Masculinity is back! The lesbian comics rediscovering their butch side

Masculinity is back! The lesbian comics rediscovering their butch side

Hannah Gadsby made butchness cool again. Now a crop of queer comics are getting back to boots, quiffs and taches

Sarah Keyworth has, she says, a weird kind of relationship with masculinity. She appears confident in her dapper, boyish looks, with her short quiffed hair, but behind that handsome veneer are insecurities. I almost have toxic masculinity, she says, in that I can never meet the standards that I think masculinity has. Im not big and Im not strong, physically or emotionally. And she cries, she says. She cries a lot.

The Nottingham-raised, 26-year-old comic is among a crop of lesbian and queer comedians embracing their masculinity on stage in the era of #MeToo,after years of being made to feel ashamed. Their stories were, arguably, smashed on to the mainstream circuit with the global success of Hannah Gadsbys moving show Nanette, in which she refused to make any more self-deprecating jokes about being a gender non-conforming woman.

I wanted to be like the other girls it felt like an easier life Keyworth

I meet Keyworth, who has supported Gadsby on tour, in the bar at Londons Soho theatre. Later in the month she will be here with her new show Pacific, in which she grapples with her ingrained ideas about strength equalling masculinity. This means, despite her small stature, she mistakenly thinks of herself as the protector in her relationship with fellow comic Catherine Bohart. Actually, she keeps me alive, Keyworth says. Elsewhere in the set, she talks about how she and some male comedians took weeks to realise they were being harassed by a female colleague, having initially brushed it off in a weird masculine way.

No more self-deprecating jokes Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby Photograph: Meredith O’Shea

Keyworth spent years trying to hide her masculinity because of societal pressure: I was made to feel like it was negative to be strong or broad or have a deep voice, to do anything that was slightly manly, and I didnt want to be. I wanted to be like the other girls because I desperately wanted to fit in. I wanted to be petite and cute and pretty. Not because that was me, but because it felt like an easier life. She is critical of how gendered clothing is for children, and says the only time she saw women similar to her being represented was in a shame-inducing way, like the classic angry, men-hating lesbian.

On stage, Keyworth is witty and engaging, often combining the serious meaning behind her skits with a crassness that helps her cutting jokes induce laughs. She credits her queer and non-binary friends for helping her to celebrate who she is, including comedy duo Shelf, who are part of the LOL Word collective. (Another LOL Word member, Chloe Petts, will explore masculinity in her forthcoming show Alpha.) Keyworth loves messing with gender. Its fun to play with androgyny. Its fun to have the freedom to be who you are, she says. Its so much more fun wearing trainers than heels. I have much softer feet now.

When I call the American comedian Cameron Esposito, she remembers what it was like being a kid who always went as, like, Robin Hood for Halloween, when everybody else was a sexy cat. Esposito, 38, has charted her journey in a book, Save Yourself. When she was younger, Esposito had few role models beyond the musicians Tegan and Sara. Now, she praises other masculine-presenting queer comedians, from Sam Jay and DeAnne Smith to Irene Tu.

Cameron Esposito

She is intentionally visible about being a butch woman, particularly on social media. Dancing, secure in my masculinity, she captioned one video post on Twitter. Its a message Esposito also takes to her performances, giving feedback to specifically butch folks after shows, or those with a haircut that may not always bring them peace.

While she has it better than her fans, she says: I still get shit yelled at me in the street. And Esposito flags that her appearance doesnt mean she escapes sexual harassment. She tells me that recently one man, whom she had thought of as a friend, masturbated while on the phone to her without her consent. One of Espositos previous shows, Rape Jokes, detailed her experiences of sexual assault.

While Espositos stage persona is loud, charming and chatty, she is adept at diving into the hard-hitting details of personal subjects, which, alongside sexual abuse, have included the impact her strict Catholic upbringing had on her coming out as a lesbian and her profound love for the queer community.

Esposito says she has been discussing identity for years, and it is only now starting to rise to the surface. In general, folks are being allowed to exist as we already are, she says. Marketability looks a little different now than it used to. She highlights long-established butch comedians such as Lea DeLaria, who was only propelled into the spotlight relatively recently for her role in Orange Is the New Black, adding: Weve always been here, we just didnt have the opportunities.

Although her next show focuses on her divorce from comic Rhea Butcher (as well as how she gets confused with US soccer star Megan Rapinoe), Esposito expects her future material will continue to examine her evolving relationship with gender as I catch up with myself.Were always, in comedy, trying to cut as close to the bone as we can and be as current as possible. But were still figuring it out. So, check back with me on the hair colour and the pant cut.

  • Sarah Keyworths show Pacific is at Soho theatre, London, from 27 January to 1 February. Cameron Espositos book Save Yourself is out in March.

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