Intersectionality is a concept that affects everyone. It is the idea that no matter who you are, you have multiple identities within you, that affect the outcome of your life, and all your interactions. For many marginalized groups, intersectionality can dramatically affect the amount of oppression, and injustice that plagues their communities. Within the black lesbian community, different labels are used to categorize different types of women. The main categories include dykes, femmes, and studs. Both dykes and studs are similar in the way that they are more masculine presenting than feminine, but the major difference is usually in outward appearance; a dyke is usually more polarized to the masculine side of their identity, compared to a stud. A femme, on the other hand, is polarized to the exact opposite side of the gender identity spectrum, she might be invested in her appearance, wear makeup, and act according to the societal standard of “girly girls.” With that being said, if there is a black lesbian who does not fit perfectly into one of these boxes, she is demonized and characterized as weird or not included; In turn, women often feel pressured to force themselves into these rigid boxes to fit in. This unfortunate, yet realistic scenario then leads to the perpetuating of patriarchal standards and hegemonic masculinity. Instead of women going against the patriarch and being their authentic selves, they are conforming to standards that society, and more specifically men put in place to force women to behave a certain way, which subordinates patriarchal ideals. Within the black community, lesbians place strict labels on their gender expression; These labels not only force black lesbians to succumb to strict gender rules, but they also perpetuate toxic masculinity within the black community.
American society depicts black lesbians as having to have a strongly aligned sexuality and gender expression. Gender expression is how you decide to portray your gender on the outside; while sexuality has to do with who you are attracted to sexually. The two have little to no correlation to each other yet are constantly smushed together within society. This is specifically the case for black lesbians. It is assumed that if you are a lesbian within the black community, that you automatically are masculine, or you “want to be a boy.” Not only have I experienced this within society, but it was my experience within my own family. Anyone who knows me knows how extremely girly I am. I was a cheerleader, a dancer, I love makeup, and I am probably the picture that comes to mind when you think of the word “feminine.” When I came out, my family stopped buying me things like sweatpants, hats, and other “masculine” presenting clothes because they felt like they were somehow contributing to me being lesbian. This is true to very many lesbians within the black community. Not only is there the view of masculinity within lesbians, but there is also the very opposite of the spectrum, a femme. This is the complete opposite of a stud, not masculine at, sometimes even considered straight passing. In the movie “Pariah,” the main character Alike shows us both of these labels in different settings. The film is about a young woman who is in the closet within her family but finds her escape within her friends and social settings. When she is at home, within her family, she must conform to the standard of a “femme” to pose as straight. When she tries to break the boundaries and maybe wear pants or a button-up shirt, her family shares their harsh opinions about the gender norms that she should conform to. On the other hand, when she is with her friends, who are also gay and accept her for who she is, they still place her in the box of a “dyke,” having to dress, act, and think a certain masculine way. There is a scene where Alike tells her friends that she wants to go to a poetry slam, and change up her look, and her friend replies that the strip club is better and that she should dress as masculine as possible. The film shows the dichotomy between Alike fitting in, but also not fitting in. Even when she tries to be herself, that is not enough, and when she tries to be someone who is not herself, she does not do it correctly. These boxes place strict rules and guidelines for gender expression based on sexuality when in reality those two are not aligned the way society portrays them to be.
When black lesbians are forced into these boxes, they internalize these strict standards, and in turn demonstrate toxic masculinity. Many times, because society does not separate the idea of gender expression and sexuality, they assume that lesbians “want to be men,” and because that expectation is set, many lesbians feel forced to “man up” in social situations. Instead of acting like their normal selves, lesbians will feel like they have to overcompensate for their masculinity to be taken seriously. This, in turn, causes women to exhibit toxic masculinity, especially towards other women. In the film “Set It Off,” Queen Latifah’s character, Cleo, effectively portrays this. The movie is about a group of women who rob multiple banks to relieve themselves from poverty. Cleo, who is portrayed as a black lesbian, more importantly, a dyke, is the epitome of toxic masculinity. There is a scene where she gets demonized for having half-naked women in her presence constantly and skipping out on her priorities. In response to thins, she not only holds a gun to her best friend’s head but also diminishes the rest of the women and places them below her. Because of her lesbian identity, she is forced to overcompensate for her masculinity to make others “believe” her expression.
Many mainstream media sources attempt to portray black lesbians in a “different” light but are viewed as weird or outlandish within the community. In many media sources, we see the “outliers” and the exceptions to these rules. This is the reason that many people assume this is either not an issue, or a positive thing, because of the way media shows things. In the popular television show “Orange Is the New Black,” the character Poussey shows us exactly this. Poussey is who she wants to be, and never feels forced to fit into any boxes. She has her hair cut short, and is a lesbian, but also loves to read and better herself. She does not outwardly express toxic masculinity; in fact, she is very much against patriarchy and the belittling of women. When seeing a show like this we may believe that these labels are not such a bad thing, or that they don’t affect many people, but this is incorrect. Even though she may not have viewed herself in a strong masculine way, many people still treated her as such, and this leads to her brutal inhumane death. Because many of the guards associated her with a man, more than a woman because of her sexuality and gender expression, she was treated with aggression and force. If this was any other person in the general public, she would be forced into a box, or outcast because she does not fit.
Within American society, many people lack the ability to understand that gender expression and sexuality to not always align. For black lesbians specifically, there are labels placed upon them based on their gender expression. With labels such as stud, dyke, and femme, women feel forced to contain their personality to fit into a box to fit society's standards of what a lesbian looks like. Instead of these labels empowering us, they oppress us, and within this oppression comes the outward expression of toxic masculinity. Because of this epidemic studs and dykes specifically, are placed into social situations where they feel the need to overcompensate in their masculinity, and this leads to them demonstrating toxic masculinity, this is shown not only in the media through television, and movies, but we see this within the black community daily. Without these labels, black lesbians would be able to live freely and express who they truly are without feeling the burden of society’s standard weigh them down.
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Kohan, Jenji(2013), Orange Is the New Black, USA: Lionsgate Television, Tilted Productions
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