No Shame Today, or Any Day

In honor of The Siwe Project’s #NoShame day, I thought I’d pay tribute to my dear friend Dee who suffered from depression.  It’s hard to know where to start: Dee was one of the smartest, most vivacious people I know.  She was an out Black lesbian, and was a great comfort to me when I was going through the process of coming out with my own family.  We’d talk for hours, and many a night we’d stay up until the wee hours of the night with our other friends drinking coffee, playing spades, and talking shit.  Dee thought I was smart as a whip, and encouraged me to finish my B.A., even though at the time I was working a full-time corporate job and raising my young daughter as a single parent. She believed I could do anything I set my mind to, and I dare say she had me convinced too.

But Dee could “act the fool” too.  More times than I care to remember I’d get a call from another dear friend (he lived across the street from Dee and her partner), telling me that there had been an “incident” and he’d had to go over and try to help out.  Dee was notorious for her sharp wit and even sharper tongue. None of us ever wanted to get on her bad side, because we’d seen the havoc she could wreak on the uninitiated and we also knew that there was more to Dee than met the eye.  What I didn’t realize until later was that Dee’s “acting the fool” was linked to her depression and to the periods of time when she’d be off of her medication, and that sometimes resulted in erratic behavior.

When I met Dee, she was on disability, she had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and was on a couple of different medications, whose names I cannot now recall. All I remember is that at some point, Dee talked to me about how the depression made her feel and how she hated it.  I couldn’t understand it at the time, I just knew that when she took her meds she was ok, and when she didn’t, she wasn’t. For me it was a no-brainer.  However, I now realize it was so much more complicated than that.  Dee’s depression was debilitating; some day’s she just couldn’t get off the couch.  The meds she was taking didn’t always help, she said they made her feel like a zombie, which made it even harder for her to function.

My friend was suffering, suffering from demons I cannot hope to describe in this blog post, but I know that at some point it all got to be too much.  The meds, the doctor’s visits, and grappling with memories of emotional and physical abuse, had gotten to be more than Dee could handle and she suffered a nervous breakdown.  After a 48-hour hold in a local state mental hospital, we hoped that Dee would get treatment that would help to stabilize her and help her to function as “normally” as possible.  For a while things seemed to be getting better: she enrolled in our local university, bought a new car, and seemed to be doing well. Then, four months later, another, harder crash.  Dee was hospitalized for an extended period of time, but this time, in a private facility with a more treatment options, and we hoped, a better outlook for her future.

In early January, 2004, my friend went out to her storage shed, put a gun in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.  The initial gunshot wound didn’t kill her, but five days later her family took her off life support. Her partner of ten years was not allowed to have any say in the decision. In fact, after the shooting, they ran her out of her own house and treated her like a criminal.

Dee planned her death carefully: She made sure that her son would not find her body, and she had even laid out the clothes she wanted to be buried in.  She had left a note for her partner in the bathroom, she knew that would be the first place “A.” would go when she came in from work.  Our friend “T.” from across the street found her in the shed; her son “M.” wandered over there looking for her as he often did after school, since Dee would sometimes walk over for coffee and a chat in the afternoon.

I’ll never forget the impact that Dee had on my life; she’s one of the reasons I decided to pursue the Ph.D.; she believed I had something to contribute even when I wasn’t so sure myself.  She also helped me to understand the impact that depression and mental illness have on a person’s life, and that no, you can’t just get over it.  Related to this are the ways in which Dee’s lesbian identity and same-sex relationship impacted her family’s reaction to her depression.  They refused to help Dee when she reached out to them, and they made medical and other legal decisions that rightfully should have been left to her partner. She left instructions for “A.” that her family simply ignored because they weren’t legally married and because they didn’t “approve” of her relationship.  I know that Dee would be pleased to know that same-sex marriage has been made legal in some states, and that people are working to eradicate the second-class citizenship status that many LGBT persons still experience everyday.

Dee was my friend and I miss her terribly.  I like to think that she would be proud of me; she’s one of the reasons that I’m committed to writing about Black lesbian experiences.  No blog post could ever do her justice, but I hope that in sharing a little of her story, I can help raise awareness about mental illness in our communities.

What’s in a Name?

So, check this out:  I’m a member of a couple of Black lesbian groups (mainly social, mainly women over 30), and yesterday’s question for discussion was as follows:  “What type of women do you go for, passive, submissive, aggressive, or a combination of all three?”

My answer was short and sweet: “I like assertive women, not aggressive, with a soft side.” Only one other person in the conversation noted that the labels or descriptors seemed a bit limiting, and mentioned that she didn’t like any of them.  I actually started composing a longer response that mentioned that all of these adjectives/labels had pretty negative connotations, but as I scrolled down and read the rest of the responses, I decided just to let it go.  And to be honest with y’all, I know this conversation has gotten a little tired. Still, it was messing with me, so I decided to write a little about it here and see what y’all think.  To give you a little context, here’s a smattering of what I read: “I like my women submissive, except in the bedroom.”  I like them smart/sexy, and submissive and knows how to play her part well.” Sigh.

Before I go any further, in the spirit of full disclosure I’d like to mention that I am attracted to (and partnered with) a masculine of center woman. She describes herself as a “soft stud.”  I’m good with that. And if you’ve read my other post Straight Passing, Or on the Invisibility of Femme Lesbians, you know that I identify as femme. And I’m good with that as well. So my issue is not labels per se, indeed, no matter how hard we try, we always end up coming up with new ways to identify ourselves so that others have an idea of who we are or are not.  Likewise, one of the biggest issues that Black women, lesbian or not, face, is society’s ever increasing propensity to impose labels on us that we would never choose for ourselves, in order to make them feel more comfortable, powerful, whatever.

What I’m not good with though, is how we accept some of these other labels and descriptors without fully examining the ways in which they impact how we behave toward one another.  Here I’m going to limit myself to speaking about the Black lesbian communities of which I am a member, in other words, I’m speaking about my own experiences, as well as some I’ve witnessed.  Bebe Moore Campbell said it best when she proclaimed that “Your blues ain’t like mine,” so just know that I’m not trying to generalize or stereotype all Black lesbians.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s just break these terms down just a little, and think about how they have come to represent at least one of the primary labels that Black lesbians (I’m also thinking “aggressive is used more in the northeast, as we southerners seem to be more attached to “stud,” or “soft stud,” which is equally problematic, given our slave history.)

Dictionary definitions for passive, aggressive, and submissive:

  • Passive:  accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.
  • Aggressive:  ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression.
  • Submissive: ready to conform to the authority or will of others; meekly obedient or passive.

Now, I get that “aggressive” is used in lesbian communities to indicate a break from all things feminine in some women, and for others, it simply means that they are more masculine identified, although they might still identify with a bit of their feminine selves (thus the “soft” in soft stud).  Still, I have to ask myself why would anyone want to use an adjective that suggests that she is “likely to attack or confront?”  I also know that what has resulted from this label “aggressive” is the tendency for some of these women to take on all the negative attributes that have come to signify what “man” or masculinity means in U.S. culture: sexist and over-sexed; aggressive, violent behavior, a sense of entitlement and an assumption of power related only to the fact that they identify as masculine; and last but certainly most disturbing, outright misogyny. We see this in the tendency of some of these women to call women bitches and hoes, to claim that “bitches ain’t shit,” to focus on women as the sum of their body parts, (usually her boobs or her ass), and to relegate their partners to “submissive” roles in the bedroom, insisting that “real studs” don’t let their women touch them.  To claim that you want a woman that “knows her place,” is to subscribe to gender binaries that relegate feminine or femme identified women to the bedroom and the kitchen, and not much else.  I also get that some femmes seek out women that treat them this way, and I wonder why they allow themselves to be objectified in such a manner. But that’s another blog.

Now, before you get your boxers (or panties) in a bunch, I realize that not all of you think or behave this way. In fact, one of the most thoughtful pieces of writing I’ve seen on this matter is the The Lesbian Stud Manifesto, which details the ways in which some women come to claim a stud identity, and what that really means for them.  So, now I’m not sure if I’ve added that much more to the conversation, but I’ve certainly gotten this off of my chest.  What do you all think? Are the terms aggressive, submissive, and passive too negative to be associated with lesbian identities? Or does the literal definition of the term, along with its connotations, not matter at all?

No, it doesn’t always get better

Please read this article found on The Feminist Wire’s blog. This is why I do the work that I do, and why I always identify as Black lesbian.  We are invisible in our own communities and we must work to provide  safer, more accountable spaces for our youth.  For this young woman, it did NOT get better.

Media, Sports and Black Queer Youth: Tayshana Murphy and the Dimming of Stars

BLE- Black Lesbian Entertainment, Pt. 1

I’ve been thinking about this for a minute, and I still haven’t worked it all out. But here are a few preliminary thoughts. This may turn into an all out rant, so forgive me in advance. One of the lesbian groups I follow on Twitter tweeted something like “if you’re not a loving it, you’re a hater,” or something similar. My immediate response was to reply with something about binaries and dichotomies, but I restrained myself, mainly because I have other things to do, but partly because I had a feeling that the point would be lost in translation. In other words, I needed more than 140 characters to say what I need to say.

So, to the young women who insist that I’m a hater if I do not subscribe to their brand, or that I don’t love them enough, here are a few choice ones. First, I appreciate your form of expression, even though you seem to subscribe to the same heterosexist patriarchal system that I am working to tear down. I don’t know you, so I can’t be sure. But are you really transgressing gender boundaries, or are you merely mimicking the very system that seeks to destroy you? Second, I’ve never once mentioned how tired I am of you tweeting about your latest YouTube video or what you are having for dinner.  Sure, I could hit the “unfollow” button. But I haven’t. Yet. Wanna know why? Because I try to show my support for my “sistas in the struggle,” because I realize that there are so few outlets for us to showcase our work, and it’s so hard for us to connect with each other in the first place.

Perhaps I’m too old for this thing, but I’m bothered by the fact that your mission seems is to “exploit this lifestyle,” as if those of us who claim lesbian, gay, trans, bi, or queer identities, are living a lifestyle. Do you understand that this is the language that they use to deprive us of our full rights as citizens in this country and others? That this is why some of us lose our friends, families, and livelihoods, because they think we have a choice?  No, you probably don’t. You call yourselves activists. But I don’t know any activists that charge their fans fees to Skype with them, or that can be hired to create personal greetings. Seriously? Seriously????????

And to my sister who knocked the Facebook meme last week that encouraged us to change our photos to help raise child abuse awareness: Shame on you! You have no problems tweeting, emailing, or Facebooking about your “events” for black lesbians. Is there a party that you won’t promote? But you were downright nasty to those of us who actually did change our photos, not understanding that the dialogue that erupted from such a simple act might cause someone to think twice if they see or suspect that a child is being abused, that someone might now recognize the signs of child abuse, and know who to call to get help for the child or the parent. So how about you use your privilege to do something for someone other than yourself? I’ve been on your list-serve for YEARS, and not once have I ever seen you promote an event that benefited a non-profit group. But maybe I missed it. Well, I suspect I’ll miss them all now, since I’ve unsubscribed.

Yeah, I’m on my soap-box, and feel free to try to knock me down if you dare. But folks, I’m not trying to knock anyone’s hustle. But if you’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed with followers or fans, why not try to give something back to the various communities to which you belong? Have you donated any of your profits to the needy, the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ homeless youth, or perhaps invited a starving artist out for dinner? Without the cameras? Hell, do you even know that they exist? No one’s asking you to give up your wealth, if you have any, but if you want me to give up any of MY duckies, I want to know how you are using them. Presumptuous? No doubt. Idealistic? Probably. Am I doing my part? You better believe it.

I’m not hating, but I don’t think BLE is the type of “activism” that Audre, Barbara, Pat, Gloria, or Cheryl had in mind.  More on this later.