True Sister Outsiders: Connecting Cherrie Moraga’s “La Guera” and Audre Lorde’s Zami
B Y M A T T H E W E I C H E L B E R G E R
Both Cherrie Moraga and Audre Lorde are lesbians of color whose writings bring to light the unique struggles facing members of the gay community who are minorities within that very community. These minorities stray from the preferred model of queer representation; a model chosen by gay activists before and after the gay liberation movement of the 1960s to represent gays to the heterosexual world. These chosen models are white, middle to upper class, and fit conveniently into uncomplicated, heteronormative gender roles. The members of the gay community who do not fit into this model often find themselves to be misunderstood and marginalized by a group who rhetorically claims to support and represent them. Moraga’s prescription for dealing with this marginalization within the lesbian community and the farther-reaching feminist community is for minority women to reflect deeply on the many roles they maintain in society, or their intersectionality; that is, their gender, race, and social class. This allows them to realize how far-reaching oppression can be, and once they realize that they are both oppressors and the oppressed, more authentic connections and changes can be made. In her essay “La Guera,” Moraga writes, “[T]he connections among women of different backgrounds and sexual orientations have been fragile. . . . I think this phenomenon is indicative of our failure to seriously address ourselves to some very frightening questions: How have I internalized my own oppression. How have I oppressed?” (30). Audre Lorde’s Zami is a work that echoes Moraga’s belief that the battle over oppression begins “under the skin” (Moraga 30) and that a connection is needed to break open the silence that creates distance between individuals who should come together for strength. By detailing her own experiences of navigating and subverting the entrenched rules of race and gender in 1950s New York City, while at the same time making the necessary human connections that illuminate her difficult world and her unique place within that world, Audre Lorde is reaffirming Moraga’s belief that self-exploration and human relationships are the means to create a community where one’s intersectionality will be valued.
Moraga states, “[T]he bulk of literature in this country reinforces the myth that what is dark and female is evil. Consequently, each of us—whether dark, female, or both—has in some way internalized this oppressive imagery” (32). Audre Lorde speaks to this in Zami when describing the ambivalent feelings that she and other black lesbians in the Village feel towards themselves and other black women. They recognize each other on the streets as a band of outsiders, yet something unnamed keeps them from joining together. Lorde writes, “We recognized ourselves as sister-outsiders who might gain little from banding together. Perhaps our strength might lie in our fewness, our rarity. That’s the way it was Downtown. And Uptown, meaning the land of Black people, seemed very far away and hostile territory” (177). Lorde is implying that for her there is a wavering definition to what it means to be black. When she is uptown her role as a black woman is primary and her role as a lesbian is kept secret, whereas her downtown role is primarily as a lesbian. As Lorde states, regarding the disparities between her oscillating identities, “Downtown in the gay bars I was a closet student and an invisible black. Uptown at Hunter I was a closet dyke and a general intruder” (179). It is only after Lorde makes a connection with a woman named Kitty, another black lesbian, that Lorde is able to find intellectual solidarity with someone else who is able to empathize with the challenge of accepting one’s many identities. Both women are black, gay, and share the same social status. Lorde writes about Kitty, “We had come together like elements erupting into an electric storm, exchanging energy, sharing charge, brief and drenching. Then we parted, passed, reformed, reshaping ourselves the better for the exchange” (253). In reference to making life-changing connections such as the one that exists between Lorde and Kitty, Moraga explains, “When we do rub up against this person, there then is the challenge. There then is the opportunity to look at the nightmare within us. But we usually shrink from such a challenge” (33). Lorde does not shrink from the challenge, and this allows her to maintain pride in her identities of being lesbian, black, and female.
In addition to race, the complication of gender roles within the lesbian community is another obstacle that must be overcome when attempting to maintain personal dignity and a healthy human connection. Moraga points out the inherent difficulty in doing this when she states, “[T]he truth of the matter is that I have sometimes taken society’s fear and hatred of lesbians to bed with me. I have sometimes hated my lover for loving me. I have sometimes felt ‘not woman’ enough for her. I have sometimes felt ‘not man enough.’ For a lesbian trying to survive in a heterosexist society, there is no easy way around these emotions” (33). Lorde also confronts this problem of assigned gender roles for lesbians, and her refusal to play a role in a lesbian relationship that mirrors the gender normative roles of a heterosexual couple alienates her from the majority of the lesbian community in the downtown scene in the 1950s. In the company of a close black lesbian friend, Lorde describes the pejorative names that are thrown at the pair for refusing to adhere to the “butch”/“femme” standard: “We were both part of the ‘freaky’ bunch of lesbians who weren’t into role-playing, and who the butches and femmes, Black and white, disparaged with the term Ky-Ky, or AC/DC. Ky-Ky was the same name that was used for gay-girls who slept with johns for money. Prostitutes” (178). Despite this negativity coming from people who should be her allies, Lorde does not allow the difference between her perceived gender role and the gender roles of other lesbians prevent her from attempting to build a community. Lorde writes, “[W]e tried to build a community of sorts where we could...survive within a world we correctly perceived to be hostile to us. Lesbians were probably the only Black and white women in New York City in the fifties who were making any attempt to communicate with each other; we learned lessons from each other, the values of which were not lessened by what we did not learn” (179). These communities are necessary to overcome the hostilities toward difference and to conquer the oppressor from within and without. When one can learn to recognize one’s hatred for one’s own race, gender, and sexuality, a tool is created to recognize how that self-hatred or fear of difference can be used to oppress others whether willingly or unwillingly. In regards to how women view one another and their differences during this community building, Moraga states, “We are afraid to look at how we have failed each other. We are afraid to see how we have taken the values of our oppressor into our hearts and turned them against ourselves and one another” (32). Lorde shows that is not too late to move on from past failures, however, and her ability and willingness to connect with other women regardless of race or adopted gender roles allows Lorde to connect her own roles into one cohesive identity of which she can have pride.
Moraga and Lorde’s writings bring awareness to gay readers that true equality means expanding the narrative of the American gay experience to include races, genders, and social statuses that are outside of the mainstream conversation about gay identity. According to Moraga, it is not difficult for a member of a minority community to recognize how these other voices are being oppressed, since one who is being oppressed should easily be able to recognize oppression happening to others. She writes, “We have the luxury to realize psychic and emotional starvation. It is from this starvation that other starvations can be recognized—if one is willing to take the risk of making the connection—if one is willing to be responsible to the result of the connection. For me, the connection is an inevitable one” (29). The inevitability of that connection is important to the integration of intersectionality with the ongoing struggle for equality in the gay community. Lorde writes, “It was a while before we came to realize that our place was the very house of difference rather than the security of any one particular difference. It was years before we learned to use the strength that daily surviving can bring, years before we learned fear does not have to incapacitate, and that we could appreciate each other on terms not necessarily our own” (226). This “house of difference” that Audre Lorde describes provides the structure that is needed to reach a higher plateau of understanding among members of minority communities who share common political goals, despite their divergent histories. It is a house that is still under construction however, but with patience and understanding, it can be completed. ∞
W O R K S C I T E D
Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1982.
Moraga, Cherrie. “La Guera.” 1979. Print.