Black Lesbians Are More Visible Than Ever

“I hope more Black lesbians invite the world in and that the world proves itself worthy of our truths.”

R&B artist Kehlani’s coming out story reminded me so much of my own. I never had a public “bi stage,” but I did date a whole lot of guys in high school hoping to meet someone that inspired the same feelings in me as women. When I finally came out to myself and to my friends as a lesbian, their responses were nonchalant: “That makes sense.” Like Kehlani, I was expecting more. I was surprised that this was not a surprise to them. 

During those days there weren’t many Black, publicly lesbian people. In fact, in the few movies featuring Black lesbians, the characters all endured a lot of tragedy—like Celie in The Color Purple, Cleo in Set It Off or Cleo from Women of Brewster Place. These films highlighted that I was not alone—an important message for an adolescent girl—but also made it seem as though thriving was not an option. Reactions from family members and mentors underscored the latter message. 

It wasn’t until the summer before freshman year of college that I met myself on TV for the first time as I watched power lesbian Bette Porter on The L Word living authentically as herself and succeeding. My freshman year at Howard University opened up even more possibilities. I met other fierce Black lesbians, many who are still friends today, and was introduced to Black literature about lesbians that connected me to a long history of change makers and successful women who lived their truths boldly and out loud.

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I bought almost every book in the LGBTQ+ section at the Howard University bookstore and almost every book by Black authors at the late Lambda Rising LGBTQ+ bookstore in D.C.: Loving Her by Ann Allen Shockley; Spirited by Lisa C. Moore and G. Winston James; Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing by Catherine McKinley and L. Joyce DeLaney; Does Your Mama Know?: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories by Lisa C. Moore; Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Writing by Devon W. Carbado and Dwight McBride; and Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology by Barbara Smith were textbooks to my life. 

Today’s youth are lucky. Black lesbians are seemingly everywhere now—from TV comic book heroes like Batwoman and Thunder on Black Lightning, to shows highlighting lesbian-led families like The Fosters, to recording artists like Kehlani, Lakeyah, Syd and Young M.A. Their strength, audacity, courage, creativity and boldness have invited others to live freely in their own truths.

I remember a time when inviting the world into your life as a lesbian meant that your career opportunities dwindled and with it your dreams of being at the top of your field. It wasn’t always like that—one hundred years ago, the U.S. experienced a time like this one, with women singing about their love of other women and few batted an eye. Blues singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley sang songs that people regardless of sexual orientation danced to at juke joints across the country. But soon, McCarthyism, white evangelicals’ influence over Black preachers, Anita Bryant, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic changed societal attitudes from nonchalant views like those of my friends to active homophobic attacks. 

I’m so thankful the pendulum has swung back to a freer and more authentic society. No one should feel shame for who they are—especially when it comes to love. Black lesbian visibility matters today and everyday for little girls grappling with their attractions and wondering whether they are alone, if they will ever find love, and when they do will they be marginalized instead of celebrated for who they are. Sixteen-year-old me would have never guessed that three years after coming out I would meet the woman I would marry and create a child and home with. I had not yet seen that it was possible. 

I hope more Black lesbians invite the world in and that the world proves itself worthy of our truths. Whether femme, stud, butch, non-binary, transgender, aggressive, dom or any other lesbian identity, our children deserve to see themselves everywhere. This #LesbianDayofVisibility and #LesbianVisibilityWeek (LVW2021) give them the hope Bette Porter gave me in all kinds of fields, shapes, sizes and shades and watch them thrive.

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Victoria Kirby York is the deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition.