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Rev. Emily C. Heath

'The Next Best Thing:' Erasing an Identity in Popular Media

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | July 23, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: butch, gender, gender identity, gender nonconformity, National Geographic, prison, shame

PrisonWindow.jpgLast week I was flipping through the channels when a documentary caught my eye. National Geographic's series Hard Time was airing a new episode filmed in a women's prison in Georgia. The episode was entitled "World Without Men" and, with shots of butch prisoners throughout, seemed to explore issues of gender identity in prison.

I turned to a friend and quipped, "I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that this might be the most significant representation of butch identity that I have ever seen on TV."

A few minutes in, I realized I was right and wrong about the significance. I was right because I cannot think of a time when I have seen more butches on television. But I was wrong because the documentary did everything possible to erase the butch identity of their subjects (to the point of never using the word "butch") and to explain it away given their incarcerated status.

The subjects of the show related stories of cutting their hair short, dating femmes, and taking on jobs involving manual labor. One talked about her prison wife, which the National Geographic website is sure to qualify as "wife." The website also states, "A female prisoner has taken on a male persona for 10 years as a way to feel protected, powerful and popular."

During the show itself an off-camera narrator delivers commentary in the classic National Geographic documentary manner. Describing the more masculine of center inmates he intones, "In a world without men, it's the next best thing."

That was the point when the documentary crossed the line from the offensive to the laughable. I had the feeling that I was watching one of those "Boys Beware" videos from the 1950s that failed to differentiate between a gay man and a pedophile - except this was produced in the present day.

After the show concluded, our laughter turned to frustration. An identity that we all either shared or appreciated had been turned into something that could be explained away due to a lack of men. To the show's producers it was something that existed only in this prison environment and only then due to a lack of other options.

It's offensive not only to those of us who are masculine of center, but also to the people serving time in those prisons. They deserve better than to have their identities explained away by clueless documentarians. And those of us who have never spent a day in prison in our lives deserve better than to have our identities showcased for gawkers as a choice made for prison survival.

The fact is that masculine of center folks, whether they call themselves "transmasculine" or "butch" or "stud" or anything else, exist everywhere. Including prison. They are not a product of settings that are short of men born men. They are not a reaction to a deficit of masculinity. They are people whose gender identity is often more complicated than our binary of masculine males and feminine females. And their most prominent appearance on television should not be in a documentary about prisoners that condescendingly dismisses their gender identity as dress-up.

And this goes to the heart of the lack of butch visibility in popular media, and even in what is represented publicly by our community. I know butches who are pastors, professors, artists, parents, attorneys, physicians, and, yes, even prison inmates. But very few of us are held up as examples of the diversity of our LGBT community. In fact, we are often dismissed as relics of a bygone age or as not consistent with the image that we want the LGBT community to present publicly. I've heard butch friends, including some of the most gentle people I know, be told that they are "too threatening" or "too gay" to be the spokespeople of our community. (And if you don't believe me, look at who speaks for our community at a press event - it is rarely someone whose gender is binary non-conforming.)

If we as a community were to stop being ashamed of any of our members' gender expression and identity and were instead to start celebrating that diversity, what would happen? Could it be that a young butch or stud wouldn't see a show like this and think that their identity is at best something that is mocked on a prison documentary? Would it mean that masculine of center individuals would assume more public leadership roles in our organizations? Would it mean that violence against those whose gender does not conform to the binary would lessen? The other night I thought about what it would mean for just one show on television to have a proud butch. And I thought about how, given the way our own community treats butches and others who don't conform to the gender binary, that is extremely unlikely to happen.

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The next best thing? I've lost track of how many straight men have been turned down by girls who preferred my brand of masculinity. Assuming an identity for 10 years to be popular? Really? I didn't see the docu, but this part is ridiculous. If I wanted to assume a persona for popularity, as much as I love who I am, "butch dyke" is not one i'd choose. It's just who i've been since i was about 3. I'm pretty sure there are easier ways to be popular.

It is true that most of the women that speak for the LGBT population are fem. They look like anyones Mom. I have been told I am ambigous in my appearance which is fine. I don't mind if people look at me and seem confused or call me Sir. It is sad that those of us that don't fit the "norm" get pushed to the back of the room when I am sure there are more of us than them. I have not seen the show but it does sound like they made a film about something they know nothing about. I am suprised that NG would be so narrow in their view.