keep pushing,” she says. “Me being me, I’m not trying to masculine. I celebrate being female and I love being a woman. To me, being a woman is being strong, and just being yourself  and not caring what other people think.”

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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