I was 18 years old and a nervous, confused wreck when I started having doubts about what I now refer to as the Straight Girl Era—or the HetEra—of my existence. I had gotten straight A’s, never stayed out too late, and my deadliest sin was probably an insatiable lust for Smartfood Popcorn (and Corinne Bailey Rae, which, in hindsight, is pretty telling). It didn’t seem fair that after playing nice for all those years, I’d have to navigate queerness in the homophobic, heteronormative community I grew up in.
Fortunately, I soon moved away from home to start my first semester of college, and I found a community that would be so important to my “coming out” experience: queer Black womyn. Suddenly, there were other people in my life who looked like me, who talked like me, whose families made the same backhanded, homophobic comments as mine, and whose lived reality meant not only battling homophobia but also racism, classism, and sexism.
Being a part of communities with other queer Black womyn is foundational to my self-conception. I would never have found myself without these courageous womyn who give me the strength to fight all of the social battles that come my way, and who don’t beat around the bush with idyllic statements like “It gets better” but instead affirm me with, “The struggle continues.”
But what about the straight Black womyn who raised me, befriended me, taught me (unsuccessfully) how to dance, and were pillars of faith, love and hope before sexuality ever was an issue?
At my university, the LGBTQ community is so active that campus life is almost homo-normative; you’re probably queer until proven straight. (And even if proven “straight,” it’s understood that sexuality is a spectrum.) In the real world, I’m a straight girl tip-toeing instead of bolding marching out of the closet. Questions like, “Are there any guys you’re interested in?” are met with ambiguous responses like, “No, I haven’t met anyone that I’m that into.” When I do come out to someone, I often hear, “But are you really gay?” or better yet, “You don’t really look gay though.”
Interestingly enough, when I come out to Black people, I often feel like I’m committing some sort of betrayal.
“Being LGBTQ seems to break with the traditional roles and expectations of Black family and religious life, and queer women too often have to deal with being labeled selfish, rebellious, or white acting after coming out,” explains Jarune Uwujaren in an article entitled “How the Black Community Can Be More Supportive of Black Queer Women.”
Mainstream society has invented this myth of Supreme Black Homophobia to divide the Black community from the inside out. This myth creates the terrifying reality wherein the Black community, queer and straight, internalizes this fallacy until we are sustaining and thus combating a hatred we never created. I find myself fearing that perhaps the act of making myself vulnerable enough to explain my sexuality to another Black person will result in a rejection made even more painful because the racial solidarity I have learned to value and cherish will be rendered null and void by another aspect of my identity.
But, having spent the past nine months outside of the U.S., where I have had to find new communities and spaces that permit and encourage my queerness, I have realized not only how important and wonderful it is to have queer spaces also occupied by queer womyn of color, but also that as a Black woman, it is important for me to feel supported by my straight Black sisters.
A few months ago, after a couple drinks, I told a fellow Black professor that I wasn’t dating any men because I had a girlfriend. She stared at me, completely blindsided, and murmured, “You’re… gay?”
Politely excusing herself, she got up from our table at the bar, and paced around for what seemed like years. I was smiling visibly, but I felt like breaking down in tears as I waited for the inevitable rejection.
Finally, she turned to me and calmly admitted, “That’s fine. I have some Black girlfriends who are lesbians, too.”
In that moment, acceptance seemed simple and yet newly significant. Suddenly, my Truth was known, and her acceptance allowed me to feel liberated in a way, not entirely common. The love I have come to recognize in other Black womyn was no longer conditional on me fulfilling and appeasing the status quo. And, I realized I didn’t need to segregate my communities by race, sexuality, or those that happen to find themselves at the intersection. I could integrate my entire self-conception into these different groups.
Obviously, there are Black people who will not be supportive of members of the LGBTQ community; however, that intolerance is not race-specific, even if it is race-informed. I’m tired of being told that Black people are so much more homophobic than any other ethnic/racial community. I am blessed that my family is inclusive enough to incorporate womyn who may not be related to me by blood, but whose racial and gender experiences reflect mine so wholly that we are bound together through a different kind of kinship. So, I would like to see us Black womyn showing each other love, even when our sexual orientations differ.
Queer Black womyn, let us hold our straight Black sisters to a higher standard, and let’s educate when necessary; however, let us also be patient and loving. Often times, ignorance breeds fear, and while we should not tolerate hatred, we should also not replicate it.
Straight Black womyn, please recognize that loving Black womyn means loving those of us that don’t conform exactly to the standards of Black womanhood.
“If you are pro-Black women, you won’t support discrimination against any Black women, including queer women,” reminds Uwujaren.
Above all, let us, straight, queer, and anyone in between, cherish and care for one another, in a mutual celebration of our Black womanhood.
– Helen McDonald
Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at BloodyShrubbery.com.