Nneka Onuorah’s “The Same Difference” stirs a movement for black queer women

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Nneka Onuorah‘s new film The Same Difference puts a spotlight on the black lesbian/bisexual community in a way that is not only necessary, but long overdue. The documentary, which premieres at Frameline next Tuesday, explores the internal-homophobia and gender roles that play out within our own community, including the kind of judgment that stud-on-stud couples, bisexual women and pregnant aggressives face from their peers.

Ten years after The Aggressives told the story of ag lesbians (or black women who prefer more masculine attire and stature), The Same Difference interviews well-known figures like Snoop Pearson (The Wire), Lea Delaria (Orange is the New Black), AzMarie Livingston (Empire) and Dee Pimpin (Catfish), as well as friends and other people in the community who share their strong opinions on whether they think the policing of our identities are helpful or hurtful. Without condemning any of the participants or their thoughts, The Same Difference examines the relationships the black queer female community has with itself and within the larger scope of the LGBT rainbow.

We spoke with Nneka about the impetus of the film and why it’s just one part of a larger movement.

 

AfterEllen.com: What inspired this documentary?

Nneka Onuorah: I decided to make a documentary about discrimination in the lesbian community because I’ve seen it so much, growing up in the community. And as I was growing up, a lot of times I got discriminated against for not picking a side—you know, not picking the more masculine side all the time and not necessarily picking the more feminine side. So I wanted to create content that liberated and changed lives. I also was trying to make my transition from television into film and I thought the best way to do that was to do it through content that really meant something to me personally, and that would help liberate people. Unfortunately in media, lesbians are kind of the lowest on the totem pole as far as LGBT. There’s not a lot of us represented on television besides The L Word and definitely for the urban community of lesbians, there’s definitely not a platform. So I wanted to create that platform and I wanted to kind of help change the environment and kind of be an activist in my art.

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AE: I love that you have so many different perspectives in the film. How important was it for you to tell the story from all different sides?

NO: I took time and did my research. I looked at what the issues were. A lot of times on YouTube, when I was coming up, there’d be videos on YouTube of lesbians talking about all these different topics and would get millions of views. So I’m like, “Wow, they have an audience there.” There’s people who want to know what’s going on in this community and this community is very opinionated and boisterous so I went online and did research on the topics most people were dealing with and that most people were discriminated against on. And then I would always see memes online of pregnant aggressive women and people just talking negatively about them, and I saw one of them was trying to kill herself and commit suicide online, because people were talking about her being pregnant. So it was really important for me to get these stories because a lot of the time, how we’re discriminated against in the LGBT community by heterosexual people, we’re dealing with the same thing inside—but how would anyone know that unless it was talked about or highlighted? Just really doing my research and talking to people who have been discriminated against online. I asked online when I first started, “What’s your biggest problem with the lesbian community?” and a lot of the same answers is what I got, so I tried to make sure those were in the documentary.

 

AE: You could have easily put yourself into the film and talked about your own experiences. Why did you decide to take a step back and let other people tell the story?

NO: You know what? Because it’s not about me. The story is bigger than me. Obviously my life is part of the women’s stories in the film, but I really wanted to showcase it and I wanted to give other people a platform, around the United States and it was important for me to not show my face in that and really try to give other people the opportunity that they don’t have to express themselves and be liberated. When you’re part of documentary, you’re part of a journey yourself. I worked on this for two years and people have grown, people have lost friendships, some people in the film–so many things have changed for them. So it was important to give other people–sometimes we have to step outside of ourselves and allow people the opportunity, so that’s why.

 

AE: Do you know the history of things like “stud” and “aggressive” and other terms used in the community?

NO: It’s funny because I was inspired—I watched the documentary called Before Stonewall and it kind of talked about Stonewall Inn and how we began our Pride, how the cops tried to get us to stop kind of meeting up in clubs and places. When I watched the documentary, they spoke about how aggressive women and feminine women would be together so that police and people that were outside wouldn’t notice that it was actually a female and female together. And they would create some kind of normality to what society and how society looks at them, so it wouldn’t be so weird to have the stigma to people. I think that’s where it started from and I think it just continued on from there. We all want to be accepted at the end of the day, and people try to find the most normal way to express themselves, but it becomes a problem when people decide not to do that anymore and they decide not to follow what was set forth before them. It happens with people who are religious—if people live one way and try to decide to do something different and there’s an issue. So any time you try to recreate something, there’s always gonna be conflict and turmoil and people being ostracized. I think that’s where it stems from.

 

AE: You have some well-known people in the film, like Snoop, AzMarie and Dee Pimpin. How did you get them involved?

NO: Well as for Snoop, I thought of Snoop at the very last minute because I was like, “I need someone who has a strong opinion about being discriminated against and also discriminates.” It goes with the theme of the film and Snoop actually has quite a lot to say about stud-on-stud relationships and bisexual  woman and she doesn’t want to be judged for switching up her appearance for acting. I thought it was very essential to get someone well-known that people look to so they can watch them go through that journey to kind of help lead us into another direction. Sometimes when you’re popular, people follow you and watch what you do to be comfortable with themselves. So I’m like, “If I get someone who is already out there” Snoop is one of the black lesbians who’s been on a hit show, so I thought it was important to get her as a part of this project. As far as AzMarie Livingston, she’s a great friend of mine and what I loved about AzMarie is she’s always been a masculine woman but she models and she does what she has to do, and she’s never cared about what anyone has to say. And she’s done it and she’s always influenced women to know that you can be aggressive and you can be beautiful at the same time and she exemplifies that. So she’s the perfect person for that to be a part of the film, to help usher that message in. And as far as Dee Pimpin, it was hilarious because I actually worked in television and I had to interview her for one of the shows I was working on and she was there and we spoke about all the issues. And she was like “I want to be a part of this,” so I ended up interviewing her because of the whole Bow Wow/Catfish situation. We thought, “This is someone who clearly goes into the gender stereotypes, for whatever reason, and she would have good commentary to add to the story.”

 

AE: The message I get from the film is that you feel like we shouldn’t be subscribing to the ideas that have others policing our identities, and that discrimination within our community is wrong. How do you keep these opinions from influencing the person you are interviewing?

NO: I think I really am very neutral. I make the interviewer as comfortable as possible and I let them know, “This is about who you are. This is all about you so don’t try to change the answers based on what you think my opinion is or what you think the right thing to do was,” because for a lot of people, they would have one opinion and as soon as the camera come on, they’re nervous. They’re like, “Aw man, I don’t want people to think I’m discriminated against!” So it really was kind of a challenge to make sure people were comfortable in themselves and gave their opinion. So I took time before the conversation, before we actually turned the camera on and just spoke to the person. I asked them, “What do you think about this: What if one day, someone tries to fight this stud-on-stud couple and calls them faggots? How do you feel about that?” And they’d say, “Well I mean, two masculine people together…that’s not cool. Like, it doesn’t look right.” And I’d be like, “Okay, explain that to me further.” And as soon as we get into a dialogue, I just start filming. I start doing an interview that way while getting the most authentic answers possible.

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AE: The only other film that has talked about these kinds of issues was The Aggressives, but that came out years ago. Speaking as a white lesbian, there are likely to be a lot of other people who don’t know about the kinds of stud/femme relationships and other facets that are a part of the film. What do you think that someone who is, say, a white lesbian will get out of the film if they go see it at Frameline?

NO: I mean, I think she’ll come away with a wake-up call that people, based on your experiences and your upbringing, just have different lifestyles. I think they’ll actually realize how segregated we are. We have Black Prides vs. White Prides and things of that nature. And we’re so separated from each other that we don’t even see each other’s struggles. That’s why it was important for me to have the same debate with white lesbians and the same debate with black lesbians and see if this argument is the same in both places. From one perspective, one side feels like [gender roles] don’t exist and the other side feels like [they do] exist, so I think just seeing a different perspective would just open their eyes—anyone’s eyes in general. We’re all, like I said, very segregated between the black and the white lesbians, and male gays and female lesbians, as well.

 

AE: Did you learn anything from those conversations that you had with the white butch women and the masculine black women?

NO: Absolutely, I absolutely learned a lot. Because I went in and started filming, thinking that the white lesbians were going to tell me there were no gender roles. Because I interviewed a lot of women who were like, “We don’t know anything about this.” But then as they start to have dialogue, that changed. They start to realize it in different ways. I think it was really interesting what one of the people said that was a part of the debate. She’s like, “In African American households, there’s a lot more opinionated dialog on ‘This is what you should do.'” Whereas in her upbringing in a white household, there was an option for her to choose, to kind of make a choice a choice for herself. We’re just raised in very different ways so I think I just learned that sometimes we’re going through the same things. It’s not any different, it might be in a different way, but we’re all going through the same things at the end of the day, whether it’s a lesbian thing, a religious thing, a cultural thing—we all have the same issues. We just express them and deal with them in a different ways.

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AE: So you’re premiering at Frameline. What are your plans for the film?

NO: I am going to try and do the festivals and find a distributor. There’s a lot of programmers coming and hopefully even more come. Just planning on distributing, trying to get it distributed and actually doing a tour in all these cities. I put out something asking women where they want to see this and i twas everywhere from Johannesburg, South Africa to Kingston, Jamaica to Canada. I realized it’s needed, so I actually have to do a lot more then just televise. I actually need to reach out to these people and have us start a movement, and have us start protesting against ourselves. It’s a movement. The film is just for an outlet to start the conversation, and then for us to then take action so I’m going to take action and go to different cities and start really talking to people and opening dialogue so we can be closer as a community.

 

The Frameline premiere of The Same Difference is sold out but a second show has been added. Visit the film’s Facebook page to find out about future screenings.

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