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University of California Press
Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women

Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women

by Mignon Moore
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ISBN-13: 9780520269521
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/17/2011
Pages: 318
Sales rank: 369,376
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mignon R. Moore is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Invisible Families

Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women

By Mignon R. Moore


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95015-3


Coming into the Life

Entrance into Gay Sexuality for Black Women


Psychologists and psychotherapists have portrayed coming out of the closet, or acknowledging one's same-sex attractions, acting upon them, disclosing them to others, and accepting them as part of a sexual identity, as a developmental process that most homosexuals share. Variations on a core model describe six stages of this process. First, individuals have a subjective sense of feeling "different" from others of their same gender. Subsequently, they identify these feelings as homosexual, disclose the feelings to others, come to accept the feelings as part of an identity, and search for a community of like persons. They complete the transition when they become involved in a relationship with someone of the same sex. "Coming out" is understood as a process that ends in its subject's acceptance of a "modern" gay identity, in which the subject has merged her private self-understandings with the public self she reveals to others.

Several scholars of lesbian and bisexual identity have criticized this model for its failure to consider alternative, often nonlinear paths by which many gay women construct a sexual identity. Drawing on my fieldwork with Black lesbians in New York City, I have found that the linear five-stage model of coming out does not fully capture the complex ways in which individuals construct a personal and sexual identity based not just on sexual orientation and gender but on race and class as well. The development of women's sexual orientation follows diverse pathways shaped by multiple social and cultural influences.

To begin with, the concept of "coming out" does not accurately capture the experience of acting on same-sex attraction by entering and participating in Black gay social life. Instead, this experience, broadly understood, is best conceptualized as "coming into" a life and community with particular norms and expectations for its members. The phrase "coming into the life" not only better describes the experience of same-sex desire for Black people who learn how to "be" gay in Black social settings, it also captures the essence of how they learn to label that desire and reveal it to others. The concept of "coming into the life" more completely represents the experiences of my respondents, then, because it describes coming into an understanding of a particular subculture—of learning about and adjusting to the patterns of interaction expected in lesbian communities and in Black lesbian social environments specifically. "Coming into the life" also encompasses coming into a greater acknowledgment and acceptance of one's gay sexuality and beginning the process of negotiating and managing this identity status as it relates to race and to other established identities. The set of processes, range of possibilities, and spectrum of choices Black lesbians encounter as they come to recognize and become comfortable acting on their same-sex desire in Black communities and various Black American and West Indian social contexts are described in this chapter.

There are different ways of coming into the life (or not). To understand these processes, I drew from a variety of sources of data. During the in-depth interviews I asked my respondents questions about how they defined their sexuality (i.e., their relationship experiences with women and with men), and I asked them to tell me the story of how they came into "the life" (the exact wording of these questions can be found in Appendix C). I conducted a focus group on respondents' experiences in the gay social worlds of New York that raised questions about the contexts in which they came to understand their same-sex desires. The survey also contained questions that I used to identify patterns in the ways women came to take on a gay sexuality. I asked the extent to which respondents agreed or disagreed with the following two statements: "Being gay is something that is completely beyond one's control" and "Being gay is a conscious choice I have made." Responses ranged from strongly agree to strongly disagree, and no opinion. There were other survey questions that were analyzed to identify differences in women's pathways into a gay sexuality, including questions that asked the respondent to describe her sexuality now, at age 15, and at age 21. Possible choices were "Exclusively lesbian," "Predominantly lesbian, only slightly heterosexual," "Predominantly lesbian, but significantly heterosexual," "Equally lesbian and heterosexual," "Predominantly heterosexual, but significantly lesbian," "Predominantly heterosexual, only slightly lesbian," and "Exclusively heterosexual." I asked whether there was a term other than "lesbian" that better described their sexuality, what was the longest amount of time they have spent in committed relationships with men and with women, and what have been their experiences with heterosexual marriage.

Ultimately, all the women I studied came to recognize and act on their attraction to women. One group named it, acted on it, or both in their adolescent years, while a second group felt this attraction but conformed to societal gender norms in their early years, turning to a gay sexuality in adulthood. For a third group, same-sex desire did not emerge until adulthood, after which they confirmed a lesbian rather than a bisexuality. For a fourth group, there is a persistent and ongoing fluidity in their desire for women and men. I organize the analysis that follows around these four groups, each of whose members came into the life in a distinct way. In the process, I distinguish carefully between having a first experience of same-sex desire, acting on that desire, and claiming an identity based in a sexuality. In later chapters I suggest that the pathways women take in coming to terms with and openly practicing a gay sexuality have important associations with the types of women they partner with, the processes by which they enter motherhood, and the types of families they create.

As scholars of Black sexuality have shown, American- and Caribbean-born Black women often must negotiate a complex set of demands for gender "respectability" and racial uplift. Black lesbians, in order to live openly gay lives, must negotiate this terrain while simultaneously engaging in an active expression of sexual agency. Women who have followed different pathways into a gay sexuality share various tropes common to coming out stories, such as an unnamed attraction to members of the same sex, feelings of difference, and fear of retribution from family and community members when coming to terms with same-sex desire, and these tropes are discussed in this chapter. The chapter also shows how different race and economic contexts influence the ways individuals come to understand a gay sexuality and portray it to others.


Carlie Lewis, a hairstylist born in 1962, explained how she defines her sexuality: "I'm a lesbian without, you know, having a reason behind it. It's just, there's no reason. I've always liked women. Didn't realize what my attraction was when I was younger, 'cause I had boyfriends, but to me they were never really boyfriends, they were just like boys that were my friends—you know what I'm saying? It was like I never really treated them like boyfriends, and I was more attracted to women, so to me I've always been a lesbian.... Once I realized there were women, ahh, forget about the men!"

Carlie belongs to a category that I have labeled "straight-up gay." There were twenty straight-up gay women in my interview group of fifty-eight women, making up 34 percent of the sample. Those who followed this first pathway into a gay sexuality either self-identified as gay at an early age or deemphasized any sexuality until adulthood. All but two of them have a history of nonfeminine gender presentation and an interest in stereotypically male activities. The members of this group tend to link their same-sex desire and feelings of difference regarding masculinity and femininity to their self-understandings of gay sexuality. For them, gay sexuality is not merely behavior they engage in: rather, it is an identity category, something they experience as part of an essentialized sense of self.

Feelings of Difference: Gender Presentation and Growing Up as a Tomboy

In my survey, I asked, "If you had to select only one, which of these definitions would describe your sexuality?" There were seven responses available, ranging from 1 (exclusively lesbian)" to 7(exclusively heterosexual). All but one of the women in the straight-up gay category defined herself as exclusively lesbian. When asked during the in-depth interviews how they would define their sexuality, the respondents said things like "I am strictly homosexual," "Straight-up gay," and "I'm a lesbian without having a reason behind it." In the interviews, 90 percent (18 of the straight-up gay group) reported having romantic same-sex attractions before the age of eighteen, and on the survey, 90 percent said they considered themselves predominantly or exclusively lesbian by age twenty-one.

Most respondents in this group found it difficult to pinpoint the particular moment when they first felt same-sex attraction. They said things like "I've always known I was different," "I've always known I was a lesbian," "I was born gay, it has been in me forever," and "Everyone already knew—[I] didn't have to make no grand announcement." Before they took on a gay identity or even knew what it meant to have same-sex desire, these women felt different from other girls. Earlier research has found a similar category of lesbian women; Ponse's 1978 study of lesbian identity and community, for example, identified as "primary lesbians" those who reported feeling a sense of difference from other girls and women at early ages.

It was Corey James, a union organizer born in 1966 and raised by her grandmother in a Bronx housing project, who used the words "straight-up gay" to describe her sexuality to me. She said: "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. And I've know it since I was about—since seven." When I asked her what it was in her experiences with women and men that prompted her to reply in this way, she answered: "I've just always known. I didn't experience, have any [sexual] experience with men until I was almost eighteen. And that was only because I didn't have any references to acknowledge how I was feeling. I didn't have—I was the only gay person around me. I was the only gay person that I knew of in my family. I mean, I had uncles who were kind of feminine, but they never were openly gay. So I kinda kept how I felt in the background. And then I got to college and said, 'To heck with it.'"

In addition to feeling different but not specifically being able to name that difference, straight-up gay women reported that when they were younger they behaved in ways that did not conform to gendered expectations. All but two identified as tomboys in childhood and adolescence. Trina Adams, a hotel associate born in 1969 and raised in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Queens, referred back to her childhood interest in boys' activities and her inability to perform simple tasks and play games associated with African American girls' leisure as evidence of her sexual orientation: "I was always a tomboy. I never could jump double-dutch, I can't braid hair. I never liked skirts—even when I was in first grade, I would cry if I had to wear a skirt. I always liked to play boy things like 'kick the can.' I remember climbing trees, wrestling, and I could play basketball, but I could really play, not like girls. I was good like the boys. They'd pick teams, I would be the first one they picked." For Trina, her athleticism and the way it was expressed—through her desire to compete with boys and play on boys' teams—was evidence not just of divergent interests from girls but of a future gay self.

Like Trina, straight-up gay women tend to label certain childhood behaviors as male-identified and to link those activities to the same-sex attraction they felt as children, teenagers, or young adults. They reported preferring a clothing style that was "very casual" and never too feminine, and almost all had a similar story about how they hated wearing dresses in their youth or had an embarrassing and awkward experience when they were forced to wear a dress. Social historian Robin D. G. Kelley argues that our sense of gender is made and developed in childhood, and "the limits, boundaries, and contestations in the world of play constitute key moments in the creation and shaping of gender identity" (1997, 205). Sports like football or jump rope are forms of play that are central to the construction of masculinity and femininity, and children as well as authority figures often erect strict gender boundaries to control access and keep boys and girls separate in their forms of play.

In their historical account of lesbian identity formation, Kennedy and Davis (1993) found that many women who adopted masculine gender presentations as adults had experienced an early appropriation of masculine behavior, and for them this gender nonconformity was an indicator of difference at an early age. It was difficult for the women in Kennedy and Davis' study to separate their interest in women from the masculinity they enacted. Rather, they saw sexuality as firmly embedded in gender, so that masculine behavior was closely entwined with same-sex attraction. Bullough (2008) cautions against assuming that gender nonconformity in childhood always leads to homosexuality in adulthood. It does not. However, several studies have found that lesbians are more likely than are heterosexual women to report being a tomboy or preferring boys' games and toys to those of girls in childhood.

When describing how they came to think of themselves as gay, twelve of the twenty women I interviewed (60 percent) specifically mentioned that as a young child they wished they were a boy, wished they could have the freedoms of a boy, or wanted to engage in the types of activities that boys participated in. There was a sense that they did not want to be male physically, but were aware that they did not look or act in ways that were consistent with how girls were supposed to act, and did not share the interests that girls were supposed to have. They viewed their childhood desire to participate in experiences reserved for boys as an essential part of their realization of a gay identity as adults.

Zoe Ferron, for example, a telephone linesman born in 1960 to lower-middle-class Black American parents, said of her gender identity, "I would have made a better boy than a girl." When I asked her why, she replied:

I never felt like a girl. Never really understood what it felt like to feel like a girl in terms of roles on television. I think roles for me were always skewed, especially what we saw environmentally, what we saw visually. There weren't even Black people on TV when I was growing up. The White people were Barbie, and I am not Barbie. I didn't even feel like a Barbie, and I didn't even feel—I would probably say that I never viewed myself really as a girl.... Um, there was a time when I thought I would consider gender reassignment. I actually thought about that. I saw a therapist, even met some transgender people and decided that I would rather be a healthy woman than an unhealthy man ... and also I think my religious upbringing had something to do with that. I figured at some point 'God would fix it,' whatever that means. I never had any kind of sexual attraction to men. I think much more like a man. I appreciate women. I don't know how men appreciate women—sometimes I don't think they do appreciate them—but I appreciate women.

At an early age, Zoe had a keen awareness of how she differed from the ideal gender type and of how her race as well as her physical mannerisms played a role in her inability to ever achieve the ideal type. She was also aware that her interests deviated from those expected of girls and were more similar to those given to boys. She felt a mismatch that stayed with her throughout childhood and even into adulthood, and she contemplated gender reassignment as a strategy to align her with the sex that matched her interests and desires. While others have written about the inarticulate gender conflicts of masculine-identified lesbians who, from a young age had feelings of perplexity about their gender differences (i.e., Hiestand and Levitt 2005), racial difference was importantly implicated in the mismatch described by Zoe. Race as well as gender expression made it difficult for her to see how her experience as a Black girl related to the image of Barbie as the ideal expression of female gender.


Excerpted from Invisible Families by Mignon R. Moore. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Two Sides of the Same Coin: Revising Analyses of Lesbian Sexuality and Family Formation through the Study of Black Women
1. Coming into the Life: Entrance into Gay Sexuality for Black Women
2. Gender Presentation in Black Lesbian Communities
3. Marginalized Social Identities: Self-Understandings and Group Membership
4. Lesbian Motherhood and Discourses of Respectability
5. Family Life and Gendered Relations between Women
6. Openly Gay Families and the Negotiation of Black Community and Religious Life
Intersections, Extensions, and Implications

Appendix A: A Roadmap for the Study of Marginalized and
Invisible Populations
Appendix B: Selected Questions from
Invisible Families Survey
Appendix C: Questions from
Interview on Self-Definitions of Sexuality


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Arguably the most groundbreaking work on LGBT parenting published in recent years."—Mombian

Invisible Families] provides deep insight into the lives and experiences of black lesbians."—American Journal of Sociology

"Social sciences researchers will cite the construction, development, and conclusions from Moore's study for years to come."—Lambda Literary

"Necessary reading for scholars and students interested in family studies, LGBT studies, and race-class-gender studies."—Assoc For Jewish Stds Review / Ajs Review

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