Race, Relationships, and the Challenges of Lesbian Life

Lesbian relationships can be great. But they can also be messy things. And although there’s a lot of useful lesbian dating and lifestyle advice here on AfterEllen, there’s one area that the community as a whole doesn’t talk about enough: race.

Race can complicate pretty much every aspect of a woman of color’s life – in anything from employment to getting a haircut, it’s there. Women of color have been talking about it for decades, and some of the most valuable feminist writing on sexual politics has been written by lesbians of color.

But still, white members of the community don’t always think about how race can add another layer of difficulty to lesbian life. Race isn’t seen as a fundamental part of the female experience, let alone the lesbian experience. And while lesbians of color have plenty to say about race and sexuality, it doesn’t often permeate mainstream LGBT discussions.

As we all know, the politics of lesbian relationships aren’t always simple. Despite popular belief among the straights, two women together doesn’t automatically mean perfect communication. In fact – with the possible exception of my mother – I don’t know a single woman who would characterise lesbian relationships as straightforward.

And yet het female friends will say to me, not quite joking, that lesbian relationships must be easier since both people in the relationship are women. Okay, there’s more than a grain of truth here. Our life experiences aren’t separated by the gulf of gendered inequalities. Both being positioned as women in this world creates a level of shared understanding. But the politics of difference can still be a challenge in lesbian relationships.

While this doesn’t rule out the possibility of dysfunction or bitterness built up over time, the lack of gendered power imbalance takes away a traditional source of those issues in long-term relationships. British women do twice as much housework as British men, missing out on an estimated five hours of leisure time every week as a result. Not to mention the endless emotional labour women are overburdened with in a hetero family setting. If that’s not a recipe for resentment, what is? So much of straight culture is made up of those awful jokes about how much a couple can’t stand one another. (And yet we’re the ‘unnatural’ ones…)

Even when a lesbian couple has the butch/femme dynamic, there is no gendered power imbalance. Both are women, and neither brings the aggressive, domineering behavioural patterns that result from masculine socialisation.

I don’t know if I believe whether a woman can choose to be a lesbian. But I can certainly understand the incentive, personally and politically. Life without men is pretty wonderful. Free from the authority imposed by men, and the domineering behavior that’s used to sustain it, there is more room to breathe.

Without men around it’s easier for women to take up space, assert needs, and work in favor of our own interests. Without the patriarchal ‘man of the house’ structure, there’s so much more possibility for collaboration and co-operative living. But – glorious as it is – this is not the only truth. Sexual politics aren’t the only source of power imbalances within a relationship, or the wider world.

The reality is that even within the sameness of shared womanhood, there is a multitude of difference contained in our lives. And when we consider women as a social unit or political class, those differences cannot be denied. Women aren’t homogenous, after all. We’re not all positioned the same way in society, and can have wildly diverging lived experiences as a result. One of the biggest factors is race.

If there is political advantage in women not partnering with men, there is also political advantage in women of color not taking white partners. But not many advocates of lesbian separatism are willing to reflect on this parallel. It spoils the fantasy that lesbian life or politics are the answer to every social problem. Decades ago, a group of Black lesbians known as the Combahee River Collective hit the nail on the head.

“Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.”

On a more personal level, guarding yourself against the racism of white women is exhausting. It’s not exactly conducive to romance either. Unless she consciously unlearns and resists racism, a white woman is a real threat to the wellbeing of any lesbian of color. Having a white bae, and getting emotionally invested in a white woman, can be a big risk. It’s a soul-destroying discovery to find that the woman you like can’t see the real you for a haze of racist stereotypes and assumptions.

I know quite a few lesbians of color dating white women, and some of them are wonderful couples. Their relationships are not a solution to racism. Thinking that way asks far too much of a relationship and, more importantly, fails to recognise how deeply racism is rooted in society. Still, those relationships do offer a glimpse into what might be possible beyond white supremacy.

Interracial lesbian relationships are possible. And, what’s more, interracial lesbian relationships don’t necessarily have to involve a white partner. Even between communities of color, bridging difference can be a challenge. But ultimately I think that there’s nothing more radical than Black women loving each other. Given how little value is placed on Black womanhood, there’s something revolutionary about recognising one another as worthy of love.

There aren’t any easy answers when it comes to race and lesbian dating. There’s no cheat sheet – and no matter how much theory you read on the subject, the practice will always be tricky. The only way it’s going to get easier is for the whole community to be conscious of how race complicates lesbian relationships. Collective problems don’t have individual solutions – not sustainable ones, anyway. And there is no limit to what women can achieve when we focus our energy on each other.