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Accusations of Same-Sex Hanky-Panky Provoke Bigoted Response, Then Apology, From Florida's Anti-Gay Lt. Gov.

"[B]lack women that look like me don’t engage in relationships like that," said Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. But her recent apology can't obscure a worldview shaped by stereotypes.
 
 
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Yet another Republican is caught up in a potential sex scandal. But this time there's a twist: the politician in question, Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, is black, a woman, and alleged to have been sexually involved with a female member of her staff.

Carroll is an anti-gay Republican; her accuser, former staff member Carletha Cole, claims Carroll fired her after she walked in on Carroll and a travel aide, Beatriz Ramos, in a "compromising position" in Carroll's office. Carroll's marriage, family and sex life have become national talking points since the story broke on July 11, and her political future looks suddenly uncertain. Her unenviable position isn't helped by the bizarre defense she initially offered: she doesn't "look like" a lesbian, therefore she can't be one.

Seriously. Here's the quote:

The problem is that when you have these accusations that come out, it’s not just one person you’re attacking. It’s an entire family. My husband doesn’t want to hear that. He knows the type of woman I am. I mean, my kids know the type of woman I am...I’m the one that’s married for twenty-nine years. The accuser is the one that’s been single for a long time. So usually black women that look like me don’t engage in relationships like that.

Carroll's comments provoked a national firestorm, outraged responses from black lesbian and bisexual women, and a July 25 petition from LGBT organization Equality Florida calling on her to apologize. Just two days after the petition launched, Carroll issued a statement apologizing for her "wrong," "inexcusable" and "hurtful" comments.

The relative swiftness of Carroll's mea culpa is perhaps an indication of just how much of a sea change there has been in attitudes towards gay and lesbian couples just in the past year or two. But as welcome and refreshing as her apology is, the prejudiced assumptions behind her original comments are widely held.

It's a testament to the power and ubiquity of stereotypes about female sexuality that Carroll's meaning is perfectly clear without her ever having to say the words: "I am not a lesbian," "I am not butch," or the implied meaning of her statement, "I am not a 'dyke.'" Both as a stereotype and a slur, "dyke" conflates same gender attraction in women with unconventional gender expression -- that is, aspects of physical appearance, personality, behavior, and so on, that are perceived as gendered.

The lesbian stereotype is characterized by physical and personality traits that we associate with masculinity: short hair, deep voices, muscular appearance, masculine attire or interests, masculine presentation and interaction with the rest of the world. Women who are seen as "butch" are assumed or suspected to be lesbians, and by contrast, women whose appearance and behavior fit within conventional "femininity" are assumed to be straight.

But "dyke" is also a word that's used to police the gender expression of women of all orientations, much in the way that Carroll's comment does. It's frequently deployed as a slur to attack and bully women who transgress gender norms in any number of ways. Having short hair, being athletic, being angrier or more assertive than is considered acceptable for a woman, even rejecting men's sexual advances are just some of the the offenses deemed worthy of the epithet.

It's this gender-policing aspect of Carroll's comments that I find most disturbing. As a black woman who is attracted to women as well as men -- but frequently read as straight because I'm married to a man and present as "femme" -- I personally appreciate comments from black queer women calling out the ways in which Carroll's statement perpetuates the invisibility and marginalization of black queer women in general, and especially of those of us who "pass" societal tests of femininity. However, as harmful as this kind of erasure can be for black queer women, the flip side of it is even more dangerous: a heightened scrutiny of black women whose gender performance or sexuality is perceived as falling outside the norm.