27 May 2002

Ghosts of Ourselves: The Invisibility of the African-American Lesbian

Ghosts of Ourselves: The Invisibility of the African-American Lesbian

Drew Alise Timmens is a thirtysomething Black, lesbian writer who lives outside of Cleveland. She is currently working on of a collection of short stories. Her interests are history, politics, spirituality and communities of color.



Équipe -Pose ta question!-

To be a Black queer woman is to exist as if in another realm. The acknowledgment of our earthly existence by those not attuned to otherworldly matters would cause such a panic on so many levels that we have been held a fiction by some, if we are recognized even that much.

We, as Black queer women, exist on another plane of consciousness and, like the poltergeists of old wives’ tales, occasionally appear out of nowhere to haunt and pester those who would rather not be bothered by our presence because the mere idea is, after all, too gruesome and complicated to fathom. To acknowledge us as real entities in a real world would require real action. It is easier to simply ignore.

The coming-out experience is different for everyone. However, what most Black queer women have in common is a lack of role models. White queer women have Ellen, Melissa, Sandra, Madonna, Chastity and many others. Everybody knows Me’Shell, Alice, the rumored-to-be-lez rapper/talk show host, the wink-wink award-winning singer/guitarist and, of course, Audre.

Yet how many Black dykes knew about Barbara Jordan, the ex-congresswoman from Texas who was totally in the closet until her death; the incomparable blues singer Bessie Smith; her friend, mentor and fellow Black queer blueswoman, Ma Rainey; Nona Hendryx, original member of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells; comedienne “Moms” Mabley, perhaps the raunchiest little old Black lady to ever cross the Ed Sullivan and Apollo stages? We should have known these courageous, Black foremothers, but probably did not, before we tried in vain to find something–anything–about Black queer lives?

There is a burgeoning media industry that affirms White, queer female existence–remember Mommy, Mommy and Mr. Sperm Donor on the cover of Rolling Stone–but we have yet to develop our first snapshot! Thank goodness for former Essence editor Linda Villarosa, poet, teacher and longtime Black activist Nikki Giovanni, and novelist Jewelle Gomez because they have lived the life and committed it to paper for future generations to discover.

And we, Black queer women, should get down on our hands and knees in eternal gratitude that Mandy Carter is a take-no-prisoners dyke activist who regularly shakes up the world as White queers know it. One shudders to think of where we would be without her. How many of these beautiful, powerful Black women are, or ever will be, on the covers of magazines? How many will be on national television discussing their queerness?

To fill the void we often find ourselves looking to queer White women as lovers, mentors and role models. Doing so is not always healthy or self-affirming. Far too many of us are asked by these women to somehow cleave off our arms, as if we could, by relegating our Blackness to some other, unspoken closet. We cannot look to mainstream organizational support either in our local communities or nationally because they too are ready with the butcher knife.

Largely White and male, these organizations often have a narrow agenda that frequently ignores the needs and desires of people like us. They don’t know and/or don’t care about colored girls’ issues of racism, sexism, child care, safety, alienation, loneliness or anything else that does not directly affect the full enjoyment of their White male privilege. Is it too much to contemplate all of us “others” joining together for the benefit of each of us? Apparently so. Our preternatural existence does not register on their gaydar screens as anything more than white noise. When we poltergeists pester and haunt enough, White queer folk, including White queer women, retaliate by questioning the existence and purpose of our organizations while forcefully expressing their belief that the groups are either divisive or should already meet our needs. Both paths of inquiry only show White ignorance and contempt. It is true that there are LGBT organizations geared to Blacks and other people of color. They exist because there is a certain amount of power in numbers.

There is also a great need to be able to find people who understand and can empathize without the necessity of lengthy and exhausting explanations about why we feel as we do. The reasons, dynamics and histories of our feelings are extant practically from conception. These “for us/by us” organizations are safe places where we don’t have to worry about being all of who we are, for the most part. Nevertheless, organizations targeted at queer people of color are not answers in and of themselves, but pieces of a much larger puzzle that necessitate the real inclusion of all peoples to find real solutions to very real problems.

Being Black, queer and female can be very lonely. Loneliness is not, however, the only thing Black queer women share. When we find our own and retreat into safe spaces, we enjoy and fascinate each other. We gossip, we share our lives, we laugh, we dance, we wiggle our fannies in all the wrong faces. We try to out-butch and out-femme one another, we cuss, we fuss, we hug, we kiss, we fondle in the darkest corners. More than that, we celebrate that we’ve made it in this world one more blessed day because we all know that some redneck SOB Neo-Nazi skinhead from West Podunk, who’s high on crystal meth and knows his future is non-existent by the time he’s 10, or even a passing bus, driven by someone like ourselves, can come along and end it all in the blink of an eye. Therefore, we live. We live in bold bright colors–ghosts only to those who will not see.

Drew Alise Timmens is a thirtysomething Black, lesbian writer who lives outside of Cleveland. She is currently working on of a collection of short stories. Her interests are history, politics, spirituality and communities of color.

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