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Who is Responsible for Telling Black LGBT Stories?

Today I saw an interesting rant/media analysis written by Helen McDonald for Autostraddle. In the piece, Loving the Women Who Look Like Me: Queer Black Women in Love, she talks about the dearth of healthy black lesbian relationships portrayed in media and discusses the prevalence of interracial lesbian relationships in media.

She starts out by writing:

” When I first came out to myself two years ago, I didn’t know how to love the women who looked like me. I barely knew how to accept my same gender desires, but at least the TV shows, movies, and books that lauded ivory-skinned beauties with hair that grows and flows down taught me how to lust after white women. But, loving, lusting after, dating, fucking, playing with, and appreciating the women with dark(er) skin, and kinky hair (or braids, or perms, or weaves), who were taught, like me, that their curves and edges were undesirable proved a mystery to me.”

To be quite frank, I found the piece a bit tiresome and the arguments put forward a bit hackneyed. While it is true that our relationships are not prevalent in media–and that lack is the entire reason for this blog–what difference does complaining about this make? In some ways it’s like preaching to the choir in my estimation. (Or maybe not as Autostraddle seems to cater to white queer women.) We are not mainstream yet and I’m not at all sure that I’m all that worried about becoming mainstream. What I think we should all be concerned about is making respect and social justice mainstream. And in the interim I’m more interested in seeing us take control of and tell our stories. I believe Elixher, for which McDonald also writes, is doing an excellent job telling the stories of black queer women. I think Media Diversified is also doing the same. I hate to sound like Booker T. Washington here but this is a process. With numerous talented black queer women adding their voices to the blogosphere and telling our stories across various forms of media, it is only a matter of time before we get to critical mass and maybe some day mainstream ubiquity. The long and short of it is that black women have not traditionally been commercially viable and that has not changed dramatically over the years. Add to that the still strong taboo of them being in lesbian relationships and you can forget it. I’m not saying this is okay. I’m just stating a fact. Looking back at media over time one can see that indeed a certain type of womanhood (white, skinny, blonde, straight, conventionally attractive) has dominated our screens and magazines. By that token we also don’t see many fat people in loving relationships, which is why the CBS sitcom Molly and Mike was so groundbreaking. We never see Asians represented in media in non-model minority roles much less their love stories. We don’t see many older people in relationships portrayed either (The Golden Girls, also a classic and one of my favorite shows, was probably the only commercially successful program to do so. And don’t bring up Hot in Clevelandcuz the show is not hot.) By the way, we don’t see many straight, married, nuclear black families in mainstream media either.

While I believe McDonald has a point in stating that mainstream media gives us skewed and limited views of black love and to a greater extent black lesbian love, anyone who has worked in media or simply observed from the sidelines knows the deal. Media execs are not all that interested in responsible journalism or accurate portrayal of diverse groups. The average American consumer in general thrives on lazy stereotypes and is easily titilated by nonsense and drama, which is why “reality shows,” which I find interminably boring, are cluttering our screens. Let’s face it, unless a TV station has the letters PBS in it, they are not in the business of education. They are in the business of garnering viewers and ad revenue and they will only get that almighty dollar by commodifying what viewers want to see. There is a reason why Modern Family is a hit–gay white dads who play up several gay stereotypes–are a bit more palatable to mainstream America than black lesbian moms. Again I’m not saying this is acceptable.

As for McDonald’s comments about black women dating white women in media that’s neither here nor there for me. We are all entitled to our preferences. Who am I to question that preference? I’m happy for Robin Roberts that she found a loving partner. I happen to prefer dating and highlighting the lives of black women. It also may be that black women who date white women may be more comfortable with their sexuality and therefore more likely to live their lives out in the open. Just a theory. I don’t know if it holds any water.

The point that I’m making is that I don’t look toward mainstream media as my compass for all things normal. I did at one point and grew up and realized I would be holding my breath for a very long time waiting for people like me to show up in prime time. That’s when I decided that with my background in media it was up to me to tell the stories I wanted to see. After all isn’t that why most of us became writers? To tell the stories that may never get heard in mainstream outlets? And fortunately there is a willing audience out there hungry and waiting to see themselves reflected in our poetry, prose, YouTube series, etc. Admittedly some of these shows have a long way to go and because they sometimes traffic in stereotypes may not be much better than being invisible in mainstream shows. This is where plurality of voices is critical. We have to come out of the shadows and tell our own stories and share our own love stories with each other, from different angles, in different voices and in many ways. This audience, no matter how small, is why I do what I do and honestly, I really could care one iota about seeing women like myself in mainstream media. I have a voice here and I’m happy to share it with those who are searching. And while McDonald reiterates valid arguments, I think we cannot keep making these arguments without acknowledging the work that many queer people of color are doing on our behalf. Neither should we forget that we do not have to wait for media integration for our voices to be heard.

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Article written by:

Zamara Perri

Zamara Perri is the founder and editor of the Black Lesbian Love Lab blog. She loves black love and loves mangoes, cats, reading, cooking and writing about some of the challenges and joys of black lesbian relationships.

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