Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Being Black, Female, and Queer

When you first came out in college, you used to wonder what was harder: being black, being a woman, or being queer (specifically, bisexual). You quickly decided that your answer to that question would depend on the day someone asked you. Sometime later you decided that the question was useless and a waste of time. In your mid-twenties now, you’ve long realized that what’s hardest is being all three of those things.

You’re writing this post not to whine or call for pity but rather to add another voice to queer women of color, an identity and large group of individuals often unheard and overlooked in American culture.

You can’t say that it’s harder being black, or that it’s harder being a woman, etc. because, in many ways, it’s all situational. For instance, in a mostly white environment, your identity as a black person is on display and, subsequently, causes you significantly more stress, making you vulnerable to everything from overt racism to covert racism. Living in Iowa City, dealing with a mostly intellectual and college-educated crowd of northern white folks, you’ve encountered much less overt racism, although the sometimes constant barrage of covert racism makes you prefer the overt sort. It’s made you realize that perhaps, as Dave Chappelle said, you prefer racism that’s out and in the open, just so you know where you stand with someone upfront.

Your identity as a female obviously finds itself on display when you’re surrounded by men, when you walk alone at night and feel that oppressive fear for your safety. Yet you’re rarely very wary of walking alone at night if the area is well-lit, as you’ve always felt that you can probably handle yourself pretty well. You consciously carry yourself with an obvious sort of seriousness and strength, so as to prevent yourself from being viewed as an easy target. And that strategy has worked so far. During the few run-ins you’ve had, however, you’ve learned that going completely apeshit – all 13 curse words – usually works well, as far as getting aggressive men off your back.

For instance, one night you were out and about, heading toward your car, and some random guy came up to you and started trying to be aggressive. You happened to be wearing slightly provocative clothes that night, and this guy decided that meant it was okay for him to get all up in your personal space. He actively followed you for a block, until you turned around, faced him and released an abundance of swear words on him, beginning with, “What the fu@k is your fu@king problem?” He promptly mumbled some half-assed apology and turned and walked away, after you concluded by telling him you would fu@k him up if he didn’t walk away. Whether or not you could’ve effectively fu@ked him up is beside the point: the point is you would have certainly tried, meaning, this man would have been in for a serious fight. He understood that, and moved on.

On the other hand, your identity as a queer person becomes a problem usually whenever you find myself surrounded by conservative black people — or conservative people of any race. Not because black people are more homophobic. But because you’ve simply had more run-ins with overt homophobia from black people than from anyone else. However, typically, you surround yourself with open-minded folks, black or whatever color, so you experience very little homophobia, overt or covert, in your daily life. Iowa City is apparently the third gayest city in the country, so your experience with homophobia here is significantly lessened, so much that you forget that Iowa City is kind of an anomaly in that way. You only receive that jolt back to the reality of life outside Iowa City when you see threads on Facebook where people unleash all their homophobia unabashedly, or when you hear yet another story about your sister (who is married to a woman) and her trials with homophobic co-workers constantly plotting to make her life miserable on account of her sexuality. She is not one to hide her sexuality, and you don’t blame her. But it makes her an easy target to homophobic folks around her in good ole Little Rock, Arkansas.

While you don’t hide your sexuality, you don’t necessarily display it either. Furthermore, you tend to operate from the belief that your sexuality is your business and that you don’t owe anyone disclosure (besides a potentially intimate partner). Like your sister, you look ostensibly heterosexual to most folks. But unlike your sister you don’t have a wife, and, as such, you have the ability to pass for hetero, whether you choose to do so or not. Because you’re bisexual, you’re often dating men so no one assumes that you’re anything other than heterosexual. As far as dealing with homophobia, your life is significantly easier because of all these factors. However, you’ve had to deal with biphobia a lot from both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Meaning, you’ve had to deal with all those silly and oppressive commonly-accepted labels that people attach to bisexuals: confused, slutty, indecisive, greedy, potentially diseased. In other words, you’ve had to deal with the intense alienation and sense of inferiority that comes with being viewed that way by so many people. To be bisexual is often to feel that you have no real allies.

Each of these separate experiences (as black person, as woman, as queer) on their own only slightly capture the wholesale alienation that your identity as a black female queer (be it bisexual or lesbian) entails. To have all these separate experiences of alienation is to experience an alienation so severe that it is practically incomparable. The invisibility is unimaginably intense. You’re sure any queer woman of color (be she black, Latino, Asian, or whatever) will echo your sentiments on this point. It goes like this:

Many people of the dominant group inadvertently or intentionally dismiss your humanity on account of your color, so you try to align yourself with people who look like you, black folks in your case. But you find your humanity questioned by so many of them, on account of your sexuality – many of them dismissing queerness as a “white thing” and, thus, in their rhetoric inadvertently erasing the existence of queer people of color. So you try to align yourself with queer culture so as to find some respect and community, but you quickly realize that the queer community is most often not only white-oriented but male-oriented, not to mention anti-bisexual in large part. Nonetheless, you – black, female, and queer – find your identity dismissed at every level.

In summary, you find yourself made invisible – within white culture, within your ethnic culture, within gay culture. The luckiest of you manage to live in cities where there are thriving lesbian and gay communities of color. While you are not that lucky, you are fortunate enough to have been able to find a group of open-minded friends, most of them black and straight, who are not tolerant – you hate that word, as it implies that one is simply “putting up with” someone they believe, at heart, to be inferior on some level, as such still viewing that person as an “other.” Instead, these friends are human beings who in no way “other” you because of your sexuality. You and your friends are all simply people trying to keep it moving in this crazy world.


I’m writing this post because, as I intend to embark on a legal career and devote my energies to improving the conditions of African-American life, I have been thinking about how troubling it is to ally myself with people, half of whom hate or look down on me because of my sexuality. Few things hurt my heart more than being literally or rhetorically spat upon by people who look like me, simply because my sexuality happens to differ from theirs, because of something I simply can’t (and wouldn’t) change. I can deal with receiving hate (or belittling pity) from white people, but it truly hurts to receive hate from people I consider my own, from people with whom I share such a unique historical legacy. But, at the end of the day, none of that hate deters me from wanting to dedicate my life to African-Americans (be they queer or straight) in our constant struggle for respect and freedom in this country. Despite receiving all that hate, my love for my people never fades. And, hopefully, it never will.

Pictured above: Queen Latifah and long-time girlfriend Jeanette Jenkins; Wanda Sykes and her wife.


  1. Miss Berneta, I loved your blog. Thank you for opening your heart and sharing your story. I think more people will think twice a/b things they say and do.

  2. Thank you for reading, EH! I'm glad to hear that the story spoke to someone.

  3. Miss Berneta, I absolutely LOVE that you shared your experience so openly. I can't speak for all African-Americans, but I do think there is hate associated with being different, and maybe some of the hate stems from how homosexuality was used against blacks not long ago in our past. However, it's in no way fair to direct that hate towards you or the gay community. What I will say is that I admire and respect you for being just who you are and all that you are. Your undying love for your people in spite of their hate towards you is beautiful, and I think you'll find in your work that your people don't hate you the individual once they grow to know you. For those who have shrugged you off as being inhuman or whatever the case maybe just because of your race, gender, or sexual orientation, they are truly missing out on the wonderful person you are. I hope you find some comfort knowing JBT and your African-American SisterBugs are blessed to have you and you're always welcome in our community!

  4. Wow...I can't believe people are still racist! Can't they just open their eyes and stop being asses?

  5. This level of self examination will always be complex and opaque. We are all multi leveled and wear differnt hats. I grew up queer, in a biracial home, so I have a unique peek into racism, and black culture, as an other, as a white woman. One thing that is weird for me is making sure I don't respond back in the grammer my step dad used at home when I speak with strangers. Before I leave you a wall of text let me just say your post was a very intesting read, thank you for sharing. :)

  6. @Ms Mashari: I absolutely LOVE working with Junebug, and am glad that you ladies invited me on. We rock! :D

    @Ella: Yup. It's pretty crazy. I always want to say, "Look dude, it's 2010, get over it."

    @Traveler: Thanks for visiting and sharing your perspective. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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