Gregory Conerly. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
Throughout much of their respective and intersecting histories, blacks and queers in the United States have tried to create independent institutions. Two things motivated them: they wanted to create a haven from the social forces that oppressed and devalued them, and they wished to create spaces that allowed them to commune with others like themselves and develop distinctive social identities and cultures. Within these two traditions black queer communities emerged.
Earlier in the twentieth century, black queers were limited in their ability to carve out spaces for themselves. They participated in drag balls that were controlled by black heterosexuals, and they frequented bars whose clientele was mostly either straight blacks or queer whites. Later, when their sexual and racial counterparts began to organize politically and protest the social forces that kept them in a subordinate role, they participated as marginalized others in the white-dominated LGBT movement and the straight-dominated black movement. Many black queers found these groups to be either hostile to their presence or culturally alienating. Because of this, during the 1970s growing numbers of black queers created spaces that affirmed both their racial and sexual identities. One way they did this was to develop social and political organizations.
The earliest black queer groups were caucuses within the white queer groups that proliferated in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York. The Third World Gay Revolution and the Black Lesbian Caucus in New York, as well as the Black Gay Caucus in Detroit, were among those that tried to carve out their own spaces and assert their own political agenda amidst the chorus of voices agitating for social change. At their meetings, black queers rapped about their lives, networked, and found lovers. In addition, they tried to understand the multiple forms of oppression they faced and articulate their vision of a liberated future that included them. While they sometimes railed against those who sought to render them invisible, black queers were also eager to incorporate into their own agenda the lessons learned from other social movements.
The collective feelings of empowerment many developed in these groups were short-lived, however. The groups were usually small and had problems maintaining membership. Many met in spaces that were dominated and controlled by whites, which provoked anxiety among those who rarely socialized in white America. Interpersonal conflicts and disputes over group direction took their toll, too. They were also victims of larger forces beyond their control. The country’s mood grew more conservative, and the growing emphasis among white queers on single-issue reformist politics often meant that the multiple oppressions many black queers faced were not addressed. The number and visibility of black queer groups declined for a while. However, beginning in the mid-1970s, they reemerged.
Black queer women led the charge. Salsa Soul Sisters began as the Black Lesbian Caucus of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York in 1971. These black and Latina women reorganized several times after that. Through continued networking, they were able to arrive at a core membership, organizational structure, and agenda that worked by 1975. Like their earlier counterparts, Salsa Soul Sisters focused on providing spaces where members could network, discuss their lives, and become empowered. The group also published a newsletter and sponsored social events. Salsa Soul Sisters managed to survive and prosper by continually adapting to the needs of its changing core members. By the 1990s the members had transformed themselves into African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change. As of 2003, they remain the oldest black queer organization in the country.
During the 1980s black queer groups proliferated, partly in response to the AIDS crisis. Some combined the social functions previous groups emphasized with political activism. There was often tension in some groups between those who favored one over the other. The groups were either co-or single-gender, and they were often located in cities with large black queer populations. Washington, D.C., New York, and California had a disproportionate number of them. By the early 1990s one black queer magazine listed almost 200 groups. Increasingly, the types of groups became more diverse. There were those that focused on health/HIV/AIDS, interracialism, Afrocentrism, and spirituality, among others. However, some elements of black queer America continued to be underrepresented, most notably bisexual and trans-gender men and women.
Most of these groups have been grassroots efforts to provide social, cultural, economic, spiritual, or political support and empowerment to local black queer communities. Although financial difficulties, lack of support, and internal conflicts led to the quick demise of some groups, others became influential and have had a lasting impact on the communities they serve. Prominent examples include the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles and Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) in New York. Perhaps because of the difficulties in developing and sustaining programming on a weekly or monthly basis, since the late 1980s many groups have only held annual or special events, such as the Nia Collective’s annual retreats in Los Angeles for black lesbians.
In the late 1970s national groups emerged. They fostered and provided networking opportunities for local groups and leaders, helped set the political agenda for and advocated the interests of black queers, and helped build bridges between black queers and the larger racial and sexual communities of which they are a part. The first of these, what became known as the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, was established in 1978 in Washington, D.C. A year later the coalition hosted the National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference, which was held in conjunction with the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Financial difficulties and conflicts over direction led to the coalition’s demise in the early 1990s, but other groups followed its example. The National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, founded in Los Angeles in 1988 by Phill Wilson and Ruth Waters, holds annual conferences and retreats. At their peak in the early 1990s these conferences attracted more than one thousand participants and well-known figures such as Jesse Jackson, Natalie Cole, bell hooks, and Cornel West. Like the coalition, the Leadership Forum has battled financial difficulties and conflicts over leadership direction.
Although the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays and the Leadership Forum attempted to be broad-based national organizations, others have been more focused. The Black Men’s (and Women’s) Xchange, founded in Los Angeles in 1989 by Cleo Manago, is dedicated to serving and promoting Afrocentric homosexualities and transgenderisms. Within a few years, it established chapters in more than half a dozen cities, including Denver, Chicago, and Atlanta. The Xchange’s numbers have since dwindled, but it continues to be influential in California. The Unity Fellowship Church Movement (UFCM), founded in Los Angeles in 1985 by Bishop Carl Bean, is an attempt to provide a safe space for queer black Christians to develop a spirituality that both affirms their sexuality and is rooted in black religious culture. It currently has churches in fifteen cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Detroit.
The International Federation of Black Prides (IFBP) and the Zuna Institute represent two recent attempts at national organizing. The federation was created in 2000 to promote and help coordinate the growing number of annual Black Pride events across the country. This celebration of black queerness began in Washington, D.C., in 1991, and the movement has since spread to at least sixteen other cities. The Zuna Institute, founded in 1999, is the first major attempt to establish a national organization to promote the interests of black queer women and provide networking opportunities for local groups and leaders. Their accomplishments include successful conferences in Atlanta (2001) and Los Angeles (2003).
Issues and Conflicts
A central conflict among the leaders of black queer organizations has been who will serve as the chief representative of black queers. Related to this have been the organizations’ relationships with white queers and heterosexual blacks. Some, such as Manago, have been critical of groups that have close connections to white queer communities. He believes that groups like the Leadership Forum do not in fact represent those black queers whose social and political ties lie primarily with black America. According to Manago and other Afrocentrists, those belonging to groups like the Leadership Forum spend their lives in mostly white queer worlds, and group members have little connection to, and do not value, black communities and culture.
Another central tension within many of these groups has been the conflict between the desire to fight for inclusion within black heterosexual and white queer communities, while asserting differences from these same communities. This tension has manifested itself in several ways. On the one hand, black queers have shown their unity with the larger queer and black communities by participating in events and institutions sponsored by those groups, creating and maintaining relationships with community leaders, and fighting for inclusion by challenging various forms of racism, sexism, and heterosexism. On the other hand, black queers have asserted their uniqueness within black communities by becoming more visible as queers and by creating institutions that reflect positive ideas about their sexuality and gender personas. In addition, many Afrocentrists and cultural pluralists have distinguished themselves from white queers by choosing names for their groups that reflect their African or black American heritage, such as Nia Collective, Adodi, and Ujima. Afrocentrists have also led the way in creating sexual identities (“same-genderloving” and “adodi”) and symbols (the “Bawabu”) that do not reflect white conceptions (“gay/lesbian/queer”) and symbols (pink triangles and rainbow flags). Some of their attempts to appropriate African ideas, however, have been problematic. For example, advocates claim that “adodi” is Yoruba for “a man who loves another man,” and the “Bawabu” is Swahili for “gatekeeper,” a mediator between men and women, as well as between the material and spiritual worlds. Although homosexuality and transgenderism existed in many pre-colonial African cultures, and African conceptions of them were often different from those developed by white queers in the United States and Western Europe, academic research does not substantiate the aforementioned claims.
Black Queer Periodicals
Since the late 1960s there has been an explosion in the number of periodicals that serve queer communities. The Advocate and Gay Community News have been among the more influential publications. Whether they offered a glimpse into consumer lifestyles, social and cultural criticism, or community news and events, they connected queer communities, both nationally and internationally. When blacks flipped through the pages of many of these periodicals, however, they often found representations of their lives and communities missing. This was also the case when they read popular black publications such as Essence or Ebony. To correct this, black queers both fought for greater diversity within white queer and black heterosexual periodicals and created their own.
Among the early periodicals published by and for blacks “in the life” were Blacklight and included Moja = Gay and Black. Both began publishing in the late 1970s. Most of these early efforts focused on men. In the early 1980s black women produced several of their own periodicals, including Onyx and Azalea. The number of black queer periodicals grew dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1991 one survey listed more than twenty. Most focused on specific aspects of black queer life, such as women’s culture, the arts, popular culture, Afrocentrism, interracialism, politics, and erotica.
The late 1980s saw the arrival of the first black queer publication to become a major national presence: BLK, a newsmagazine founded by Alan Bell in 1988. More so than the others before it, BLK tried to be a general chronicler of life in black queer America. It was able to create a national collective awareness of community and culture building through its news stories, interviews with black queer leaders, advertisements, reviews, gossip columns, and features. It was one of several publications founded by Bell during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., emerged as the centers of this publishing boom. Most black queer periodicals had relatively short lives, lasting only a year or two, and had frequent difficulties adhering to a regular publishing schedule. Limited personnel, finances, circulation, and distribution areas hampered them. Nonetheless, several managed to stay afloat at least five years, including BLK, Venus, and SBC. At their peak, they could be found in queer and mainstream bookstores across the country, as well as on the Internet. Collectively, these periodicals allowed black queers to learn about and network with each other across the African diaspora. Although the periodicals were in some ways a unifying force, they also reflected community divisions. Gender continued to be one of these divisions. For example, although BLK claimed to represent men and women, some female readers wrote letters of complaint alleging its lack of coverage of women’s issues. New magazines such as Aché tried to correct this imbalance.
Primary community affiliation (queer integrationist vs. same-gender-loving Afrocentric) was another division. Some accused black queer publications such as BLK of being ideologically and financially beholden to white queers and those blacks who had established their primary social and political relationships with them. In response, several Afrocentric periodicals that reflected African and black American cultural values and traditions were initiated. The most prominent was Stanley Bennett Clay’s SBC, founded in 1992. Touted as the “Africentric Homosexual Magazine” of record, it promoted the lives and politics of same-gender-loving folks in the African diaspora—and castigated those blacks whose minds they believed had been colonized by whites.
Despite the divisions these newspapers and magazines continue to function as an important glue that connects black queers and their communities. They also serve as a resource for, and a challenge to, those white queer and heterosexual black periodicals that continue to exclude or provide limited coverage of black queer life.
Black queer groups and periodicals face many challenges. There is the struggle simply to survive, along with the conflicts over how to define themselves and relate both to each other and to their racial and sexual counterparts. Despite these problems, though, these groups and periodicals have been, and continue to be, central to building a cohesive black queer community and forcing the rest of society to rethink the links between race, gender, and sexuality.