‘We Must Document Ourselves Now’: The Legacy of Black Lesbian Feminist Leadership

I am most aligned with the people who force the world to be accountable for its stigma, bias, and hate. There is nothing that captures the spirit of Pride better than that.

[Photo: Two Black women smile as they embrace each other.]
Seven and the author in front of the Greater Cleveland LGBT Center. Courtesy of Jasmine Burnett

As I prepare to celebrate Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion with my beloved friends in New York City, I reflect on the words of Barbara Smith, a founding member of the Black lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective.

“Despite some genuine efforts to increase diversity, especially in progressive movement circles, exclusivity and elitism still divide us,” Smith told the New York Times this month. “We have won rights and achieved recognition that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, but many of us continue to be marginalized, both in the larger society and within the movement itself.” 

Her words remind me of the ways in which communities that navigate oppression maintain resilience in the face of state and vigilante violence. I’m haunted by the solemn reminder of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the unchecked, inhumane, and deadly targeting of Black trans women across the United States; by the 2018 murder of Afro-Brazilian lesbian feminist Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro after she attended a Black women’s empowerment event; and by the story of Monica James, a Black trans woman activist who in 2007 was jailed for defending herself against an off-duty Chicago police officer and subsequently placed in a men’s prison, where she was brutally sexually violated and denied gender-affirming health care.

All of this weighs heavy in my body. What makes me proud, however, is that as violent and terrifying as these experiences are for Black lesbian, queer, and transgender women, we are brave. We overcome our fears of brutality and harm for the promises of liberation. We literally risk our lives for society to respect our humanity. I am most aligned with the people who force the world to be accountable for its stigma, bias, and hate. There is nothing that captures the spirit of Pride better than that.

Every year I will celebrate how far I have come. And at the same time, I will recognize what we’re still struggling with as a community, including minimizing and overlooking the impact of Black lesbian feminist activists who helped to shape the legacy of the LGBTQ movement today. We must tell the full stories of our communities in a way that challenges the masses to shift social, political, economic, and cultural ideas about the roles and identities of LGBTQ people. Invisibility is a breeding ground for violence, and none of us can afford to be left behind.

When I moved to Brooklyn in 2009 and had my first job at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York (CLAGS), the history of Black lesbian feminism taught me about the legacies of resistance that have created the vision for our community today. Our team during my tenure was all lesbian-identified womyn, led by Executive Director Sarah Chinn, a professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Hunter College. In October 2010, we convened a landmark festival, “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 70s,” an event thatcall[ed] upon experience, memory, and scholarship to represent as fully as possible the broad and wide experience of lesbians during the 1970s.” It was also an opportunity for me to experience a richness of identity and visibility that I thought I had missed out on.

Last year, I wrote about a special time stamp in my life: being an out Black lesbian for 20 years. This year, I want to continue in the tradition of that CLAGS festival to amplify the Black lesbian feminists who have built on the long legacy of radical lesbian activism.

One lesser-known Black lesbian feminist is Ernestine Eckstein, who was involved with the organization Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA). BWOA was among the first Black feminist organizations in the United States. In 1965, Eckstein was the only Black woman who demonstrated at the picket for gay rights outside the White House; she held a sign that said, “Denial of Equality of Opportunity is Immoral.” At the time, Ernestine—whose real name was Ernestine D. Eppenger—was a closeted civil service employee who used a pseudonym for her work in the movement while laying her body and financial stability on the line for gay liberation.

In 1966, Eckstein was the first Black lesbian woman to be featured on the cover of The Ladder, a magazine published by the first lesbian civil and political organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Eckstein was vice president of the New York City chapter of the DOB. She pushed the DOB away from negotiating with medical professionals as an organizing tactic and toward a focus on direct action and demonstration. Her interview with the Ladder exemplifies her dynamic position on movements and solidarity: “I think Negroes need white people, and I think homosexuals need heterosexuals. If you foster cooperation right from the start, then everyone is involved and it’s not a movement over there.” 

Challenging people whose privileged identities tend to elicit public compassion and sympathy to participate in direct action and lay their bodies on the line for liberation is not a new tactic. As Eckstein points out, our movements need white co-conspirators. The legal advocacy organization If/When/How provides clarity on this from a racial and reproductive justice framework in a blog post by legal intern Violet Rush: “To be a white co-conspirator means to deliberately acknowledge that people of color are criminalized for dismantling white supremacy. It means we choose to take on the consequences of participating in a criminalized act, and we choose to support and center people of color in the reproductive justice movement. Dismantling white supremacy is a criminalized act for people of color because it is often at odds with the legal system—a system that was created for and designed by white people.” Black people and brown people are targeted, and therefore, our bodies are always on the line. We need our co-conspirators to make themselves visible in an active, accountable, and respectful way to shift power and resources.

In 1970, a group called Radicalesbians, also known as “Lavender Menace,” used direct action by protesting the exclusion of lesbians at the Second Congress to Unite Women, a feminist conference held in New York City that did not include any out lesbians as speakers. Radicalesbians responded by distributing their manifesto, “The Woman-Identified Woman.” It is fair to say that the term “woman-identified woman” is now more often presented as a term to exclude trans people than it is seen as an opportunity to center cisgender lesbian experiences. It would also be irresponsible, insensitive, and disrespectful for me to deny the fact that gender non-conforming and transgender people experience trauma through various levels of harm and invisibility from both cisgender men and women.

Cisgender lesbians, particularly Black lesbians, also experience harm and invisibility from members of the queer and straight communities. And I believe it is still valuable to read and reference the Radicalesbians manifesto as a source for dismantling binary gender roles connected to heterosexual relationships: “As long as woman’s liberation tries to free women without facing the basic heterosexual structure that binds us in one-to-one relationship with our oppressors, tremendous energies will continue to flow into trying to straighten up each particular relationship with a man, into finding how to get better sex, how to turn his head around—into trying to make the ‘new man’ out of him, in the delusion that this will allow us to be the ‘new woman.’ This obviously splits our energies and commitments, leaving us unable to be committed to the construction of the new patterns which will liberate us.”

The manifesto argues, “In a society in which men do not oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear.”

Where the Radicalesbian’s “Woman-Identified Woman” falls short of an intersectional gender analysis that addresses anti-Blackness and racism, the Combahee River Collective’s statement picks up the slack. Its care for nuance is explicit in the way the collective holds the complexity of solidarities at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and economic possibilities: “Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” This analysis is central to the ways in which Black lesbian feminists organize and build community.

The LGBTQ movement also clings to the legacy of Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde—particularly her 1978 essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power,” which identifies our erotic as the catalyst for our abilities to create provocative changes in our lives. Similar threads have continued in adrienne maree brown’s bestselling book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, and in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ work to share Black feminist wisdom and Black lesbian storytelling through her Mobile Homecoming project with partner Julia Sangodare Roxanne Wallace. These examples provide a vision for reproductive justice through the values of bodily autonomy and self-determination, which in turn can challenge the white cisgender heteronormative status quo. Lorde’s work provided a vision for exploring space, place, and acceptance of ourselves. Her contribution cannot be denied.

The legacy of Black lesbian feminists also continues with my neighbor, dear friend, and sister, Phyllis “Seven” Harris. As the executive director of the Greater Cleveland LGBT Community Center, this incredible woman has raised $4.9 million in less than five years to purchase and design a new LGBT center for the city to ensure that LGBTQ youth, and the community that supports them, have a space that respects their dignity and is safe to hold the complexities of their lives. Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, New York City, and Atlanta often stand out as safer areas for LGBTQ people; however, Black lesbian feminist leadership does exist beyond the coasts and the south. Seven’s leadership is one of many shining examples of this fact.

In addition to being a leader in the broader LGBTQ community in Cleveland, Seven has literally created community in her own backyard. In Larchmere, a neighborhood straddling Cleveland and Shaker Heights she has brought together a social community group: The Lesbians of Larchmere/Lesbians of Larchmere Allies (LOLz/LOLa). Before moving to Ohio, I stayed in an Airbnb on Larchmere about four blocks from Seven’s home. She invited me over for breakfast one winter morning, and essentially told me I would be an excellent addition to the neighborhood. Almost four years later, I have made my home with the Lesbians of Larchmere.

I share this story because our communities are now frequently formed via social media more often than they are in person. The ability to connect community to the place where you and your loved ones are supported and safe can be absent in online spaces. In a world that is rapidly criminalizing anything outside the world of white conservative cisgender men and their allies of color , living in a safe and supportive community is critical to peace of mind and the ability to live, grow, and thrive. Seven’s vision for community transcends institution. It is how she lives her life.

Audre Lorde teaches in her book Sister Outsider that “your silence will not protect you.” As I live inside the evolution of our community, I wonder how our support for all voices will be able to hold the full spectrum of our identities. This year, I will remember those who have experienced the trauma of invisibility by our community, and who still show up regularly for the healing that is necessary for our collective liberation.

I’ll end this conversation as I began it, with the words of Barbara Smith—and her twin sister, Beverly—from an issue of the lesbian feminist literary magazine Conditions published in 1979, the year I was born: “As Black women, as Lesbians and feminists there is no guarantee that our lives will ever be looked at with the kind of respect given to certain people from other races, sexes or classes. There is singularly no guarantee that we or our movement will survive long enough to become safely historical. We must document ourselves now.”

So to you all, I say: Happy Pride 2019, from a Midwestern Black lesbian feminist.