Betty and I got to see a documentary called The Aggressives on Friday night at BAM, which is screening a weekend of the best of NewFest.
“Aggressive” is the term used by women of color, much like the way “butch” is used to describe some lesbian women. (In fact, the only thing the film didn’t do which I would have liked is mention the use of the word, how it came about, how it’s different or perceived as different than butch by the women who use it to describe themselves.) Effectively “aggressive” describes women who are more masculine in both appearance, physique, and attitude. Some of them identify as trans, yet many were also very clear about the fact that they are women and lesbians.
The film told the stories of five different aggressive women over a five-year period. One was Korean, the others of African-American descent. There were interviews with some of their mothers (one of whom seemed hell-bent on insisting her daughter was going through “a phase”); they talked about who they liked to date (lesbians for the most part, though one also dated transwomen, and got fed up with dating them by the film’s end, and wanted a “real girl” for a girlfriend instead); how they experienced their identities, and what it was about them that was masculine, and how they made it work.
Tiffany talked about how, in school, one teacher in particular would ask her nearly every day if she was a boy or a girl, and after Tiffany stated she was a girl, the teacher would continue to say things like, “Tiffany is a funny name for a boy.” Another’s presence in the women’s showers in the military inspired all the women to cover up until she left the room. With the exception of one, most of these women “passed” as male and in most social situations were assumed to be male – and didn’t correct people necessarily – unless it came to “the ladies,” i.e. the women they dated.
Aside from shining a light on a population that’s rarely discussed or even known, the film was moving for both me and Betty. For Betty, of course, because she understood the issues of passing even when you don’t mean to, the sense of being differently gendered. For me, it was difficult to watch sometimes, because my own relationship with my own masculinity still touches on places of pain and rejection. And yet the film was really inspiring – from very young ages, these women talked about realizing they were lesbian and aggressive, and finding the courage to be who they were. (One had a child from the days where she was trying to prove to herself that she was het, so the self-acceptance didn’t come easy, necessarily.) For the most part, they all had difficult lives in terms of family, economics; more than one was abandoned by one parent or the other at a young age, either through departure of the parent or death. Some sold drugs; one was a fashion model and messenger; another went into the military; another came to work in construction – the only female person at her job. I think they all used the phrase “wearing the pants” at one point or another.
What impressed me the most was how their lives – invisible but for this documentary – contained not just the usual problems faced by those gender variant and GLBT, but that they did so along with discrimination, little to no education or opportunity, and uncertain family relationships. Most seemed to find a real home in lesbian spaces and in drag ball culture, instead.
I did talk with the director, Daniel Peddle, afterwards, who said there is a plan to release the film on VHS or DVD; if and when I can get hold of a copy I’ll be happy to make it a “loaner” for people interested in seeing it. If you can find a screening in your area, do go see it.