In Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens”, she calls for a true intersectionality within Queer theory that acknowledges race, class and gender commonalities formed around the ways not just queer subjects’ sexual choices have been deemed non normative. Cohen writes: “However, beyond a mere recognition of the intersection of oppressions there must also be an understanding of the ways our multiple identities work to limit the entitlement and status that some receive from obeying a heterosexual imperative. For instance, how would queer activists understand politically the lives of women (particularly women of color) on welfare, who may fit into the category of heterosexual but whose sexual choices are not perceived as normal, moral, or worthy of state support?” In the federal housing projects where I grew up, most of the homes were headed by women. My home was one of them. My mother was unpartnered and she and I lived with my grandmother who was unpartnered as well. As I read and thought about this week’s readings, thematically titled “Theorizing Queer through Transnational Women of Color Feminisms”, I have been particularly struck by the ways that Cohen’s call for intersectionality resonates with my lived experience as a black single woman who was raised by black single women, as well as with my sense of being surrounded and supported by of black queer women and men.
The notion that Cohen put forth of querying the ways black women’s sexual choices have been villafied is very interesting. Within this interrogation resides a way for black queers to create a dialogue in the black community that will further destabilize the homophobia that remains entrenched in many black communities and institutions, namely, the black church. Along with the “inside” of the black community being forced to question its homophobia, the larger culture and cultural productions, such as media, news, books and films that serve to undergird notions of the pathologized straight black female can be examined fully as well. Here is what I mean: One fairly recent headline begged to know, “Why Successful Black Women are not Getting Married”, a recent book wondered, Is Marriage for White People? How the African-American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, and a recent movie that did very well with African American viewers — and which started off as a book on the New York Times best seller list — was Act Like a Lady. Think Like a Man. Yikes. The implicit and explicit message in many of the cultural productions is that (1) straight black women are too “successful” (read: masculine) and that it is simply turning black men off, (2) Lesbian black women are invisible, (3) Lesbian partnerships add nothing to the marriage pool and (4) children produced in black single parent households AND lesbian households are “illegitimate” (read: invisible).
The question is what does this destabilizing of homophobia that remains entrenched in many black communities and institutions and questioning of the larger culture and cultural productions that serve to undergird notions of the pathologized straight black female look like? Well, the black feminist statement written by the Combahee River Collective provided the following blueprint/vision: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face” (272). This “integrated” address advocated by the Combahee River Collective resembles philosophies of other radical freedom organizations, including the Black Panthers. As a set of task based examples of this integration, the collective provided the following: “We might, for example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood. Organizing around welfare and daycare concerns might also be a focus” (282). Each of these examples speaks to a need I have and to the needs of many women I love. As a poet and performer, however, I am equally interested in the ways our cultural productions serve as ancestors, predictors and vision maps for the sort of coalitions that Cohen and the Combahee River Collective described. I am looking for art, poems, songs and videos that offer as Cohen put it “destabilization and radical politicalization” (480) of identity categories which have existed outside the heterosexual norm. Further, I am interested in the ways sexual orientation in black cultural productions has provided a vision of collaboration and integration. I believe that the search for and the parsing of these results will be instructive and liberatory, and I am looking forward to using my final presentation to share these with my Queer Theory class.
Collective, Combahee River. “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” Home Girls: A Black
Feminist Anthology (1977): 272-82.
Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens.” GLQ 3 (1997): 437-465.