A Web Portal For Lesbians Of Color
In the neighborhoods where I lived, on the South
Side of Chicago, women loving women were never referred to as
lesbians, dykes or homosexuals, they were called “boyish,”
“mannish,” “tomboys,” and “bulldaggers” – or in the South where
I spent many summers, “bulldaggas.”
The known “bulldaggers” in my neighborhood were hard looking women who often dressed like men, wore their hair like men, spent a lot of time in jails or prisons, ran women, sold drugs, or were drunks or addicts who hung on the corner with other drunks or addicts. They talked like men, could drink or out drink a man, were loud, engaged in a fair share of fights, cursed to excess, and were often caught up in some form of sex scandal with someone’s wife or girlfriend.
Initially, I never liked the “bulldaggers” because they reminded me of the worse kind of man. Particularly on a Friday or Saturday night when you would find one of them hanging outside one of the bar-b-que joints up on 103rd street talking loud and grabbing at things they ain’t never had. More importantly, I knew that being it was a Friday or Saturday night, their actions would inevitably get them beat up by a man or group of men by Sunday. This was not only the fate of the “bulldagger,” but the “sissies” and “fags” got beat up and abused too.
Invariably, regardless of how many beatings and abuses they suffered, they still came up to 103rd Street and continued to hang out in the same neighborhood, around the same people who may have beaten or abused them in the past. After a while, some of the men actually became protective of them and would stand up to an individual or group trying to start something. I too changed. As I got older, I learned to respect their bravery. They may not have had anywhere else to go but one thing was certainly true, they were not going to hide or run away.
Across the street from me lived two women. The neighbors often referred to them as “the ladies in the house with the pink frames,” “those women,” “the fair one” or “the Black one.” I lived on this street for many years, from the time I was ten or eleven until I was in college. I never knew their names. I never saw any of the neighbors go into their home. Everyone seemed to talk only to “the fair one” and only in the front yard. Often, when people referenced a conversation they had with “the fair one,” they would end their statements with the phrase “to each his own” and laugh.
As a youngster, I always liked “the Black one” and always made a point of speaking to her whenever I saw her. Primarily because my mother raised my brother and I with good manners and I not only wanted to show off my good teachings but I also wanted to let my mother know how well I learned, so I spoke to her often. I loved her smile and her melodic and responsive “hello.” She had a grand piano smile – warm and welcoming. I later learned she played piano and apparently was quite popular. When she died, (I believe I was in my twenties then) I do not recall seeing a single person from that neighborhood go to the house and offer their condolences. Not a one. They all peered through their windows and watched the cars come and go and wondered aloud the next day, amongst themselves of course, “I wonder what she did?”
I learned much from these two women. Though everyone talked about them, made their own comments about them, feared going into their home, backyard or have coffee with them, and though they knew “the Black one” was ”the man” and “the fair one” was “the woman,” they never took time to get to know them. These two women, in the early 70’s, bought a house together to share their lives with one another until, and in fact, death separated them. These two women, albeit older than many of the couples/families in the neighborhood, were the only couple that stayed together through my childhood until I was a young adult when "the Black one" died.
In the cold of winter, “the Black one” would get up and get out, often dressed in her blue overalls, boots and a heavy jacket, opened the garage door, started the car, pulled it out of the garage and closed the garage door. She would then sit in the car letting it run and warm and soon would pull the car to the front, get out, open the door and “the fair one” would walk down the steps and into a warm car. Yes indeed, she left the warm house, stepped briefly into the cold and then into a warm car. Is that love? Yes, that's love.
When I left home to live on my own, almost everyone in that neighborhood had either separated or divorced. The only long-term couple I knew up to that point in my life were, “the women in the house with the pink frames,” “those women,” “the fair one,” and “the Black one.”
In my neighborhood, bisexual women were considered “freaks,” “hoes,” “nasty,” or were considered women who would “do anythang with anyone.” This is the place where I started. I met a woman in college who introduced me to a group of women whom I often refer to as the “Secret Society of Lesbians” or “SSL.” Today, they would be considered sistahs on the down low. These women held elaborate parties at fancy homes – I never knew if these homes were owned by any of the women or were rented for the parties – but the women ranged in age, beauty, nationality, and marital status. Some of the women considered themselves lesbian and preferred being in the company of women who attended these parties. Other women were married, had children, or for whatever reason could not and would not come out of their closets. Fortunately for me, I met many mentors at these parties, businesswomen and entrepreneurs.
I met a couple of ladies at one these parties who truly loved each other. They were so attentive to one another. If one sneezed, without thought, the other had a tissue at the ready for her to wipe her nose. If they were running around the room playing catch up in conversation, one always knew where the other was in relation to her. As a consummate people watcher, these two women truly were the personification of the phrase “poetry in motion.” I loved watching them together. I was truly happy to walk into a room and see these two women. If I was there and they were not, I felt empty.
At one of the parties I finally got the nerve to walk up to them and complimented them on how beautiful they looked together. That is when I learned not only were they both married, but they met each other through their husbands. I was shocked. Their love for one another was so deep, so real, I felt it in their presence, I felt it watching them and yet, so secret. I blurted a surprising question for me, which came as no surprise to them: “how do you keep your feelings for one another so secret? Can’t your husbands tell?" I could tell by looking at them what their feelings were for one another. Their response: they often pretended to be mad with one another, they limited their conversations to soap powder, laundry, clothing and other “such nonsense,” and their husbands thought they acted like sisters.
There is more to their story I cannot and will not divulge. Suffice it to say, these two women truly loved one another and it was apparent. For five years, these two women kept a secret life together. They were not, however, giving up the town homes, the houses in the suburbs, the cars, the clothes, and the other perks of marriage to successful men. God, how beautiful their love was. I often wonder where they are today. Did they take a stand for love? I would hope so. Did it fall apart in tears? Perhaps. Are they still together sharing a secret? I hope not.***
The Greatest of These . .
To my "bulldagger" and “butch to the bone” sistahs, thank you for your bravery. To the bulldagga who lives (or lived) on the low road down in Emporia, I hear tell you waz real nice to some of dem womens when dayz menz been actin a fool. I hears you helped dem forgits dayz pain.
To the brothas who stood up for the "bulldaggers," thank you too for your bravery and show of unconditional love.
To the “ladies in the house with the pink frames,” “the fair one,” and “the Black one,” thank you for mentoring me in the ways of love. To “the Black one,” my very special sister, you did not have to get up so early, get dressed and pull the car out and warm it up for her. You could have stayed in bed. Thank you for showing me love takes care of its own. I know God has you in his hands because your smile, your voice, and the way you played the piano were from heaven to my eyes and ears.
To my two sistahs on the down low, thank you for showing me love. Thank you for showing me joy in each other's presence.
To my friends, wherever you are in the SSL, thank you for taking me in, showing me love, and saying farewell when I wanted to live out and not secretly -- I miss you guys. More importantly, I want to thank you for your words of wisdom, you were right. And if you are out there (you know who, since you were kinda out yourself) and if you are reading this . . . you were right too and do drop me an email.
And The Greatest of These Is Love.
*** Update: I was recently informed the two women in this story did decide to spend their lives together. They have been living together now for 11 years and they are, by my estimates, the longest lesbian couple I have known -- a little more than 25 years.Home