Last year when Lena Waithe won an Emmy, watching her go on stage with her dreads and her golden blazer felt cathartic. Visibility is one of the most vital tools in not only legitimizing people’s existence but also normalizing them. The increased presence of out queer people in media and in the world at large slowly chips away at the heterosexist arbitrary process of coming out because it curbs people’s propensity to assume things about how a person identifies.
However, queer people are still institutionally and socially marginalized. That’s why we need queer spaces, to create a sanctuary. When the world exists to essentially devalue your livelihood, community is essential in sustaining it. Having a group of queer friends who see us and relate to us, a chosen family that doesn’t love us despite who we are, is how we survive.
When I left Florida, I had just come out to myself and a few of my closest friends. I moved to LA craving the mundanity of everyday queerness because constant exceptionalism can be dehumanizing, it can bolster otherness in ugly ways. So I started to make friends and quickly found myself surrounded by amazing and supportive queer women. But the more we went out the more I began to realize the haunting relationship between isolation and intersectionality.
Having multiple, sometimes conflicting identities means always feeling like you have to sacrifice parts of yourself to feel whole in one community. Walking into lesbian spaces and being the only group that doesn’t consist of just white women is alarming. I’m used to being the only black person in most rooms because I’ve always existed in the world as a black woman. In LA especially, seeking out inclusive lesbian spaces means tucking away my blackness in order not to feel like an anomaly. When you’re part of a community that’s supposed to feel like home and you still feel that constant otherness, it’s exponentially more isolating.
When I’m around white people in general, I have to perform. Performance as QTPOC can manifest itself in a lot of ways. Sometimes it’s physical representation because of the double standards that WOC experience. Having dyed hair, for example, is almost customary for queer white women but usually denoted as ghetto for black women. Sometimes performing entails code-switching, which involves staying away from language that can be used to undermine our intelligence while listening to white women yell “YASSS QUEEN” on the dance floor. The convoluted use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), its popularization in the mainstream accompanied by the still present stigmatization of black people who use it, is cultural colonization at it’s finest, and it’s ever-present in the gay community.
The point of performing though, the ultimate goal is to blend in without making waves. Expressed unabashed Blackness makes white women in white spaces uncomfortable and they either react by rejecting it or by overcompensating, i.e. screaming “YASSS QUEEN” on the dance floor. So performing alleviates that discomfort. It’s burdensome on the POC. My personhood making you uncomfortable is not my problem. Yet I always feel the need to suppress that part of myself because all these women are supposed to be my community.
A white women I met at a party in LA and have since been out with a few times once came up to me at a party I was at with a group of my friends. I usually keep my hair short but at the time, I had braids. This is a hair story because every Black woman has a hair story. Or several hundreds. After saying hello to everyone she leaned close to me. I figured she wanted to say something and the music was loud enough that I wasn’t at all put-off. She then grabbed the end of my ponytail and said, “This is fake hair. You have on fake hair.” I was uncomfortable standing next to her the rest of the night, and she probably has no recollection of the encounter. This is one of many stories about microaggressions that emerge from white women’s need to ease their discomfort by making WOC uncomfortable.
Lesbian events usually feel half like parties with people who you have a shared bond with and half like trying to navigate a space that clearly isn’t contingent on your presence. And that’s a debilitating realization that causes all sorts of existential turmoil about what it means to be queer, and if feeling like a part of the community is worth all this internal unrest.
When I talk to white women about the lesbian scene in LA, their complaints are usually all similar; there aren’t any bars that cater to gay women, we only get one night a week, some of our parties are still inundated with men. These complaints of course bare truth. Queer women have to fight to maintain their presence in this community and that fight is legitimate and valid. But every time I talk with my WOC friends about the same issues, the first thing we talk about is how certain queer spaces aren’t inclusive of POC.
That’s why we stop going to those parties, we’re tired of being the only group that’s not white.
This is a problem that doesn’t exist to anyone but us. It’s abundantly evident that most white women aren’t working to unlearn the practice of their privilege in queer spaces. There seems to be an implication that queerness can bandage racism. But we all enjoy some level of privilege. It’s not about who has it worse, it’s about understanding how the society you live in, caters to you in ways it doesn’t cater to others. Then, it’s about working to remedy that discrepancy.
I’m extremely weary of white women who only have white friends yet claim to be crusaders of racial justice. If you live in LA and all your friends look like you, think about why.
Being a good ally means more than having a Scandal watch parties with all your white friends and wearing shirts that say, Black Lives Matter. This also isn’t about tokenism or finding a WOC spokesperson for your white group. This is about, on a human level, reflecting on what it’s like to exist in a world where your identity is delegitimized, and then applying that feeling to the community that’s supposed to be your lifeline. That’s how you begin to understand us.