Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance
For a woman to be a lesbian in a male-supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, imperialist culture, such as that of North America, is an act of resistance. (A resistance that should be championed throughout the world by all the forces struggling for liberation from the same slave master.) No matter how a woman lives out her lesbianism - in the closet, in the state legislature, in the bedroom - she has rebelled against becoming the slave master’s concubine, viz. the male-dependent female, the female heterosexual. This rebellion is dangerous business in patriarchy. Men at all levels of privilege, of all classes and colors have the potential to act out legalistically, moralistically, and violently when they cannot colonize women, when they cannot circumscribe our sexual, productive, reproductive, creative prerogatives and energies. And the lesbian - that woman who, as Judy Grahn says, “has taken a woman lover” - has succeeded in resisting the slave master’s imperialism in that one sphere of her life. The lesbian has decolonized her body. She has rejected a life of servitude implicit in Western, heterosexual relationships and has accepted the potential of mutuality in a lesbian relationship - roles notwithstanding.
Historically, this culture has come to identify lesbians as women, who over time, engage in a range and variety of sexual-emotional relationships with women. I, for one, identify a woman as a lesbian who says she is. Lesbianism is a recognition, an awakening, a reawakening of our passion for each (woman) other (woman) and for same (woman). This passion will ultimately reverse the heterosexual imperialism of male culture. Women, through the ages, have fought and died rather than deny that passion. In her essay, “The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have Constantly to Expand” Adrienne Rich states:
...Before any kind of feminist movement existed, or could exist, lesbians existed: women who loved women, who refused to comply with behavior demanded of women, who refused to define themselves in relation to men. Those women, our foresisters, millions whose names we do not know, were tortured and burned as witches, slandered in religious and later in “scientific” tracts, portrayed in art and literature as bizarre, amoral, destructive, decadent women. For a long time, the lesbian has been a personification of feminine evil.
...Lesbians have been forced to live between two cultures, both male-dominated, each of which has denied and endangered our existence...Heterosexual, patriarchal culture has driven lesbians into secrecy and guilt, often to self-hatred and suicide.
The evolving synthesis of lesbianism and feminism - two women-centered and powered ideologies - is breaking that silence and secrecy. The following analysis is offered as one small cut against that stone of silence and secrecy. It is not intended to be original or all-inclusive. I dedicate this work to all the women hidden from history whose suffering and triumph have made it possible for me to call my name out loud.
The woman whose embraces lesbianism as an ideological, political and philosophical means of liberation of all women from heterosexual tyranny must also identify with the world-wide struggle of all women to end male-supremacist tyranny at all levels. As far as I am concerned, any woman who calls herself a feminist must commit herself to the liberation of all women from coerced heterosexuality as it manifests itself in the family, the state, and on Madison Avenue. The lesbian-feminist struggles for the liberation of all people from patriarchal domination through heterosexism and for the transformation of all socio-political structures, systems, and relationships that have been degraded and corrupted under centuries of male domination.
However, there is no one kind of lesbian, no one kind of lesbian behavior, and no one kind of lesbian relationship. Also there is no one kind of response to the pressures that lesbians labor under to survive as lesbians. Not all women who are involved in sexual-emotional relationships with women [who] call themselves lesbians or identify with any particular lesbian community. Many women are only lesbians to a particular community and pass as heterosexuals as they traffic among enemies. (This is analogous to being black and passing for white with only one’s immediate family knowing one’s true origins.) Yet, those who hide in the closet of heterosexual presumption are sooner or later discovered. The “nigger-in-the-woodpile” story retells itself. Many women are politically active as lesbians, but may fear holding hands with their lovers as they traverse heterosexual turf. (This response to heterosexual predominance can be likened to the reaction of the black student who integrates a predominately white dormitory and who fears leaving the door of her room open when she plays gospel music.) There is the woman who engages in sexual-emotional relationships with women and labels herself bisexual. (This is comparable to the Afro-American whose skin-color indicates her mixed ancestry yet who calls herself “mulatto” rather than black.) Bisexual is a safer label than lesbiasn, for it posits the possibility of a relationship with a man, regardless of how infrequent or non-existent the female bisexual’s relationships with men might be. And then there is the lesbian who is a lesbian anywhere and everywhere and who is in direct and constant confrontation with heterosexual presumption, privilege and oppression. (Her struggle can be compared to that of the Civil Rights activist of the 1960’s who was out there on the streets for freedom, while so many of us viewed the action on the television.)
Wherever we, as lesbians fall along this very generalized political continuum, we must know that the institution of heterosexuality is a die-hard custom through which male-supremacist institutions insure their own perpetuity and control over us. Women are kept, maintained, and contained through terror, violence, and spray of semen. It is profitable for our colonizers to confine our bodies and alienate us from our own life processes as it was profitable for the European to enslave the African and destroy all memory of a prior freedom and self-determination - Alex Haley notwithstanding. And just as the foundation of Western capitalism depended upon the North Atlantic slave trade, the system of patriarchal domination is buttressed by the subjugation of women through heterosexuality. So, patriarchs must extoll the boy-girl dyad as “natural” to keep us straight and compliant in the same way the European had to extoll Caucasian superiority to justify the African slave trade. Against that historic backdrop, the woman who chooses to be a lesbian lives dangerously.
As a member of the largest and second most oppressed group of people of color, as a woman whose slave and ex-slave foresisters suffered some of the most brutal racist, male-supremacist imperialism in Western history, the black lesbian has had to survive also the psychic mutilation of heterosexual superiority. The black lesbian is coerced into the experience of institutional racism - like every other nigger in America - and must suffer as well the homophobic sexism of the black political community, some of whom seem to have forgotten so soon the pain of rejection, denial, and repression sanctioned by racist America. While most political black lesbians do not give a damn if white America is negrophobic, it becomes deeply problematic when the contemporary black political community (another male-dominated and male-identified institution) rejects us because of our commitment to women and women’s liberation. Many black male members of that community seem still not to understand the historic connection between the oppression of African peoples in North America and the universal oppression of women. As the women’s rights activist and abolitionist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pointed out during the 1850’s, racism and sexism have been produced by the same animal, viz. “the white Saxon man.”
Gender oppression (i.e. the male exploitation and control of women’s productive and reproductive energies on the specious basis of a biological difference) originated from the first division of labor, viz. that between women and men, and resulted in the accumulation of private property, patriarchal usurpation of “mother right” or matrilineage, and the duplicitous, male-supremacist institution of heterosexual monogamy (for women only). Sexual politics, therefore, mirror the exploitative, class-bound relationship between the white slave master and the African slave - and the impact of both relationships (between black and white and woman and man) has been residual beyond emancipation and suffrage. The ruling class white man had a centuries-old model for his day-to-day treatment of the African slave. Before he learned to justify the African’s continued enslavement and the ex-slave’s continued disenfranchisement with arguments of the African’s divinely ordained mental and moral inferiority to himself (a smokescreen for his capitalist greed) the white man learned, within the structure of heterosexual monogamy and under the system of patriarchy, to relate to black people - slave or free - as a man relates to a woman, viz. as property, as a sexual commodity, as a servant, as a source of free or cheap labor, and as an innately inferior being.
Although counter-revolutionary, Western heterosexuality, which advances male-supremacy, continues to be upheld by many black people, especially black men, as the most desired state of affairs between men and women. This observation is borne out on the pages of our most scholarly black publications to our most commercial publications, which view the issue of black male and female relationships through the lens of heterosexual bias. But this is to be expected, as historically heterosexuality was one of our only means of power over our condition as slaves and one of two means we had at our disposal to appease the white man.
Now, as ex-slaves, black men have more latitude to oppress black women, because the brothers no longer have to compete directly with the white man for control of black women’s bodies. Now, the black man can assume the “master” role, and he can attempt to tyrannize black women. The black man nay view the lesbian - who cannot be manipulated or seduced sexually by him - in much the same way the white slave master once viewed the black male slave, viz. as some perverse caricature of manhood threatening his position of dominance over the female body. This view, of course, is a “neurotic illusion” imposed on black men by the dictates of male supremacy, which the black man can never fulfill because he lacks the capital means and racial privilege.
Historically, the myth in the Black world is that there are only two free people in the United States, the white man and the black woman. The myth was established by the Black man in the long period of his frustration when he longed to be free to have the material and social advantages of his oppressor, the white man. On examination of the myth this so-called freedom was based on the sexual prerogatives taken by the white man on the Black female. It was fantasied by the Black man that she enjoyed it.
While lesbian feminism does threaten the black man’s predatory control of black women, its goal as a political ideology and philosophy is not to take the black man’s or any man’s position on top.
Black lesbians who do work within “by-for-about-black-people” groups or organizations either pass as “straight” or relegate our lesbianism to the so-called “private” sphere. The more male-dominated or black nationalist bourgeois the organization or group, the more resistant to change, and thus, the more homophobic and anti-feminist. In these sectors, we learn to keep a low profile.
In 1979, at the annual conference of a regional chapter of the National Black Social Workers, the national director of that body was given a standing ovation for the following remarks:
Homosexuals are even accorded minority status...And white women, too. And some of you black women who call yourselves feminists will be sitting up in meetings with the same white women who will be stealing your men on the sly.
This type of indictment of women’s revolution and implicitly of lesbian liberation is voiced throughout the bourgeois black (male) movement. But this is the insidious nature of male supremacy. While the black man may consider racism his primary oppression, he is hard put to recognize that sexism is inextricably bound up with the racism the black woman must suffer , nor can he see that no women (or men for that matter) will be liberated from the original “master-slave” relationship, viz. that between men and women, until we are all liberated from the false premise of heterosexual superiority. This corrupt, predatory relationship between men and women is the foundation of the master-slave relationship between white and black people in the United States.
The tactic many black men use to intimidate black women from embracing feminism is to reduce the conflicts between white women and black women to a “tug-o’-war” for the black penis. And since the black lesbian, as stated previously, is not interested in his penis, she undermines the black man’s only source of power over her, viz. his heterosexuality. Black lesbians and black women involved in the struggle for liberation must resist this manipulation and seduction.
The black dyke, like every dyke in America, is everywhere - in the street, on the welfare, unemployment and social security rolls, raising children, working in factories, in the armed forces, on television, in the public school system, in all the professions, going to college or graduate school, in middle-management, et al. The black dyke, like every other non-white and working class and poor woman in America, has not suffered the luxury, privilege or oppression of being dependent on men, even though our male counterparts have been present, have shared our lives, work and struggle, and, in addition have undermined our “human dignity” along the way like most men in patriarchy, the imperialist family of man. But we could never depend on them “to take care of us” on their resources alone - and, of course, it is another “neurotic illusion” imposed on our fathers, brothers, lovers, husbands that they are supposed to “take care of us” because we are women. Translate: “to take care of us” equals “to control us.” Our brothers’, fathers’, lovers’, husbands’ only power is their manhood. And unless manhood is somehow embellished by white skin and generations of private wealth, it has little currency in racist, capitalist patriarchy. He is an overseer for the slave master. Because of his maleness he is given access to certain privileges, eg. employment, education, a car, life insurance, a house, some nice vines. He is usually a rabid heterosexual. He is, since emancipation, allowed to raise a “legitimate” family, allowed to have his piece of turf, viz. his wife and children. That is far as his dictatorship extends for, if his wife decides that she wants to leave that home for whatever reason, he does not have the power or resources to seduce her otherwise if she is determined to throw off the benign or malicious yoke of dependency. The ruling class white man on the other hand, has always had the power to count women among his pool of low-wage labor, his means of production. Most recently, he has “allowed” women the right to sue for divorce, to apply for AFDC, and to be neocolonized.
Traditionally, poor black men and women who banded together and stayed together and raised children together did not have the luxury to cultivate dependence among the members of their families. So, the black dyke, like most black women, has been conditioned to be self-sufficient, i.e. not dependent on men. For me personally, the conditioning to be self-sufficient and the predominance of female role models in my life are the roots of my lesbianism. Before I became a lesbian, I often wondered why I was expected to give up, avoid, and trivialize the recognition and encouragement I felt from women in order to pursue the tenuous business of heterosexuality. And I am not unique.
As political lesbians, i.e. lesbians who are resisting the prevailing culture’s attempts to keep us invisible and powerless, we must become more visible (particularly black and other lesbians of color) to our sisters hidden in their various closets, locked in prisons of self-hate and ambiguity, afraid to take the ancient act of woman-bonding beyond the sexual, the private, the personal. I am not trying to reify lesbianism or feminism. I am trying to point out that lesbian feminism has the potential of reversing and transforming a major component in the system of women’s oppression, viz. predatory heterosexuality. If radical lesbian feminism purports an anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-woman-hating vision of bonding as mutual, reciprocal, as infinitely negotiable, as freedom from antiquated gender prescriptions and proscriptions, then all people struggling to transform the character of relationships in this culture have something to learn from lesbians.
The woman who takes a woman lover lives dangerously in patriarchy. And woe betide her even more if she chooses as her lover a woman who is not of her race. The silence among lesbian feminists regarding the issue of lesbian relationships between black and white women in America is caused by none other than the centuries-old taboo and laws in the United States against relationships between people of color and those of the Caucasian race. Speaking heterosexually, the laws and taboos were a reflection of the patriarchal slave master’s attempts to control his property via controlling his lineage through the institution of monogamy (for women only) and justified the taboos and laws with the argument that purity of the Caucasian race must be preserved (as well as its supremacy). However, we know that his racist and racialist laws and taboos did not apply to him in terms of the black slave woman just as his classist laws and taboos or regarding the relationship between the ruling class and the indentured servants did not apply to him in terms of the white woman servant he chose to rape. The offspring of any unions between the white ruling class slave master and the black slave woman or white woman indentured servant could not legally inherit their white or ruling class sire’s property or name, just their mothers’ condition of servitude.
The taboo against black and white people relating at any other level than master-slave, superior-inferior has been propounded in America to keep black women and men and white women and men, who share a common oppression at the hands of the ruling class white man, from organizing against that common oppression. We, as black lesbians, must vehemently resist being bound by the white man’s racist, sexist laws, which have endangered potential intimacy of any kind between whites and blacks.
It cannot be presumed that black lesbians involved in love, work, and social relationships with white lesbians do so out of self-hate and denial of our racial-cultural heritage, identities, and oppression. Why should a woman’s commitment to the struggle be questioned or accepted on the basis of her lover’s or comrade’s skin color? White lesbians engaged likewise with black lesbians or any lesbians of color cannot be assumed to be acting out of some perverse, guilt-ridden racialist desire.
I personally am tired of going to events, conferences, workshops, planning sessions that involve a coming together of black and other lesbians of color for political or even social reasons and listening to black lesbians relegate feminism to white women, castigate black women who propose forming coalitions with predominantly white feminist groups, minimize the white woman’s oppression and exaggerate her power, and then finally judge that a black lesbian’s commitment to the liberation of black women is dubious because she does not sleep with a black woman. All of us have to accept or reject allies on the basis of politics not on the specious basis of skin color. Have not black people suffered betrayal from our own people?
Yes, black women’s experiences of misogyny are different from white women’s. However, they all add up to how the patriarchal slave master decided to oppress us. We both fought each other for his favor, approval, and protection. Such is the effect of imperialist, heterosexist patriarchy. Shulamith Firestone, in the essay, “Racism: the Sexism of the Family of Man”, purports this analysis of the relationship between white and black women:
How do the women of this racial Triangle feel about each other? Divide and conquer: Both women have grown hostile to each other, white women feeling contempt for the “sluts” with no morals, black women feeling envy for the pampered “powder puffs.” The black woman is jealous of the white woman’s legitimacy, privilege, and comfort, but she also feels deep contempt...Similarly the white woman’s contempt for the black woman is mixed with envy: for the black woman’s greater sexual license, for her gutsiness, for her freedom from the marriage bind. For after all, the black woman is not under the thumb of a man, but is pretty much her own boss to come and go, to leave the house, to work (much as it is degrading work) or to be “shiftless”. What the white woman doesn’t know is that the black woman, not under the thumb of one man, can now be squashed by all. There is no alternative for either of them than the choice between being public or private property, but because each still believes that the other is getting away with something both can be fooled into mis-channeling their frustration onto each other rather than onto the real enemy, “The Man.”
Through her statement of the choices black and white women have under patriarchy in America has merit, Firestone analyzes only a specific relationship i.e. between the ruling class white woman and slave or ex-slave black woman.
Because of her whiteness, the white woman of all classes has been accorded, as the black man has because of his maleness, certain privileges in racist patriarchy, e.g. indentured servitude as opposed to enslavement, exclusive right to public assistance until the 1960’s, “legitimate” offspring and (if married into the middle/upper class) the luxury to live on her husband’s income, etc.
The black woman, having neither maleness nor whiteness, has always had her heterosexuality, which white men and black men have manipulated by force and at will. Further, she, like all poor people, has had her labor, which the white capitalist man has also taken and exploited at will. These capabilities have allowed black women minimal access to the crumbs thrown at black men and white women. So, when the black woman and the white woman become lovers, we bring that history and all those questions to the relationship as well as other people’s problems with the relationships. The taboo against intimacy between white and black people has been internalized by us and simultaneously defied by us. If we, as lesbian feminists, defy the taboo, then we begin to transform the history of relationship between black women and white women.
In her essay, “Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia,” Rich calls for feminists to attend to the complexities of the relationship between black and white women in the United States. Rich queries:
What caricatures of bloodless fragility and broiling sensuality still imprint our psyches, and where did we receive these imprintings? What happened between the several thousand northern white women and southern black women who together taught in the schools founded under Reconstruction by the Freedmen’s Bureau, side by side braving the Ku Klux Klan harassment, terrorism, and the hostility of white communities?
So, all of us would do well to stop fighting each other for our space at the bottom, because there ain’t no more room. We have spent so much time hating ourselves. Time to love ourselves. And that, for all lesbians, as lovers, as comrades, as freedom fighters, is the final resistance.