Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women, by UCLA sociologist Mignon Moore, is arguably the most groundbreaking work on LGBT parenting published in recent years. Moore gives us one of the few in-depth looks at lesbians of color, showing how race and class influence their self-perceptions, relationships, and family creation.
Her work corrects the predominant impression from media and research that LGBT people are almost all white. It complements the recent demographic work by UCLA’s Williams Institute and others that shows a high percentage of lesbian and gay people, including parents, are in fact people of color.
Moore draws on three years of personal observations, interviews, and surveys with over 100 gay black women in New York City to explore their “intersecting identities as Black, as women, and as gay people.” She first identifies the paths by which they have come to accept a lesbian sexuality, and explores how race, class, and the black lesbian social environment have affected when and how they do so.
She then looks at gender presentation and how this, too, is influenced by race and class. For example, while 1970s white lesbian-feminism caused many white middle-class lesbians to reject gendered (butch-femme) presentations, it did not have the same impact on black lesbians, who have now adopted their own interpretations of that legacy. The middle-class black lesbians in her study, for example, often avoid a more masculine presentation, because they feel it may interfere with their efforts towards “assimilation into larger society.” On the other hand, she has found that working-class black lesbians may adopt a nonfeminine presentation, “to express feelings of difference from larger society based on the multiple marginalized statuses they occupy.”
Moore next digs more deeply into how race, class, and sexuality interact to form a person’s identity. She perceptively delineates the difference between a person’s individual identity, or self-conception, and her collective identity, where she has “the strongest feelings of group belonging.” While most of the women in her study participated in primarily black social environments, the extent to which gender and sexuality formed part of their individual identities was also influenced by both class and gender presentation.
Moore then turns to motherhood, noting that most previous studies of lesbian mothers have focused on women who became parents after coming out. Because a large percentage of black lesbians had children before coming out, however, such studies have excluded them—as they have excluded lesbian stepparents who come into these women’s lives. And because having children as a lesbian often involves costly insemination procedures, previous studies have also skewed towards middle- and upper-class families.
She addresses this imbalance with case studies of black lesbians of various classes who have become mothers in a variety of ways. For each of these families, she looks at how race, class, and their different paths to motherhood affect their sense of identity, approaches to child raising, and relationships to larger communities.
Moore also explores how families of different classes and structures negotiate their roles with respect to household chores, money management, and child rearing. She finds that many black lesbian households do not necessarily follow the egalitarian principles associated with white feminism in dividing household tasks—but that management of household activities is often a source of power in lesbian relationships. This also sets these relationships apart from heterosexual ones, where higher income, rather than household management, has been seen as the primary source of power.
Finally, she looks at the relationships among black lesbians, their extended families, and their racial and religious communities. Maintaining connections with the larger black community is important for them, she says, even when it does not fully accept them for being openly gay. One way many of the women deal with this, she has found, is to convey a certain middle-class “respectability”—an ideal that originally developed as a response to negative post-Reconstruction stereotypes about black women.
Displaying this “respectability” may mean downplaying their identities as gay people while in social situations, especially in church, which remains an important focus of black culture. At the same time, Moore says, these women “remain clear in their refusal to give up or deny their gay sexuality,” and are findings ways to negotiate between these two influences.
As important as Moore’s findings, however, are her methods. Traditional ways of gathering subjects for LGBT research studies—such as notices in LGBT community centers, nightclubs, and newspapers—have had little success in reaching gay populations of color, who tend to have their own social venues.
Moore, however, recruited her subjects by going to numerous social events that had primarily black lesbian crowds—everything from cocktail hours to book clubs to religious meetings. When she did go to lesbian nightclubs, she handed out flyers directly to people and spoke with them about her project. For eighteen months, she also organized her own weekly social event for lesbians of color. This was “critical” to her fieldwork, she said, because it gave her “regular, sustained contact with the community.”
That kind of thought and effort in finding and recruiting subjects is needed if we are to continue exploring LGBT life across other racial groups, socioeconomic classes, geographic areas, and parts of the LGBT spectrum.
Moore deftly explores the overlapping influences on black lesbians’ identities and families in a work that is both valuable in itself and should serve as a model for future studies that reflect the full diversity of LGBT families.
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