We Need to Talk About Misogyny and the LGBT Community’s Erasure of Black Lesbian History

Claire Heuchan

Finding the stories of our Black lesbian foremothers isn’t always easy. That’s not because there were none. Despite what the history books say, Black lesbian women have been around for hundreds of years, living lives filled with the extraordinary and the everyday. Women like Stormé DeLarverie have led revolutions. And yet Black lesbian stories are hard to find.

Those who have traditionally held the power to decide whose stories get to be recorded as history have been white, male, and invested in the social order of women living lives centered around men: the system of heteropatriarchy. For the most part, those historians considered the experiences and inner-lives of Black women beneath their notice. Close reflections on the average Black woman’s life at any point in the last few hundred years would also have held the risk of making it that much harder to sustain the myth that Black people weren’t really human, bringing home the ugly truths of white supremacy.

In addition, the stories of lesbian women have been deliberately erased from history across continents and culture. As a result, Black lesbian lives are that much more obscure. Men have hoped that in denying women the blueprint to a lesbian life, they could keep us all in the confines of heterosexuality – a never-ending source of sexual, reproductive, domestic, and emotional labor. But lesbian women throughout time have always found one another, even with the odds stacked against them – although many letters, diaries, and pictures that made up the proof have been consigned to the ash heap of history.

For every lesbian past we know of, countless other women’s stories have been buried forever by cultural vandalism.

So, lesbian history is hard to find. Black lesbian history, harder still. It’s thanks to the dedicated efforts of lesbian and feminist women over the last fifty years – historians, scholars, activists, archivists, and everything in between – that any of those repressed histories have broken the surface of public consciousness. But for every lesbian past we know of, countless other women’s stories have been buried forever by cultural vandalism.

Audre Lorde was and is a Black feminist touchstone for women around the world. She was acutely conscious of what the lack of visible lesbian stories meant for women – how it made lesbian life even harder to claim. In Zami, her own story, Lorde wrote “…to this day I believe that there have always been Black dykes around – in the sense of powerful and women-oriented women – who would rather have died than use that name for themselves.” Lorde described Zami as biomythography. This means that as well as documenting the literal and spiritual truths of her own life, she was helping build the mythos that is part of a culture, community, and collective identity.

I’m grateful to Audre Lorde for having the foresight and generosity to fill in that gap, to lessen the lack of Black lesbian stories. Lorde died the year I was born so, although relatively recent, her life is history to me. It’s a point of connection with this world. It’s also a frame of reference for how to live my own Black lesbian life in it. During my very Catholic upbringing, I wasn’t exactly encouraged to seek out lesbian women’s stories as a source of inspiration. Even though my mum’s a lesbian too, the closest we got to talking about representation was when she noticed my enthusiasm for Storm from the X-Men. Storm was the only superhero I knew who was not only a girl like me, but Black like me too: the first evidence I ever saw that Black women could even be the hero.

Black representation, female representation, and lesbian representation aren’t always straightforward to find – especially when you’re searching for all three at once. Which is why it felt like such a kick in the teeth when the National Center for Lesbian Rights erased Stormé DeLarverie as the revolutionary who started the Stonewall Riot and inspired the international Pride movement.

Black representation, female representation, and lesbian representation aren’t always straightforward to find – especially when you’re searching for all three at once. Which is why it felt like such a kick in the teeth when the National Center for Lesbian Rights erased Stormé DeLarverie as the revolutionary who started the Stonewall Riot and inspired the international Pride movement. Stormé, in all of her Black butch magnificence, put herself at extraordinary risk to fight injustice – and she deserves to be remembered for it. Even though life is far from perfect for gays and lesbians around the world, her actions paved the way for what progress we enjoy today.

And yet, on Twitter and Facebook, NCLR made the following post:

“Today’s the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Led by transwomen of color, the first #Pride was a protest: it has always been political. Today, more than ever, we are following the lead of our movement mothers Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera and fighting for all LGBTQ people.”

But it was Stormé DeLarverie who led the resistance of homophobic police brutality at the Stonewall Inn. When police raided Stonewall, a known gay bar in the Greenwich Village, they attacked people with fists and billy clubs. Drag kings and queens, as well as confirmed gays and lesbians, were arrested. Those lucky enough to escape arrest gathered outside, either to bear witness or to wait for friends and lovers. When the police used violence against her, Stormé retaliated: “The cop hit me, and I hit him back.” Four officers attacked and handcuffed her in response.

When Stormé pointed out that she was cuffed too tightly, one officer hit her head with a billy club. She turned to the crowd and yelled, “Why don’t you guys do something?” Like that, the seeds of rebellion were sown. The Stonewall uprising kicked off as Stormé was packed into a police van.

When Stormé pointed out that she was cuffed too tightly, one officer hit her head with a billy club. She turned to the crowd and yelled, “Why don’t you guys do something?” Like that, the seeds of rebellion were sown. The Stonewall uprising kicked off as Stormé was packed into a police van. On June 28th in 1970, the first anniversary of Stonewall, gays and lesbians marched in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The following year, on the second anniversary, marches spread to Paris, London, Berlin, and Stockholm. Pride was born.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were both incredibly important figures in LGBT organizing, and I believe that it’s absolutely vital to remember them. The two founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a community project created to help young drag queens made homeless. Both were self-described gay men and drag queens who made this world a better place. During the AIDs crisis in the ‘80s, Johnson became a passionate advocate for legal protections, medical research and treatment, and policy frameworks designed to protect people living with the virus. Rivera advocated on behalf of transgender people, feminine presenting men, and butch women at Prides around the world.

While Johnson participated in the Stonewall riot, he didn’t ignite the rebellion – and from his testimony to historians, it has emerged that Rivera was not there, and thus could not possibly have thrown the first punch. And yet it’s impossible to deny that Marsha and Sylvia brought about so much good for the LGBT community. It insults their legacies to suggest – as NCLR did – that either one needs to be remembered for Stormé’s actions to be worth remembering as an LGBT icon. Given how incomplete our picture of lesbian history is, and how precarious its preservation continues to be, the NCLR was deeply irresponsible to render a Black butch lesbian invisible within her own story.

Given how incomplete our picture of lesbian history is, and how precarious its preservation continues to be, the NCLR was deeply irresponsible to render a Black butch lesbian invisible within her own story.

Their posts reminded me of a young adult novel I once read about schoolchildren in Texas just after desegregation. At the Christmas concert, a little Black girl lifts the rafters with her voice. She stands behind the curtains as a little white girl, dressed as an angel, mimes along on the middle of the stage and receives rapturous applause. A little Black girl wasn’t considered worthy of being the Christmas angel. Something similar happened in the film dramatizing Stonewall: predictably, white men were centered and made the faces of resistance – Stormé was nowhere to be seen. There is a long, painful history of Black women being denied credit for their achievements, of Black lesbians being erased altogether. And NCLR extended it.

There is a long, painful history of Black women being denied credit for their achievements, of Black lesbians being erased altogether. And NCLR extended it.

Stormé, Marsha, and Sylvia were all of color, same-sex attracted, and gender non-conforming in a context where it was exceedingly difficult to be any one of those things, never mind all three. But Stormé was a woman. Marsha and Sylvia, in their own words, were gay men and drag queens – unconventional men, but men all the same. And the way history is constructed, we are taught to valorize men and men only. This problem runs so deeply that people get confused about how to celebrate a woman’s achievements and credit a man with them to avoid dilemma. That’s how it went with the discovery of DNA, the invention of the internet, and now it seems we risk it happening with the narrative of the Stonewall uprising too.

NCLR’s erasure of Stormé comes at a volatile time in the LGBT community. The tension between radical and queer gender politics have become explosive. Misogyny has been a problem in the LGBT community since it first began, because misogyny is at the core of society – and while the community is centered around challenging the politics behind most social ills, misogyny somehow keeps getting a free pass.

NCLR’s erasure of Stormé comes at a volatile time in the LGBT community. The tension between radical and queer gender politics have become explosive. Misogyny has been a problem in the LGBT community since it first began, because misogyny is at the core of society – and while the community is centered around challenging the politics behind most social ills, misogyny somehow keeps getting a free pass. Britain’s Gay Liberation Front, a radical 1970s collective of gay men and lesbian women who came together to do extraordinary work, fell apart because of sexism. To this day, misogyny is still a fracture in the foundation of a shared LGBT solidarity. Even though lesbian feminists have been talking about it for at least forty years, the issue remains widely ignored.

Last month during Pride, Pink News reported that a third of all lesbian and bisexual women polled said they didn’t feel comfortable enough in community spaces to even consider going to Pride celebrations. Despite highlighting a widespread problem, Pink News didn’t once highlight sexism as a cause for women being alienated. And misogyny isn’t the only form of bigotry to split the community. Racism divides us too. The majority of LGBT people of color reported experiencing “discrimination or poor treatment” in their local LGBT network in Stonewall’s recent research project. Life at the intersection of misogyny, racism, and homophobia is its own peculiar kind of tough – as Stormé and every other lesbian of color knows. There needs to be scope for those of us under the rainbow umbrella to talk about how we have been pushed to the margins when we came looking for shelter.

Life at the intersection of misogyny, racism, and homophobia is its own peculiar kind of tough – as Stormé and every other lesbian of color knows. There needs to be scope for those of us under the rainbow umbrella to talk about how we have been pushed to the margins when we came looking for shelter.

We need to be able to have challenging discussions about what isn’t working in LGBT spaces – conversations where nobody is afraid to be honest; otherwise, nothing will ever change. We’ll be stuck fighting the same battles among ourselves instead of using our energy to dismantle white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Within the LGBT community, there are competing needs, interests, and objectives – it’s a broad church that’s constantly growing. And if we learn one thing from the shared experience of being outsiders in a heterocentric world, it should be the importance of finding ways to acknowledge and accept the existence of our differences within the community. Until we can collectively negotiate difference, we will keep on being locked into pointless cycles of rivalry.

Until we can collectively negotiate difference, we will keep on being locked into pointless cycles of rivalry.

A Black feminist I greatly respect once said something that has stayed with me and shaped my approach to collective struggle. At the first annual Women of Colour in Europe conference, Akwugo Emejulu pointed out that we marginalized people needed to stop thinking of one another’s success and recognition as a threat. She said that we needed to stop fighting over the same tiny bit of space, because that mentality of scarcity kept us from looking at the bigger picture.

Why should we try to take that tiny bit of space and recognition from each other when the most powerful people – white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied, middle class, and all the rest of it – have the vast majority of space in public life? Yet that mentality of scarcity shapes how we think of ourselves and each other, unless it is consciously unlearned. It teaches us to think we can celebrate Stormé or Marsha, Stormé or Sylvia, instead of seeing that we can honor all of them, for different achievements.

Categories: General NewsPeoplepolitics
Tags: black lesbianslesbian historyLGBTStormé DeLarverie