(The Root) — With all the fuss over what's keeping black women and black men from jumping the broom, black married couples have been lost in the fray. Yes, of course they exist! In fact, the vast majority of black women and men do indeed get married.
Many of us are putting our own spin on how we love and make it work. The "traditional" route — love, marriage, then the baby carriage — works for some, but for others, love comes in the form of a blended union, a lesbian wedding or a multipartner (not-so-legal) marriage.
In a three-part series on black love and commitment, The Root will celebrate Valentine's Day by taking a look at how black folk are loving each other, the problems the community faces and the solutions for making it work.
For the second in our series, The Root spoke with Mignon R. Moore, an associate professor of sociology and African-American studies at UCLA, and the author of Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood Among Black Women. Moore, who spent three years following the lives of more than 100 lesbians as research for her book, breaks down for The Root how same-sex-marriage laws uniquely affect black lesbian couples, the extra burden that homophobia puts on ladies who love ladies and how same-sex-loving black women are staying together despite the strain. "Black lesbians are a part of the black community," says Moore. "Even if people have personal opinions, that should not affect other people's rights."
The Root: What are the biggest stressors that black lesbian couples face inside their relationships?
Mignon R. Moore: It can really hurt a relationship if one person is very ashamed of being gay and feels like their sexuality is of a lower status than a heterosexual person. It gives the woman a feeling of low self-esteem around her gay sexuality. It can be hard sometimes, but it's good for a woman's psyche to be able to look at herself in the mirror and feel like she's not pretending to be someone she is not, even if that means some people will reject her.
TR: How does misinformation and homophobia in the larger community put a strain on same-sex-loving couples?
MRM: There are still some obstacles that people face in wondering whether or not the community will support them. There are times when black lesbians feel supported by their families and maybe neighbors, but there are times when they don't feel safe and they feel people are going to try to impose their belief systems onto them. This adds shame and stigma and makes it harder to live an openly gay life.
TR: The black community gets a lot of flak about homophobia. Are black folk doing any better when it comes to supporting black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples?
MRM: The larger black community is just starting to understand black LGBT issues. For so long, the image of who is gay has been a white person that they don't relate to. When they really think about it, I'm sure they know of some people in their community who are gay.
If you look in black communities historically, there's always been same-gender-loving people. It was something that everyone knew about that nobody talked about openly. Someone might have a partner and they might bring them home for Thanksgiving, but no one would ever say, "This is so-and-so's partner." They would say, "This is her friend." We can see in larger society that there's been a movement from keeping same-sex relationships just in the private sphere to really talking about them publicly.
TR: The lack of information about black lesbian couples and families has led to a lot of ignorance. In general, black LGBT communities are thought of as entirely different or "other." In an article, "Color Us Invisible," at the Huffington Post, you pointed out that black lesbian families are very grounded in African-American culture. What exactly did you mean by that?
MRM: One of the main findings from researching my book was that black same-sex couples are more likely to live in black cities and neighborhoods and communities, like New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago, [than in LGBT communities]. If you look in the rural areas, African-American lesbians live in small towns with other black folks in Florida and South Carolina and Mississippi and Alabama. They tend to live with the racial community more than with the LGBT community for various reasons, but one is because their racial identities are more important to them.
Many black lesbians who grew up in the '70s or '80s were raised with a religious base in the church or mosque. They take those practices with them when they try to parent as a gay parent. They still have a strong belief in God and want their children to believe in God. They remain connected to their racial communities and don't leave when they take on a gay identity. They continue to participate in various cultural activities for black folk. They remain with a strong sense of who they are as black women.
They know all the ins and outs that heterosexual blacks know. They still have fathers and brothers that are gunned down by the police. All the things that happen to black people because they are black happen to the black LGBT community, too.
MRM: Even if you have a legal marriage in New York, you go to some states and they don't recognize your marriage. Couples worry about going to visit their families in another state and God forbid you have to go to the hospital. Will your spouse be allowed in the room to see you? To make decisions? Facing these kinds of unknowns in the larger society can put a strain on the relationship.
Also, black lesbian couples are more likely to have children than other lesbian couples, and their children are more likely to live in the South, and many other places, where same-sex marriage is not recognized. The law only [recognizes] the legal parent, which can be an adoptive parent but first and foremost is the biological parent. If both people can never be a legal parent, then one person always has the weaker status than the other in the relationship, and that sets up an inequality between the mates, which of course makes it difficult to maintain a healthy relationship.
TR: What's your advice for black women in same-sex relationships who are trying to build healthy, lasting relationships?
MRM: The things that work for all relationships also work for same-sex couples: Mutual respect, respect for what each person brings to the table, patience and having the same outlook on life are all important. When you have both partners striving to do better for themselves as individuals and supporting each other, it makes for a healthy relationship.