November 4, 2011

Black and Not So Proud

I’m going to discuss my observations about queer black women in media (specifically in the USA). I will also abuse parentheses; you have been warned.

Regardless of what anyone thinks, you can’t deny that there is some sort of strange relationship between sexual identity and race—not in the “people of this race aren’t gay” sort of way, but in the “famous people of this race tend to not be out if they’re gay” as often as famous people of other races sort of way. And things like that can lead to all sorts of foolishness. Anyone remember when some guy wrote a book and sent it to Uganda and how that inspired the Anti-Gay bill they were trying to pass a few years ago? Rachel Maddow going to town on the author of a "cure gayness" book.

And it would be easier disprove idiotic statements such as “race effects whether or not you’re gay” if there were more people of influence that were the physical manifestation of a counterargument. However, that is not the case. I don’t know whether or not that’s the fault of the not-so-good background race has within US history (yes, I’m talking about the US, specifically), or if there’s some cultural incidence of shame and fear within communities of color/the black community. What is it about black “pride” that makes it so difficult?

So, besides debunking the myth of “blacks aren’t LGBT identified, ever”, why else would we need out, black people of influence?

Well, this may or may not sound ridiculous, but some of us (read: all of us, whether you believe it or not) look to the media as an example in many different aspects of our lives. And while stereotypes are awful, I kind of think they have their uses. One way the media helps is by giving us “not so obvious” LGBT individuals ways to drop visual cues on our somewhat unobtrusive sexualities. Being (what I can only simplify to) bi has its troubles. How can one find a middle ground between attracting heterosexual/bi men and homosexual/bi women? …If you find an answer to that, let me know, because apparently I’m not doing it right (read: I get asked to dinner by men and called straight when I go to gay clubs. Yes, that's happened on two separate occasions). In this situation, many people turn to the media for help.

Let’s go for the simple, common example: the (often times symbolic) cutting of hair. A lot of white/Asian/non-black queer women cut their hair to shorter, “more masculine” lengths. As MUCH as I’d love to cut my hair to reflect my inner queerness that won’t do (and please, don’t preach to me about stereotypes—you know when you see a woman who’s under 30 with short hair you probably add “queer” to your mental list of possible classifications… vegetarian too, am I right? :P) Unfortunately, black woman + short hair does NOT = queer.

So, after that realization, I decided to do some research. It was like a math problem. Black woman + x = queer black woman (with x defined as a visual/physical cue).

And by research, I really mean research. While I could name a BUNCH of non-black queer women in the media, I really couldn’t do so much for black queer women. My train of thought was something like this:

“Um… let’s see… Wanda Sykes? And… um… Queen Latifah. Wait, she doesn’t really count, because we’re still a bit unsure… well… I got nothing. OH WAIT, Nicki Minaj… but, isn’t she denying it now? …Why can’t Ellen just be black? Or better yet, why can’t Oprah just be a lesbian?”

And then a dead end. Eventually, after many unsuccessful google searches, I was given this video by a friend. Essentially, this list contains a lot of women you wouldn’t hear of unless you were into politics and reading; writers, activists, poets (though, in retrospect, I DID know a few more than Wanda, which made me happy).

Anyway, to wrap this up, the main point of this is essentially that American media is telling the world that black queer women are rare/don't exist (which can’t be the case). But then again, allowing the media to define and represent the world is a bad idea. “Dark skinned” black women, myself included, wouldn’t exist at all if left up to the media because I’ve observed it is usually only “safely ethnic” black women who get screen time/get to represent all black women on TV and in movies. (Support for this observation: here and here, with pictures). But that’s enough digression.

Side note: Dreads for me, yes or no? No? Yeah, whatever, I kind of want to do this anyway, but maybe shorter.

Side side note: I'm obviously not being serious about my first side note, in case you were wondering.


  1. EBONY!

    I have to admit I got a little scared about the title at first-I wasn't sure what was "not so proud", but I see now what you did with it-I see you're playing on the "out and proud" and the lack of visible LGBTQ women of color in the media and how stereotypes can definitely be white-centered.

    Also, I wanted to say I'm SO glad you wrote about this topic on the blog. YES! It's amazingggg to see dialogue about LGBTQ women of color because like you aptly mentioned-we still dont talk about it enough! [mind if I steal one of these ideas for a WLW, by the way?]

    And I completely agree about the lack of LGBTQ women of color (and men of color, too!) in the media. There's Latifah (maybe?) Rhianna (sometimes? maybe in Te Amo or maybe never?), Nikki (as you mentioned-but retracted?). And then there's the idea which I think your comment of where's the "black Ellen" gets at, which is that even when LGBTQ women of color are out, they're not as represented by the media for being specfically LGBTQ-role models, like the way white celebrities like Ellen or Rachel Maddow are, despite their incredible success and accomplishment AND outness: Skin, Sherly Swoops, Tracy Chapman Alice Walker, Wanda, etc.

    Thanks for bringing up such an incredibley important topic on the blog-I think it's really great you're starting the conversation on the BDU blog, and I can't wait to read more on it.

  2. I loved this post. One thing that stuck out to me was you mentioning having a short hair cut as an identifying mark for non-minorities, especially wit women as a sign of queerness. Both my partner and I are black and have shaved heads and everyone thinks I am either a man or queer because I dress masculine and everyone thinks my partner is a straight black woman who choose to go natural. Its interesting to say the least.

    There needs to be a presence of out and proud queer black people in the media. I think one problem that persists is the lack of a black queer community. Often it is either gay or lesbian the in the black community and when there are queer black present, they mirror their non-minority counter parts instead of creating their own world or movement.

    And when some people of color "come out" they seem to take it back. Nikki Minaj was known as a lesbian rapper when she was underground then when she became famous she is no longer gay. Sheryl Swoops is now married to a man and does not out right identify her sexuality anymore.

    I hope one day there will be a representation of black lgbtq people in the media.

  3. Ooooh, I totally dig everything Natalie said above me. ^^ Also, I had no idea about Nikki Minaj pre-fame, but I thought Sheryl Swoops was married to a man previously but now has a long-term female partner? haha maybe I'm going crazy.

    also I still have never seen the Color Purple movie, but when I read the book I felt like it was SUPER lesbian, or at least had a ton of really queer elements, but I've heard the movie wasn't quite like that. do you think that part of that lesbian-ness was lost in translation between Alice Walker's book and the making of a mainstream movie? I've got to see the movie to see if there is a difference, but it makes me wonder if that mainstream-movie-media-ness had an effect on it.

    lez keep this discussion going =) <3

  4. Yea Sheryl Swoops was married to a man, divorced, with her lesbian partner for like 5 years, then they broke up and this past summer she married a man.

    It's funny that you mention The Color Purple. The book is very queer and I love it, but I think do to the overall subject matter of the story and how hard it was for them to actually produce and release the movie, they took out center parts of the book to please big Hollywood. The musical on Broadway covers the lesbian relationship in the book and does not hold back. They sing a love song to each other and it is clear that they are a couple. I really appreciated that and was touched that when they wrote the script for the musical they left that part in.

    My partner is actually trying to show black queer women in film for Black History month at her school in February and we had the hardest time coming up with films or even documentaries that featured queer black women. I do believe mainstream media is not helping the situation.

  5. ahhh, okay, so it's not just me thinking that there's a disconnect between The Color Purple's movie & book. and thats so wild about Sheryl Swoopes-I just wrote a blog post about her a year ago and how she was with her female partner still but it looks like that changed.

    okay, queer female movies with black women! the only ones I know are: "Set it Off" (has an all-black cast I think), and the "Incredibley True Adventures of 2 girls in Love" features a black female lead. I guess some of the L-Words count too but it's definitely not an all-black cast like Set it Off and like you said it's not a film or a documentary. And like you mentioned, maybe we could include the Color Purple but definitely it sounds like the musical and not the movie itself. :-/ Same would go with some of Wanda Skye's comedy show recordings, which are good but would have a different feel than a full-length doc.

    Other interesting stuff: "The World Unseen" doesn't have black female leads at all (they're South East Asian) but it is set in South African apartheid if you wanna include themes of the greater African diaspora outside America.

    And wow, the fact that I really just had to wrack my brain for awhile on this, its so frustrating. There are already so few lesbian movies (that you don't wanna fastforward 3/4's of the movie for), but like you're saying when it comes to black queer women it's just the few stand-alone movies bringing Ebony's post painfully to th eforefront, and like wow, we're not even talking about mainstream stuff!

    not that you didn't already know all of this. are there any other movies with a queer black female lead that y'all know of?

  6. @Natalie: That contrast between "queer with short hair" or "straight with natural hair" is definitely something interesting, so thanks for sharing that.

    @Megan: The Color Purple is a fine example of the media smothering out black queer representation. I remember reading the book one summer (because it was on my reading list for English class) and then watching the stage play a year or so later at the DPAC. I'd never seen the movie, but after reading the wiki article about how the movie had removed that key aspect of the story, I didn't have any desire to.

    Movies tend to leave out a lot of important things if they're adaptations of novels anyway. (Speaking of which, I prefer The World Unseen novel to the movie, but I'm just biased like that. lol)

    But on the topic of that movie and others written and directed by Shamim Sarif, I find it funny that a culture known for its conservative traditional ways has a woman paving the way for queer women in her community, and the black American community (whose conservative ways are concentrated in the (Southern) Baptist community) doesn't. Then again, that could just be me finding fault in that occurrence because I'm homogenizing all Southeast Asian culture into one blob of conservative tradition (which it clearly is not).

    I can't really think of movies/TV shows with black queer women in them as lead characters besides The L Word. There have been a lot of movies i've seen where I thought, "OMG!! Maybe this character is a queer black woman" and then it turns out she's just a tomboy or something like that, just really into basketball, or drum line and rapping. Which is good, I guess, because that's representative of how open the black community is to non-sexist ideals (despite all of the barely clad women booty popping on music videos--I guess it's more of a "women can do what men can without being judged, but they still have to be sexy" and let's not even start on how backward that is for men in the black community.)

    But I would argue black men have more queer representatives in media than black women. RuPaul, B Scott (from our very own North Carolina), Antoine Dodson (lol, but really) all of these rappers coming out (or should I say being outed?) and there was even a TV show similar to the L Word starring a black and latino, male cast. (and that's just from the top of my head, without google searching).


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