Hold on for a second, and let me give you a simple task: imagine a woman. Not a specific one, not a friend of yours or the lady from the checkout line, but a woman. In general.
I’m wondering how many of you pictured long hair, a dress, a bit of mascara, and an overall feminine appearance and behaviour.
„Gender troubles – The Butches“, a documentary produced in the USA by Lisa Plourde that was broadcasted at SFG on Wednesday evening, tackles several issues – homophobia, gender roles, feminism. But most of all, it gives a voice to a subgroup of the LGBTQ+ community that is being isolated and frowned upon not only in society, but also often by their own people. Butch lesbians.
And it does that in the simplest way imaginable. Five women sit down in front of a camera and talk. No script, no censorship, no fancy editing, not even a lot of cutting. The only interruptions are scenes of the women going on about their daily life, cooking, going to work, dressing, existing.
Even though their existence alone can be a hardship by itself. Alison, Stacy, Sasha, Lisa and Lenn openly talk about the discrimination and micro-agressions they face every day. People often confuse them for cis- or transgendered men, claim that their partners are not actual lesbians, and try to tell them that they are actually trans. „I’m not trying to be a man, that’s not me at all. I’m just trying to be myself.“
Time and again, they are not seen as real women, which is not a rare phenomenon in a society that constantly dictates more expectations women have to fulfill. But what exactly is femininity and masculinity by definition? A question that none of them could answer without falling into stereotypes.
Being „visibly queer“, as they put it, brings struggles each and every day. They get anxious in the mornings in front of their wardrobe, get called names, get insulted. They struggle with job interviews, as one look already labels them as something. They sometimes avoid medical care because visits to the doctor’s office can be so degrading and uncomfortable. They get stared at and examined in public restrooms by other women who know perfectly well that they are female, and yet decide to be hateful, implying „not that I am in the wrong place, but that I am wrong.“ „Straight-passing“ lesbians enjoy a tolerance that they do not get.
Stereotypes about butch lesbians typically include them being tough, swearing a lot, enjoying sports and cars etc. etc. The word „butch“ has so many negative connotations that a lot of women struggle to take on the label and are even scared to interact with other butches.
This negative image leads to an isolation of butch lesbians not only in society, but also in their very own safe space – the LGBTQ+ community. The five women talk about feminine lesbians being embarrassed of them, calling them names, perceiving them as gross and undesirable and trying to exclude them from the community.
And yet, feminine lesbians dominate both the streets and mass media. Butch lesbians have been erased from history and lack representation in movies and TV shows, so they have no role models to turn to. Being with other butches gives these women a unique feeling of validation and joy.
The five women in „Gender troubles – The Butches“ see these challenges as even more of a reason to be true to themselves. They describe the decision to be butch, to actively claim that label, as liberating. It gives them a power that nobody can take away from them.
The simple cinematography, the lack of effects, the few interruptions, all of this turns the documentation into a very raw, touching piece. As a feminine queer woman – „straight-passing“, to use their words -, this has been a unique learning experience, and I believe that it can be just that for everybody. And common ground is easily found: when they talked about how young butch girls needed role models while growing up, I couldn’t help but immediately think about a song from my favourite musical, „Ring of keys“, from „Fun Home“.
The documentation gives five women of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds an unfiltered voice to just talk. And that is incredibly rare in the modern media culture.
And their stories are stories of hope, of success. How they reunite with their families, get invited by their partner’s mothers, inspire little butch girls and take on their own projects such as photography, local groups or YouTube channels. „I can love, I can be loved and I am okay“, they say.“I know I’m a woman. I know I’m butch. And I know there’s nothing wrong with that.“