The UK premiere of Gender Troubles: The Butches screens in the Braw Butches event on the 1st October at Glasgow Women’s Library. The screening is followed by a discussion led by poet and activist Jo Johnson.
Gender Troubles: The Butches is a documentary dealing head on with society’s and mainstream LGBTQI discomfort with butch lesbians and masculine-presenting women.
Why did you choose to speak only about butch women in your film?
There is a shortage of realistic representation of all kinds of women in the media. And of all the women portrayed, a teeny tiny, almost nonexistent proportion, are butch lesbians. Those very few butches shown seem to be based on old inaccurate and damaging stereotypes. This can make individual butch women feel like they are all alone, aren’t important, or are some kind of freak. I am focusing on butch women to address this lack of positive representation.
They say write about what you know. Well I am making films about what I know. This is my world. Who can better tell about our lives than those of us who live it every day? If we don’t take control and create authentic characters on the big screen, who will? And do we really want others to tell our stories? How authentic would they be if we left it to others to do? I think it is important for each group to take the lead in telling stories about their own realities and experiences.
You are butch lesbian and a parent. Can you speak about being butch and how people perceived you through the pregnancy?
I am the birth mother for our younger son. For the record I loved being pregnant. Feeling that little being moving around inside of me was mind blowing. I am so glad I got to experience it. It helped me really appreciate my body and what it is capable of doing.
Pregnancy as a butch woman wasn’t that much of an issue for me. Maybe it was because of where I live (the San Francisco area) and the fact that I had some friends – one who is also butch – who were pregnant at the same time that made it easier. There were more challenges later when our son started preschool. The other kids did not quite know what to make of me. I remember a period when my son started to call me “Dad.” I told him I am a mother and want to be called “Mom.” He said but we do Dad things. “You take me to ball games, teach me how to throw a ball, wrestle with me, and go camping. So you are a Dad.”
He also insisted that he knew all about Moms and Dads from seeing the other parents at preschool and I was clearly a Dad. He was being socialized about gender roles and it was obvious to him that I did not fit the pattern. Once, when I was picking him up from day camp, a little boy my son had been playing with looked me up and down and asked my son if I was his Dad. My son cheerfully responded “Yes!” and ran to me and said “Hi Mom!” I guess he understood the difference at that point but just found it too difficult to explain.
You are a scientist making films – what was that journey like for you?
I credit my partner with bringing out my artistic side that I didn’t realize I had until I met her. She is a gifted full time artist and she saw something in me and encouraged me to believe in myself and take the chance to do this kind of work.
My scientific background has actually been very helpful. I am very methodical in my approach and when it comes to work I am a patient marathoner, not a sprinter. It took me six years to create this film. I can do research and learn how to do almost anything. I don’t expect things to come easily or quickly. Our ability to learn means almost anyone can make a film by putting one foot in front on the other over and over again. Break it down into small steps. It is a matter of persistence.
Buttoned up and buttoned down vs T-shirt and check shirt?
Yes to all of the above. You have just described 90% of my wardrobe! T-shirts worn alone or under button up shirts. Another important category for me is sweatshirts and fleeces. (Northern California can be cool at times.)
Trainers or biker boots?
I always have few good pairs of sneakers. Boots? Now that is something I can relate to. I have lots of boots – many shades of brown and black – western style, hiking, dress up shiny black boots. They help me feel solid and strong.
Why do you think butches are still erased from mainstream queer media?
I think a major factor is our desire for acceptance and assimilation. Here in the US, many gay men and lesbians have been fighting hard for acceptance in general and marriage equality in particular. As part of the strategy the message to straight people has been “We are really just like you, only we love people of the same sex.” So in trying to prove that we are women just like straight women, butches have been hidden away as the dirty little secret that proves, no, actually we are not all exactly like straight people. So the butches get thrown under the bus. We are sacrificed in order to prove to heterosexuals that we are just like them.
I also think internalized homophobia, our own shame of who we are, plays a part. Some gay men and lesbians don’t want to embrace queer culture or our differences. So they see us as an embarrassment and the ones who are slowing their acceptance by straight society.
How can LGBTQI community be more positive to butches? The stories of people being rejected by fellow queers is heart breaking.
I think those of us who are LGBTQI need to appreciate the differences in our communities and not try so hard to appear and behave just like everyone else. We need to honour the ways we are different. I think having butches be more visible in our flyers, newspapers, photographs, books, TV and films will help. If we don’t see ourselves in our own media it gives us, the butches, and others LGBTQI people, the message that we don’t belong and are not welcome. Our priority needs to be to speak to and for ourselves, not censor and manipulate creative work so that it will be acceptable and marketable to mainstream society.
What has been the reaction when the film has been screened?
The most common response is an astonished “That is my LIFE!” exclamation from other butches. A lot of butch women have never seen someone like themselves, especially someone who is an authentic butch lesbian, being smart, insightful, and brave on the big screen. I have found that they are very grateful for an opportunity to enjoy feeling like part of a butch sisterhood if only for an hour. They feel validated. One woman expressed that the film almost made her cry seeing her challenges in public on a big screen, but by the end of the film she was so proud of herself for what she has survived and how far she has come. Friends and partners found it eye opening and reported how it started many conversations about things they never realized or talked about before with the butches in their lives.
Why do you think butches are perceived as being on the road to transitioning and not regarded as a destination in itself?
Many people, at least on some level, still believe the stereotype that butches are women who want to be men. I think they have a hard time understanding that butches are women just trying to be themselves and that one’s physical sex (being biologically female) is different and not attached to what sports someone may like to play, what clothes they wear, or how they carry themselves and interact in the world. These are not determined by what is between our legs or what chromosomes we were born with. We are part of a wonderful diversity where we all exist on a spectrum and I am grateful for that.
Have you got any tips about how to be butch and proud?
Find role models for yourself. Find peers. Find others like yourself. Keep taking chances and push the boundary of your comfort zone around being seen as butch. Be bolder than you feel. You will grow into it.
Why did you put yourself in the film?
My partner Lisel made me do it. Really, I had no plans to include myself. I am a quite shy and private person and am happy remaining in the background. Also in one of my classes our film teacher warned us not to include ourselves in our work because it would make editing the film an even more difficult and painful task. She said that we would never like the way we look on film. “My eyes look funny. My hair is a mess! I sound so inarticulate!” She was right about it making the work harder.
But Lisel challenged me: “You have things to say that aren’t’ being addressed. You need to add your voice to this conversation. Besides, you are asking butches to speak up and be proud. How can you ask that of them when you won’t do it yourself. You are hiding behind the camera.” I really hate it when she is so obviously right. So, I accepted that the message is more important than my vanity and as a result, I’m in the film too.
What is your next film about?
I am hoping my next movie contributes as another source of lesbian, including butch, pride. The film is about the largely ignored stories of lesbians that have been omitted from history. When mainly only powerful white men determine who and what events are important and what should be remembered and recorded, should we be surprised that very little is readily available about lesbian history? I believe we have always been a part of human civilization throughout the world. I am collecting fascinating stories about brave and heroic lesbians from Africa, Asia, South America, Europe – EVERYWHERE! I plan for this film be a rollicking good time travel around the globe in which we celebrate ourselves and our history. If the readers of this article have stories or leads they’d like to share, please send them to me at email@example.com I’d love to explore them.