“Ah, but you don’t look like a lezza”

Is a charming pick up line that, as a “straight-seeming” gay woman, I have heard on many an occasion; from the wasted dude at the pub who smells like Jack Daniels and lost dreams and ogles my non-existent, B cup cleavage like misogyny is going out of fashion; from the obnoxious friend of a friend of a brother of your best mate that you’re stuck talking to at some terrible house party in North Sydney who deems it appropriate to quiz you on your sexual resume; from the guy mate who just will not accept their free of charge, all-access, lifetime pass into your Friend-Zone. But I digress.

Now, I’m no mathematician, but if someone was to draw a Venn diagram to display the concerns of a young heterosexual westerner in 2014 and the concerns of a young queer westerner in 2014, I feel like the intersection would be a lot larger than people expect.

Sadly this is still not reflected in popular culture. There is no shortage of brilliantly written, cathartically validating entertainment out there for your average Gen Y Joe. The past five years have seen an influx of films, TV programs and web series dedicated to singing the solipsistic but soothing anthem of the plight of growing up in the age of the internet. But for your not-so-average-queer-identified Gen Y Joe, the entertainment options are no rich pickings.
The possibility of seeing yourself reflected through the eyes of an incredible actor or the mind of a fearless writer is scarce. And it isn’t because the stories aren’t out there – they absolutely are, in gathering numbers – they just aren’t being told. They aren’t being supported/funded/distributed at the frequency that they could by the people who have the money and the leverage to make it happen.

The big studios will cherry-pick LGBT characters and themes, shoving them jarringly and condescendingly into the storylines of sporadic films just to fill the minimum quota and silence the equality lobbyists.
It’s as if Hollywood is run by one blue-suited man with a faultless side-part declaring “You know what the world needs? Another love story about a white, Christian, upper middle class guy and gal who look like they source their entire wardrobe exclusively from Gap”. And so it is left largely to the independent crusaders to tell the stories of the world as it is, not as the Westboro Baptist Church thinks it should be. ( http://www.glaad.org/sri/2014 – if you want the warts and all statistics)

It was my desire to join the crusade that led me to work on Zoe.Misplaced , an indie feature by Mekelle Mills and Starting From…Now!, a web-series by Julie Kalceff. In both productions I saw a passionate cast and crew of professionals ( 90% of whom were working up to 80 hour weeks entirely pro bono) who had important stories to tell and the eloquence to tell them. Armed with the logic of “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, both Mills and Kalceff have succeeded in independently creating empires of their own outside of the margins that society has dictated for the LGBTQI folk. ( Go on friends, pay  http://www.zoemisplaced.com/  and  http://www.startingfromnowtv.com/  a visit!)

A large catalyst for my involvement in projects like these was that I never had anything like it  in those agonisingly awkward years when I was trying to figure out who I was. Growing up as a lady-loving lady, I felt totally isolated from the reading and viewing materials churned out for the masses. Girls magazines were filled with “How to be the girl he wants” and “69 ways to please your man” – which made me balk not only for the obvious reason of my sexual preference but because publications like that hurt every bone in my ardently feminist body. The films and TV programs I saw as I trundled awkwardly towards adulthood were also riddled with hackneyed renditions of boy meets girl.

“Well why didn’t you just watch a lesbian film?” I hear you cry.
“Well, what an excellent suggestion, thank you, friend,” I would reply “But the main flaw in that plan is that 97% of them are completely, unabashedly, God-awful terrible.”

Even within the “Gay and Lesbian” aisle of Civic Video (I say aisle, but it was more like twelve DVDs shoved onto the arse-end of “Arthouse”) I could find no reprieve. That is unless I wanted to watch a horrifically acted, horrifically written travesty that depicted all lesbians as either:

A) Sexual predators with horrendous haircuts and an unhealthy proclivity for leather trousers, preying on straight/married women
B) Scantily clad teenagers demurely exploring their sexuality in a male-centric, pornographic way
C) Dullard, tortured misanthropists with atrocious tastes in music and women who inevitably top themselves.
D) Laddish sport fanatics with zero sense of humour

There was nothing for me there.

A) I like to think of myself as a moralistic, realistic romantic with a viable dress sense.
B) I know that I’m gay and want to see stories about women who have graduated from the experimental stage. And have sex like people have sex.
C) I like people (when I’m not working in hospitality) . I like The Smiths and Melanie Laurent. I like existing (most of the time)
D) I’m terrible at sport. I find myself funny.

Gazing upon the DVD options as an eighteen year old lesbian, the future looked bleak. I didn’t see myself in any of these women. I certainly didn’t want to become any of them. There were no positive role models or keyholes into any edifying girl/girl relationships.

But with Starting From…Now! I saw my future afresh for the first time. It follows the lives of a group of women – not teenagers, not girls, not giggling, blushing maidens – real women with successful careers, love-filled relationships and self-knowledge. Of course, these elements ebb and flow and the fortunes of the characters alter for better or worse (without conflict there’s no story – otherwise why are you even watching a web series? You might as well go and stare at a nectarine for seven minutes) but the heartaches and the hardships arise from the fact that these women are humans, not because they are gay. It’s also a refreshing departure beyond the introspective walls of your early twenties – these characters have worked through that teething process and are on to the next one.

Things have improved considerably since I was eighteen. The deserving winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, brought an unapologetically real and raw love story between two women crashing right into the mainstream. The film notoriously accrued a lot of controversy about the explicit nature and length of the love scenes and had a lot of people – a lot of them being lesbians – questioning the veracity of the depiction of lesbian sexuality and the real target audience. The question was raised more than once “Is this finally a film for the validation of lesbians? Or is it another over-eroticised, glorified girl-on-girl porno shot by a man?”. I have to say that I never saw it in that light. Sure, it wasn’t ideal – some of the sex seemed a little incongruous and mechanical in parts – but I really appreciated that the film actually went there. I’d never seen anything like it in a film that I was watching in a cinema. Not even close. It wasn’t the conventional, insipid depiction of lesbian sex. It didn’t shy away and generate yet another patronising stereotype of gentle kissing, hand holding and then a not-so-subtle camera pan to the fireplace. To me it portrayed – in a refreshingly unfiltered way -just what it was supposed to: two humans madly in love.
I was frustrated that the majority of critics were so preoccupied with the sexual aspects that they largely neglected to note the merits of the film. I thought the acting, the writing, and the cinematography were all phenomenal and perfectly captured the total agony of finding and losing love. Watching that film was the first time in my 22 years that I felt I had truly seen myself in a character and a story.

There have been a handful of exemplary films and television programs made in recent years that have told LGBT stories with enterprising dexterity. Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance and Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways are three that immediately spring to mind. Each are masterpieces in their own right and deserve your attention regardless of your sexual orientation. The pure brilliance and global success of Orange Is The New Black speaks for itself. But my point remains; there really is only a handful.

I don’t mean to sound like a negative Nancy about all of this. There are some aces people out there doing some aces work in the campaign for equality. I feel a deep responsibility to express my gratitude for those who fought at Stonewall – and before it – to enable me to have the license to be the person I am today. I don’t mean to deflate how far we’ve come; it’s just that I can see that bright and brave, ever newer world looming just out of reach. The puzzle pieces are all there. We just need to assemble them. Now more than ever we can be working at a higher, more productive rate with more support behind us to be getting our stories out there.

I am a white, western woman with no religious or cultural inhibitions to my sexuality; I have a supportive family with warm hearts and open minds and I live in the unofficial lesbian capital of Australia. In the broad spectrum of queer people in the world, I am in an incredibly fortunate position. And yet even I  experience homophobia when I walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand. I never feel safe walking her home. Friends’ boyfriends still say things like “Nah like I get the whole ‘two straight girls banging’ thing, like in porn, I just don’t get the whole ‘two girls actually in love’ thing. I just think it’s gross. I just think it’s wrong.” We still have m-i-l-e-s to go.

I don’t begrudge homophobic people. I’m not a hypocrit. If someone reproaches me once they realise I’m gay, I’m not about to reproach them once I realise they’re a bigot. I don’t want a fight. I just want understanding. That’s really all it is. I want to be shown the same respect and love that I endeavour to show every soul I encounter. The more they differ from me, the more I seek to understand them, that’s how humanity works, right? Underneath the crippling, aggregating layers of shit? Now, I’m not about to book a kayaking holiday with Shirley Phelps-Roper, but I am wholeheartedly committed to creating projects that can further destigmatise and honour my community for the benefit of both parties.

In order to achieve this understanding, we need to be giving more independent writers like Julie Kalceff and Mekelle Mills the conch and – just as imperatively – more funding. We need to keep distributing the stories that celebrate the triumphs, not just the disparities of life as a queer person; we need to keep bridging that still elusive gap between our communities. The lens through which we choose to capture the stories we need to tell is inextricable from how that picture will be seen by the greater populace. If we want to see progressive results, the song we sing to vindicate our voice needs to hit a brighter, major note. Maybe then the LGBTQI community can outgrow the blinkered parameters forged by the mainstream at a more accelerated pace. Maybe then within a few years time we’ll be watching blockbusters starring queer characters with clout and humanity, not just peripheral players smuggled clumsily into conventional plot lines, serving only to facilitate a detrimental stereotype. Maybe then the dude at the pub, the guy at the party and the persistent mate won’t have such a stifling idea of what a “lezza” looks like.

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11 thoughts on ““Ah, but you don’t look like a lezza”

  1. Hey Clem! We met very briefly on the set of SFN and thought you were super cool. I think you’re even cooler now after having read this. “Blue is the Warmest Colour” was for me the film of the decade. It blew me away and had me curled up in the foetal position for the better part of a week after I saw it. It’s brilliant cinema.

    Im with you on how truely AWFUL some lesbian films are, but there are quite a few good ones out there. I can give you a list if you want 😉

    Also Ive always wanted to make a “John Hughes” type lesbian movie. A feel-good, light hearted, coming of age, funny film, that just happens to have lesbians in it. Maybe one day I’ll actually write it. 🙂

    Have an awesome day 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chris, yes I remember – It was rad to meet you too! I’m glad you enjoyed BITWC too and that it was able to affect you in that way. I totally hear what you’re saying about there being some great lesbian films out there – I have a small list myself that accounts for the 3% that isn’t the 97% of terrible ones 🙂 A feel-good coming of age drama for lesbians with a bit of John Hughes’ humour in there is just what the world needs! I’d love to see a film like that, you should get writing lady 🙂

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  2. Mary M says:

    Have you seen “Imagine me and you”? Truly great love story, no sex, but my gosh can you feel the love and attraction they have for each other from the get go! I do wish there was a little more intimacy in it, but my chest feels warm throughout the movie no matter how many times I watch it!
    Great article Clementine. I agree with everything you said. Thank you for that!
    In my days of innocence, if I heard any woman talking sports, and they had short hair, I would assume they were gay! Terrible! Being gay myself, and loving sports, I would always keep my hair long!! No one will know!!
    I’ve seen the series and movie you were referring to. Loved them both! If you’ve got a list to share of any newer ones, would appreciate it!
    Thank you again on your beautifully written article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your kind words – I’m so glad you could relate to this article and that you enjoyed “Zoe.Misplaced” and “Starting From…Now!”, that’s lovely to hear. We’ll be launching the third season of SFN at the end of this year so keep your eye on the Facebook page for updates 🙂 I have seen “Imagine Me and You” yes, it’s a very sweet film. I hope that these days you feel as though you can have your hair any length you like and like as much sports as you like without it defining you. Thanks for your feedback Mary 🙂

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  3. You had me at “solipsistic”. As a 19 year old lesbian I learnt that word from the classic Australian lesbian themed film “Love and Other Catastrophes”. It was one of my two “coming out” films. I certainly hope you have seen it!

    Great thoughts, i agree. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lisa! I haven’t seen it, no – I grew up in England and New Zealand so it must have gone quite over my head. But on your recommendation I’ll check it out – Radha Mitchell is a brilliant actress. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for the kind feedback 🙂

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  4. Mentioned Blue Is The Warmest Color, easily one of the best foreign language films in the last 20 years, and for me that’s a big tick. So deserved to be seen by a wider, more mainstream audience, that film was bloody fantastic. A Single Man was awesome too, and it looks like I’ll have to go look up those others and give them a try.

    (PS I found you through the Starting From…Now website)

    I mentioned on an article I wrote about SFN during the week that I wondered why cinema – Hollywood particularly – still depends on labels to tell their stories. The thing about BITWC, for instance, wasn’t that it was a love story between two women, but two people. That same film would have worked if it was two young guys, or a heterosexual couple (IMO), because the strength of the characters was more important than who they screwed in the privacy of their own homes. It was purely and simply a heartbreaking look at a relationship first, and a couple of gay women second. Again, just my opinion, but that’s how I felt after I stopped crying long enough to watch the closing credits.

    Why our society continues to label people in such ways, even as well intentioned as many people probably are, is something I think we (as a society) need to overcome if we’re all to just be…. people. That’s who we are, just people. Dependence on sexuality, as much as race or religion, shouldn’t be the driving factor in telling good stories. It should just be about the people.

    Nice write up, anyway. Good luck with S4 of SFN! Can’t wait to see you in a larger role!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks heaps for your thoughts Fernby and I totally agree with what you say about Hollywood’s preoccupation with labels. Really chuffed that you enjoyed my ramblings and glad that you’re enjoying SFN – The next seasons are looking pretty exciting, we can’t wait to share them!

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  5. The answer to this is simple. But first the problem. It is substantially easier for gay men to get funding. Interestingly enough gay men have similar complaints about movies being made for them; they are all the same.

    Somehow we need to go against the lesbian stereotype and band together to try to figure out how we can support one another on a worldwide scale.

    Fortunately this year has given us some incredible films which aren’t like any other in our genre. Living in L.A. I’m pretty sure every lesbian I meet has a feature in her pocket which she can’t get the money to produce, including myself. Fortunately web series has shown us our talent and given us a platform but I’m greedy and I want more.

    By the way, hated Blue is the Warmest Color. To me it felt like a straight man’s excuse to abuse actors. I didn’t find any intelligence in it. But hey, I’m the minority on that one it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

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