Radical Love: Ancestors

By Ash Haywood '18

Artwork by Valeria Sibrian '21

Artwork by Valeria Sibrian '21

For a woman to be a lesbian in a male-supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, imperialist culture, such as that of North America, is an act of resistance. [T]he lesbian... has succeeded in resisting the slave master’s imperialism in that one sphere of her life. The lesbian has decolonized her body.
— Cheryl Clarke, “Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance”, 1982
For women, the need and desires to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.
— Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, 1979
...her sexual joy was overwhelmingly located in her connections with women.
— Gloria Wekker, The Politics of Passion: Women’s Sexual Culture in the Afro-Surinamese Diaspora, 2006

It was years after I came into my own queerness that I discovered the writings of other Black lesbians. If I had known about these women, about their writings and about their intentions in loving other women, I may have found more pride in my queerness much sooner. This newfound pride could have spared me of the feeling of isolation for much of my life. I am extremely fortunate to be a proud dyke today as a 21-year-old, considering the world that my queer ancestors lived in before me. When I hold the hand of my Black queer girlfriend in the public streets, I think of ancestors like Bessie Smith, who proudly but most certainly fearfully expressed affection to her queer lovers in the early 1900s. I think of my own Black queer cousin who is only ten years older than me, but who had to start the initial dialogue in my extended family. She helped my family accept the possibility of a queer couple showing up to the Christmas get-together. Had it been me who had to start that conversation on my own, not just with my mother, but my aunts and uncles and cousins, it would’ve exhausted me.

Of course when I speak of lesbian pride, it is far different from what I perceive to be the pride proclaimed by white gays at pride parades. Yes, our prides both come out of centuries of struggle, discrimination and trauma. I would not dare argue that white homosexuals, bisexuals, and queer-identified folks have not experienced systemic oppression which has led to their lesser quality of life, homelessness, illness, and death. But the focus of white gays and their fight for justice differs greatly from the justice that queer people of color seek. Many Black lesbians before me have discovered the liberation that queerness avails to us. Queerness has been utilized as a method of survival, resistance and pleasure. This distinction between how different subcommunities within the queer community come “into the family” is essential for younger folks such as myself to discover their identities.

When I first began to date and think about romantic partners, heterosexuality seemed to be the only option. Not only did I come from a homophobic household, but lesbians were invisible to me. I didn’t know how or where they existed. The thought of not being in a heterosexual relationship never crossed my mind and as my frustration with boys and predatory men increased, I could not imagine a romantic relationship or marriage being anything other than a transactional exchange. Coupled with an absence of happy adult couples around me, sexuality, romance and love seemed more of an obligatory rite of passage than a pleasurable commitment to another person. Everything I just listed would make many older queers cringe, as I’ve spoken truth to the stereotype that dykes are man-hating women with daddy issues and come from broken homes. When I told a past girlfriend that my sexual trauma was one of the causes of my queerness, she cautioned me to never repeat such a backwards and inflammatory statement. Many lesbians and gays resist the narrative that a traumatic childhood could result in homosexuality and I completely understand why, because that could insinuate that all lesbian and gay people are broken and that homosexuality is unnatural. It could insinuate that homosexuality is the result of bad parenting and that if a child has a perfect life, they would grow up to be straight, engaged in the correct form of loving.

I understand the apprehension in admitting that abusive sexual and romantic interactions could affect how someone chooses to pursue relationships in the future. But it is not a singular individual case of trauma. The world we live in is “male-supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic and imperialist,” as Cheryl Clarke describes. Even if an individual isn’t affected directly by the violence promoted in a male-centric culture, it is present everywhere we go. It is nearly impossible to escape that violence, no matter how nurturing the home you come from is. We, at some level, are all broken and damaged by this culture. We are all trying to heal and survive this trauma. Now, add being a Black women in a culture that denies your humanity, vulnerability, and womanhood. I am not just trying to heal from the violence inflicted by masculinity, but also from misogynoir. For so long, this violence seemed inescapable. Nowhere felt safe and heterosexuality seemed to be a prison alongside white supremacy, imperialist Christianity, patriarchy and capitalism. Queerness provided some oasis in this prison.

It loomed over me for years, the feeling that my desire and decision to be with women was sinful. Choosing to be queer felt wrong to say, not only when I was around straight people but queer folks as well. Until I found the writings of other Black lesbians, I felt extremely disconnected from the LGBTQ community. Not every Black lesbian writer describes their sexuality as liberating, of course, but the way my ancestors write about Black queer love feels right, similar to how my fellow church congregation feels when reading their Bible. Discovering the pleasure that queerness has given to my ancestors feels liberating. It justifies my pride, which before felt alien in the queer community.