African American lesbians meet in Washington Sq. Park to celebrate a special liberation
Within sight of what gay historian David Carter, the author of “Stonewall,” has written may be the oldest living tree in New York City, descendants of slaves congregated in Washington Square Park on Pride Sunday to celebrate being lesbians.
One woman, Dino, a 48-year old transit worker, recounted working at Ben Cooper, Inc. a Brooklyn manufacturer of “Halloween costumes,” back in the 1970s. “They thought I made a mistake since I went into the women’s room,” Dino said. Like some of the women who recounted their stories, she refused to give her last name. Dino wore a baseball cap, bill backwards, and an oversized T-shirt pulled outside her jeans, mannishly dressed, perhaps as she used to some years ago when she unloaded trucks at the Cooper loading dock. “When they found out I was a real girl, they fired me. They said because I unloaded trucks, I could get hurt.” Dino crossed two fingers on one hand when asked if her 32-year-old son knew she was a lesbian. “We’re that close,” she replied. “I had my son to prove that I wasn’t mixed up about who I was.”
Dino’s friend, an older looking woman, dressed similarly, who leant on a cane, was even more circumspect about her identity, but no less outspoken about her sexuality. “I don’t refer to myself as no lesbian. I’m a woman, I’m a woman-lover, that’s it,” she said. Like Dino, she said she grew up in Brooklyn and had her first lesbian experiences in Bedford-Stuyvestant. “We always had to fight the boys because we was always with the prettiest girls,” the woman said.
“We’re back from in the day where you used to have to fight dudes,” Dino said. When asked why, she added, with near incredulity, “Because we were always with the pretty girls.” Women from her neck of the woods in Brooklyn socialized locally, not in Manhattan, she added. The Stonewall tavern, scene of the emergence of the modern gay rights movement, might as well have been an ocean away, never mind just over a river. A Brooklyn bar, The Starlight, served as the meeting place for young gays and lesbians.
“The gays used to call us cunts and we called them faggots,” said the older woman.
She and Dino were among dozens of African American lesbians who filled the benches of one section of the park on a brilliant early summer afternoon, seemingly miles away from the hordes of revelers—the marching drag queens plumed with feathers, smiling political candidates, shirtless hunks in sailor caps, and thousands of others—participating in the official Heritage of Pride parade, just a few blocks away. A jazz quartet and blues singer, not the pounding synthesized bass lines emanating from a parade float, provided the musical backdrop.
In an impromptu gathering that has become an annual ritual, the women rested on benches and chatted, or stood in tight knots, their numbers swelling as they were joined by others who had ducked out of the parade or made their way straight to the park from the subway. Exuberant greetings—“Oh, don’t think you’re just going to sit there when you see me!”—met newcomers as old friends appeared, lending the gathering the feeling of a class reunion. Speaking with some of the women, it became clear that many of them, nearly all of whom were in their forties or older, had grown up in the same neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, had traveled in the same lesbian circles in adolescence and formed a social network that lasted over the years, through the birth of children, divorces from men, separations from lovers, jobs gained and lost, even imprisonments.
Over all, though, the women were more interested in resting in the shade of an otherwise ordinary sunny day in a park celebrated not only for its centrality, but its tolerance of expression. The women sat smoking cigarettes and sipping on iced coffees and other beverages. Adrienne, 44, and Darene, 46, partners for the last eleven years, said they met at a drug rehab. Darene seemed the more eager of the two to talk about the beneficial impact of same-sex marriages on American society. “We’ve been together for eleven years, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re married,” said Adrienne. Darene, wearing a cardboard tiara that read “Divine,” noted that the issue of marriage equality had deeper social connotations than just being able to share a healthcare plan. “If a man kills a woman, he gets five to seven years. If a woman kills her husband, she gets fifteen years,” Darene said, adding that her knowledge of such unfair sentences comes from her personal experience and those of her female friends.
Darene, who has five children, the eldest of whom is 29, expressed doubts that New York would ever legalize same-sex marriage as did Massachusetts this past May. The eldest of Adrienne’s two children is 27, and she said that both of her kids accepted her as a lesbian and that she and Darene had both served as mothers to several of Darene’s youngest children. “I always knew I was a lesbian,” Adrienne said. “I had my kids because I wanted to have kids, not because I wanted to be with a man.” Their friend, Frances, a 50-year-old Latina, who sat with them on the bench, said that many men expected to be able “to turn a lesbian straight.” Frances, who has four children, and has been out for 15 years, said that her oldest son initially had trouble accepting her homosexuality, but that seeing his mother with her partner for eleven years had eased his burden of acceptance. Frances also has a 23-year-old lesbian daughter. She and her partner, who stood a short distance away chatting with friends, met in a women’s shelter and “fell in love nearly right away.” As for still being in love? “It gets better because you know more about each other through your fears,” said Frances.
The three women said that many of the women gathered around them knew each other from drug programs and community organizations. Frances said she recently slipped, “a little marijuana, a little drink,” but that she still kept in touch with her sober friends. Nevertheless, the day was special for her. “Oh, most definitely do I feel a lot of pride,” Frances said. “ A lot of joy. It’s like being with family.”
Finally, after noticing that her lover was talking to a reporter for so long on such a celebratory day, Frances’ partner approached and said, “You need to find another day to do this. This is my day.” Frances smiled sheepishly. “Okay. That’s it,” she said.
Diane, a public school teacher, said she traveled from Philadelphia on Pride Sunday for the camaraderie afforded by being with other African American lesbians. Diane said she is out to some students and to all her neighbors. “They don’t give a shit as long as I cut the grass,” she said. Diane said she is leery herself of getting married, since “all the lesbians I knew who went through the marriage thing broke up.” However, she considers the proposed constitutional amendment seeking to ban same-sex marriage as the “predominant political issue of the time.”
As for the absence of African American leaders in the national same-sex marriage movement, Diane said, “I don’t think a lot of black lesbians are in positions of power. The ones who are, like high tech lawyers and shit, don’t want people to know they’re gay.” However, Diane said, she believes some “gay African Americans are emerging as power brokers.”
She and her girlfriend, Terri Jones, recently met at a lesbian outing in Baltimore. “She was following me because I was in a black sheer dress,” joked Terri. Diane said she has“no kids, but I would love to have them.” Terri said, “As African American lesbians, we should have marriage available to us—for the insurance benefits and for other practical reasons.” Terri said she is comfortable with the term “wife.” As for meeting with other lesbians in the park, Terri said this was her thirtieth Gay Pride celebration since being taken to one at the age of seven by her lesbian aunt. “I’m not comfortable at white lesbian bars,” said Terri. “I can hear them saying, ‘Here they come and they’re going to drink and make trouble.’” Gathering in the park, said Terri, allows the women to “show other races how we interact with each other. As African American lesbians we have stigmas against us—that we fight and are ignorant. We get to counteract that here.”