Interracial and Interethnic Sex and Relationships

views updated


In his 1995 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, titled "The Hidden History of Mestizo America," Gary Nash declared, "What we … need in our passionate and sometimes violent arguments about American culture and identity … is a social and intellectual construction of a mestizo America." Surveying the history of interracial mixing from Pocahontas and John Rolfe in the seventeenth century to debates about multi-culturalism in the twentieth, Nash explained he was using the term "mestizo" in "the original sense—referring to racial intermixture of all kinds." "Uncovering the shrouded past of mestizo America," he concluded, "bears on the ongoing pursuit of e pluribus unum in this nation—the search for creating commonality out of diversity." Despite this broad vision, and despite the groundbreaking LGBT work on the subject produced by writers such as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa in This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and Anzaldúa in Borderlands=La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Nash's address remained silent about the rich history of same-sex ethnic and racial mixing.

This has been the case for most scholarship on inter-racial and interethnic sex in the United States. Sociologists and historians in particular have explored various aspects of the topic, but their work almost always concentrates on marital, heterosexual, and reproductive forms of sexual expression. Paul Spickard, for example, synthesizes much of this work in his 1989 book Mixed Blood, which offers a comparative historical analysis of Jewish American, Japanese American, and African American intermarriage. But by restricting his study to marital relationships, he excludes same-sex ones.

Nevertheless, some of the insights of these scholars have potential applications to LGBT contexts. For example, Spickard points out that what is seen as ethnic and racial mixing within some communities might not be perceived as such outside of those communities. Anglo-Americans might not see a marriage between a Norwegian American and a Swedish American as a mixed marriage, but Norwegian and Swedish communities might think otherwise. The same would be true for Christian versus Jewish views of marriages between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In LGBT contexts, the same is often the case; the very definition of what constitutes interracial or interethnic same-sex sex depends on constructions of race and ethnicity that are as historically and culturally variable as are constructions of sexuality and gender.

When a Native American berdache (sometimes known as a two-spirit person) was born into one Native group but adopted by another, as was the case with Woman Chief in the nineteenth century, should the berdache 's sexual relationships with members of the adopted group be conceptualized as part of the history of LGBT interethnic sex? What about when an African American slave descended from one linguistic, religious, and ethnic group in Africa had same-sex sex with an African American slave from another linguistic, religious, or ethnic group in Africa? If the African American slave was the product of a white man's rape of a black woman, was that slave having interracial or interethnic sex when she or he had sex with whites or with blacks? Various studies that examine how and when Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, and Italian Americans became white suggest that what might have been viewed as interracial or interethnic sex in one period might not have been viewed as such in another. Historically changing conceptions of race and ethnicity similarly shape conceptions of the interracial or interethnic status of Jewish-Christian, Chicana-Cubana, Japanese Hawaiian–Chinese Hawaiian, and countless other types of relationships.

To take another example of ideas about interracial and interethnic heterososexuality that can be applied in LGBT contexts, scholars have argued that some racial and ethnic groups with more men than women in a local environment have experienced high rates of male inter-marriage. This tends to be the case only when racial and ethnic prejudices do not block such marriages. While such discussions usually ignore the possibility that such contexts might encourage same-sex intraethnic or intraracial sex between men (as may well have been the case, for instance, with Asian Americans on the West Coast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), demographic scarcity assumptions suggest that LGBT members of ethnic and racial groups that are relatively small in particular local contexts (say, for example, Latinos and Jews in Maine) will likely experience higher levels of interethnic or interracial sex than will members of ethnic and racial groups that are relatively large. Again, this will only be the case when racial and ethnic prejudices do not block these forms of sex.

Spickard offers other insights that may be applicable in LGBT contexts, but only further research will demonstrate if this is the case. For example, he argues that for most American racial and ethnic groups, intermarriage rates increased dramatically two generations after the immigrant generation; intermarriage rates also increased after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (in Loving v. Virginia ) that struck down state laws against interracial marriage. Scholars have not yet determined whether same-sex interracial and interethnic sex has followed similar patterns. Nor do we know whether Spickard's finding that intermarriage rates have increased dramatically for almost all racial and ethnic groups in the United States except African Americans are paralleled in LGBT contexts.

Historical Case Studies

Not that much is known about interracial and interethnic same-sex sex in North America before the twentieth century, though such relationships were invariably structured by the dynamics of colonialism, conquest, slavery, and white supremacy. In Gay American History (1976), Jonathan Ned Katz provides a translation of a 1567 text that describes the murder by the Spanish in Florida of a French Lutheran who lived with and was loved "very much" by a Native man (pp. 23–25). He also offers a translation of 1646 Dutch records from New Netherland (which later became New York) that refer to the execution of Jan Creoli, "a negro," for committing sodomy with Manuel Congo; in this case, the names suggest a possible crossing of racial or ethnic lines (pp. 35–36). Ramón Gutiérrez (1991) discusses eighteenth-century Spanish Franciscans accused of sodomizing Native servants and mixed-race orphans in New Mexico.

For the nineteenth century, Harriet Jacobs's 1861 autobiographical slave narrative refers to a white male slaveowner who committed on his black male slave "the strangest freaks of despotism" that were "of a nature too filthy to be repeated." Hannah Rosen (1999) has reconstructed the story of Frances Thompson, a black freed-woman who was raped by white men during the Memphis riot of 1866 but whose testimony about those rapes was later discredited when she was revealed to be biologically male. As various literary critics have noted, homoerotic interracial male relationships were major themes in nineteenth-century fictional works by James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Mark Twain. Put together, these examples suggest that interracial or interethnic same-sex sex was a source of significant social anxiety and pleasure, often contributing to but sometimes undermining American racial and ethnic hierarchies.

Much more is known about same-sex interracial and interethnic sex in the period from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s, when these forms of sex (and the discourses surrounding them) continued to participate in both constructing and deconstructing white supremacy. Pablo Mitchell (1999) explores the Anglo-Native gay son at the center of an Anglo-Native-Hispano family inheritance dispute in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century New Mexico, using this case to illustrate the ways that "strategic marriage and intermarriage" were central to elite rule (p. 333). Estelle Freedman (1996) examines evidence about interracial lesbian relationships in prisons from 1915 to 1965, focusing on criminologists who "emphasized the ways that race substituted for gender"(p. 425). Siobhan Somerville (2000) analyzes the ways in which "two tabooed types of desire—interracial and homosexual—became linked in early twentieth century sexological and psychological discourse," as well as in the works of various African American writers (p. 34). Eric Garber (1989), George Chauncey (1994), and Kevin Mumford (1997) map the geographical and conceptual terrain of interracial same-sex sex in a variety of early-twentieth-century urban locations, including what Mumford calls the "interzones" of "black/white sex districts."

Various case studies examine interracial and inter-ethnic sex in the 1950s and 1960s. Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis (1993) discuss interracial same-sex relationships in their work on mid-twentieth century lesbian bar culture in Buffalo, New York, concluding that "inter-racial couples became quite common" in the 1950s and 1960s (p. 119). Esther Newton's queer history of Cherry Grove, Fire Island (1993), highlights the prejudices that stigmatized interracial and interethnic relationships in that community but also points out that beginning in the 1950s small numbers of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans found a place in Cherry Grove, often as the lovers of white renters or property owners. In his study of midcentury Philadelphia, Marc Stein (2000) mentions LGB bars that were popular among those looking for interracial sex, coffeehouses that became sites of overlapping LGB and interracial cultures, prisons where interracial same-sex sexual assaults were said to be common, and Quaker-affiliated parties held to encourage socializing across racial and sexual boundaries. (Katz mentions a Los Angeles group called Knights of the Clock, founded in 1950, that apparently had similar aims.) John Howard (1999) argues in his work on Mississippi that "black men and white men participated in markedly similar worlds of desire that rarely over-lapped before the 1960s" (p. xiv). He also looks at intersections between interracialism and homoeroticism in the context of the civil rights movement, pulp fiction, and political scandals. Numerous authors have analyzed inter-racial and interethnic same-sex sex in biographical studies; notable examples are John D'Emilio's book on the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (2003) and Judy Wu's work on Margaret Chung (2001).

Racial and ethnic prejudice may have discouraged LGB people from forming interracial and interethnic relationships, but they were common enough for LGB people to have developed a variety of terms (regarded as offensive by many) for those who seemed to prefer them. Although it is difficult to date the origins of these terms, they extend back at least several decades. LGB people have described those who prefer Asian Americans as "rice queens," those who prefer South Asians as "curry queens," those who prefer African Americans as "dinge queens," and those who prefer Euro-Americans as "potato queens" or "snow queens." In the case of Asian Americans, the presumed ubiquity of interracial relationships has led to the invention of the term "sticky rice" to describe Asian Americans who partner with Asian Americans. Inter-racial and interethnic LGB partners have faced not only stigmatizing language, but also unique forms of housing discrimination, family rejection, and representational exoticization. They have also faced racial and ethnic prejudice within their relationships. At the same time, many LGB people involved in these relationships have been in the forefront of antiracist struggles.

Debates in the Late Twentieth Century

While individual voices were raised to defend and criticize interracial and interethnic relationships within LGB communities before the 1960s, a more communal and more public discussion emerged in the 1970s, led primarily by women of color and then taken up by men of color. Anita Cornwell, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Joseph Beam, Richard Fung, and David Eng are among the most prominent people of color who have spoken and written about the topic. At times debates about the politics of groups such as Black and White Men Together, Men of All Colors Together, and People of All Colors Together have been heated and intense. The same has been true for debates about representations of inter-racial and interethnic LGB desire, for example in pornography. For some, interracial LGB relationships invariably reproduce racism. For others, these relationships are key sites of struggle against racism. Still others hope that race can be transcended in interracial relationships or believe that sexual intimacy is profoundly individual and private and that it therefore should not be evaluated in political or social terms. In the end, however, as long as race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender continue to function as categories of social meaning and markers of political hierarchies in the United States, interracial and interethnic LGB sex will likely remain a subject of controversy and debate.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands = La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters, 1987.

Beam, Joseph, ed. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Boston: Alyson, 1986.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Cornwell, Anita. "Letter to a Friend." Ladder (December 1971–January 1972): 42–45.

——. "Open Letter to a Black Sister." Ladder (October–November 1971): 33–36.

D'Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Eng, David L., and Alice Y. Hom. Q&A: Queer in Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Freedman, Estelle B. "The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915–1965." Feminist Studies 22, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 397–423.

Garber, Eric. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey. New York: New American Library, 1989.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Howard, John. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984.

Mitchell, Pablo. "Accomplished Ladies and Coyotes: Marriage, Power, and Straying from the Flock in Territorial New Mexico, 1880–1920." In Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. Edited by Martha Hodes. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Mass.: Persephone, 1981.

Mumford, Kevin J. Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Nash, Gary B. "The Hidden History of Mestizo America." Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (December 1995): 941–962.

Newton, Esther. Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. Black Gay Man . New York: New York University Press. 2001.

Rosen, Hannah. "'Not That Sort of Women': Race, Gender, and Sexual Violence during the Memphis Riot of 1866." In Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. Edited by Martha Hodes. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Somerville, Siobhan B. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Spickard, Paul R. Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun. "Was Mom Chung a 'Sister Lesbian'?: Asian American Gender Experimentation and Interracial Homoeroticism." Journal of Women's History 13, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 58–82.

Marc Stein

see alsoafrican americans; asian americans and pacific islanders; black and white men together (bwmt); native americans; race and racism.

About this article

Interracial and Interethnic Sex and Relationships

Updated About content Print Article