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On Black LGBT “History”: More Substance, Less Celebrity Please

Ok, so I’m a little peeved right now so bear with me. And this post is probably going to make some of you mad.  Huff Post Gay published LGBT History Month 2013: 21 Influential Black LGBT Icons which I saw on my Facebook feed. The National Black Justice Coalition shared it with the missive to “know your history” as in your Black LGBT history. I clicked the link and was pleased to see the likes of Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Alice Walker and E. Lynn Harris, who I absolutely consider to be a part of Black LGBT history. However, I was bit dismayed to see the likes of Frank Ocean and Snoop, or even Don Lemon, who are not “historical figures.” They may be popular, and even talented. But “historical icons?” Come on people! Did you just  put Don Lemon in a category with Bayard Rustin and Jimmy Baldwin? Coming out publicly as gay does not make you an historical icon. It is certainly brave and admirable, and for those of us who are always searching for community among those that share our skin tone, it’s almost like meeting a new family member.

However, I’m also bothered by the fact that they claimed Snoop from The Wire as an historical figure, but left out Barbara Smith, founding member of The Combahee River Collective and the Black lesbian credited with the first ever theoretical statement on the creation of a Black feminist criticism. In 1977 no less. Or what about Ann Allen Shockley, credited with publishing the first Black lesbian novel in 1974? Or Doris Davenport, Pat Parker, or Stephanie Byrd, Black lesbian poets from the 1970s and 1980s? Or Black lesbian filmmakers Cheryl Dunye and Yvonne Welborn, both who have been making and producing films for decades?

It seems to be that our claim to LGBT history seems to be invested in the young and sexy, or the spectacle of celebrity, much like the rest of the world. Or maybe the author of the piece was stretching the limits of his knowledge to come up with 21 Black LGBT folks. I don’t know. Regardless, no shade whatsoever to the current group of Black LGBT gamechangers, but I think categorizing them as “historical icons” is a bit disingenuous, since in my book you have to do more than put out one or two hit records, star in one show, or make a lot of money and look good to be an historical figure. It would also seem to me that you would need to be around for a while, since you know, history is about the PAST, not the present.

The struggles of Rustin, Lorde, Nugent, and Baldwin in particular are substantive and have been tested over time.  They truly paved the way for this current batch of folks to do what they’re doing right now. Maybe it would be better to look back on the work of folks like Snoop, Polk, and Ocean, and take note of the ways in which they use their celebrity OVER TIME, to expand our notion of Black LGBT history. Or maybe we need to understand that pop icon and historical icon don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Until then, if you need the names of people who have actually changed history for the good of Black LGBT folks over the past forty years, let me know.

 

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“Odd Girls” and Black Lesbians

I’ve just finished reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America by Lillian Faderman, and while I didn’t really expect to learn anything new about (cough cough) white lesbian culture, I was surprised to find out that Faderman seems to be an apologist for the racist behavior of the white lesbian feminists she writes about during the period of about 1960-1980.

Lest you think I’m being overly “sensitive,” let me give you a few examples:

To start, Faderman publishes this scholarly text in 1991, but she doesn’t mention Barbara Smith, The NBFO, (National Black Feminist Organization), The Combahee River Collective, or any of the other Black lesbian feminist activists or writers in her chapters on lesbian revolution or lesbian nation, key periods for Black feminist organizing that included several Black lesbians. She does mention Pat Parker briefly, but then goes right onto Third World feminists and “how they felt they all shared the experiences of racism in a white society and white women needed to deal with racism on their own.” This is probably the only thing that Faderman gets right in her discussions about race and lesbian feminists. Yes, Black and Third World lesbians and feminists did believe that white women needed to deal with their racism, but Faderman makes it seems as if Black and Third World women were at fault for the racism that kept them from feeling a part of the larger lesbian feminist movement. Faderman states:

“They [white lesbian feminists] really did want to broaden the base of their group by attracting lower-income and Third World women, but they sincerely did not know how, outside of welcomes and appearing receptive. As radical as they were, they suffered from the liberal’s basic ineptness in dealing with other classes and races.”

Seriously? So these women, who were savvy enough to start an entire movement, organize women from all over the country, come up with an agenda, publish treatises and manifestos, leave their husbands, and forge new lives for themselves on communes and in new communities, couldn’t take the time to sit with their shit and examine their own race and class privilege? Nah, I guess not.

This point is further driven home in a statement by radical lesbians when asked why they didn’t want to work with straight feminists:

“Quit begging our straight sisters to let us be their niggers [italics added] in the movement, and stop taking all the insults and shit work the pussy cats and their toms can heap on us. If we can step forward, we should do so with the intention of working for our own cause….”

So, I’m not surprised at all that white feminists used the oppression of Black people as their go to point to drive home their own positionality in the feminist movement, but I am surprised that Faderman made no mention of this as indicative of the types of racist shenanigans that kept Black and other lesbians of color from wanting to organize with them in the first place. She doesn’t mention this egregious use of the N-word at all. At all. Yeah, Black women really wanted to work with white women who had the nerve to use the N-word talk about their own oppression, even as they oppressed Black women. Okay.

While Faderman does acknowledge that Black and other lesbians of color did organize, she gives total credit to radical lesbians “who had helped to foster awareness in minority lesbians, who now began to see themselves as a group with lesbian and feminist political interests.” If we are to believe Faderman, Black and other lesbians of color had no idea what feminists or lesbians were before white women came along and educated them. Girl, bye.

She also mentions that Black women would not embrace the identity “lesbian feminist,” because lesbian feminist goals “were irrelevant to the major problems that minorities faced.” I guess she hasn’t read ANY of Audre Lorde’s work, who always referred to herself as a Black lesbian feminist, and who wrote several essays uncovering the race and class privilege that white women refused to acknowledge at this time. Faderman wasn’t reading the Combahee River Collective “Black Feminist Statement” either. Black lesbians WERE suspicious of lesbian separatist politics. They knew that it was impossible to separate themselves completely from their communities, and that any politics that would not address the interlocking oppressions of race, class, sexuality, and gender could not adequately improve the conditions of Black women in the United States. Black lesbians did not hate Black men and most certainly would not abandon Black communities for a politics that barely acknowledged their existence as humans, much less saw them as equals.

Faderman does eventually admit that there were racist policies in place at clubs and bars in San Francisco in the 1980s, but makes light of the situation by reminding us that there was interracial picketing of the clubs and bars. So? Y’all should have shut those mofos down!

I realize that perhaps Faderman couldn’t write an entire history of every lesbian group in the U.S. But I think this book would have been better if it were entitled “A White Lesbian History of the U.S. with notes about Black and Third World lesbians too.” It just seems that information that was readily available about Black lesbians who were working and organizing at the time just didn’t make it into this history. Or quite possibly it is because that very work challenged white lesbian and feminist racism, and Faderman just didn’t want to deal with it. How else can she account for excluding Audre Lorde, Beverly and Barbara Smith, Jewelle Gomez, and others?

So, while this post is neither an academic nor methodological examination of Faderman’s text, it is a response to something I felt when I picked the book up the first time: that Black lesbian scholars have got to get on the ball in regards to writing our own histories. There have been several articles that have discussed a few notable Black lesbian texts, even a monograph or two about Black gays and lesbians in the Harlem Renaissance period, and even some of the blues women. I also know Kimberly Springer has written a wonderful history of Black feminist organizing. However, there is no contemporary history of Black lesbians in the United States, merely a chapter or two in this or that anthology. My own work is on Black lesbian literary and popular culture, and others are engaged in this work as well. But there is so much more that needs to be done. Work that doesn’t trivialize our experiences as Black women, or our desire to be a part of Black communities. Work that sees us as people, not as props, or tools in the service of “diversity.” Work that situates our struggles alongside those of Black gay men and transpersons, not behind them. Work that understands that Black lesbians are an important part of U.S. history, and that our histories deserve to be told too.

* A previous version of this blog was posted by the author on sistaoutsider.com.

 

What’s in a Name?

I’m a member of a couple of Black lesbian groups (mainly social, mainly women over 30), and yesterday’s question for discussion was as follows: “What type of women do you go for, passive, submissive, aggressive, or a combination of all three?”

My answer was short and sweet: “I like assertive women, not aggressive, with a soft side.” Only one other person in the conversation noted that the labels or descriptors seemed a bit limiting, and mentioned that she didn’t like any of them. I actually started composing a longer response that mentioned that all of these adjectives/labels had pretty negative connotations, but as I scrolled down and read the rest of the responses, I decided just to let it go. And to be honest with y’all, I know this conversation has gotten a little tired. Still, it was messing with me, so I decided to write a little about it here and see what y’all think. To give you a little context, here’s a smattering of what I read: “I like my women submissive, except in the bedroom.” I like them smart/sexy, and submissive and knows how to play her part well.” Sigh.

Before I go any further, in the spirit of full disclosure I’d like to mention that I am attracted to (and partnered with) a masculine of center woman. She describes herself as a “soft stud.” I’m good with that. And if you’ve read my other blog post Straight Passing, Or on the Invisibility of Femme Lesbians, you know that I identify as femme. And I’m good with that as well. So my issue is not labels per se, indeed, no matter how hard we try, we always end up coming up with new ways to identify ourselves so that others have an idea of who we are or are not. Likewise, one of the biggest issues that Black women, lesbian or not, face, is society’s ever increasing propensity to impose labels on us that we would never choose for ourselves, in order to make them feel more comfortable, powerful, whatever.

What I’m not good with though, is how we accept some of these other labels and descriptors without fully examining the ways in which they impact how we behave toward one another. Here I’m going to limit myself to speaking about the Black lesbian communities of which I am a member, in other words, I’m speaking about my own experiences, as well as some I’ve witnessed. Bebe Moore Campbell said it best when she proclaimed that “Your blues ain’t like mine,” so just know that I’m not trying to generalize or stereotype all Black lesbians.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s just break these terms down just a little, and think about how they have come to represent at least one of the primary labels that Black lesbians (I’m also thinking “aggressive is used more in the northeast, as we southerners seem to be more attached to “stud,” or “soft stud,” which is equally problematic, given our slave history.)

Dictionary definitions for passive, aggressive, and submissive:

  • Passive: accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.
  • Aggressive: ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression.
  • Submissive: ready to conform to the authority or will of others; meekly obedient or passive.

Now, I get that “aggressive” is used in lesbian communities to indicate a break from all things feminine in some women, and for others, it simply means that they are more masculine identified, although they might still identify with a bit of their feminine selves (thus the “soft” in soft stud). Still, I have to ask myself why would anyone want to use an adjective that suggests that she is “likely to attack or confront?” I also know that what has resulted from this label “aggressive” is the tendency for some of these women to take on all the negative attributes that have come to signify what “man” or masculinity means in U.S. culture: sexist and over-sexed; aggressive, violent behavior, a sense of entitlement and an assumption of power related only to the fact that they identify as masculine; and last but certainly most disturbing, outright misogyny. We see this in the tendency of some of these women to call women bitches and hoes, to claim that “bitches ain’t shit,” to focus on women as the sum of their body parts, (usually her boobs or her ass), and to relegate their partners to “submissive” roles in the bedroom, insisting that “real studs” don’t let their women touch them. To claim that you want a woman that “knows her place,” is to subscribe to gender binaries that relegate feminine or femme identified women to the bedroom and the kitchen, and not much else. I also get that some femmes seek out women that treat them this way, and I wonder why they allow themselves to be objectified in such a manner. But that’s another blog.

Now, before you get your boxers (or panties) in a bunch, I realize that not all of you think or behave this way. In fact, one of the most thoughtful pieces of writing I’ve seen on this matter is the The Lesbian Stud Manifesto, which details the ways in which some women come to claim a stud identity, and what that really means for them. So, now I’m not sure if I’ve added that much more to the conversation, but I’ve certainly gotten this off of my chest. What do you all think? Are the terms aggressive, submissive, and passive too negative to be associated with lesbian identities? Or does the literal definition of the term, along with its connotations, not matter at all?

 

NO, it doesn’t always get better

Please read and share this article found on The Feminist Wire’s blog. This is why I do the work that I do, and why I always identify as Black lesbian. We are invisible  in our own communities and we must work to provide safer, more accountable spaces for our youth. For this young woman, it did NOT get better.

Media, Sports and Black Queer Youth: Tayshana Murphy and the Dimming of Stars

I am a Black lesbian

I am lesbian, not queer. I am Black, not colored, and while I stand in solidarity with my sisters, brothers, and genderqueers of color, I will not allow anyone’s deconstruction of identity to erase my own. I am a Black woman, cis-gendered and femme. I reserve the right to name and claim my own identity and I respect the right for you to do the same.

That is all.

Feminism 101 or Why Women’s Studies Can’t Wait: A Workshop for Girls (via the Crunk Feminist Collective)

http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/feminism-101-or-why-womens-studies-cant-wait-a-workshop-for-girls/

I Am Your Sister: Notes from a Native Daughter

Musings on I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde

Travel back in time with me to 1986 (I realize that some of you might have been very small children then, but work with me), to my senior high school English class, taught by Chi-Chi Peak, and she looked just liked her name sounds, like a little bird, flitting around the classroom correcting our English and encouraging us to embrace Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I loved. When it came time to select a text for our book reports, I wanted to write about one of the few black authors I knew of at the time, James Baldwin.( Morrison and Walker had both been writing for decades, but their work had not received the status that it has today.)  I had read If Beale Street Could Talk and fallen in love. From that point forward, I read everything by Baldwin I could get my hands on, including his famous collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and Giovanni’s Room. Somehow I figured out that Baldwin was gay, and even though at that time I didn’t know that that was something we had in common, I felt as if Baldwin was my big brother, uncle, something. He became my hero, and I wanted to write the kinds of essays that he wrote, essays that would spark a nation divided by racism into action, to write essays that would stir the types of emotions that Baldwin’s work had stirred in me. Mrs. Peak didn’t want me to write about Baldwin, and she wanted to know why I chose this author rather than one of the authors on our reading list. Well, to me it was quite obvious, he was black and wrote about all of the things I cared about, racism, oppression, love, family, literature, all of the issues that shaped the world I lived in. He was my brother, and I wanted everyone I knew to appreciate his work too.  Mrs. Peak did not share my enthusiasm for Baldwin, and indeed, from this point forward I was “militant.” I guess you could say that I still am.

Fast forward to the year 2007. By this time I had been married, had a daughter, divorced, and had been “out” as a lesbian for about 13 years, even though I had been only out to my family for about four.  I came across Alexis DeVeaux’s biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet at a used book store. I didn’t read it then, but knew that I should. Still, I put it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it.

However, in 2008, I was reintroduced to Lorde’s work, and in the past two years, Audre Lorde has become central to my research and central to the ways in which I have come to view my identity. Yes, my identity.  For those of you who think that identity politics is an exercise in futility, that the death of the author, theories of structuralism, and post-structuralism, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis, queer theory and performance theory, have done away with the subject, be advised that in doing so they erased our very humanness as well. It is very easy for us to sit in the safety of our tower, our classrooms and offices and theorize about what it means to be black, lesbian, woman, man, the list could go on.  But for the past two weeks, a lot us of have shed tears of the senseless suicides of several gay youth who suffered at the hands of bullies because of their real or perceived identities as gay men. Then, too, how many of us have cried over Sakia Gunn? The young black lesbian woman murdered on the streets of Newark, New Jersey because she rejected the advances of white men and proclaimed her lesbian identity? This is the kind of oppression that Lorde speaks about in her essays. And this is why I Am Your Sister is such an important book.

This collection of essays is in part inspired by the recent opening of the Audre Lorde Papers housed at the Spelman Archives at Spelman College, where both Guy-Sheftall and Cole have been faculty and administrators.  The Arcus grant that funded the processing of the archives seeks also established the ZAMI project to

“increase the public awareness and understanding about African American gay and lesbian experiences; explore the marginalization of racial issues in the GLBT movement;… and other activities to combat homophobia in the Atlanta University Center community and other historically black colleges and universities; and contribute to the production of scholarship on Lorde.” (Guy-Sheftall 2009, 255)

So this volume has several goals as articulated in Byrd’s introduction:

To honor the life and legacy of Audre Lorde.

To elevate the importance of Lorde’s published essays and other work, which have served as a catalyst for theorizing by scholars and activists in relation to questions of identity, difference, power, social movements, and social justice.

To publish selections from the unpublished writings by Lorde.

To recover some of Lorde’s prose writing that has been out of print. (2009, 4-5)

What Guy-Sheftall, Cole, and Byrd suggest in their reflections on Lorde and her work is that “each of us has multiple identities” and Lorde reminded us of that each time she introduced herself as “black, woman, feminist, lesbian, mother, teacher, warrior, poet”  (2009, 236).  Indeed throughout the text Lorde is referred to as a black lesbian feminist, and as the sister outsider. Why are the authors privileging these identities? For two reasons: The terms bring to mind Lorde’s collection of essays, Sister Outsider; and also because the term “illustrates the ways in which Lorde reclaimed and transformed overlapping , discredited, and marginalized identities—black, lesbian, feminist—into a powerful, radical, and progressive standpoint” (Byrd 2009, 5).

Likewise, the introduction traces a brief history of black feminist thought, and gives us snippets of Lorde’s black lesbian perspective on the civil rights movement, second wave U.S. feminism, the Black Nationalist movement, and the gay and lesbian movement. Lorde had something to say about it all. We also learn about her battles with cancer, her trips to the Caribbean, and the homophobia she experienced at the hands of black intellectuals. I Am Your Sister is important because we need to rethink how we hear and don’t listen; see, but look through; identify and dismiss. I am a black mother, sister, daughter, lesbian, scholar, activist, southerner, friend. And I am your sister.

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