Browse Tag: pariah

10 Books, Films, and Music by Queer People of Color That Would Make Excellent Gifts

Shopping is Personal is Political

For Him For Her... Bullshit

It’s the last (shopping) weekend before Christmas. But if you’re anything like me, braving large, busy malls filled with mainstream goodies fueling the hyper-consumerism evident just one week before Christmas isn’t your cup of tea. Online shopping, despite the lure of its crowd-less aisles, fancy pop-ups, and steep discounts hasn’t proven to be that much better.

Constantly having to decide between clicking on “Gifts for Him’ and “Gifts for Her” irks the LGBT activist in me. Then there’s the constant temptation to forgo spending your hard earned money on holiday shopping (for family members who aren’t as supportive as they should be) altogether and getting yourself, instead, that heavily discounted Xbox with Dance Revolution bundle, flashing obtrusively on the top right corner of your screen just as you’re about to check out… Wait, I’m sorry, this isn’t about me. I digress.

*deletes Xbox Dance Revolution package from shopping cart… (for now)*

Luckily, I don’t have to deal with (most of) the Christmas shopping madness this holiday season. As per  my last post, in an attempt to facilitate important conversations with friends and family about my sexuality (so that I can make it through dinner without bursting into tears… or flames), I plan on giving the gift of media created by queer people of color. Luckily, over the past few years, there’s been a steady release of media that reflects the lives of LGBTI people with complex racial and ethnic identities while navigating a diverse landscape of cultural and religious beliefs.

A List of Books, Films, and Music by Queer People of Color

Any item(s) from the list below would make great holiday gifts to family, friends, or even to yourself. After all, getting our loved ones to accept us whole is as much of an ongoing process as it is learning to celebrate who we are for ourselves, so why not nourish your spirit this holiday season too?

Note: Because my experience is trans-continental, I’ve prioritized media created by LGBT people of color with various cultural, ethnic, racial, and national contexts. Also, if I’ve mis-labeled or mis-represented any of the media producers’ identities below, PLEASE let me know as soon as possible (with source) so I can update! 

 

Pariah Movie

PARIAH (Film)
Written and Directed by African-American lesbian, Dee Rees.

Themes: African-American, Family, Coming Out, Religion, Gender Identity.

This isn’t just another queer “coming out” movie. The main character, Alike, already knows that she likes girls; it’s coming out to her parents while exploring her gender identity (i.e. more masculine/feminine) that makes this one of my favorite films of all time. This coming of age film is packed with moments familiar enough to resonate with even the most conservative: first crushes (and first kisses), father-daughter bonding, mother-daughter loathing, and siblings who remain annoying as hell but will always be there for you. I loved Pariah so much that I wrote about it twice: My Afrofeminist Review and Coming Out as a Nigerian Boi.

Great Gift For: Everyone, really.

Saving Face Movie

SAVING FACE (Film)
Written and Directed by Chinese-American Lesbian, Alice Wu

Themes: Chinese Culture, Family, Career, Marriage

If I had to put my film picks in order, this would really be at the top. Saving Face is a drama-comedy about two young adults, who are driven by their careers and commitment to family, and thus, find love a tad inconvenient. Saving Face strikes the perfect balance between heart-warming and hilarious. I recommended it to my sister when I first came out and it helped her understand my sexuality, not through the white, class privileged narratives of the L Word, but in the context of our culture. Indeed, part of the film is in Mandarin as the lead characters search for acceptance in a small community in Chinatown, New York.

Great Gift For: Siblings

 

Circumstance Movie

CIRCUMSTANCE (Film)
Written and Directed by Iranian-American, Maryam Keshavarz

Themes: Iranian, Family, Religion, Government, Censorship

Two young women find love and attempt to escape their -er – circumstance of family and politics. What I love about Circumstance is that the lesbian relationship, though central, isn’t the only theme (or issue the women have to worry about) in the movie. Hmm, feels like real life, when religious dogma, traditional parents, and an oppressive government regime are equal (if not greater) thorns on the sides of LGBT  people in non-western countries–a reality that quite often goes above my white gay American friends’ heads. In any case, there’s an (awesome) sex scene that may be awkward to watch with parents (so you may wanna go grab some leftovers during that bit).

Great Gift For: American LGBT friends.

 

 

Gun Hill Road Movie

GUN HILL ROAD (Film)
Written and Directed by Latino straight ally Rashaad Ernesto Green

A Latino man is released from prison only to find that his son is in the process of saving up for gender reassignment surgery (i.e. transitioning from living as a man to living as a woman). To cuta a long story short, drama happens, followed by a stereotypical (yet believable) display of machismo, such as forced attendance at baseball games, and an awkward scene with a prostitute. But hey, that’s apparently how to be a “man’s man” (forget not doing things that land you in prison so that you’re around to love your wife and raise your children — that’s for sissies). There’ll be no shortage of issues to discuss after viewing Gun Hill Road, including the trappings of masculinity, femininity, culture as a barrier to individual expression, and really good acting. Says, the LA Times: “… the quietly commanding turn by newcomer Santana — whose outward embrace of an already well-internalized transformation leaps off the screen with equal parts joy, melancholia and bravery — is a standout.”

Great Gift For: Dads, Uncles, All the People with Testosterone in Your Family

 

 

Other Side of Paradise

THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE (Book)
By Chinese-Jamaican lesbian, Stacey Ann Chin 

Themes: Jamaica, Adoption, Family, Womanhood

The first time I saw Stacey Ann Chin speak, I thought to myself, “Damn, I need to be louder!” She’s known for thunderous performances, her constant swearing, her political poetry that takes no prisoners. But, if you’re a writer, you know how much it takes to bleed the way Stacey Ann does anytime she speaks. And when she writes… goodness, there are no words. Her memoir is a glimpse into the circumstances that birthed the beast: growing up in Jamaica, being raised by her grandmother, and the thrill, pain, hilarity, and confusion that comes with discovering womanhood. A must-read.

Great Gift For: Poets and Writers

 

Memory MamboMEMORY MAMBO (Book)
By Cuban immigrant lesbian, Achy Obejas

Themes: Cuba, Immigration, Culture, Family, Gender

So, I’m cheating here; I really want to suggest two of Achy Obejas books. The first, “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?”, is a rich, diverse collection of short stories about a Cuban family’s journey from their homeland to the beautiful and broken promises of the United States, all the while grappling with new ideas of culture, gender, and sexuality. Her second, Memory Mambo, is a full-length novel centered around a familiar, yet nuanced immigrant narrative; Janua, a 24-year old Latina lesbian, searches for an anchor in the terrain of an new country (with a band of crazy cousins–blood and adopted–who keep dragging her into trouble).

Great Gift For: Cousins, Extended Family

 

Zami Audre LordeZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME (Book)
by African-American Lesbian Poet, Writer, and Activist, Audre Lorde

Themes: New York, the 50’s, Working Class Black Women, Class

From GoodReads: “Audre Lorde recounts the first half of her life in an amazing blend of her own poetry, popular songs, journal entries, and memories that are startling in their exactness and fairness. Her ability to recount her extreme loneliness and desire for companionship at being Black in gay scenes, gay in Black crowds and female and working class in the U.S. is a testament to her desire to create bridges…” I started reading this book and had to stop because I began resenting my work for constantly interrupting my love affair with this breathtaking novel about living “life at the intersections”, a subject for which Audre Lorde is well-known. Zami is moving, powerful, and filled with a tender, vulnerable love for humanity, despite its shortcomings.

Great gift for: Black women (who experienced the 50s in the US e.g. older Aunties?), feminists of all backgrounds

 

Ash Malindo LoASH (Book)
Written by lesbian Chinese-American immigrant, Malindo Lo

Themes: Fairy Tales, Cinderella, Love and Romance, Self-Determination

Who doesn’t love fairy tales? This re-telling of Cinderella’s love story is appropriate for ages 8 and up, says Amazon.com, making it the perfect gift for young cousins, siblings, and adult friends alike. Apparently, rather than fall for the prince who rescues her from an enchanted slumber, Cinderella starts a love affair with the woman her evil queen mother sends to kill her. I haven’t read it myself, but after reading glowing reviews I decided to gift myself the Kindle version. Incidentally, an accompanying book, “Huntress”, about Cinderella’s love interest, was published shortly afterwards. And, the author just released the first book in her new young adult sci-fi series. Juicy. Visit www.malindolo.com to learn more.

Great gift for: Young Children, Parents

 

OI AM (Music)
Jazz composition by gay Guyanese-American, Omar Thomas Large Jazz Ensemble

I grew up listening to Jazz, from the smooth of Miles Davis to the soul of Anita Baker to the afrobeat of Fela Kuti–my father’s influence. So when I left home, and became separated from my father, a part of me distanced myself from his favorite music as well… until I met Omar. I fell in love with Omar’s love for classic R&B, soul, jazz, and his talent for bringing those genres together in his compositions, which feel old school enough take you on a walk down memory lane, and new school enough to warrant Ne-Yo’s replacement as the official baby-making musician of the 2000s. “I Am” will be released on January 15th, but you can pre-order now on iTunes. I’ll be getting two copies — one for me, and one for my father, as a reminder that even though we are now worlds apart, our struggles and our love for each other remains, through heart, through life, and through music.

Great gift for: Dads

 

VicciVICCI
by queer Latina, Vicci Martinez

I don’t often have time to watch TV, but I remember when I heard that a queer Latina musician was rocking out on The Voice, a show similar to American Idol, in which contestants compete to be named “The Voice” of America; I looked her up on YouTube immediately and was blown away by the power of her voice (from a relatively small person!). She’s been quoted as saying, “I don’t look the way I sound”, which, though I get what she means, isn’t quite true; she’s absolutely beautiful in her gender non-conformity, and her voice, a reverb of yearning to live beyond measure, beyond bounds. The acoustic version of her new single, “Come Along” is a tantrum of emotions, familiar to anyone who may still be wondering how they survived being a teenager, and — as a member of the LBGT community — how to continue singing for freedom in a world  where your kind of love is seen as an act of rebellion.

Great gift for: Angst-Filled Teenager

 

Discuss! What do you think? Would you consider gifting any of these items to yourself, friends, or family? As an ally, have you read / watched / listened to any of the media above? What did that do for your understanding? Also, I’d love to open up this space for recommendations. Which books, films, and/or music or poetry albums would be great additions to this list?

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

Inspired by Pariah: My Personal Story about Coming Out as a Nigerian “Boi”

Originally written for and published at Autostraddle.com

“Oh, what you think you’re a boy now?

My cargo shorts and graphic tees weren’t exactly what my mother had in mind when she envisioned showing off her daughter who’d “just returned from America with an MIT degree!” to her friends at church.

The prodigal daughter, I’d returned home to Nigeria for my high school bestie’s wedding. We hadn’t seen each other in five years; during that time I’d not only come out as queer, but founded an organization for immigrant and/or queer women of color (QWOC+ Boston), cut my hair into a frohawk, and started dressing as a boy. I’d pretty much gone from a lip-gloss-wearing straight girl to the gayest person ever, but nobody had witnessed the transition, not even my friend who was getting married. I hadn’t reached out to her for fear that I wouldn’t be able to lie about who I was, and that soon after she’d tell her mom, who would tell other moms, and eventually the rest of Lagos where my parents lived, forcing my mother to endure becoming the center of gossip and ostracizing her from the very social networks she needed to make ends meet. My mother relied heavily on referrals from her religious community about various contract jobs — event planning, hotel management etc; the last thing she needed was a taboo subject like “lesbianism” turning off potential clients.

Needless to say, I hesitated when my friend invited me to be part of her bridal train, but I couldn’t refuse an invitation to be part of my girl’s wedding, even if it meant wearing a bridesmaid dress. I tried to get out of it but she firmly insisted that the dress wasn’t up for negotiation. “Well, what then if you don’t wear a dress?” she’d asked laughing, “So, you’re going to wear a suit and stand with the boys?” It hurt my feelings, but I laughed along with her and rhetorted, “Obviously not. That would be ridiculous.” That was just the beginning.

I spent the entire two weeks of my first visit home since my queer transformation absorbing my mother’s daily jabs at my clothing (and eventually, anything I said): “So you’re earning all this money and can’t even afford some nice tops?”, “You really should dress your age”, “What, you think you’re a boy now?” Gender binaries. If there was ever a place for them to thrive unchecked, it would be Lagos, Nigeria, a place where being gay is not just viewed as a choice, but a crime, and — pending the new anti-LGBT bill being deliberated — holding hands with your best friend or choosing same-sex roommates could be made punishable for up to 14 years in prison. But while I was plenty aware of the political debate around my identity as a queer African, I couldn’t have cared less about the law; I was still trying to survive within the confines of my own home.

The night before the wedding, my mother was chaperoning me through the bridesmaid dress fitting. As the strapless lilac dress found its awkward place on my body, the delicate layer of my personal confidence dropped mercilessly to the floor. I felt naked and invisible at the same time. As the zipper went up, I felt increasingly suffocated. The silver, high-heeled shoes my mother had purchased for me earlier that afternoon didn’t help either. The entire ensemble felt like a ridiculous costume.

Long before that moment, it had been easy to “dress up like a girl.” I even had a nickname/alter ego for that person “dressed up like a girl” — “The Empress.” But now, being forced to wear drooping earrings and high-heeled stillettos felt less like “performative drag” and more like the real me didn’t matter.

When my father said I looked “pretty,” I immediately went on a dramatic tirade (more dramatic than usual) to assert that this wasn’t who I was. “You only compliment me when I’m wearing clothes I don’t want to wear,” I complained, “I don’t feel pretty. I feel stupid.”

He laughed then, dismissing my gender non-conformity as me being “a rebel.” He’d been a “rebel” too, he told me (although I can’t recall seeing any pictures of him in dresses). My mother, on the other hand, was on to me. She eyed the dress silently; it was a fitting disguise and I could tell she was relieved I was wearing it.

Throughout my stay in Nigeria, the micro-aggressions continued: from things as silly to being called “feminist” (as an explanation as to why I had a puzzled look on my face when some girl said that all women should cook for their husbands to avoid making them angry), to my mother dragging me through stores to purchase large, obnoxious earrings, and to straight up homophobic rants, which I suspect were directed at me — “We don’t have that rubbish here in Nigeria — all those gay people in America, why should we be copying them? This is Africa!” Thanks to America’s media, my friends’ perceptions of gay people were limited to comic relief — white gay men dancing glittery and half-naked down the streets, lipstick on, “dressing like women.”

When I vented to my friends in the US, I was met with well-meaning — albeit privileged and individualist sentiments — “Who cares what they think? You should be able to wear what you want and be yourself. Fuck ’em.”

Except, I did care what Nigerians thought of gay people; I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” could include Africans. I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” included me.

Admittedly, even I had my doubts that I was who I said I was — a gay Nigerian? After all, just after I’d come out and I’d filled my Netflix queue with every recommended film from the Gay and Lesbian section in search of narratives that aligned with my experience. But I could barely find any films that included women of color, let alone African lesbians.

I realize now that I was searching for affirmation of who I was because a part of me was still internalizing homophobia; “I’m Nigerian, we’re not gay. I must be the only gay Nigerian in the world.” And even when I finally met another queer Nigerian, I dismissed her because she “hadn’t been raised at home.” If I was so quick to dismiss queer Nigerians, what chance did I have that my Nigerian family would ever come around?

 

But then I saw Pariah, and I knew instantly that this was the film I’d been searching for. Pariah could save me from endless arguments over laws, policies, and tradition currently in Nigeria’s media. Pariah could humanize me — turn me from “issue” to “person — and earn me empathy instead of judgement.

For the group film screening I’d helped put together for QWOC+ Boston, I’d dragged a whole crew of people: my partner, a few friends, and my straight Nigerian, Christian brother, who’d always been supportive of me, yet still had moments when he dismissed my masculinity and/or gender presentation without knowing it; like the time my mother had forced me to wear our traditional attire for his graduation (I wanted to wear the men’s kaftan, but she’d put me in the elaborately feminine women’s counterpart — the iro and buba), and he’d told me to get over it, saying flippantly, “It’s not like you never wore this stuff before.”

I remember holding my breath during pivotal scenes in the movie — like when Alike was forced to put her earrings back on before she returned home in an effort to hide her gender identity from her parents. I wondered nervously if my brother saw then the direct parallels to his own sister’s life, if he could finally understand that my protesting the outfit my mother had brought with her from Nigeria wasn’t just about defying norms for the sake of being a rebel; I really did feel more like a boy than a girl.

During the Q&A portion of the screening, Adepero Oduye (the Nigerian actress who plays Alike in the film) told us, “When my mother first saw the film, she said, ‘People here [Nigeria] need to watch that movie. You wouldn’t believe all the things they are always saying. They need to see it. They need to understand.’” 

After I emerged from the theater, deliriously happy after seeing a gay character whose experience I could finally relate to, my brother relayed that the film’s exploration of masculinity within the women’s community was similar enough to his own experience that he too deeply connected with Alike. And therein lies the power of Pariah: whether or not you are part of the LGBT community, expect to “aww” and cringe several times per scene, as both the acting and directing create a winning combination for unlocking the most powerful tool in social change: empathy.

The world is watching Nigeria right now, turning their noses up at our senators who proudly proclaim that “homosexuality is unAfrican”. Nearly every other day I read a new press release from a human rights organization that condemns the latest version of the anti-gay bill. Hilary Clinton’s riveting speech about protecting human rights around the world may have brought temporary solace to many of us who are directly impacted by the move to criminalize homosexuality in various African countries, but I know firsthand that rhetoric alone will not change the world. I know from experience that my happiness will not come from winning legislative battles, but winning hearts, and films like Pariah have the power to do just that; it is films like Pariah that can and will change the world.

For Nigerians to accept its LGBT citizens as Nigerian, they need to experience queer stories as part of our own cultural landscape (as opposed to an American sitcom on Showtime) and framed within every day issues Nigerians like my parents can relate to: lack of electricity, overbearing mothers bickering over whose daughter will get married first, and simultaneous deep-rooted disdain and yearning for modernization. Pariah may not be about LGBT Nigerians or Africans, but Dee Rees’ bold narrative has certainly opened up the possibilities for such films, at least for people like me.

So as my country deliberates the new anti-LGBT bill, I pray for LGBT Africans to find their own Pariah, and I look forward to my mother finally seeing the film so that, just like my brother, she will finally be able to hear me when I say “I am Alike:” a proud queer, Nigerian boi, but more importantly, still her daughter.

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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