of a Black Lesbian Planet
This article originally appeared in Curve
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Ñ 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