WireTap

Pride or Prejudice?

A young African American woman finds that some stereotypes about feminists -- like the image of a "man-hating lesbian" -- still hold strong.
feminist?

In my philosophy class recently, a classmate gave a presentation on feminist theory. First, she asked the class what the word feminism meant and people gave vague token answers. Then she asked the class what feminism meant on Spelman's campus and that's when things really got interesting. When one student said, "I don't know why feminism always has to be equated with lesbianism," other students shook their heads in agreement. Another girl asked, "Why does it always have to be about the lesbians?"

My classmates then brought up the National Day of Silence, an event recently sponsored by Afrekete (the Atlanta University Center's only gay/straight alliance) meant to raise awareness about GLBT Rights. (see Shutting Up to Get a Point Across for more about the Day of Silence) One woman said she would have participated in the days events except for fear of being labeled a lesbian and others agreed. I was floored.

How is it the fault of feminism that this student is afraid of how she will be labeled if she participates? How could events like this give the impression that lesbian rights were invading the campus, I wondered. Let's say somebody did assume that you were a lesbian because of your participation in the day's events or because you were a member of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) or Afrekete. What would happen if people thought that? Undoubtedly suspicions around my sexuality were rising in the minds of my classmates as I defended these groups, and tried to question their assumptions. I was still a heterosexual and still very much the same activist I had always been. It was clear to me that her internal struggle about participating in the day was not the fault of feminism itself.

But my protests were in vain and my classmates wrote off my activism and that of my fellow activists as the frustration of "lesbian man-haters." And I have since learned that the feelings voiced in this classroom, at this college, are not isolated or rare.

Growing up in a moderately liberal and tolerant Southern community, I was used to my beliefs as a feminist being accepted or, at worst, ignored by other people. In fact, my thoughts on strengthening the black community were always much harder for the general public to swallow in this predominately white setting than my feminism. I expected all of this to change when I arrived at Spelman College, a historically black all-women's institution. Truth be told, it did change, but not at all in the way that I imagined it would.

In class that day, I was seeing evidence of the general discomfort about feminism in society at large, and in the black community, in particular. I was learning how, even on a campus like Spelman's, young black women are often divided.

As a member of the FMLA, I had never been to a meeting where lesbianism had been discussed. In fact, I had never equated feminism with lesbianism or "man-hating." So, I started to wonder where this idea had come from.

Then the class raised a new point of contention. According to them, all the women involved in these organizations fit a certain "aesthetic," one that usually involved one or more of the following: natural hair, eccentric clothes, traditional African fabric, or veganism.

"I hate that people associate consciousness with an aesthetic," says fellow activist Delaine Ferguson. Her sentiment echoes that of a lot of people who are upset by a tendency some people have to associate both activism and lesbianism with a specific "look." For instance, short or locked hair seems to be an indicator of liberal politics and, to some, a sign that one is lesbian or bisexual.

Despite the fact that many women with traditionally "feminine" appearances do date other women, and vise-versa, these stereotypes remain fixed. But that day, the women in my philosophy class actually said they sometimes feel discriminated against because they don't look like they fit in with this "conscious young woman" mold.

It upsets me to think that people can't see the diversity within the feminist groups I belong to. Groups like Afrekete and the FMLA are so open that if anyone voices feelings of alienation, all the members take pause and the issue is dealt with genuinely. But I've learned the reality of being part of such groups is very different than the perception of what its like from the outside. And these stereotypes are so deeply rooted, they go back to long before we were born.

The truth is, feminism doesn't really have a good track record in the black community. The movement initially ignored the plight of minority and lower class women and has only recently accepted a more embracing doctrine. Slavery's emasculation of the black male continues to play a part in the psyche of the black community, causing the empowerment of women to be viewed suspiciously and often incorrectly as an attack on black men. The patriarchy under which slavery was instituted distorted the black family and left black men hungry for the power that white men possessed at the pinnacle of the slavery system. Homosexuality is also seen as running counter to the re-establishment of the "strong family" that many blacks were so desperately seeking after the disruption slavery caused. These deep-seated notions are not easily talked about, let alone dismantled.

But how did we get to the point where feminism and lesbianism became synonymous terms? Some say that we still live in a society where women's lives require male approval. Feminism counters these notions by putting an emphasis on loving yourself and rejecting this commonly perpetuated dependency on men. And it's true that most lesbians do draw a connection between having the space to foster intimate, loving relationships with other women and the women's movement. But many might also remind us that lesbianism has been around much longer than feminism as we know it today. The idea of self-reliant women goes against constructed gender role interplay. But this doesn't mean that feminist thinking "makes" a woman a lesbian. The modern mother of feminist thought, Gloria Steinam, is happily married to a man, a man who undoubtedly shares her beliefs.

The fact that two very different issues should be lumped together like this is troubling. Since when has sexual preference been able to predict a person's politics or vice versa?

Again, it's a complex and very current issue. The black community's frequent homophobia is directly responsible for young black women contracting HIV faster than any other group. Gay and bisexual black men often maintain relationships and marriages with women to maintain appearances of heterosexuality, simultaneously passing the virus on to unsuspecting female partners.

Meanwhile, lesbianism in the black community involves a weird double standard. It's easy to find beautiful women in rap and r & b videos kissing and dancing provocatively together but it is definitely portrayed through a patriarchal framework, in which the women are just an extension of some larger sexual exploit that has yet to happen. Actual lesbians have a much harder time finding acceptance in the black community. In fact, they are most often invisible. This means that when they do find a community where they are comfortable voicing their opinions, they often do so with a lot of energy and pride. I am proud to belong to a gay-straight alliance, and to support my queer and straight allies in two struggles that are linked but also very separate.

In the end, the women in my class who assume that the feminists on campus are all gay are relying on stereotypes. It can be difficult for people to see how their own prejudices impact the larger community. The reality is misconceptions like these do keep some young women from exploring feminism and challenging the roles that society wants them to play. But conversations like the one we had that day are important. The more we talk about our differences and our similarities, the more we can all break through these artificially constructed boundaries and develop a healthy community.

Moya Bailey, 19, is a rising sophmore at Spelnam College in Atlanta, Georgia. She will preside as president of the FMLA for the 2002-2003 school year while studying psychology (pre-med). Her last WireTap story was Black TV: What's Wrong With This Picture?

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