I think it’s time we started talking about desirability within the Black lesbian community. This has been a constant thought ever since I saw the trailer to No Fats, No Femmes, a documentary by Jamal Lewis about desire and the politics of desirability in the queer gay community. Lewis specifically focuses on the term “No Fats, No Femmes” “which is popularly used on queer social networking/dating site to describe one;s dating preferences…”
The point being the phrases we use to indicate our dating preferences – or who we find attractive/desirable – does have deeper political implications. These implications might be different depending on whether the bias is being expressed in relation to a masculine presenting/Butch vs. a femme/feminine presenting person. Below I want to explore the characteristics which are used as measures of desirability within the Black lesbian community and why they’re toxic.
The Butch/Femme Dynamic
I recently realised that I have a definite bias for more masculine/androgynous presenting lesbians. From the beginning of my lesbian history I have always dated/been attracted to what would be stereotypically “butch”/masculine identifying lesbians. As I’ve grown older this bias has shifted, I am no longer necessarily attracted to masculine presenting lesbians but rather I am attracted to mentally strong willed and decisive women.
This shift revealed two things to me, first I had erroneously connected masculinity to strength and decisiveness. The connection is not true but like everyone else, black lesbians are socialised in a heteronormative world which tells us that men are naturally rational and decisive. Of course this is not true. Any person who grew up in a family where the head of the home is a black women knows that there is no one as rational, decisive and strategic as a black mother who has little income and mouths to feed. Our mothers have had to ensure that they stretch the family income in order to feed, clothe and educate the entire family. They’ve had to get into debt, forgo certain payments in order to ensure the family does not go hungry.
Another thing I noticed was that I assumed that my masculine presenting partners had a particular level of privilege/safety. Because I perceived their appearance as non-desirable to cisheterosexual men, I assumed they enjoyed a level of “safety”. So I expected them to walk me home at night and enter spaces which I felt were dangerous for me as a feminine presenting lesbians (e.g sheebens). However just because they were “non-desirable” didn’t mean their masculine presentation didn’t expose them to particular dangers – the high rate of murders of black lesbians and assaults tells you how extraordinarily unsafe they are.
I have only ever been asked once in my lesbian history whether I am a Goldstar lesbian or not – people usually ask whether I am bisexual or “lesbian-lesbian/straight lesbian”; a question which in itself is heavily biphobic – but that’s a topic for another day. The reason for this dynamic is that femme lesbians are assumed heterosexual unless proved otherwise and masculine presenting lesbians are assumed queer unless proved otherwise.
Asking a person whether they’re a “Goldstar” lesbian is deeply offensive for two reasons. Firstly, “Goldstar-ism” becomes a measure of authenticity. What is implicitly being asked is where “you’re a ‘real lesbian” unless you’ve never experiences sex with a cisheterosexual male. This assumption is supported by a plethora of homophobic and transphobic assumptions. Secondly, it assumes that having sex with a penis/phallus – and not any kind of penis but one attached to a cisheterosexual man – is such a profound experience that it can have a lasting impact on one’s sexual orientation. NO! Lastly, Godlstar-ism is the lesbian equivalent of asking a womxn for her “body-count” – AGAIN it assumes that having penetrative cisheterosexual sex impacts a womxn’s character.
In short Goldstar-ism is used to measure intergrity and honesty in our sexual partners when what we should rather be doing is realising that everyone’s lesbian history is different. We have all walked different journeys towards finding our truth. Some lesbians have kids, some have had sex with cisheterosexual men and some have not. It’s not that deep.
It shocks people – on account of my being an activist and other things – when I admit that I used to be a fat-shamer. It didn’t dawn on me until I made an observation to my friend which went along the lines “you like em thick neh?”. Her response at the time was a compassionate truth-telling which made me realise that I was fat-phobic. I placed value over certain bodies which made me think that people with fat-bodies were undesirable. This began a journey of consciously trying to seek out fat-positive people online. By fatphobic I mean that most of my partners were either average side or your typical gym-bodies.
Being fat-phobic might not look the same in the lesbian/queer world because our understandings of gender might be a bit more “fluid”. It does not mean however we aren’t plugging into the same cisnormative and heteronormative narratives which put particular standards – read skinny and muscular – above others – read fat and soft.
Fatphobic does not mean “not liking” fat-people. It means we live in a world were fat people are structurally and systemically marginalised through being treated unequally. They pay more on flights because they have to pay for an extra seat, they are over-looked for jobs because they are assumed to be lazy. So your “preference” does not stay at the individual level but is used as a justification to marginalise and exclude others.
Desirability shaming is not something we need nor want. It is taxing on our emotional and mental health – both the shamer and the shame. It takes up unnecessary mental space and is not conducive to creating networks of solidarity where everyone feels that all of their selves – in all shapes are accepted and celebrated.