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First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage?

March 16, 2012

Lately the gay marriage train has been picking up speed with more and more states jumping on board and granting same-sex couples the same rights as straight ones. On one hand, I’m excited. I think it’s great that love is being recognized and that heterosexual love is being taken off of its pedestal as the only true representation of love. On the other hand, the radical Black lesbian feminist one, I can’t help but feel some discomfort with this extension of marriage, an institution that has a long history of being riddled with oppression and control. I’m reminded of Audre Lorde’s famous speech, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in which she argues that as long as we’re using the tools of the “master” or the ruling class, we can never truly achieve authentic liberation. What does this mean for love and relationships, then? Can queer people or any non-married people for that matter, really achieve true love and lasting commitment in the absence of marriage? I decided to take my question to Facebook and got some really interesting answers.

“It is a personal decision,” says Facebook user, Quanita, “I think the legalizing matters because it is a contract. We, in this culture, put more weight on contracts.”

Quanita is right. Relationships, it seems, aren’t real until after the marriage. How many people in long-term, loving relations get hounded about when they will get married? It’s almost like they’re viewed as being in a state of limbo until they make it official with a legally binding contract. It’s even evidenced in the way married people and even Hallmark, celebrate love honoring the anniversary of the marriage over the anniversary of when the relationship itself began. Apparently, it’s the legal recognition, not the love, that solidifies relationships.

“To me it’s a sense of accomplishment as is anything else I’m proud of,” Facebook user Brandie says, “Sort of like my awards for serving in the Army, diploma, degrees, what have you. That was an accomplishment and to me to have something physical to hold on to makes it all better and worthwhile.”

But was does that legal contract mean? Not too long ago, it awarded ownership of the wife to the husband. Women were seen as the property of the men to which they were married. How do we escape that history, especially when remnants of it are still visible in modern day marriage ceremonies. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to several weddings in which the bride vows to love, honor, trust and obey her husband. Is that what queer and non-traditional couples want?

“Even though history tells us that marriage has been oppressive, that is not my marriage,” Quanita argues, “I and my partner get to choose what it is for us. We don’t have to let anyone else decide for us what it means.”

Another Facebook user, Trenia, agrees.

“Ownership, oppression and sexism exist without marriage, look at what many single, black mothers experience on a daily basis and they aren’t even getting any benefits,” she points out.

She’s right. Single women in dating relationships often struggle with the same issues as married women – infidelity, financial strain and dominance and control. In fact, there has been growing concern regarding abusive dating relationships among teens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 9.8 percent of teens experience some degree of physical abuse in their dating relationships. So if this is true of non-married relationships, perhaps then the cause for concern isn’t the institution of marriage itself, but the societal attitudes that breed violent behavior against women.

Financial benefits are another aspect that many cite as reason why marriage is advantageous.

“It has its economical benefits,” Facebook user Sun says, “I mean it’s on paper.”

Trenia elaborates, “The reality is in a marriage some things are easier, basic things like insurance.”

Perhaps then, legal marriage isn’t about the love and commitment, instead it’s about the benefits awarded to married couples, like tax breaks and access to health care. Quanita says that she knew a couple who decided not to get married but had to reconsider that decision when they realized that they both couldn’t be covered on the same health insurance plan unless they were legally married.

“We then had a conversation about how that cheapened it,” she said.

“Seriously,” Lauren asks, “Why are couples are required to pay a fee and obtain a license? Does doing so make them a professional couple??? Personally, I don’t need marriage to transfer all the things that my partner and I should be exchanging in the first place.”

And so I ask, why can’t a couple who is love and ready to commit just make a commitment to each other without all of the rest of it? When people talk about marriage, they don’t usually talk about the legalities of it. What makes it special and sacred to me is the love and commitment, things that can be had without government sanctioning.

Kaylen, says that she felt the same way until meeting the man that she wants to marry.

“Personally,” she begins, “for a long time, I assumed I would never find someone I loved enough to make that kind of commitment to. And I was fine with that…at least, I thought I was. But now, I’ve reached a point where I have accepted that I DO have love in my life, and I DO have someone that I want to share my life with, and I DO want to legalize it and get all the benefits, and I DO want to celebrate it with friends and family.”

And is that wrong? I don’t think so. What Kaylen speaks of seems to me to be the cultural imagining of love and marriage. In our culture, that’s just what you do when you meet someone you love and want to share your life with – you marry them. Because we equate life-long love with marriage, and because our systems support that idea by awarding married couples certain privileges that non-married couples aren’t privy to, it can be hard to maintain a life-long commitment outside of the institution of marriage. It can especially difficult for queer couples who have been socialized in the same ways regarding love and relationships. It makes sense then, that for many queer people, gay marriage is a pressing issue.

So where does that leave me in my waffling back and forth on the issue? Pretty much in the same spot. While I still don’t think marriage is for me, I very much desire a committed, long-term relationship. I do very much value marriage and relationships for those who choose it, but for me there has to be something different. I want the marriage, I even want the contract, but I don’t want the legal aspects of it. For me, it comes down to this: if I don’t want the government in my body, then I don’t want it in my relationship either.

Women Get Two Choices It Seems

March 16, 2012

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve noticed what seems to be a war on women. From the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke spectacle, to the anti-woman platforms of the candidates for the Republican presidential ticket, to this proposed law in Arizona that would require women to prove their reasons for birth control coverage before it’s granted, it seems that women and their ability to make sound decisions regarding their body, is under siege.

“Do the lawmakers in AZ just sit around all day thinking of crazy ass laws?” one Facebook user, Alicia, asks.

It certainly seems like it. But why? Perhaps lawmakers just want to make their jobs easier by having large numbers of their constituents flee the country. Maybe with a smaller number of actual people to represent, they can get things done a lot quicker. Facebook user, Trenia of New York, agrees.

 “That’s it!” she declared, “I’m leaving the country, again.”

Another Facebook user remarked, “This country is scary.”

She’s right. These events are scary. So, maybe instead of leave, the government just wants us to live in fear. That certainly seems like a viable possibility after the fear campaign waged by conservatives in the previous decade. Apparently Americans should be afraid of everything from Muslim terrorists, to lesbian and gay love, to Black folks of course, to immigrants from the global South. I don’t know about you, but from my experience, people are a lot easier to control when they’re afraid.

So it looks like women and the people who really love them, are being given two choices: they can either leave or be ruled by fear. Neither one seems all that great to me.

 

 

White Gazes on Black Bodies or Here We Go Again…

March 15, 2012

I wanted to write this brilliantly angry, this blindingly powerful post on police brutality, specifically government sanctioned killing of Black people. But I couldn’t. I wanted to wax philosophical about power and privilege and racism and violence and, well, death. But somehow the words failed me. I wanted to write a call to action, to encourage people to stand up and fight back. But the energy and the belief in its effectiveness stopped me dead in my tracks. So here I sit, overcome by fear. Just like I’m supposed to be.

On the evening of January 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman. To our American ears, this doesn’t sound alarming. We’ve long since grown immune to the news of the death by force of hundreds of our own each year because well, we hear about it every day on the evening news, on Facebook, on Twitter, on CNN.com… It’s everywhere. But this particular murder caught my eye. You see, Trayvon was only 17 and all he was doing was walking. Well, that’s not all he was doing, he was killed for the crime of walking while Black. Zimmerman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch, was suspicious of Trayvon’s presence in his neighborhood and called the police as he patrolled the neighborhood in his car, to report Trayvon’s questionable behavior, because you know walking is so suspect. Somehow though, between Zimmerman’s call and the arrival of the police, Zimmerman decided it was necessary to use his gun on the boy and shot him dead. Trayvon’s bag of Skittles and bottle of ice tea was no match for Zimmerman’s firearm.

That was two weeks ago, but today charges have yet to be filed against Zimmerman. Yes, he is a free man, while Trayvon will never again get to see the light of day. Somehow, saying that that is unfair seems like an understatement of the grossest kind.

What I feel is indescribable, but I’ll try to describe it anyway. I feel raw. I feel sick. I feel angry and frustrated and tired. I feel rage. I feel powerless. I feel murderous. I feel… afraid. Afraid because this type of thing is not new. Black bodies have fallen victim to white gazes over and over and over again throughout the history of this country. Sometimes it results in clutched pearls and audible gasps, sometimes in the stalking of Black bodies through boutiques as they buy, sometimes in police harassment, sometimes in unemployment, sometimes in incarceration and sometimes in death. Afraid because the little body that I birthed from my own body is covered from head to toe in beautiful, brown skin. Afraid because maybe someone will read it as dangerous on her and decide it’s reason enough to remove her from this earth. Afraid because I feel powerless to stop it.

I just finished writing an essay about what sociologist Dorothy E. Smith terms bifurcated consciousness. Smith uses the term to describe the phenomenon in which women, rendered invisible amid a society, created for and by men learn to view themselves from the male perspective whilst existing and experiencing the world as women. Because the language they use, the knowledge they have, the roles they carry out were created by and for men, they essentially have no way of relating to or articulating their experience. I wonder how this term applies to Black folks in America? Black folks who have been rendered invisible by a society created for and by white folks, in which their reality as Black folks is often obfuscated and silenced. Black folks who must simultaneously carry on their lives while being aware that who they know themselves to be is often obscured by what white folks think them to be. How those imaginings are inscribed on their bodies rendering their spirits, their essence, their selves invisible.

I’m 18. I attend a private, college preparatory high school for girls in Cincinnati, Ohio. I wear a navy blue skirt and white or yellow polo shirt with the name of my school emblazoned above my breast in curly blue script. I also wear a plastic name tag with my first and last name printed in bold letters. I’m one of a sprinkling of Black girls who attend this school where I have come every day for the last 4 years. I’m also very used to some of my teachers and administrators calling me by the name of every other Black girl in the school or some other “Black sounding” name.  I’m invisible.

My best friend is a divorced single mom of a three-year-old little boy. She works part time as a care provider in the children’s room of an upscale fitness facility in Columbus, Ohio. She is the only Black woman employed there. She is also a graduate student in Ohio State University’s MSW program. When she works, she wears the bright green t-shirt required of the child care providers. Every day before she leaves, she must mop the floor of the child care room. She is the only one on the child care staff who has been approached by facility patrons about spills on other floors that need to be cleaned. The only one to be thanked for the great job she does for keeping the place so nice and clean. She is invisible.

My god-brother is 16. He is learning to drive. He attends an upscale, private high school in a suburb of Cincinnati. He also lives in the upscale, predominantly white neighborhood where his school is located. He is Black. So is his father. His father has taken him out to practice driving on the quiet, tree lined streets of his safe neighborhood. This makes the neighbors nervous. A police cruiser stops them and questions them. Apparently someone has called to report suspicious Black men patrolling the neighborhood. They are both invisible.

These are but a sampling of stories, of minute occurrences that happen in the daily lives of Black folks in the US. There are countless others. My best friend, who I mentioned earlier, said she wishes she could just live her life not thinking about this stuff. Not wondering how she’s being perceived. Not questioning if the person she’s speaking to really sees her or sees some stereotype of who she’s supposed to be. This isn’t some whack promotion of colorblindness. This is about human blindness. This is about me being all the incredible and ordinary and not-so-great aspects of my truest self and this is about me also wearing someone else’s interpretation like a dirty bathrobe. While it shouldn’t matter what others think, while I am a proponent of self-definition and self-determination, while I work every day to be internally defined and not externally defined, the fact that a life can be taken and has been taken just because of a gaze means that it does.

I wish I could end this with some good news. With some hope. With some course for action. But I can’t. I don’t know what’s next. I just feel sad and tired. I guess I’ll hold my little girl a little closer tonight, and pray that by some miraculous happenstance, things shift dramatically before she’s old enough to really understand.

No Ordinary Love: A Queer Black Romance

February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine’s day! It’s that day when we celebrate all love, but most commonly the romantic kind of love. Today, we’ll celebrate the birds and the bees and all things romantic with Eboni and Shade’, a newly engaged couple. Eboni, 26, is a social worker with the local department of children’s services, while Shade’, also 26, works in the mortgage department of a major bank. I asked them to share their beautiful love story with us and they kindly obliged my request.

FFF: So, how long have you been together?

Shade’: We have been together for four wonderful years.

FFF: How did you meet?

Eboni: We first met at my 22nd birthday party in Cincinnati. My high school classmate, who Shade’ attended college with at Wright State, brought her down for the party and we became friends. Neither of us expressed romantic interest immediately, but we began dating a few months later.

FFF: When did you know that she was, “The One”?

Shade’: In the beginning I told Eboni that I was not interested in a relationship, that I only wanted to “chill” and be friends. I was intimidated because it was my first “Lezbehonest” experience and she had just got of a relationship with another woman. Then on January 20, 2008, I realized that I was sure Eboni was the one. We were in the bed and I felt that I no longer wanted to share her with anyone else and wanted to be exclusive. We talked about it and she agreed that she felt the same way. We have been together ever since.

FFF: Have you experienced any negativity because of your relationship?

Eboni: Of course we have experienced the normal negativity that most people in same sex relationships are subject to – ignorant comments, stares and overall narrow-mindedness. But surprisingly, most of the negativity we experienced came from within our own families. As Shade’ explained, I am the first woman she has ever been with and this undoubtedly came as a shock to her sister, who she is very close with. I think most of her criticism was out of love and concern for her sister. She honestly thought Shade’ was going through a phase and would be better off with a man. She has two children as well and she often would give Shade’ specific directions as to how to “act” when the kids were around us, as if I was some kind of perpetrator. It took her years to come around and even have a meaningful conversation with me and to accept that what we have is real.

 In addition, my own mother has always expressed her discontent with my lifestyle and this began well before Shade’ and I met. She is a Christian woman with very strong beliefs and very traditional values. She once asked me, “What about my dreams for you? You getting married and having children? What am I supposed to tell people?” She called the pastor to our home to pray for me and once she even threatened to have my father cut me off financially in an attempt to persuade me to live my life as she saw best.  Saying that my mother has expressed some negativity would be putting it lightly, but she has come a long way these last few years.

FFF: How did you get engaged?

Shade’:  It was the day of our fourth anniversary! I was at work and couldn’t wait to get home to her! When I got home, I had not even opened the door with my key, before she opened the door on her chariot (knee scooter, Eboni recently had surgery). I really wanted to burst out laughing because she looked so damn cute, but I didn’t. I walked in and the lights were dim and our apartment was filled with candles flickering. Candles were everywhere! The table was set with wine, lobster, chicken, veggies – the works. Dinner was great and after desert she made me close my eyes as she guided me to the patio. When I was allowed to open my eyes, there were lights that seemed to form words stretched across the patio fence. My first response was, “What does that say!?” I looked again and saw the words “Will You Marry Me?” at least 7×7 feet and I asked her if she was serious! She said that she was. I tried to hug her but she stopped me, she got on her knee, pulled an amethyst and diamond ring out of her pocket and proposed.

FFF: Have you started planning your wedding? How do you envision it?

Eboni: Well, we are newly engaged and wedding plans have been slow to come, but we have decided on fall of next year. She and I are so totally different that in our everyday lives we have trouble choosing what’s for dinner, so it will not come as a surprise to the people who know us best that we can’t even agree on a color scheme, yet alone agreeing on a wedding size, budget, participating persons, etc. We have, however, agreed that we want a non-traditional ceremony to take place outside, near water and that we will take a combination of each of our mothers’ maiden names, as our new, legal name.

FFF: What if anything, will change when you’re married?

Eboni: Legally we have already taken most of the necessary steps to ensure that we both have the right to represent each other’s best interest in our private affairs, medically and financially, by having a power of attorney. We have lived together for most of our relationship and have experienced all of the highs and lows of that, so I can’t really imagine much changing in that regard. I do expect, however, for our lives to enhance and for us to grow more as a couple.  We want to become more financially stable, purchase a home and have children – not necessarily in that order.

FFF: What, if anything do you want people to know about your relationship?

Shade’: I want people to know that we are real and our love is true. We are a very unique couple that didn’t buy into many of the roles most lesbian couples think are necessary to have a lasting relationship. We don’t have a “stud” or a “femme.” We are two women, who love each other very much and every day we laugh, play and nurture each other like there is no tomorrow. I am in love with my best friend.

FFF: What does it take to have a healthy relationship?

Both: We think that the qualities of a lasting relationship differ for each couple, but that mostly there needs to be a lot of overall attraction, understanding, communication and respect for your partner; [we believe in] giving them space and allowing them to be who they are – even when it urks your fucking nerves! Moreover, there has to be a lot of unconditional love, friendship, similar fundamental morals and a passionate sex life!!!

FFF: Any Valentine’s Day plans?

Eboni: Well, that I can’t answer, it’s a surprise! J But know that she will be surprised!

FFF: How is your love an example of queer, Black love?

Both: Part of the definition of queer is sexual minority and like all minorities, we face boundaries which must be torn down. As a Black couple, we try to let our love be an example of what a queer relationship is and can be.  Each day we step out of our door and realize that people are watching – both homosexual and heterosexual alike – and most are people who may have preconceived notions about queers and queer love. Most think that real love doesn’t exist in same sex relationships; that we are not to be taken seriously. But what we have found is that some of the most special people in our lives today are those who previously had no experiences with lesbians at all, but who got to know us and came to realize that our love and our relationship really isn’t that different from our straight counterparts. Now, we are not perfect people, but we do have a healthy, mature, committed relationship between two college-educated, hard-working, fun-loving professionals, who happen to both be women, black women. We are very often the only black lesbian couple that people outside of this community will meet and we feel honored and obligated to help tear down negative stereotypes and boundaries surrounding our sexual orientation to help improve the future lives of everyone in our community.

Remembering Whitney

February 12, 2012

Yesterday we lost a great. Singer, Whitney Houston was pronounced dead in her Beverly Hills hotel room at 3:55 p.m. She was 48.

Immediately, the social media world was abuzz. Most everyone paying their respect, honoring her memory, sharing their favorites of her songs. But amid all the love and grief, was the negativity sprinkling the collective remembering with dollops of judgment of her troubled existence.

“Yes I’m slightly hurt that Whitney has passed away,” said one Facebook user, “but you can’t be too surprised she was on that mess for a VERY long time.”

“Whitney Houston was a crack head,” another said, “Why is everyone shocked??? The pipe probably ruined her vocal chords anyway. Crack kills people…crack kills.”

It’s no secret that Houston struggled for years with drug addiction. In fact, her struggles played out like a tragic movie script right before our eyes in the tabloids, news, interviews and even on reality television. Her life became the butt of many a joke, her pain material for the world to laugh. But it wasn’t really funny, just terribly human. For in her bouts with addiction lay evidence of her humanity. Whitney Houston, the beautiful superstar, was imperfect, just like the rest of us.

We like our celebrities to be superhuman though. We need a mythology, like religion, to escape the mundane of our everyday existence. We want to believe in fairytales. We wanted to believe that Whitney Houston was our real-life Sleeping Beauty. That one day she’d be saved from the tragic slumber of drug induced haze and wake up with her golden pipes restored to their former glory, ready to remind us that, “there can be miracles, if you believe.” But instead, just like the rest of us will one day, she passed away.

What I find most troubling about the way her life has been and will continue to be judged, is how little grace we have for each other. In this country, this meritocracy, with its myths of the American Dream and the sanctity of marriage, we have very little tolerance for those struggling with drug abuse. We view it as a moral dilemma, a sign of weakness, rather than an illness, a public health concern. Similar to the stigma that surrounds the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we leave those struggling with addiction to languish in their sin, punishing them for their gluttony, their inability to control their wanton desires. We have no sympathy for their humanity, we hate it, we revile it because we fear that perhaps it too may engulf us. We prefer to push it away, to keep it hidden in the inner city or behind the closed doors and vaulted gates of wealthy estates. And when it gets sloppy, when it slips up and becomes visible, as Houston’s did, as Michael Jackson’s did, as Charlie Sheen’s did, as so many others did and will we blame them. We point fingers, make jokes, we gawk, we pass judgment, all in an attempt to not deal with it, to keep it over there with them and away from us.

Perhaps, a queer practice of love would be to love them anyway, as many did. But not love them in a way that highlights their accomplishments but ignores their struggles. How about we love them in a way that includes it all? All saint, all sinner. All beauty, all beast. All winner, all loser. All of it, because all of it is in us too, no matter how much we recoil from it. And no matter what, we all deserve to be loved. Regardless.

So today, I am blasting my Whitney Houston albums. I am remembering every time she brought me to highs of ecstasy and every time her crashing lows broke my heart. I am remembering the awe I felt as a little girl watching her music videos, wanting to be just like her and the shame I felt as a college freshman, watching her struggle through that infamous Diane Sawyer interview, nearly 10 years ago. I’m remembering it. Every beautifully human moment, and honoring her for the human being that she was.

May she find the peace in the next life that eluded her in this one.

Queer Black Love: A Retroactive Practice

February 12, 2012

Queer – differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal: Merriam-Webster.com

This evening, I spent several hours (while grieving the death of Whitney Houston) watching the entire series of “African American Lives 2,” a PBS show featuring African American scholar, Henry Louis Gates, that explores the genetic roots of Black Americans. Yes, I am a nerd.

 At several points throughout the episodes, I was brought to tears. It amazes me how little we, Black Americans, know about our ancestry. The story that I found most touching was that of comedian Chris Rock. Rock learns that in a span of 15 years his great, great, great grandfather went from slave, to Union soldier, to state legislature, to sharecropper. He didn’t even know this man existed. As I watched his story, tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t help but think of all of my ancestors and all of the sacrifices they had made and the extraordinary situations through which they lived and how they had been forgotten. My heart ached for them.

Chris Rock and I are not alone in this either. Far too many Black Americans have vanished into history; their stories, their very existence, wiped away by time. Rock was shocked to learn the story of his ancestor. He spoke of how, by the age of 20, his childhood dreams of being president of the United States had been dashed as he had accepted that he would spend his life in a menial job. Maybe knowledge of the accomplishments of his ancestors might have changed his outlook, he thought.

I wonder how true that statement rings for many Black Americans today. With no memory of the past, is it all the more difficult to make progress in the future? How far ahead can we move with no memory of how far we have come? How do we measure progress? How do we even know where we are today?

So, I’ve committed myself to sharing my story and those of all of the ancestors I know with my daughter, to committing them to memory and to learning whatever I can. By doing this, I am exercising queer, Black love. Why is this a practice of queer, Black love you might ask? Well, quite simply, because remembering them and loving them is certainly odd and quite unusual and even, dare I say, radical.

And that’s because I’m not supposed to remember. None of us are. When our ancestors were brought to this country, our history, our cultures, our memory of ourselves was wiped clean away by the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, by the lash, by the rape, by the separation, by slavery, by simply being Black in America. By choosing to remember and to honor my ancestors, I’m choosing a peculiar road, one not too often traversed and I’m all the better for it.

I want to remember from where I’ve come, because I believe in where I am going and I affirm where I am. This love I have for myself and for my ancestors is revolutionary in its queerness because, by all accounts, it shouldn’t exist. It should’ve melted away long before it even had a chance to form. I should be alienated from it, from my ancestors, from myself because of years of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and more. Instead, I’m choosing to be grateful. I’m choosing to honor my ancestors by affirming their existence with my words and with my deeds. This goes beyond Black History Month. This is everyday practice of queer, Black love.

Question of the Day

February 7, 2012

Are you experiencing any queer love in your life right now?