The future study of black sexualities

Becoming acquainted with queer-of-color analysis as academic theory has allowed me articulate the frustration that I had felt for a long time but could never quite pinpoint with the mainstream LGBT movement. My vexations peaked while marching with the API (Asian Pacific Islander) contingent at the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade last June, as I watched the city erupt with confetti and cheers and corporate sponsors from Bank of America to Wells Fargo lined the streets with their promotional booths. The next day, I went to the Dyke March that took place at Dolores Park, a historic and rare green space in the heart of the rapidly gentrifying Mission District. The entire story of modern San Francisco, as well as the entire Bay, is intimately bound up with the continual influx of the predominantly white and professional LGBT population that has driven up rent prices to what many working-class people of color can no longer afford. I was working as an organizing fellow at a labor center in Chinatown that summer and engaged with countless immigrant families who struggled with the rising costs of housing and living. Low-income queer people of color have long written their history into the lifeblood of the Bay Area; they are among the folks being gentrified out of their communities. It was jarring for me to reconcile that reality with rainbows, sparkles, and a pink-washed declaration of queer pride.

Who is this for?

Who is this for? Picture from The San Francisco Gate.

Black sexualities as a field bursts with possibility and what Cathy Cohen aptly terms “the radical potential of queer politics”. Queer-of-color analysis that privileges racism and class exploitation as central features of heteropatriarchy in advanced capitalism is absolutely essential to building a more inclusive and responsive LGBT movement. We desperately need a movement that remembers the intersectional experiences of queer people of color and listens to the voices at the margins: the black drag queen, the prostitute, transmen and women who navigate an additional set of challenges, homeless queer youth all over. I believe that the critical examination of black sexualities harbors the capacity to expand the definitive boundaries of “queer” in ways that restore a compassionate and politicized vision to queer activism. Because we have got to be leading a pretty damn insulated and privileged existence for sexuality to be the sole determinant of our identity. Because this is an issue of both bread-and-butter and life-and-death. Because, in words borrowed from a spoken word poem by Stanford University students entitled “Queer Rage”:

There is something beautiful about being lied to
Rainbows are just a trick of light
They make us forget the storm is still happening,
When walking towards the end of the rainbow, it will always move away.

Very recently, a good friend of mine forwarded me an open letter from San Francisco Pride at Work. It was a deeply reflective piece announcing its decision to temporarily cease all operations to engage in self-evaluation. As the letter states: “Some of us are now moving into a collective accountability process. We do so with hope that, as people who are committed to working toward collective liberation, we can struggle together through hard conversations about how white supremacy and racism manifest themselves in our organizational structures, organizing efforts and ourselves.” Reading the letter gave me hope. I am optimistic that queer activism, through this kind of difficult but necessary introspection and personal assessment, can ultimately achieve its potential. I am optimistic that the study of black sexualities can provide the theoretical support for praxis that does not aim for assimilation into a racist and exploitative status quo, but envisions an alternative future. I had never been more proud of San Francisco queer politics.

Some more thoughts on these entries…

My writing throughout this course, Black Sexualities at Amherst College, has mirrored my struggle to situate black sexualities—as an academic field, mode of inquiry, and call to action—within a larger social and political context. When we read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice earlier in the semester, I attempted to link the virulently sexist and homophobic elements of his work back into the historical subjectivity of black manhood. But what complicates any interpretation of Cleaver’s thoughts is the evident disconnect between his objectification of women in general and his heartfelt apologies to black women in the concluding chapter. Any effort to understand the nuances of American black masculinities and femininities must be rigorously informed by an examination of both systemic and internalized racism. I am left wondering if the distance between Cleaver’s musings and the principles of black feminism is not actually as far as that between queer-of-color liberation and the white LGBT movement.

I had been excited to read Audre Lorde all along and the intensity and passions conveyed in Zami did not disappoint. Her characterization of eroticism as power encapsulates the very nature of the personal-as-political ideal. This distinction that differentiates the erotic from the pornographic, the sensual and the purely sexual, marks the thin line that divides exploitation and affirmative power. I found that concept essential to deconstructing Iceberg Slim’s Mama Black Widow, a striking reminder of the ostracization that occurs even at the margins of the mainstream. Otis Tilson’s brutal experiences attest to the persistence of boundaries even in spaces already defined as non-normative.

The latter half of the course crystallized my understanding of the complexities inherent in building a queer-of-color movement accountable to our greater communities. Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness illuminates the social and cultural barriers that inhibit the amalgamation of the AIDS movement with black political organizing. The failure of traditional African American institutions to perceive intersectionality and AIDS as more than a LGBT issue reflects a problematic framing rooted in our tendency to categorize and separate. In many ways, I feel like analyzing Siobhan Brooks’ Unequal Desires ties in the conceptual fragments from the semester, highlighting the primacy of race, gender and sexuality, but as qualifiers to the development of modern capitalism. Such a systemic critique of the status quo political economy and its impact on human sexuality is precisely what queer activism today needs.

Race and sexuality in capitalism

Contrary to dominant conceptions of female sex workers, the black and Latina exotic dancers who inform Siobhan Brooks’ analyses in Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry exercise agency over their personal and workplace lives in ways reminiscent of the Brazilian travestis Don Kulick interviewed. Employees at Conquest for instance, are excruciatingly aware of the exchange of cultural capital that undergirds performer-customer relations and frequently utilize the social dynamics to further their personal aspirations. Monique, a black dancer and a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, takes care to approach customers who “do portfolios for free [even though they] also want sex in exchange for their help” (Brooks, 40). Melissa, a Puerto Rican coat checker, similarly hopes that this job experience in customer service will supplement her studies in hotel management (39). These women who choose to work at Conquest hold an acute consciousness of their subjectivity and their potential to gain from the situation. They are willing participants in the conversion of their erotic assets into cultural capital—and usually remain astute throughout the process. One particular dancer who is completing her master’s degree accepts the help of an older Jewish man in paying her rent and with her English pronunciation, all the while recognizing “the power he exercises” and “the importance of never having sex with the customers as a way to ensure that she is getting what she needs from the relationship” (46-47).

In the context of the black lesbian club Girlielicious in Oakland, taking control of personal agency manifests in different ways for both dancers and the women who frequent the venue. The physical space itself has transformed into an essential place “for poor/working-class queer Blacks to be out and meet each other, unlike in their everyday lives, where many of them are closeted for fear of violence and/or of being ostracized within the larger community in which they live” (53). The line between stripper and customer in this case becomes increasingly blurry, as all of the queer women—regardless of their specific roles or positions—value the spatial significance of the club for comparable reasons. For experienced lesbian stripper Spice, dancing at Girlielicious is preferable to working in straight clubs: “I like dancing for women because the space allows for more creativity and theatrical performances and costumes. I also design clothes, and want to start my own clothing line, so I like designing my own costumes” (58). The relative autonomy and comfort that queer black dancers find at a venue like Girlielicious is what sets such clubs apart and grants the women an additional form of gratification.

It is undoubtedly important to acknowledge that significant barriers tied to racialized ideals of beauty compound factors like class and citizenship to complicate the sex industry for queer/poor/women of color. But Brooks’ research dispels the myths of victimhood for female sex workers and highlights the extraordinary agency these dancers wield and their resourcefulness in negotiating systemic discrimination. Mainstream white feminism has often argued that “women cannot assert agency within sexual economies [and] are victimized and/or controlled by heterosexual male desire that is not in the best interest of women” (5). Such an understanding, sadly, is informed by a simplistic and categorical conception of a blanket divide between male customers and female strippers when the racial, economic, and social reality possesses so many more nuances. Female dancers are generally aware of the ways in which they stand to gain or lose from and their unique position in the exchange of erotic and cultural capital.

Black communities and the framing of AIDS

A recurrent theme that I found particularly pertinent throughout Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness is the tremendous influence of issue-framing on community mobilization against the AIDS epidemic. The public and private perception of AIDS as a problem facing only a marginalized and specific subsection of the black community—gay men and injection drug abusers—relegate the disease outside the narrow constraints of what Cohen calls “consensus issues”. A historical “process of stratification and intersection…in which issues are no longer understood as all-encompassing racial issues or experienced by all community members similarly” has inhibited the formation of a more coherent blueprint for black activism around AIDS (Cohen, 13).  Not only has AIDS been framed as a “cross-cutting issue” that affects a particular group of African Americans, the social ostracization of their identity further hindered prospects for community-wide solidarity and organizing.

The very economic and political context of 1980s black America rendered unity increasingly difficult. With the advent of both deindustrialization and suburbanization, African Americans across the country “witnessed the continuing bifurcation of black communities, illustrated most noticeably in the intensified division between an expanding black middle class and expanding numbers of black poor” (91). Compounding this rupture is the persistent invisibility of black gays and lesbians, in particular those who are a part of the urban poor or the working class. Kimberle Crenshaw’s conception of intersectionality can be exceptionally helpful to understanding the construction of AIDS as a singular issue affecting gay men, whose sexuality automatically alienated them from the greater black community.

As a result of the Center for Disease Control’s biased research, AIDS became essentially framed as an issue for gay white men. Subsequently, “African Americans came to see this disease as something they did not need to be concerned about, something completely outside of their communities” (139). This problematic publicity surrounding the epidemic in the 1980s—largely a product of corporate and state irresponsibility—undermined the potential for mobilization of the black community around AIDS on any scale. Even stories about AIDS from “left-oriented publications [were] produced primarily by lesbian and gay publications” (241). The disease became perceived to be outside the realm of the normalized black experience.

The treatment of victims further revealed the deep-seated issues within the framing of AIDS that inhibited broad-scale activism. When Magic Johnson announced his HIV-positive status on national television, the press responded not with an acknowledgment that the disease can be contracted by anyone but rather with rumors about his bisexuality. Even when the media did humanize the illness, the discourse narrowly bestowed the status of rightful victimhood to black women and children. It is in this context that the proposed needle exchange program in New York City came under controversy: “black officials seemed to engage in a calculus of human worth, where the lives of ‘innocent’ children and ‘regular, law-abiding community folk’ were designated as more important and worth saving than the lives of black injection drug users” (344). Such a fallacious framing of AIDS obstructed the unification of the African American activist community more than homophobia or the lack of financial resources ever did.

Going past gay marriage and assimilationist politics

Republican politicians like Senator Rob Portman have announced their support of same-sex marriage in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s hearings on Proposition 8 in California and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Social media has been overtaken by the statuses and tweets of everyday Americans who stand for marriage equality. But serving as foil to this burgeoning optimism about LGBT rights are the critiques from queer-of-color groups that simply extending heteronormative privileges to gays and lesbians do not fundamentally alter the social and economic systems that marginalize those who stand outside the accepted ideals about gender and sexuality. I am particularly struck by a line from a spoken word poem entitled “Queer Rage” published this morning: “Rainbows are just refracted beams of white light.” It was incredibly refreshing to see that there exists a network of radical queer activists who espouse marriage equality as a civil right but recognize also the shortcomings of framing it as a singular issue. A glitter and sparkles LGBT movement that has ignored race and class, forgotten the atrocious violence still being committed against gay and especially trans people of color, and become wholly commercialized cannot speak for all of us.

This schism between the mainstream LGBT organizations and liberals who celebrate marriage equality and queer-of-color activists who speak out against the allure of homonormativity harkens back to Cathy Cohen’s discussion about the radical potential of queer politics. I concede the truths in Cohen’s observation that queer activism has too often cemented the division between gay and straight and divorced itself from a left ideology oriented around systems change. But as I read the torrent of critiques and admonition today from queer activists that deploy a structural analysis of the power dynamics that must be uprooted to really achieve an inclusive liberation, I wonder also if queer activism has become more responsive to its political potential since the 1990s when Cohen wrote her article.

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When I consider Don Kulick’s ethnography of Brazilian travestis in this greater context of the oppression levied against gender and sexuality non-conformists, it emerges as evermore apparent that the legal recognition of gay marriage in the United States will go only so far in challenging the popular conceptions and institutions that enable inequality on a global scale. Internalized notions about female inferiority and gender roles underlie so many of the travestis’ problematic relationships with their boyfriends. Inadequate access to and false beliefs about contraception fuel travestis’ disproportionately high rates of HIV/AIDS infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. Status quo assumptions about gender and sex severely limit economic opportunities for travestis outside of prostitution. These concurrent issues must be affirmed and addressed with a socio-cultural understanding of the larger oppressive structures that dictate normative values. The story of the LGBT movement in the U.S. runs along a similar trajectory: tackling marriage equality as a problem in itself accomplishes nothing to liberate queer people from the political and economic institutions that hurt our communities, health, and sense of self.

Boundaries of queerness

The elaborate nexus of oppressions, both internalized and structural, that figure concurrently in Otis Tilson’s life capture the dynamic nature of intersectionality. Iceberg Slim establishes early in the preface that “The dialogue is in the gut idiom of the queer—the black ghetto—the Deep South—the underworld” (13). It becomes clear that homosexual behavior was never the sole characteristic that demarcated Tilly as “queer” but the interplay of poverty and brutality that fenced even his heterosexual family members outside the boundaries of normativity. The backdrop of the 1960s Chicago race riots further frames the narrative not as an individual story of personal tragedy but a chronicle of continual engagement with exclusive social conventions in every realm that possess significant limitations.

Racism does not merely function to entrench the hierarchy of white over black with the former privileged as normative. It additionally engenders internal inferiority complexes and divisions amongst those outside these barriers. The intense mistrust of middle-class blacks on the part of working-class African Americans can only be matched by the outright hostility more financially and socially established blacks display towards the recent migrants from the South. Mama, for instance, feels the need to remind Tilly repeatedly about Dorcas and her family: “A slum fellow like you don’t have a chance with a girl like that. Her father will see to it. If anyone despises poor niggers more than the dirty white folks, it’s so called high class niggers like him” (188). This animosity is reciprocated. Dorcas’s father indeed holds poor African American migrants in deep distrust, ordering Tilly to “Stay away from my daughter…I don’t want her associating with low life cotton picking niggers from Mississippi” (198). These borders within non-normative spaces define Tilly’s experiences. His position, truly at the intersection of various systems of subordination, attests to the full complexity of “queer” struggle and community.

The reality of power and normativity are similarly blurred in Tilly’s encounter and sexual assault at Lovell’s hands. While Lovell also falls outside conventional categories as a physically deformed and violent rapist, it is arguably his cisgendered and heterosexual identity that empowers his atrocious crime. As he terrorizes and rapes Tilly, Lovell roars: “Git them clothes off, freak, and git in that bed before I stomp you into a puddle of yellow shit” (39). The naming of Tilly as “freak” in this context gives incredible insight into the psychological underpinnings that leads Lovell to believe he has such unrestrained access to a homosexual drag queen’s body. Upon reading and re-reading this haunting exchange, I also immediately recall Hortense Spiller’s writing about misnaming, ungendering, and the potentially dehumanizing impact of terminology and discourse. The various ways in which naming is deployed to justify aggression even within extra-normative spaces and communities in Mama Black Widow thus serves as a timely reminder that the boundary between “queer” and “normativity” has never been, nor will ever be, a straight one-stroke line.

 

Feelings of the erotic

I am struck by how Audre Lorde strips away all pretenses to lay bare her vulnerabilities and hence, her humanity—in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She conveys her feelings in their full momentary intensity in ways that leave me envisioning every episode with myself as the narrator. Paying homage to the friends and strangers who have shaped her identity in the opening pages of her stories, she describes the night a desperate white girl, presumably a victim of domestic violence, turned down her help upon seeing her black face. But the incident itself does not jolt me so much as Lorde’s confession that “In the rearview mirror I saw the substance of her nightmare catch up with her at the corner—leather jack and boots, male and white. I drove on, knowing she would probably die stupid” (5). This visceral reaction to such a blatant expression of racism is exceedingly realistic. I can only imagine myself, in the same situation, giving in to similar passionate frustration if my genuine desire to alleviate the suffering of a fellow sister is thus spurned.

Lorde’s recounting of the class president election in middle school exemplifies what I find to be a unique characteristic of her writing: the gradual, subtle revelation of her own misgivings and faults that render her work all the more personable. She very frankly concedes that she resorted to stealing as a coping strategy for the circumstances she was in, recognizing that “The only way I could get attention from my classmates in the sixth grade was by having money, and thanks to carefully planned forays into my father’s pants pockets every night that week, I made sure I had plenty” (61). After all, it is only her stolen bounty that secures her a nomination. Meanwhile, Lorde makes sure to contextualize her actions as rational response to the demeaning environment in which she had to learn. She records in explicit detail the racism at St. Mark’s School that was “unadorned, unexcused, and particularly painful because I was unprepared for it” (59). As I read about the repeated microaggressions the young Audre Lorde had to endure, I necessarily begin to disregard her “immoral” decision to steal and value instead her audacity to run for class president and conceive a different future.

Lorde recalls her sexual awakening and physical coming-of-age with excruciating language that encapsulates her call for the integration of the spiritual and the political in “Uses of the Erotic as Power”. As she pounds garlic with mortar after her first menstruation, she feels “a vital connection seemed to establish itself between the muscles of my fingers…and the molten core of my body whose source emanated from a new ripe fullness just below the pit of my stomach” (78). The intensity of feeling in this passage—of a young girl in shock and wonder at her sexuality—defines the essence of harnessing the erotic as positive power. Lorde’s passing to womanhood is clearly an affirmative personal experience. Her sexuality is empowering because in between her hips was “a tiding ocean of blood beginning to be made real and available to me for strength and information” (78). Lorde appeals women to (re)claim the erotic for it “offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough”. Her acute, burgeoning understanding of physicality and womanhood provides a compelling illustration of the potential for fulfillment untapped in every body. Like she exhorts all women to do, Lorde does not censor her innermost desires and trusts instead her instinct to reach deep within herself to find the most transcendent form of gratification.