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Fear of a Black Lesbian Planet

By Samiya Bashir

This article originally appeared in Curve Magazine Reprinted With Permission

"It's the big pink elephant in the middle of the room. Everyone knows it's there and we quietly tiptoe around it, afraid that even acknowledging its existence would throw off the delicate balance that exists in our pretending it isn't standing there, grazing on our avoidance." If we do choose to look at the elephant's skin, we see that she carries the tattoos of racial division exclusion, nasty feelings, words, and actions, the unspoken rules of separation.

Black lesbians trying to find out who we are both as women of color and as lesbians find the invisible wall we bump up against while trying to find access into the lesbian community even harder to bear. White women may feel equally bruised by a situation where they don't feel they are being exclusionary at all. Some black women, reeling from accusations of being overly sensitive, question whether or not we are just imagining foul play.

"I firmly believe that when we sense racism, it's happening," says Danielle Abrams, a biracial performance artist who addresses issues of race, gender and sexuality in her work. "I think we're all told that it's not happening. We've been taught to think that we're hysterical or neurotic when we sense racism."

Even when black women do find blatant examples of racism within the lesbian community, just as in the outside world, we often must struggle to begin a dialogue in such a way that we can be heard. "There's no voice for it," says Abrams. "There's not enough language to describe it, and often we're seen as attacking or violent if we do bring it up."

Johanna Bermudez, a Puerto Rican/West Indian filmmaker, agrees: "Many white women have a fear of confronting a woman of color. There is a stereotype that we will go off on them if they approach us, that we will not know how to communicate civilly."

"Everyone in this country grows up with certain attitudes about race this is a racist country," says Lisa Moore, publisher of RedBone Press, a small, lesbian-owned company dedicated to publishing the work of black lesbian writers. Most small lesbian presses exist due to funds donated by lesbians, and RedBone is the only publisher of its kind. "It's not like I have crowds of black lesbians donating money to the press," says Moore. Although her first book, the Lammy Award-winning "Does Your Mama Know?: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories" (1997), is in its third printing, "There's not a whole lot of out, wealthy, black lesbians," she says. "Black women in general are not particularly wealthy."

Lesbians of color seeking access to grant money often face a triple bind in a world that often wants us to pick one box: gender, race or sexuality. Lesbian funding institutions, although often run predominately by white women, tend to offer our best chance, since many now acknowledge the need to support projects by lesbians of color. Still, the definition of what constitutes a "lesbian" project can itself become exclusionary. "One hindrance [for women of color] is the level of outness, and a lot of that has to do with what we see. You don't find many black lesbian role models out there," says Moore. Is a project really lesbian if I don't see images familiar to my lesbian life?

Last year, HBO brought pioneering lesbian programming to America with "If These Walls Could Talk 2". The show received wide acclaim from lesbians and straights alike. In the entire three-part show there was only one woman of color a black woman who apparently had no other black friends. There were no Latinas, no Asian women and no Native-American women in visible roles. Too often, even in lesbian media, the token rule is followed wherein one is enough. Often lesbians of color are only shown in the context of white lesbians, like an extra topping on the white lesbian sandwich.

That affects how lesbians deal with their own issues around sexuality. For a young black woman struggling to come out, for instance, the message is sent that while she alone can penetrate a white lesbian community, she can bring no friends, and there can be no viable black lesbian community.

"For black lesbians, and lesbians of color in general, seeing fewer women of color out there representative of the word 'lesbian' tells us that who we are is not possible," says Moore. "If you're seeing images of someone like Ruth Ellis," she continues, "then you can think, 'I can be old and black and dyke it's possible.' Whereas if you never see it, then you always have to be the trailblazer."

This lack of role models contributes to the ineffectiveness of all of our institutions in raising the awareness of our total lesbian community. Despite marked gains in the middle class among communities of color, women of color continue to be the most economically marginalized group in America. The ways in which class and race intersect to exclude women from the larger lesbian community often leave women of color feeling kicked when they're already down. "Race itself used to be very 'classed,'" says Moore. "It's not as intertwined with a lower class as it was, but when people think of 'black' they usually don't think 'upper-class.'"

The perception of class versus its reality is reflected in the mainstreaming of the lesbian movement. The bandwagon to jump on these days is the rising tide of affluence and the normalization of queer lives. For many well-off white women, there is a justifiable fear that fighting for acceptance of all lesbians by challenging racial or class barriers may rock the tidy boat they've built for themselves in the past few decades, and send them all back into the abyss of "otherness."

"In this culture we think in terms of polar opposites," says Abrams. "We identify ourselves based upon who we perceive to be our opposite. You'd think that the adoption of a radical identity would explode people's perceptions of themselves, and coming out as a dyke would take care of all of their racism and classism. But I think the opposite is true. It's so scary for dykes to come out that they cling to their race card. A white dyke often comes out in a white community, an upper-class dyke comes out in an upper-class community, and the separations are profound."

Those profound separations take another turn when we look into the different ways that gender is performed in various communities of color. The resurgence of butch/femme identities in the lesbian community brings those differences front and center. "Blackness and femininity don't exactly go hand in hand in the mind of the dominant culture," says Moore. Black women historically have been thought of as being very masculine, which feeds into the negative self-esteem of femme-identified black women, as well as their invisibility within butch-femme communities.

Black butch women are often thrust into the age-old stereotype of the big black stud. "My butch identity is not just about sexuality or even a choice of gender. It's about wearing my working-class stripes and wearing my racial stripes," says Abrams. Although black butch women are sometimes more accepted in white lesbian communities, in other communities it may be the opposite.

Bermudez found that out when she went home with a white butch friend to work on Ex-Isles, her documentary about the ostracization of lesbians and gays from the Caribbean. "When my friend came to St. Croix, it was easier for the black people down there to accept that she was butch, because she was white." But for Bermudez, her own acceptance as a butch lesbian by her Caribbean community is more tenuous. Still, it's a fight she wages because that community is her home.

"A lot of black lesbians tend to stay within black communities regardless of sexuality," says Moore. "So they don't necessarily identify solely on the basis of sexuality. The history in this country is that in order for black people to get anywhere, we have had to be thought of as one unit 'the black community.' It's never been about the wide diversity within the black community. In order to get any rights, we have had to rally around race in order to get things done. That's still true today."

And for black women, there is often real personal danger in trying to separate ourselves into parts for which we will rally for separate freedoms. "Black lesbians have to stretch to define themselves solely by sexuality," continues Moore. "If you're primarily defining yourself around sexuality, that's assuming it's what people will see first. That's hard to do if you've got any skin color."

Many white lesbians who are trying to create a genuinely inclusive lesbian community look upon this self-segregation with exasperation. Many lesbians of color have tried to feel welcome within the lesbian community, only to get a rude awakening. "I flash back to an incident at [the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival]," says Moore, "where two white women were standing in line behind a woman speaking Arabic. They were saying, 'Doesn't she know she needs to speak English in this country?' Michigan is supposed to be this happy wholesome village and this kind of stuff still pops up."

There is little discussion of the fact that while black lesbians may create their own hangouts and organizations where they can safely socialize, the majority of lesbian hangouts and organizations have very few visible black women. For a black woman to involve herself, she must once again drag the weight of "trailblazer" along with her. Furthermore, she is doing so in an environment that is generally not set up to accommodate her needs, or even to accept the fact that she may have legitimate needs separate from and in addition to those of white lesbians.

The topic of lesbians creating nontraditional families is currently getting a lot of attention both within and outside of the lesbian community. But again, the needs of women of color fall outside of those promoted within the mainstream lesbian community; black lesbians who have kids and are struggling just to survive. They're thinking, 'Sexuality is fourth or fifth on my list of problems right now,'" Moore points out. "That's where class is so tied up in this. White lesbians are fighting for marriage benefits and the right to stay home and have kids. You've got to have money to stay home and have kids unless you're ready to live on welfare."

For many women of color, even the basic arguments over which rights to fight for are outside the range of their daily experience. While many lesbians of color would love to stay home and raise their children, they are fighting not only economic constraints, but stereotypical ones as well. "The illusion is that women of color are all about having babies," says Bermudez, "so that woman is again pushed out of the lesbian community." "It's hard enough to be a single mom," she continues. "If she's a lesbian mom, or a woman coming out, she may be living a life of fear because the father might come back, or running the risk of being taken to court and having her children removed from her." In the community-wide discussion about lesbians making babies, there is a conspicuous absence of images of women and particularly women of color with older children. "We've already got nontraditional families," argues Moore. What we need is not just the right to have babies, but the right to raise our children in safe environments.

Whether we are women of color tired of always having to be the person to speak out, or white women afraid to speak out and be called racist, it's clear the time has come to walk past the fear and call the pink elephant by its name. "White lesbians have got to understand what white-skinned privilege is," says Moore. "There are advantages that the white community has," says Bermudez, "and the lesbian community is still not sensitive to that. This becomes an issue between white women and women of color when there's no dialogue about it."

Trying to mend the torn threads of community is easier said than done, but we've all got to live together. "I want to work with white women because I recognize the necessity of working for peace, for justice, for the basics of living in a humane society," says Bermudez. "It's very important for all races to work together to break the hegemony, to break the oppression. I want to work with white women who are trying something progressive in the sense of peace and human rights."

There are ways to begin healing racism both within yourself and within your community. Bermudez advocates setting up anti-racism support systems. "You can't do it by yourself," she says; "it's about analyzing and processing." But even without support, Abrams says, lesbians, no matter what color they are, have to begin deconstructing the prejudice they find in themselves. "I try to see if I'm avoiding communities that make me feel uncomfortable for any reason, whether it's within the Jewish community, or the black community, and I ask if I want to throw myself into the fire or not. Not is fine, but I'd better ask myself why and I'd better come up with an honest answer."

The key, she says, is using the tools you have at hand. Look at your own life your work and social environments and see where there's room to improve your relations with people outside of your comfort zone. Fear goes both ways in the us-versus-them dichotomies in which we so often find ourselves. "We have a long way to go," Moore is quick to point out. But once lesbian communities, all of them, begin to look around and see who's missing, all of us cannot help but be better for it.
Written by: Samiya Bashir

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