African American poet, writer, and activist Audre Lorde standing in front of a blackboard that reads “Women are powerful and dangerous.”
In 1969 a woman named Eleanor Hunter wrote an extraordinary essay for Dr. Clayton, the instructor of Sociology 290 at a California college. Titled “Double Indemnity: The Negro Lesbian in the ‘Straight’ White World,” Hunter offers readers a window into the complicated world African American lesbians navigated. It is impossible for Black women to be out lesbians in their own community, she argues, because doing so would bring shame to their family. Because family and community are a much-needed refuge in a racist society, most women deemed it too great a risk to pursue other women in anything but the most secretive manner. Instead of coming out, African American women “psyched out.”
In the three Californian cities Hunter studied, African American lesbians reported that they had to put on a “front,” which meant looking and behaving like a heterosexual woman and keeping whatever lesbian life they carved out private. Very private. Most lesbians dated men, Hunter said, even if they had female lovers.
Black and white photo from the 1960s of African American women sitting in three long rows with two rows of men behind them, likely in a church. From http://atthedarkendofthestreet.com/photo-gallery/tallahassee-gallery/
But if everyone had a heterosexual front, how did you find a lover? You had to “psych out” other women. One of her informants explained how it works:
“If you are interested in someone, you look for signs of her interest in you. You see if she enjoys doing things with you. You see if she gets jealous after awhile. You have to have it all figured out how she would act if she were really completely normal and judge her reactions on the basis of that, but of course that’s a little different for each woman. You don’t take anything at face value, you wait and see. It doesn’t matter if she dates all the time or of she’s always talking about men. You see who she is living with, or did live with, and how long she lived with them while all this dating was going on. Even if she is married and has children, that doesn’t mean anything. Most Black lesbians have been married and have children. The main thing is that you are always on guard, always watching and listening, always looking for hidden meanings. You see how she reacts after a few drinks. You give her little clues about yourself – the roommate you had, your attitudes about men and women – clues that might apply to any straight woman but that have hidden meaning. And if she is interested in you, she is doing the same thing. But you have to be patient, be cool and be able to accept disappointment.”
Hunter’s observations at local lesbian bars supported her findings. In Santa Rosa she observed only one African American women among a crowd of 50-75; in Sacramento’s two lesbian bars with a combined population of 150-160 she observed five African American lesbians. Oakland is 40-50% African American, she noted, but in its four lesbian bars, she observed only one African American woman.
If lesbian bars were white dominated, why weren’t they a safe place to go? Because socializing with white women brought its own set of challenges. “To the extent that [Black women] are accepted within the system as lesbians, they must play down their identity as Negros, but must always be prepared for the negative re-establishment by others of that identity… This makes it necessary for black women to suppress her African American identity, and makes it more difficult for her to do so.”
In December of 1969 when Hunter penned her essay, the two movements that were supposed to be a source of liberation – the Black Power movement and the gay liberation movement – were actually making life as a Black lesbian harder. The Black Power movement put more pressure on women to contribute to the strengthening of the black community by marrying and having children. The gay liberation movement was drawing more attention to homosexuality, and consequently unmarried women were looked upon with greater suspicion. Going to lesbian bars also became more difficult. One woman described how all the white lesbians either look at her suspiciously, wondering if she is a political militant, or “they want you to sit right down and tell them all about what it’s like to be Black. I really got tired of talking about it, so I don’t go out much anymore.
This was not the case for everyone, everywhere. In the 1950s and ’60s African American lesbians established community in bars and cafés in many major cities including New York, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, and in the mid-1960s a group of women in New York City formed “Salsa Soul Sisters” as a social alternative to the bars. Last year I wrote about Donna Burkett and Manonia Evans who had a big church wedding in Milwaukee 1971. Evans’ family was furious, but among the 250 who people attended the wedding, one of them Burkett’s mother.
Hunter penned her remarkable essay in December of 1969. Gay liberation had only just started. Black Liberation was still young. She wondered if change was just around the corner. We now know, however, that for many lesbians of color creating community remained a struggle through to the end of the decade because the conditions Hunter described in 1969 remained much the same for many years afterward.