The Blackwood Research Group

Posts tagged ‘black lesbians’

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 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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