An Ode to Where I First Found Home: On Black Lesbian Gender & Kinship

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An Ode to Where I First Found Home: On Black Lesbian Gender & Kinship

In 1991, years before my birth,  the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival adopted a “womyn-born-womyn” policy which excluded all pre-op transgender women from the festival. The festival was loosely paradise, a space for predominantly lesbians built on solid notions of community, sisterhood, care and fun. Well, for anyone who was cis. Almost two decades prior, in 1972, the San Francisco Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the inaugural lesbian rights group, voted to oust then vice-President Beth Elliot and bar her, or any other transgender women, from joining the organisation. This decision, born of the hysteria of their newer members, “focused on defining Beth Elliott as a transsexual and not as a woman or lesbian”(16). Some years later, in 1977, a group of black lesbian feminists called the Combahee River Collective issued a statement on the complex relationship of being black, a woman, and a feminist under white supremacist patriarchy. Within this statement, they make it clear that they “reject the stance of lesbian separatism” and that “as black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” — a gesture more so in solidarity with cishet black men, than their numerous trans sisters. What these moments share with the Caribbean are nodal points that can offer some understanding of feminist and lesbian cultural sentiment across the region. 

This essay, a piece of auto-theory, charts my filiation to lesbian as an identity, in excess of sexuality, and how it functions as a gendered category. I will reflect on my journey through radical feminism and womanism, the ways it ostracised me from my own trans reality, and how it, unfortunately, frames much of how we think about gender in the present-day Caribbean. My focus will be on non-binary trans lesbians and the various ways we navigate or organise our identities under the banner of lesbianism, how it is a home that has historically been gracious despite often, on the surface, rejecting the notion of non-cisgender identities.

Beginning linearly, the events surrounding Beth Elliott’s ban from the Daughters of Bilitis were the precursor to the structuring event that would bind the narrative of transgender women and sexual predators together. The following year, in 1973, at the West Coast Lesbian Conference, Beth Elliott, who participated in organising it and was a performer at the conference, right to be there was put to a vote wherein the majority of attendees voted for her continued presence. The damage, however, would come the following day when a young Robin Morgan, slated to be a keynote speaker, rewrote her speech to include a detrimental tirade against Beth and the very existence of transgender women (17). Morgan’s words framed Elliott as “…a male transvestite, an opportunist, an infiltrator, and a destroyer with the mentality of a rapist,” becoming the basis for the transphobic rhetoric we experience in feminist spaces today. My feminist education began under this rhetoric framed through the exclusion of “men” from lesbian spaces and a belief in the sanctity of this principle. Specifically, this became applicable within a regional context where dominant approaches of feminist activism felt so overwhelmingly focused on the re-education of cishet men rather than the formation of spaces that radically redefined what it meant to be women and in community with women. Morgan’s tirade and its blatant transphobia shaped the dominant imagination, transforming “transgender women are women” into a radical claim and attendant ideas that transgender women can be lesbians into fiction. 

Morgan, despite being married to a cishet man herself, offered to us an image that the most un-lesbian and un-feminist existence is a transfeminine one, and through this image, the alienation of transfemmes from lesbian organising spaces was in full effect. Internalising logic along these lines, formed through a transantagonism that (at best) positioned trans femmes as “male-socialised,” results in passive reifications of gendered lines and interests. The logic became: you are obligated to hate cisgender men, what is masculine about yourself and those around you, the violence they commit and their potential for harm. Yet somehow, this disdain has predominantly found itself targeted at transgender people. The impact of this logic relegated trans-feminine concerns to organising alongside gay activism or specifically trans organising, and similarly, trans-masculine issues in the same breath became simultaneously condemned to, and vilified in, women’s organising. It is transphobic through and through, but it is normative and logically required because patriarchal violence, at its core, has always desired the disciplining of transgressive bodies and acts. 

Lesbian feminist organising has always fundamentally made claims against the banality of transphobic violence despite not always being concerned with transphobia or acts of violence against transgender people. In the 1970 manifesto released by the political lesbian group RADICALESBIANS titled “The Woman Identified Woman” the definition of what are sex, sexuality, and gender are brought into question. They explain that:

Lesbianism is also different from male homosexuality, and serves a different function in the society. “Dyke” is a different kind of put-down from “faggot”, although both imply you are not playing your socially assigned sex role… are not therefore a “real woman” or a “real man.” The grudging admiration felt for the tomboy, and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy point to the same thing: the contempt in which women-or those who play a female role-are held.” (1-2)

In addition to these terms, locally, we’ve come to see this paradigm reflected in the myriad ways that attitudes and behaviours show some disinvestment in normative cis heteropatriarchy in this analysis that they put forward. However, that problematising of gender as sexuality and sexuality as gender towards signalling forms of trans existence, failed to acknowledge that the contempt present was not around femininity, but rather transness itself. 

When I first learnt of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, I thought it was undoubtedly the most joyous place on earth. Celebrating its violence, on the grounds of my, at the time, unexamined internalised transphobia and on my indoctrination about the necessity of “[cis] women’s only” spaces and the limitations of what that meant. The Womyn’s Festival’s expected inclusion of transgender men and transmasculine people reflected a broader politic than just misgendering through defaulting to biological essentialism that doubly reflected this and the expansive possibilities of lesbian genders. Transgender men and transmasculine folks, even prior to the existence of these designations, have reliably been known to have always existed in lesbian spaces. The damage caused by Morgan’s speech began a complete reterritorialization of what this expanse could have meant and it, unfortunately, became the inheritance we actively share. Resoundingly, however, it is not the only one we share. 

Lesbian, fundamentally, in my understanding and experience of the category, had always included men, masculine, and non-binary people of all expressions, but transgender women and transfeminine people seemed occluded and obscured from my own imagination or even representation. Fortunately, this reality opened up other possibilities for accepting my torrid relationship with masculinity. Desiring masculinity as an identity through which I could articulate selfhood and embodiment occurred through the realisation that lesbians of all genders found potential and home within it where I could see none. Perhaps it was because lesbian, according to the RADICALESBIANS, is “…a label invented by the Man to throw at any woman who dares…” and how that dare encapsulates a chant for life. Makeda Silvera, writing on the invisibility of lesbians in Jamaica, refers to “Manroyal” and “Sodomite” as “dread words,” given to women by men who “…neither understood nor approved” of their existence (522). These nodes of connection wherein to exist is to dare, where to exist is to dread but do so anyway and to figure out ground for how to love, be, desire and care for each other in truly revolutionary ways offered a path to my own embodiment. Although sometimes love is just that, nothing more than four letters that escape lips easily, because well: “Gyal wicked.”

Scholars in the Caribbean often offer up the critique that lesbian, gay, trans and other terms are ill-equipped to define particular queer experiences in the region. Some such as Kamala Kempadoo go as far as arguing that “sexuality does not form a primary basis for social identification in the Caribbean” (2). Rather than outrightly dismissing her claim, which I do not believe holds much merit, the analysis she offers speaks to the history of different conceptions of identity that black and non-white people have often constructed. Indeed, if we are to assume, for example, that lesbian simply means cisgender women who sleep with cisgender women, then mati [mate”] as a term used in Guyana to refer to women who have relationships with women but also other genders than lesbian appear inadequate to explain Caribbean sexualities. Similarly, in Trinidad and in Martinique, the complexities of gender performances and sexualities have thrown into disarray common understandings of sexual orientation. In Suriname, we see sexuality understood as praxis through terms like mati wroko [“mati work”] which refers to acts of being loved by and loving women and Dyadya uma [“upright woman”] which refers to a matriarchal figure known to be in charge of her filial community and a romantic community comprised of lovers of different genders. Kempadoo’s claim seems to hold merit; however, such a claim could only be uttered through a dearth of understanding of 20th-century lesbian cultures within which these existences are accounted.

Niche existences of sexualities in the Caribbean could very much exist outside of our imagination or points of reference. It is more likely that they exist before our eyes, including our partners, friends and kin, formations that exceed the language we commonly have for them. Within this vein, I think of the 2005 documentary The Aggressives which follows a lesbian subculture that challenges our very understanding of the limits of gender and gendered possibility. Kara Keeling writes eloquently about this film, explaining that “…instead of lesbian or gay woman, FTM or genderqueer, the film offers us aggressives, a term used to negotiate complex senses of belonging, self-creation, and self-expression that are related to lesbian, dyke, butch, and transgender but excessive to each of those categories.” The existence of aggressives (AGs) demonstrates in full force a constellation of blackness, transness, and queerness; each of these categories has the capacity to overturn our cisheteropatriarchal world, despite the constant acquiescence of those who live under their signs to aspirations of power.

The Combahee River Collective and their black lesbian feminism are the only remaining group to be spoken about from the introduction. Born of necessity, within a time period where they experienced ostracisation from male-led black organisations, from predominantly white and homophobic feminist organisations, and from lesbian organisations too busy giving into transphobia to acknowledge their non-white members, their feminism was revolutionary. It is valid to inquire, given all that I have explored in this essay, “Is Black feminism an interrogation of gender or an attachment to the category of “Black woman”? (Ellison et al, 167). Woman as a category, even in the work of white lesbian feminists, has come under much critique; it is, after all, a nebulous category. On the grounds of transness, Kai Green explains that “Black women put pressure on the category “woman,” pushing it to its conceptual limits relative to race, yet they circumscribe the same category relative to non-cisgender bodies or nonheteronormative bodies who want to lay claim to the category”(74). I would add, also, that they place immense pressure on those who desire to depart the category for otherwise existence. I engage this debate on the grounds that transgender life often can only exist within feminist communities or communities adjacent to them as a reiteration of the stormy but necessary relationship lesbians have always had with feminist communities. 

Presently, in another decade of violence against trans people, spaces which we can fully call home are relegated to our secret hideaways in isolation together. Returning to my own self and those who I know and love, “lesbian” holds a host of identities and potentialities. Within these communities, I became comfortable with the possibility of masculinity; I learnt I was right all along, I was uninterested in it and it and its potential. I learnt I am a trans femme who is also a lesbian in community with other queer folks of infinite creeds and kinds.