A Conversation With Generations of Black Lesbian Brilliance

Over the weekend, I attended the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. The mission of the conference is to share tools and tactics for transforming our communities through media-based organizing. The conference was full of young, energetic advocates eager to engage with one another.

 Activities ranged from strategy sessions to workshops and film screenings to panel discussions. One panel discussion was called “Generations of Black Lesbian Brilliance: A Conversation” and was moderated by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (pictured far right) of the Mobile Homecoming Project, an “experiential archive” that records the lives of black LGBT elders.

The discussion highlighted generations of brilliant black lesbian media makers in Detroit and included Atiba Cohen (pictured far left) and Dr. Kofi Adoma (pictured center), co-founder of Karibu House, A.L.O.R.D.E Collective, and the Ruth Ellis Center. It was an honor to a part of such a transformative session. I left with an even deeper appreciation for our elders.

I had to opportunity to speak with Dr. Kofi after the conference. She shared her reflections on the importance of the oral tradition and staying connected with our black lesbian elders.

It's vital and crucial for Black lesbians to stay connected with each other because we are all we have. There is a bond between us that no one can take away from us unless we allow it. This bond is a Black lesbian community that has to survive, to let the world know that we have existed and will exist regardless of the oppressive forces that may try to silence us. As Black women, we need each other. We need each other for healing and empowerment.

It is up to the following generations to carry the torch. In order for this to work, we need our elders to share the stories and for younger generations to receive and preserve the stories. If we don't, those stories (and thus our lives) will be lost or defined by others who don't know us.

We are worthy and deserving of preservation. Too many of us have suffered to keep our histories alive. Staying interconnected is a revolutionary act of self-love. To me personally, it has spiritual significance.

I came out in 1979 even though I knew I had feelings for girls and women since I was 6 years old. Coming out in the early 80s was hard. There was no LGBT community center, no college courses, and no language to convey what I was experiencing. All there were for me were gay bars, which I hated because of the smoke and alcohol. I had no choice back then. But one thing I got out of the bars was meeting people there, getting into deep conversations, and sometimes getting invited to house parties.

This socializing and dialogue led to a group of us forming a monthly support group for social interaction and fellowship called Family. From there, those of us who wanted to become more politically active formed other groups such as the Detroit Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. A group of women at Full Truth Unity Fellowship Church at the time had "Women's Rap" group as a way to connect. A small group of us created the A.L.O.R.D.E. Collective as a way of keeping us connected and engaged with Black lesbian community as we defined it. There were women who rented halls and threw ‘cabarets’ to bring us together to socialize and have a good time, while being safe.

It took us a while to tell ourselves that we didn't have to always patronize the plentiful white gay men's bars. We had to convince ourselves that we could do for self and create our own venues, venues that catered to our own preferences and needs, like musical tastes. Being Black, we knew that our culture often dictated that we use very informal means for connection, like potlucks, barbeques, etc.

There was a backyard barbeque in the 1960's that became a huge annual event called “Xmas in July” given by the Kap-Tar Club. Since there was no computer, Internet, or texting, Black lesbians relied on the oral tradition of word-of-mouth and when we could afford it, handouts that we could distribute. Someone came up with a newsletter in Detroit called “Black Lavender” which lasted only a few years, but it was significant. During our Detroit “Black Gay Pride: Hotter Than July,” A.L.O.R.D.E. Collective created activities for the lesbian community, and later on, Pink Ice and S.P.I.C.E. did the same thing.

We had to create space for ourselves. We could not depend on anyone else to do it for us. Without the oral tradition, phone, in-person meetings in our living rooms, and fliers, we could not have done it.