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The Perception of Lesbians in the African American Community

by Christina D. Fontenot


“For in the absence of speaking the truth, Black Lesbians risk the pain of being misread, of having our silences and our bluster distorted, demonized and misunderstood. We will be misunderstood by our oppressors who in the words of Audre Lorde, “never meant for us to survive” and, perhaps more painfully, by our mirror reflections” -Evelyn C. White, Mirror Images


There are many factors that influence the perception of homosexuality within the African American community. This paper will discuss just a few of those factors. Through my readings I have found that cultural norms, family, and religion seem to play a very large part in the way many African Americans perceive lesbianism and homosexuality in general.

The perception of lesbianism within the African American culture has caused many Black Lesbians to live a life of silence, never to reveal their true selves. As a culture, silence is a widely accepted practice; those who openly admit to or discuss issues that are widely seen as taboo may often be confronted with “scourge and ridicule from other African Americans for ‘airing dirty laundry’ in public” after having committed such an “unpardonable sin”(Griffin, 2000, p. 89). Many are often seen as “violating a fundamental cultural rule” (Greene, 2000, p. 241). The fear of being outcast by their community or looked down upon is enough to keep many in silence for years, if not forever. This silence is further noted in the lives of countless famous African American lesbian and homosexual authors, poets, directors, politicians, activist, movie stars, athletes, educators and entertainers whose sexuality was revealed only after their demise.


In addition to fear, the many expectations and restraints that are placed upon African-American women may further propel silence. Traditionally, we are expected to marry, bear children, contribute to our households and live the life of a devout Christian. The uncertainty of children, the lack of desire to marry a man and the conflict between religion and sexuality is often too much for many to bear. Causing many to conform and live the lives that society has deemed socially acceptable. Others, however, are forced to learn and hone the craft of ““queering” traditional institutions…using them in subversive ways to extract their own ends” (Fine & Hall, 2005, p.183). This allows them to appear as if they are leading the lives expected of them, while actually living the lives that are most comfortable for them.

Within the African American community, family can be “the primary social unit and most prominent source of emotional and material support” (Greene, 2000, p. 245). Due to the very strong religious beliefs against homosexuality and lesbianism many may experience a great deal of apprehension when considering whether or not to discuss their sexual orientation with family members. Within the African American community families are often very close and consist of not only blood relatives but several close extended family members. Having to deal with the possibility that these persons may no longer be there solely based on ones sexual orientation is a risk that not all are willing to take. However, some research shows that due to the “strength of the family ties, there is the perception that a lesbian family member is less likely to be expelled from the African-American family…even though the family may not approve the her sexual orientation” (Greene, 2000, p. 245). This acceptance, however, may be contingent on the “maintenance of the invisibility of their relationship” (as cited in Greene, 2000).


The Black church, like the family, is also an “integral part of the African American community” having a very strong religious, social, educational and political influence on the community (Battle & Schulte, 2004, p. 131). The church is often looked to for guidance, both spiritual and emotional. It is also looked to during times of personal or family crisis, death, birth and marriage. It usually considered to be the “pillar” or “cornerstone” of the community. Like the church, the minister or pastor is also of great importance to the community with their word being held with very high esteem. This is largely due to the fact that he, rarely she, is considered to be a messenger or carrier of the Word of God.

Within many African American churches homosexuality is considered to be an abomination, the greatest of all sins. Some church members are often “exhorted to condemn it as sin and cast it out,” (Lipkin, 1999, p.122). While other churches are “simply silent about homosexuality” and rather pretend it doesn’t exist (Griffin, 2000, p. 88). It is these views of homosexuality that cause many to have a great deal of confusion and inner-turmoil regarding faith and sexuality. In an interview conducted with an older lesbian, Portia age 73 stated “…I always resented not being able to be me. That’s why I dropped out of church for 40 years” (Fine & Hall, 2005, pps.183-184). Leaving the church can be a very hard thing for many to go through considering how large of a role the church often plays in their lives. Despite the great importance of the church, this sentiment is, sadly, held by many lesbians and homosexuals alike.



Due to the restraints placed on Black lesbians by their families, communities and religions many are forced to develop multiple identities. Often faced with “the challenge of integrating more than one salient identity in an environment that devalues them on all levels” (Greene, 2000, p. 246). The struggle to develop and maintain such identities often proves to be more than some can handle and may ultimately affect their mental health. As we grow and develop, many of us are provided with very strong and solid examples of what types of women we are to become. We learn to view ourselves “positively because of loved and trusted family members’ positive responses…a process known as cultural mirroring” (Greene, 2000, p. 246). African American lesbians and lesbians of color in general are rarely provided with such examples. Very few receive “positive cultural mirroring for the sexual-minority aspect of their identity” and are forced to develop one all their own (Greene, 2000, p. 246). This too can be a time of great confusion and inner turmoil for many.

Within the African American community mental health is not a topic that is widely discussed. It is one of those subjects that is often considered taboo and should not be openly discussed. Consequently, many African American lesbians struggling with their sexuality do not seek the support they so desperately need. As a result, when a counselor or mental health professional begins working with such clients it is of extreme importance that their culture, religion and family background be taken into consideration. It is these things that may most greatly influence one’s perception and acceptance of their sexuality.

The life of the Black lesbian can be a very hard one. Many have to deal with the stresses of living within a society that automatically marginalizes them for being African-American and being a woman, they are then further marginalized based solely on who they love. They may also be forced to deal with the pressure placed on them by their families, communities and religious affiliations to conform to what they feel they should be and how they feel they should live. This reality can either destroy or uplift. Many are able to cope with the stressors of such a lifestyle and are able to “queer it” and survive and thrive. While others may succumb to the pressures of society and live lives that lack the fulfillment, happiness, and love they desire. Despite the possibilities, I truly believe that more often than not many of us are able to figure out how to make our lives work for us, how to make our jobs, families, religions, communities and sexuality live together in harmony.



Questions to our readers!!!!

Write in and share with us the following:

1. What have been your coming out experiences?
2. Are the attitudes toward out lesbians different in various cities?
3. Have you and your significant other ever attended church holding hands? What about holding hands at the movies or a play?
4. Do your co-workers know that you are out?
5. Have you ever been in public with your partner and someone mistaken her for a man? How did you handle it? How did it make you feel?
6. What do you think is the perception of lesbians in the African American community? Are we helping or hurting our communities? Have our communities turned their backs on us?




References

Battle, J. & Schulte, L. (2004). The Relative Importance of Ethnicity and Religion in Predicting Attitudes Towards Gays and Lesbians. Journal of Homosexuality, 47(2), 127-142. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier Database.

Capitanio, J. & Herek, G. (1995). Black Heterosexuals’ Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men in the United States. Journal of Sex Research, 32(2), 95-105. Retrieved February 12, 2007 from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier Database.

Fine, M. & Hall, R. (2005) The Stories We Tell: The lives and friendship of two older black lesbians. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 177-187. Retrieved February 12, 2007 from EBSCOhost ERIC Database.

Greene, B. (2000) African American Lesbian and Bisexual Women. Journal of Social Issues, 56(2), 239-249. Retrieved February 9, 2007 from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier Database.

Griffin, H. (2000) Their Own Received Them Not: African American lesbian and gays in Black churches. Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality, 12, 88-100. Retrieved February 21, 2007 from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier Database.

Lipkin, Arthur (1999). Understanding Homosexuality, Changing Schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

White, E. (1998). Mirror Images. Essence, 29(3), 85. Retrieved February 21, 2007 from EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier Database.