Gender diversity and fluidity are more accepted than ever, but for many people who identify as butch, their masculinity can still feel taboo. There are lingering assumptions that butch-ness is synonymous with aggression, ugliness, and loneliness; the "old butch dyke" trope writ large. One person seeking to smash these stereotypes is Australian photography curator Esther Godoy, who leads an ongoing project titled Butch is Not a Dirty Word. Comprised of candid images by a range of photographers, the latest instalment explores what it means to be butch within a "family"—in every sense of the word. Broadly caught up with Godoy ahead of its launch, to talk identity, childhood, and finding acceptance through community. BROADLY: You have a background in bringing photographers together to reclaim butch identity—how does this new collection do that, with its focus on family?
Esther Godoy: Growing up masculine-of-centre means having experiences of not being accepted; people rejecting your masculinity, and being mistaken for male all the time. That's very common—it's sort of the standard story, so I wanted to move past that. If you're butch and older than 25, there's not a lot of visibility. I wanted to open up [the conversation] to different kinds of butches. Focusing on the family gives us the opportunity to include a broader variety of people.
You say the family is often the initial place of rejected masculinity for young butches. What do you mean by this?
For many butches, and in my own experience, society has such prejudices towards masculine women. When you're a kid, the most important people you hang out with are your family; you really trust them, you take their opinion to heart. So before you even leave home, you already have the closest people around you telling you: "You're not right."
It's about creating your own chosen family.
I'm not having a dig at people's immediate families at all; I think it's normal they have that reaction. There's such a negative stereotype that comes along with masculinity in women, it's only natural for parents to not want their kids to go through that. [But] the first time you find a group of people who not only accept that masculinity but really value it, that's such a positive thing. It's about creating your own chosen family.
What are the stereotypes you're trying to overturn?
They are typically so negative—I never heard anyone say, "That's awesome, you're butch." It was like, 'Oh, don't turn out like an old butch dyke.' The stereotype is that butches are not physically attractive, they're scary, they're something to be feared, they're lone wolves—the stereotype says you're not going to have a good life.
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I really wanted to show examples of butches with these meaningful communities of people around them. It's about confronting that age-old story and saying "That's not true." And it's a resource, so people can say "Oh, there's hope for me." People are so uncomfortable with feminine men and masculine women.
I identify very much as female but my presentation is very masculine and that's confronting for a lot of people. Why is society so upset about it? I couldn't tell you. But I do think people are scared of what they don't know, and it does threaten the patriarchy to have women or men who are not cis-male being strong and powerful. It threatens the whole social make-up.
What are your personal experiences of being butch?
Everyone has these experiences of like, micro-aggressions. I get these… looks, when I'm in a space that's very feminine. Like, if I go to get a facial, other women will look me up and down. It's very uncomfortable. People treat me like a teenage boy, because I look like a teenage boy. I'm a 30-year-old woman, and I don't really get treated like one.
It's a very different way to walk in the world.
Going to the States, I was treated so much more positively by queer people than I had ever been in Australia. It took me a long time to understand that it wasn't just me; it's a societal problem. I grew my hair long once just so I wouldn't have to deal with looking queer and having people question me all the time. That year I had long hair, it was amazing how differently people treated me. It's a very different way to walk in the world.
What did you learn from the butches in this project?
There are 14 butches in this project, and their stories are so varied. I really love a story that a butch woman from Melbourne wrote. Her and her partner have two beautiful kids and they're both butch women. She wrote about her experience being the carer of the children, and how all of a sudden people treated her as the less masculine person in the relationship, because her partner went to work and she did the childcare.
Even though they both presented as masculine women, people perceived them through the roles they performed. Other butches noticed how people treated the more masculine woman in the relationship differently, assuming they would be less nurturing with the kids. The great thing about queer masculinity is that they've been socialised as women, [but they also] have this window into a more masculine experience. You sort of get the best of both worlds with these people. They're dynamic, multifaceted people.
You have spoken of having to deal with your own "internalized homophobia" to feel okay about being butch—tell me about that.
Before it was explained to me that being masculine-of-center can be good, I was a product of my society—I hated the idea of it. I was like, "Gross, I don't want any part of it"—that was me as a kid, you know?
Once I figured out I was gay, it was directed internally, towards myself. Just self-loathing, essentially.
What changed things for me was someone finding me attractive, and an older person who had the same experiences I'd encountered encouraging me to be as butch as I wanted to be. Just having someone say to me, "You know, you can go to a barber's shop. You can wear men's clothes. You don't have to sit in the middle."
It's something I hadn't had before, and that's no-one's fault. My parents aren't queer, they didn't know how to advise me on that stuff. I do think things are improving in Australia; it doesn't feel oppressive to be here anymore. The movement is growing and growing.