One snowy night in January, I went to visit Elizabeth Bennett and Tracy Douglas. Elizabeth is an administrative assistant and Tracy is a dental assistant. This working-class couple and their two children (from Tracy's prior heterosexual relationship) share an apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. They invited me to a card party, and when I arrived there were about 10 other black and Latina lesbians there. In one of the bedrooms, several children were playing games and watching television. I left their home with a better knowledge of how to play spades, but also with a realization that I knew very little about their lives and experiences as lesbian women. As a group they were particularly invisible, both to larger LGBT groups and activists and to the larger African-American and Latino communities they lived in as well.
I wrote Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood Among Black Women as a corrective to the focus of the media, LGBT activists and scholars of LGBT life on white, middle-class groups, and the persistent lack of information on gay women of color. I followed more than 100 middle-class and working-class black lesbians for three years and found that the structure of their family lives is grounded in African-American culture. The women in my book grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in large cities, small Southern towns and the Caribbean. One of my principal findings is that these women live in black communities, not "gay ghettos," and that social location shapes their identities, family formation, and other understandings in ways that differ from some white LGBT people. Reports by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law confirm that like the women I interviewed, LGBT people of color in general tend to live in areas where there are significant concentrations of other racial/ethnic minorities. This is different from the general patterns of white gay couples, who are more likely to live in areas with significant concentrations of other LGBT people.
For the women I interviewed, their experiences and the larger histories of black women in the labor market, in families, and in religious and other cultural institutions shape their lives as gay women. For example, I found that black lesbians are likely to have developed their same-sex desire within black social spaces and black neighborhoods, outside the ideologies of lesbian-feminism, and are more likely than some white lesbians to use gender presentation as a way to construct their relationships, with one partner consistently dressing in ways that are distinctly more feminine than the other.
Not surprisingly, relative to white women, black lesbians more purposefully consider racial identity and racial group membership in their creation of a lesbian sexuality. For example, while some white women may form a lesbian identity that rejects participation with elder family members or the community church, many of the women I interviewed shaped their lesbian identities to either preserve or recreate those relationships that are important to racial group membership. While Williams Institute analyses have revealed that black women in same-sex couples are more than twice as likely as white women to be raising children under 18, I also found that children in black lesbian households tend not to track mainstream stories of lesbians having children through (often expensive) alternative insemination methods. Instead, they're doing it the old-fashioned way: the most frequent route to motherhood among the women I interviewed is through a prior heterosexual relationship before accepting a gay sexuality.
This difference in conception can also impact the power dynamics between two mothers. The biological mother of the children often ends up having more of a say in the household, not just about the needs of the children but also about household organization, money management and other areas of home life. The partner's lack of a legal tie to the family further reduces her power in the relationship. This finding has important consequences for the stability of lesbian couples who have children in this way.
Reports by the Williams Institute further reveal important economic differences among same-sex couples by race. Relative to white couples, black couples are less likely to own their own homes, less likely to be employed, and more likely to live in poverty. In terms of socio-economic characteristics, they have more in common with the black communities in which they live than with the LGBT community overall. For these women, like other LGBT people of color, their sexual orientation does not provide them with a magic pass to the mythical world of rich, white gay affluence.
The women I interviewed are the types of lesbian families that are "invisible" to many LGBT scholars, activists and organization leaders, and one consequence of this invisibility is a failure to understand how they differ from more visible members of the LGBT community and determine which issues are important for their happiness and success. By ignoring LGBT people of color and their families, the movement stifles its own growth and leaves behind significant populations that are very much in need of visibility, advocacy and equal treatment.
Many public policy implications emerge from these data. Because black same-sex couples are more economically disadvantaged on average than are white same-sex couples, at the same time that they are more likely to be raising children, they are disproportionately harmed by laws that limit access of sexual minorities to certain rights, like the ability to foster and adopt children or to include children they co-parent with a same-sex partner on their health insurance plans. Such laws are most prevalent in Southern states with the largest black populations and the highest rates of parenting among black same-sex couples. When we do not understand the totality of who our families are and the needs they have, we reduce the effectiveness of the larger strategies we promote for LGBT empowerment.
A 2009 report by the Human Rights Campaign on LGBT people of color concluded that "diversity is a reality but inclusion is the real challenge." LGBT people of color are simultaneously present and excluded in the neighborhoods where they live and in mainstream LGBT organizations. They might be more active in promoting LGBT advocacy efforts if they felt those efforts included their voices and incorporated more of the issues that are important to them. My hope is that this work will encourage LGBT organizations to reach out more to people of color, and in collaboration find the best way to integrate the diverse representations of LGBT people in our portraits of the community and better address the multiple and diverse needs that exist.
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