Lesbians, Gays, and the Experience of Racial Difference within a Heterosexist Social World

Qualitative studies have provided rich details about the contours of everyday interracial life.26 By privileging the narratives of interracial partners, they illuminate the challenges of establishing relationships and families across racial boundaries. But the vast majority of these studies have taken heterosexual interracial couples as their only subjects.27 The near-exclusive focus on heterosexual interraciality limits these studies’ analytic power in two main ways. First, researchers who fail to examine how heterosexuality itself shapes the experiences of the straight Black/White couples they study overlook the fact that interracial partners have a sexual status, as well as a racial one. This is a significant oversight, given that U.S. society is heteronormative. When heterosexuality is assumed to be the “normal” mode of sexual and social relations, heterosexual persons, relationships, and families are privileged as healthy, legitimate, and natural, whereas those with same-sex desires are often marginalized as deviant, unnatural, or criminal.28 Historically, heterosexuals have had—and continue to have—innumerable customary privileges that are amplified or diminished by their race, gender, and social class. Examples of these privileges include having one’s sexuality affirmed in most religious traditions, enjoying legal recognition of one’s marriage throughout the United States and the world, and knowing that employment benefits (e.g., health and life insurance) will cover one’s spouse.29 Researchers’ failure to explore how heterosexuality itself shapes interracial life is akin to studying the history of White labor unions without considering their Whiteness, or analyzing all-male sports teams without examining the production of masculinity. In this way, heterosexuality is further normalized, and these couples—though they have been historically stereotyped as sexual deviants—are not seen as possessing a notable sexual identity, just as Whites are often not seen as possessing a particular racial identity and men are not seen as possessing a particular gender identity.

Studying only straight interracial couples, and not examining how their lives are shaped by their “straightness,” has led researchers to misinterpret the experiences of straight couples as representative of all interracial couples, including lesbian and gay ones. Specifically, because it is often true of heterosexual couples, these researchers erroneously assume that racial difference is the “master status” for all interracial partners and that racial difference between intimate Black/White partners is almost always highly visible.

The second main limitation of qualitative research on interracial couples that focuses exclusively on heterosexuals is that it has shaped interra- ciality into an area of intellectual inquiry where heterosexual assumptions go virtually unchallenged. I include gay and lesbian couples in my study to explore how racial difference is experienced in the context of entrenched and widespread marginalization of lesbian and gay relationships. As I noted above in my discussion of racial stratification, how we conceptualize this marginalization shapes our understanding of gay and lesbian interracial lives. When people assumed to be lesbian or gay are openly harassed—for example, by strangers yelling hurtful words from car windows—or are ostracized by family members who believe their relationships to be immoral or unnatural, we call these actions and attitudes homophobic. Homophobia is defined as an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality. Commonly used, the term refers to emotional, angry, or fearful reactions to lesbians and gays, as well as to bisexual and trans- gendered persons. But if we focus on homophobia as a set of stubborn, negative associations held by certain individuals, we miss the systemic nature of gay and lesbian subjugation and underestimate the scope of the problem. Homophobic acts are not isolated aberrations from an otherwise egalitarian sexual system. Sexual stratification is the system, and its norms are embedded in the structures of our culture and laws. In other words, the lesbian and gay partners in this study are marginalized not only by strangers’ overt hostility or family members’ hurtful comments, but also by state laws that forbid them to marry or by employment policies that prevent them from sharing health insurance benefits. In this book, I refer to the systemic subjection of lesbian and gays as heterosexism, which has been defined as “the pervasive cultural presumption and prescription of heterosexual relationships—and the corresponding silencing and condemnation of homosexual erotic, familial, and communitarian relations.”30 Making clear the extent to which heterosexist assumptions are embedded within social institutions is an important, ongoing project that will enable researchers to see connections between discrimination in marriage and adoption laws, immigration laws, housing and employment policies, and welfare policies.31

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