A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color

The Women Gather

A.D. Odom

In this poem by Nikki Giovanni, women gather because “it is not unusual for them to seek comfort in our hours of stress.” This month on FemmeNoir, the women gather to honor women who have passed through our lives and have since passed away and we gather 'round to sit at the feet of those women who are survivors of cancer. We gather to give that which we all hope to receive - respect and honor - let not one word go unheard and let not one lesson be taken for granted.

Exactly one year ago, I came up with an idea of creating a website dedicated to lesbians of color because I have not always been out. At one time, I needed to live vicariously through the lives of those who were out. There was a time in my life when being lucky meant being able to pick up a free community paper without being seen. To attend an occasional party or event, I needed to feel secure in knowing co-workers, straight friends, or friends or members of my family would not be in attendance. Much has been said about down-low brothers, but there are those of us who were and still are down-low sisters - with special friends.

Twenty some odd years ago, I took ownership of a word -- lesbian -- and identified myself as such. I looked for information, words, or images of lesbians of color and the first woman I found was Audre Lorde. When I read The Black Unicorn in 1980, Audre Lorde had already been diagnosed with and was then living with cancer. I read many of Audre’s books, but I never had the pleasure of meeting her personally. After moving across country from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1990, Audre moved to St. Croix where she died. Distance kept us from meeting and time - my need to be an overachiever without fault - prevented me from seeing her, in person, at speaking engagements or poetry readings.

Audre’s words were immediate and filled with the intent on focusing her reader on the realities of life. She took nothing for granted. Often, holding her words in my hands, I found myself focused, contemplatively, inward on my own soul and my intentions. Audre wrote “. . . and when we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.” Though these words were and are both haunting and powerful, I still insisted on holding steadfast to my fears - however real or imagined.

In January 2001, I came across more words of Audre Lorde and realized it was time for me to face my own fears. Those words: "Once you have faced that death which can come from cancer you can give full rein to your rage and your love and become fearless." I may have read these words previously, but now, as a middle-aged woman, the words death and fearless stood out. What will I leave behind? What will be my legacy?

Death is inevitable, we will all face it and how will we face it? Will it be fearlessly? I created FemmeNoir - my cathartic memoir - for women who have or are living their lives as I once lived mine, in the closet, where wisdoms’ light is not granted admittance. I thank God for giving me the time to contemplate on Audre's words and I thank Audre for giving me the words. And so, the women gather. We gather here to accept our inheritance from those who have gone before us, we gather to honor and learn from those who are still with us - we gather.

I cannot count the number of women I have met who have succumbed to alcoholism and/or drug abuse as a result of self-hate and from the overwhelming hate inflicted upon them for being different, for being lesbian, bisexual, or even curious. This self-hate, if left unchecked, can and will do great harm to our bodies, and present us as willing participants to opportunistic diseases, such as cancer, high blood pressure, or even diabetes.  Nikki Giovanni wrote “some say we are responsible for those we love; others know we are responsible for those who love us.” That would include our families; those individuals who may have said some misguided and cruel things to us, out of their love for us. Our responsibility is to be ourselves, and in love, help them grow and if they do not, consider; the women will gather.

Pat Parker wrote, in Movement In Black, “if I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, 'No, you stay home tonight, you won't be welcome,' because I'm going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black. Or I'm going to a Black poetry reading, and half the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution.” I learned of Pat Parker through my friend, Christine Tripp, who was disappointed I did not mention Pat Parker's name in my first commentary on the site. Seeking education, I asked Christine about Pat Parker and she wrote her own commentary to tell of her personal experiences with Pat.  Through my research, I learned Pat Parker was yet another fearless lesbian of color.  I am very grateful.

In June of this year, I lost my uncle to renal failure and herein lies the truth behind FemmeNoir. Though I started the site officially in February 2001, I was not moved to do much about it until August 2001. My uncle may have been gay, bisexual, or another brother on the down-low. I will never know sans a few tell-tale items found in a storage bin and a prophetic dream I had. Who were his friends and where were they? No one knew a thing about his life, his loves, or his friends and his guarded words never painted the images one would need to know. What I know is three women gathered at his gravesite, a niece and two sisters, no friends, no past loves.

When Ruth Waters lost her battle with cancer two weeks later, women gathered, but this time it was to celebrate the life of a woman who was OUT and fearless. To know Ruth was to know at some point in your relationship with her you would be corrected. She did not hold things inside for months on end trying to find a way to break it to you gently; no, she told you right then. Like Audre, Ruth did not have the luxury of time to procrastinate and say “one day. . .” time was of the essence and the time was now - she took no prisoners. You can only imagine my disappointment to see very little written about the loss of this great woman whose accomplishments stretched far beyond the GLBT community. I saw one article in the Washington Blade and a mention on Blacklight Online.

Ruth did not write a book to leave behind as her legacy to us, she just simply lived. She was a mentor to many in the GLBT community. She was strong, she was fearless, and some would even say a bit cantankerous, but she had to be to overcome the oppressive nature of homophobia, sexism and racism. In July, the loss of Ruth Waters brought me back to center to reflect, once more, on the words of Audre Lorde “[o]nce you have faced that death which can come from cancer, you can give full rein to your rage and your love and become fearless.”  Ruth was certainly fearless.

This month, I dedicate FemmeNoir to the memory of Ruth Waters. Though Ruth does not have papers, books or essays I am aware of, this site will stand as a living legacy to her life and what she gave to those who knew her. Additionally, this month FemmeNoir will honor two other lesbians of color who now carry the torch Ruth once held, Vallerie Wagner of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and Christine Adams Tripp, J.D., another cancer survivor. Vallerie Wagner participated with Ruth on the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum as Co-Chair and is a Leader/Legend in her own right as a community activist in the GLBT community. Christine Adams Adams Tripp, J.D. (my bestest friend in the whole world), also worked alongside Ruth Waters with the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and is a community activist in the GLBT community, disabilities advocate, and one of the founding members of Unity Fellowship Church.

In Leaders/Legends, we honor another fallen mentor to cancer, Lorraine Hansberry.  Closeted most of her life, we can now claim her as our own.  Gaye Adegbalola (Ah-deg-bah-lo-la) is also a cancer survivor and a trailblazing blueswoman, musician, writer and founding member of Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women.  An entrepreneurial sister, Bonita "Bo" Best of Pizzazz Productions, Inc. is another sister joining the gathering of women who keep us connected in social settings.  Last, but not least, a gifted writer, poet, performance artist and playwright, Sharon Bridgforth.

In Who Is She, FemmeNoir features Nikki Giovanni, a five-plus-year lung cancer survivor and outspoken poet of the Black Arts Movement. Nikki Giovanni is probably the most influential woman in the lives of many poets and writers, male and female, old and young, and she is still “keeping it real” with the same powerful voice and words.

So, let’s continue to gather, women loving women, because no one will honor our lives or achievements but us. Let's move forward, fearlessly in honor and in loving memory of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ruth J. Waters because, to quote Nikki, "It is not unusual to sift through ashes and find an unburned photograph."