The Black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde once said that she wrote “for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.”
Lorde further stated, “We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.”
However, in the decades since Lorde penned those words many Black lesbians are no longer silent. Yet, we must ask the question, how safe are Black lesbians today? Perhaps we should ask WNBA basketball star, Brittney Griner, who is among the growing number of prominent Black lesbians in America living out loud.
Most have battle scar evidence of their struggle to find a peaceful life in a world that in many ways, still considers who they are and who they love an aberration. And, although disrespect and dangers continue to lurk for members of the LGBTQ+ community in America, it is still safer to live here than in many other places in the world.
Unfortunately for Griner, however, she is now trapped in a country, where racism against Blacks is normalized and where the government is working to ostracize members of the LGBTQ+ community. But how different is this really from many places in America today.
Despite the spread of anti-gay sentiments in Russia and right leaning countries across Europe, Griner plays basketball internationally during the WNBA’s off season. This despite writing about her “coming out” in her 2017 autobiography, “In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court,” which helped make her one of the most recognizable lesbians in the world.
Racism and Homophobia in Russia
For those who have not followed Griner’s fate in recent months, she was arrested on drug charges in Russia on February 17. Her arrest came just days after a Russian court suspended a lawsuit (February 11) intended to shut down its LGBT Network—the country’s most powerful gay rights organization—for purportedly spreading gay views, which of course, could farcically include anything from a view out one’s window of gay people walking down the street, to realistically include gay people advocating for the same rights to live and love as they choose like any other Russian.
Identifying as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender or queer has been legal in Russia since 1993 (how enlightened) however in 2013 under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the nation adopted what’s been called the “gay propaganda” law that made it illegal to speak words related to the LGBTQ+ community around minors.
Before Russia took such action, America was already contriving to do the same.
There has been much criticism recently of Florida’s recently enacted Parental Rights in Education Bill signed into law in April that appeared to follow Russia’s lead. But, it was revealed by The Center for Media and Democracy , a nonprofit that tracks the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), that the Parental Rights Amendment was actually listed under its “Education Task Force and included in the 1995 ALEC Sourcebook of American State Legislation.
Also, according to the Center, although ALEC has tried to distance itself from this controversial legislation since 2011, it is difficult to identify any efforts to advocate against the current movement to codify this legislative into law across the country.
ALEC is a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts models of legislation for distribution and adoption by conservative legislatures around the country and for decades has worked to pull America toward extremism.
Sadly, Florida’s recent law is just the tip of the iceberg. Anti LGBTQ+ toxicity is spreading quickly in America. Red states from Ohio to Texas to Indiana to Colorado to Wyoming to South Dakota, Iowa, Utah and beyond have pushed to pass similar bills. In some instances state’s were only prevented from doing so by Democratic legislators who held the line against Republican, anti-gay governors seeking to work their will.
As we watch and point with deserved derision and criticism, the unfolding fate of Griner in Russia, Time magazine provided a chilling reminder in mid-May, of what is possible in America regarding the welfare of LGBTQ+ citizens. It recalled the successful work of Florida’s Johns Committee—a state legislative committee that launched an LGBTQ+ purge in the late 1950s rooted in racism, homophobia, and anti-communism.
Beginning in 1957 and continuing through 1963 the Florida legislative committee persecuted and intimidated those suspected of being gay at state universities as part of the state’s resistance to federally sanctioned school desegregation in response to the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
According to Time, the committee’s original goal was to uncover all communists believed to be behind desegregation. Not surprisingly since it was based on a false premise, that mission failed. This subsequently compelled the committee to find another group to scapegoat—gays and lesbians. This eventually led to a report popularly known as “The Purple Pamphlet”( because of its sensational and explicit content), that highlighted “the extent of infiltration into agencies supported by state funds by practicing homosexuals.”
By 1965, hundreds of Floridians were prosecuted and charged because of their sexuality. Frighteningly, not unlike the experiences of Griner in Russia today, Florida interrogations were reportedly conducted in privacy and even worse, the accused were denied legal counsel.
A need to raise our collective voices
Today, as Griner languishes in a Russian prison—most assuredly because she is Black and a lesbian who may or may not have committed a minor drug infraction in a racist, homophobic country —,there are legitimate concerns about her safety. As her detention days turn into weeks and weeks into months, there is little doubt it is up to all of us, Black women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, those who support and validate our right to exist and every American committed to human rights to pressure the federal government to bring her home. We must raise our collective voices to keep Griner’s freedom at the forefront of America’s political consciousness.
Audre Lorde lamented about the fate of Black lesbians in her seminal work the Black Unicorn where she noted “’The black unicorn was mistaken for a shadow or symbol and taken through a cold country…, ” She further spoke to the power of Black women/lesbian strength and determination to live their truth stating, “the Black unicorn is unrelenting.” I pray this perceived power is enough to sustain Griner (her wife and loved ones) in the days ahead.
In concluding her poem Lorde also reminded all of us that although the metaphorical Black unicorn is empowered, as we are witnessing today decades after Lorde put pen to paper on this issue, as it relates to Griner, “the Black unicorn is not free.”
Raise your voice to advocate for Griner’s freedom by calling the U.S. Department of State at 1-202-647-4000 and the White House at 202-456-1111 to advocate for Griner’s release. Remember, “Silence is complicity.”
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.
Update: Since this was posted Brittney Griner plead guilty. It is being widely reported that her guilty plea is part of an overall strategy to get her home sooner.
2nd Update: Brittney Griner was sentenced to serve 9 years in a Russian prison on Aug 4, 2022