I’ve lived in Chicago for almost ten years, have been active within queer communities, and have been identifying as a lesbian, but I had very little exposure to the history and the impact Black lesbians have had on Chicago’s south-side communities and beyond.
Then I met Krü Maekdo, who founded the Black Lesbian Archive in the summer of 2017 to preserve and communicate the history of Black lesbians via news articles, publications, photo albums, literature, and oral histories.
There are folks who have concerns that the term “lesbian” is disappearing, in this case more specifically Black lesbians. Amidst the beautiful progression and visibility of queer identities within the LGBTQIA+ community, there is something inherently powerful about naming. For the Black women I photographed, there is a resonant power and pride that comes with identifying themselves as exclusively “lesbian.”
These intergenerational portraits center the experiences, activism, and diverse ways in which Black lesbians in Chicago continue to thrive and actualize themselves on their own terms.
Kiersten “Kee” Parks + Dominique “Dumoo” Johnson
Kiersten: “It was my sophomore year of high school that I realized I leaned more towards women. And now I feel I’m just a lesbian. I just connect more with women. To be Black and gay is beautiful to me! Just being Black in general is hard.
“There’s so many people out here still figuring out how to identify themselves, and in the process being thrown down and doubted. So to be both Black and openly gay, to be comfortable with yourself and for me, it’s amazing. Self-confidence is everything!
“Like RuPaul said, ‘If you can’t love yo’ self, how the hell you gon’ love somebody else?’”
Dominique: “When my cousins would go out, I would go out with them and be in the gay scene. Most of my friends are also gay. We in the community everywhere (on the south side). You go outside by my house, it’s gay couples outside all the time. We everywhere. So when people say stuff about us not bein’ out here—we out here. And I haven’t really been to the Pride parties really, but it’s always love and fun when I’m around gay people. I feel comfortable and I feel safe.
“I’m just proud to be who I am. I love who I am. And I also love Black women! Black women are everything.”
Jasamine Harris, aka Tweak G
“I’m a masculine-centered Black lesbian! It’s hard and it’s very exhausting having to always explain my womanhood. It’s always under question, and folks always expect me to overcompensate that I’m a woman just because I’m not always feminine presenting. I’m always judged by my clothes. I be tellin’ folks, ‘Don’t box me in, you’re gonna have a hard time and you’ll fry your brain trying to figure me out!’ But I proudly claim myself as a dyke. People have used that term, though, sometimes to hurt me, but I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud as hell to be gay. So yes—I’m a dyke! Just come at me with respect, that’s all I ask.
“I also just love Black women! It’s comforting to know I have someone to love who can relate to what I’ve been through—you know? My life, my trauma, all of it. I don’t have to always explain myself (with a Black woman) because they understand already—my wife knows me. I don’t have to tell her how to meet me halfway. She’s nurturing, loving, understanding, kind, and sweet. It feels like home. I can be my true self and don’t have to hide.”
Activist and organizer
“Here in Chicago, I’ve always been a party promoter and activating something! Executive Sweet started out with Pam Terrell and myself and DJ Sheron Webb. Eventually it just became me and Vera Washington. We went around and did a lot of stuff: boat rides, parties, and we had a lesbian bar up north at one point on Clark Street called Sweets. The reason we felt a strong need to gather amongst ourselves is that we played the type of music that we liked! And the type of things we liked.
“I also started the first Women of Color tent space at the Michigan Womyn’s [Music] Festival. This was in 1986, I believe, and each tent had a different focus that centered the concerns of different women-of-color groups, such as Native American, Asian, Latino, and Black women. There were so many white women we had to do something to come together, and white women couldn’t come in, which was very controversial at the time. But on the outskirts, I had white women allies who would do anti-racism workshops.
“We were such a minority that we were on the outskirts, so we had different activities in place that could cater to us and just us!”
President of Morten Group
Director of education and community engagement at the Goodman Theatre
Mary: “We just celebrated our 20th anniversary. We met for the first time at this conference in Long Beach, but it was the Creating Change Conference in Pittsburgh when we realized there was something there. We did long distance for about a year. And Willa moved here in December of ’99 . . . and now it’s been 20 years! I didn’t like her at first, but I realized how much I was laughing with her, and it remains an important part of our relationship. Being able to laugh makes all the difference. So here we are.
“From a very early age, I came out of college and started doing a lot of activist work. So I got involved with Chicago NOW [National Organization for Women] and became the first Black woman and lesbian [president] of that chapter, which at that time was the
second-largest one in the country. I’ve also worked with Chicago Abortion Fund, doing a lot of work around reproductive justice. I’m also a filmmaker, and really early on I saw that we were missing stories about Black lesbians in particular. So I did this film called The NIA Project: Images of African American Lesbians. Stories are so important. And I’ve maintained this incredible array of relationships doing this work. There’s this idea that there’s work here to do and are you doing your work?”
Willa: “Before we recognized we could be something more than friends, we would have these marathon phone calls talking about anything and everything—before the era of cell phones! The phone bills would be ridiculous! We would talk from work, and when my job would get the bill, they’d ask, ‘Willa . . . ?’ And I’d say I was working on a ‘special’ project.
“So we met [through] a really good friend of Mary’s and somebody who I hung out with and worked with, Renae Ogletree, who was a real sort of mover and shaker in the queer community, in particular the Black lesbian community here in Chicago. And also did a lot of work around HIV and AIDS. She introduced us.
“I think I was fortunate because I grew up during the civil rights era. . . in Texas . . . in segregation, [and] I was always in that kind of environment where everybody was always trying to figure out how to make the world better. It gave me a sense of myself, but it also always helped me recognize and identify triumphs. Right now, we have a wonderful circle of Black lesbians, and also gay men, here in Chicago. And we make an effort to try and make that accessible to people younger than us. But in terms of activism, most of my activism has always been about . . . living my life out loud. I’ve always tried to make spaces wherever I am.”
Founder of Black Lesbian Archives
“Identifying as a lesbian feels like a revolution! Black lesbians I feel are always put at the bottom of the conversation. I love who I am and I feel powerful embracing who I am. There were all these different labels I was discovering at first but then I realized: ‘Actually, I’m just a lesbian!’ I love women—I’ve always loved women for as long as I can remember.
“When I came to Chicago and started Black Lesbian Archives, I was treading a line and was hesitant because queer is more inclusive, you know? So at first I thought, Should I do Black Queer Archives? So Imani [Rupert-Gordon, executive director] of Affinity [Community] Services asked me what it was I really intended to do, and I’m a Black lesbian who wants to know more about Black lesbians! There’s very little history that focuses on our experiences. I found a community with other Black lesbians who were doing similar work here in Chicago who supported the mission of the archives and were eager to work with me. So here I am!”
“Within the community, there’s a demand and importance for more ‘sober’ queer spaces that aren’t always about drinking or partying. Like small-group-type things or just more meet-ups. I’ve put myself out there more in that way and have made some great relationships. Especially with more Black women and women of color, for sure. But we need more spaces for rest and slowness, reflection and connection.
“But as far as, like, the identity and community that I consider myself aligned with, it’s the lesbian community. If I’m looking for resources, or a sense of support, or even just fun. And lesbian is just more specific. But when I say lesbian, though, it definitely makes people think I’m not attracted to men and I am. But that’s just my truth.
“The language is definitely important, but the more we keep holding boundaries, the more we isolate ourselves sometimes. It can limit collaboration in terms of health and education. But I also understand that people need a sense of identity and community.”
Wellness coach and fitness trainer
“Spirituality for me is about connecting to who you truly are on the deepest level. And so in turn, that’s me connecting to who I am in regard to my sexual orientation. There’s this masculine aspect and the feminine, and being able to really see that through the lens of being a Black lesbian . . . changes how I view things. It took me a while to uncover that.
“Just even saying ‘I’m a Black Lesbian,’—because queer is so trendy a term right now—it means something. It’s about being exclusive within an inclusive space. So yes, I don’t only want to be under an umbrella, I want that lesbian voice to be heard. I feel like it’s becoming watered down. And it’s hard to connect sometimes. Even under this queer umbrella, there still needs to be a strong lesbian community. When it comes to Black lesbian spaces, where are we? We don’t have an established area or space. It can be hard, I feel, for us to find spaces exclusively for us. I say all this so people can know that we’re still here! It’s about confidence, pride, and awareness.”
“I had an encounter with a woman my senior year of college and thought . . . I think I could be a lesbian? I always had a girlfriend but would date men every now and then . . . you know, here and there. But it was when I moved to Taiwan after college. I had been there for, like, six years. And I was like, I should decide. I think I was 27 when I decided. You know how I decided? I am a better me with a woman, I’m at my best. I’m my best person. I’m who I am truly when I’m with a woman.
“I couldn’t be who I truly am with men. But it was crazy—I would disappear with a man, where I wouldn’t do that with a woman . . . you know? I don’t know if it’s socialization, but I’m just a lesbian. The connection is there for me. For sure. No question about it.” v
Participants’ statements have been edited for length and clarity.