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Black Lesbians Discuss Gay Marriage

Photo Credit:  A.D. Odom.  Panelists from left to right D. Lisa Powell, United Lesbians of African Heritage (ULOAH), Marquita Thomas
Out & About), Jasmyne Cannick (National Black Justice Coalition),
 and Sylvia Rhue (California Freedom to Marry Coalition).  The event
 was held at Cabrini's Spot, a lesbian owned and operated coffee house
 in Los Angeles.

On Thursday, the day New Jersey’s governor  proclaimed “I am gay,” and then resigned his position, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Lockyer v. San Francisco  (Opinion Nos. S122923 & S122865) stating city officials exceeded their authority by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of state law, and ruled to void the 4,000-plus licenses issued in February of this year.

Though most of the justices agreed, two dissented from the order that licenses already issued be deemed invalid.  Justices Joyce Kennard and Kathryn Werdegar wrote that the licenses should have stood at least until the state law's constitutionality is decided – an issue completely avoided in Thursday's ruling, and addressed in lawsuits currently working their way through the court system.

Something else happened on Thursday as well.  In Los Angeles, Black lesbians came together to discuss the issue of marriage equality.  The panelists for the evening’s event were Sylvia Rhue representing the California Freedom to Marry Coalition; Jasmyne Cannick representing the National Black Justice Coalition, Marquita Thomas of Out & About, and D. Lisa Powell with United Lesbians of African Heritage (ULOAH).  The event was hosted by ULOAH at Cabrini’s Spot, a Black lesbian owned and operated coffee bar and meeting place in Los Angeles.

The meeting started with an introduction of the panelists.  D. Lisa Powell played “Oprah” for the evening.  With mic in hand, Powell stirred and prodded audience members – in good Oprah fashion – with questions and comments to summon audience participation. 

Sylvia Rhue of the California Freedom to Marry Coalition began stating the issue of marriage equality is particularly important here in California “because California is the state that leads the way and they say as goes California, so goes the rest of the country.”  She went on to state how successful the movement for marriage equality has been in Oregon and Washington State.  Sylvia also read a portion of Justice Kennard’s dissenting opinion in Lockyer v. San Francisco. 

“For many, marriage is the most significant and most time treasured experience of a lifetime.  Individuals in loving same sex relationships have waited years, sometimes several decades for a chance to wed, yearning to obtain a public validation that only marriage can give.  In recognition of that, this court should proceed most cautiously in resolving the ultimate question of the validity of the same sex marriage performed in San Francisco.” 

Sylvia told a personal story of her first recollection of same sex marriage, a vision she had while riding in the car with her mother.  She said: 

About 1955, before Stonewall, before Ellen, before the National Black Justice Coalition, ULOAH, and all the organizations, I was driving in the car with my mother and this vision came to me of two women who were married and who lived together and one of them was kissing the other goodbye for the day.  That’s my first conscious recollection of thinking about lesbianism even though I didn’t know what it was because I didn’t have a name for it, never heard about it, but that’s where I saw the fantasy of this marriage – 1955.  I said to my mother -- she’s driving the car – I said can two women get married?  She almost wrecked the car.  She screamed and I knew that was something I couldn’t tell anyone about.

Jasmyne Cannick of the National Black Justice Coalition stated she definitely supports civil marriage and not civil unions.  She gave a wonderful example of the differences between civil marriage and civil unions when she said “if I have a civil union, here in California, and we decide we want to move to Ohio, our marriage is null and void.  Civil unions are not transferable from state to state.” 

When asked by Lisa Powell if she were to get everything that came with marriage but it was called something else for same sex couples, would she go for that, Jasmyne replied she personally would not go for it.  Jasmyne gave, as an example, a typical conversation of telling someone “oh, I have a civil union.”  She said, “They’re going to look at me like what is that?  What word does everyone know around this country?  They know the word marriage.  I don’t know what name they would come up with for it but I’m not down for it.  I want marriage, if and when I decide to get married.” 

Marquita Thomas, founder of Out & About, a social networking and activist organization for lesbians of color related a personal story of a friend whose partner died of colon cancer.  She said if her friend’s partner had not had the wherewithal to have married a gay male friend of hers, who handled signing over the house and property and dealing with the family, this woman would have gone through hell fighting with the family.  She said “I don’t want to see that happen to anyone else and I don’t want it to happen to me.  As an adult and as a taxpayer this really shouldn’t even be an issue.  I should, quite frankly, be able to have those 1,049 rights and privileges afforded to my straight friends and family.”

Lisa Powell of ULOAH read from email responses she received on the issue of same sex marriage.  These emails prompted a number of responses from both the panelists and participants, particularly those pertaining to the issue of timing.  Lisa stated she received about a dozen responses stating the reason why these women were against same sex marriage was because the “timing was all wrong.”  These women believe our community has higher priorities, such as health care, getting a good job, safety in the streets, all things we should focus on rather than putting all of our attentions toward marriage, particularly when we’re still struggling for basic human rights.  One participant expressed the issue of same sex marriage could possibly represent a wedge issue in this political season stating “politically, I don’t think it’s a good time for the conversation, but personally, I can’t even get a date.” 

Jasmyne countered “the people who are in opposition to our marriages and our rights and benefits, be they Black, White, Asian, Latino, are not sitting in a room having this discussion whether this is our issue or if this is something we should do.  They know what their main cause is.  The real issue for me is that every month certain taxes get taken out of my paycheck.  As small as that check is, I want the rights and benefits that go along with that.  That’s what the real issue is and it’s not just us as lesbians and it’s not just us as Black, it’s our community, whether you want to call it LGBT, same gender loving, whatever, we all need to be on one accord.” 

Another issue raised by Lisa Powell again came from some of the emails she received.  She said approximately 75 percent of the responses she received stated we should not want a piece of paper, that it invalidates our relationships to go seeking approval by the state.  She went on the read one response she received from a woman. 

“I think that marriage is the best option for Black lesbians to be serious about the terms ‘marriage’ and ‘wife.’  As a newbie to the gay life, I am sincerely turned off by the quickness of marriage to divorce.  I am sickened by the frivolous use and misuse of the term ‘wife’ by those who are married to girlfriends with no type of ceremony performed, legal or not.  I have seen two marriages end that lasted one year [since] I have been ‘in the life.’  I will not marry anyone until it is legal and because I know it will be difficult to be in and out by mere whim.” 

The responses turned to the use of the term “wife” as used by many in our community.  Lisa recalled, a long time ago, “we in the Black lesbian community had been referring to each other as ‘wife’ for a very, very long time.  Is that true?  It’s a very long time and that is completely outside of the institution of marriage.  It has had nothing to do with the institution of marriage but it has not kept many in the Black lesbian community from referring to her partner as 'wife.'  I know some of you believe that’s used much too frivolously.”  One woman responded she felt the word was actually being used to speak of a sort of bond between two women. 

Lisa then asked if marriage would change the life of the community and Marquita responded “I think that it would.”  She continued saying “We tend to be very clandestine in the community because we’re so marginalized.  We’re not just gay, we’re also Black and gay and the African American community just tends to be so homophobic and I think that contributes to the low self esteem we all have.  I think if we were allowed to get married, I think it would enhance our self esteem as lesbians and as Black women.  I think that’s so important.”  When Lisa asked Marquita why she thought it would enhance our self esteem?  Marquita responded “I think there would be a certain amount of acceptance within ourselves.” 

Many women brought up the issue of fear, visibility, self-acceptance and community.  Cabrini addressed the issue of fear by noting an observation she had made earlier in the evening.  “I keep talking about fear.  I look around the room, everybody is still separate.  There’s no communion to me where we’re all still separate, even as Black people.  We didn’t meet the panelists; we didn’t talk about who we all are, so we still have separatisms even in our own community.  So, when you talk about marrying each other, well Black people, we tend to stay at home and be with our 'wife,' inside, because we are fearful.” 

Jasmyne followed stating “they don’t see our picture.  That’s where our problem is.  A lot of Black folks cannot equate gay with Black – our own people and we’re allowing all these other people to send a message on television.  That’s what the Black community perceives as being gay because we’re not on television.  You open up a L.A. Times, they don’t see our picture and that’s where the problem is.  That’s why a lot of black folk cannot equate gay with black because all they see is White.” 

Lisa read an email from a 22-year old Black lesbian who participated in the historic event this past February in San Francisco.  Lisa then joked with Sylvia stating if they were on television, “Sylvia will catch you on TV.”  The email states: 

“my fiancé and I were one of the 4000 couples married in San Francisco in February.  It was an incredible day and we emerged from City Hall at 7:00 p.m. that night and we felt as though we had been a part of something bigger than ourselves.  It was an incredible moment.  My grandmother called me and told me she better not see me on TV trying to marry some woman.  I did it and I truly wish I could do it every day of my life because that is how much she means to me.  If women wants the opportunity to do it once, they ought to be able to have that chance.”   

Sylvia also gave a wonderful explanation for what she termed the “slippery slope” argument which she said is a distraction to the real issues.  She said “when they don’t want to talk Leviticus, they want to talk about slippery slope.  That means we’ll let gay and lesbians get married, man and man, woman and woman, what’s next?  A dog, a cat, a farm animal – different forms of marriage – brother and sister, incest and all that.  We found one of the better arguments about that was let those people have their day in court.  Just like we will have our day in court, but it’s not our issue.”  She went on to say she asks those who bring up the "slippery slope" argument “did you see those 4000 people lined up?  Did you see any farm animals?  Did you see someone trying to marry their little kid or their uncle or a farm animal or anything like that?  No,” she said, “you saw two people wanting to make a commitment to each other forever.”   

One woman raised a question about community and support.  She stated: 

“I always think about – they all say come out of the closet and we all should be free but, when you’re on that job for 20 years, you have benefits, you’ve bought a home and you have good medical and everything.  I’d like to know, if I lost that job, what kind of support would I get from the lesbian [community], the family we’re supposed to have?  If I go on TV and I decide to get married and I go to my job and I have nothing left there as far as where you ladies are in this type of organization, what part do you play in that and how – what efforts can you help us go to, or someone to go to, to help us, to support ourselves if that were to happen.”

Marquita responded with “I think that’s a cop out.”  She went on to say there are laws to protect you against being fired for sexual orientation.  She said she’s been out on her job day one.  “My bosses were talking about their girlfriends and I was talking about my girlfriend.  I’m not going to worry about what could happen?  What if I lose my job?  What if I – there are laws.  I mean I don’t know what else to tell you.” 

Jasmyne continued stating though she and Marquita are not lawyers, there are legal organizations such as Lambda Legal who will assist anyone experiencing discrimination based on sexual orientation, particularly here in California.   

This question prompted Lisa Powell to ask another question:  “Are we really a community?  Are we going to stand by each other?  Are we going to make sure that if something happens to one of our own that she would have the resources, the support, and the community behind her?  We know for one thing, that many in our own black family will not stand with her.  We know that and so I think it’s a very good question to ask of ourselves.  What is the strength of our common binds as women who partner with women?”  This question prompted a conversation about lesbian youth. 

One woman posed a question and comment to the panel which also related to the issue of fear within the community and our youth.  She said: 

“I just wanted to address the issue of fear and also the family issue because there’s a lot of young women between the ages of say 18- 25, 27 years old that’s coming up in the lesbian community as a family and they’re not really sure what that next step is.  As family members, their elders are not necessarily present.  There’s a lot of venues that have nightly events and you see so many young women in the lesbian community but they’re just out there clubbing and they’re also reflecting upon what they see on the television.  Like you said, there’s all these films with gay and lesbian relationships but these are White gay and lesbian relationships so, what do they do as far as reflecting upon what’s my next step moving on in the life and what resources are there for all these young women to have some form of support system? 


The fear is there.  I mean, especially parents.  The Black community is very, very, very religious and because of that there’s so many young women that are doing things on the down low with their girlfriends and then getting themselves caught up because – I mean, when you’re doing things on the down low you have to lie, you have to cheat, you have to do a lot of things that are reflecting negative characteristics.  So that’s kind of putting some negativity in this young community that we have.  So, I think that it’s important that so many women here can be support systems for the young women in the lesbian community.  Put themselves out there and make themselves available.”

Both Cabrini and Marquita talked about programs they are considering that will offer mentoring to young women in the life.  Marquita did broach the subject of liability saying “I, for one, through Out & About, am putting together a mentoring program for young kids, but the problem is there are so many issues of liability that it’s really hard to get things like that underway.  There are so many legal issues and issues of liability and insurance when you are dealing with young people in the age range that you’re talking about.”  Lisa offered another observation on the youth: 

“there are young black lesbians we see in junior high school now who are fighting boys over girls.  They are out, at 11-years old.  There’s no such thing as being in.  They are out and they are not scared.  Oh no!  Oh no!  Some of that is the result of the success that many of us, who have gone before, have paved the way.  That closet – there is no closet to these kids who are 11, 12, 18, 22.” 

Lisa then brought up a ULOAH sponsored program for youth which will be held this month.  The program, a youth leadership program, will provide young women with encouragement to come and “do their own thing.”  ULOAH will provide them with the support and whatever resources they need in order to raise young voices.  “We’re out there” she said “and we don’t really know what [they] can rely on in whatever community is in place right now.  So what younger women are going to have to do is take that early self recognition and really make something out of it.  Take leadership in the community.”

Vallerie Wagner responded on the issue of support and fear while posing a challenge to the elders stating: 

“I’m going to challenge not only myself and the other elders of us who are in the room – Lisa – and Sylvia and I won’t name any other names, but I wonder if we have really created a sense of family and community for Black lesbians.  It’s easy to say come out.  It’s easy to say that it’s important for us to be seen and it is – those statements are true.  However, in our community, [if] we lose our families, we’re lost.  In the White lesbian and gay community we’re not accepted because we’re Black and in our Black community we’re not accepted because of our sexual orientation.  So, if we step out and we lose that family community, we really have no where to turn.  I just – I’m not sure if we’ve done a good job as the bearers of the torch from the book that came before us.  I’m not sure we’ve done a really good job of creating a sense of family and community so that as younger sisters, or even when older sisters decide to come out, we have a support base for them that provides them with the things that need support – a shoulder to cry on, someone that can help talk them through the issues that they have about who they are and what it means to try to live in this world as a Black lesbian and deal with all of the crap that we have to put up with not only from White people, but from Black people.  You know we can be some of the hardest folks on ourselves.” 

Another woman brought up the issue of gays in the military and how gay & lesbian issues must be handled on an individual, case-by-case basis.  She gave examples of her personal experience in the military as a full-time enlisted member and as a part-time member and talked about the forms they had to fill out before Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  She said: 

“They had this paperwork, the contracts you had to do.  They had forms where they asked you if you had ever had sex with the same sex and they asked if you’ve ever participated in an orgy.  So, with the Clinton administration, they did away with that form.  That was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  They can no longer ask those questions and have you sign that form. . . .  I think that in order for it to work as far as marriage for gays, we do have to come together as a community for the good of all of us.  But, until that time, until we can get laws passed saying that it’s okay to be married to the same sex, then we all have to deal with this thing as individuals and hopefully we’ll be able to come together and it will not be just a dream, but a reality.”

Lisa then recounted an experience she had with an older woman she met at ULOAH’s Sistafest one year.  She said she met this 70-year old woman whom she said represented “a life on hold.”  Here’s her story: 

“We had a woman in her early 70’s.  She came to Sistahfest.  She told me on Sunday, after Sistahfest, she said ‘you know what?  I’m 70 years old and on Monday morning, when I go to the beauty shop, I’m going to tell everybody that I spent the weekend with the Black dykes of Los Angeles.’  She said ‘my son is grown, he has a house of his own, he has a child of his own.  He can support himself.  I have retired.’  So, on the one hand I said to her “girl, that’s fantastic.  You do your thing.”  But, what that really represents is a life on hold.  She was waiting until she had nothing left to lose.  They couldn’t take her house.  They couldn’t take her baby.  They couldn’t take her son.  They couldn’t take her job.  So she put her whole life on hold until all of that.  Nobody could touch her and now she’s going to go to the beauty shop and tell everybody who she really is and who she has been all of her life.”   

Lisa continued saying “we have to make sure that that doesn’t continue to happen.  It is happening.  Believe me, that is not an unusual story.” 

Vallerie Wagner offered something else to those who cannot be out and visible, on television, or visibly present within the movement for marriage equality by stating there are many ways to serve.  Women could serve as support to those who are visible in the community by licking stamps, helping with mailings, and other such tasks.  There are many ways to serve and support the community that does not necessarily have to be in the open, or out on television.

Another woman, in follow-up to Vallerie's statement shared her personal experience which told how she overcame the adversities in her life through participation in various community organizations:

I’ve been a lesbian since I was four.  But knowingly, since I was six.  Knowing, full out, I love women.  I’ve been working with children for 18 years and I’ve been out since I was a teenager.  I dated women in 1971, 1970 on.  I have lost many jobs.  I’ve lost many jobs, not because I’m incompetent, not because I’m not intelligent, not because I’m not able to do the work.  I lost the jobs because I am an out lesbian, because I deliberately and slowly took my time to open up to people who would eventually shun me and push me out. 


I was kicked out of my home when I was 16.  We lived in a very posh area in San Dimas and I came home after receiving a letter from a girlfriend and found all of my furniture – all of my clothing rather – thrown out on the front lawn. 


I joined ULOAH in 1990.  I stood up and said I will stand for women wherever we are in whatever kind of meeting capacity we have.  I stepped onto the board.  I worked my behind off.  I fought with my sisters.  I loved my sisters.  I hated my sisters.  I grew up with my sisters and in the process of growing up what I found was I love myself and what I found was my value in the community was far greater than what I could see about me being a lesbian.  What I found out was – you know what?  My journey is really not about me.  It’s really not.  It’s about what I can give and what I can give back but mainly, what I can give and how I am able to receive it.  It’s been a really long, hard journey. 


I’m 43, I’m single, I’ve been in long term relationships – 18 years of them – long term, short term, we know how that works.  But, it’s been a long journey.  It’s not been easy.  It’s not easy when somebody tells you “you’re not employed here anymore, go find something else.”  It’s not easy when you’re blacklisted.  It’s not easy when your family shuns you.  It’s not easy when you wake up and you don’t have anybody to turn to.  It’s on you.  So, yeah, we need to mobilize.  We need to come together so that when a woman is shunned, and a woman is pushed out, be it from her family or from her employment, or from the woman that she’s fallen in love with who cannot do the journey any longer, who also needs support and from the children in that relationship that also need the support, that’s when we really need to come together.  When a sister says “hey, help, my partner is leaving,” or “hey, help, my kid’s pooped in his pants because he doesn’t know how to deal the fact that mom’s a lesbian.”  We really need to be able to mobilize on that level and that level will save us I do believe. 

I do believe we, as a community, need to have more meetings like these for both young and old.  The issue of marriage equality brought some of us together to exchange and share ideas.  We also had a chance to bring to the surface issues that are equally relevant to all of us as Black lesbians.  As this was supposed to be a discussion on marriage equality, other issues arose that are equally relevant and these issues need to be addressed in order for us to mobilize and move on toward the common goal of marriage equality.  We need to address issues of fear, visibility, support, or the lack thereof, passing the torch to younger members in our community, being role models, and we need to share.  We need to share our experiences and thoughts – good and bad – with each other.  I felt it was a very productive meeting and I thoroughly enjoyed both the meeting and the conversation I had afterward with D. Lisa Powell and Cabrini, as we continued conversing on how we’re seen and/or perceived by those within and outside of our community. 

There will be another similar meeting at Unity Fellowship Church in Los Angeles on September 27, 2004.  This event will be moderated by Sylvia Rhue of the California Freedom to Marry Coalition.  More details are forthcoming.  I will say this though; I loved Sylvia Rhue’s ending to the meeting which came in the form of a question:  What country was first in honoring same sex marriages?  The answer is Swaziland. 


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