NO COMPARATIVE CONTEXT:
HISTORICAL AND LITERARY PERSPECTIVES
ON LESBIANS OF COLOR RAISING CHILDREN


by Canéla A. Jaramillo, Ph.D.

 

first presented as a paper
to the Being Queer! Reading Queer! Conference
University of Colorado at Boulder

   
     

 

     
 

 

This paper is for all the lesbian mothers, co-parents, and their children I have known well, and who have enriched my work on this subject:


Susan and BK
Cate and Sandy
Ruthann and Sarah
Val and Julia
Jody and Jennifer

and, most especially,
Judge and Jonnella
Virgínia and Rubén
Tami and Joshua
Lenni and Paloma

and for Tassili and Chenzira, who thought that none of us would make it, but hoped, in spite of everything, that we would.

 

Of course we have: we've survived. Against everything: the odds, the oppositions, the embarrassments, and the hurt. And we've increased in numbers as well as in visibility: expanding our ranks through the Lesbian Baby Boom; the Turkey Baster Baby Boom; the new numbers of once-married women who had their children the "old-fashioned way" and later came out.

Our family constellations, too, are changing. Some of the lesbian mothers I know are single-parents to their children; some are committed by ceremonies of union to a long-term lover and co-parent; a few change partners almost as frequently as their children change developmental stages; some have extended family constellations that include three parents: a father, mother, and co-parent. When our families work best is in those situations that offer the greatest support: from kin; from schools, workplaces, and medical professionals; from places of worship and the larger community. San Francisco, for example (and not surprisingly) has a city ordinance called "Domestic Partners," which makes life as a visibly gay or bisexual family that much easier. Stanford University has a similar policy on its campus, offering, for example, on-campus housing to gay-identified families.

Being a "queer family" will give your neighbors fits, trying to figure out who's "the mother," who's "the father," and who must be sleeping with whom. Because -- no matter what the abstractionists in queer theory may say -- sexuality in this country is still persistently equated with sexual practice, and the equation of sexual practice with child-rearing is a poisonous mix, for the untrained mind. You will find, as a queer family, that most minds -- straight, gay, or bisexual -- are not trained for this.

Embedded in the feminist training grounds of "women's literature" is an examination of the social and political constructions of gender, of the ways in which dominant perspectives continue to codify "normative" standards for female behavior. Two of the major tenents of this code -- heterosexuality and motherhood -- have come under scrutiny, in recent years, as political institutions: Dorothy Dinnerstein, Adrienne Rich, Nancy Chodorow, Phyllis Chesler, and Amy Rossiter have each advanced feminist reinterpretations of mothering; and, in 1980, Rich furthered her analysis by formulating her theory of "compulsory heterosexuality." What has not yet been fully examined, by extension, is the appearance of lesbianism, or same-sex relations, within the iconography of motherhood. And, to trouble the equation further still, what is not considered in the few studies of queer families is the issue of race.

As Edward Morales points out, in his paper on "Ethnic Minority Families and Minority Gays and Lesbians" (1990), "Most of what we know about human sexuality today and [about] the acquisition of sexual identity has been studied within the context of a White American mainstream population. In contrast, little has been written about the sexuality [of] ethnic minorities, especially in relation to ... gays and lesbians. Attitudes toward sexuality differ within the diverse ethnic and racial communities ... in the U.S., and the cultural values and beliefs surrounding sexuality play a major role in determining how individuals behave within their sociological context" (218).

Morales' study is comprehensive in detailing the many challenges to sane living for queers of color: that there is a common perception among queers of color of living in three worlds -- the ethnic culture, the gay community, and the dominant White culture; that queers of color experience racism within both the predominantly White straight as well as the gay societies; that straight communities of color studied have been exceptionally homophobic; that queers of color are both visible and invisible minorities; and that queers of color, like their straight counterparts, have high percentages of unemployment, lower wages, and both social and political underrepresentation, as compared to the White gays and lesbians in their chosen communities.

Morales does not, however, address the dynamics of queer families of color. For that, we turn to literature.

One of the most early comprehensive anthologies of writings by lesbian mothers is Politics of the Heart. Its editors attempt to address some of the questions and challenges posed by what little, mostly negative, attention is granted to queer families. They write:

 

Racism, classism, and economic exploitation, both in the U.S. and world-wide, are not abstract issues for many lesbians (or other) mothers. Oppression in its various forms is a constant, daily presence that denies women not just the luxury of 'choice,' but the basic necessities for their own and their children's survival. As lesbians, we have a unique opportunity to develop and maintain environments in which having and raising children is a revolutionary experience. How we use this opportunity will have much to say about our future" (13-14).


One of the things that the early lesbian-separatist movement said about our future as queer families was that some of our children were not welcome in what was then called "the women's community." Also, it seemed at the time, women of color were only slightly more welcome. In 1981, for example, I attended the Second Annual West Coast Women's Music and Comedy Festival, in Northern California. My first child, a son, was 8 months old at the time. I was stricken by the application form I completed, which admonished me that no boy children over the age of ... I think it was 10, at the time ... would be admitted to the Festival. On the same form, I applied for work-exchange, in lieu of paying the considerable weekend fees I could not afford. Having been granted such a scholarship, I traveled to the Festival to meet my co-workers -- the vast majority of whom, it turned out, were women of color. It didn't take long before the workers of color staged a resistance against the white Festival organizers, and camp labor went undone, as the disgruntled poor folk met on a separate part of the land, far from the main stage but still deeply swayed by the sounds of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who were performing for the paying guests up front.

Audre Lorde, it will not surprise any of you to learn, had a thing or two to say about those days. A queer mother who also had a son, in 1984 she wrote "Man Child: A Black Lesbian-Feminist's Response." Ever to the point, Audre Lorde, whose passing on to the ancestors I still have not reconciled, tells us in this piece that,

 

Our children are outriders for a queendom not yet assured. ...And our sons must become men -- such men as we hope our daughters, born and unborn, will be pleased to live among. ...Raising Black children -- male and female -- in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they probably will not survive. And in order to survive, they must let go. This is what mothers teach -- love, survival -- that is, self-definition and letting go...For survival, Black children in america must be raised to be warriors. For survival, they must also be able to recognize the enemy's many faces. Black children of lesbian couples have an advantage because they learn, very early, that oppression comes in many different forms, none of which have anything to do with their own worth.

 

While the debate over the appropriateness or necessity of lesbian separatism continues today, some of its fervor has diminished, and Lorde's work opened a new avenue for theoretical and political exchange between queer families and their gay/lesbian communities. Just as lesbians inched and elbowed their way into recognition within the the second wave of U.S. feminism, so, now, are mothers shouldering through.

An early aspect of this exchange was opened by Puerto Rican writer Lucia Valeska, who in 1975 wrote:

 

Three years ago (1972), in the midst of the contemporary lesbian rebellion, as a mother I turned to my lesbian sisters and said: 'Mothers will be next and lesbians will look like silly putty in comparison.' Mothers outweigh us in numbers, rage, and mobility. When they strike, we will come up with them or they will take us down. That is how I felt. Two years later, in an impatient surge toward individual liberation, I gave up custody of my three children. As a result, I am a mother, and then again I am not. Non-mothers, or the child-free, measure their words in my presence, and since I've left the fold, most mothers find me fundamentally suspect. But the view from the renegade bridge is enlightening. I see three distinct but occasionally overlapping political camps: 1) the childraisers; 2) the children; and 3) the childless or childfree. These camps share a common oppression, but they are also in direct conflict with one another. Each situation carries a series of contradictions and concomitant ambivalences, complicated by the separate realities of sex, race, and traditional class divisions. The job of untangling the conflicts, of forging a common struggle, is nearly beyond comprehension, but we must start digging somewhere.


Lesbians, bisexual women -- in fact, all types of women who are perceived as "sexual" -- routinely lose custody of their children in court. We have created what those who do not know and do not care to understand consider to be an "unwholesome lifestyle." This especially impacts women of color, who are disproportionately more povertized than any other group in this nation. We are isolated; many of us do not even know each other. Are our lives so invisible?

One of the most powerful of these efforts to forge a common struggle, to untangle conflicts, is developed by Mohawk poet Beth Brant, in her narrative cycle, "A Long Story," which examines, through individual vignettes, a lesbian mother's loss of her only child through a court custody battle, and compares this singular grief to the forced removal of Native children by government agencies throughout this country's history. At the close of this narrative, both the Native woman of 1891 and her counterpart in 1979 are howling at the loss of their children. The ancestor fears her dreams: "It is too terrible," she laments, "the things that happen there." And, in the final vignette from the contemporary period, the speaker determines: "The word lesbian. Lesbian. The word that makes them panic, makes them afraid, makes them destroy children. The word that dares them. I am one. Even for [my child], even for her, I will not cease to be!"

This work of reparation from despair too often requires a conscious choice that fractures the queer family: a lesbian or bisexual woman is usually compelled to choose between her sexuality and her motherhood --and there is a long tradition in the courts to codify that demarcation. Even the most self-proclaimed liberal of institutions, the academy, has repeatedly failed to recognize the urgencies of the challenges to traditional gender and family systems posed by the queer family. Contemporary Puerto Rican scholar Virgínia Vélez, in a 1992 essay, made this point abundantly clear:

 

I fell in love with political theory because it included a teeny tad about being a woman, being queer, being raza, being part of a group damned as purposely unemployed. But every one of my experiences is reduced in the university...These institutions are not going to give us any means whatsoever of achieving the security and comfort I want for my son, and for me, and for my lover. We've been beating and begging our way through their doors for at least a century on this continent; many centuries, if you count the struggles simply to survive as a people. All I end up with in following the rationale for me to keep on keepin' on with this set-up is the tenuous hope for some personal rewards, against the societal disregard for all the peoples I am and have chosen to actively re-present: my gendered, racial, cultural, sexual, and parenting selves.

That's what being an out queer latina working single madre is to me. Everything I am is supposed to be shameful. No way....I feel frustration, fury, despair, rage, determination, disgust, and amazement even still taking the shape of disbelieving belly laughter, but no shame....As a single parent, I keep trying to do what I don't have to be ashamed for, and I am sinvergüenza, you hear me? 'Cause I don't buy this shit that there is anything to be ashamed of in work that entails reversing prior damages and creating something nurturing in its place. I have something precious that I have been working to internalize: Nobody can steal my joy. Nobody gave it to me, and nobody can take it away.

 

The wrenching loss of a child in the face of emergent lesbianism is a predominant theme in the literature about queer families of color. Just as often, however, there is the work of affirmation, as in Ivette Merced's "Mi'ja"; Andrea Canaan's "God Bless the Child"; and Becky Birtha's "In Response to Reading Children's Book Announcements in Publisher's Weekly...". Perhaps one of the best known of these affirmative poems comes from the late Bay Area poet Pat Parker, whose 1985 "Legacy" reminds her daughter that:


There are those who think
or perhaps don't think
that children and lesbians
together can't make a family
that we create an extension
of perversion.
They think
or perhaps don't think
that we have different relationships
with our children
that instead of getting up
in the middle of the night
for a 2 AM and 6 AM feeding
we rise up and chant
"you're gonna be a dyke
you're gonna be a dyke."

I'll end this essay with the final lines of Parker's poem:

 

Take the strength that you may
wage a long battle
Take the pride that you can
never stand small.
Take the rage that you can
never settle for less.
These be the things I pass
to you my daughter
if this is the result of perversion
let the world stand screaming.
You will mute their voices
with your life.
 
     

 

 

"No Comparative Context: Historical and Literary Perspectives on Lesbians of Color Raising Children" © 1998, 2002 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo
 
     
 

 Original Graphic, "Tip 3," © 1998 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
 

 

     
 

REFERENCES

 

Brant, Beth. 1985. "A Long Story," in Mohawk Trail.

Chesler, Phyllis. 1981. With Child.

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. 1976. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise.

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. "Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist's Response," in Sister Outsider.

Morales, Edward S. 1990. "Ethnic Minority Families and Minority Gays and Lesbians," in Homosexuality and Family Relations, ed. Frederick Bozett and Marvin B. Sussman.

Parker, Pat. 1985. "Legacy," from Jonestown and Other Madness.

Pollack, Sandra and Jeanne Vaughn, eds. 1987. Politics of the Heart: A Lesbian Parenting Anthology.

Rich, Adrienne. 1976. Of Woman Born.

___________. 1980. "Compulsory Heterosexuality." Signs 5, Summer 1980.

Rossiter, Amy. 1988. From Private to Public: A Feminist Exploration of Mothering.

Valeska, Lucia. 1975. "If All Else Fails, I'm Still a Mother," in Politics of the Heart, 79-88.

Vélez, Virgínia. 1992. "Excesses," in STANDARDS 3, Spring 1992.

 
     


 

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