Voices: Why being butch is a part of the female experience

Joelle Talyor (Roman Manfredi)
Joelle Talyor (Roman Manfredi)

It was years before I realised that I was a woman. As an adolescent I rejected the idea of the female body, having found my own to be a target for predators or a reason to ignore my writings.

I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s in the North West of England where gender stereotypes were socially and culturally enforced, and women were inhibited by them – a tight dress few could fit. I thought being a woman meant wearing make-up, understanding dresses and difficult underwear, I thought it meant having a boyfriend, and a strange fascination in all the things that hair can do that is not hair.

Thanks to punk feminism and magazines like Spare Rib and Shocking Pink I began to understand what a contentious space the female body is, what a no man’s land. I began to understand the perimeters of my body as borders imposed by others, patrolled by shadowy patriarchal figures. I began to question how lipstick could make my mouth more, more. I was interested in what my mouth might say and cared little for how it might appear to the opposite sex.

I began to understand the female body, and the idea of Woman, as a discussion that she is rarely invited to participate in. A negotiation, rather than a fact. And so, I rebelled, and joined a long line of gender outlaws and sexual dissidents. I am a butch lesbian, an identity which has a hard-won lineage of survival and cunning, of community and compassion. It’s a community of hard women with soft hearts.

In spite of my appearance, I have never identified as a man. I identify as freedom. I identify as resistance. For me, being butch is a part of the female experience – my masculinity is feminine. My clothing, my corporeality, is a way of pushing against gender stereotypes. Why can’t a woman wear a suit, or shave her hair? Why is that disruptive? As long as it is I will continue wear clothing that frightens grown men.

Finding each other is vital. On 9 March a new photography exhibition WE/US of working-class butches taken by Roman Manfredi opens. I am privileged to be one of those included in the work. Standing among the photos of women and listening to their stories has been one of the most moving experiences of my life. For a moment, I understood what it means to be a woman.

Events: We/ Us, 9 March – 3 June, Space Station 65, 373 Kennington Road, London SE11 4PT, C+NTO & Othered Poems

Joelle Taylor’s debut novel The Night Alphabet will be published by Quercus in February 2024.