Excerpted by Latoya Peterson
A variety of clubs cater to queer women of color in the San Francisco Bay area. Some are wall-to-wall women of color – Black, Latina, Asian and most play hip-hop music non-stop. In each club, there are all different kinds of women. For instance, there might be women over forty with long ‘locks, Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and Teva sandals in one corner of the room and younger, Butch, women wearing crisp, indigo-colored Levi’s with thick black belts, large belt buckles and perfectly gelled hair in another. There are also femme women in tight jeans or skirts, heels, and short T-shirts, some cut around the collar so that they slide down their shoulders. In every club I that I’ve been to, there is always a clearly designated dance floor, which is usually packed tight with sweaty bodies. Some clubs have elevated dance floors or stages with one or two go-go dancers dressed in hot pants and knee-high boots. Below them are women lined up with dollars. In the background, hip-hop music fills the room with beats and voices, sometimes the only male presence in the room. What type of male, and ultimately what type of masculinity depends on the club.
On Gay Pride weekend this year, I went out to several of these clubs. Two in particular stuck out in my mind because of their similarities and differences in relationship to queer sexuality and black masculinity. For instance, at one of the clubs I went to, the deejay played songs that characterize more of the nigga, or thug image in hip-hop- 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, the Game, and 50 Cent. At the second club, the music had much more of a playa or sexualized tone – the Ying Yang twins, David Banner, and Khia. While there are two different types of masculinity being played at each club, in a room full of women of color, the lyrics fall to the background as the performances take center stage. For instance, nigga masculinity in the first club is reflected in a particular style, stance, or code. It is more about an individual identity, one that each person can take on. Women throw up hand gestures as they dance, make eye contact with one another and mouth the words to the lyrics. Some women even had on T-shirts with the ultimate “nigga 4 life,” 2Pac. The tone set at this club is also about community. The mood isn’t so much about sex or domination sexually, but rather, a stance about who someone is or declares herself to be: being down, being able to take what comes in life, being loyal to this group, this identity, and this community.
In the second club, the playa image was much more prevalent. If you wanted someone to help you get your groove on, this was the place to be. Women would grind their bodies into one another, and move one another’s bodies around to the direction of the lyrics. Queer sexuality was much more on display, as a woman, you wanted to be looked at, have somebody notice you, and maybe take you home. For instance, at one point, I noticed two women on the stage, dancing with one another. One of the women, in baggy jeans and a baseball jersey picked up the wman she was dancing with who was wearing a short, silver skirt and tank top. She then lifted her up onto the bars surrounding the stage and then put her face into the woman’s skirt under the musical direction of “work that clit, cum girl.” I had to sit down.
Even though I was a little uncomfortable with this display, I didn’t leave the bar, which is probably what I would have done had I been in a straight club. In a mixed setting, the lyrics and sexual display denote a different power struggle for me: with women more clearly marked as objects and men as subjects. That expression of sexual desire is one that all women see in music videos, movies, and hear it played out in the music we listen to. Similar to Laura Mulvey’s definition of the male gaze in popular culture in which the female is the fetishized object and the men are the spectators, mixed clubs are assumed to be spaces where women are expected to take on the passive quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Over a hip-hop beat, men then possess the ability to look, taking pleasure in looking at and dominating women. I am not suggesting that straight women have no power in these settings. Mulvey has been rightly critiqued for her failure to go beyond men as spectators and women as passive objects. She, and other feminists, forget that every once in a while, a woman might like to “pile [he]r phat ass into [he]r fave micromini [and] slip [he]r freshly manicured toes into four inch fuck me sandals” for her pleasure as well as his when she goes out to a club. However, I do suggest these are the expected and most displayed roles in hip-hop music. What I am interested in is what women do with these roles.
Moreover, the expression of sexual desire between two queer women of color is rare, if at all existent, in popular culture. In these all female, queer club spaces, the decoding of black male masculinity is exciting, normalized, and even “safe.” First, these displays can demonstrate what queer women do and whom we do it with. Second, there isn’t the fear of violence or being overpowered that may be associated with mixed, straight clubs. Popular discourse often warns women, gay or straight, about the dangers of going to clubs alone. We are all too familiar with the Dateline specials on GHB or “roofies” which capitalize on horrible stories of women who go to bars sober and end up being sexually assaulted. While these stories are used to make women fear and regulate our sexuality, I have never once been worried about these “dangers” when I have walked into queer clubs alone, freshly made up in tight jeans and revealing blouse.
All queer women of color spaces have been one of the most liberating places for me as a Black queer woman, and consequently, as a feminist. I feel validated as a woman of color living in the current context of the L-Word, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Queer as Folk where a majority of queer people are men and most of the lesbians are white. Scrambling to see images of myself and make connections with other women of color is an ongoing struggle in the twenty-first century. And it is always more than pleasurable to tell your homegirls that you like to throw lips to the shit and have them know the queer context I am speaking of. In these moments we engage in what Stuart Hall calls and oppositional reading of rap lyrics and hip-hop music. Queer women of color construct new meanings of the text and become active consumers who change the context of sexuality and masculinity.
In her research on drag kings of color, Halberstam points to this type of reading in her conclusion that “when a drag king lip synchs to rap, she takes sampling to another level and restages the sexual politics of the song and the active components of black masculinity by channeling them through the drag act for a female audience and through the queer space of a lesbian club. ” I argue that the same is true or lesbians and queer women in the clubs I have been to. For instance, some of the women in the clubs look and dress as hard as the men in rap videos. In these moments, black masculinity is changed in that these women are exploring their masculinity in relationship to the women they love and have sex with.
In this sense, there is a clear link between a Black queer or lesbian identity and the nigga identity. To clarify an earlier question, perhaps this is why Black queer women identify, at times, with the masculinity in hip-hop. In particular, the sense of outsider status in identities like the nigga. As Todd Boy suggests in Am I Black Enough for You, “the nigga is not interested in anything having to do with the mainstream, though his cultural products are clearly an integral part of mainstream popular culture. The nigga rejects the mainstream even though he has already been absorbed by it.” Here, Black male masculinity occupies a space both in and outside of heteronormativity through the rejection and absorption of it. Similarly, Black queer women reject heteronormativity in both their identity and desire at the same time that we embrace mainstream cultures like hip-hop. This happens not only in relationship to sex and sexuality, but with racial and ethnic identity as well. For instance, even though Gwen Stefani has colonized the culture, language, fashion, and stance of women of color from her use of Bindis, to dark eyeliner around her lips, her ska musical style (collaborations with Eve and Ladysaw) and, recently her “entourage” of Japanese girls, queer women of color run to the dance floor when her songs come on, singing louder than the music, perhaps reclaiming the identities that she has appropriated from us cause “ooh, this my shit.” The decoding of masculinity and race that happens in queer women’s spaces indicates that each identity is indeed performative. And what I find important in these performances of masculinity on the dance floor is the sense of legitimacy and dare I say “pride” that comes from watching Black women gyrate with one another to a hip-hop beat, one wanting the other to know she’s a hustler, baby. There is a celebration and declaration of same sex sex and sexuality in these moments that Black women and other women of color continue to be denied in popular discourse.
Queer women of color flipping the script in dance clubs does not eliminate the rigid representations of Black masculinity and femininity in popular culture or how we internalize these images as Black men and women. As I have demonstrated through the actions and spaces I have described, queer engagement with hip-hop masculinity is mad full of complexity and contradiction. These complexities have a long history in the lesbian community long before girls told other girls they’d take you to the candy shop and let you lick the lollipop. By examining this queer space, I am in now way suggesting that the objectification of women is thrown out completely. Bending your girl over to the front and telling her to touch her toes and having her do so in high heels and a thong may not be the path to liberation. I also make no claims that queer women don’t engage in harmful acts upon one another. I was once at a party and heard a woman telling someone else that she and her friends pulled a train on “this bitch” that she picked up at a club one night. And, to my horror, one of her friends standing next to her asked her “why she didn’t invite her to that party.” The same objectification and violence towards women can happen regardless of the gender of the protagonist. And queer communities are similar to the hip-hop community in that they reflect popular culture and discourse. This is not to exclude these actions, but to point out what this ideology, which some of us have internalized, suggests about the value of Black female bodies in this culture. What does it mean to be in an all female loving space and question the sexist lyrics.
The contradictions in queer women’s spaces are similar to the complexities that Mark Anthony Neal aces as a Black feminist man who enjoys songs that are derogatory against women. As he states, “My affection for Mos Def’s ‘Ms. Fat Booty’ frames one of the contradictions in thinking oneself a black male feminist. For example, how does black male feminism deal with the reality of heterosexual desire?” I must end this essay with a similar question; how do black queer feminists who love hip hop deal with the reality that same sex desire and practice is sometimes played out over a sexist hip hop beat? How do we recognize and value ourselves as part of the hip-hop generation, many of whom gay or straight don’t identify as feminist?
— From Andreana Clay’s essay “I used to be scared of the dick”: Queer women of color and hip hop masculinity, originally published in Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology.