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Race and Class in the Lesbian Community of the 50s

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Authors of the article that is being discussed defend the viewpoint that in the American lesbian community in the 1950s, a promising and unprecedented sociological and psychological phenomenon began to develop: the clash of identity categories resulted in the advancement of sexual orientation category, above all else. In simple words, it did not matter of what nationality a person was or what race he or she belonged to, or what her financial or relationship status was. The most crucial thing was the fact that she recognized herself as a lesbian and joined the community, agreeing to be a part of it and contribute to it, while also receiving the support from other fellow members.

This tendency also worked in favor of other crucial social issues like the decrease of segregation in American society and propaganda of tolerant attitude towards the queer community in general. The women of the 1950s lesbian community took much action in the realm of helping the disabled, the needy and unprotected groups and strata of the population, thus, gaining a good reputation not only for themselves individually, but also for the community as a whole. The consciously built consent and solidarity between the black and the white lesbians who supported that trend.

Lesbians of that period also had to combat sexism and gender intolerance of the black community of that time. Unlike gay black man, gay black women received absolutely no support or recognition even from people of their own race and gender. This inevitably led to isolation of such women from every society group or sub-community they could relate to. The intercommunity tension grew harder, making women more vulnerable and less capable of communicating with their peers.

Therefore, the hardest position was held by black gay women who were being ostracized both by the black community and the straight community, and even the homosexual sub-community that encompassed men. The only people these women could have connected with were gay white women who were able to look beyond racial lines. Simultaneously, landmark events took place in the mid-1950s, with school racial segregation coming to an end judicially and the broad world recognizing works of art created by black people, especially black women.

One more difficulty the aforementioned group of women had to face was the fact that their social life and their mere existence as a group was an unprecedented case in the modern history of the world, let alone the Western civilization. Nothing similar could have served as an example how to organize the inner group and community life, and there was no way someone could have lent a piece of advice.

Consequently, it was relatively hard for the lesbian community of that time to overcome the obstacle of class and finance differences. Virtually, these categories came along as a complex with the race category: white women, although willing to obtain primary civil rights, traditionally had more potential for the upward social mobility, while black women had much less opportunity for even receiving a proper education and a medical insurance, let alone other merits of a full civil rights package.

Another distinction between the social and economic status of all these women was the continuation of the previous one and, as a matter of fact, meant that black women were more likely to get a blue collar job, whereas the white women had more chances to settle with a white collar one, thus, creating a gap between them.

Strangely, the rapid development of media, the widened TV and radio coverage were not used as tools powerful enough to alter the public opinion into the favor of lesbian communities. Those media were most effectively used by transnational corporations for financial and business needs.

According to Thorpe (1987), “following World War II, there was a return to strict gender roles.  The Butch-Fem role distinction became the norm in lesbian communities, especially in the bars for working class women.  These identities essential in the 1950s were the personal behavior codes and were an organizing principle the for community life” (p.50). The problem was that apart from racial, financial, religious and social differences, lesbians of 1950s also had to deal with a problem of self-identification within the group and within the couple they were part of. The Butch-Fem division made it clear that the traditional gender role and the accompanying stereotype set are characteristics for the homosexual couple, as well as for the heterosexual.

Also, belonging to Butch or Fem was often determined by the type of work the woman performs: white collars tended to be Fem’s while Butch’s were commonly of the blue collar community. This, too, deepened the gap between the women who comprised the lesbian community of the 1950s. Instead of feeling independent and obtaining a chance to live openly, surprisingly, it led to a multitude of stereotypes of what a girl should and should not do, if she is a lesbian. This unspoken code of behavior was for many as oppressing as the traditional gender-based heterosexual peer pressure.

According to Thorpe (1987), “a typical 1950s butch female could be described as a tough person who is ready to fight if needed.  Their aim, nevertheless, was not to substitute men.  Being a butch or part of a butch-fem couple in that community meant claiming your difference.  There was a fine line between “not denying” and “advertising” their sexuality.  The butch-fem image was easier to attain, as people began to welcome newcomers.” (p.58)

To concude, the reason why the lesbian community of 1950 was able to set aside the racial prejudice and cooperate on the basis of their identity of the same sexual orientation was the fact that they had to resist the same social intolerance and misunderstanding as lesbians. However, they did not allow the mainstream society apply the divide et impera principle to them and help together as a close identity circle in opposing to the common enemy.

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