Browse Category: Gender and LGBT Issues

Reflections from a Woman of Color on the War on Women: “My Sisters-in-Arms, We Are Not United”

Yesterday, I took part in the MA Women United Against the War on Women rally at Boston City Hall. 

Across the US, thousands of men, women and children gathered in front of municipal buildings to voice their outrage at recent state and federal initiatives to propose and/or implement anti-women measures, including the GOP’s attempt to redefine rape, making abortions illegal or virtually inaccessible to low-income women, and removing government mandates for companies to include birth control coverage in the health insurance they offer to employees.

Despite the fact that it took challenging the white women organizers to include more women of color in their speaker lineup — as a little birdie told me — I was honored to be invited to participate, and share the stage with fellow women’s rights activists and feminists, Jaclyn Friedman, Sarah Jackson, @graceishuman, Idalia, and even Norma Swenson, reknowned author of the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I found myself thinking about the concept of “unity,” and the fact that so many women of color, immigrants, transgender women etc are often left out of mainstream women’s movements. But this isn’t news to me, nor to my mentors separated from my experience by four whole decades — mentors who fought so that I would have something different to say to white women “united” for (white) women. It breaks my heart to tell them that we’re still having the same conversations after all their sacrifices.

Hence, for the rally, I decided to have an honest conversation about marginalization with the crowd via a call-and-response speech I partly improvised. Here’s the message I gave, in poem-ish form.

Post-Rally Reflection: To speak from a place of anger doesn’t always mean to speak from a place that is without love. How emotional I became when speaking to the rally yesterday has everything to do with how much I love my comrades of all shades and stripes, fellow women, my sisters-in-arms. And their response to my calling out to them, “My Sisters in Arms” with “We Are Listening” helped me through my anger to the other side… hope.

—-

When I was younger, I dreamed of being part of a revolution.

I imagined it would feel very much like it did in the movies, like Braveheart for instance:

Mel Gibson riding back and forth on horseback, pumping his fist in the air
as he inspired the army before him to FIGHT for their freedom,
we would win this war together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Like every big budget Hollywood movie,
I’d be the handsome, mysterious, emotionally constipated protagonist
who never really wanted to fight,
but live happily ever after in the same village of my beautiful virgin wife-to-be…

until one day,
the fight came to me

and wiped away the smiles of my love, my family, my home.

Only THEN, would I charge forth, my spirit consumed by purposeful rage
and the moment — the moment I’d dreamed of having my entire life — would arrive…

the epic war speech.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Yes, like Braveheart, my heart would be re-forged in stone; I would feel a bond with my comrades united in arms (and social media channels) like I’d never felt before.

And in that moment, against the violins and horns of a moving Hans Zimmer film score,
in the faces of all my sisters standing before me,
I would remember:

the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about me,
the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about them
but about US.

We would stand UNITED against whatever forces dared to oppose us,
and charge forth together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

But the revolution hasn’t quite turned out like the Hollywood movie I’d imagined it would be.
For one, it actually never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be riding a horse.

Mel Gibson turned out to be one of the biggest bigots of all time.
And sexual assault has caused too much pain to the women I love to perpetuate the idea that virginity is a prize to be won,
not when rape is still being used as a mass weapon of war.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

It’s true, the revolution hasn’t quite turned out the way I dreamed it would be,
it never occurred to me
that battle after battle,
rally after rally,
I would find myself standing in front of a sea of white women who don’t look like me,
having to keep reminding them that:

United we stand, Divided we fall.
United we stand, Divided we fall

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I know why we’re here.
There is a war on women happening,
We’re angry — and we’ve had enough.
On that we agree.

But today, I want to make sure we do more than just agree.
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to our subconscious definition of “we”
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to who is missing.

Look around you, my Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I ask you to consider,
is the women’s movement making a stand, or falling into pieces?
Are we uniting through our differences so that we can be stronger?
Or reaching for something way less grand,
with way less hands,
hoping that our “good intentions” will pay off if we just wait a little longer?

Which members of this army — of our family — are missing?

Where are the voices of low income women of color?
Where are the voices of transgender women?
Where is the rest of our family?

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

This women’s movement shouldn’t just voice the concerns of women who are pissed
that they may have to pay for birth control out-of-pocket,
but the concerns of low-income women who would have no access to birth control, period
because they rely completely on government-mandated coverage,
I know you agree, but…

My Sisters-in-Arms, are you listening?
(We Are Listening!)

we cannot profess to be building a movement for ALL women,
we cannot claim that we are UNITED against anything — especially not a war on women
when too many women of color, transgender women, women with disabilities — members of our family, are missing.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

When we picture the women’s movement what faces do we see?
What voices do we hear?
And are they reflected in our choices? In our larger strategy?
Are transgender women a part of this movement?
Have we done our jobs to make that clear?

If so, where is the outrage when transgender women are murdered at an alarming rate in this country?
Where is the feminist takedown when — even in death — the media refers to our trans sisters with male pronouns and the media suggests that their very existence warranted their assault and murder?

Too many transgender women are being left behind.
Too many members of our family are dying.
Too many members of our family are being  tortured and incarcerated, simply for surviving,
Just because we’re too busy “uniting” to look behind.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

You must do better.
We must do better.

If I’ve learned anything about real-life revolutions
it’s that they sometimes can take on the form of the war you’re fighting.
it’s that it matters less what you’re fighting for, but who is fighting with you

The War on Women needs to mean more than reproductive justice for middle class white women.
The War on Women needs to mean more than the debate over abortion and birth control.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism on women of color and our sons.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism, sexism, and homophobia on transgender women of color.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of un-checked privilege and ignorance within  our movement.
The War between Women is real.

And until we can be brave enough to face the truth —
that we have to END the war over who counts as “women” amongst ourselves
we are NOT united.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are NOT united, yet.
But I know we can get there.

I believe in you, my Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I know we can get there.
And so I dare to dream of the day
when I can finally show up to rallies and protests
and not have to say,
“Where are my sisters?”
but “Here are my sisters, united.”

I dare to dream of the day when we can all feel the impact of true sisterhood
and unleash the power of sisters-in-arms, united,
against those who dare to challenge our quest for liberation.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I believe in us.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are not united, now.
Let’s do the work, now
To make sure that one day, we will be.

And when that day comes,

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!)

God help them.

Spectra is an award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks, which publishes global news and opinions about all things gender, media, diversity, and the Diaspora.

She is also the founder of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (www.qwoc.org), a media advocacy and publishing organization that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender women of color, diaspora, and other racial/ethnic minorities around the world.

Follow her tweets on diversity, movement-building, and love as a revolution on Twitter @spectraspeaks.

The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women: Progress and Pitfalls for LGBT Rights

Given the recent news about Liberia’s president fence-sitting on the issue of current anti-gay Liberia law, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address gender bias within an African context.

(I maintain that “traditional” gender roles haven’t been adequately explored as the root cause of many intersecting societal problems, e.g. sexism and homophobia,  and that Africans — straight or gay — should work together towards their elimination if we stand for true progress. Here’s my explanation.)

My search for information on successful models for promoting gender equity in Africa led me to an article about The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women, the first comprehensive legal framework for women’s rights in Africa, and an international governing tool that seeks to “improve on the status of African women by bringing about gender equality and eliminating discrimination.”

From the UN Women West Africa’s blog:

The Protocol is the first human rights instrument to call on state parties to legislate against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices and also provides for the right to health and reproductive rights. The Protocol is also the first human rights instrument to explicitly provide for the right to a medical abortion when the pregnancy results from rape or incest or when the continuation of pregnancy endangers the health or life of the mother. It also provides for the right to property and inheritance, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and the rights of elderly and disabled women.

In the above summary, I noted almost instantly that there weren’t any explicit protections / provisions made to advocate for sexual minorities (i.e. LGBTQI Africans), which is unfortunate if true (Note: still waiting for comment from UN Women, and will update once I hear back) because the protocol seems to be working; to date, 32 out of 54 African states have taken steps in accordance with the provisions and have implemented strategies to combat the mistreatment of women.

For example, per the protocol, several countries including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania, have legally prohibited the practice of Female Genital Cutting, and  Zambia’s newly established Division of Gender in Development now reviews existing laws that discriminate against women.

In fact, the pace at which many African countries have embraced the opportunity to improve the conditions of women in their countries has been encouraging enough that UN Women and Equality Now (on behalf of pan-African organization SOAWR, Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition) have launched a new initiative to train lawyers across Africa on the protocol’s application using this manual.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if African lawyers were also trained in legal advocacy for non-heteronormative women who are mistreated or denied basic rights for not conforming to dogmatic gender roles? I think there is a case for this, as well as using this framework to hold governments in Africa accountable should they choose to promote or sanction the criminalization of LGBT African people.

For one, a clear stance against using culture as an excuse for the mistreatment of women is already included in this protocol. In fact, President Sirleaf of Liberia arguably earned her presidency on a platform that challenged tradition; her work advocating for the rights of women has even earned her a Nobel Peace prize. (Ironic, that this same position is what is keeping her from walking the talk when it comes to providing protections for LGBT Liberians.)

But, more importantly, as a media activist primarily concerned with movement building among African women, I believe that a push to include protections for sexual minorities within the protocol would provide a way for African women’s organizations (including those which are focused on LGBTQI issues) to work together, rather than in separate caucuses.

I foresee some resistance to this of course. In my experience, many African women (even those doing human rights work), much like Liberia President Sirleaf, still view discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as separate from women’s issues, often paralleling them when they should be discussing them as intrinsically connected. But the same “traditional” gender roles that keep women trapped in abusive relationships (even at the expense of their lives) are the same ones that cause men to view corrective rape of lesbians as a justifiable lesson in womanhood.

So, before we — as African women – can begin making demands of our leaders, perhaps we need to have more conversations among ourselves. Luckily, we don’t need a charter to do this.

“My sisters, my daughters, my friends – find your voice.” — President Sirleaf

Racism and LGBT Rights: Where are the African Films in the South African LGBT Film Festival?

Originally posted at Gender Across Borders.

Today marks the 19th Out in Africa film festival, a South-African Gay and Lesbian film festival launched to celebrate the inclusion of the clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the South African constitution.

Headlining the festival is triple Oscar nominee Albert Nobbs, a film about a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Additionally, A Marine Story, an award-winning drama about the US military’s invidious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy told through the eyes of a white American female soldier, and Kyss Mig (Kiss Me), a lekker lesbofliek which was named Best Breakthrough Film by the American Film Institute last year, will make their African film festival debuts.

There is, obviously, no shortage of films about women in the festival — an achievement worthy of note given how often the LGBT community is depicted as male. Yet, within the context of Africa, the LGBT community is also frequently perceived (and depicted) as white and western. So, the question is: where are all the black South African films in this African LGBT festival?

Out in Africa — which runs from March 23rd to April 1st, 2012 — states that its mission is to address the lack of visibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex individuals (LGBTIs) in South African social and cultural life in order to counter negative images of LGBTIs that prevail in traditional and religious communities after decades of apartheid repression i.e. segregation by skin color. Given the historical context of their mission statement, it’s hard not to wonder about the lack of racial diversity in the feature films.

Out of 9 feature films, just one of them is based on a black South African narrative: The Secret, a film about a married man in denial about his sexuality. This feature film is being paired with Paving Forward, a 16-minute short about the evolution of gay rights through the eyes of a lesbian love story. The pickings are slim for black South Africans eager to see their experiences reflected on film, but to be fair, these selections are part of just the first installment of the festival’s three-part format.

Last year,  rather than showcase new films in one long weekend (as is typical for many film festivals), Out in Africa implemented a new format of hosting three mini-festivals spread out over the course of the year in different parts of the country in order to optimize their outreach efforts (perhaps also to include more racial and class diversity?).  The 2012 second edition is planned from 27 July-5 August, with the third edition scheduled for 17-28 October 2012. So there’s still a chance that future installments will showcase narratives from South Africa’s black community, which faces marginalization not just along the lines of sexual orientation and gender identity, but race and class as well.

The task of depicting LGBTI Africans in a manner that presents multiple and intersecting facets of their experiences is far from easy. But Out in Africa was the only LGBTI film festival shouldering this burden until Kenya made its debut with its OUT Film Festival in Nairobi last year. Originally meant to cater to just 60 people, the Kenyan festival ended up having to turn people away after over 200 people showed up, proving that there is a thirst for Africans (straight and LGBT alike) to see the lives of LGBT Africans reflected on screen.

However, film festivals can’t meet this need alone; the world needs more filmmakers to brave the relatively uncharted territory of producing films for and about LGBT Africa, a sure challenge given that many African countries have outlawed homosexuality, not just reinforcing the subject as taboo but threatening the lives of those who dare to even broach the subject with imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Hence, documentary films like Call Me Kuchu (about David Kato, the prominent Ugandan LGBT activist who was murdered last year), along with other South African films such as The Sisterhood (which follows transgender women farmers competing in a beauty pageant) and Waiting For (which explores the controversial issue of white lesbian couples adopting black children) are rare gems, which we should never take for granted; the filmmakers have taken huge risks in order to give LGBT Africans — whose identities are too often silenced and erased  — a chance to feel seen, a chance to feel hope.

From across the ocean in the US, a country with a deep-rooted history with racism and thus similar in context to South Africa, an African-American actress comments on the importance of seeing one’s identity reflected on screen:

The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself, and I don’t get to like myself enough…. But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.

To follow, Africans — perhaps even the ones who claim that “homosexuality is unAfrican” — will know that LGBT Africans exist if they see their lives represented more frequently on screen. Thus, beyond empowerment for the individual, the potential for cultural shifts brought about by nuanced LGBT films makes pushing for greater inclusion of African and Diaspora LGBT films in film festivals absolutely critical, especially if they’re taking place in Africa.

For its constitutional protections based on sexual orientation, South Africa is often hailed as the leader of gay rights in Africa. But it’s deep-rooted issues with racism and segregation, including the continued marginalization of black South Africans (LGBT or not), warrants that LGBT activists and filmmakers go the extra mile to ensure black South Africans are included in this post-apartheid’s picture of freedom.

Check out the Synopsis of The Secret and Paving Forward (the two black South African films featured): 

The Secret (Imfhilo): The closet was never fashionable, but living the DL is super trendy. Down Low means living under the radar as a straight man having gay sex, or having two separate lives. In Fanney Tsimong’s soap opera-like story of a gay man’s affair with a closeted married man, it gets neatly transported across the Atlantic from the US into aspirant township life. Generations actor Sipho “C-ga” Masebe’s plays Mandla, openly gay, good looking and searching for love. He bumps into old college buddy Thoriso at a birthday party. Thoriso is married to the controlling Thuli, bent on nothing so much as getting ahead in the upwardly mobile world of the BEE nouveau riche. As Mandla chases Thoriso, worlds and assumptions are overturned and lives altered forever. The climax of the film is a credit to the writer – there’s no preachy quick-fix, rather a reality check of what’s really going on out there. Intriguing contemporary South African cinema. (Dir: Fanney Tsimong SA / 2011 / 45min)

Paving ForwardMosiuoa Lekota is hardly the man you’d expect to be headlining Lembethe’s snapshot of where black gay rights are today. But, keeping it real is Nosipho Mahola with a tale of lesbian love that has torn her family apart. (Dir: Mthokozisi Lembethe SA / 2011 / 16min)

For more information about the Out in Africa film festival, visit www.oia.co.za

Saying No to Media Saviorism, Celebrating Africa’s Resistance

Dear Readers,

You may wonder where I’ve been for the past month. The answer: RESTING.

But, I’ve also been contributing to some of my favorite media outlets — Racialicious.com, plus now, Gender Across Borders — working on a chapbook (so fun!), and finally, developing a fierce editorial advisory board for my new media project highlighting diaspora voices. It’s all been very exciting, but has kept me very busy (ok, ok — I totally lied about the resting). The head-first dive into the global media blogosphere has left me with thoughts. And you all know what happens when I get thoughts.

For Gender Across Borders, I just published my first intro piece, “Celebrating Africa’s Resistance.” I invite you to read, share with your networks, and of course, use the comment section to leave me your thoughts. I look forward to reading your own reflections on the state of media coverage of African, the global south, and people of color, in general. So excited to be back!

Warrior Love,
Spectra

Say No to Media Saviorism: Celebrating Africa’s Resistance
Originally published at GenderAcrossBorders.com

When I hear “Gender Across Borders” the images that immediately come to mind are tragic: African women who face violence and sexual assault during times of war, groups of Afghan women in burqas shuffling through the unsettled dust of conflict resolution in silence, poor and starving African girls being nursed back to health for the premeditated purposes of child trafficking, and much worse. A quick google search for “gender justice” and “human rights” returns an inspiring list of organizations and websites (including this one) dedicated to addressing these issues in a myriad of ways: media coverage, non-profit direct service, volunteerism, advocacy, cause campaigning, etc. Yet, I found that as I clicked into each site, I was met with even more bad news, “shocking” reports, and yet, again, the same images: women being oppressed all over the non-western world.

As a daughter of Africa, who is currently based in the US, I wonder to myself if a time will finally come when cable networks will include coverage of Africa beyond the saviorist commercials that urge me to save poor and starving African children, if major news outlets will consider Africa’s resistance and self-liberation newsworthy enough for morning shows (not just “breaking news”), when independent blogs will consider amplifying more than just the “atrocious” acts that are often committed against us to also include our resilience — how African women continue to get back on their feet and march forward – every – single – time. Undoubtedly, many of these media organizations mean well and, despite the negative news coverage, are creating a positive impact by raising awareness; in my mind, the desire to bring to light the injustices that women face all over the world (given a white male-dominated media) is commendable. But, is oppression truly all that we can cover?

How about we — as global gender justice advocates — subvert the idea that women are perpetual victims by covering our collective resistance (at least much more often than, say, our male counterparts)? How about we more frequently discuss the kind of rebellion that may not necessarily inspire political protests as large in scale as the Arab Spring, but affirm brave acts that carve out new territory within the scope of women in government? How about we spend less time sharing negative news stories that go viral during major national crises, but focus on highlighting the slow and steady work of the underdog that is happening under the radar? How about we cut back on the sensationalism — the shock tactics and controversy we once deployed to get mainstream media to pay attention to issues important to us — and now spend time amassing an archive of positive happenings that could inspire legendary bed time stories of the many feminist heroes and heroines that have been paving the way to our liberation?

Just to clarify, I do not intend to create a hierarchy of media coverage (i.e. good media vs. better media) within the context of global gender justice; any coverage of women’s issues (whether positive or negative) is much-needed coverage of women’s issues. Organizations like Gender Across Borders, the Caribbean feminist collective, Code Red, Women, Action and the Media, South Africa’s LGBT news hub, Behind the Mask, the LGBT Asylum News online portal, and hundreds more doing similar work to raise marginalized voices within have already made considerable gains in this arena, and thus, granted me the right to be greedy — now, I want now to see women’s and gender equality issues covered more thoroughly; I want it all — the good, the bad, the ugly.

The desire for more coverage of women’s proactive, creative solutions to Africa’s problems in part from one of my Afrofeminist principles; namely, it is just as (if not more) important to live from a place of hope, than from a place of fear and constant criticism. But surely, I’m not the only one who’s craving more positive news. I can’t be the only African, LGBT activist, trans* person, immigrant etc who cringes at the thought of having my experience manifest as projected by public health reports and/or “cold hard facts.” (Apparently, as an African gender non-conforming person, I’m expected to live till the age of 35. I just turned 30, by the way).

There is obviously more discussion to be had about western media’s loyalty to third world suffering, its incessant feeding on plight of the global south, but that is not the focus of this post. I intend to explore this idea more fully in the future, but today, I’d like to focus on what I’m going to do about it. Today, I’d like to assure you of just one thing:

I will not be using my column on Gender Across Borders to talk about the plight of African women. Whereas, in the past, I’ve contributed my fare share of critique, one of my new year’s resolutions as an afrofeminist (more on that later) is to focus more on highlighting positive media (versus constantly reacting to negative news).

Instead, I’ll be covering women all around the world who use their art, performance, and media to raise awareness of critical issues and under-the-radar uprisings. I look forward to sharing my favorite musicians, artists, writers, and media organizations with you.

I want to cover LGBT Africa’s resistance — one that doesn’t place sexual violence, political warfare, and death at the focal point, but reiterates over and over again that every day citizens are standing fast against oppression, speaking up for each other in the face of the west’s infantilizing media.

I want to cover women’s movements happening around kitchen tables, in hair salons, within the sanctity of religious and spiritual spaces, and familiarity of traditional ceremonies. I want to give young people a chance to understand that real movements happen within the scope of every day, and not just within political discourse.

I want to show the world that Africa can — on its own — walk and run; that our continent has caught up (and, has already been leading) many parts of the world in various areas — social entrepreneurship, women’s political participation, innovation and technology, and more.

Due to my own background, there may be some initial focus on Africa, but I am determined to highlight acts of resistance as they are happening all across Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, as well. As I will be contributing to GAB weekly, please feel free to send me any artists, performers, media and/or filmmakers, and organizations who are creating positive change (not just reacting to it) by commenting under this post, via my GAB email, or my Twitter handle @spectraspeaks.

If the work is creative, inspiring, and impacts women and/or gender justice, I want to hear about it. I want you to hear about it. The world must hear about it.

Viva Africa.

[ps — none of this negates the fact that I’m known for my ranting, and thus, will continue to do so, just in moderation]

Not (Just) Another Queer Movie: My Afrofeminist Review of Pariah

Originally published at Racialicious.com

Wait a minute, not all lesbians in movies are white, rich or middle-class with no bills to pay? You mean “life” doesn’t get put on pause so that all gay people can experience the thrill of coming out at summer camp? And, there are other LGBT issues worth talking about besides marriage? Gasp! And Hallelujah for Spike Lee protégé Dee Rees’ Pariaha film women of color (and other marginalized groups) can truly relate to.

On the surface, Pariah is a coming of age story about an African-American lesbian, Alike (pronounced “Ah-LEE-kay”) in Brooklyn. But dig deeper, and you’ll see a smart and layered tackling of gender, sexuality, religion, and even class — an essential layer of complexity needed to accurately portray the diverse experiences of queer people of color, long been absent from mainstream LGBT films. Rather than depicting homophobia as the only kind of oppression experienced by the LGBT community, Pariah’s world is a varied socio-cultural landscape in motion featuring an all-POC cast, led by Nigerian actress Adepero Oduye’s performance as 17-year old Alike.

Pariah’s urban setting almost eliminates the need to discuss race at all (or, as in popular case of experiencing race through white characters, explain it). The audience is plopped, un-apologetically, right in the middle of a story filled with black characters, making way for intersectional observations about class and gender roles within the story’s cultural context.

SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT

The film opens with an unfocused, low-level street shot of baggy jeans, dangling belt chains, hard-soled shoes, and the dirty pavements of Brooklyn. We hear the sound of women socializing, and then some unexpected song lyrics:All you ladies pop your p-ssy like this. We’re immediately placed in the scene of a nightclub, in front of a stripper who is somehow managing to slide up the pole, and slapped in the face by Rees’ over-the-top interpretation of coming of age as a young lesbian of color: loud club music, a hyper-sexualized social environment, a group of tomboys (“studs”, “butches”, “aggressives”) throwing money at a stripper in a bothersome (yet, admittedly, amusing) re-enactment of heterosexual masculinity, while a small voice in our heads may be wondering if we’re supposed to be down with all of this.

But just as we are beginning to question what we’re doing in the theater, we meet Alike and see that her world is upside down, too, literally. The frame is rotated upright to reveal a slender Alike, dressed awkwardly in a wide-striped, oversized polo, black do-rag, and fitted lid, staring at the pulsating pelvis of the stripper, and doing so with a confused, yet curious expression on her face.

Her discomfort is made even more apparent when we meet her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a huskier and much more aggressive tomboy (who claims to “get more p-ssy than yo’ daddy”), acting as Alike’s enthusiastic chaperone in this bizarre rite of passage. Dressed in a red lid and popped-collar track jacket, Laura embodies masculinity more confidently; after she finally gives up trying to get Alike to “get that punani“, she proceeds to grind with a heteronormatively feminine (“high femme”) black lesbian in a gender-polarized mating dance.

Conversely, as Alike heads home on the bus alone, we see her vulnerability exposed under fluorescent lights: she begins to slowly strip herself of the masculine lesbian identity she’s hiding from her family. She reluctantly slides the lid and do-rag off her head to put her natural hair (twisties) in a ponytail, pulls off the over-sized polo to reveal a fitted tank top hidden underneath, and finally, puts a pair of earrings back on her ears in a heart-breaking act of gender conformity.

Despite the nuanced depiction of gender and class, Pariah doesn’t hit us over the head with analysis: the characters don’t explain why they each dress differently (urban streetwear to preppy to chic, and more), why they are of different financial circumstances, or why their accents are different; they just are. Alike, for instance, is evidently a “softer” tomboy as described by some girls at her high school. She’s also an aspiring writer, and (most likely due to the part of the city in which she was raised) has very different diction from Laura, whose vernacular is filled with slang, curse words, and the N-word as a term of endearment. In turn, Laura’s friends behave in a manner that’s very similar to cisgendered masculinity: they wear all men’s clothing, drink beer, play poker, and (of course) have beautiful girls sit on their laps as trophies. Yes, lesbians can be sexist too, but Dee Rees’ thoughtful character development steers the screenplay away from the danger of telling a single story.

In the past, the dominant movie narrative that existed for lesbians on screen, for many, depicted an unrealistic social context: all lesbians are white and heteronormatively feminine (AKA “lipstick lesbians” like Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound), they have sex by making a performance of moaning the same way the women in straight porno films do (too many to name, but the most annoying sex scene for me comes from indie flick Chloe — an extended makeout session, really?). Meanwhile, no one seems to have any money problems as they can throw huge weddings they don’t even show up to (Imagine Me and Youthe infamous L Word non-wedding) and 2-dimensional side characters with no real lives of their own, exist simply to react (whether negatively or positively) to the “lesbian” issue (a la the saintly and unfortunate husband archetype in The Hours).

In many of these films, homophobia (besides the expected relationship drama) was often presented as the singular obstacle to the main characters’ happiness. Thus, the combination of the afore-mentioned archetypal elements and the perpetuation of single-issue hurdles for LGBT characters, for me, wove together a series of feel-good lezzie flicks that all said the same thing: “Please leave these two pretty and privileged white girls who just want to fall in love and live happily ever after in their color-blind world (which, by the way, contains no people of color) alone, okay?”

Considering what the film industry was like even just a decade ago, most people would concede that in the face of Hollywood’s focus on hegemonic straight relationships, movies that featured gay or lesbian characters at all were pushing the envelope. Indeed, many of us queer women were thrilled when The L Word came out. After all, it was on Showtime — widely accessible to our straight friends, who we eagerly organized viewing parties with so we could watch them experience what our lives as lesbians were like, sort of.

We didn’t all wear high heels and runway dresses; the lesbians at the clubs I went to certainly didn’t sport that level of Hollywood glam. Many of us were puzzled by the main characters’ financial means to spend lavish amounts of money eating out at fancy restaurants, throwing parties in LA mansions, and getting married, but we tuned in every week to follow the lives of a group of rich white feminine lesbians, because there weren’t any alternatives. Plus, sitting through a film with gay characters was a sure way to test a reaction from your friends before you came out. The show’s false sense of reality gave us hope that if we were to come out to our friends and decided to live our lives openly as gay people, life would remain relatively normal; we’d have girlfriends, get married (that’s what all gay people want to do, right?), adopt children, experience the occasional awkward family dinner, but ultimately, live happily ever after.

This is what sets Pariah apart from (white) singular-narrative LGBT films; it debunks the myth that life begins and ends between the point of self-acceptance… and a wedding.

The movie’s skillful orchestration of empathic story-telling and strong performances enables us to move beyond the scope of Gay and Lesbian 101 to tackle other kinds of oppression, including the further marginalization of LGBT people of color. Alike’s family lives comfortably, allowing her to spend most of her time socializing and pursuing her interest in the arts. But Laura, who is the same age as Alike, was forced to drop out of high school when her mother kicked her out, and works overtime to help her sister (who she lives with) pay the bills while studying for her GED. Through Laura’s narrative, the audience is given a glimpse into the experience of many LGBT youth, who are forced to seek refuge and community outside of their families, risk being homeless for being themselves, yet, must keep on.

It’s a sad observation, but then again isn’t it high time that gay films which grab major distributor attention do more than just perpetuate extremely tragic or fairytale conclusions to a now-engaged and curious public, and present LGBT stories in all their diverse manifestations, which does include the narratives of people of color, working class people, homeless youth, and sometimes, people who are all of the above? It’s no wonder thatPariah — along with peer releases Circumstance and Gunhill Road — has received critical acclaim for its much-needed exploration of LGBT people of color living life at the intersection of many types of societal challenges.

But don’t get it twisted. Pariah is definitely not a sob story. In fact, the movie is filled with timely and endearing moments of humor and awkwardness that make the hold-no-punches backdrop easier to swallow; the familiar sibling banter that ensues when Alike’s younger (and brattier) sister threatens to tell on her for having a “gross” flesh-colored dildo, a cringe-ful dinner table scene during which her parents describe how they “hung out on prom night”, and Alike’s frequent and ill-timed giggle spells whenever she’s around the girl she likes. The film’s strong undercurrent of family and relationships guarantees that there is something in it for everyone (no need to fear the discomfort of watching a lesbian sex scene with your parents either — Dee Rees keeps it PG).

Dee Rees has created a motion picture that the larger LGBT community can be proud of, and in which people of color can see themselves carefully and sensitively projected. She may be the black lesbian Tyler Perry (in a good way). Let’s hope we see more of her.


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