Meet the Photographer Who is Capturing and Preserving Diverse Lesbian Identity

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“I think it is crucial for women to reclaim the word lesbian, because by definition a lesbian is a homosexual woman. Period. Nowhere in the definition do you find labels, or unwanted stigmas.”

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Photo: ©Rachael Zimmerman Photography

Rachael Zimmerman (above photo) is on a mission to highlight the inherent diversity among lesbians, to encourage us to embrace ourselves and others, and move beyond stereotypes. To that end, she is also a champion of reclaiming the word “lesbian” at a time when some gay women are shunning the word.  In April of 2016, the Colorado-based photographer/photojournalist began photographing women in the US and in Chile, and plans to extend her photo series to include 100 women, including couples and families, that will be made into a book. I spoke with Rachael about what inspired this project, her thoughts on lesbian identity and diversity, and why reclaiming the word lesbian is so important.

AE: “What inspired you to start this project?” 

RZ: “My inspirations stemmed from both personal experiences and observations. While living in a mountain town for several years, I was constantly mistaken for a male. Long hair is a popular style for both men and women in the mountains. I dress slightly masculine, or what I believe is neutral. It didn’t matter if I was on the mountain skiing freely through the trees, or if I was buying hardware products at Home Depot. Also known as “Homo Depot” because the stereotypical lesbian swings a hammer and the stereotypical gay man magically transforms his old victorian home, in a gentrifying neighborhood, with a fresh coat of paint. None the less being misgendered for years displayed the lack of knowledge of the general population. When I was misgendered I was treated very differently.”

AE: “You have mentioned that gender stereotypes can play a role in dividing the lesbian community. What have you observed over the course of your project?”

RZ: “My observations of this community over the last ten years have led me to believe that lesbians are mimicking the gender hierarchy. Androgynous and masculine women are thought to be more prestigious, while feminine women are less than. Feminine women are constantly having to defend their sexuality to both their community and outsiders. Often I hear androgynous women claiming to be “gayer” than feminine lesbians. This is shocking. Individual preferences such as hobbies and styles do not play a role in sexual identity.”

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Photo: ©Rachael Zimmerman Photography

AE: “In recent years there has been a lot of discussion in the LGBT communities about the stigma of the word lesbian, and the “disappearing lesbian” as more youth embrace the word queer in favor it.  Do you see women who are hesitant to identify specifically as lesbians just due to the stigma of the word alone? Or are you finding women who embrace it? “

RZ: “I’ve talked to a good number of women who identify as queer and therefore don’t want to be featured. Some identify as queer because they are gender fluid, don’t like labels, feel they are more open to gender sexually, or are still exploring their sexuality. But yes,  some of the women that I have featured in the series hate the word lesbian. My experience is that most of these women are feminine. They don’t relate to the stereotypical “lesbian” term, as women who are still perceived as being masculine, and “dykey.”

AE: “I’ve also noticed that there are women out there who are associating the word “lesbian” as somehow a certain way of looking, or as a political notion, and that’s unfortunate. I hope young women will realize that lesbianism is a sexual orientation that is is no way shameful. How do you feel about the word lesbian, personally?”

RZ: “I think it is crucial for women to reclaim the word lesbian, because by definition a lesbian is a homosexual woman. Period. Nowhere in the definition do you find labels, or unwanted stigmas.”

AE: “Are you finding lesbians who embrace the word?” 

RZ: “I have also found many women who embrace the term lesbian, yes. Most of them are a a little older and have had more experience in the community. These women are proud to live their lives authentically, regardless of others’ perceptions.”

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Photo: ©Rachael Zimmerman Photography

AE: “Where do you find the women you photograph?”

RZ:  “I have found majority of the women for the series on dating apps. My profile displays the project and I’m very up front about my intentions.”

AE: “The title of your project is ‘Inside the Black Triangle.’ Tell us how you chose that title and its significance.” 

RZ: “When I began the project it was called, “What Does a Lesbian Look Like?”. My goal was to display that a lesbian can look anyway she pleases. Overtime the title evolved. The black triangle was used in Nazi concentration camps to identify asocial and atypical behavior, therefore lesbians fell into this category. Gay men were recognizable with a pink triangle symbol. In the 1960’s and 1970’s lesbians and feminists reclaimed the black triangle symbol as a sign as solidarity, strength and pride. I believe as lesbians we need to reclaim the word. The project is more than what a lesbian looks like, it’s who we are. Our unique experiences, both good and bad, our diverse stories.”

AE: “What do you hope ‘Inside The Black Triangle’ will ultimately achieve?”

RZ: ” I hope to bring more understanding to people outside of the LBGTQ community. When we share stories, emotions are evoked in the audience, and many will relate to aspects of their own lives. This leads to compassion and acceptance. Another goal is to bring more awareness inside the community. It’s a bit of an oxymoron that LGBTQ people want to be accepted as equals among the general population, when some are incredibly judgmental of members of their own community.”

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Photo: ©Rachael Zimmerman Photography

Follow Rachael Zimmerman’s photo series and “Inside the Black Triangle” project on her WEBSITE and on social media: IG @insidetheblacktriangle  and  Facebook. You can also see more of her photography on her personal IG Account: @rachaelzimmermanphotography.

All images © Rachael Zimmerman Photography 

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