Afrikan American Gay Women’s Association (AAGWA) was founded in 1993 as a social, support, and political group where Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender African American women could gather to practice self-love, self-respect, and empowerment. The mission of the organization was the “elimination of prejudice and discrimination within the Gay and Lesbian African American community. Co-founder Cheryl Bradford described AAGWA as a meeting place where African American women could “[share] everyday experiences, political concerns, and community ideas with women in similar situations.” African American women have historically been, and still are, one of the most underrepresented groups in society and the LGBT+ community. When establishing the organization, members of AAGWA voted to use the word ‘Gay’ instead of ‘Lesbian’ to appeal to a wider audience as “most of the women in the organization felt that ‘Gay’ was less threatening than ‘Lesbian’ or ‘dyke.’” A copy of the AAGWA Gayzette from October 1995 — published by Jaynett Wilkins Associates — that now resides in Lambda Archives gives great insight into the discourse of AAGWA. The October 1985 edition of the AAGWA Gayzette examines butch Lesbian stereotypes, provided relationship advice focused on introspection and healthy communication, and published poetry written by local LGBT Women of Color that celebrates the Black identity and directly confronts societal racist ideologies.
In the poem “On Being Black,” published in the newsletter, Jaynette Wilkins writes: “Being Black is not a disease, but you often have to prove yourself as a person who has a future and a need to be treated like others, whether you are illiterate or have a degree.” In a 1996 interview with Teresa Hernandez for Gay & Lesbian Times, Tameka McGlawn stated that the underrepresentation of African American women in local LGBTQ organizations, leadership, services, and media directly contributed to Black women in our community feeling isolated, uncomfortable, and unwelcome to the point that she would avoid the Hillcrest area. Racism, anti-Blackness, and misogyny are not issues restricted to heterosexuals; there have been and continue to be LGBTQ racists and misogynists. In a community supposedly built on equality and pride, LGBTQ Black women have and continue to face the highest degree of discrimination and harm. To combat this, AAGWA’s organizational framework of honesty, confidentiality, reliability, fairness, and respect for individuals served to uplift African American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans women through empowerment and shared experience.
Throughout their existence, AAGWA organized and was involved in extensive Black LGBTQ film programming for the community. Starting in 1996, AAGWA, the Lesbian and Gay Historical Society of San Diego (Lambda Archives of San Diego today), and Karibu (African American gay, bisexual, and transgender HIV support organization) presented the first Marlon Riggs Film Festival at Diversionary Playhouse. They screened “Black Is… Black Ain’t” (1994) and “Anthem” (1991) and featured special exhibits at the Historical Society. Marlon Riggs (1957-1994) was a Black Gay filmmaker whose work examines Black Gay men’s experiences and unique positionality — most notably the documentary “Tongue Untied” (1989) — using a collage of poetry, performance, dance, song, and moving image. “Black Is… Black Ain’t,” an 87-minute documentary, was Riggs’ final film before passing from AIDS complications at the age of 37, exploring Black experience through the backdrop of Creole cooking. “Anthem,” a 9-minute short, is a defiant and poetic ode to the erotic pleasure and sensuality of being Black and Gay.
AAGWA went on to organize their first women’s history month film festival in 1997, however no information is available on the films they screened. At their second film festival in 1998, they screened “The Potluck and the Passion” (dir. Cheryl Dunye, 1993), “Bird in the Hand” (dir. Catherine Gund, Melanie Nelson, 1992), “Maya” (dir. Catherine Benedek, 1992), and “Badass Super Momma” (dir. Etang Inyang, 1996) at The Center. “The Potluck and the Passion” explores racial, sexual, and social politics at a Lesbian potluck. “Bird in the Hand” portrays a jealous and abusive triangle of women. “Maya” tells the story of a single 30-year-old woman who falls in love with a dance instructor, Sacha. “Badass Super Momma” pays homage to and investigates Pam Grier’s blaxploitation films. AAGWA’s third and final film festival was in 1998 where they screened “Lady Day” (dir. Matthew Seig, 1990), “Cruel” (dir. Desi del Valle, 1994), and “Girl Talk” (dir, Judith Cobb, 1998). “Lady Day” is a documentary about Billie Holiday, a prolific Black Bisexual singer. “Cruel” is about a breakup between a Latina woman and white woman. “Girl Talk” is a short about a woman who calls a Lesbian phone sex line. These assortments of films center Lesbian, Bisexual, and Queer women’s experiences and storytelling with an emphasis on Black women. AAGWA’s deliberate choices to highlight indie, women-directed films about Black, Latina, and white LBQ women reflects their commitment to core values of unity and empowerment in ways that challenge the status quo.
In a 1996 article, Cheryl Bradford, co-founder of AAGWA, said, “[AAGWA] is the first African American women’s organization that is Lesbian or Gay.” Within a larger trajectory of Black/African-American LGBTQ organizations in San Diego, AAGWA is unique in its gender specificity. After the dissolution of Lesbians and Gays of African Descent United (LAGADU) due to founder M. “Marti” Corrinne Mackey’s passing in 1992, AAGWA along with Friends Unlimited, Karibu, World Beats Center, Spectrum, Shades of Color, Project Unity, and the Imani Worship Center emerged. The shift from an all-gender Black LGBTQ organization with LAGADU to gender specific groups, AAGWA and Karibu (HIV/AIDS support group for Black Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender men), reflects the desire for support and services that address the unique needs and experiences of Black LGBTQ women and GBTQ men specifically, rather than under one organization. However, after the disbandment of AAGWA sometime in 2000, the emergence of Black LGBTQ organizations such as Ebony Pride shifted the pendulum back to an all-gender emphasis. The oscillation between centralization and decentralization as it pertains to intersections of Blackness and LGBTQ identity is an ongoing struggle and experiment. They offer different strengths and weaknesses in structure and dynamic between community members.
While community members’ needs and wants are evolving, a consistent element has remained the same between these groups: solidarity and connection to other local organizations, especially Black, Indigenous, POC-led groups. AAGWA’s collaborations with Karibu, Nations of the Four Directions, Daraja, APICAP, Glow, Imani Worship Center, Spectrum, etc. follows a lineage of BIPOC networks of support and solidarity formed in part to counteract the racist hostility and harm that white LGBTQ spaces harbored (such as The Center) and homophobia and transphobia in some Black-specific spaces. Collaboration and mutual support are key for working against fragmentation and intra-community harm toward the betterment of and liberation of the most oppressed members of the LGBTQ community.
For more information about current Black LGBTQIA+ community resources:
San Diego Black LGBTQ Coalition
The Gender Phluid Collective
BlacQ Space at San Diego State University (SDSU)
SD Black Queer Housing