The Right Time: Lesbianism in Middle-Class Black Movies

3.Bisexuality among black women does not exist.

If black lesbians aren’t real women, then black bisexual women aren’t real, period — they simply don’t exist in black films, either in person or in concept. Not even as a cautionary tale.

Tell that to women like Alice Walker, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello, Bessie Smith, and the late poet June Jordan, whose significant contributions to both the black community and America as whole apparently matter little in light of their (bi)sexual orientation.

So what does all of this say about the black community’s collective attitude and lesbianism? Nothing that hasn’t been said before. Many black people continue to believe that lesbianism does not exist within the black community (i.e. it’s a "white" problem) or that black lesbians are traitors to the race and/or not "real" women.

In his book One More River to Cross: Black & Gay in America, Keith Boykin argues that "any discussion of homophobia in the black community must also address the specific topic of antilesbianism" since there is an "antilesbian strain of homophobia that sees women-women relationships as threatening to the ever-important black family" (p. 164).

Black writers like Barbara Smith, Cheryl Clark, Jewel Gomez, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and many others have made and debated similar charges about and within the black community.

This is not to imply that the black community is any more homophobic than other racial/ethnic communities (in fact, studies have shown the opposite, as Boykin explains in his book). Bell hooks elaborates on this in her essay "Homophobia in Black Communities" in the anthology The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities:

Black communities may be perceived as more homophobic than other communities because there is a tendency for individuals in black communities to verbally express in an outspoken way antigay sentiments. (p. 69)

Hooks goes on to say that often those black individuals who make such homophobic statements in public are actually very supportive of the gay people in their life. While this may or may not be true, these films clearly do not include sympathetic lesbian and bisexual characters and sentiments to balance out the handful of antigay sentiments expressed (although, to be fair, there are still fewer stereotypical gay jokes in these movies than you’ll find in the average “guy” movie).

This one-sided presentationis not necessarily rooted in homophobia (although some of it certainly is), but a mistaken notion held by many African Americans that you can’t fight racism and homophobia at the same time.

Not only does fighting racism take precedence, but attempts to challenge homophobia actually weaken this fight. Audre Lorde explains in "Sister Outsider:"

Within Black communities where racism is a living reality, differences among us often seem dangerous and suspect. The need for unity is often misnamed as a need for homogeneity…(p.119)

But more and more African Americans are realizing that differences among black folks are not dangerous. And attitudes of straight black people towards black lesbians and bisexual women have changed over the last twenty years, just as they have among Caucasians and other racial and ethnic groups in America.

You would never know it from watching movies produced by and for the black community, though.

What remains unclear is whether this is because many black writers, directors, and producers have yet to realize the change in public opinion, because they harbor too much of their own homophobia, or because even with a large segment of the black community becoming more open-minded, they fear the kind of vocal outcry from some black conservatives that followed the lesbian relationship in The Color Purple in 1985, in which they accused author Alice Walker of reinforcing negative stereotypes about African-Americans — and African-American men, in particular — and focusing too much on sexism at the expense of larger issues of racism.

Since films aimed at middle-class black America are a relatively new phenomena, it’s also possible that some black writers/directors/producers have good intentions, but are thinking something along the lines of "we can’t do everything at once, so let’s just get your average (straight) black folks more visibility and worry about showing diversity within the black community later, when the time is right."

This is the same rationale the gay community used (however unintentionally) to keep black charactersout of lesbian movies — and it worked. Although films targeted at the lesbian community tend to include more diversity than your average film, the characters are still overwhelmingly white (as demonstrated in movies like If These Walls Could Talk 2).

But the "right time" almost never just "comes along," it has to be created.

It doesn’t help that well-known black actresses who might have some clout in the writing/directing/producing process do not appear to be clamoring for these roles. Even if they have good intentions, it’s likely that what keeps black actresses out of black lesbian roles is the same homophobia that keeps lesbian characters out of black movies.

If you watch what’scoming out of Hollywood, in fact, it appears that Nia Long, Whoopi Goldberg, and Queen Latifah are the only established black actresses willing to play lesbian characters. (Whoopi Goldberg played a lesbian in the The Color Purple, Boys On the Side, and The Deep End of the Ocean; Queen Latifah played a lesbian bank robber in Set it Off, and Nia Long played a lesbian in If These Walls Could Talk 2 and The Broken Hearts Club.)

You might be able to include Nicole Ari Parker in this list (recently in Remember the Titans and Showtime’s television series Soul Food), because she played a lesbian/bisexual teenager in 1995′s The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. But she was completely unknown at the time, and the film was targeted at the gay community, not the black community, and she has not played a gay character since then.

There are many lesser-known black actresses playing gay characters in independent and/or gay movies, such as T. Wendy McMillan in Go Fish, and Cheryl Dunye in Watermelon Woman. But none of these roles (besides Latifah’s) have been in movies aimed at black audiences.

Latifah’s landmark role is also offset by the fact that her character falls into the tragic-and-criminal stereotype (and since Set it Off does not exactly fit into the "feel-good movie" category, it is also outside the scope of this article).

Straight black people clearly don’t understand the scope of the problem when they ask black lesbians/bisexual women to be patient, or to "put the black community first." To put it simply:

• there are only a very small number of black lesbian/bisexual women in gay movies
• there are no black lesbian/bisexual characters in movies targeted at the black community
• the few lesbian/bisexual characters in mainstream movies are usually white

All of which adds up to almost no black lesbian/bisexual characters anywhere.

Since this is basically the same complaint the black community has been making about Hollywood for decades regarding the invisibility of black characters (and later, positive black characters) in mainstream films, it seems hypocritical for these same black writers/directors/producers to turn a deaf ear to this plea from members of their own community.

Because no matter how many black lesbian/bisexual characters are rendered invisible in the movies, in real life, black lesbians and bisexual women are not going away.

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