Un­der­ground scene com­ing into the light

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Be­ing gay in Greens­boro, North Carolina, is pretty sim­ple: The LGBT com­mu­nity is small, so peo­ple like who they like, ex­plained Robin, a 29-year-old black les­bian who was taken aback when she re­lo­cated to At­lanta a few years ago.

For starters, At­lanta women were into la­bels. Fur­ther, those la­bels lim­ited so­cially ac­cept­able cou­ples to one type – a butch and a femme.

A “soft stud” who likes other typ­i­cally mas­cu­line-ap­pear­ing women, Robin found her niche in the city’s small but grow­ing com­mu­nity of “stud for stud” women.

“I know a lot of stud on studs here in At­lanta,” said Robin, a cus­tomer ser­vice spe­cial­ist who didn’t want to use her last name. “Peo­ple are be­com­ing more open-minded.”

Het­eronor­ma­tive gen­der roles are a sig­na­ture of les­bian cir­cles, in­flu­enc­ing ev­ery­thing from body lan­guage to hair­style.

In the love depart­ment, dap­per studs date sul­try femmes, ac­cord­ing to decades-old cul­tural rules that have a par­tic­u­larly strong foothold among black LGBT women.

Yet a low rum­ble of change is grow­ing louder.

More mas­cu­line-pre­sent­ing black les­bians are em­brac­ing the idea of ro­mance be­tween butch women. Stud for stud – or S4S – women are show­ing up on TV shows, form­ing on­line groups and openly turn­ing their backs on rules that say Ms. Right must carry a purse.

In­sid­ers say such re­la­tion­ships are old news among whites. But in black cir­cles, where strict ideas of what it means to be a les­bian pre­vail, the evo­lu­tion is caus­ing cel­e­bra­tion and con­tro­versy. “Many straight men act ag­gres­sive to­wards gay men be­cause they’re ex­pected to, not be­cause they ac­tu­ally feel re­sent­ment or dis­gust to­wards gay men. It’s part of the im­age. The same is true of studs and butches. Some are ve­he­mently against S4S sim­ply be­cause it’s ex­pected.” —Film­maker Nneka On­uo­rah, whose 2015 doc­u­men­tary “The Same Dif­fer­ence” ex­plored S4S themes To be sure, there have al­ways been fem­me­femme or so-called “no la­bel” pair­ings among black LGBT women. What’s slowly shift­ing, say com­mu­nity in­sid­ers, is the ac­cep­tance of cou­ples where both women are defini­tively mas­cu­line.

Such pair­ings di­rectly chal­lenge an­ti­quated ideas that have thrived in the LGBT com­mu­nity and be­yond, said film­maker Nneka On­uo­rah, whose 2015 doc­u­men­tary “The Same Dif­fer­ence” ex­plored S4S themes. The hit film has sparked spir­ited dis­cus­sions at show­ings in At­lanta and across the coun­try.

“When peo­ple see two mas­cu­line women to­gether, they can’t process that. So­ci­ety has told us you need this bal­ance of power – you need some­one to take care of things and the other to nur­ture,” On­uo­rah said.

“It’s not re­ally about sex­u­al­ity,” she said. “It’s re­ally about what mas­culin­ity rep­re­sents to peo­ple.”

For black les­bians, mas­culin­ity has long meant care­fully mim­ick­ing black males. Dur­ing the 1950s hey­day of butch/femme cul­ture, black studs sported three-piece men’s suits and a per­fectly coiffed femme on their arm – prefer­ably in a gor­geous dress, ac­cord­ing to the web­site Out His­tory. More mas­cu­line-pre­sent­ing black les­bians are em­brac­ing the idea of ro­mance be­tween butch women. (Cour­tesy photo)

Gen­er­a­tions later, many black les­bians con­tinue to closely mir­ror cis­gen­der men, even down to their ho­mo­pho­bia, said Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based writer Eden Car­swell. She re­cently wrote about her own ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing ap­proached by a fel­low stud for the Black Les­bian Love Lab blog. The ar­ti­cle drew sev­eral com­ments il­lus­trat­ing how touchy the topic re­mains.

“Get this fag shit outta here,” wrote one com­menter, iden­ti­fied as “Gully.”

“Many straight men act ag­gres­sive to­wards gay men be­cause they’re ex­pected to, not be­cause they ac­tu­ally feel re­sent­ment or dis­gust to­wards gay men. It’s part of the im­age,” Car­swell said. “The same is true of studs and butches. Some are ve­he­mently against S4S sim­ply be­cause it’s ex­pected.”

For some black gay women al­ready fac­ing a tri­fecta of po­ten­tial sources of dis­crim­i­na­tion, fly­ing in the face of es­tab­lished com­mu­nity norms can seem over­whelm­ing, said Shaquea Moore of De­catur, Ge­or­gia. Moore said most women find it eas­ier “to go with what’s nor­mal.”

“All studs are not anti-dat­ing studs,” she said. “It’s just that it’s frowned upon. I think more of us would do it if there wasn’t a stigma.”

Many women want to seem more palat­able to the greater black com­mu­nity, still largely com­ing to terms with LGBT men and women in gen­eral, said Kai Brown, a vo­cal ad­vo­cate for S4S vis­i­bil­ity from Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“To get bet­ter ac­cep­tance and un­der­stand­ing and em­pa­thy from our com­mu­nity, our par­ents, our churches … we adopted the het­eronor­ma­tive,” she said.

Harsh com­ments and even vi­o­lence mo­ti­vated Brown to be­come in­creas­ingly vo­cal. Now go­ing by “Stud Slayer,” she runs an ir­rev­er­ent S4S blog and re­cently spoke at a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., con­fer­ence chal­leng­ing ideas of what it means to be a stud.

“Just like you’re see­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple all over the place, run­ways and stuff, you’re go­ing to be see­ing us,” she said. “We’re gonna be out there. We’re pretty out there now!”

There are signs that at­ti­tudes are thaw­ing. The pop­u­lar black les­bian web se­ries “Studville” has ex­plored S4S themes, while au­thors have added S4S-themed books to the stan­dard ro­mance themes. On­line, a com­pany called SOS Ul­ti­mate sells baubles that read “Sorry femmes, I like studs.”

In At­lanta, Robin said the S4S scene is still pretty un­der­ground. She mostly meets women through word of mouth – ap­proach­ing in a night­club is a lit­tle risky – or on­line.

Inch by inch, she be­lieves, the com­mu­nity will come out into the light.

“I’m pretty sure it’s ev­ery­where,” she said. “You just have to be open enough to see it.”

By DIONNE WALKER

Septem­ber 1, 2017

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