A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color
My mother said I was her most precocious child. Looking back over my life I’ve come to realize I really was. Unfortunately, I took much of my life, or the activities of my life, for granted without realizing I truly was a precocious little girl. Martin Luther King’s speech the evening of April 3, 1968 had an affect on me and his death the next day propelled me into becoming a young activist, at the age of 10. I don’t remember or know many 10-year olds who lifted signs in protest of the war in Vietnam or wrote poems of Black protest about the acts or injustices perpetrated by the police and others against, not just Black folks, but people of color.
My days of activism ended during an age when most begin, at 17, after becoming a bit frustrated with what happened to us as Black folks when Blaxploitation movies hit the scene. I saw us move from a people seeking equality to a people who became intoxicated with the sick images of power displayed in films showing us as pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, numbers runners, and the like. In the Black Power movement, some saw these films as our entrée into the film industry while others, like myself, saw these images as a way of destroying the Black Power Movement. The once powerful images of us as people on the move turned into images of us as criminals.
I did my last public poetry reading at 18 and upon reading Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, I retreated from activism because it pained me to read the words of a Black man, one who was an active participant within the Black Panther Party, use homophobic words with regard to one of my favorite authors of the time, James Baldwin, and then speak of practicing the atrocity of rape upon Black women before moving on to rape White women. I came to the conclusion if this is where the movement was headed – towards misogyny and homophobia – I wanted no part of this movement. Like Maya Angelou, I sat down and became very quiet.
In my days of silence, I sat back and watched people from my position as an outsider. I watched their movements and actions and realized, within certain movements, there was a good deal of hostility towards those who were different, or better yet, those whose ideas did not reflect the collective consciousness of a particular group. Even in my own experiences within organizations or student groups of activists, I saw how the beliefs of some within the group, while mixing their words with a pinch of anger and a tablespoon of hostility, hurled those words at nonbelievers, interested parties who were not yet committed to the movement, or those seeking further understanding. We did more, through our hostile words and lack of understanding, to ostracize a many who could serve as valuable commodities within the movement. Of the hundreds who stood to do something, thousands more occupied places outside of the many groups, in the periphery, and did nothing.
Some years later, while serving as a TA at a community college, I saw a White teacher do what I will term a reverse Robin Hood by stealing from the poor and giving it to the rich. She took the useful materials from the students at an inner city community college and gave those materials – sent them across town – to a community college that primarily served a rich White group of students. Upon approaching the students about the truth in what I and others discovered, they seemed uninterested and appeared willing to accept this as what typically happens to Black folk. They were disinterested in doing anything to combat the injustices going on within their school and acted as if they were powerless to do anything.
In my frustration, which was mixed with a little hesitation over involving myself in such an uphill battle, I had a discussion with an older wise one, another Black activist friend who answered the question “how do you motivate a people,” by saying “you lead them without them knowing they’re being led.” This turned out to be the most important lesson I could ever learn in life and it worked. By talking with individual students, holding that individual’s hand while walking them to the door of justice, sitting with that person as they cussed and discussed their feelings, and then returned to talk with yet another individual to do the same, changed the activities and actions of that teacher at that school. The individuals formed a collective against the injustices and, at the end of that semester, I saw individuals who worked together for change feel empowered by their acts. That was just as powerful a feeling for me as it was for them. I finally learned how to motivate non-political folk and saw them become political activists for change.
That one lesson became my life’s ambition. I have not since joined particular groups or organizations with one cause or the other. Since I am most comfortable being the consummate loner, I have not been interested in joining groups or organizations whose ideas may or may not reflect the way I see things. Being one who has always stood on the outside looking in, a people watcher am I, I've often rejected all actions performed by members of a group as they squash individualism or the autonomy of one in an attempt to bend them to the will or collective thinking of a group. I don’t like it because I have always seen this as a way of further ostracizing those who could offer much to the organization or group. Like the lessons learned from Martin and Malcolm, or W.E.B. and Booker T., our methods may be different but our objectives are almost always the same.
We as African Americans, or African American GLBT activists need to understand some can serve the movement one way, while others can equally serve in yet another. Sometimes, differences can often prove beneficial as a means of gaining access through doors previously shut, or closed up tight to some. For example, Martin Luther King’s utilizing the talents of Bayard Rustin proved beneficial though others within the movement thought differently. Bayard Rustin, as a gay Black man, did not have to stand in front of a forum of GLBT activists and state “I’m a gay man in the movement.” No, everyone who knew him as a gay man joined the movement because of him.
I know Christine was one Black lesbian who marched with Martin Luther King and I know she was not the only one. There were others. Unfortunately, history may never document the many gays and lesbians who marched with King or appeared on the lawn of the Washington Monument. Homophobia is the source of this ignorance. Fortunately, King was not so short-sighted as to not realize or understand the importance of full participation, by all people, in the movement towards civil rights and later, human rights.
To say I am a little uncomfortable with the position I am in would be an understatement. I have never been one who enjoys the limelight. I am the one always behind the camera, not in front of it. I will talk with others but my voice is seldom heard. I have never liked being honored for the things I do or have done and have really resisted anything that would place me in the spotlight. As a young person, whenever I would do a poetry reading, it was my intention to get in, read or perform my work and get out. I was often a bit disturbed by those who approached me later to lay upon me accolades for my work or the message contained within. I’m a runner both literally and figuratively and always the one closest to the door. I make cameo appearances just to say I was there and I will leave just as quickly as I arrive. In essence, I am truly hard to catch, hard to hold, and the truest example of a loner.
With FemmeNoir, I have been thrust into a position that has made me equally uncomfortable. Women often come to me with their grievances or applaud my work and the work of those women celebrated on this site. They come to read and learn about lesbians of color and some of these women are straight, bisexual, married, widowed, old and young. My talks about the more intimate details of my life was done, in large part, to reveal a little something about the life of a lesbian of color who may or may not agree with everything going on in our community or the labels attached to our lives. I have also talked much about my grief with the loss of my significant other. My words have endeared themselves to some who wanted to know more about our relationships as lesbians of color and what happens when there is loss such as what I experienced
A few short months after officially launching FemmeNoir, I entered into a world of hurt. Now, two years after Christine’s death, I am rising from that world of hurt; I am looking around and asking myself some serious questions: do I wish to reenter the life of an activist? Do I really want to rekindle those fires, particularly now with regard to marriage equality?
I initially thought I would have Christine with me for many years and together we would build FemmeNoir into a source of information for other lesbians of color. Without her, I really have no point of reference. My life prior to meeting Christine was spent among those women I’ve often referred to as the Secret Society of Lesbians, women who have nothing to do with wanting or desiring to be out of their closets. Women who have remained in their closets, quite comfortably I might add, for many years. We had no political agenda, no desire to belong, no interests in issues pertaining to the gay and lesbian community. I am at a loss and subsequently, I am fumbling in yet another dark closet when it comes to being a visible and out lesbian of color. I have no point of reference.
Additionally, I no longer have that solid Virgo who had the experience of knowing well the ins and outs of the GLBT community, that Virgo who knew how to temper the ways of this stubborn Taurean, who possesses the fiery passion of one on the cusp of Aries, with the arrogance of a Leo Rising. Quite a mix to say the least, and without that tempering once provided by the solid and wise Virgo, I find myself on my own.
It would be easy for me, and I have certainly considered it, to return to my world of closeted living or closet door ajar. It would be simpler for me to live my life, returning to the Secret Society, and never being seen or heard from again. However, as much as I dislike being in the spotlight and as much as I have lived my life being the consummate loner, I feel I have a responsibility to those who are not out, not visible, those who do not know where to go or how to get there – I have a responsibility to them, like it or not. Additionally, those women who are members of the secret society, my friends, have chosen to live their lives vicariously through me, which is something I too once did.
The other day, I sat down to write my commentary and the result was something I have since termed a channeling of many voices that were not my own. During the time I wrote that very strange commentary, I spoke with several women and re-read several emails received from women who are unhappy with the state of affairs within our community. Many are hurt and fractured; they are looking for information and finding it difficult to get answers to their questions. At the very core of the “who of them,” there is hurt and pain at what they perceive as being outcasts or outsiders. Overwhelmingly, the emails I’ve received talk of being ignored or neglected as they have tried to enter into a community that they perceive as somehow checking their references and upon doing so, found them unsuitable candidates for membership.
Most of the complaints I have heard has a lot to do with how some women are raised. Unlike most men, some of us were not raised to be aggressive. Some of us, myself included, are quite shy – painfully shy in fact – when it comes to new experiences and meeting new people. I have seen many women go out to clubs stand idly by, watching and looking but never fully participating in the activities going on around them. Often, they walk away to never be seen or heard from again. My cameras have always been the ice breaker for me. Being a photographer helps me break the painfully shy experiences I typically have when entering new environments, or meeting new people – but that’s me and I cannot always walk into a place with cameras in hand.
The bulk of the emails I have received dealt with this issue alone – women who have tried to enter the community and have found themselves labeled as “newbies” or something worse and are often shunned when they attempt, in vain, to talk with other women. One email I received was horrifying:
I finally did meet a woman at one of the clubs I frequented after several attempts to meet people. She was friendly and we had a nice conversation . . . I knew I had made a mistake when I called her one day from my office phone. Apparently she noted the number from Caller ID and started calling me at work. I didn’t need her to do this and asked her to stop calling me at my work number. She didn’t seem to care and continued anyway. I started to distance myself from her only to have her show up at my job asking for me. . . . this tuned into an ugly situation. I’m not out at work and didn’t need her creating a scene on my job. After this, I don’t know if I want to go out and meet other women. Are they all this crazy?
Was the woman in question crazy? The answer is no. Male or female, straight or gay, it is difficult to meet quality people. If the woman writing this email was truthful in the description she gave of herself, she was probably perceived as someone of quality and most folks want to have someone like her in their lives. The woman in question was a little more aggressive about going after what she wants. I cannot talk about other details contained within this email because the quote above is the only part I received permission to print. Suffice it to say, however, when you are not out, are trying to be out in your own way at your own pace, your fears may determine the outcome of your experiences. Here’s a lofty thought to consider, not only must one be careful of what they fear because they may become that which they fear, they will also attract that which they fear. That might have gone over a few heads, but in actuality, it is very true and I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
This particular woman has decided to stay away from the clubs and bars, not because this is her wish or desire, it is because she fears meeting up with this woman again or others like her. She has tried to join various chat groups, message boards and organizations only to find herself attacked, in a passive aggressive way, by those women challenging her not being out and her fears. This served no great purpose than to further ostracize someone who wishes to come out of her closet, is looking for an avenue where she can take the hand of someone who will guide her, or find mentors who will enable her to not only come out, but participate in some of the offerings available within the community of women.
She asked me if there was anything she could avail herself of in her town. Unfortunately, I don’t half know what is going on in my town let alone someone else’s, but I have tried to find other things in her city or state and honestly, came up with nothing more than a few clubs. That does not mean they do not exist, it only means I cannot find them and neither can she. This leads me to another question, how do we make ourselves more available to women like this particular woman who will not drop her email address on an organization’s website, who will not leave her name and telephone number on an answering service, and who will no longer join an email list?
Okay, well back to me. I have listed my cell number on this site and trust me, my cell phone is getting quite a work out, at all hours of the day and night. I have held that phone to my ears for so long it ain’t funny while listening to the words of women who are more than a little upset at how inaccessible we are. It was not my intention to become the “great ear,” but in the spirit of Christine Tripp who could listen tirelessly to others, the inheritance I received from her, I too have listened tirelessly to both the kudos and the complaints. I have also happened upon a strange phenomenon as well – that one number has become the number people call to reach the many Leaders and Legends on this site.
At first I thought this funny, quite amusing, and hysterical when my phone rang and I heard the voice on the other end ask for one of the Leaders & Legends. My initial response was “you’ve got to be kidding.” One woman actually explained she went to a search engine, typed in the name of a particular Leader & Legend, found her on this site, clicked on contact and dialed my number thinking the site was for that particular Leader & Legend. The same holds true for some of the emails I receive. People will do a search and typically, FemmeNoir is the first thing up with regard to that particular individual. The emails and phone calls are not just from within the United States, often they are from outside of the country. I have since realized what was initially a hobby for me has turned into a certain sense of responsibility than previously thought.
One email I received from a woman started with kudos for the site and many of the women contained within and then launched into a very negative assessment of other sites for lesbians of color:
First, I want to thank you for bringing us FemmeNoir. It represents who I am and how I identify as a lesbian of color. It is very positive and contains information pertinent to us as lesbians of color and I check the calendar often for events going on around town. . . .Unfortunately, there are links on your site I have found troubling, particularly [OMITTED] which shows women in uncompromising positions and half-dressed. This is not how I identify and would appreciate your giving us some warning before we click to access these sites. I would appreciate the words “explicit” or “contains nudity” as sufficient warning before accessing these sites. . . . while on the subject of faults and complaints, you list or highlight various events for lesbians of color that require travel, specifically [OMITTED]. I have a question, what are they doing? When going to these websites, I’ve found nothing there telling me why I should go. It is quite arrogant, don’t you think, for you to ask us to participate in something without first telling us what it is or why we should attend. Who will speak? What break outs will they have? What are they covering? Why should I spend money to go? I have been a lesbian all of my life but I will not attend something just because it is labeled “lesbian” or “black lesbian.” I need more from you than mere words. I can hang out with a bunch of black lesbians around the corner from me without having to pay money and travel across country.
She raises many valid points and though I cannot, at this time, answer many of her concerns, I certainly understand where she is coming from. I too have complained, quite privately and to close friends, of many of the same things she brought up in her email. Hers is not the only email or conversation I have had that brings up one, or all, of the concerns she raised in her email. On the other side of this, however, being one who operates a website by myself, I also understand how difficult it is to update and keep current with the many things going on in our community. Web design is not an easy task and not everyone is able. It also takes money to run a website and if you or someone within your organization cannot do it, you will have to hire someone, pay money you may not have to someone, who will do it. There are so many women who need and not enough information to help them make informed decisions. Instead of complaining about the lack of information, there is a need for some to rise to the occasion and help those groups or organizations by making a donation of time to help fulfill those needs.
Again, I have consciously omitted some portions of her email because this was her wish when contacting her and receiving final approval on what should be displayed here on this site. She did not wish to name the organizations, clubs, or websites she found offensive or lacking information and I can appreciate her wishes for doing so.
These two emails represent the multitudes of emails or phone conversations I have had with other women who are looking for an avenue to either serve, come out of their closets, or participate in a little or great way within the community of lesbians of color. It has caused me to think, rethink and rethink my commitment and even rethink my being the consummate loner wanting nothing to do with activism or participating in particular groups or organizations. My somewhat antisocial ways may have to take a backseat to a belief all should be able to join and participate, on some level, and the bridge called my back may serve as the vehicle to get some from one place to another.
In the past few weeks, I have learned much from women who find it difficult to come out of their closets. Their experiences have taught me humility. Coming out caused me in many ways to become like what some would term the worse type of advocate, the reformed smoker, who badgers and berates folks who continue to smoke. The same is true of those who successfully emerge from their closets, banging others over the head for not coming out of their closets, on any level. I have had to hold back while listening to some women tell me of the deep seated problems that prevent them from coming out. I’ve also listened to women who have been conditioned or indoctrinated with certain untruths who feel they have to change everything about their lives in order to live as out lesbians.
Last night, I spoke with a woman who is having a difficult time. She has been active in her church for many years, along with members of her family. For her to come out, she says she would have to move a considerable distance away from her family and friends, “to where?” She asked me “will I find a group of women on the other side of this who will help me accept myself and move on as a lesbian of color?”
Through FemmeNoir, many women have found positive role models of lesbians of color. These role models became, for many, the impetus needed to reconsider their own lives and look for those avenues that will lead them to freedom. I personally owe a great debt to these women who are our Leaders & Legends. It also tells me there is much to do with regard to FemmeNoir and my own commitment to a community I have estranged myself from because I really never wanted to be active in anything since my personal experiences as a youth. I also better understand Martin Luther King’s resistance to joining the civil rights movement as a spokesperson or even Jesus’ resistance to his mother’s insistence that prompted his public ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I have no delusions of being either King or Jesus, it only serves as a point of reference for me, the one who wanted nothing to do with activism again but has found herself becoming the “great ear” to some and a source of information for others. Interestingly, I am also one who knows the least about what’s going on in our community.
Christine often told me my ability to use logic within an argument, on the fly, within that argument would prove very beneficial at some point in my life. She continued stating she hoped my talents would be used to the benefit of women. I always found her statement quite curious particularly since the argument in question had more to do with our conversations with a man who wanted to tell us how Black women have “fallen” with regard to the movement. She said my flair for the dramatic and my quick response is what really sealed his fate in that argument. She often wondered why I didn’t do this “all of the time” especially since she knew “you have it in you.” Not everything is the bridge I want to die on and I have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.
After listening and reading the many messages I have received from women, FemmeNoir for me is no longer a hobby, it is now a mission to serve women, by any means necessary. If that service means holding the hands of women and leading them without them knowing their being led by helping them get from one place to another, then so be it. As much as I have never wanted to be where I am now, I must also recognize everything happens for a reason. There are women in extreme bondage who are not free to be who they are. I have heard them, for whatever reason, I have heard them. I don’t know why they chose me, they just did. My mother always said, find a need and fill it. Well, I guess I’ve found it and hopefully I will not only aid in some way in that march toward equality, I also hope I can help others in their march toward freedom as well.
The precocious child has come full circle and can no longer stand on the outside looking in. Every time I've thought to withdraw to a more comfortable existence, away from FemmeNoir and the thought of activism, women come out of the woodwork compelling me to search on, for their benefit, for answers to hard questions. It is not for me to ask why. It is time now to do.Home