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Queering the borders: Lorraine Hansberry’s 1957 Letters to The Ladder
Unformatted Document Text:  Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 16 have times among middle-class lesbian groups, more often those groups tended to be made up exclusively of women who earned their livings in professions as teachers, librarians, or social workers.” 49 Hansberry’s second and more fully elaborated point in the May letter involves a thoughtful reflection on this debate that includes both a qualified endorsement of the assimilationist position and an engaging political explication of what “acceptable” dress and behavior mean for lesbians and other minorities. Thus while several writers, such as Neil Miller and Joan Nestle have cited this passage from Hansberry’s letter as evidence that she disapproved of butche/femme role-playing and advocated assimilationist and conformist politics, 50 a closer reading of the letter in the context of her other work offers a different interpretation. Hansberry begins her discussion on dress by disclaiming the moral high ground for her position by stating: “Rightly or wrongly (in view of some of the thought -provoking discussions I have seen elsewhere in another homosexual publication) I could not help but be encouraged and relieved” by the DOB policy. Hansberry then continues her equivocation by outing herself as “a Negro” and quickly dispatching the “shallowness” of lecturing ones “fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social group.” 51 She the proceeds to offer an the argument against assimilation by drawing an analogy to racism: “The most splendid argument is simple and to the point, Ralph Bunche, with all his clean fingernails, degrees, and of course undeniable service to the human race, could still be insulted, denied a hotel room or meal in many parts of the country. (Not to mention the possibility of being lynched on a lonely Georgia road for perhaps having demanded a glass of water in the wrong place).” 52 This statement reflects not just a counter-assimilationist argument, but also Hansberry’s recognition of larger structures underlying anti-gay oppression that would not be obviated by mere or 48 Davis and Kennedy, 428. 49 Faderman, 178. 50 See Joan Nestle, “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950s,” in Lesbian Culture: An Anthology, ed. Julia Penelope and Susan Wolfe (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1993), and Neil Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1995). 51 Lorraine Hansberry, May 1957, 27.

Authors: Lipari, Lisbeth.
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Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 16
have times among middle-class lesbian groups, more often those groups tended to be made up
exclusively of women who earned their livings in professions as teachers, librarians, or social workers.”
49
Hansberry’s second and more fully elaborated point in the May letter involves a thoughtful
reflection on this debate that includes both a qualified endorsement of the assimilationist position and an
engaging political explication of what “acceptable” dress and behavior mean for lesbians and other
minorities. Thus while several writers, such as Neil Miller and Joan Nestle have cited this passage from
Hansberry’s letter as evidence that she disapproved of butche/femme role-playing and advocated
assimilationist and conformist politics,
50
a closer reading of the letter in the context of her other work
offers a different interpretation.
Hansberry begins her discussion on dress by disclaiming the moral high ground for her position
by stating: “Rightly or wrongly (in view of some of the thought -provoking discussions I have seen
elsewhere in another homosexual publication) I could not help but be encouraged and relieved” by the
DOB policy. Hansberry then continues her equivocation by outing herself as “a Negro” and quickly
dispatching the “shallowness” of lecturing ones “fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant
social group.”
51
She the proceeds to offer an the argument against assimilation by drawing an analogy to
racism:
“The most splendid argument is simple and to the point, Ralph Bunche, with all his clean
fingernails, degrees, and of course undeniable service to the human race, could still be insulted,
denied a hotel room or meal in many parts of the country. (Not to mention the possibility of
being lynched on a lonely Georgia road for perhaps having demanded a glass of water in the
wrong place).”
52
This statement reflects not just a counter-assimilationist argument, but also Hansberry’s
recognition of larger structures underlying anti-gay oppression that would not be obviated by mere or
48
Davis and Kennedy, 428.
49
Faderman, 178.
50
See Joan Nestle, “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950s,” in Lesbian Culture: An Anthology,
ed. Julia Penelope and Susan Wolfe (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1993), and Neil Miller, Out of the Past:
Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present
(New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
51
Lorraine Hansberry, May 1957, 27.


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