Wilson, M. & Russell, K. (1996) Divided Sisters: Bridging The Gap Between Black Women and White Women. NY: Anchor/Doubleday,132-140.

(The following is an excerpt from Chapter Four of Divided Sisters.)

Interracial Lesbian Relationships

The rate of interracial sexual involvement among lesbians is even greater than it is among heterosexuals, although exact figures are hard to come by. Perhaps because lesbians have already challenged one of society's fundamental taboos, they are more open to challenging others. For whatever reason, the interracial relationships formed by White and Black lesbians are often emotionally charged.

Like their heterosexual counterparts, lesbian women who cross race lines for love and sex must contend with societal racism and sexual inequality. In addition, lesbians must also deal with antigay sentiment -- what is termed homophobia or, more recently, heterosexism. These sources of discrimination uniquely challenge White and African American lesbians romantically involved with each other.

Having been raised in a pervasively heterosexual society, most lesbians, regardless of race, must first overcome their own homophobia -- the internalized fear and self-hatred leading them to wonder whether something is wrong with them for being attracted to members of their own sex. African American lesbians, in particular those who go out with White women, must additionally ask themselves whether their interracial dating reflects an expression of their own internalized racism or self-hatred, something that perhaps renders them incapable of loving another woman who is Black. Having grown up in a color-conscious, racially biased culture, Black lesbians are not immune from the usual prejudice that lighter is somehow better, a step up. Such anxieties, in fact, are poignantly captured in the following excerpt from "does it matter if she's white?" by Dajenya, a lesbian biracial African American-Jewish poet:

does it matter if she's white?
does it matter
if sistahs and brothahs
look at me askance
not only cause she's a she
but cause she's white?   does it matter
if dykes of color even think there's something
wrong with me
some auntie Tom
in my soul
some self hate
that must exist
if I would choose
a white woman?

does it matter
if I try to justify
if I point out that
my mother's white
so you see
it's only natural
any relationship I enter into
is necessarily

As Dajenya's poem suggests,in addition to their own questioning of their sexual and color preferences, they must contend with the accusations of other "dykes of color." Many African American lesbians are quick to assign ulterior motives to others in their community who love White women. "Black lesbians who date White women are suffering from self-hate," says one Black lesbian named Rhonda. "They think some White woman is going to lift them up." African American scholar Brenda Verner similarly claims, "Like Black men who have become obsessed with white women, many black lesbian feminists are caught in the net of "jungle fever."

Such strident criticism of interracial dating from both lesbian and heterosexual members of the Black community can make it doubly hard on African American lesbians who do enter into relationships with White women. Mary Morten, former president of the Chicago chapter of NOW, described what happened to her one evening:

I was at a party with my White girlfriend, and this Black woman started hitting on me. When my White lover saw what was going on, she came over and sat next to me, kind of making it clear that the two of us were together. Well, this other woman, who was being so nice and friendly, all of sudden turned vindictive. Then, after finding out that I was president of NOW, she very snootily commented, "Oh, that's why you've got a White girlfriend."
Such attitudes also undermine the feelings of White lesbians who date Black women. One White lesbian began to wonder whether her Black partner was going with her only to gain status. Other White lesbians who date interracially worry that they are a liability for their Black girlfriends, who are put in the position of having to defend their choice of a White lover to other Black lesbians. And still other White lesbians, including Shawna, are disturbed by what they see as "Black liberal guilt" in regard to their interracial dating. My Black girlfriend once dropped my hand when a group of radical Black lesbians walked in the room. It really made me mad, and I think her attitude about me being White was something that ultimately led to us breaking up. It is very hard on Black lesbians to have other Black lesbians accuse them of being politically incorrect, or betraying Black sisterhood. Certainly not all African American lesbians believe that having a White lover implies a lack of self-esteem or absence of racial pride. African American lesbian scholar Cheryl Clarke is among those who defend interracial relationships. In her article "Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance," Clarke writes: It cannot be presumed that black lesbians involved in love, work, and social relationships with white lesbians do so out of self-hate and denial of our racial-cultural heritage, identities, and oppression. Why should a woman's commitment to the struggle be questioned or accepted on the basis of her lover's or comrades' skin color? White lesbians engaged likewise with black lesbians or any lesbians of color cannot be assumed to be acting out of some perverse, guilt-ridden racialist desire. Clarke's argument that White lesbians who date interracially cannot be presumed to be acting out of "guilt-ridden racialist desire" relates to another common accusation: that they are only "ethnic chasers." Ethnic chasers, according to White lesbian psychologists D. Merilee Clunis and C. Dorsey Green, in their book Lesbian Couples: Creating Healthy Relationships for the 90s, are White women who pursue Black women because they feel guilty about bein White. They seek "color by proximity" to prove just how liberal they really are.

The fear that White liberal guilt, or some other misguided attraction based solely on color, is what's really driving a White woman's pursuit can leave some African American lesbians wondering whether they are just an exotic fantasy." Marilyn, a Black lesbian Chicago-based filmmaker, after being actively pursued by a White woman, decided not to date the woman because of her constant references to Marilyn as an "African Goddess."

Another issue that women in interracial lesbian relationships must contend with is how their different skin color grants them different privileges in society. Kim Hall addresses this point in an essay entitled "Learning to Touch Honestly: A White Lesbian's Struggle With Racism":

Because I am white, I have benefited and continue to benefit from white skin privilege, even though being a lesbian has denied other privileges. Being a lesbian does not change the fact that my physical being in the world is safer than that of a lesbian of color. My white skin remains. While it may be true that White lesbian women are more sensitive than heterosexual White women to what it means to be part of an oppressed minority, lesbians can still hide their "stigma" whenever they choose. That is, unlike race and color, sexual preference cannot be
discerned from appearance alone. As Patty K., a Black lesbian from USC, puts it, "When we walk through any door, no one really knows whether we are gay or not. But one thing they know for sure is that we are Black." bell hooks makes a similar point: "Often homophobic attacks on gay people occur in situations when knowledge of sexual preference is indicated or established outside of gay bars, for example. Blacks can't hide their color."

To cope with the often heavy baggage of self-doubt, guilt, and resentment that can accompany interracial lesbian relationships, lesbian couples frequently turn to support groups. Cynthia W., a White lesbian, and her Black lover, after moving from Chicago to New York in the early eighties, decided to start one of their own. Once a month, women in the group took turns holding potluck dinners and discussing in depth the issues facing them. The women found it especially helpful to reserve part of the evening for those of each racial group to talk separately to each other.

Of the many issues that came up at the meetings was the fact that when the interracial couple was at home alone, their racial differences were rarely an issue, but when the two went out together, race was nearly always a problem. In restaurants, White waiters would often approach the White woman first and, at the end of the meal, give her the check. Dance clubs also appealed to either a mostly White or mostly Black clientele, and when a racially mixed couple went out, one of them commonly felt out of place. Housing, too, was a problem. Cynthia recalled the time when she looked for an apartment to share with her lover. After finding what she thought was the perfect place, she brought her Black lover to show it to her, and discovered that the landlord had had a sudden change of mind about the apartment's availability. For White women not used to such blatant racism, it can be an eye-opening and a devastating experience. While it also hurts Black women, most have developed emotional armor over the years that helps to protect them from the constant harsh realities of racism.

Because Black lesbians, in particular, face discrimination on so many different fronts-from Whites for being Black, from men for being female, and from other Blacks for being lesbian-many have sought and found relief in exclusive African American lesbian support groups, such as the Black Lesbian Support (BLSG) in Washington, Chicago's African American Womyn's Alliance, Cleveland's Sistahparty, and L.A.'s Lesbians of Color (LOC). Some White lesbians take offense at Black lesbians segregating into their own groups. A thirty-year-old White lesbian named Jennifer Ann H. said, "As lesbians we must all stick together. We can't afford to show any hint of division. Groups shouldn't be created that exclude any other lesbian." But Lisa P., a Black lesbian from the University of Chicago, disagreed. When asked whether she felt that Black lesbians organizing among themselves would breed contempt for White lesbians, or whether clubs for "gay
wimmin of color only" would be detrimental to lesbian alliances, Lisa responded:

It is important that White lesbians understand that although we
share a lot of the same struggles, Black lesbians have a unique set of battles that we must confront as well. We may have being lesbian in common, but our biggest and most obvious difference still remains our color. And, yes, racism is alive and well in the gay community.
For Lisa, as for many Black lesbians, issues of race will always come ahead of those having to do with being gay. Venus Medina, a project officer at the CDC in Atlanta, says that "most Black lesbians identify as Black women first and lesbians second." Yet the notion that race supersedes sexual orientation remains a difficult one for many White lesbians to accept.

In comparison to White lesbians, African American lesbians may have a special need to come together for support, given the greater hatred against them in their community. An African American author, Ann Allen Shockley, discusses just how strong this homophobla is in her 1974 novel Loving Her, dealing with an interracial lesbian affair. The Black heroine, Renay, who falls in love with a White woman, considers whether she should "come out" to her best straight Black friend Fran. Deciding against it, Renay reflects:

Black women were the most vehement about women loving each other. This kind of love was worse to them than the acts of adultery or incest, for it was homophile. It was worse than being inflicted with an incurable disease. Black women could be sympathetic about illegitimacy, raising the children of others, having affairs with married men-but not toward Lesbianism, which many blamed on white women.
Black lesbian scholar Barbara Smith, in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, analyzes why many in the African American community remain strongly opposed to homosexuality:
Heterosexual privilege is usually the only privilege that Black women have. None of us have racial or sexual privilege, almost none of us have class privilege, maintaining "straightness" is our last resort.
In other words, to give up the one privilege that African American women en)oy seems to others an act of suicide@r, worse yet, an act of genocide.

This attitude is certainly reflected in the following comments of Bernita, a forty-year-old Black mother of four:

If the Black community supports gay life, then what is to happen to the Black family, which is already in danger? And Black lesbians? I just can't accept this. We are the mothers of this earth. Without us there will be no more Black children. No MLKs [Martin Luther King] would ever be born again, no Sojourner Truths, no great Black men and women. The Black family is the backbone of our community, and we all have a responsibility to preserve it. Even the respected Black psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing voices such concern when she states, "If we endorse homosexuality, then we have endorsed the death of our people." Ironically, despite the fear of some Black heterosexuals that lesbianism is just "another trick the Man pulled out of his genocide trickbag," Black lesbians are actually far more likely to have children than White lesbians.

Regardless of whether antigay sentiment is stronger among Blacks or Whites-and some lesbians believe there is no difference in the rates of homophobia-negative attitudes toward lesbianism are stressful. And the stress is especially great for women involved in interracial relationships, if only because they stand out more than lesbian couples of the same race. Smith has written about this issue, as well: "Whenever I had a lover of a different race, I felt that it was like having a sign or billboard over my head that said-'These are dykes. Right here.' " In the book Lesbian Psychologies, a White Jewish middle-class lesbian named Sarah commented:

What I was very aware of, at the beginning of our relationship, was how visible I felt with her. And I was aware of the whole
ideal of being with a black woman. When we would walk down the street, I felt that it was like wearing placards that said "lesbian." And that was very unsettling.
Obviously, it is to lesbians' advantage to avoid standing out in public or otherwise calling attention to themselves. Research on hate crimes indicates that racism, sexism, and homophobia cluster together, especially among religiously conservative men, who are among the most homophobic. To such people, the sight of a White and Black woman together, in love and having fun, fans the flames of intolerance. More than any other relationship, an interracial lesbian relationship challenges the "traditional" structure of society.

In addition to, the hostile reactions of strangers, a lesbian woman who dates interracially may have to fend off the hostilities of her partner's family. Amy, a White lesbian, talks about what happened the one time her Black lover, Nancy, took Amy home to meet the parents:

It was clear that Nancy's parents did not like me, but it was hard to tell what bothered them more -- that their daughter was gay -- I was the first woman that she had brought home and came out with to her parents -- or that she was with someone White. All I know is that being in her parents' home was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. An African American lesbian named JoAnn W. confesses that it was difficult enough for her mother to accept that her daughter was lesbian, but when JoAnn introduced her White lover, her mother demanded to know, "Why couldn't you at least bring home a Black woman?" It can be equally hard on African American lesbians visiting the homes of their White girlfriends, although the issues may be slightly different. Black women, for example, resent it when White girlfriends act as though their parents are so liberal that race doesn't matter, when they know that it always does.

That two women of varying racial backgrounds can passionately love each other should offer hope to other women trying to come together, for whatever purpose. Ann Allen Shockley writes of the promise as well as the mystery of interracial love in Loving Her. In one scene, Renay, who is lightskinned, reflects on her growing attractions for her White lover, Terry:

Tracing the whiteness of Terry's skin with her finger, Renay thought, It is amazing how I can lie here and see and feel this skin and not think of the awful things others of her color have done to us. And yet, my skin is light-tinged with the sun. Someone, somewhere in the past, must have done and thought and felt like this with another -- or hated in a different and helpless way. Interracial relationships require honest communication and a lot of hard work if they are to succeed. Regardless of whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual, each member must make a determined effort to understand the other's cultural uniqueness. This means, among other things, granting a partner the freedom to express his or her differences. Compared with White Americans, who are often raised with a sense of "rugged individualism," African Americans tend to have a more communal sense of identity, to see themselves as part of a larger group. Blacks also tend to be more bicultural -- that is, more adept at operating within both the White culture and the Black culture. Members of the dominant culture frequently know only how to interact comfortably with others of their own race. Thus, at social gatherings, a White lover in a group of African Americans is more likely to feel self-conscious and out of place than would an African American lover in a group of Whites. These differences need to be understood by White and Black women alike if they are to get along.