Revising Queer Immigrant Dreams
A new lesbian film is putting an unseen demographic on the big screen.
Feminist blogger Ileana Jiménez
When I was in high school during the gay 90’s, stories about lesbian daughters of immigrants were non-existent. Although there was an explosion of excellent queer films during that time, they weren’t necessarily found in theaters on Republican red Long Island.
It wasn’t until my first year at Smith in 1994 that I caught a glimpse of my Latina lesbian self on screen. In one subplot of Rose Troche’s Go Fish, a young Latina lesbian, who is also a nurse, hides her relationship with an African-American woman by saying she has to work late night shifts. Her Spanish-speaking mom finds out and the proverbial everything hits the fan.
It’s not a good ending for that first generation lesbian of color, but luckily, our storylines don’t have to always end so sadly. Sometimes the beautiful and smart lesbian of color gets to run off with her beautiful and smart girlfriend and her immigrant parents wind up happy too.
Sometimes we can find our story in the most unlikely of places. All About E, a new film by Australian filmmaker Louise Wadley, brings us a first generation Lebanese immigrant story in the most unlikely smash-up: road trip to the outback as coming of age lesbian narrative.
At first, the title character, E, short for Elmira, seems like the Australian version of The L Word’s rakish Shane, the hot soft butch who broke our hearts each season. We first see E in a red sparkling Spanish bolero making out with a cute blonde in classic old-school lesbian style: in a bathroom stall at a loud and dark club. The scene makes us think we know where the rest of the film is headed: gorgeous boyish-femme with bravura conquers all the girls.
But E turns out to be quite different. Within the next hour, she plays classical music on the clarinet and faces her Lebanese immigrant parents and their version of the American dream in Australia. In one scene, E reminisces about her father working in a Sydney factory after he leaves Beirut.
“Every time we passed the stacks,” he says to E, “I work here for you, this will get you good school, good house, good life.”
In another poignant moment, E looks at her high school awards for playing the clarinet, an instrument she gave up just as she was discovering her sexual identity.
Sadly, in turning down the volume on one instrument she closeted another: her voice.
For queer immigrant children, we are often conflicted between our dreams and that of our parents. In the U.S., the American dream still finds its straight roots in Dick and Jane storybooks. For queer, first generation children of color, our sexual identity smashes right up against this white and straight narrative.
Mandahla Rose, who plays E, agrees, “We all deal with multiple identities and have cultural catalysts which make some truths difficult. E wanted to be the perfect everything: daughter, lover. There was more pressure because her parents were so rooted in their Lebanese background. I’ve felt that pressure to be something which doesn’t necessarily define who I am.”
Wadley’s film brings us face to face with our queer immigrant selves in ways that we rarely see on screen. We hear our parents when E’s mother says, “No respect, your father and I give you everything.” We wince with recognition when E lacks the language to explain to her white girlfriend why she doesn’t come out to her parents. We feel the same nostalgia for a simpler life when we remember that, just like E, we were star students.
But once we came out to ourselves, no amount of school awards could give us the words to come out the way we wanted to. Like E, we felt pulled by the expectations of our various communities, both biological and queer. Our families wanted us to keep quiet, and our newly found queer families wanted us to shout it out loud.
For audiences unfamiliar with Australia’s diverse cultures, Wadley illustrates how we need to queer our notions of immigrant lives. She explains, “I think many LGBTI people often negotiate their world in layers and often with different masks for protection, whether with their family, their colleagues, or their friends. I wanted to show what this was like for someone who seemed to be in control and out in one area as E is. She's the toast of her gay world but she feels she can't be that to her family because she would be shaming and fracturing a family already in grief and under pressure and risk her own banishment from that family.”
The recent release of films like Freeheld, which follows the true story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree’s fight for domestic partner pension benefits in 2005 highlights how far we have come and yet how far we have to go in recognizing not only gay civil rights but also everyday lesbian love stories on mainstream screens. Even in our new day of marriage equality, though, not all of us see ourselves in the wedding bells storyline. Not all of us get married. Some of us who are the children of immigrants have a different story that we want told when we go to movie theaters and bookstores.
Wadley recognizes this invisibility, “Australia is a hugely multicultural society with over a quarter of the population having been born elsewhere, but you hardly ever see that Australia, my Australia, represented on film or television. The Lebanese community has a huge role in Australian life but is very underrepresented, except for stereotypes.”
Without a doubt, All About E is a fun road movie. It’s also a love story with an astonishingly beautiful and realistic sex scene between E and her former partner.
But it’s also a first generation queer immigrant story.
E allows us to see how the queer children of immigrants are connected in our struggles and triumphs whether we are in Australia or Lebanon or the U.S. She reminds us that we are all on a journey that leads us and our families that much closer to revising our dreams.
Ileana Jiménez founded the blog, Feminist Teacher (feministteacher.com), and tweets at @feministteacher.