Interracial lesbian relationships circa 1970--how plausible is this?
August 31, 2020 5:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm helping a friend of hers work on a play and am posting this on her behalf: we're wondering exactly how reasonable it would be for interracial lesbian dating to be going on in 1970.

Here's her question: "I'm working on a play that has a white 20 something and a black 20 something in a lesbian relationship in Pittsburgh in 1970. How plausible was this? Would they have had to keep it a secret and remain closeted? What ramifications could this relationship carry if they were found out?"
posted by jenfullmoon to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Audre Lorde met Frances Clayton in 1968, and they were in a relationship for several years.
posted by bunderful at 6:03 PM on August 31, 2020 [7 favorites]

This is from a slightly earlier time period (late 1950s-early 1960s) but your friend may find this article on Lorraine Hansberry's lesbian relationships to be useful. Hansberry was "the only black woman in a white lesbian circle" and had several white girlfriends.
posted by clair-de-lune at 7:03 PM on August 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

Your question tells me that your writer friend may really want to dig into some research. I mean, anything is plausible in a play if you want to make it so. Of course there were inter-racial lesbian relationships in 1970. There were very likely quite a few in Pittsburgh.

The question is why Pittsburgh? Why an interrracial relationship? What is this play trying to say? Why 1970? What was the spark to write this play?

i would make sure that she started talking to some folks who lived then, who were part of the lesbian community then... Or at the very least some reading, I would do some more research before I felt comfortable tackling a subject like this in such a public way as a play.
posted by miles1972 at 11:24 PM on August 31, 2020 [32 favorites]

There could also have been a lot of different consequences for getting caught, depending on the details of their lives. Ones that seem relevant to Pittsburgh in the 70s: Religious families? Catholic? Living close to families? White collar or blue collar? Union jobs? Artists? Connected to lesbian community or living outside it?

I don't think there are any answers to those questions that would make the outcome "They're embraced with open arms and publicly celebrated" or whatever. But possibilities range at least from "fired from jobs" or "blackmailed" thru "quietly ignored."
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:59 AM on September 1, 2020

Rubyfruit Jungle is a lesbian coming-of-age autobiographical novel that came out in 1973, so that could give your friend some sense of the time period.

I was hoping an older lesbian would address this question, but since that hasn't happened, I'll share some of my memories. I'm straight/cis female, but I graduated from high school in 1975, and I think it's almost impossible for younger people today to imagine the severe homophobia of that time period. If you had asked me in high school, I would have assumed I didn't know any lesbians. When I was in college, the campus Lesbian and Gay Alliance was finally allowed to meet on campus. They had a march to their new campus meeting place, and people threw rocks at them. Campus gay groups sponsored "wear jeans if you're gay" days, which highlighted homophobia, as college students who normally wore nothing but jeans would go out of their way to wear something else so that no one would (gasp) think they were gay. In the early 80s, a relative who "confessed" to me that she was a lesbian was very worried that my response would be to never speak to her again and to keep my children from her. I was the only relative she told. Even in the mid-80s, gays and lesbians in my midwestern college English department were closeted.

So I would say, except in very small and unusual circles, your lesbian couple would be extremely careful to hide their relationship. The possible ramifications of being found out would be awful. They would definitely be at risk of losing their jobs, their friends, and their families.
posted by FencingGal at 6:09 AM on September 1, 2020 [19 favorites]

To add a bit to FencingGal's answer, I know several gay men and women of that generation who - even now - absolutely do not out themselves unnecessarily. They have "a roommate" or "a friend" who they have lived with for 20 - 60 years, but they do not acknowledge their relationship unless around very close friends/family. From outside that circle of trust, the relationship is completely closeted. Yes, even in 2020.

I'd respectfully suggest that your friend marinate on that for a while before writing anything.
posted by wearyaswater at 8:49 AM on September 1, 2020 [7 favorites]

There are some really great LGBTQ history organizations out there that could help provide some more context. Personally, I have to agree with the upthread comment that the writer should spend some time investing in some basic historical research.

One potential place to get started with some historical research could be this fabulous queer history Instagram account @lgbt_history.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives could be another good place to get started.
posted by forkisbetter at 9:14 AM on September 1, 2020

There’s another side to this that hasn’t been addressed, and that is how likely their relationship would have been and what life would have been like within the gay/lesbian community in Pittsburgh in 1975.

I’m too young to speak to this firsthand, and my queer life and ties are all to bigger cities, but the older generation of gay folks I know and the books/media of their day will tell you of an often tight knit community; indeed, it was so awful and impossible to be out to the world at large that a community of your own was very important, and a source of real joy.

My feeling based on the older couples I know and my general, but certainly nowhere near historian, knowledge of queer history is that interracial relationships may have been a bit more common and accepted within the gay community at that time than it would have been elsewhere.

But yes, lots of fascinating research to do, and I am excited that y’all get to do it!
posted by nancynickerson at 3:28 PM on September 1, 2020

Another useful angle to consider: how did these two end up in Pittsburgh? Did they grow up there, or did they move there as an adult? If it's the former, I suspect it'd be less likely for these two to meet than if the latter is true, if for no other reason than a lot of queer folk specifically moved to The Big City (from wherever their small town of origin happened to be) specifically to throw themselves socially into a scene. I grew up in the rural south and moved to Little Rock (which seemed like a booming metropolis to my 18 year old eyes in the '90s) as soon as I was able. It wasn't paradise but it was just what I was looking for: a place where it was easy to identify the main Known Gay Establishment, make my presence known there, and spend time meeting people and making connections. Smaller cities still operate on this model, but bigger cities have (and have had) much more to offer in the way of variety. Which is to say that, ironically, larger cities may have offered a more compartmentalized, segregated, exclusive set of queer spaces where it would be less likely to meet someone with a background very different from your own. I don't know where 1970s Pittsburgh falls on that spectrum.

But I'm digging the premise! This is doubtlessly plausible. The mastery will be in the details. I think it's a great idea to check in with local/regional archives to get eyes on some correspondence or even interviews with locals who'd lived contemporaneously.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:36 PM on September 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Possible resources for your friend: The Pittsburgh Queer History Project has info on the underground bar and club scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Sue Kerr established "Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents" in 2005 to preserve the city's rich LGBTQ history.

"What ramifications could this relationship carry if they were found out?" Oh, my god. Social ostracization, family estrangement, involuntary institutional commitment, involuntary psychiatric treatment, permanent brain damage from involuntary treatment, excommunication from religious communities, job loss (immediately, as in being fired, and long-term, as in, your teaching certification could be rescinded if you were found to lack "good moral character"), housing loss, suffering physical assault, suffering sexual assault ("corrective rape"), loss of parental rights/child custody... it's a long, hideous list. Homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder, a sin, and a crime. Lesbians were less likely to be arrested than gay men solely on the basis of sexual orientation, but that happened as well. When Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in NYC in 1964, her live-in girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko identified her body; Zielonko was initially a suspect because police believed "homosexual romances produce more jealousy by far than 'straight’ romances. More jealousy means more chance for violence. Women, in fact, can be more possessive towards their lovers than men.” The police had questions about the sexual positions Zielonko and her late partner enjoyed, and that was before the six-hour interrogation started.

Zielonko eventually gave testimony at the trial as Genovese's "roommate;" the prosecutors feared "bringing Genovese’s sexuality into the trial might skew the jury’s opinion of her, perhaps even to the point of giving her killer a lighter sentence." Genovese and Zielonko first met in 1963 at the Swing Rendezvous, a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. Later that year, the bartender/manager, Mitch, was found beaten to death outside the establishment; her death was never even investigated by the police.

"Would they have had to keep it a secret and remain closeted?" Almost without a doubt, yes.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:32 PM on September 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Something I think of when I think of queers of that generation who I knew decades later, in their 40s and 50s, is that there are so many different kinds of closeted.

The closet wasn't always a static waiting situation the way it often is now. It wasn't passive. It was a bunch of hard work people did to protect themselves — and also a bunch of work people did to generate plausible deniability or indispensability when 100% secrecy wasn't an option. And that work would look really, really different depending on a person's situation.

Like, in addition to just not mentioning it, people would actively work to keep secrets in a way we don't see now. There's covering your tracks whenever you travel. There's lying to your coworkers about where you live because you're that worried about people being able to find you. There's avoiding ever even interacting with your partner in public, because she's suspected of being queer and you're not and you can't afford to be associated with her.

But then there's also "It came up once, we were very drunk, and the conclusion was that my employer won't fire me for it as long as I literally never say a word about it again." Or "We're roommates; people joke about us being dykes, and we think they must know it's not a joke, but there hasn't been any trouble yet." Or "I've been caught before, but I'm doing my best to convince them it was a phase." Situations where people sort of know, or assume, but you're still trying to manage their feelings about it and keep out of danger.

And a lot of the time, all this self-protective hard work just wasn't enough. People got fired a lot. People had trouble finding apartments. You could be "closeted" and lose your job for being gay at the same time, because keeping quiet about it and successfully covering your tracks didn't stop people from making assumptions. Or (especially if your gender was closer to the feminine norm, and if you were careful in other ways) you could be "closeted" in a way that didn't even arouse suspicion, and those were two entirely different experiences of being closeted.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:42 PM on September 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

Like, in addition to just not mentioning it, people would actively work to keep secrets in a way we don't see now.

Just to give an example of this, the lesbian couple I knew always lived in two-bedroom apartments and set up separate bedrooms so that people would think they were just roommates.
posted by FencingGal at 6:42 AM on September 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

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