The Intersections of Race, Sexuality, and Gender

In framing this study, I explained that research on interracial intimacy has become a field where assumptions of heterosexuality prevail. I asserted the importance of looking at gay and lesbian interracial partners for clues about the lived experiences of racial difference. Reflecting back upon these narratives, what do lesbian and gay experiences suggest about contemporary interracial life? First, and perhaps most importantly, they show us that in many social contexts, interraciality is recognizable only when it is embodied by heterosexual partners. A Black/White couple walking on the streets of Philadelphia or New York, or into a movie theater, restaurant, or shopping mall in Washington, D.C., is likely to attract the attention of others only if they are heterosexual. Whether the attention they receive is positive or negative, in most places Black/White couples are recognizable only when one person is a man and the other a woman. The exception, of course, is that in gay and lesbian spaces, racial difference can be profoundly visible. I have shown that lesbians and gay men face a unique set of interracial stigmas within their communities. Recall, for instance, Shawn Tarwick’s disgust with the term “dinge queen,” or Onika Marsh’s reluctance to bring her White partner, Margaret, to a Black lesbian bar. Second, this research suggests that when same-sex interracial partners are made visible in public spaces that are not demarcated as lesbian or gay, homophobia may aggravate the effects of racial prejudice. Take, for example, Trina Stevens and Pamela Donato’s antagonism in a New York subway. These complex intersections become apparent only when lesbians and gays are included in interracial research.

How does sexuality mediate the practice of racework? Sexuality influences racework mainly in contexts where negative images of interracial intimacy are especially prevalent. Heterosexual Black/White relationships, especially Black men with White women, are powerful historical symbols that have evoked unique anxieties within both White and Black communities. These negative characterizations have shaped how heterosexual interracial couples are viewed by the communities they live in and how they themselves think about what it means to be interracial. In public spaces, these couples generally feel that being interracial makes them conspicuous; they notice others noticing them. Yet they rarely modify their behavior in such spaces to avoid outright conflict or harassment. Some may have sufficient confidence in the visibility of their relationship to think it unlikely that modifying their behavior could conceal their intimacy. Others simply may not feel vulnerable enough to even consider such actions. Yet heterosexuals do attempt to manage others’ impressions when it comes to the meaning of interracial intimacy, and for this they draw upon the symbolic resources attached to their heterosexual status. Assertions that they are “just a regular couple” or “just a man and a woman who love each other” draw on the normative status of heterosexuality to buffer the marginal status of interraciality. Both in face-to-face interactions with strangers and in defining their relationship apart from stereotypes, being heterosexual makes them more of a target, but it also provides them with the symbolic resources to diffuse negative assumptions.

Lesbian and gay interracial couples, on the other hand, exist in many ways outside and apart from the obsessive focus on interracial sexuality that has for so long haunted racial politics in the United States. As I have explained, in most public spaces, they are not visual triggers of painful racial realities. Instead, many same-sex couples, especially lesbians, seem to fade into the background. Their intimacy is rarely recognized in public interactions with strangers unless they are in physical contact or showing overt affection. This creates a peculiar contrast. In a social context where everyone is assumed to be heterosexual, lesbian and gay intimacy is difficult to see, because people assume it is not there. In this same context, as soon as same-sex partners hold hands or kiss each other, they are acutely visible. Their connection now stands out as different and unusual. There is evidence in these narratives that racial difference may accentuate the effects of homophobia for lesbian and gay Black/White couples. It may make their invisibility more pronounced or their harassment more intense.

In realms of social life where racialized status differences are especially salient, sexuality tends to play a minor role in how couples engage in racework. When interracial partners negotiate racial difference within the relationship, or when they navigate racially homogeneous environments, each partner’s position as Black or White, woman or man, has great importance, but it generally matters less whether their relationship is lesbian, gay, or heterosexual. For example, Lucas and Thad reacted differently to the young Black man who was shot and killed by a New York City police officer, but their sexual identity as gay men did not figure prominently into their interaction. What mattered more was that as a Black man, Lucas was familiar with the danger of being assumed to be criminal, while Thad’s life experience had not provided him with this perspective. In this and other examples of emotional labor, focusing on respondents’ sexuality did not reveal markedly different behaviors or experiences. Thus, although race, sexuality, and gender always intersect, in certain moments or interactions some of these identities are more central than others.

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