Within the lesbian community — especially in communities of color (in the United States but also around the globe) — there are a lot of rules and internal discrimination that take place. The subject of my new documentary, "The Same Difference," is on this taboo topic: lesbians who discriminate against other lesbians based on gender roles.
The way I see it, the basic foundation of the lesbian community is based on hetero-normative dynamics ingrained in the relationship structure that mirror heterosexual relationships. For example, in order for a relationship to be socially accepted within the lesbian community, there needs to be a masculine-presenting woman with a feminine counterpart. Throughout the world, there are different titles for these roles. Some of the more popular ones are “femmes” and “studs,” with femmes representing the more feminine role and studs the more dominant role. An earlier title for "stud" was "butch."
According to the film “Before Stonewall,” these relationship structures began in the early ’40s. Lesbian women would present butch-femme dynamics in public in order to pass as a heterosexual couple — which would keep them from getting harassed by homophobic cops. According to the Rutledge Encyclopedia for Women, this concept was also used as a way to “organize sexual relationships, gender and sexual identity.”
After interviewing women from around all different regions of the United States, it seems as if what was used as a means of survival has since been turned into something to balance out a power dynamic. In communities of color in the United States, one of the major unspoken bans has been on two masculine-presenting women dating. This is considered unacceptable — or in the words of some of the community, "too gay" or "faggots of the gay community.” In the Youtube video below, a stud woman expresses how stud-on-stud dating is a sin. This video went viral and created much controversy and conversation around the topic.
In terms of hierarchy, masculine
women are expected to be the dominant leader of their relationships in all
aspects. This includes physical presentation, intimate encounters and
emotional reactions. The expectations for this role are very similar to the
expectations society has for men. Growing up, in my travels and in my interviews, I have seen that that when a masculine-presenting woman does things that skew
more toward the feminine spectrum — such as get pregnant, wear make-up, cry or
anything that goes against the rules of what it means to be an aggressive woman — she gets ostracized, ridiculed and sometimes physically harmed. Femininity is viewed as a weakness in a community full of women.
When I initially started this project, I knew I was very passionate about the internal discrimination I had seen in
the lesbian community and in other subcultures at large. Hetero-normative
ideas and relationship structures were being imposed on a queer community and
causing people to repress who they really were if they didn’t live up to the
rules of the community. As one of the interviewees in my trailer puts, "The people that are in the community can’t even fit [the standards of] the community."
This isn’t just an abstract concept, but a phenomenon with devastating consequences: depression,
substance abuse, domestic violence and isolation. The National Violence Against Women survey found that 35.4% of women living with a same-sex partner experienced intimate-partner
physical violence in their lifetimes, compared with 7.1% and 20.4% for men and
women, respectively, with a history of only opposite-sex cohabitation. In the media, for the lesbian community specifically, there aren’t a
lot of opportunities for the "L" in the LGBT to have their stories
told in an authentic way on screen. Coming from working for Viacom as a
producer for award shows, music specials and documentaries, I had the production
resources, personal knowledge and access to company executives to help bring
light to this ignored, misunderstood and struggling lesbian community that I grew up in.
For the documentary, I found influencers and researched
topics that had been discussed on YouTube by groups such as The Royalz and King
Kellz, as well as by individuals discussing the topic of stud-on-studs or pregnant
studs. (There’s even a video on the subject of "stud moaning.") These videos have a significant amount of views, but no one actually talks about these issues in public spaces. They are very hard to
discuss among the community because you will face backlash, get stigmatized and open yourself up to bullying. Creating the documentary was a way to bring the
underground conversation on screen. The beautiful thing about documentary filmmaking for me is that if you don’t have a space to tell your story but want your voice
to be heard, you have a platform to express what you need to.
The format for this documentary includes talking
heads from lesbian influencers such as Az Marie Livingston from Fox’s
“Empire,” Lea DeLaria from Netflix’s “Orange is The New Black”, D Pimping from MTV’s
“Catfish” and many more. The film also follows the journey of four women’s
stories and how they deal with discrimination in the community. One of those women is
Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, best known for playing a murderer on HBO’s “The Wire,” who explains the criticism she faced in trying to become more feminine for a role as a hooker in
Spike Lee’s movie “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” without losing her lesbian fans and
her own masculine identity.
It was important to get influencers who were
leaders in this community to help usher the change, but it was equally important
to see everyday people, such as pregnant stud Jordan, whose life we also follow
in the film. Jordan has had to sleep with a gun by her bed to defend herself and her unborn child from threatening conditions in the community.
"The Same Difference" has gone from a
film to a form of activism. Selling out theaters multiple times around the
country, the interviews and the conversations starting around it range from
psychological conversations on where these behaviors are learned, as well as
medical conversations about how masculine women are less likely to have pap
smears because they don’t want to embrace their femininity. The film has not only given a voice to women who otherwise are overlooked, but also speaks for people who are fearful of saying how they really feel in fear of
rejection. That is the beauty of documentary filmmaking.
Beyond that, this issue is relatable
to all subcultures. As humans, we face being discriminated against or put into a
box and pigeonholed daily. This movie helps us understand what we might be doing wrong and how we participate in the oppression(s) of other human beings. The
reaction that I often get from people after each screening is, "Wow, I do
that to people and didn’t realize how ignorant my own thoughts were."
Documentary filmmaking has great influence in the world, and I think it is quite
important for all of us to continue to shed light on our issues to help build stronger and more productive lives and selves.
Nneka Onuorah started her career at Viacom as a "super-intern" at BET Networks — a title given to her by The New York Times. After moving her way up to coordinator and to producer on awards
shows and specials, Onuorah used her television experience and personal story to
create her very first film, "The Same Difference," a documentary about
lesbians who discriminate against other lesbians based on gender roles.