Image: Clay Banks via Unsplash.
There is an extreme lack of positive representation of both the Black and LGBTQ+ community in media, with both groups being subject to harmful stereotypes deeply rooted in homophobia or racism. For example, the ‘angry Black girl trope’ or the ‘gay best friend trope’. Here, however, I specifically want to focus on the queer experience that Black women face currently, and have faced in the past. Queer Black women face homophobia, sexism, racism and misogynoir, a unique type of discrimination that only Black women face. As Nicole Pasuka describes in the ‘Criminal’ Black lesbian article, “though positive visibility of queer Black women has increased, negative perceptions in the media and law enforcement remain deeply ingrained, and can have serious consequences.”
Queer Black women were important activists in many socio-political movements during the 20th century but they were pushed aside in favour of more palatable white women or Black men. They have been continuously forgotten about in conversations in both Black and queer history, leading to them not getting the rightful recognition that they deserve for their work. Black lesbians like Stormé DeLaverie, Angela Davis and Audre Lorde all contributed to modern day LGBTQ+ pride and women’s rights.
Even though in the 21st century our society is not burdened by some of the struggles that were faced in the past, systemic racism, misogyny and casual homophobia still have a tight grasp, with many of the big institutions of the Western world being built on the backs of the oppressed. While we fight to dismantle these conventions, we must remember those who came before us and what they fought for. The history that we teach must be inclusive and we should remember the fights that were won and lost for us to be where we are today.
In order to understand the unique experience of Black queer women you must understand the term ‘intersectionality’. The term was coined in 1989 by activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in a published paper named ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex’. The paper focused on three court cases where Black women were subject to race discrimination and sex discrimination. The court failed to realise that these Black women could be discriminated against in both ways and therefore failed to notice the intersection between the two. As Crenshaw describes in an interview with Vox in 2019, “Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts, in particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all Black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to Black women and other women of colour is going to be difficult to see.”
In simpler terms, intersectionality describes the relationship between race, class, gender and other protected characteristics such as sexuality, gender identity and being able bodied or neurotypical. As its use has grown more prominent in recent years, the term is often used to explain the specific oppression that women of colour go through compared to men of colour and white women. However, when queerness and gender-nonconformity are added, things start to shift.
Black Womanhood: Defeminised and Hypersexualised
Navigating Black womanhood is difficult enough because of being defeminised, hypersexualised and objectified simultaneously. This concept has been around since the times of colonisation, where white men would travel to Africa and gawk at the African women. They were in awe of their voluptuous bodies and how they seemed sexually liberated. They believed African women to be inherently hypersexual beings always looking for a sexual mate, not a partner to love. They looked at African women with their big bosoms and curvy bodies and decided that they were not worthy of love, they were there for the entertainment of the white man. But, at the same time, they were disgusted with their awe, so they created a standard for femininity so high that no Black woman could ever reach it: whiteness. Dehumanised, the Black female body was ostracised, experimented on and sexualised; the Black female body was used at the disposal of the white man.
Black women have been seen as more experienced and stronger than white women. In Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, it is stated that “beginning as early as 5 years of age, Black girls were more likely to be viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age; more knowledgeable about adult topics, including sex; and more likely to take on adult roles and responsibilities than what would have been expected for their age.” Black women and girls are not allowed to be innocent and naïve; they have not been allowed full access to their femininity. Therefore, they have been associated with strength and, consequently, masculinity.
This makes Black lesbian and non-binary identities even harder because regardless of whether it is true to the person’s gender identity or not, they are masculinised. But at the same time, society is attached to their Black womanhood and will never see them as anything but a Black woman. The societal standard for Black women compared to white women is completely different and this contributes to how we see them in the media and in real life. In addition to this, dark skinned Black women are also masculinised due to their darker complexion, but lighter skinned Black women are not masculinised as much, due to their closer proximity to whiteness and, therefore, femininity.
20th century Black Queer Activists
Transgender activists were at the forefront of the gay rights movement from the 1960s to the 1990s. One of them was Marsha P. Johnson. She was born in New Jersey in 1945 and sadly passed away on the 6th July, 1992. At the age of 23, she became a key figure in gay history because of the events that happened after a gay bar on Stonewall Street was raided by the police on the 28th June 1969. After resisting arrest, Johnson and other transgender LGBTQ activist Sylvie Riviera led a series of protests which led to the first gay pride parade in 1970. They then went on to found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to support transgender youth. As well as helping homeless young people kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality, she advocated for equal rights for people affected by AIDS. She was then diagnosed with HIV in 1990. Johnson was also a proud drag queen, joining a drag club named the Hot Peaches and developing her own flamboyant style.
Stormé DeLaverie was a lesbian gay rights activist and performer who is best known for her role in inciting the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Known as the ‘guardian of the lesbians in Greenwich village’, people described her as a ‘typical New York City butch’. Born to an African American mother and a white father in 1920s Louisiana, she was bullied not only for her mixed-race heritage but also for her masculine, butch appearance. She is best known for allegedly throwing the first punch in the Stonewall uprising. After being arrested and restrained, DeLaverie complained that the handcuffs were too tight and while the police released her to put new ones on, she ran away. She encouraged bystanders to join in with the uprising and she fought many police officers one on one. Two weeks after the events, she was part of the official formation of the Stonewall Veterans Association. From the 1980s into the 1990s, DeLaverie was a singer and a bouncer as she patrolled the streets looking for any intolerance.
Angela Davis is arguably one of the most recognised Black queer women for her work in the Black Panthers and other communist parties. She is the author of the world-renowned Women, Race and Class, offering a Marxist feminist perspective. In her youth, she organised interracial study groups that were shut down by the police and she knew many of the young Black girls killed the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. As a young adult, Davis joined political groups like the Black Panthers and an all-Black sector of the Communist Party. After aiding in the failed prison escape of fellow Black activist George Jackson, she went into hiding and Davis was on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list. After being captured 2 months later, she was put on trial and only went into prison for 18 months before being acquitted.
Modern Day Queer Black Women
Sapphic relationships are either sexualised or de-legitimised by the media, with claims of it just being a ‘close friendship’ or ‘something to attract male attention’. To truly make progress, the male gaze and men in general should be removed from the equation during discourse about non-platonic relationships between women. The movie ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ directed by Celine Sciamma is a perfect example of the female gaze in wlw/nblw (women loving women/non-binary loving women) media, with it focusing on the women’s feelings towards each other instead of sexualising them. The movie also has recurring themes of consent throughout which is also important.
Many of the stereotypes instilled decades – maybe even centuries - ago still plague the lives of Black queer women today. Progress has been made, but society has long to go until we are all accepting. By ignoring queer people’s ethnic heritage, we erase a part of their identity and by also ignoring queer white people’s whiteness, we are ignorant to the obvious privilege they have in society due to their race. Instead of excluding people of colour from the LGBTQ community or vice versa, work must be done to ensure both communities are welcomed in conversation and in celebration. Black and LGBTQ history both go back to pre-colonial times but due to the ‘exploration’ of Africa by the white man they have been forgotten. We have been silenced and suppressed for too long throughout history and it is our responsibility to speak our truth and the truth of those who cannot anymore.