(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 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
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.
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":
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:
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:
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:
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:
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: