America's invisible women

January 06, 1994|By Lisa Respers

A FEW YEARS ago, a friend called in the middle of the night overwhelmed by the sort of grief usually reserved for death or heartbreak. She had just spoken to her oldest and dearest girlfriend.

"Lisa," my friend sobbed, "she told me she was gay!"

My friend's reaction was not unusual as a response to black women who "come out of the closet." Homosexuality in the African-American community has long been a topic of dread.

But usually it has been gay black men who suffer the brunt of society's ostracism and ridicule. What of gay black women?

Black lesbians have long existed on the fringes of the homosexual culture, the often overlooked foot soldiers on the battlefield for gay rights.

Gay black women are neither as visible nor as organized as their white counterparts. Yet their lives reflect the often overwhelming pressures of enduring the triple threat of discrimination based on racism, sexism and homophobia.

In the black community, gay black women are shunned as freaks and as traitors in the struggle to rebuild the black family.

Yet contrary to conventional wisdom, gay black women are not "rebelling" against convention because of any supposed lack of "good" black men. Rather, they are affirming a lifestyle that, despite making their relations with the straight world difficult, gives them a sense of identity and belonging among their peers.

I recently accompanied a male colleague to a gay nightclub in downtown Baltimore. He had heard that a woman whom he had written about in another context would be performing as a member of a lesbian dance group.

As it happened, we did not find the person we were looking for. However, what we did see was an astonishing variety of black women of many different ages, styles and appearance.

There were a few stereotypical "butch" lesbians -- women who dressed and carried themselves like men.

The majority of the women, however, were so-called "fems" -- "lipstick lesbians" who do not try to conceal their femininity and who easily coexist in the heterosexual world without being singled out as gay women.

Sitting there, I was reminded of the poet Audre Lorde, a black feminist lesbian and author of the essay "I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities," in which she noted that "black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk."

The women at the club were obviously at ease with their sexuality. They were openly affectionate. There was even a touching sense of "family" as women arriving at the club were greeted with hugs and inquiries about mutual friends.

Yet not everyone has felt embraced by the black lesbian community. Despite their non-conformist lifestyle, the issue of interracial dating can be as explosive among black lesbians as it is among heterosexual black women.

I spoke with one young woman who knows all too well the difficulty of being black and gay in America. She has been in a stable relationship for eight years. Her lover, however, is white.

"That makes it difficult," she said. "Most of the flack has come from the black lesbian community and that makes me angry. You would think they would have some compassion."

Mainstream society has little compassion for lesbians, black or white. Recently an alarming trend has developed in which courts have deprived gay women of custody of their children because of their sexual orientation.

Moreover, since women earn less than men, lesbian couples often are not as financially secure as gay male couples. Even the media, unconsciously acceding to male bias, focus more on gay men than on gay women.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the problems faced by gay black women are nearly invisible outside the tight-knit black lesbian community.

"We are out there," said one woman, who after five years still has not revealed her lesbianism to her family.

"When I got my hair cut very short, everyone assumed I was just in step with Afrocentric fashion," she said. In fact, her hair style and dress were expressions of her sense of identification with the gay community.

This woman's partner "has long flowing hair and looks like a model," she said. "What is cool is that we are not locked into some category. We are just two women who love each other."

Like many gay women, she and her partner find in the nightclub scene a temporary escape from the hostility of a homophobic society.

Ironically, gay women benefit from some of the very gender stereotypes that victimize gay men. For example, close relationships between women don't automatically arouse suspicion because women are expected to be "loving." Two women who share an apartment for years at a time are not nearly as suspect as two men who do the same.

Even celebrity status is more associated with gay men than with gay women. More people know that author James Baldwin was gay than know that blues singer Bessie Smith and poet Angelina Grimke were lesbians.

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