Lea DeLaria Reveals What’s Underneath the Butch Struggle

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After watching the Lea DeLaria interview on StyleLikeU, I can only think one thing: Get me the names of the 30 people who stood around and watched DeLaria get butch-bashed— A beat down so extreme, she was kept in the hospital for 3 days.

“The worst of it was that people watched it happen and did nothing to intercede…” says Lea DeLaria, “…30 people that did nothing.”

She excuses them, but I don’t.  Even before I knew who Stormé DeLarverie was, I could always hear her Stonewall call to arms, somewhere in the back of my mind— “WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?!” I wish I could. I wish I could San Junipero to the 80’s, Pride week in San Fran, when a man broke Lea DeLaria’s nose, damaged her eye socket and cracked her ribs, because I know I would’ve had her back.

Red lipstick, long hair and all— DeLaria isn’t a fan of stereotypes and neither am I— I’m THAT girl… the girl in the parking lot who jumped on a guy’s back because he was pummeling my high school friend’s face to a pulp (while his ‘boys’ just stood there and watched). The girl on the 6 train who made a crying shoe-less teenager get off the train, and then stood in front of the closing doors, arms crossed, staring down the gang of teens who were threatening to kill him once they reached their stop. “Saved by a girl” one of them muttered. A girl, yes…that’s me,  red lipstick, long hair and all. And I know I got lucky. I know it wasn’t the smart thing to do. But it was the right thing to do.

Photo: Denis Largeron

Photo: Denis Largeron

Lea DeLaria has short hair and doesn’t wear lipstick, but that doesn’t mean she’s out starting bar fights and looking to throw down— She’s dedicated her life to fighting media stereotypes of lesbians, that either erase ‘butch’ women or reduce them to a hyperbole. She looks dapper in a suit, but that doesn’t mean she should be subjected to profoundly sexist tropes like: ‘If you wanna act like a man, I’ll treat you like a man.’ But that’s exactly the type of abuse that’s exacerbated by the media. In this short interview, DeLaria reveals some hidden truths: Society consistently fails to protect ‘androgynous’ women, even within the ‘LGBT’ community. And the media perpetuates the mistreatment of butch women by turning them into a punchline, or a problem that needs to be fixed.

“My entire life has been trying to put a positive spin on what it is to be butch. Media has always portrayed us as fat and stupid… and we beat our wives, we cause fights, we drive trucks,” Lea DeLaria says.

In 2017, DeLaria is still the only butch actress to play a prominent role on a mainstream show. She’s been playing the same butch punchline (punching bag) since the 90’s, when she was cast an extra, a guest at Carol and Susan’s wedding on Friends. Still, to this day, butch lesbians are seen as something to be ridiculed and/or obliterated. Lesbians are only ever portrayed through the inaccuracy of the male gaze. And in that vision, there’s nothing more off-putting than a lesbian who isn’t both ‘femme’ and pliable. ‘Lesbian’ couples on TV fit a formula where one of them must be bisexual and they BOTH must be femme. While representing femme and bi characters is great— this formula keeps the stigma of androgynous lesbians alive and well. Even female writers must follow this formula to appease male-dominated networks. While the media is finally starting to represent more women of color, the only andro-adjacent WOC represented on TV— Poussey— is given a punchline for a name, falls for a straight woman, and subsequently becomes a victim of bury-your-andro black lesbian.

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Samira Wiley plays the role of a somewhat ‘andro’ lesbian, Poussey, on OITNB

Smokey eye-shadowed Shane (one of the only other somewhat butch-adjacent leads on TV) is scripted to admit she’s prostituted herself to gay men— Oh, but she “only” gave them “hand jobs.” The phenomenon itself— Shane’s ‘androgynous’ appearance making her an object of desire for gay men— is very real. However, the male fantasy of an actual lesbian prostituting herself to gay men is unrealistic. This fetishizing of androgynous lesbians is rarely, if ever, discussed. But the misogyny of it, the systematic abuse that androgynous women are targeted with, even within the gay community, is unparalleled.

“Emotions are something that I…” DeLaria sings,  “…shove it down, don’t feel it.” She adds, “And trying to put this big strong face on everything.”

Society crushes butch and androgynous women on a regular basis, and it crushes all of us by extension. There’s nothing like watching the woman you love get called “Sir” on a regular basis by snarky waitstaff or the grocery cashier. Nothing like watching her get propositioned by gay men every time she dares step foot into WEHO. ‘But…come on… She’s really a man, right?’— People actually say things like this. It’s the: ‘She’s asking for it’, only on the polar opposite end of mini-skirt blaming.
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DeLaria portrays mainstream’s first and only ‘butch’ lesbian (stereotype) as a main character on OITNB

“I felt very deeply each insult that would happen to me. Every time somebody called me a dyke on the street when I was younger and I remember wanting to change things…so that didn’t happen.”

When DeLaria talks about wanting to “change,” no one, other than lesbians, can possibly know how bad it gets. Here’s a small peek into our world: A little over a year ago, when a butch lesbian bought a gay dive bar in Westchester NY, gay men staged a boycott. While a small number of wonderfully loyal gay men tried to support her, the majority put her out of business in a matter of months, even though she promised not to make it a lesbian bar. The new owner hired me to tend bar (just one night a week).  She hired one other lesbian as a barback, a young butch woman who was propositioned nightly by gay men— She would try to set them straight, or when it got to be too much, she would tell me, and then I would try. When the older gay man that managed the bar opened his mouth one night, to show her its contents (what he’d been doing in the alley way) she didn’t know what to do. And this is the sort of abuse that happens to andro lesbians all the time.

“There’s this thing inside your head, when you get home like at the end of your day and you walk into your apartment and you close the door and… there’s a part of you that goes, ‘phew. Made it. Nobody beat me up, nobody called me a dyke on the street. Today was a good day.”

Photo via Buzzfeed

Photo via Buzzfeed

 The media teaches young butch lesbians that they’re so revolting, people should take a jab at them, and, as DeLaria says, the “media has always portrayed [butch lesbians] as fat and stupid.” DeLaria says she “ate a lot as a comfort situation.” How exactly are lesbians supposed to find comfort in a world that doesn’t want them… unless they can be the ‘right’ kind of lesbian? What kind of harm might they inflict upon themselves?

In a 2017 People Entertainment video, the explanation for why the only butch character on the show, Moira, becomes Max— “Moira kind of doesn’t really fit with the rest of the group… she’s not a girly–girl.”  In a Curve interview, Lea DeLaria says, “Queer people are more inclined to support transmen than they are butches— not that there’s anything wrong with supporting transmen. All I’m saying is nelly fags and butch dykes still bear the brunt of animosity in society, and especially from our own community.”

We see this very reality reflected in the media: DeLaria is the first butch lesbian actress to play a major role on a mainstream series, OITNB, but she still portrays the butch stereotype… Yet Elliot Fletcher, featured on The Fosters (and on Shameless), doesn’t portray a caricature or a punchline at all.

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Lesbian couple on ‘The Fosters’ depicts mainstream’s palatable version of a lesbian couple.

Everything we see is filtered through a mainstream marketing campaign, geared to reinvent lesbians into something more palatable to the masses. The desire to change, kill off, humiliate, and shame butch women, doesn’t just hurt androgynous women, it hurts the women that love them and the entire lesbian community. Still, the majority watch and say nothing— A silence which is eerily reminiscent of DeLaria’s assault at Gay Pride in 1980, while 30 people just stood there and did nothing.

“The stuff that you get, whether it’s in the in the media or whatever…” DeLaria says, “…it’s all very male oriented. It’s all about how it’s gonna affect them as a man.”

As for the “whatever” DeLaria references, I think I can fill in the blanks: The government. Lawmakers. Organizations. Journalism… The animosity towards lesbians isn’t just maintained by a male-dominated mainstream, it’s maintained by a male-dominated ‘LGBT.’

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Homophobia is a generalized term, but because everything is male-dominated, the homophobia is specifically directed at lesbians. We’ve been so conditioned to see the world through man-goggles, we often don’t realize it’s happening. Women are conditioned to perpetuate misogyny. And in 2017 it’s getting worse. Teen Vogue is teaching young girls to give anal sex a try, labeling diagrams of their sex organs “non prostate owners.” While the clitoris— the most essential part of female anatomy, when it comes to sexual pleasure— is left off the diagram entirely.

“Gay ‘conversion therapy’ has been proven not to work. But you can unlearn your own prejudices; it just takes time and conscious effort.”—Everyday Feminism.

Like most women in a male-dominated… well… everything… DeLaria can only say so much if she wants to keep her job. But she says a lot in this obscure, fairly short interview, and that’s where the torch gets passed to women like me— red lipstick, ponytail and all. As DeLaria tells her story, I instinctively want to protect her— and I will push a ‘stud’ behind me when I see danger approaching. They might not like it, but I’ll do it. That’s my instinct. No one understands the pain and daily struggle of a butch or andro girl like a femme. The psychological warfare waged upon butch and andro women, and lesbians in general, is severe. Yet in 2017, lesbians aren’t really ‘allowed’ to gather or talk about these things outside of patriarchal rule. And, as a result, we’ve gone underground and set up secret spaces where we can talk in private. Secret passwords and all. History, repeating itself:

“Keep your  [homosexual] ‘preferences’ to yourself. And speaking of [same sex] ‘preferences,’ here is some recommended reading from The Establishment about how preferences are, in fact, exclusionary and wrong” —Pride.com

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DeLaria recently said that “because of mainstream assimilationist wannabe queers who usurped our movement in the early part of our century, we’re back to where we were before.” Shame. Homophobia… She’s seen a lot. DeLaria is 50-something years old, and as I watch her strip down— a theme in StyleLikeU interviews— I have mixed feelings (about the stripping). Especially when I hear a male voice cheer her on with an emphatic “yes!” in the background, as she takes off her pants and gets down to her boxers. Now that she’s been given a tiny platform, on which she can drop the butch stereotype, I can actually see her. I have a newfound love and respect for Lea DeLaria… and this happens way before her clothes come off.

DeLaria on StyleLikeU

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