For decades we’ve celebrated figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. And for good reason—these African American trailblazers have left an indelible mark on America.
Often overlooked, though, are the contributions of Black LGBTQ Americans, whose struggle for equality, respect, and full participation in society continues to this day.
Here are 7 Black LGBTQ leaders, activists, and pioneers whose lives and work helped move the needle toward greater equality for queer people everywhere.
A leader in the civil rights and LGBT movements, Bayard Rustin lived openly as a gay man unapologetically, despite being publicly outed and shunned by civil-rights leaders for his sexual orientation.
Rustin was a principal organizer of the March on Washington and advocated for non-violent civil disobedience in the tradition of MLK Jr. In the 1980s Rustin fought for LGBT rights and spoke out on behalf of the New York State’s Gay Rights Bill with a controversially titled speech, “The Gays Are the New N***ers.”
In 2015, Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, accepted the first Bayard Rustin Trailblazer Award at Logo Trailblazers Honors, the only televised LGBTQ awards ceremony in the US.
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” –Bayard Rustin
One of the most recognizable faces of the queer community, RuPaul Andre Charles (who goes simply by RuPaul) got his start in the New York club scene in the 90s. He gained international acclaim in 1993 with the release of the single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” part of his debut studio album.
Today RuPaul is one of the most celebrated and commercially successful drag queens in the US. He’s also an actor, model, singer/songwriter, television personality, and author. Since 2009 he has produced and hosted the Primetime Emmy Award-winning reality competition series, RuPaul’s Drag Race.
RuPaul’s playful style and witty charm have made him one of the most influential figures in bringing drag into the mainstream.
“You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.” –RuPaul
A commanding orator and revered author and activist, James Baldwin came to personify the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual revival of African American literature, music, theater, dance, art, fashion, and politics.
He stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. during the reverend’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, and he famously took on the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. in a 1955 debate about race in America that still resonates to this day.
Baldwin is known for his essays on the Black experience in America and for grappling with the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. His novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” is credited for its empathic presentation of homosexuality and bisexuality, despite criticisms of the book at the time of its release.
On being gay in America, Baldwin said:
“You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”
Long before Twitter was a thing, Audre Lorde created the best would-be bio, describing herself as a “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior.”
Her literary works and poetry explored civil rights, the Black experience in America, and issues of racism in feminist thought. She advocated for those left out of the mainstream feminist movement, including queer Black women.
Among her most notable works are “Coal” (1976), “The Black Unicorn” (1978), and “The Cancer Journals” (1980).
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” –Audre Lorde
Marsha P. Johnson
An outspoken sex worker, drag performer, and transgender rights activist, Marsha P. Johnson was a vanguard of New York City’s LGBTQ community.
Johnson was a fixture of the Stonewall Inn during its heyday. After the Stonewall riots of 1969, she co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to help street youth and transgender youth, who were often overlooked by other organizations. STAR became the first LGBT youth center in North America.
“As long as my people don’t have their rights across America, there’s no reason for celebration.” –Marsha P. Johnson
The first Black, openly transgender woman to be elected to public office in the US, Andrea Jenkins is giving politics a much-needed makeover. Also a writer, poet, and performance artist, Jenkins made headlines last year when she sang “Amazing Grace” at a press conference in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Jenkins lives just two blocks from the site where George Floyd died and currently serves as vice president of the city council in Minneapolis—a city once again thrust into the spotlight this month for the police killing of Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black man.
Jenkins told the New York Times last year:
“The problems that led to George Floyd being murdered have been present in Minneapolis, in Minnesota, in the United States of America, for a very, very long time. Since the beginning of this country.”
One of the first openly gay comedians in the US, Loretta Mary Aiken, better known by her stage name “Moms Mabley,” began her career in theater in the 1920s. She later became a veteran entertainer of the Black vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit.”
One of 16 children, Mabley had a tumultuous childhood. At age 14 she ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, to join a vaudeville-style minstrel as a singer and entertainer.
“Moms”—her granny-like character with a hankering for younger men—was a non-threatening persona that allowed Mabley to address off-limits topics like racism and sexuality.
“If you don’t want your children to know the truth about life don’t send ‘em to the theater to see Moms, cause I’m gonna tell them THE TRUTH, hear?” –Moms Mabley
Want to hear more about Black LGBTQ activists, artists, and political leaders? Subscribe to DCP’s Black-hosted podcasts, covering issues affecting people of the color and the Black community. Start with Woke AF , a podcast that explores the many facets of what it means to be "woke" in our modern life, hosted by LGBTQ rights activist Danielle Moodie.
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