What Happened at the Black Lesbian Conference?
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It is no secret that an imbalanced economy is a result (if not the definition of racism). Historically, African-American communities aimed to challenge the pipeline through education (which can be critiqued but we won’t do that here). Many of the attendees of the conference were women with education and often times that means access to institutions and to white people. We, Black Lesbians, ought to consider our class challenges and do our best to acknowledge our special roles as women of a particular class, who interact with black communities in a particular way, largely without men, and interact with white women in a particular way, often as lovers and deeply close friends. I think of this often when I consider my family dynamics, my lovers, and my friendships, and how I utilize my own money and who I support with this money.
I identify as a separatist and move through life with lesbians of color as my core community, often without the support of or to men (even the men in my family). But if I have white women in my life as lovers, or if I attend my brother's wedding, how does this effect my political self, and how often do I do this, and does this even matter? If others move through the world in the same way, I am interested in the implications for black communities. Ultimately, it is always about money and money exchange. But there is still sex! Let's talk about sex, shall we?
Grace: Sorry, I nerded out on the economics panel. Simultaneously there were two sexuality panels going on, which one did you go to?
Shawn: I went to the “Sex and Sexuality” workshop led by Tandra LaGrone and Gabby Santos of In Our Own Voices, and Vanessa Campus of GMHC. It was a workshop filled with fun and hard-core sex terms. One really great device they used was an anonymous polling phone app, which allowed them to ask questions about sensitive or private topics like the choice to use a dental dam or whether we use dildos. The answers were texted into our cell phones and then revealed on the screen. It was hilarious and interactive.
(Sex and Sexuality workshop)
One volunteer participant won a harness and dildo. It's like, a dream win! The intention was to bring comfort to the room about talking about sex and safety, ridding ourselves of biases and norms, especially the typical concerns that often plague lesbian relationships––monogamy, distrust, butch/femme roles, you know, the usual. Interestingly, we didn't talk about sex in relation to race, which now that we talk about it here, I wonder how that would have shifted the conversation.
Grace: Can we talk about the panel where I bumped into you, "Black Lesbian Separation as Respite From Oppression"? First, in full disclosure, I'm half Asian (half white—I just outed myself), and grew up in Hawaii where experiences/discussion of race/ethnicity is real, real different. It took me a long time and many "foot-in-mouth" to figure out that you do not talk about race in mixed company on the mainland. And I still raise eyebrows when I try...
All that to say, I got weepy listening to Dr Judith Casselberry talk about the celebration of the black female body at Mich Fest. Also how the anthem of the festival popularly known as, "Amazon Womyn", evolved from "white girl with guitar" folk song to the Afro-Caribbean funk rap ballad that Casselberry herself re-wrote as "Rise Up". And in a way, the evolution of "Amazon" tracked the integration of women of color with the white lesbian community in that one space, for that one time of the year—for the last forty years.
Shawn: That piece also brought me to tears. I believe half the room swooned. Not sure if I told you this, but I’m one of five editors for a Special Issue of Sinister Wisdom: A Lesbian Literary and Art Journal and this issue is Honoring the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. Judith’s piece was in line with many of the submitters, recalling and remembering a magical space like no other. I’ve spent the past few weeks reading and recalling. It is all so intense, and sad, and beautiful. Hmm, the conference overall could be summarized in that way too, I think.
Grace: The overall impression left on me was how uplifting and saddening (simultaneously) the conference was. Saddening because of the realities of societal, systemic and institutional oppression, but uplifting in that there was a palpable sense of optimistic determination. The articulation of ideas and information felt really powerful.
Shawn: I found that the conference also left an impression of remembering and recalling. With the many women there over 55, the elder-women, I found myself being gifted their legacy, and with a special mission to uphold this legacy, through my work, and my definition for how I approach community.
Grace: I think the only thing missing from the conferences was more millennial voices. I hope that there can be more of these kinds of gatherings that are easier for a younger generation to attend. Also, where non-black women may somehow get the intel too. I think being a mixed race queer woman, I kind of float between communities, and I wish there were more spaces where we all can exchange experiences in a comfortable way. I feel grateful having been able to attend this conference.
Shawn: As I’ve witnessed at the queer/trans/poc conference that just passed, the millennials are still seeking answers to their identity and community placement questions. The elders are seeking someone to pass the baton. I spoke to a fellow mid-thirties queer woman this weekend about this very spectrum, and she offered that we women of our 30s and 40s, us in the middle, (I’m 33) have an opportunity to be the bridge between two worlds, using our access to institutional resources, and energy, to make true transformation happen, or at the very least, to move our communities onward.
Unfortunately, the millennials are unlikely to register for a conference before it is sold out months ahead. Most of my peers, when asked about the conference—they complained that it was sold out. Even my wife was denied entry, and that really colored my experience. Despite many empty seats, my friends and lovers couldn’t get in.
And then there’s the issue of naming. Is “Black” what we mean it to be? Is “Lesbian” really that? I’m going to keynote at a conference in London, the LGBTQ+ ALMS conference, and part of their call asked for BME/POC folks (Black Minority Ethnic/People of Color)—should we consider the adaptation of new language? I don’t have the answers, but just pointing to the questions. The BLC is evidence that if Black Lesbian organizing is to sustain itself, it’s going to take energy from multiple-generational angles, potentially from a non-institutional grassroots approach. Either way you slice it, the unsettling that conferences bring means we-as-in-all-of-us have more work to do.
Grace: Awesome, I'll connect with you after London. Thank you for chatting with me.