On Being ‘Butch’, and the Complexities of Being Neither ‘Manly’ nor ‘Womanly’
The backdrop of Pretty Butch, presented at the Taipei Arts Festival. August 2018. Pretty Butch was first presented at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2017.

All photography by Charmaine Poh. 

I was reminded that it was summer in Taipei the moment I stepped out of the train station, the city’s humidity clinging to my back. Armed with camera equipment, I was on a quest to seek out as many queer spaces as I could find, slowly assembling a directory of queer lives in a city known for Jay Chou, bubble tea, Hou Hsiao-Hsien films, and the most progressive LGBTQ movement in Asia. 

Specifically, I was looking to interview and photograph individuals who identify as “T”, the closest approximation to the Taiwanese version of “butch.” 

Tan Liting, the Singaporean playwright and director, had written a play called Pretty Butch, which looks at the lives of five characters grappling with their uneasy place in a world that largely insists on following the gender binary. It was about to be presented in a staged reading at the Taipei Arts Festival, and she had asked me to make these portraits in response, documentary images that when collated together, would begin to visualise what lived reality as T was like. But what did female masculinity look like, and what were the boundaries of butch-ness? 

I began by searching for and finding infrastructure that supported this identity: dedicated shops selling a wide array of binders, salons offering permutations of non-binary haircuts, and community spaces to support these journeys. I even found shops selling shirts cut to a typically masculine silhouette, but taking into consideration the generally slender female shoulder width.

Liting tells me that it is outward appearance which lays the foundation, her identity as a butch centred around the opting of attire that is considered to be masculine, quite often culled from the men’s section. This translated into starched, crisp shirts, clean crew cuts, and a proclivity for too many sneakers. “I’m super softie inside,” she reasons.

Yet none of us are free from public reading; appearing masculine is also asserting an image that demands to be read as masculine, and with it, the associated power dynamics that exist in mainstream society, no matter the truth of the interior. Being butch inevitably includes an active decision to “do butch”, as professors Audrey Yue and Shawna Tang have written—a nod to the everyday performativity that one adopts in their attempt to construct their ideal personhood. And beyond attire, it also informs the way people stand, sit, walk, talk, and look. I began focusing on gestures as a way to signal these social codes of gender and sexuality, piecing together a puzzle that continually shifts and evolves. 

Within this label, I encountered sub-categories; 铁(tiě)T and 娘(niáng)T have a close English equivalent in stone butch and soft butch respectively. This was especially apparent when I met couples. When I photographed them in the intimacy of their homes, I noticed that butch behaviour was amplified in the presence of a partner, who was more often than not a feminine-presenting person. Their stone-ness or softness was considered in relation to their partner. 

One of the Ts, Hai Ting, who identifies as more of a 娘(niáng)T, gave an example of how it was her girlfriend who pursued her. Another, Eddy, said that she was perhaps “a bad T” because she considered her relationship with her girlfriend to be egalitarian with a disregard for gender norms. In these two cases, the femme partners are both an embodiment of butch desire, as they are an affirmation of the desirability and celebration of butch identity. As spoken-word poet Ivan Coyote wrote, addressing femmes, “Some of them think I am queer because I am undesirable. You prove to them that being queer is your desire.”

Desire can also be punitive. Society still prizes gender congruence, and those who defy this continue to be on its margins. I met up with S outside Taboo, a popular lesbian nightclub in Taipei. At night, the club is filled with young people writhing to K-Pop and EDM, the boyish and the demure engaging in coquettish, bashful exchanges across the dance floor. During the day, the club smells of stale smoke and alcohol, the remains of heady, impulsive youth. S, whose girlfriend also works at Taboo, is the resident DJ. 

As I photographed her, I noticed visible scars on her arm. She told me that in her younger days, confused by her gender and sexual identity, she used to self-harm. These stripes mark the bodies of more than one of the Ts I met in Taiwan. This self-admonishment is present in numerous contexts, especially closer to home, where these identities are even less accepted. A Singaporean friend, who identifies as genderqueer transmasculine, recently told me how they hated the word “butch” growing up. 

“It was like a girl who was trying so hard to be a guy but still wasn’t. It was like a mark of…” 

“-failure?” I interjected. 

“Yes. Failure. That’s a good way to put it.” 

It was this that characterised the biggest difference I noticed: “butch” in Singapore seemed to carry a heavier, more negative connotation in comparison to “T” in Taiwan.

Even as gender theorists continue to locate butch identity in shame, it is worth noting that the consequences of enforcing strict gender norms fall on more of us than we might first think. Straight or gay, man or woman, and everyone in between, we all, at some point, question who we are. In one of the scenes in Pretty Butch, two men are on vacation together, and have to come to terms with their insecure masculinity. After recounting his father lashing out at him as a young boy for appearing effeminate, Mark says, exasperated, “I really don’t understand, Liam. Who is this ‘man’ and why do I have to be him? People keep telling me to ‘man up’, but nobody tells me what the fuck it means.”

When Liting wrote Pretty Butch, she had written a play for all who feel a little in-between everything. It is a play about the best of misfits: those who are brave enough to be honest with who they are and how they want to live. 

At particular junctures throughout the staged reading in Taiwan, I watched as the main character, Ting, hung up the large printed photographs I had made. Gesture by gesture, life on stage and life in Taiwan began to merge. 

At one point, she stands alone, front and centre, and addresses the audience. “What does it mean to be man enough, or too manly, especially if I’m a woman?” 

A silence follows.

Even when the answers don’t seem easy, and the lines of gender continue to blur, my hope is that these portraits say something true about what it means to carve out a space for oneself to breathe. Long or short hair, binder or not: here’s to pride, without apology.

Pretty Butch will be presented as a staged reading at 7:00 PM, this Saturday, 31 August, as part of Late Night Texting, Centre 42’s programmes held during the Singapore Night Festival. Presented in Mandarin with English subtitles. Admission is free.

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