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"This Is What A Lesbian Looks Like": An Open Letter to Florida Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll

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"The roots of sexism and homophobia are found in the same economic and political institutions that serve as the foundation of racism in this country."
-Professor Angela Y. Davis (Women, Culture and Politics)

"You don't have to live next to me!
Just give me my equality!"
-Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam")

Hi Lt. Governor Carroll,

It's been a long week, yes? Wow.

Well, I'm sure you've heard by now what's been going on but let me introduce myself. My name is Doria Roberts and I'm the person who started the activist hashtag #ThisIsWhatALesbianLooksLike in response to your comment about what black lesbians don't look like -- namely you.

First, I want to say that it was not my intention to shame you and that I want (very badly) to give you the benefit of the doubt. I can't imagine having to defend myself against charges of adultery when I knew myself to be innocent. My wife is my life and anything challenging or questioning my commitment to her or the foundation of our marriage would send me grasping for any and all lifeboats to assure her that I value our union above all.

Now, I'm generally a forgiving person and I know I don't have access to my best self every minute of every day, so I can understand how some of the things you said may have been said under duress as opposed to a deep-seated, polarizing and misguided hate for a group of people you don't even know. I mean, Peter denied Jesus three times. And that was Jesus!

But as I've said, I could only understand some of the things you said.

Please do not confuse my compassion with acceptance.

When I heard the quote "Black women who look like me don't usually engage in those type of relationships (meaning lesbian relationships)" attributed to you as a defense, my first and only thought was "No." Really, just that. No. I wasn't going to allow yet another public figure to offer my life up as a whipping post to absorb their public flogging -- especially one who looked like me.

Yes, despite what you think, Lt. Gov. Carroll, you do look like me.

But more on that later...

When the hashtag started to pick up some steam, I reached out to my own fan base to contribute to the dialogue but implored them not to bash you. I asked them to use their activism and channel their outrage as a "teachable" moment for you and others like you who now will (hopefully) think twice before throwing others in the line of fire to advance their political and/or professional agendas.

After awhile though, I stopped thinking about you (and others like you) and I began to focus instead on the hundreds of smiling faces I was being introduced to through this entirely serendipitous post. All beautiful, all happy.

I started thinking about me and my wife and how, as an interracial lesbian couple living in the southeastern United States, we face the unknowable every day. And, though we are nowhere near the top of the social food chain, we manage to run a successful business together. I'm also musician who travels internationally so there is no option for us to stay inside and hide when things get rough.

We do this, as much as we can, with smiles on our faces. Some days those smiles are hard won, sometimes they don't come at all and some days they come as easy as sunrise despite the fact that we live in a world where it is thought to be a risk to be who we are and an act of courage to simply claim it.

Okay.

That said, let's get to the real talk...

First, a little quiz.

Of the following four names, which one(s) do you recognize and what is the link between them?

Sakia Gunn
Shani Baraka
Rayshon Holmes
Matthew Shepard

Take your time. I'll wait.

Alright, that's silly because I can't really know your answer, right? But I'm going to venture a guess and suppose that you are an average person with average access to and consumption of popular media. If I were to guess your answers based on that criteria, I would project that you didn't know the first three names and probably knew the last one.

The first three names belong to African-American lesbian and bisexual women who were murdered because of their sexuality, gender and/or non-conformity to binary gender stereotypes. The fourth name belongs to a white, young male who was also a murder victim targeted because of his sexuality.

So, if you guessed that they are all members of the LGBT community and all victims of hate crimes you would be correct.

The similarities, however, pretty much end there. According to Lexis/Nexis reports, Sakia's murder generated only 21 stories as opposed to the 659 generated by Matthew's. That is a staggering difference of 638 stories or 30 times more...or less. However you want to look at it.

The point I'm trying to make is that, statistically speaking, hate crimes against lesbians of color are less likely to be covered by major media outlets even when the crime is murder and is provoked by our sexuality.

Put another way:

We (i.e. lesbians of color, queer women of color and black lesbians in particular) are already shouldering epically disproportionate concerns about our visibility without folks like you adding to the load. We are living in a society that almost pathologically refuses to acknowledge our existence... that is, until our existence is perceived as a threat.

Well, I am here to tell you that we are not a threat. Furthermore, we are not your problem. We are your sisters and your belief that we do not look like you has no bearing on the irrefutable fact that you do indeed look like us, whether that "look" is butch, femme, stud, punk, prep or otherwise.


When you say or do things that dehumanize me, you dehumanize yourself. Know that. And, we both know how easily dehumanization leads to invisibility which breeds intolerance which can, in some cases, as evidenced by the headlines pouring out of Colorado this weekend, justify senseless acts of violence.


--------

The quote I used to open this letter is a quote by Sister Angela Davis (no introduction necessary here, I hope) and is one I use in a song of mine called "Because." I use the quote to invoke and inspire a call to multi-issue activism because I often see in my divergent communities a lack of "cross-pollination." I want to see more LGBT outlets and organizations reporting on and standing in solidarity with the black community for cases like Trayvon Martin without having to be reminded. Conversely, I want to see black publications giving Sakia, Shani and Rayshon their due. And on and on and on...

I've thought a lot about you and me this week and how possibly, at the intersection of our struggles, we could find some common ground. I thought about the paths of Professor Davis and Condoleeza Rice Rice. Did you know that they grew up approximately 15 miles apart in Alabama and both cite the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church as the impetus for their respective activist efforts. (Yeeesss, Condi is an activist too. Don't get it twisted, folks.) While they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, they are still part of the same sorority and that is one that cannot afford to be fractured just so that you can save face.

I can only imagine what it would take for a black woman to make it to where you are now, one of the highest ranking officials in Florida. Florida!

But, you know, I don't have to imagine it. I'm living it. I know what it's like to tirelessly search for your own voice and, after finding it, having to then find an audience for it. What I've learned is that sometimes you don't look like your audience and they don't look like you. And that's okay. Never take for granted the potential of your reach. While diversity can make this land we live in hard to bear, it's also what makes it... brilliant.

What an amazing opportunity and time we have and live in. We should be celebrating that as allies -- not senselessly sparring as adversaries.

Ultimately, what I'd like for you to take away from this experience is an understanding of how easily words, both yours and mine (28 total. Yes, I counted. I'm a Virgo. What's your sign?), can change the landscape of visibility for people who are not only surviving but living full lives on the so-called "fringes of society".

Remember that only four or so years ago, people would have said that men who look like President Obama (with names like Barack, Barack!) don't become President of the United States. They would have been wrong. Like, really wrong.

Remember these names: Sakia, Shani, Rayshon, Matthew and the thousands of names that go unaccounted for. Mourn the loss of their potential, their youth and the loss of their "becoming."

Remember the faces of the hundreds (hundreds!) of women who stood up to be counted after you unceremoniously discounted them. Commit them to memory.

Remember how small thinking and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes can get in the way of our progress. Dare I say, even perhaps our very evolutionary process?

Most importantly, remember that you are, in the end, a public servant and that because you have used my life as a punching bag your legacy is in danger of becoming a punch line.

Okay, then. I'm going to go now. We both have work to do.

I just wanted to let you know that (as my grandmother would say) "Imma be alright" because the fringes can be fabulous and the water is just fine....

Yours in sisterhood,
Doria

See the slideshow inspired by #ThisIsWhatALesbianLooksLike below:

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