Over the last few weeks I’ve been grappling with just what to write. What should I say about what it means to me to be a Black lesbian living in the United States? Intellectually, the short answer would probably have had something to do with the trials, tribulations, and joys of simultaneously belonging to three marginalized groups: Black, female, and lesbian (in no particular order). Still, that seemed too broad of a topic. So I peeled away at the layers and labels that make me, me. I began to think I’d talk about the (perceived) perks and daily burdens of being a Black femme lesbian…Lord knows there is plenty that comes along with that label. There’s even more that travels with the femme who is in love and in relationship with the self-identified “butch.” But that’s another story.
Ironically and in retrospect, the last few days have pretty much been about how I, a Black lesbian—often stereotyped as man-hater—have had to assist three males in my life with interpretations of gayness and how my own homosexuality as a Black lesbian has influenced, impacted, and informed these experiences.
It began with a phone call from my foster care agency. A white adolescent male needed a placement and they thought he would be a great fit for my partner and me. We’ve been together for almost 20 years now and became therapeutic foster parents shortly after moving from New York to North Carolina. Moving from the Big Apple to the Bible Belt made the void of foster families that are accepting and supportive of LGBT youth frightfully apparent. As one of the only two gay foster parenting families our agency has, we work to fill that void. In our home is acceptance and love without judgment—we allow the focus to be on the child’s healing and behavior, not their sexual orientation.
Now, I can’t give you too many details about the situation surrounding this child’s case what with confidentiality and all. But suffice it to say, this was yet another child coming from an environment where religious parents vehemently refused to accept them. What made this case different, though, was the mother’s involvement. She interviewed the potential foster families for her son.
During two conversations—one a conference call including six others—she and I talked. We talked about her son, her fear of going to Hell over having a child who “practiced homosexuality”, her anger with the therapist who told her she was “being contradictory” when she told her son, “I love you for who you are, you just can’t be gay in my house”, and many other things. The conference call was our last telephone conversation prior to the placement. It ended with her breaking down in tears of gratitude for my willingness to accept her son into our home. She said God had answered her prayers…through me. Wow! That was big. Even bigger, however, was the fact that this woman was entrusting me with the care of her child, all the while completely unaware that she was speaking to a lesbian. I hung up the phone thinking, Yes! God has answered your prayers – let’s just hope you continue to believe that once you learn that your son will be residing with Black lesbians for next few months. Thankfully, she found out that my partner and I are lesbians prior to the placement and decided that we were still the best choice. Surprise and oh happy day! Evolution can occur when you least expect it. So we met at a café, the mom, her son, an agency caseworker, and I. When the meeting ended, mother and son embraced, said a tearful “see you soon”, and the caseworker drove the son and me to the house that would be his new home.
In the days that followed I had many feelings about how my trifecta of marginalization had assisted me in empathizing with this child’s mother, and how it helped me impart LGBT history and community intricacies to her son. That’s when it hit me: try not to stress and just keep being you…keep loving, caring, and educating from as pure of a place as possible. I mean, I’m only human, and there are times when this young man and I have conversations that require me to check my historical baggage at the door. Through no fault of his own I find myself fighting the feeling of being caught in a rewinding of history, so to speak. It’s nauseating, the feeling that I’ve ended up in some mammy role from a 1940’s film. You know, the ones where Black women nursed and educated white children who would later grow up to cut off the very breast that fed them (metaphorically speaking…mostly). Needless to say, my fear of nurturing a child who could grow up to become an oppressive adult surpassing me, his Black female caretaker, socially, economically and politically, is a fear that is rooted in America’s history of oppressing and degrading “others.”
And it’s very real. Now, you can say I’m reaching here if you want to. But the fact still exists that the same socioeconomic hierarchy that exists in hetero-America also exists in LGBT America…white males on top. (No slight intended towards my Black Gay Brothahs who are “tops”, but I digress.) As a reasonably intelligent woman, I try not to let my fears, historical baggage, or any other negative factors impact how I parent. And I do try. At the end of the day, it’s my trifecta that has placed me in a position to provide a nurturing experience this child wouldn’t receive in his own home.
In addition to fostering, I have two adult male children of my own so I’d like to think that I know a little something about parenting. Rest assured, rearing them has not been an easy task. They are man-children, living in a world that seems to not appreciate, love, or encourage them. That has always been a greater issue in my parenting than I believe my lesbianism ever could be. The day after I had the foster care conference call, and having no knowledge of the pending placement or my angst with writing this article, my eldest son sent me a text message. He’s twenty-nine years old, tweets a lot, considers himself a feminist, and is always up for a good debate. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if his text to me was inspired by a debate, or by someone’s anti-gay twitter post:
You being a lesbian has helped me because to have someone
so close to me, in my life, someone that I care about be a member of
the LGBT community – helps me to see the LGBT community
as human. It puts a familiar face on all of the struggles, when
before all I saw was an avatar of social injustice, oppression and discrimination. If I can get the message out how
the LGBT community is as human as everyone else then a lot of
the problems would disappear, gradually on its own.
Yeah. That was surely one of those heartwarming, proud mama moments I relish and hold on to for dear life.
As for my younger son, the twenty-three-year-old, he’s grown up with my partner and me and never seemingly had a problem with our lesbianism. In fact, if you really want to annoy him, just imply that any of his angst-filled teenaged antics were a result of having a lesbian mom. He once cut off a psychoanalyst in mid-sentence for “going there.” He abruptly told her to get over herself. “It ain’t got nothing to do with the fact that my mom and aunt (as he calls my partner) are lesbian, except they’re both in my business and both always trying to tell me what to do!” And that’s exactly how I wish the ten-year-old nephew we’re raising would feel: annoyed by our attentiveness, but not shamed or embarrassed by “gayness.”
Instead, my nephew is discovering what it means to be male from peers who use “That’s so gay” and “You must be gay” as the biggest insult they can hurl. Case in point: the day my son sent me that text was the same day that my nephew was suspended from riding the school bus for almost a week. Why? Because he punched a child who was taunting him. “You suck d*ck and you lick balls!” the child had said over and over again in what I imagine was an irksome, sing-song voice. My nephew, immediately making the connection (in his mind) that he was being accused of gayness, felt compelled to punch the boy. Well, during this lil’ school bus slugfest, the other child ended up with a busted lip, leaving my nephew’s budding masculinity intact and his victim with a lesson well-learned. At least that’s what my nephew was going for.
As I spoke with the school’s behavior specialist (who is essentially yesterday’s school security guard), it was clear he “could understand why my nephew did this and might feel the same if someone insulted him like that.” Sorrowful and frustrated, I quickly understood that the only reason my nephew was being suspended from the school bus was “protocol.” Throughout all of the “specialist’s” understanding and empathy, not one mention was made of the other child’s vulgar and inappropriate language. There was also no mention of the insensitivity of “gay” being used as an insult. That didn’t matter though, because as you might imagine, I used the school bus incident as discussion fodder.
When my nephew arrived home from school that day I asked him to recount the day’s events. He did, and that’s when I began probing. I kept asking him things like, “What about the comment made you feel like you needed to hit that kid?” He side-stepped by saying, “He was teasing me.” My nephew is a pretty bright child, so I know he knew where I was going with this. Eventually he came along and somberly admitted that the sexually explicit comment implied he was gay. At only ten years old, he wasn’t able to fully articulate his internal struggle. Shit, he couldn’t even fully identify his feelings, but it was obvious to me that he was struggling—torn between loving friends and family who are gay and jumping onto the bandwagon of homophobia and male prowess insecurity.
So after a brief kitchen table Q & A session about how gayness is so much more than sex, we continued to talk. Well, I did most of the talking. He mostly gave short, muffled answers that screamed, “Auntie please let it go!” But I couldn’t, so I kept asking questions and kept prompting him to think critically about things. Things like mental connections between sexual acts and gayness, how he’d handle having a gay friend, and why violence was not an appropriate response to the child’s implication. In the end, which I’m pleased to say was only about fifteen minutes later, I went into my room to process the day’s events by telephoning my brother.
My brother is the most accepting and supportive knucklehead I know. We often joke about how lucky we are that we actually like each other. At least that’s how I interpret his loving “a’ight, shorty” at the end of our phone calls. He’s a great brother, a good husband, an excellent father, and quite a pragmatic fellow. I can almost always count on him for an objective opinion. On this particular day he was empathetic to the plight of both my nephew and me. From my nephew’s view he lamented how difficult it is for pre-pubescent little Black boys to navigate the social waters of making friends and wanting to be accepted while straining to conform to what the world says they are, gender norms and stereotypes included. As for me, a parent always walking in the truth of my trifecta, he understood my concerns. He sympathized with my challenge—a challenge I willingly embrace. In doing so, when I think about what it means for me to be a Black lesbian, it’s not purely my trifecta that informs how I move through the world or even how I’m perceived for that matter. It’s so much more. And that week, it was about how all that Blackness, all that Womaness, and all that Lesbianism was manifested through the men in my life, for they are the fathers, sons, brothers and nephews of tomorrow’s Black lesbians.
How’s that for irony?
Listen to more of L’Monique’s story of being a Black lesbian mother in her spoken word poem, “Status Update.”