A moment that changed me: the haircut that set me free as a butch lesbian | Sexuality


TThe hairdresser stabilized my head as I sat in the swivel chair, face mask, looking in the mirror. In December 2020, another lockdown was looming, and nearly 12 months earlier, I had made a New Years resolution to have short hair that year. Within 45 minutes, my mop at shoulder height was only a few inches.

People often undergo sweeping haircuts in response to life-changing events, such as a break-up or the loss of a loved one. I got mine because I wanted to embrace how I felt as a butch lesbian.

For as long as I can remember, I have been gender non-conforming. Around the age of four, I organized a demonstration against wearing a dress at Christmas. I was horrified, on a birthday, to have a Barbie.

My mom loves me now for who I am, but as a teenager I grew up in Cumbria I knew she wouldn’t accept my sexuality. She had raised me as a Christian and homosexuality conflicted with her faith. In high school, I learned that words like “gay” and “lesbian” should be used in negative ways – like slurs or jokes. Rumor had it that a PE teacher was a lesbian, and students were chatting about her appearance. She presented herself in a fairly masculine manner and had short hair.

I realized I liked girls when I was 13. Over the next few years, I hated myself. I felt sordid, ashamed and bad: I had been told that people like me were wrong. I tried to pray and go out with boys. But I couldn’t change who I was.

I connected with more masculine and butch lesbians, like Ellen DeGeneres or friends from my soccer team. But they were laughed at for their men’s clothes and their Mohawks. Schoolchildren snickered about angry leather-faced dykes, hating men. I felt so ashamed when they did.

Finally, in 2011, when I was 17, I found the courage to come out with a haircut: short, fierce back and sides with a feather on top.

I drove to nearby Brampton and made an appointment with a hairdresser for the following week. I seemed fairly calm with the receptionist when booking but, back in the car, I cried violently, my head glued to the wheel.

I felt completely alone, trapped in a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake up.

The day after booking, I canceled the appointment. I had gone out to a friend in the village, and she wondered if it was not too much for me rather than going out gradually and then doing my hair later. Looking back, I’m glad she said that – I wasn’t ready.

In fact, I came out about a year later: I was with my first girlfriend and I couldn’t hide our relationship. My friends and most of my family have supported me. It took a while, but my mom is now one of my biggest supporters.

It was then… Ella Braidwood before her haircut. Photography: Courtesy of Ella Braidwood

I was happier after going out, but felt repressed by my appearance and the stigma against looking butch. I gave in to what I perceived to be overwhelming societal pressure to appear physically acceptable to the heterosexual majority, but I repeatedly looked online at people whose style I wanted to copy; for example, actor Lea DeLaria and, more recently, Harry Styles – my lesbian icon. I idolized the 2012 pompadour by Alex Turner, singer of the Arctic Monkeys.

I have also found inspiration in transgender and non-binary people, including several drag kings in London, where I live now. I don’t agree with claims that transgender and non-binary people erase or threaten my identity as a butch lesbian and a cisgender woman. Conversely, they have been a huge strength for me, especially for living authentically.

In my mid-twenties, I wore more men’s clothing and less makeup. I bought costumes for formal events such as weddings, having given in to dresses until then. In 2020, it was approaching a decade that I had booked this first haircut and I vowed to get it done before the end of the year. My then-girlfriend was encouraging, and because of the pandemic, I didn’t see many people for months. I had time to adapt.

Once my hair was cut, I felt revitalized. I ran my hands in the shower and smiled. A friend compared me to Charizard – the dragon-like Pokémon – in that I had evolved into my final form. (I’m in the ‘soft butch’ subcategory: meaning I’m mostly ‘male’, but sometimes I shop from the women’s section and will consider a weird spa day.)

Sometimes I am innocently wrong in public. There is also occasional abuse. A few weeks ago a man on the street asked me aggressively if I was a boy or a girl. It wasn’t that he was eager to know my gender identity: it was like he wanted to hurt me.

I am proud of my appearance now. But the sad reality is that I didn’t gain anything from those years when I wasn’t myself. I feel uncomfortable looking at old photos of myself taken at a wedding or prom: long hair, makeup on my face, and wearing dresses. I spent so much time playing because I was afraid of what other people would think.

Putting pressure on people who don’t want to conform to gender stereotypes doesn’t change them. It damages them. My haircut helped me free myself. I just wish I had felt able to do it years ago.


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