The Greatest of These is Love
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
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
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.