The presence of lesbians as a diverse and vibrant segment of the black community is often overlooked or even denied in most literature concerning African Americans. This neglect is rooted historically in the long-standing negative perceptions and hostile treatment of lesbians and gay men within American society as a whole, by blacks as well as whites. The black church has often been hostile to homosexuality, viewing it as a sin or a form of mental illness. Perhaps because of the prominence of the black church, much of the discussion of sexual preference by prominent black leaders has been caustically homophobic. Some elements in the black nationalist movement, in an effort to assert patriarchal social relations and to equate the advancement of black people with the achievement of "black manhood," have issued harsh denunciations of homosexuality. Some black scholars and activists have argued that homosexuality is a manifestation of internalized racism, or have claimed that the identity is exclusively European, reflecting white cultural values. Still others have attacked the lesbian and gay rights movement, fearing that its claims would undercut demands for racial equality and diminish the legitimacy of civil rights activism.
At the same time, some observers have suggested that the black community, historically diverse because of the confines of segregation, may have displayed greater tolerance for homosexuality than society at large. Black lesbian writers and critics, including Ann Shockley, Barbara Smith, and Jewelle Gomez, have pointed to an unspoken acknowledgement of lesbianism in black life, in spite of public disavowal and disdain. Prominent black lesbian activists have connected their efforts to a long tradition of struggle for liberation among African Americans, and some black ministers and civil rights leaders, such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, have lent wholehearted support to the lesbian and gay movement's quest for equality and justice.
Until recently, lesbians have been marginalized in black discourse and have rarely been viewed outside of stereotypes. However, black lesbians are making themselves more visible and embracing their sexuality as a positive aspect of their identities. At the same time, they are openly challenging widespread prejudices that distort their lives, asserting their contributions to the history of African Americans and continuing to play an integral role in their communities.
The history of lesbians in the United States can best be characterized as an emergence of visibility. Lesbianism has been difficult to document historically, largely because of the silence and hostility surrounding lesbian existence (and women's sexuality more generally). Women who loved women did not always wish to claim an explicitly lesbian identity, nor were they necessarily able to do so. Moreover, disagreement persists over the very definition of lesbian identity. Some argue that only women's sexual and romantic involvement with other women can be properly considered as lesbianism. Others insist that platonic intimacy between close women friends—particularly in historical periods, such as the Victorian era, in which women lacked a language to openly describe these relationships—may have constituted lesbianism as well.
Black women's own lifestyle choices, frequently shaped by their lack of economic options, have also obscured the existence of lesbianism. Many black lesbians—including prominent figures whose histories of involvement with women are well-known, such as blues singer Ma Rainey—were married, perhaps as a means to achieve economic well-being or as a "cover" to thwart suspicions of their same-sex relationships. Others were "passing" women who lived and worked as men for many years precisely in order to attain economic independence, courting and even marrying other women. Some of these women were eventually "discovered." Annie Lee Grant, for example, was exposed as a woman in Mississippi in 1954 after having lived as a man for fifteen years; at the time, she was engaged to another woman. Certainly many others lived out their lives without detection. Nella Larsen's seminal novel Passing (1969) treats another dilemma of racial and sexual identity in its implication of a romantic relationship between two black women passing for white.
In many cases, one can only speculate about women whose personal histories are noticeably silent on the subject of their sexuality. Women who were "unconventional" may or may not have been explicitly "lesbian" in the contemporary understanding of the term. For example, Mary Fields, born a slave in Tennessee in the 1830s, dressed as a man and worked as a stagecoach driver and in other traditionally male-dominated employment. Whether or not she was a lesbian is not clear.
With the formation of an organized and self-identified black lesbian community, it is possible to determine more explicitly the nature and meaning of black lesbian existence. For black lesbians, such a form of community has only been traced as far back as the 1920s. That traces emerge in this period is indicative of the transformations black communities underwent as a result of the Great Migration, for the movement of single black women to northern urban centers—particularly Chicago, Detroit, and New York City—forced them to create and sustain support systems for their survival. At the same time, it enabled them to escape the intense scrutiny and regulation to which they were subjected in small southern towns and cities.
These circumstances were particularly conducive and crucial to the development of a black lesbian community, for the ability to make connections demanded some level of autonomy economically and socially. Thus, in communities such as Harlem, a number of social settings—bars, clubs, "buffet flat" gatherings, and rent parties—were lesbian-oriented. At the same time, some social spaces frequented by straight people also tolerated, if not welcomed, the presence of lesbians and gay men. Black women in Harlem socialized with each other, worked with each other, and even married each other in large public ceremonies, either with one woman "passing" and using a male name, or with a gay male friend acting as a surrogate.
The flourishing of literary and cultural expression in 1920s Harlem also added to the visibility and viability of lesbian life. Many of the literati of the so-called Harlem Renaissance were lesbians, among them poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké and writer Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson. Many women blues singers and other entertainers who rose to fame during the same period also participated, often quite openly, in sexual relationships with other women; Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Josephine Baker, among others, all had lesbian relationships at some point in their lives.
These Harlem sophisticates frequented the lavish gatherings hosted by A'Lelia Walker (heiress daughter of washerwoman-turned-millionaire Madame C. J. Walker), who surrounded herself with prominent lesbian and gay artists and performers. And they flocked to the Clam House, a Harlem social club, to see the performances of entertainer Gladys Bentley, a male impersonator who publicly married another woman. (In later years, Bentley underwent hormone treatments, married a man, and renounced her past life.) Some whites also traveled to Harlem to participate in the lesbian and gay scene, participating in what they perceived as a looser and more tolerant atmosphere.
If the personal lives of Harlem's luminaries gave visibility and legitimacy to lesbian existence within their own circles, their influence was extended to the wider community through their work. Black lesbians were portrayed in some Renaissance-era fiction, including Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry (1929) and white author Blair Niles's Strange Brother (1931). Blues songs also contained lyrics that explicitly recognized and asserted lesbian sexuality, particularly Bessie Jackson's "BD Women's Blues" and Ma Rainey's "Prove It On Me Blues." While lesbian and gay male identity was not always presented in a positive light—often the depiction drew on prevalent stereotypes or reflected ambivalent attitudes within the community—the themes introduced by blueswomen clearly legitimized women's quest for economic and sexual independence from men.
The emergence of visibility was further influenced by the changes wrought by the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941, when women flooded the job market to replace men who went off to war. Despite continuing discrimination against black women, those black women who were able to participate in either civilian or military workplaces attained a greater measure of economic and sexual independence and were able to meet and socialize with each other. Although little scholarly research has been done to illuminate the experience of black lesbians specifically during World War II, given the preponderance of lesbians in the military at that time, it is certain that among the four thousand black women who served in the Women's Army Corps—separated from men and from white women—a good number were probably lesbians.
By the end of the war, lesbians and gay men in general had expanded their social networks. In urban communities such as New York's Greenwich Village and Harlem, black lesbians participated in an active, though clandestine, social milieu (often interracial) that centered around house parties. Bars catered to a lesbian crowd as well, but were often notorious for their discriminatory treatment of black women patrons. Lesbians who were part of the "gay girls" scene have pointed to the significance of these early efforts by lesbians to come together, as friends as well as lovers, across racial lines.
At the same time, some lesbians and gay men began to identify and critique their oppression in a political way. The 1950s was marked by both political and sexual repression, in which a virulent anticommunism was explicitly linked to fears about racial equality and "deviant" sexual behavior. Still, by mid-decade two organizations—the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis—had formed to address the civil rights of gay men and lesbian women, respectively. Although these two groups were an important precursor to the lesbian and gay liberation movement that was forged in the late 1960s, their memberships were small and they zealously protected the confidentiality of those they reached. Their activities touched few blacks, but several anonymous letters to Daughters of Bilitis's publication The Ladder, expressing support for the group's efforts, have been traced to playwright Lorraine Hansberry, acclaimed author of A Raisin in the Sun (1959).
It was through the civil rights, Black Power, and women's and gay liberation movements of the 1960s that many black lesbians first gained the experience of collective identity and action that was pivotal for the emergence of a politicized and organized black lesbian community. For the most part, the civil rights and Black Power movements posed no fundamental challenge to patriarchal gender relations. While black women played a significant role in the black liberation struggle, both in leadership and at the grassroots level, they often faced sexist discrimination and exclusion from decision-making. Thus, while many black women were empowered by their experience of activism, at the same time they were limited and constrained. Those who hoped to redefine the meaning of liberation in ways that would challenge traditional gender norms were often isolated and attacked as a divisive force detracting from the struggle against racism. Although critical of the black liberation movement, many black women continued to identify with it; thus, activists such as Pauli Murray and Barbara Jordan remained publicly silent about their relationships with women.
By the late 1960s, activist white women were also developing a critique of the oppression and exploitation of women based on their work in civil rights and the New Left, and they were beginning to organize on their own. But white women began to define their struggle as a distinctive women's liberation movement, largely autonomous from other movements in which they had participated. At the same time, they sought unity among women through universalizing women's experiences. However, many black women felt alienated by the affirmation of inclusiveness that did not necessarily speak to their experiences or interests. To the extent that the women's movement began to respond to the racism within its own ranks, it was due to the courageous initiative of black women.
By the early 1970s black women were developing a broader conception of feminism that spoke to their specific concerns and took into account the intersections of race, sex, and class. As black feminist discourse began to take shape, and as a visible gay liberation movement began to emerge, the way was opened for the development of an identifiable and organized black lesbian community.
Black lesbians have become a more visible force in American culture than ever, creating the basis for black lesbian organizing and establishing links with other lesbians of color in the search for common ground. In 1974 black women in Boston formed the Combahee River Collective and issued a classic statement of commitment to struggle against "racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression." Other groups, including Salsa Soul Sisters of New York City and the Sapphire Sapphos of Washington, D.C., have also carried out political and educational work. The National Coalition of Black Gays (now the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays) sponsored the first National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference in 1979; a year later, the first Black Lesbian Conference was held. Black lesbians have also been at the forefront in initiating a number of political and literary publications, including Azalea, Moja: Black and Gay, and the Third World Women's Gay-zette. The magazines Venus and Women in the Life appeal to a popular readership for lesbians of African descent.
Also since the 1970s, black lesbians—including Cheryl Clarke, Anita Cornwell, Jewelle Gomez, Gloria Hull, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Ann Shockley, Barbara Smith, and many others—have pioneered work in black feminist theory, literary criticism, poetry, and fiction. They have increased the visibility of black lesbians not only through their own public presence but also through their writing, some of which was showcased in several important collections of black women's writing: Conditions Five: The Black Women's Issue (1979), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), and Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing (1995), the latter named for a motif in Lorde's work. Love relationships between women have been depicted in such widely acclaimed works as Gloria Naylor's Women of Brewster Place (1982) and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982). In addition to being depicted in the film adaptations of Naylor's and Walker's novels, black lesbians have independent and mainstream filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, 1996) and Angela Robinson to represent them behind the camera.
That much of this cultural outpouring both celebrates black lesbian existence and portrays the tragic dimensions of persistent oppression reflects the reality of black lesbians' lives. Visibility can heighten society's level of tolerance, but it often carries an increased threat of violence as well, and "coming out" is not always an option among black lesbians whose survival and livelihood are at stake. Black lesbians are all too aware of forms of repression to which they are disproportionately vulnerable, as demonstrated by the outrage at the state of Oklahoma's execution of Wanda Jean Allen, a disabled black lesbian, in 2001, and the murder of Sakia Gunn, a black lesbian youth, in New Jersey in 2003. Many black lesbians continue to struggle both inside their relationships and within their communities for the right to live and love as they choose.
Increased visibility for black lesbians has illuminated the issues facing women, African Americans, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people in America. In major cities across the nation, annual Black GLBT Pride events are an alternative and a complement to gay pride festivals. Women attending these events cite HIV/AIDS, hate-crime violence, and marriage and domestic partnership among their primary political concerns. The devastating effects of AIDS on gays and blacks—and the consequent homophobic response throughout the country—have intensified black lesbians' organizing efforts. Cathy Cohen, author of The Boundaries of Blackness (1999), was one of the most prominent voices to address the importance of HIV/AIDS to black Americans of all genders, sexualities, and social classes. With rates of HIV infection among African-American women on the rise, women's advocates have seen the need to organize their own responses to the epidemic while they continue their crucial roles as strong allies and insightful critics for other segments in the communities affected by the epidemic. Along with these serious concerns, women participating in black GLBT events and organizations address their experiences facing job discrimination, finding spirituality, and raising children, challenges that persist for all African Americans. From proud parents and their children to activist elders like Ruth Ellis, who lived to be the oldest lesbian in America, black lesbians have attained visibility and shown themselves to be valuable members of society as a whole. They are not only affirming their lives but also ensuring the recognition they deserve.
See also Gay Men
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alycee jeannette lane (1996)
andré carrington (2005)