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Racializing Sexual Identity in the Digital Era: Narrative, Cultural Production, and Resistance Among Black Lesbians in Social Media

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 3 By Kishonna Gray

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 Abstract: The purpose of this research is to examine how Black lesbians conceptualized and performed their sexual identities via BlackPlanet and MySpace, social networking sites.  In these early socially mediated spaces, Black women utilized their profiles as a means to resist heteronormative narratives deployed.  BlackPlanet as a space privileges heterosexuality as the lead tag line reads, “Black Women – Men Meet to Chat…” leading sexual minorities to exist in the margins of the community.  However, lesbians and other marginalized members actively resist this.  The women within this study reappropriated the space to mobilize their community and engage their lesbian identities.   Using hip-hop culture as the vehicle to express their lesbian identities, the women within this study were empowered to challenge traditional notions of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 INTRODUCTION

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 5 The purpose of this study is to examine lesbians of colors identity formation and resistance to heteronormative practices within MySpace and BlackPlanet, early social networking sites frequented by users of color.  MySpace at one point was the largest online social network and top visited site on the World Wide Web (Caverlee and Webb, 2006).  As a social networking site, it allowed users to communicate with one another through their self-produced webpages known as profiles.   Profiles reflect identities through the use of text, images and various multimedia applications.  Similarly, BlackPlanet is one of the largest and longest running Black social networking sites (Byrne, 2008).  Combining user-generated content with the ability to create content on these profiles has influenced a lesbian of color community to begin their process of identity formation using hip-hop culture, link with others with similar gendered identities, and resist the heterosexist norms pervading social media.  By offering the capabilities to remix media, creating a digital identity, this form of social media facilitates creative participation and interactivity representing what Henry Jenkins calls convergence.  Jenkins (2004) defines convergence as a cultural shift wherein “what might traditionally be understood as media producers and consumers are transformed into participants who are expected to interact with each other according to a new set of rules which none of us fully understands” (Jenkins, 2004, p. 3). Although MySpace participants might not be overtly aware of the implications of their actions, they are inevitably “learning how to use these different media technologies to bring the flow of media more fully under their control (Ibid).”  As this article will illustrate, Black lesbian users of MySpace and BlackPlanet are able to re-appropriate imagery to align their identities with their digital identities.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 CREATING IDENTITY ONLINE

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 Stuart Hall’s (1982) model on identity is useful in examining identity formation in media.  As he suggests, identity is a historical process that shifts and reforms with time, space and ideology.  Identity materializes in representations that are continuously expressed through material and symbolic acts.  Hall (1997) further posits that we should consider identity as a production that “… is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (p. 51).” Black feminist thought provides a great framework to examine the complexities of identity especially in the digital era.  Since all identities are intersectional, Black feminist thought provides an interpretive framework for situating identity within experiences across different social contexts (Gray, 2015).  One is not simply Black, or Asian, or female, or poor.  We all simultaneously are racialized and gendered and are further informed by sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, ability, etc.  But identity formation among LGBTQ individuals requires more critical engagement and examination specially as its performed in digital spaces.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 While the field of psychology examines linear stage models in identity formation for lesbian and gay individuals, some scholars suggest these models are too limited assuming the process of sexual identity has only one outcome (Savin-Williams, 2005; Bilodeau & Ren, 2005; Eliason, 1996).  Brown (1995) posits that stage models fail to acknowledge the mobile nature of sexual identities, or for nonlinear processes of coming to terms cognitively with one’s “felt and embodied experiences” (p. 17). Additionally, Bilodeau and Renn (2005) suggest that stage theories imply a progression of lesbian or gay identity development that conclude with an endpoint. This assumption that identity development cannot be impeded by life circumstances such as trauma or stressors does not allow stage theories to expand the identity development process to lesbian and gay individuals. To account for nonlinearity, D’Augelli (1994) offers a life-span model of sexual orientation development that takes social context into account and issues other stage models do not.  

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Savin-Williams (2005) refutes previous claims of sexual identity formation by creating a newer model entitled Differential Developmental Trajectories theory. Abandoning previous antiquated assumptions, he uses the term differential to refer to the variability inherent within and across individuals, across the life course, and factoring differing trajectories to indicate the “probabilistic individual pathways” that occur throughout one’s lifespan (p. 83). As Ross (2012) suggests, Savin-Williams “confounds the notion that life progresses along an orderly series of idealized sequential stages, the lack of consideration for complexities and diversity of developmental processes, and that young lives can be understood from highly selective adolescents, mainly those that identify as gay (p. 29).” While useful frameworks examining identify formation among gay individuals, these models still fail to account for lesbian identity and are unable to capture the racialized nature associated with lesbian and gay identities.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 LESBIAN IDENTITY FORMATION

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Research examining lesbian identity formation is limited as existing research essentially applies gay male identity formation to females.  As Brown (1995) found, stage models normalize the experiences of gay men and apply to them to lesbians. Gonsiorek (1988) argues that coming out processes appears to be more abrupt in males, whereas the processes for females appear to be characterized by more fluidity and ambiguity. Golden (1990) describes how some women perceive choice as an important element in their sexual orientations, while gay men typically perceive their sexual orientations as a given, a central aspect of themselves, where choice has little to do with the matter. Gonsiorek (1988) also claims that males are more likely to engage in sexual activity during the coming out process where females are more likely to respond with reflection and removal from social interactions. Differences in the speed or tempo of identity development may be influenced by patterns of sexual socialization.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Cass’s stage identity models is useful for the current study as it provides six stages that is inclusive of lesbian identity formation: 1) identity confusion; 2) comparison; 3) tolerance; 4) acceptance, 5) pride, and 6) synthesis (Cass, 1984).  Identity pride and synthesis are imperative to gain an understanding of lesbian identity construction and performance within social media.  In development identity pride, group identity is developed by association and engaging more within the gay community and gaining awareness of issues that affect the gay community. As researchers have found, the individual begins to split the world into two groups: other gay people who are valued and heterosexuals who are devalued (Cass, 1984).  Incorporating identity synthesis, disclosure becomes commonplace, and as identity is no longer hidden, individuals experience a synthesis between how they view themselves and how others view them.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Gendering Lesbian Identity

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 The Black lesbian community is often contextualized within the butch-femme dichotomy.  Appearance and sexual expression have traditionally been primary indicators of butch and femme gender identities (Laporte, 1992).  Clothing and appearance are significant in establishing social identity as well.  Being able to recognize a lesbian has been central within the Black lesbian community which is essential for building distinct culture and identity and also for propelling the community to resistance.  The butch-femme dyad was also instrumental in challenging heteronormative culture’s view of women as passive (Laporte, 1992).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 While butch-femme cultural norms have progressed and become more inclusive overtime, they were very traditional and often replicated heterosexual pairings: butch with femme.  Alternate pairings were frowned upon and not socially accepted in many circles (Kennedy & Davis, 1993).  The rise of the feminist movement led to many changes within the entire lesbian community:

Women began to criticize the butch-femme dyad for replicating heterosexual power norms. Women rejected the butch-femme dyad because of its imitation of patriarchy, since in romantic relationships butches played the masculine or dominant role and femmes the feminine or more submissive role. Butches threatened mainstream lesbian culture and feminism because their gender expression was seen as regressive and politically problematic (Valenti, 2011, p. 3).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 Within the feminist community, the butch identity became silenced privileging androgyny forcing butch lesbians to give up their masculine identities.  It is important to note that within the Black lesbian community, androgyny is not as significant as in the White lesbian community (Moore, 2006).  As Maltry & Tucker (2002) discussed, the imperative put on butch identity to give up their masculine traits because men were seen as oppressors and femmes had to give up some of their feminine characteristics, such as high heels and lipstick, since they were tools of patriarchy and bound women to excessive consumerism.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 In recent years, there has been a revival of the butch-femme pairing (or some derivative). Even many younger lesbians have started to identify according to their gender expression rather than their sexual orientation identity (Savin-Williams, 2005).  While some still criticize this perceived replication of heterosexuality, it is more complex recognizing how distinct these identities are from heterosexual society.  And an important distinction is the acceptance of the butch identity as an expression of innate gender tendencies (Laporte, 1992).

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Black Lesbian Gender Identity

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 While similar to the White lesbian community in many ways, there are some key distinctions in the Black lesbian community.  For instance, class and socioeconomic status is significant to distinguishing Black lesbians (Crawley, 2001; Weber, 1996).  Among low-income and Black lesbian women, the concept of butch-femme may be culturally important. Wilson (2005) conducted a cultural analysis of Black lesbian sexual culture, including the sexual beliefs and attitudes of Black lesbians.  She found that participants used the word stud to reference lesbians whose dress and appearance were traditionally masculine and who were expected to take on a traditional American male role in a relationship, and the word femme to label lesbian women whose dress and appearance were traditionally feminine and who were expected to adopt a traditional female role within relationships. She also found variations on femme and stud, such as hard studs (lesbians extremely masculine in dress and manner and who refused sexual acts), and pillow princesses (ultra femmes who preferred receiving sexual pleasure and didn’t reciprocate on their partner).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 Mignon Moore’s study extended this dichotomy some to be more inclusive of the diversity within the Black lesbian community.  In her study, she identified a modification of the older butch/femme identities into three distinct categories or three physical presentations of gender – femme, gender-blender, and transgressive (Moore, 2006).  Presentations of the self have been discussed previously in the literature.  While presentation of self typically refers to physical presentation of gender, gender presentation, and gender display (Lorber, 1994), Moore also suggests that gender display may be represented also through hairstyle, body language, mannerisms, and other self-expressions (Moore, 2006).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Relating to lesbian gender structures, Wilson (2005) indicates that some lesbians reject the lesbian gender label but still opt to structure relationships based on this lesbian gender identity.  This may mean that although some women may not identify with a lesbian gender, they still perform some of these dynamics within their community and relationships.  When lesbians interact with each other in social environments, they may assign lesbian gender identities to others but not see how the identity fits for them. This changes lesbian gender identity from one that is internalized to an ascribed identity (Wilson, 2005). In addition, upper socioeconomic status lesbians or those who have obtained a high level of education may consider self-identifying as their lesbian gender as taboo. On the other hand, the finding that less educated and working class lesbians were reported to use lesbian gender labels still makes lesbian gender identity particularly relevant for young Black lesbian women of low-socioeconomic status (Wilson, 2005).  While these labels may be oppressive to some recreating heteronormative hierarchies, this should be viewed through the lens of self-definition which is at the core of Black feminist thought.     

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 Self-Definition and Lesbian Gender Identity

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 2 Critical race feminists stress the importance of allowing all women to define themselves (Collins 2000; hooks 2009). Creating and controlling definitions of oneself is imperative for empowerment.  The oppressed have a unique standpoint in that they as individuals share particular social locations, such as being female, a person of color, LGBTQ, poor, or living in a society that privileges ability.  Further, these individuals share their meaningful experiences with one another generating knowledge about the social world from their points of view (Harnois, 2010).   Despite this knowledge generation, oppressed populations lack the control needed to reframe and reconceputalize their existence within hegemonic structures.  However, a particular advantage presents itself with the diffusion of information technologies, providing particular advantages to women and people of color.  One of the advantages is the ability to create and control virtual spaces largely unregulated or occupied by privileged bodies.  These spaces have the potential to foster the development of a group standpoint negating the impact of dominant ideology.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 BLACK DIGITAL FEMINISMS

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 3 Black digital feminism can help explain women of color using social media to resist hegemonic structures of Whiteness, masculinity, and heteronormativity.  Largely influenced by Black Feminist Thought, this framework reflects women actively engaged and resisting in the digital era.  Specifically, Black digital feminism concerns itself with three major themes: 1) social structural oppression of technology and virtual spaces; 2) intersecting oppressions experienced in virtual spaces; and 3) the distinctness of the virtual feminist community.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Social Structural Oppression of Technology and Virtual Spaces

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 3 Matters of institutional racism, damaging stereotypical images, sexism, and classism are routinely addressed by Black feminists (Potter, 2006).   Incorporating the inherent masculine bias in technology and the default Whiteness of virtual spaces (Gray, 2012a), this theme is imperative within Black digital feminism.  Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman (2000) argued that the internet is far from liberatory but rather is a space that continues a “cultural map of assumed whiteness” (p. 225).  Kolko (2000) pointed out that attempts to make race and ethnicity present are met with colorblind resistance.   The assumed White masculine body excludes women and people of color; the mere presence of their bodies marks them as deviant in these spaces (Gray, 2012b).  Incorporating the ongoing trend to ignore sexual minorities, this framework privileges the once marginalized.  Ignoring the diverse lives of virtual inhabitants also leads to the inability of marginalized bodies to define their own virtual realities.  Marginalizing narratives perpetuated through the media reinforce limited conceptualizations of women. Black digital feminists urge women to regain control of hegemonic imagery, and internet technologies allow for this.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 Intersecting Oppressions in Virtual Spaces

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 2 The second theme of Black digital feminist theory is that women must confront and work to dismantle the overarching and interlocking structure of domination in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other intersecting oppressions. Because individuals experience oppression in different ways, we must not create a one size fits all understanding of oppression.  Black digital feminism requires understanding the diverse ways that oppression can manifest in the materiality of the body and how this translates into virtual spaces.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Black digital feminism also requires a recognition of the privileges that some marginalized bodies hold before we can begin dismantling these privileges and understanding the multitude of ways that intersectionality can manifest.  Black digital feminism, in the spirit of feminism, encourages a privileging of women’s perspectives and ways of knowing, because race, gender, sexuality, class status, ability, and a host of other identifiers generate knowledge about the world.  Valuing these perspectives is the only way to liberate women from the confines of hegemonic notions deeming these identities unworthy.  

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Black digital feminism also recognizes that the lived experiences of women manifest in the virtual world as well.  Women do not have the luxury of opting out of any aspect of their identity.  By privileging these once marginalized identities, Black digital feminist spaces can begin to move women towards progressive and meaningful solutions to hegemonic notions about women.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 1 Accepting the Distinctness of Marginalized Virtual Feminisms

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 3 Black digital feminism also addresses the distinct nature of how women utilize virtual technologies. Women have used social media for activism and change, as well as to advance contemporary feminism.  The Internet has propelled activism and empowerment in that many individuals can take action on a singular issue.  The tenets of Black digital feminism never detach the personal from the structural or the communal, which sets Black digital eminism apart. The key is in how marginalized women, specifically Black women, communicate and how Black women’s Internet usage is a continuation of their offline selves.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 3 Black women have used their social, cultural, historical, political and religious reality to create their own language (Troutman, 2001).  Scott (2000) suggested that they even use specific words to emphasize their unique group membership.  Hobbs (2004) found that the online forum of the magazine Essence was used to create an African-American discourse space in which the cultural norms of the African American community are discussed and reproduced (p. 10). Research such as this is significant for Black digital feminism because it values different ways of knowing and being.  Black women recognize the diverse ways of speaking, without privileging standard American English.  An examination of Black women’s blogs revealed their engagement with both their personal experiences and structural inequalities (Brock, Kvasny, & Hales, 2010).  Conversations that once occupied beauty salons, church meetings, and kitchen tables are now present in online spaces.  Black women’s experiences in physical spaces influence their participation in online settings.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 2 Black women engage in a variety of cultural forms beyond traditional virtual methods of blogging or tweeting.  Black women employ music, poetry or spoken word (Kopano, 2002) and other cultural art forms in their online lives.  This direct extension of the physical into the digital acknowledges the accessibility and viability of these cultural artifacts to reproduce Black feminist thought.  Producing content on webpages is reflective of the myriad of ways Black women engage technology.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 1 Digital social media are important in that they represent, for women of color and other marginalized groups lacking resources, a path to a space where their voices are heard.  The once voiceless can be heard, and that leads to empowerment.  Previous Social networking sites allowed women the ability to empower themselves and mobilize their communities.  While Black Twitter in some regards allows this, it is limited by characters and type of content that could be posted.  BlackPlanet and MySpace once allowed complete creative control over content.  But as researchers on Black Twitter suggest, traditional social media also allows values the cultural tradition of sygnifyin’, affording marginalized bodies the ability to express themselves with others without fear of retaliation or being othered within the spaces (Florini, 2013).  The production of their own content within these socially mediated spaces  to empower themselves and define their own identities can be viewed through a lens of cultural production.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 2 SOCIAL MEDIA AS CULTURAL PRODUCTION

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 2 The ability to produce and generate content within social media can be viewed as cultural production.  Furthermore, BlackPlanet and MySpace allowed for users to create their own sites providing the opportunity to code even on a small scale.  These can be viewed through the lens of cultural production because it is material generated by non-professional users (Strangelove, 2010).  BlackPlanet and MySpace traditionally allowed users the ability actively engage in website production providing the ability to create narrative, commentary, and content equipped with visual elements of image, audio, and video.  This act of actively participating and producing on a social media site extends immersion of users within these spaces.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 2 As de Certeau (1984) argues, audiences are not passive consumers but instead active interpreters and the ability for producers of content within social networking sites interpret their realities and identities through a particular lens. This follows Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model of communication (1980) where each person will create their own meaning from the same text, depending on their situation and unique background.  As such, it is important to allow the marginalized voice to become active in the hegemonic arena of technology (Gray 2015).

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 2 Previous social networking sites as BlackPlanet and MySpace allowed users to be disengaged from commercial media dictating narratives of identity.  Henry Jenkins believes that digital content creation is capable of operating in unauthorized ways outside of industry control.  While this form of “do it yourself” labor still benefits the capitalist structure taking over social media, users still feel empowered and their labor should not be diminished.  As Tiziana Terranova (2000) suggests, the internet does not truly turn users into enfranchised creators and producers, though it is in the interest of the culture industries to let them think that—to present them as wielding cultural and economic power/capital rather than as laboring as part of the culture industry’s efforts to monetize culture.  Additionally, Mark Andrejevic (2007) asserts that participation is not always the same thing as power sharing.  Bourdieu (1984) acknowledges that no cultural good is inherently better than another which leads to an important designation within cultural production: notions of legitimate production are contestable.  He further explains that no cultural product exists by itself and products are direct reflections of their producers especially within realms of power.  The unequal power relations operating with virtual worlds manifest through the body: more specifically privileged bodies.  The performance of Whiteness and masculinity are accepted as legitimate and embedded in the continued cultural practices within digital technology (Gray 2012).  Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice reveals the material and symbolic production of cultural goods and acknowledges the mediators who contribute to the work’s meaning and legitimization (Tkachev 2006).  Symbolic capital determines a specific economy of the field and is based on the speculation that what constitutes a cultural work is its social value or significant contribution to a particular culture. Within virtual communities that value privileged bodies, oftentimes the marginalized populations’ contributions to the field, to innovation, to knowledge are not valued or not seen to contribute to the cultural work within the digital era.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 1 Symbolic capital includes an authorized validation of a cultural producer and a cultural product as legitimate according to the existing standards and trends of the community or culture. What is significant in applying cultural production to virtual settings in this manner “is the definition of the limits of the field, that is, of legitimate participation in the struggles” (Bordieu 1990, p. 143).  As Black users of social media suggest, their participation is often seen as illegitimate (Gray 2015).  Because most social media fails to recognize the importance of personality differences among users, marginalized users have reappropriate certain technologies for their means.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 3 The commercial sites of social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) are not designed to accommodate a variety of users given the lack of customization afforded (Yang and Lester, 2004).  Traditional social networking such as BlackPlanet and MySpace allowed users the ability to create pages that mirrored their personalities.  Lesbians in particular took advantage of this given the inability to express their gendered identities within these two spaces.     

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 RESEARCH DESIGN

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 1 To critically examine identity formation, empowerment, and resistance by Black lesbians in the digital era, this study employed both ethnography and narrative analysis. The objective of this method “is to move beyond an analysis of the volume of text and its content to the level of understanding the effectivity of the text and what it says of the community of people who produce and consume the texts” (Mitra and Cohen, 1999, p. 181). Here the term “text” is used broadly to encompass multimedia content on individual pages of social networking sites.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 3 According to Mitra and Cohen, critical textual analysis considers three aspects of the text: “the formal aspects of the text and its signifying strategies”; “the way in which a single text is connected with other similar texts”; and finally, the “role of various readers of the text who, through their reading, make the text meaningful” (p. 181-182). Here consideration of the formal properties of the text includes the visual layout of a site, the functionality of a site’s interactive features, and the relationship of users to the content of the site (i.e. are users merely consumers of a site’s content or are they also the producers of that content).  Particular attention was given to changes made to the design and features of the pages of the profiles selected for the study.  The proposed study analyzes both participant narratives, text, and visual elements. While text is a large part of discourse analysis, including a visual analysis can complement any findings. Foucault (1971) says that visual elements, bodies in texts, called bio-power, can illustrate a lot about power relations: “the body [is] a basic text upon which the relations of power are inscribed.”

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Participants/Narrators

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 1 To examine the use of social media to empower oneself to define identity, narrative interviews were conducted to explore Black lesbians engagement with BlackPlanet and MySpace.  While these sites are no longer active in the manner in which these users participated, the narrators within the study were still able to access content they uploaded to their social media profiles.  The primary focus of this study is on identity formation and resistance to heterosexist norms in digital culture so examining their experiences and perceptions is also a primary focus.  Below is a listing of the narrators within this study.  Included on this chart are factors that were significant to the narrators.  Their racialized and sexualized identities mattered with all of them identifying racially as Black.  In addition to a discussion on their race and gender presentations, personality type was included as the narrators had interesting commentary on the topic.  Gender presentations preference was also significant and this confirms what the literature suggested.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 2 Table 1: Narrator Demographics and Gender Identity Information

Narrator

Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity

Age

Self-Identified Gender Presentation

Self-Identified Personality Type

Gender Presentation Preference

Social Media Preference

Nene

Black/AA

24

No Answer

No Answer

Fem

MySpace

Kina

Black/AA

21

Dom

Passive

Fem

MySpace

Jan

Black/Middle Eastern

23

Fem

In between – Both

Dom

BlackPlanet

Laysha

Black/AA

22

Fem

Aggressive

Stud/Dom

BlackPlanet

Tara

Black/AA

22

Fem

Aggressive

Stud/Dom

BlackPlanet

Carmen

Black/Latina

22

Fem

In between – Both

Stud/Dom

BlackPlanet

Tracy

Black/AA

23

Fem

In between – Both

Stud

BlackPlanet

Nyla

Black/Latina

21

Dom

Passive

Fem

BlackPlanet

Carla

Black/Latina

20

Gender Blender

Passive

Fem

BlackPlanet

Michelle

Black/AA

20

Dom

Aggressive

Fem

MySpace

Ahliyah

Black/AA

19

Gender Blender

In between – Both

Fem

MySpace

Kyra

Black/AA

20

Fem

Aggressive

Stud/Dom

BlackPlanet

Paula

Black/AA

23

Stud

Passive

Fem

MySpace

Shayla

Black/AA

23

Fem

Passive

Stud/Dom

BlackPlanet

Bianca

Black/AA

22

Gender Blender

In between – Both

Fem

MySpace

161 Leave a comment on paragraph 161 0 Procedures

162 Leave a comment on paragraph 162 2 Because the pages on BlackPlanet and MySpace are no longer active, the narrators recreated the content on their pages for the purposes of this study.  MySpace layouts still exist and they provided imagery that was posted to the backgrounds of their profiles.  In addition and more important to actually exploring content on profiles, each narrator was interviewed to gain a sense of their use of the social media to construct their identities, to examine how their online identities influenced their physical realities, and to uncover how their online identities led to empowerment and resistance in both the digital and physical realms.  While a structured interview protocol did not exist, each interview followed this format: 1) describe your past and present social media usage; 2) describe your gendered identity; 3) describe how you explore identity online; 4) what kinds of issues do you experience on and off line.  IRB approval was granted prior to conducting any interviews.

163 Leave a comment on paragraph 163 0 ANALYSIS/DISCUSSION

164 Leave a comment on paragraph 164 1 The data from this study reveals three key organizing themes describing the experiences of 15 Black lesbians in the social media era.  The three organizing themes include: 1) isolation, exclusion, and the utility of digital connectivity; 2) using Hip-Hop to create identity and connect with others in the community; and 3) the importance of online identity.

165 Leave a comment on paragraph 165 0 Isolation, Exclusion, and Digital Connectivity in the Black Lesbian Community

Finally, there was a space, MySpace to be exact, that allowed me to be me. I could be black and it was okay. I could be a woman and it was ok. I could be a dyke and it was really ok. Now if I could find a way to make that happen in real life, I’d be one happy bitch.  Facebook has gone away from that but it’s cool. Cuz I still got my fam and my identity (Kina, 21, Dom).

167 Leave a comment on paragraph 167 1 As Audre Lorde (2007) describes, Black lesbians are constantly encouraged to pick some aspect of self and present it as the “meaningful whole, eclipsing and denying other parts of the self” (p. 120).  For Lorde and other Black lesbians, one’s identity as a Black lesbian is the meaningful whole; it is not a mere addition of ethnicity, sexual orientation, and sex/gender.  This is the crux of what Kina describes of the ability to explore and engage her identity in social media.

168 Leave a comment on paragraph 168 0 Carla describes a similar experience in being excluded from the younger Black Lesbian community because of her gender-blender identity in addition to her Latina ethnicity within the Black community:

I feel like they don’t really accept me. I’m Black. But because I’m Puerto Rican they see me as an outsider. But I don’t fit in anywhere really. And because I don’t fit either category, like I’m not a stud but I’m not a fem either. Its like there’s no place for me. But when I get online, I find others like me.

I remember trying to find information about myself online and only porn sites popped up. But BlackPlanet let me search for my identity. Does that make sense? Its like I was looking for myself in others. I just had to find somebody like me or I would have gone crazy. And I did (Carla, 20, Gender Blender).

171 Leave a comment on paragraph 171 2 While Carla’s gender-blending, androgynous, identity is valued within larger lesbian community, it is not recognized as legitimate in many younger Black lesbian circles as she describes.  She goes on to describe overtly hostile experiences for a failure to adopt an identity within the butch-fem dyad.  Because of this alienation, she became immersed in BlackPlanet and MySpace.

When I go online, I don’t have to jump through hoops to prove anything. And its hard to find a girl in real life. I know that sounds crazy but because I don’t wear jerseys and jordans or skirts and heels I cant find anybody. I’m like its just clothing right? And now everybody wearing skinny jeans so who fits where? These categories are stupid. So I like getting on and finding other people who think its stupid too (Carla, 20, Gender-Blender).

173 Leave a comment on paragraph 173 0 Developing these social networks is imperative to empowerment.  The rejection by mainstream society, rejection by family, and rejection in your own sub-cultures often strengthens lesbian friendships.  This leads to much resilience especially when a once hidden culture gains visibility.  The importance of social media in the lives of these young lesbians has proven to be pivotal.

174 Leave a comment on paragraph 174 1 The quote below explains just how important gender presentation is within the Black lesbian community:

We not really accepted among the Black lesbian community. I feel like they look down on us and shit cuz of what we wear. How we talk. I feel like they oppress us just like e’erbody else. They doing the same thing white folks do to niggas (Michelle, 20, Dom).

176 Leave a comment on paragraph 176 0 This confirms the class based oppression discussed in the literature of the Black lesbian community.  As Moore’s study suggests, transgressive presentations of self (doms and studs in my study) were harshly criticized by society and by Black middle-class lesbians.  She explains that women who wore athletic jerseys, do-rags on their heads, or baseball caps lowered the quality or status of Black lesbian spaces and events.  For instance, in advertisements for parties, it would announce that there could be no caps, do-rags, or athletic wear – dress to impress is what the flyer urged (Moore, 2006).  This directly describes the women who identify as dom or stud in the current study, and Nene explains her own experiences and response:   

When we go those events, they look down on us. So we stopped going. We started hanging out at each other’s house but it was just a few of us. And we were all friends. We didn’t fuck each other. We were all studs. We didn’t know where other lesbians were but that all changed with BlackPlanet (NeNe, 24, Preferred not to identify with any gender presentation). 

178 Leave a comment on paragraph 178 1 This description of the climate within the Black lesbian community reflects the failure to recognize the intersectional reality of many women.  Socioeconomic status and class-based oppression doesn’t seem to be reflected within these elitist spaces.  The oppression that the women within my study describe seems to be recreating oppressions they face in the heteronormative world:

They don’t even know me and they hate.  I am more accepted by straight people than by my own people – black, women, lesbian.  That’s sad too because we should be united I guess.  They are upset that we represent something they negatively define – the male gender – I wear boy clothes.  What’s wrong with that?  I don’t get it (Paula, 23, Stud). 

And they not even mad that I wear boy clothes. That mad cuz we wear hood clothes.  Them bitches be wearing suits and ties and shit and don’t nobody criticize them for acting like men or tryna be men. They just fancy wit it (Kina, 21, Dom).

181 Leave a comment on paragraph 181 0 As Moore (2006) suggests, transgressive women (butch, dom, stud) adopt masculine representations typically associated with poor, urban, Black and Latino men.  These images are raced, classed, and associated with violence and menace.  It associates an image of men who are disrespectful to women; further, these images are associated with a disadvantaged background and lower-class life (Moore, 2006).

182 Leave a comment on paragraph 182 0 These social media outlets also afforded the narrators the ability to connect with other Black lesbians to help create community.  As Laysha describes below, the fem (as the narrators spelled) identity requires more navigation:

When I would make my page, I would find as many rainbows as I could. Since I’m a fem, sometimes people don’t know I’m gay. So I do a lot of outward kinds of things to show, you know, that I’ gay.  I don’t dress like a dude. That’s a giveaway. But I still wasn’t part of the gay clique on campus. So BlackPlanet let me find people near me and like me (Laysha, Fem, 22). 

184 Leave a comment on paragraph 184 0 Having the ability to connect with others was an empowering experience for Laysha and other narrators within the study.  As a fem, she constantly expressed angst at having to come out when people would find out about her lesbian identity.  She experienced microaggressions with individuals suggesting she ‘didn’t look like a lesbian’ or that she ‘would grow out of this phase in life.’  Even her heterosexual peers suggested that she should engage in sexual activity with a male partner to help overcome her lesbian identity.  Engaging with other lesbians online, sharing these stories instilled confidence leading to empowerment.

185 Leave a comment on paragraph 185 0 Paula also describes microaggressions she experiences because of her stud identity.  She also noted how important social media connectivity was in identifying others like her on her college campus:

Just because I’m a stud, people look at me like I’m scary. So girls don’t come up and talk to me that often. So lets say like after class or after a party or something, I’ll get all these messages with girls saying like I wanted to holla at chu but you act like you don’t wanna be bothered. I was like I was just standing at the bar. They won’t talk to me out in public but they’ll message me online. Then we’ll hook up like in the caf’ or at the game or something. Shits crazy (Paula, 23, Stud).

187 Leave a comment on paragraph 187 1 Paula explains and important feature of Black lesbian culture in the digital era – it can be sustained with social media.  If it weren’t for digital culture, Paula would rarely engage with other lesbians or even find a potential relationship.

188 Leave a comment on paragraph 188 0 Influence of Hip-Hop on Black Lesbian Culture

189 Leave a comment on paragraph 189 0 In additional the importance of outward appearance, hip-hop style and culture was infused into the profiles of the narrators within the study.  Many of the participants described the ability for hip-hop to speak for them online.

Kina: “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.” Do you know that song?  Well that line?

Me: I think so. It sounds familiar.

Kina: It’s Common. No wait, Kanye.  One of ‘em.  (laughing). But this quote is like me. Its who I am. Everything I’m not – rich, a dude, white, straight – makes me who I am.  I hate that people assume because I dress like this that I want to be a dude. I don’t and I’m not.

Me: Is that why you have a lot of Kanye stuff on your page? Kanye and rainbows. Nice touch. (laughing)

Kina: Yeah. I always have a rapper on there.  Well at least one that says something worth hearing.  Even though hip hop has this whole no-homo culture, who doesn’t have no-homo culture.

195 Leave a comment on paragraph 195 0 In addition to this engagement with hip-hop culture, the narrators would incorporate this into their profiles.  Aliyah explains its importance within their social media usage:

Now I know I’m weird, but it’s the only way I can live.  Like Jay-Z say, ‘can I live.’? See I feel like I am a dom and a fem. I can’t say that I’m not either one because somedays I dress like a dude and sometimes I dress like a girl.  So on my BlackPlanet page I’m a girl. So I got like Nikki Minaj up there. And on MySpace I’m a dom. So I got my boy [Meek] Mill on it. It’s not the best of both worlds, because I still feel like I have to pick and choose instead of just having like my in-between kind of identity (Bianca, 22, Gender Blender).

197 Leave a comment on paragraph 197 0 While Bianca discusses her inability to truly express her gender-blending identity in physical spaces, she discusses the capabilities of doing so within social media.  These sites provide the ability to resist pressures of conforming and being able to express whatever identity she chooses.

198 Leave a comment on paragraph 198 0 The narrators within the study defined their own community through a hip-hop lens.  The term “hip-hop comprises everything from music (especially rap) to clothing choice, attitudes, language, and an approach to culture and cultural artifacts, positing and collaging them in an unsentimental fashion” (Walcott, 1995, p. 5).  My participants adopted much of the dress and clothing aspects of hip hop as well as the swag contemporarily seen within the culture. Hip-hop, as a living entity, transcends and evolves over time providing a counter narrative to dominant, hegemonic culture.

199 Leave a comment on paragraph 199 0 My Online Identity is My Identity

200 Leave a comment on paragraph 200 0 Internet scholars suggest that online identities are an extension of our physical identities as opposed to some alternate form of self (Hine, 2000).  This framework is particularly useful in the context of social networking services especially early sites that allowed for the customization of actual pages (MySpace and BlackPlanet) as opposed to merely posting content (Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook).  The social media profiles examined within this study were a means to connect to a larger community within the lesbian community.

We’re always online in some way. I got instant messenger in my phone. I check my profile all the time. We always near a computer. Hell, I spend more time online than I do like talking to people in real life. So yeah, my online identity is just as important. You know, its probably more important. Because it’s a chance where I can just be me (Kina, 21, Dom).

202 Leave a comment on paragraph 202 1 Kina explains an important feature of social media and that is the convergence of our online and offline identities.  As she articulates, we are always wired and connected so there is a blending of these identities.  Importantly to her and this community, this online identity and constant connectivity has allowed them the ability the truly express themselves without fear of prejudice or discrimination. Bianca describes how much her profile speaks for her and identity below:

You know I am really an introvert. I hate being around people. Being online lets me do it. So I can talk to people I want to. Or ignore people I don’t wanna talk to. That may not be a good idea but it helps me. I have anxiety real bad so this helps. I hate being on the spot. Like this. (laughing) It’s hard for me to talk about this stuff but when I’m online, I’m like really comfortable. In my zone. That’s my space. Literally, MySpace. (laughing) (Bianca, 22, Gender Blender).

204 Leave a comment on paragraph 204 1 Nene also discusses the importance of being able to truly have her own identity in the profile she created on MySpace.

Even though you can’t really do the profiles like back in the day, that’s ok. But I still remember putting up all my gay shit and not giving a fuck. That was my page. It was my profile. I could change it anytime. I would put pictures up of lesbians kissing. I just didn’t care. I hate being censored. And on the team, I feel like I am like my coaches don’t like the gay shit. When we have events and on game day, I have to dress like a girl and shit. I hate it. But I love ball so I don’t complain. But I go online and that’s like my time. To be me. To do me (NeNe, 24).   

206 Leave a comment on paragraph 206 0 NeNe expresses discontent with outside pressures to conform to a certain feminine identity.  While this conformity was mandated, she didn’t resist it and found solace in her social media profile.  This empowered her knowing that there was an outlet for her that didn’t actually exist in her offline world.

207 Leave a comment on paragraph 207 0 Carmen expressed a similar story of having to conform to the demands of hegemonic femininity while growing up in her household and how she used social media to actually resist that.

Carmen: You know I grew up very religious.  You know we go hard for the church.  Catholics man shit! (laughing) But my family never knew I was gay. I had always liked girls even when I was real little.

Me:  So how did you come out to your family?

Carmen: Shit I used BlackPlanet to do it. Well BlackPlanet did it for me.

Me: How so?

Carmen: Remember I was talking about Tito, well that’s my brother. And he was on BlackPlanet too. So I sent him a request to add him as a friend and shit.

Me: You had more than one profile right?

Carmen: Right. My bad. I was already friends on my straight page but the page I was really gay on, no way! (laughing) So I sent him an add. And I get like a call like no more than 20 minutes later. I was so fucking scared to answer. But I did and I just was expecting him to be all crazy and shit.

Me: What he say?

Carmen: You know what. He was so calm. He was like, mija, yo se. He was like he already knew.  He been knew. The whole family knew. I just started bawling. (starts crying) I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Me: You’re ok. Take your time. I bet that hit you hard.

Carmen: Oh my gosh, it did. He said they already knew and it was ok. They loved me anyway. Mama saw my page a long time ago and she was like, I already know. Mama knows everything. (laughing) So here I am thinking I’m hiding something.  But I do know that one of my friends used her page to come out to her family and they haven’t talked to her since.

219 Leave a comment on paragraph 219 0 This narration describes the fear that many sexual minorities experience when deciding to come out to loved ones.  Carmen mentioned that she came out to a lot of her friends using her hidden profile.  She mentioned the importance of having that outlet as a vessel to facilitate the conversation.  She suggested that social media can help ease the tension by starting the conversation that needs to happen within families.

220 Leave a comment on paragraph 220 0 DISRUPTING NORMS AS RESISTANCE

221 Leave a comment on paragraph 221 2 There is a narrow range of research on sexual identity development and performances and it is even more limited when intersecting racialized identities. This project explores the multiple strategies employed in exploring, navigating, and performing their sexual identity to resist dominant narratives.  Through ethnographic observations and narrative interviews, I was able to explore how identity narratives are a part of the process involved in developing knowledge of racialized, lesbian, gender identities, and how they serve as a means to empower the larger community outside of the digital realm.  This liberating stage of identity development is essential for empowerment.

222 Leave a comment on paragraph 222 3 Because the lives of Black lesbians are rooted in structural inequalities based on the intersections of sexual orientation, sex, gender, and race (Greene 2000), Black lesbians are an ideal population in which to study intersectionality. Intersectionality examines how distinctive social power relations mutually construct each other, not just that social hierarchies exist (Collins 1998).  This is a key tenet Black digital feminism.  They recognize the oppressive structures that have forced many of them to social media.  In turn, the social media empowered many of them to resist these inequalities in physical settings.  For example, while many of the lesbians in the study had levels of pride and synthesis in their digital lives, many were out online but still had not disclosed their sexual identities to their close friends and families.  Social media allowed them the ability to come out reducing the stress associated with this sometimes traumatic process.

223 Leave a comment on paragraph 223 2 Because of the discrimination and exclusion that many Black lesbians in particular face, they have created their own spaces within virtual worlds.  Given the relative ease in which spaces can be created, this presents oppressed groups the ability of being able to control and create positive content influencing our own images (grant it they are fortunate and privileged enough to have access to technology and have the skills necessary to create).  While current social media may not have the capabilities of allowing for expression of identity, traditional social media outlets such as MySpace and BlackPlanet allowed for identity construction beyond selecting gender and ethnicity.  It was within these spaces that many Black lesbians suggest they were able to challenge and resist heterosexist norms that pervaded their daily lives.

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