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.
Black women as a group have long been framed in dominant American culture as essentially unfeminine. In what Monica Roberts has called the "black unwoman meme," black women are unfavorably compared to a feminine ideal rooted in white cultural norms: white women are "considered the paragon of virtue, fertility, beauty and femininity." As a foil to this romanticized (and misogynistic) image of the angelic, respectable white lady, black women are widely stereotyped as promiscuous, bad mothers, unable or unwilling to land husbands, unattractive, angry and threatening. In short, black women in the popular imagination are so outside the scope of normative femininity that we are less than women, even almost men. Our bodies and lives are held up to intense scrutiny and routinely found wanting in appropriate femininity.
It's in this context that Carroll's comments read as a dangerous validation of racist, misogynist policing of black women's bodies and lives. Carroll perhaps unwittingly frames herself as the polar opposite of stereotypical images of black womanhood: a faithful wife and dedicated mother who doesn't look like women who "engage in relationships like that." She equates being a black woman who is "properly" feminine in appearance and behavior not only with being straight, but also with being respectable. She frames her accuser's femininity as suspect and even ridiculous by comparison. "She's the one who's been single a long time," she points out, insinuating that it is her accuser, Carletha Cole, not Carroll, who should be suspected of being queer — i.e., not a proper black woman.
Carroll is playing a dangerous game in which no black women are winners. Carroll's comments deploy what black cultural critics like Tamara Winfrey Harris call "respectability politics": when a marginalized group pushes back on negative stereotypes "by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems 'respectable.'" By inviting the public to interrogate both her own physical appearance and personal life and that of her accuser, Carroll powerfully illustrates Harris' point that "respectability politics allow both the white and black communities to lay claim to black women's bodies" — usually to find us lacking in one way or another.
As Harris writes, respectability politics is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the argument that "we are just like you" — and therefore just as worthy of respect — has been a powerful method of resistance for black women against systematic and dehumanizing racism. On the other, it implicitly validates bigotry against black women who are not "just like" the ideal respectable woman.
The implications of such racialized gender-policing go far beyond negative images of black women. It's in the context of the trope of the black "unwoman" and widespread, intense scrutiny of black women that dominant athletes like Serena Williams, Brittney Griner and Caster Semenya have their gender and accomplishments routinely denigrated with insults that they are not women, but "really men" — or worse, animals ("monkeys"). Last May, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa infamously used scientific language to claim that black women are "objectively" less attractive than women of other races, purportedly because of higher testosterone.
Even more disturbing, "unwoman" images have a long history of being used to demonize black women and frame us as unworthy of the privileges, protections and courtesies afforded white women. They both fuel and and are used to justify epidemic levels of violence against black women, who are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault than white women. The specter of the black unwoman is the ever-present subtext of attempts to shrink the social safety net, cut funding for resources women of color disproportionately rely on, and attack black women's reproductive freedoms and child-rearing.
These disparities and marginalizations are especially heightened for black women who are, or are perceived to be, queer, transgender or gender non-comforming. Black women who fall outside gender norms face routine police harassment, healthcare disparities, employment discrimination, and lack of access to the basic facilities and spaces where gender is stringently policed, like bathrooms.
At its worst, racial gender policing literally kills women of color who are perceived as not-quite-women or "really" men. Transgender women of color are at staggeringly high risk of serious or fatal anti-LGBT violence; all of the four American trans women who were murdered in April were black.
It's not difficult to connect the dots when the same women who are excluded from "respectable" black woman status are subjected to systematic, disproportionate discrimination and violence. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in Jennifer Carroll's comment is that she clings to a veneer of respectability that unwittingly affirms the rights of others to scrutinize, undermine, ridicule, and ultimately do violence against both her gender and her race.
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