“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 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. Middle-class black lesbians, for example, often avoid a more masculine presentation, because they feel it may interfere with efforts toward “assimilation into larger society.” On the other hand, she found that working-class black lesbians may adopt nonfeminine presentations “to express feelings of difference from larger society based on the multiple marginalized statuses.”
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 toward 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 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, not 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 women deal with this, she found, is to convey a certain middle-class “respectability” — an ideal that originally developed in 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.
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.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.