Being a ‘Masculine’ Lesbian in What is Still a Man’s World

On occasion, much like a peacock I suppose, I do like to give my short hair a bit of a ruffle, particularly when it is resembling a cockatoo too much. I am pretty certain I unintentionally swagger when I walk, I have a tendency to hook my fingers through my belt loops and my hands are often found in my pockets. At the other end of the spectrum I am often awkward talking to women. I sometimes feel like a vital link between my brain and my mouth gets severed in a fury of fireworks going off in my head as I desperately try to grapple for words to communicate with a woman I greatly admire.

In a nutshell I find a great amount of pleasure in wreaking havoc with whatever norms exist about how a typical woman is ‘supposed’ to behave or act. I was born 11 weeks early, so I can only imagine that my ‘Teach Yourself How to be a Woman: The Manual’ was accidentally dispatched to another baby at its moment of arrival into the world – a world that is undeniably still very much a man’s world. If you are questioning this last statement let me particularly draw your attention to two images. Women make up just 22 per cent – or 1 in 5 – members of the Westminster Parliament and the number of women MPs has increased by only 4.6% in 10 years according to the Fawcett Society.

So I’ve already tried to introduce two separate things – my gender expression which I would describe as being masculine, androgynous or non-conforming and my sexuality as a gay woman. This blog is an exploration of how performing and exploring the masculine elements of my identity must be done in a thoughtful and self-aware way as not to harm other women, to harm the progression of my gender towards equality, but then also on a more intimate level not harm any women I am in a relationship with.

Is that possible? I hear some of you churn the idea over in your mind. Absolutely it is possible. Just because I perform masculine behaviours or expressions from a female body doesn’t mean that I am not still able to hurt or harm other women with the thoughts and ideas I replicate or the behaviour I display towards them. In fact, masculine women, butch women, androgynous women, gender non-conforming women who have relationships with women need to discuss this amongst themselves more. We need to challenge what we mean when we refer to ourselves as ‘masculine’, why does any one person, think they own the rights to define what is or is not masculine? These are our identities, they belong to us.

Picture this – because I’ve seen it happen – some self-defining masculine women try to mimic exactly male shows of masculinity, this is the fault for me, but you may well ask ‘well where else are we supposed to have received images about what is masculine?’ But I’ve seen groups of masculine women objectifying other women, using their bodies for their own pleasure, losing the value of a woman’s strength, talents, creativity and her mind over the curve of a thigh. If only I could record these conversations, distort the voices somehow, and play it back to those women when they were sitting in a room on their own a few weeks later. How shocked they might be to listen to the words they spoke, the ideas that belittled women that they replicated but my greatest fear is that they would perhaps see nothing wrong with it at all?

We should be helping move towards gender equality for women, not harming both the position of our gender and also the women we desire as partners and equals. Don’t forget the most wonderful thing about our LGBT community which is we can pick and choose, construct and create – there hasn’t been a replication of culture transmitted through the ages to the extent that our heterosexual counterparts have received from their past. Our transgender friends have been able to create new pronouns in the English language to capture their identities so I think the least we can do is feel the freedom to construct a new, self-aware masculinity in a female body. A masculinity that is thoughtful, gentle, self-aware and respectful, one that allows us to explore our identities without ever stepping on another woman, obstructing our progress towards equality as a gender. Or we could just continue with behaviour stemming from the objectification of women’s bodies that leads to a fierce competition where women become just a type of currency. Where our retorts to men that have taunted us for our gender expression refers to the fact we insist we have slept with more women than he has – as if we collect women like badges on a sash.

Perhaps this conversation, however, extends further than just amongst ourselves as masculine women, what about our partners how do we have these conversations with our partners? I think I found in a break-up of mine that it is indeed a conversation that has to be shared rather than kept amongst ourselves. When an ex and I broke up we mutually decided we wanted to remain friends – why ruin a beautiful friendship due to the fact that the romantic relationship had stopped working? I was very honest with her from the start about my concerns of finding it hard to adjust to seeing her as a friend rather than a girlfriend but I wanted above all else to make it work. Her response to that explanation saddened me, it made me feel very misunderstood in my gender expression and as a human being in general it made me feel that in her eyes I was everything I hate. She asked me if it would help if she didn’t wear short skirts in future when we hung out.

Firstly, it upset me because because it seemed like as a masculine woman she understood my attraction to her as a purely skin-deep admiration of her body rather than some deep complex mind, body, soul adoration of her. Secondly, it upset me even more because she somehow felt that she needed to cover her body to protect herself from my eyes. It was a wake-up call that I need to make sure any partner I ever want to share myself with needs to understand that because I want to play with gender expression it never means I will sacrifice the equality of our gender or her happiness and freedom as human being for it. But also there are ways in which she can help me – in the same way that I won’t simply mimic male masculinity, instead I should construct my own masculinity with greater awareness, she also can help me by trying to break those images of how I must behave in order ‘to be masculine.’

I responded to my ex’s txt with a passionate explanation that she could wear whatever the she wanted when she was with me. I never had and never will have rights over another woman’s body. I wasn’t leering at her legs when I was trying to explain my concerns about still feeling attracted to her – it went so much further beyond being skin deep. It is true that when we are in a relationship with anyone, two human beings, we should be always conscious about the threat of power we are exercising over one another, about constructing a relationship where both parties can thrive and be the best individuals they can possible grow to be. But more importantly I need to know that my partner is happy in me exploring my gender expression and is under no constraints or restricted as a direct result of this, she too should feel at ease to explore her identity.

The final thing to discuss is our relationship with men as masculine women. As individuals who are very visible in regards to our ‘difference’ it will always feel extraordinary to be made to feel accepted. But more than anything I must stress that if this acceptance ever comes at the cost of ‘ifs’ or constraints then you must screw it up into a ball, spit on it, cast it into a fire and laugh at it. We will always need to guard ourselves against situations which threaten to sacrifice treating other women with respect and equality for a shallow trade of acceptance from male friends and acquaintances in regards to our sexuality and or gender expression. Just because a male friend is happy to discuss the curve of a woman’s back with you it does not mean we should blindly bumble along with the conversation with a smile on our face but rather question what exactly is going on in that conversation and how best we can think about challenging it.

It falls upon us to construct our identities, we do have the power to construct our own identities. What I am trying to promote is a self-awareness about how our behaviour can harm other women. We need a self-awareness that is applied consistently without fail to all our conversations, speeches, interactions and intimacies with women but then also with the ideas we discuss with men, and others outside of the binary. If masculinity, tomboy-ness, boi-ness, butch-ness and so forth is what we want to explore we need to do it delicately, always looking around us and how our behaviour affects others. We needn’t mimic male masculinity – we’re not male, just like we needn’t mimic heterosexual relationships – we aren’t heterosexual. We need to be on a constant journey to find any faults in our interactions and rectify them – because the faults do happen. Just think about the notion I mentioned earlier of having your voice distorted and played back to you in a few weeks time and if you aren’t happy with it – you – you are the one who can change it – we need to start with ourselves.

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