The Prison and the Closet: Heterosexism and Race

The prison and the closet is how Patricia Hill Collins describes racism and heterosexism. Her piece about Black sexuality explains the interconnections between racism and heterosexism, and how understanding the correlations are integral to developing a more progressive outlook of sexuality within the Black community. Essentially, racism and heterosexism are related because both promote segregation as a tool for social control. People of color are isolated from the greater society because of their skin color and LGBT people are segregated from each other because they are encouraged to hide their lifestyles.
It makes perfect sense that these two isolating practices are related as they are both fairly new systematic institutions of oppression within the United States. The Invention of Heterosexuality, as detailed by Jonathan Ned Katz, depicts a timeline of the origin of heterosexuality as being almost parallel to the development of post-slavery, institutionalized racism in the U.S. The first years of documented heterosexuality begins just 15 years after the start of the Jim Crow Era in U.S. history. Katz explains, “The idea of heterosexuality as the master sex from which all others deviated was (like the idea of the master race) deeply authoritarian.” During that time, the White race was very much established as that master race. Anything other than the WASP ideal was decidedly less than; and individuals who fell across more than one line of undesirability, endured it even worse. Anything outside of the established racial and sexual “norms” was considered deviant and other.
Throughout history, Collins explains how laws were passed to force people to accept these norms. Laws, like the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, (which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court right now) were made to control the institution of marriage by only allowing marriage to take place between a man and woman. In Darker Shades of Queer, Chong-Suk Han argued the absurdity of the idea that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would weaken heterosexual marriages. Marriage had to be “defended” from the likes of marginalized peoples and, although wrong, makes complete sense. Special tax breaks were given to married couples which, of course, excludes same-sex couples because they could not wed. Laws were also made against inter-racial marriages, ultimately of course, to protect the “master race.” Marriage made financial sense and became a way for the majority group to retain and increase their socioeconomic status through these tax savings and merging of wealth. 
Historically, the sexuality of people of African descent has been a focal point in the development of racialized practices. One of the biggest justifications of racism and acts of violence toward Black men, was for the “protection” of White women. The bizarre obsession with the sexuality of Black men is a prominent feature throughout the period of de jure segregation, and is depicted in many photos of lynchings, where the genitalia of Black men have been mutilated or removed. Black women also have had to contend with majority group thoughts of promiscuity in regard to their sexuality. Collins mentions how Black women were used as breeders during the time of slavery but now are seen as having too many children, who give less to society than what they take. In mainstream society, the sexuality of Black people overall has been seen as animalistic, out of control and sinful. Any sexual aspect of the marginalized individual or group is often directly linked to their race.
In more modern times, the depiction of sexuality among Black people is shown in ads where the men are hyper-masculine and lacking in any sensitivity. Black LGBT members are underrepresented and/or misrepresented. The media depiction of a lesbian, is “lipstick”, ultra-feminine and not taken seriously. The women are made out to be more of a fantasy for a man than anything else. The depiction of gay men fits a strict model of a heterosexual, white male of a high social class. (Han) This is unfair because it gives an illusion that only White men are gay and that homosexuality does not exist among groups of men of color. This, of course, leads to a limited amount of support resources, representation and leadership for those groups. Black women are shown as objects; not necessarily desirable objects, but available objects and without voice. (Gill) This portrayal is a direct reminder of how, during slavery (and after), Black women were seen as commodities to White men and there for their convenience. They did not have any rights over their own bodies and its uses.
Now, if Black women are seen as commodities and lesbians aren’t taken seriously, what does this mean for a Black, female lesbian? It could mean her death. Collins discussed the story of Sakia Gunn, a young, black, lesbian woman who was killed by a man because her lesbianism challenged his manhood and he felt entitled. Her femaleness made her less than because we live in patriarchal society. Her whole self did not matter to the media or her community because she did not fit the description of any dominant group. She wasn’t white, she wasn’t a man and wasn’t heterosexual. Also, she was murdered by a man of color, which is indicative of the oppressed taking on the role of oppressor; using the master’s tools (Lorde) by exerting the hyper-masculine behavior he’s been systematically labeled as having. He had to exert his authority over someone who, by societal standards, was considered less than him. Black women were nothing more than chattel during times of slavery and, once slavery was over, their lives meant even less. The perpetuation of this idea by men of color, through a firm system of patriarchy, leaves black women with even less support.
The overarching theme of Collins’ article and the other referenced articles is that it is imperative for the greater society, marginalized groups included, to expand their thoughts on sexuality. This will allow for a better understanding of the variations in the desires, practices and lifestyles of others and how it intersects with race and gender. Ultimately, the final goal is an increased acceptance due to the knowledge and comprehension of the many possibilities of individual sexuality, and a consensus and dedication to human rights for all.
Gill, R. (2013). An Intersectional Analysis of ‘Sixpacks’, ‘Midriffs’ and ‘Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising. In P. Hill Collins & M. Andersen (Eds.), Race, Class & Gender (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Han, C. (2013). Darker Shades of Queer: Race and Sexuality at the Margins. In P. Hill Collins & M. Andersen (Eds.), Race, Class & Gender (8th ed.)., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Hill Collins, P. (2013). Prisons for Our Bodies, Closets for Our Minds: Racism, Heterosexism, and Black Sexuality. In P. Hill Collins & M. Andersen (Eds.), Race, Class & Gender (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Lorde, Audre. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. N.p.: n.p., 1984. 110-13. Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press Feminist Series. Print.
Ned Katz, J. (2013). The Invention of Heterosexuality. In P. Hill Collins & M. Andersen (Eds.), Race, Class & Gender (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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