Marriage among same-sex couples constitutes less than 2% of marriages in the United States according to the 2019 American Community Survey. A larger percentage of respondents in same-sex married couples identify as Black than do people in opposite-sex married couples. While 7.2% of respondents in opposite-sex married couples identify as Black, 8.8% of people in same-sex marriages identify as Black. When it comes to Black same-sex couples, more identified as members of two women marriages (11.1%) than they did as members of marriages between two men (6.3%).
Though the American Community Survey does not break down the data by sexual orientation, the statistics above open up a conversation about what marriage means to Black queer women. Sociologist Siobhan Brooks, whose research on Black women exotic dancers I’ve written about before, did interviews with married Black lesbians and Black bisexual women to answer this very question.
(Black) Love Wins
After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to same-sex marriage in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the refrain “Love Wins,” gained national attention as a sentiment meant to celebrate non-cisheterosexual couples. However, the study by Brooks draws attention to how access to same-sex marriage might have a different meaning for Black women. Published in The Black Scholar in 2017, Brooks’s article uses a symbolic interactionism framework to unpack the meaning of marriage to a demographic largely ignored in the broader discourse.
In the literature review of the article, Brooks notes that marriage for Black people symbolizes “commitment, partnership, family reproduction, and sometimes assimilation into middle-class family norms.” However, Black women, even in heterosexual marriage have long had a complicated relationship with the institution. Black heterosexual women have endured stereotypes that paint them as undesirable for marriage or incapable of the femininity associated with wifehood. F0r example, Black women experience how the state upends marriage and family cohesion through mass incarceration, only to paint Black mothers who thereafter seek state support as dysfunctional schemers through the welfare mother trope.
The scholarship also overwhelmingly focuses on poor or working-class unmarried mothers, reinforcing the trope through scientific racism. Brooks writes that the limited research on Black marriage, however, generally focuses on men and remains relatively silent on Black LGBTQ people’s experiences. When centering on LGBTQ people, both scholarship and the public imagination centers on white gay and lesbian married couples’ experiences.
Black Women Learning to Love Themselves
Brooks interviewed nine Black lesbian and bisexual women based in Los Angeles. She then used the field notes from these interviews to derive themes about the symbolic meaning of marriage among this demographic.
One theme that came up relates to the negative stereotypes against Black women as wives. Some of the women Brooks interviewed had been raised to perceive Black women as ghetto or, in the case of more masculine-presenting women, thugs. They informed Brooks that they had to unlearn this internalized racism as they dated other Black women. Marriage between two Black women symbolized racial pride and familial connection, particularly important in light of the homophobia many Black people face from their own families.
A second theme that Brooks writes about addresses how marriage mattered for those raised in the Black church. These respondents told Brooks that recognition and acceptance from the church would signal less stigma and foster a sense of community. They also perceived such acceptance to heal their relationship to religion and feel supported in their long-term relationship.
Finally, Brooks’s respondents spoke to the theme of stable families and relationships. Respondents told Brooks that marriage gave deeper meaning to their long-term relationship and symbolized the strength of their commitment. They perceived that their co-workers or family seemed to value them or their relationship more as well once they got married.
Marriage and Love for Black Queer Women
The Black women Brooks interviewed had similar perspectives about marriage to white LGBTQ couples and Black heterosexual couples. Nevertheless, Brooks’s research also indicates that “Black lesbian and bisexual women’s choice of Black women as possible marriage partners refutes stereotypes of Black women being undesirable and supports notions of Black racial pride.” This means, according to Brooks, that Black married women in same-sex couples see themselves as the larger Black community. In conclusion, Brooks affirms that taking intersectionality into account in ongoing social movements for LGBTQ and Black American rights would ultimately make these movements stronger.
Brooks, Siobhan. “Black on black love: Black lesbian and bisexual women, marriage, and symbolic meaning.” The Black Scholar 47.4 (2017): 32-46.