The Blackwood Research Group

Archive for the ‘Personal Reflections’ Category

On “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”

Like many people across the expansive political spectrum of our current moment in America, I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech with a careful ear for the messages behind the words. So when he briefly referenced the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which have been the focus of my research for the past two years, my ears definitely perked up. What does this mean? Is this some kind of victory? Should we be celebrating the reference to this particular moment in U.S. LGBT/Queer History? In this blog post, I’ll answer some of those questions from the perspective of my research thus far, and probably pose a few new questions, too.

Let’s start with the context of this reference to Stonewall. Increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that contemporary political rhetoric is a highly nuanced way of speaking that is often honed through the use of focus group methods such as “dialing”. In these trials, speeches by major politicians are laboriously crafted to include soundbites-in-waiting; short phrases that are tested for their appeal to various demographics. Such rhetoric, then, is no longer simply an exercise in predicting the response of an imagined public, but rather has become a technical art rooted in the idea that, from a distance, a speaker can reach out to several groups at once. Even if an ostensibly left-of-center politician accepts that she is only really speaking to those who generally support her, references to topics like gun control must still be carefully couched in language that will resonate effectively with liberal gun owners, suburban parents, and P-12 teachers who may or may not be unionized. Such specific language is known as “crafted talk” and, as political writer Steven Hill candidly summarizes, it is slightly creepy.

This “crafted talk”…is designed to “simulate responsiveness” – to hoodwink voters, and free the candidates to pursue their own partisan agendas. In other words, politicians are busy with their own agendas that have little to do with what the majority of voters want, and use the “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell their agendas like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon onto customers. (Source)

Ok. So this is probably the worst case scenario, right? Surely there are times when a politician is trying to be honest and inclusive. Perhaps. But ultimately, I don’t think the reference to Stonewall was truly one of them, even if we can read it as a positive sign-of-the-times.

Just over four years ago, I was sitting among students, friends and colleagues in the Black Cultural Center of Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus listening to President Obama’s first inauguration speech. And I remember being slightly in awe of this same man, as he acknowledged atheists and agnostics from behind what is arguably the most important pulpit on our planet. When he referred to the United States as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” I felt a sense of acceptance and inclusion that made me forget, even if just temporarily, the deeply-rooted Christian rhetoric that pushed in on that sentence from all sides. And while I still cringe at the idea of someone who is Wiccan or Jain or Baha’i hearing that list and not finding themselves among it, I know that I felt validated. This was in spite of the fact that it was not more than a few moments before his reference to non-theists that he had explicitly used Biblical language and regardless of the reality that he went on to mention “God” four more times before leaving the microphone. But in that moment, in hearing “nonbelievers,” I heard him say, “I know you’re out there. And I respect you.” Nevertheless, as I listened this year, at a time when you might have expected me to be telling the same story about the warm fuzzies I got from his mention of the Stonewall Riots and his ostensible support for marriage equality, I found myself underwhelmed.

To be sure, neither I nor President Obama are the people we were in January of 2009. Four years of continued economic struggle, the disappointment of the 2010 elections, and the tension with which we both, surely, watched the polls this past November have refined our positions, nuanced our arguments and, in some cases, changed our minds entirely. But do not take me to be so naïve as to be suggesting that I’m merely bummed because he didn’t do all the things he said he would. I understand enough of the circus of American politics to believe two things at least: that no contemporary candidate will ever truly live up to her campaign promises and that most incumbents are more liberal personally than their track record suggests. But the elephant-in-the-corner of both cases is the fact that the whole American political spectrum has been shifted dramatically to the right. So how is it, I wonder, that evoking Stonewall would seem like an effective way to look directly into the eyes of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans and say, as LZ Granderson has suggested, “I see you”?

As a young academic in American Studies, my primary research focus has been on the narrative of the Stonewall Riots; specifically, the ways in which the story of Stonewall has both informed and reflected LGBT/Queer identity for the last 44 years. At the time, raids on bars frequented by “homosexuals” were common and brutal injustices inflicted by police (especially on those whose clothing did not conform to gender norms of the day) were heinous reminders of a state and society that rejected people like me. As such, the political salience of not only resisting a police raid on a bar, but of forcing city, state, and federal officials back into the building and then trying to set it on fire can neither be mistaken for anything less than violent protest nor polished to suggest some reverence for the system against which those rioters raged. Stonewall was not planned. It was not part of a larger campaign for gay rights. It was a livid, impromptu, dangerous and deeply personal response to many years of violent state oppression. Moreover, the week of riots that followed the initial raid were aimed at reclaiming the protestors’ identity from the newspapers that smeared them and the dirty businesses that exploited them. (Let’s not forget that the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by members of the New York Mafia who regularly paid off their local NYPD precinct—not to prevent raids, but to plan them in advance and at times that would allow the bar to reopen mere hours later.) And while the narrative of the riots is most often told from the perspective of middle-aged gay white men who did not identify as trans* or gender-variant, numerous firsthand accounts mention a racially diverse cadre of drag queens fighting alongside gay men, lesbians, straight hippies and homeless youth, many of whom engaged in street warfare, tagging buildings with “Gay Power” slogans and ripping parking meters from the ground to be used as battering rams against the cops. Indeed, as historian Gary Leupp writes over at CounterPunch.org,

This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant. (Source)

“But wait,” you say, “surely President Obama wasn’t suggesting that details of these three events were synonymous!” And you’re right. And that’s the point. As Leupp suggests, the inclusion of Stonewall here is significant, whether or not most folks know the history behind the reference. It is also important to note, as does Leupp, that the President’s reference to Stonewall should not be read as a condoning of anti-state violence. So, what’s left?

First of all, the obvious alliteration and engaging rhythm highlight the rhetorical utility of this phrase; these three events in history simply sound nice together. But more importantly, they each reach out from over the podium individually. Like “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” the extra conjunctions, “and Selma, and Stonewall,” shine a spotlight on particular demographics making up the president’s intended audience. One can easily imagine speech writers and consultants whispering to one another, “Stonewall?” “Oh, it’s a gay pride thing. From the 60’s. The gays will catch the reference.” Indeed, many of us did. And gleefully.

Just like that, the subtle mention of Stonewall became a metonym for an imagined “LGBT America.” And while NPR quickly pulled together a guide for those who didn’t quite get it and the Huffington Post reported on the angry video response from the American Family Association, LGBT/Queer journalists jumped on the story, too. LZ Granderson, writing on CNN.com, took mainstream media to task for suggesting that there were no memorable lines in the speech. And Irene Monroe, writing for the Huffington Post, considered how President Obama’s linking of Selma and Stonewall might have furthered divides in the Black community. Noting both our country’s problematic tendency to talk about the fight against oppression by only referencing the struggles of Black communities, as well as the sense in which some Black folks were offended at the comparison of the two movements, she ponders the progressive possibilities of such a reference.

Though there is merit to the argument that simplistically viewing all experiences of oppression as similar ignores the salient differences between oppressed groups, it is also true that ignoring how the experiences of oppressed groups are indeed similar — and how, by employing that understanding, they can work together — has limited the possibilities for full and equal rights for all Americans. (Source)

According to Monroe, the President’s Stonewall mention points to an opportunity for solidarity that is accompanied by a challenge to foreground and understand difference. While I agree with her analysis, my concerns differ slightly.

For many white, educated, middle-income, cisgender gay men, such as myself, there seems to be a desire simply to be mentioned in such speeches. In my view, this corresponds to another desire–one which is very effectively lobbied for by national groups allegedly representing LGBT people–to be recognized by the State. To be granted full citizenship, which was as often couched in the demand for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as it is today in the continued fight for marriage equality, seems to be the chief concern of most national LGBT lobbying efforts. But such issues are not the key concerns of all LGBT people. And while smaller organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition or the National Center for Transgender Equality (among many others!) are working to broaden the political conversation around LGBT efforts, our contemporary reality remains a place in which mainstream perceptions of LGBT people in the United States have come to reflect the interests of a socially-privileged, economically-empowered and politically-connected elite.

As such, for the President of the United States of America, during an inauguration speech, to mention the Stonewall Riots as a metonymic reference to the lives and struggles of “LGBT Americans” is clearly a victory. The question is, whose victory is it? Whose story is represented by Stonewall? Whose concerns are assuaged by marriage equality or by the repeal of a ban on military service after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? And whose voices are represented by the multi-million dollar lobbying machines that make such references possible?

Not mine. For me, a victory is this fleeting moment of significance that is bound so tightly to context and intersection that it cannot move forward on its own. And I believe Stonewall was a victory, but one I cannot claim. And it does inform me and I do believe I can learn from it; but to see it hoisted as a banner congratulating the efficacy of a queer movement that is so deeply mired in complex iterations of racism, sexism, ableism  and classism is pure farce.

Victory is not a queer idea. In my view, queerness, if it must be analyzed at all as queer theory and not simply queer survival, is deeply skeptical of boundaries between people, of dominant hierarchies that constrict creative spirit and of the probable falseness of most rhetorical positionings. A political win is fleeting. What comes next is forever.

Violence Against Women Act

A couple months ago the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized in spite of fairly significant Republican opposition in the House of Representatives. Their opposition was based mainly upon the extension of protections to people of all sexes, sexualities and genders, not just heterosexual women abused by men. This opposition can be summed up by the response of Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas who said he opposed VAWA because it contained protections for transgender individuals: “This is a truly bad bill,” he said in an article published by the National Review. “This is helping the liberals, this is horrible. Unbelievable. What really bothers — it’s called a women’s act, but then they have men dressed up as women, they count that. Change-gender, or whatever. How is that — how is that a woman?”

In his reasoning, it is more important to protect the rights of people TO COMMIT acts of violence against transgender individuals than it is TO PROTECT women (and all people, since the bill includes men as well as transgender people) from violence. Fortunately, these confused transphobic views were in the minority in Congress and President Obama signed the bill into law in March. VAWA demonstrates that there are legal protections and consequences for violence against any and all people in the United States. VAWA, together with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 have been the first federal legal protections officially inclusive of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

While these are clearly very important steps in providing legal recourse to transgender people, victories are still few and far between as recent examples from within and outside of the GLBT community demonstrate. See the continued debate over transgender inclusion at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), and the repeated attempts by conservative CongressMEN to pass “Bathroom Harassment Bills” in Tennessee and Arizona which would restrict people to using the bathroom indicated by the sex marked on their birth certificate. (Who carries their birth certificate on them for inspection on entrance to bathrooms anyway?)

Both of these examples explain my continued hesitancy to embrace the “victory” of VAWA for transgender people. It is certainly important to have legal recourse and non-discrimination policies, however, exceptions to the rule of law and in practice demonstrate that there is still a long way to go in eradicating transphobia from the cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual communities as well as the cisgender hetersexual ones. For example, the founder of the MWMF justifies their exclusion of transgender women from the festival to allow womyn-born-womyn the “freedom to walk in the woods at night alone without fear.” While I certainly support women (trans and womyn-born) and their right to feel safe – not just at the MWMF – I cannot believe it must come at the cost of the invalidation of the lives and experiences of transgender people who are as stigmatized and discriminated against as lesbian women. Further, the supported inclusion of transgender men in these same womnyn-born-womyn spaces sends the message that birth assigned sex and genitals are what truly matters for inclusion and exclusion rather than self-identified gender. Likewise, bathroom bill advocates claim the need to protect women and girls in bathrooms from predatory men who have disguised themselves as women in order to enter into a women’s only “safe space.” (Can anyone give me an example of violence perpetrated against women or girls by a “man dressed as a woman” in spaces like these?) Again, I realize the need for women’s safety and security, but I submit that these bills aren’t being proposed by CongressWOMEN or advocated by women’s interest groups.

Taking the MWMF and the bathroom bills into consideration with an essential exception included in VAWA we can see why  transgender rights have actually become more limited recently. Below is the “exception” taken from the official wording of VAWA:

‘‘(B) EXCEPTION.—If sex segregation or sex-specific programming is necessary to the essential operation of a program, nothing in this paragraph [the non-discrimination policy paragraph] shall prevent any such program or activity from consideration of an individual’s sex. In such circumstances, grantees may meet the requirements of this paragraph by providing comparable services to individuals who cannot be provided with the sex-segregated or sex-specific programming.”

So, let’s consider this in light of an example from my research in Tennessee. A transgender woman who has been victimized by her male intimate partner managed to leave her abuser in spite of unemployment and other financial and interpersonal obstacles only to be turned away from a “women’s” shelter because she has not been able to change her identity documents to reflect her gender expression. While the official policy of non-discrimination includes gender expression and identity, the exception based upon sex segregation allows her to be turned away from the female shelter. And as she told me, the male shelter was “not an option physically or emotionally.” She was eventually able to find a trans-inclusive shelter that allowed her to be herself during the recovery process, not every transgender woman is so lucky or resourceful. With the knowledge that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence against (trans)women, I understand that it would be unsuitable and potentially harmful for men and women to be sheltered together. However, by setting up the segregation system by sex, I am left to wonder where transgender people belong? What documentation is acceptable to permit a transwoman entry into a woman’s shelter? What if she was without the resources to obtain any formal documentation of her feminine identity? Additionally, I wonder how shelters can be inclusive of lesbian and gay men when their abusers are of the same sex as they are.

Continuing with the reasoning of the sex-segregation exception, “comparable services” must be provided to those who cannot be accommodated within the existing sex-specific programming. Optimistically, I hope this will entail the creation of numerous trans-only or at least transgender-positive shelters. Then again, are transgender men and transgender women to be sheltered together? What about issues of sexism and misogyny within the transgender community?

The above examples elucidate the shift in acceptable forms of transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia in the recent American past had been based upon policing gender performance and norms which often included butch lesbians and effeminate gay men. However, homophobia of any kind is no longer socially acceptable (not that it doesn’t still occur) and transphobia as demonstrated above has become an almost compulsive process of policing genitals and glorifying the “irrevocable” nature of biological sex. Today, American culture is much more accepting of various gender expressions, and can even laugh at playful gender presentations (see Ru Paul’s Drag Race). But has this acceptance come at the expense of solidifying the line between male and female and exalting the naturalness of sex and genitals? It seems that culturally, we have agreed to a certain amount of gender transgression but have drawn a line in the sand, allowing cisgender people to wink at one another and say, “Okay, you can be whoever you want to be, but we know who/what you REALLY are.” Many seem comfortable with gender and sexual transgression so long as one fits neatly into a box, even if that box is gay or lesbian. Transgender is still an unknown, often understood as the representative from Texas said, “change genders” or men who dress like women. Thus, genitalia and the “naturalness” of biology have been exalted so that people can “understand” at the cost of allowing for the diversity of transgender experience and the complex interplay of gender, sex and sexuality. Instances like these remind me just how far we still must go.

ABC’s “Work It”

I recently watched the pilot episode of ABC’s “Work It.” The show’s basic premise is that two men feel they must dress and act as women in order to find work in the tough economic climate today. Additionally, the show is billed as a “high-concept” comedy based on the idea that men dressed as women is inherently funny and entertaining.

The show generally makes light of and trivializes many of the difficulties transgender people routinely – and without choice – encounter in the workplace. Recent surveys have shown that the transgender community is one of the most discriminated against minorities, and while many people feel that this show is just a joke, it is hard to imagine other minority groups being parodied in this way and having it appear on television. Further, many bloggers and critics claim that these are just men who are dressing as women and that this show has nothing to do with transgender people or transgenderism. In reality, these men who are dressing as women to find jobs are making a joke of transwomen’s reality: trying to live their lives as women with male bodies, making sense of or hiding their work history and personal lives in order not to expose their past life histories as men and portraying those who “cross-dress” as inherently deceitful.

Additionally, the show operates under the assumption that being a woman in the workforce and job market is easier than being a man. Sexist one liners are common. For example, they joke that saleswomen are more successful in pharmaceutical sales because the doctors want to sleep with them. Not funny.

Essentially, I see no redeeming qualities about this show; the jokes and dialogue or neither witty nor funny. I sincerely hope that the show will be pulled from the air very soon. Don’t let your curiosity get the best of you, avoid this show and save your time.

 

“A Different Kind of Man”?

I have been following Dancing with the Stars this season, despite my better judgement, mostly because I thought they were doing something interesting by including two “out” members from the GLBT community: Chaz Bono, a transman, and Carson Kressley, a gay man. Additionally, featured this season was an injured war veteran, J.R. Martinez, as well as numerous other “B-list” celebrities like Nancy Grace, Ricki Lake, and Hope Solo.

Before the season even aired publicly, there was much debate and protest put up by the group “One Million Moms” who did not want Chaz on a “family” show. After hearing about the protest by these moms, I decided to watch and see how ABC decided to present Chaz. Despite the traditional pairing of a man with a women for this dancing show (I had heard some requests that Carson dance with a male partner), Chaz was partnered with a feminine, female professional dancer, respecting his current gender identity and traditional presentation as a masculine, straight man. During the first show, all of the contestants were introduced and Chaz was portrayed as a transgender person who grew up as a girl, the “daughter” of Cher and Sonny Bono. A picture of his early childhood in which he is wearing pigtails and a dress was even shown on screen, making this introduction a fairly standard transgender intro sound bite in my opinion. However, after this introduction, his trans-ness was not discussed again.

In fact, his weight became the central issue for Chaz, his partner and the judges on this show. Chaz was consistently critiqued for his dancing – much like the rest of the contestants. However, he was also unnecessarily ridiculed by one of the judges in particular for being overweight. Chaz was referred to as an “ewok” and a “penguin” on different occasions, both of which are cuddly and cute, but round and “pudgy” ANIMALS. Actually, an ewok is not even an animal, it is an imaginary, invented creature from the Star Wars franchise. Despite the unnecessary nature of critiquing someone for their weight on a show about dancing and the fact that Chaz had admitted he was competing in the hopes of increasing his fitness, I believe there were deeper meanings implied by these comparisons and critiques.

I feel that the judge, a flamboyant (gay?) man, could not recognize Chaz as a MAN. Instead, choosing to refer to him through comparisons to animals. It would be inappropriate for someone on this show to outwardly criticize Chaz for being transgender, but criticizing someone for their weight is still seen as acceptable in American culture. Thus, this man chose to repeatedly and pointedly mark Chaz’s body as unacceptable at every chance and in the most acceptable way that he could. While I have a problem with this judge’s inappropriate speech, I take greater issue with the manner in which Chaz exited the show and handled these critiques.

He said after he was voted off of the show that he wanted to “show America a different kind of man” and referred to how “if he had seen someone like him on TV when he was a kid that it would have been much easier for him growing up.” The sentiment expressed was indeed moving, however, he never once used any adjectives to describe just what kind of man he is! Even more, after the show, when he made the rounds on the talk shows after his exit, he focused on denouncing the judge for his harassment based upon his weight, neglecting to highlight himself as an “out” transperson. It seems that his identity as an overweight man has come to eclipse his identity as a transman.

So, after his statement about showing America a different kind of man, I was left to ask myself what kind of difference he had in fact shown us? He certainly was not visibly queer, though Carson, the gay contestant was (he joked about wearing a woman’s costume on numerous occasions). Chaz did not portray anything outside of the hegemonic presentation of manliness in America, except for his weight. If someone were to watch this show and miss the first episode they would have no idea that the difference Chaz felt he was portraying was anything other than that of a man with a weight that was currently unpopular. I see great value in showing different bodies on primetime TV, and I acknowledge that body image and weight are real issues in America today, I wanted to ask, if Chaz is actually a “different kind of man”?

While Chaz does not have to exhibit his trans-ness and transgender identity at all times, if you are going to call yourself a spokesperson for the transgender community and publicize your transition through books, documentaries and TV appearances, creating celebrity out of your transgender identity, I would expect you to articulate this identity at every turn. As we know from social science research, identities are not fixed and are very fluid, so perhaps during this show, Chaz’s sense of himself as an overweight man was more salient to him than his status as a transgender man. In which case, I applaud his defense of himself as an overweight man, but am left hoping for a continued and stronger transgender presence in the mainstream media.

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.

Straight Passing, or On the Invisibility of Black Femme Lesbians

So,  a few weeks ago I posted a link to a blog Passing for Straight in the 21st Century, about passing for white and straight by Aviva Dove-Viebahn.  I thought it was interesting and thoughtfully written and it called into question my own experiences with passing for straight in a very gendered world.

Several years ago, when I first came out, I remember going to our local gay bar with a few friends and being approached by a rather attractive woman while waiting for my drink.  She asked, “Where’s your husband?” Now this might have been her pick up line, or just a way to ask me if I was lesbian without making any assumptions based on my “straight” appearance. Either way, I told her that I wasn’t married and that I was indeed lesbian. Otherwise why would I be hanging out in a gay bar? I guess I need to give you a little background. I’m a black lesbian woman who also identifies as femme. Yeah, femme.  In other words, I am not masculine identified and I tend to subscribe to a few traditional notions of femininity.  And I do not apologize for it. I like wearing lip gloss and skirts. I’ve never worn a lot of make-up, but I do wear eye-liner and mascara since it tends to accentuate what I think are one of my best features, my eyes.

Still, my first experiences with the black lesbian community in my hometown were rather strange. I was often accused of being “too femme,” and in my naivete at the time, I really couldn’t understand why it was an issue. Regardless, I tried to conform, wearing more pantsuits and slacks than skirts and dresses.  I was also told that butches and femmes were “out of fashion” and that no one “did that” anymore. I’ve come to realize that these black women were feeding into common arguments at the time (especially in white lesbian communities) that butch/femme relationships mirrored heterosexual relationships. I know now that that was bullshit; just another way of folks trying to police our sexual and gender expressions.

In any event, through the years I have become more comfortable with identifying as femme, although in most cases people (even lesbians who should know better) assume that I’m straight. I’m always asked about a boyfriend or husband, and frequently have had a hard time meeting women who assume that because I do not transgress gender boundaries, that I must subscribe to heteronormative ones.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  However, I love being a “girl,” and as a feminist I make no apologies for my own brand of gendered expressions, fully realizing that not everyone feels the same way. And?  I also love love love more masculine identified women, and have generally dated what I would consider “soft” studs. For me it’s all about attitude, and less about any particular brand of masculinity. Nothing gets my pulse to racing quicker than a cool-ass woman, or what is more commonly known now as her “swag.”

There you have it, I’m a black lesbian femme, and although I realize that I pass for straight, I’m also aware that my very existence counters common stereotypes about what lesbians “look like.” As far as I’m concerned, they look like me and you. So there.

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