Coming out can be difficult for anyone in any culture. Although those of us living in big queer-friendly cities or progressive college towns often forget it, there are still plenty of areas in our country, and our world at large, where it is physically unsafe to be out and proud. There are even more communities where you might not get jumped or harassed for holding your girlfriend’s hand, but you may be ostracized. Unfortunately, one of the spaces where you are likely to be given the side-eye for being a queer woman is within the African-American community.
For years, we’ve made assumptions about Queen Latifah’s sexuality and wondered why she didn’t “just come out already!” We were excited when Raven-Symoné confirmed her lesbian identity last month when she rejoiced that she could finally get married on the same day that Minnesota and Rhode Island started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Now there are lesbian rumors swirling around Michael Jordan’s 20-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who posted a picture of herself hugging a woman in front of a closet mirror on Instagram. Though she claims the lesbian rumors don’t bother her, she also says that she isn’t going to confirm her sexuality for anyone.
And why should she? Why do we care so much? Why do we hold out hope that every time Queen Latifah is spotted at a gay pride parade that means she is going to make a statement about her sexuality? Why do we celebrate every time a black artist is seen snuggling, hugging or even walking closely with a member of the same sex? The simple answer is because visibility matters. Being represented in the movies and television shows we watch and the music we listen to helps queer black women feel validated. There is safety in numbers and we are hoping that the more of us that come out, the less it will matter.
But the fact is that women of color in general, and particularly black women, are not coming out at the same rate as our white counterparts. This can be attributed to the black community’s close ties to the fairly conservative Baptist and A.M.E. Churches. The cooperative extended family structure is one that most people of color operate in, as opposed to the individualist nuclear family model most western white people enjoy. It may also have to do with our reluctance to help perpetuate stereotypes about black women and our sexuality, whether that be The Jezebel or The Bull-Dagger stereotype. For black celebrities, there is even more at stake.
Though announcing that you are gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t the career suicide it once was, add that label to the list of other qualifiers (female and black) and you can understand how it might not be helpful in terms of scoring acting roles and record deals. Being a woman in the entertainment industry is hard. Female actors have been complaining about the lack of good (and by “good” I mean when you are not relegated to being the main character’s lover or mother) roles for women. Being a black woman in the entertainment industry is even harder. That’s why Kerry Washington’s Emmy-nominated turn as Olivia Pope on Scandal is so important. So for some celebrities, being a black lesbian or bisexual woman in the entertainment industry is not a challenge they are willing to take on.
AzMarie Livingston and Raven-Symoné
On Saturday, popular columnist and contributor for Glam and Ebony.com, B.Scott posted a video of Janelle Monae evading questions about her sexuality. She bluntly explains that although she supports the LGBTQ community and believes love “has no sexual orientation” she won’t say how she identifies, partially for monetary reasons.
“I keep my personal life very much to myself. I want everybody to focus on my music. I also don’t want to let anybody down. I want women to still be attracted to me. Go get my album! I want men to still be attracted to me, so I have to be political in this. So I can’t really tell y’all!”
As a black bisexual woman, this statement is disheartening. I would love it if there were more successful black openly queer women in the public eye, like Wanda Sykes, to serve as role models for my sisters and me. And yet, I understand that, perhaps because she is a non-sexualized comedic actress, Wanda Sykes’ continued success might be more rare than we’d like to believe in 2013.