Valerie Mason-John: Preserving Lesbian Herstories

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Black lesbian history is not always easy to find. It’s often buried by layers of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. But Valerie Mason-John has preserved pieces of that culture and community for generations to come.

She co-authored a book called Lesbians Talk: Making Black Waves, published in 1993, and edited an anthology called Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent Speak Out, which came out in 1995. Each volume documents the concerns, needs, interests, and work done by lesbians of color in this era. And it feels extraordinary to hold Valerie Mason-John’s books in my hands.

Two history books might sound like a square thing to get excited about. But this is the first time I have found the entirety of my Black lesbian self reflected in any book devoted to British history, however near or distant. One of the women interviewed in Making Black Waves felt the same way:

“On the whole, Black lesbians…. were required to break our identities into acceptable fragments: we were Black in Black groups, women in the women’s movement, and lesbians on the lesbian scene. There was no space to be whole, to be a Black lesbian.”

I first found Valerie Mason-John’s books in the Lesbian shelves of Glasgow Women’s Library. Immediately afterwards, I whipped out my phone and ordered a second-hand copy of each. Library books are an incredible resource, and I love borrowing them. But I needed copies of my own to highlight, annotate, and keep forever – which librarians generally frown upon.

Each book is a snapshot of the radical communities built by British lesbians of color in the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s incredible how many of concerns from thirty or forty years ago are exactly the same today: the racism of white lesbians, how precarious funding is for community spaces and archives devoted to lesbians of color, the state’s mistreatment of migrant women, and the burden of proof being put on lesbians seeking political asylum. As we are going through many of the same struggles now, these books contain valuable answers from everything to political organizing to survival strategies.

There are even some very thoughtful reflections on racial dynamics within lesbian relationships:

“I used to think that if I said I was a lesbian it would mean I had to sleep with White women, because whenever I saw a Black lesbian out she was always with a White lesbian. It was a relief to find Black lesbians with other Black women.” – Dorothea Smartt

In Britain, tracing the communities built by lesbians of color can be complicated. What little funding went towards lesbian and gay projects in the ‘70s and ‘80s was mostly channeled into white-led groups. This means less money for leaflets, periodicals, and other forms of print media that are useful for documenting what has been organized. Community spaces created by and for lesbians of color were mainly done at a grassroots level – which has advantages.

In the ‘80s there was a group called A Woman’s Space. There were up to 40 lesbians of color who joined and met fortnightly at, some traveling from across the UK to gatherings. They pooled money for travel expenses so that it wasn’t only women from London who could afford to be in the room. London tends to be where most events geared towards lesbians of color happen – but it’s certainly not the only part of Britain where we live.

The travel fund isn’t the only example of solidarity. In 1984 a Working Class Lesbian Weekend was held in Leeds, funded entirely by white middle-class women. The women who attended decided the money left over from the weekend should go to a project self-organized by lesbians of color – the Zami I conference. Sisterhood is a powerful force.

Perhaps the most well-known group of lesbians of color are the Combahee River Collective. Although they operated in a North American context, it is interesting to see that some lesbians of color in Britain drew similar conclusions about separatism:

“…separatist communities [have] been of great value to women who have needed places free from male violence…. But to sever all links with men has not necessarily been a sensible or satisfactory strategy for Black Women, who have needed to join ranks with Black Men to fight racism.”

Others were in favor of separatism, both along the lines of sex and race. The beauty of Valerie Mason-John’s books is that they capture a broad range of opinions and beliefs.

In Talking Black, there are interesting commentaries on what it means to be younger or older within community spaces. Linda Bello, the first Black woman to join the Spare Rib collective, writes about the futility of a feminism that’s only for white, middle class women. Maya Chowdhry explores the meaning and value of media created specifically by and for lesbians of color.

Each essay holds valuable insights into what it means to live a life that is inescapably political. Unless you’re confident accessing archives in museums and libraries, it is difficult to find this much information about lesbians of color firsthand. With these books, Valerie Mason-John has given us an amazing gift and filled in many of the blanks that mainstream accounts of history have left us with.