With October being Coming Out Month, I thought I would re-introduce a subgroup in our LGBTQ community that is too often forgotten and/or ignored -- lesbians, bisexual, and transgender women of African descent.
I want to re-introduce this group because a groundbreaking study in July came out titled "Black Lesbians Matter" examining the unique experiences, perspectives, and priorities of the Black LBT community, and sadly little is known about it.
This report reveals that LBT women of African descent are among the most vulnerable in our society and need advocacy in the areas of financial security, healthcare, access to education, and marriage equality.
The study is akin to a census conducted over several months in 2009-2010 where 1,596 LBT women from regional, statewide, and local organizations in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver, and also through an on-line survey participated. The study focused on five key areas: health, family/parenting, identity, aging, and invisibility.
Key findings of the survey revealed the following:
• Health -- There is a pattern of higher suicide rates among us. Scholars have primarily associated these higher suicide rates with one's ability to deal with "coming out."
• Family/Parenting -- 45% of Black female same-sex households include a biological child of one of the partners in their household. Anti-gay parenting policies in the United States will disproportionately affect Black LBT parents, or would-be parents.
• Identity -- In the 18-24 age group 69% are least likely to identify as lesbian. Mostly identify as queer.
• Aging -- 25% over the age of 50 live alone and fear poverty and homelessness.
• Invisibility -- 48% have been rejected and discriminated against, disclosing one's identity in the workplace leading to exclusion from company events, and even termination.
It's clear the survey brings to the forefront information from a traditionally marginalized group, highlighting the needs and concerns defined by the community. But Zuna is the first to gather the data on us.
Although Zuna Institute has been around since 1999, people still ask who they are.
In the inimitable way that black women's kitchens function as "think tanks" on social justice and civil rights issues, birthing numerous organizations, is also how Zuna Institute was founded. Zuna is the first of its kind in becoming a national organization providing services to the Black LBT community. Believing that the development of a healthy Black LBT identity can only come about by advocating specifically for LBT of African descent on a national level, and it would effectively eliminate the stigma and the barriers of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation discrimination we face daily, Zuna aims at bettering our quality of life by holding national conferences providing relational/social and educational resources to use for healthcare, political, and economic advocacy.
Since the 1970s there has been nearly a twenty-year hiatus since the country has seen collective black LBT activism on a national level.
However, back in the 1970s LBT women of African descent had a more prominent and visible role in queer and feminist politics. Two of the hot spots were New York and Boston.
In New York the "Salsa Soul Sisters, Third World Wimmin Inc Collective" was the first "out" women of color organization and oldest black lesbian organization in the country. Today the group is known as "African Ancestral Lesbians United for Social Change."
And in Boston the "Combahee River Collective," referring to Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad, who freed 750 slaves near the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1863, was an active black feminist lesbian organization from 1974-1980. The group is most known for "The Combahee River Collective Statement," a key document in the history and shaping of black feminist thought. The document presented a new paradigm to look at oppressions by not ranking them, like race, class, gender and sexual orientation, on a hierarchy of oppression, but rather to look at them all from a multidimensional analysis, recognizing them as interlocking oppressions.
Today here in Greater Boston the ethos of the "Combahee River Collective" is continued with "Queer Women of Color and Friends" (QWOC+ Boston), a grassroots organization dedicated to creating a diverse social space for LGBTQ women of color.
Deceased African-American poet and activist Pat Parker, in her book Movement in Black, wrote about how society did not embrace her multiple identities. "If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, 'No, you stay home tonight, you won't be welcome, because I'm going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black.' Or I'm going to a Black poetry reading, and half of the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution."
After nearly two decades of LBT women of African descent's invisibility on a national level, Zuna is causing a revolution by taking the bold step in this era of single-issue queer politics to remind us all we, too, matter.