Celebrating Black LGBT+ Icons – for LGBT+ History Month in the UK (and Black History Month in the US)

In the UK, February is LGBT+ history month, whilst in the US, it is black history month. To honour both, I wanted to feature a black LGBT+ icon every day, writing about their achievements and amplifying their ideas and voices.

I found real pleasure in researching and writing about these icons. Throughout school I was never taught LGBT+ history, so it has been really exciting this month learning about these wonderfully inspiring people. Growing up, the LGBT+ media available to me gave a very skewed vision of who could and couldn’t be LGBT+. This project however has retaught me that LGBT+ people come from all walks of life.

One of the first observations a person will make of a new person is their ethnicity. Even for me, my race trumps my sexuality. I have the privilege of being able to hide my sexuality, something I cannot do with my race or gender. Therefore, my gender and race will have a stronger influence on my external experience. This may be one of the reasons why people of colour are rarely remembered for being LGBT+. But it is important to fully be represented and that’s why as a person of colour this project was particularly significant to me.

I hope you find these people as inspiring as I did.

(Further comment by author)

Hanita Gill

February 2019

  “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” ― Audre Lorde

Looking at diversity and inclusion, every aspect of a person’s identity will have an affect their experiences. Different oppressive institutions (such as racism, classism, ableism etc.) all interconnect in society and therefore cannot be looked at separately. They are also interwoven together in an individual, meaning that each person will have a unique set of experiences and challenges. The practise of attempting to understand the impact of these different systems is called intersectionality. Those who are at the intersect of many different oppressive forces tend to be the most marginalised in society.

Looking towards them and listening to and amplifying their voices is therefore an important practise, if we are wanting to move towards a more inclusive and fair society.

 “Justice is indivisible. You can’t decide who gets civil rights and who doesn’t.” – Angela Davis

February is LGBT+ history month in the UK, whilst in the US, it is black history month. To honour both, I have compiled list of 20 black LGBT+ icons from the last century. All these people have spoken up about issues to do with social justice and deserve to be highlighted and heard.

 I will keep writing about these intersections as a writer and a teacher, as a black woman, as a bad feminist, until I no longer feel like what I want is impossible. I no longer want to believe that these problems are too complex for us to make sense of them.” – Roxanne Gay

Hanita Gill

January 2019

  

 

CELEBRATING BLACK LGBT+ ICONS

1. Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975)

“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Born in America, Josephine grew up performing at a young age. She moved to France and became the first person of colour to become a worldwide entertainer. When she came back to the USA she was shocked by the racism she encountered. As a result, she refused to perform for segregated venues and fought for integrated audiences. During the Second World War, she became a French resistance agent and smuggled secret messages in her sheet music and underwear.

She was well known for her activism and during Martin Luther’s famous March on Washington she was the only woman slated to speak that day. During her life she had relationships with both men and women. When she later died, she was honoured by the French government with a 21-gun salute and became the first American woman buried in France with military honours.

 

2. Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)

“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 is best known as the main organiser for the 1963 March on Washington and an influential advisor to Martin Luther King, introducing him to non-violent protest. He was an advisor to various civil rights leaders of the time, but due to his sexuality was forced to work behind the scenes. In 1942 he was arrested for sitting in the “white” section of a segregated bus. He was imprisoned between 1944-1946 after declaring himself a pacifist and refusing induction in the military. After this he was arrested frequently for protesting British rule in India and Africa.

A tireless campaigner and activist, Bayard throughout his life was repeatedly arrested for civil disobedience and homosexuality. In later life he became a writer and was involved in politics. He never stopped fearlessly fighting for equality and lived his life as an openly gay man.

 

3. Alvin Ailey (1931 – 1989)

I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not important. What is important is the quality of our work.”

Alvin was an American choreographer and activist, famous for his work including African-Americans into 20th century concert dance. He founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 after being disappointed with the dance techniques available in New York at the time. His company was interracial which at the time was unique. He also encouraged input from the dancers, insisting their own personal style was infused in the dance, which created a shift in concert dance. The shows he created were dynamic and vibrant, taking inspiration from a variety of dance techniques from ballet, jazz and African dance techniques. This became his signature style. During his life he was closeted about his sexuality, but it influenced his art, as he used lavish costumes much appreciated by the gay community at the time, as well as featuring sensual dances between same-sex dancers.

He received the Kennedy Honours in 1988 and was post humorously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2014.

 

4. James Baldwin (1924-1987)

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

In his twenties he moved to Paris to after being disgusted by the racism in America. However, after being moved by a picture Dorothy Counts (one of the first black students admitted to Harry Harding High School after desegregation) in 1957 he returned to America to write a report on what was happening in the South.  He interviewed many people (including Martin Luther) and became known as a spokesperson and celebrity noted for championing the cause of black Americans. The popularity of his books as well as his fame made him a very influential figure in the civil rights movement. He later became a voice for the emerging gay rights movement. James Baldwin was a social critic and writer, whose essays explored the effect of sexuality, race and class on individuals in the West.

 

5. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1972)

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences”.

“As a Black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage, there was usually some part of me guaranteed to offend everybody’s comfortable prejudices of who I should be.”

Audre’s mother was light-skinned, able to “pass” for Spanish and very proud of the fact. Her daughters dark skin was not something she viewed as desirable, which influenced Audre’s self-esteem in her early years. In 1954 she spent a year in Mexico which she found eye-opening. Here, she experienced a place where her race was not something to be ashamed of. With this new confidence she returned to America, and from then on used her art and voice as a platform for intersectional advocacy. She became a professor and fought for a black studies department at City University of New York. She also worked at and founded various nonprofit institutions working for women’s rights. Whilst identifying as a feminist, she nevertheless often criticised the movement for its treatment of women of colour. She was an outspoken leader, remembered for giving those often marginalised and ignored a voice.

 

6. June Jordan (1936-2002)

“Bisexuality means I am free and I am as likely to want to love a woman as I am likely to want to love a man, and what about that? Isn’t that what freedom implies? “If you are free, you are not predictable, and you are not controllable.”

June credits her father as passing on his love of literature to her. After high school she joined Barnard College where she felt increasingly disconnected as none of the assigned texts reflected her experience or struggles and eventually dropped out. This, along with her father’s influence, led her to becoming a teacher, writer and political activist.

Her work focused on critiquing labels regarding topics such as “race, class, sexuality, capitalism, single motherhood, and liberation struggles across the globe.” Her plays, essays and poems offered insights that were instructive and informative and as a result she is one of the most widely published and acclaimed African American writers of her generation.

 

7. Angela Davis (January 1944 – )

“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”

“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”

Angela grew up in Birmingham, Alabama with segregation and by the time she was a teenager was actively involved with the civil rights movement in America. She organised interracial study groups, which ended up being broken up by police.

She is known for being outspoken and has been linked to the Black Panther party during the Civil Rights movement and with the Communist Party USA. As both groups were considered dangerous, she was put on an FBI watch list during this time. Whilst a professor at UCLA, she was fired (allegedly for her involvement with these institutions) and responded by bringing a legal case against them.

She is openly critical of current US prison-industrial complexes which she argues act as a form of legalised slavery and fights for prison reform and an end to police brutality. Angela is a professor, author and political activist to this day.

 

8. Karamo Brown (1980 – )

In our country, being from immigrant parents, growing up black in the South, coming out at 16 years old, being a teen parent… you would assume that my life would amount to nothing. And here I stand today. So, if I can do it… you can, too!”

 Karamo Brown is reality show personality, activist and television host. He is well known as the psychotherapist on the US QueerEye.

Karamo worked as a social worker for nearly a decade. In 2004 he started in The Real World: Philadelphia and became the first openly gay black man on reality TV. He has done work for CNN, HuffPost, The Young Turks and various other media organisations.

A graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, he took part in March for our Lives demonstration in DC and is an activist in the Never Again MSDmovement, an organisation that advocates for new increased gun safety legislation following a school shooting.

He co-founded 6in10.org, an organisation to raise awareness and reduce stigma of HIV and AIDS in the black community, as well as provide mental health support. He is also a youth councillor at an LGBT Center in Los Angeles and partnered with various organisations promoting better health and wellness. In 2018 he won the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award for his work.

 

9. Marsha P. Johnson (August 1944 – 1992)

“How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together?”

The Stonewall riots of 1969 are famously known as being the catalyst of the modern-day LGBT+ rights movements. Today the charity of the same name campaigns for LGBT+ people across Britain. One of the prominent protestors involved in the original protests was Marsha.

After Stonewall, Marsha became an advocate for those most vulnerable and marginalized. She co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, with Sylvia Rivera. She made a point to raise the voices of those in the movement who were often ignored, including homeless LGBT+ teens and trans women of colour. She was tragically murdered in 1992, but her legacy lives on.

 

10. Sylvester (1947 – 1988)

“I realise that gay people have put me on a pedestal and I love it. After all, of all the oppressed minorities, they just have to be the most oppressed. They have all the hassles of finding something or someone to identify with – and they chose me.”

Sylvester was a singer and HIV/AIDS activist. He wore male and female clothes even when cross dressing and openly gay when both were illegal and when he graduated high school at the age of 21 and wore drag to his graduation. Through the 60s, 70s and 80s he built up a singing career where he was particularly popular in LGBT+ communities.

After contracting HIV, he sought to highlight the impact AIDS was having on the African-American community. He died at 44 and left all future royalties to two HIV/AIDS charities. In 2005 he was instated into the Dance Music Hall of Fame and since his death he has been the subject of many documentaries, biographies and even a musical. He was seen as a spokesperson for the LGBT+ community.

 

11. Linda Bellos (1950 – ) Lesbian

“From an early age I thought that I was equal to other human beings. It was later in life that I recognised the systems of discrimination that exist and that I needed to understand how and why they worked so they could be challenged and overcome.”

Linda Bellos is a former Labour councillor and political activist. She has accomplished many firsts, including introducing black history month in the UK, while chair of the London Strategic Policy Unit. She influenced the Equality Act 2010, which in the UK legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society. She currently works on equality and diversity within the British Army and Metropolitan Police force.

In 2006, she was honoured with an OBE in the Queens New Year’s Honours List for her work on diversity.

 

12. RuPaul Andre Charles (1960 – )

“We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”

Most famous for the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul is the most commercially successful drag queen in the United States. The show has received three Primetime Emmy Awards and RuPaul was named in the 2017 Times 100 list of most influential people in the world.

RuPaul became the first drag queen to be the face of a major cosmetics campaign in 1994 after working for MAC cosmetics which raised money for Mac AIDS fund. RuPaul has not always been the best advocate for the transgender community but has taken steps towards being a better ally.

RuPaul is known to have an indifference towards pronouns, saying: “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.” A lot of their work challenges or mocks gender assumptions, and RuPaul themselves describes drag as political as it challenges the status quo.

 

13. Laverne Cox (May 1972 – )

“Each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I want to encourage each and everyone of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and for each other.”

Most famous for starring in Orange is the New Black, she is considered a trailblazer in the transgender community and won numerous awards for spreading awareness and her activism. She is the first openly transgender person to be nominated in the acting category for a Primetime Emmy, to win a Daytime Emmy as an Executive Producer, to appear on the cover of Time and Cosmopolitan magazine and to have a wax figure at Madam Tussauds. She is also the first African-American transgender person to produce and star in her own TV show (TRANSform me).

She and fellow trans woman Carmen Carrera appeared as guests on Katie Couric’s show. When asked about genital reconstruction, she responded: “I do feel there is a preoccupation with that. The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

 

14. Roxanne Gay (Oct 1974 – )

“To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

Roxanne Gay is an American writer, editor, public speak and professor. Her writings analyse and deconstruct institutions such sexism and racism through the lens of her personal experience as a bisexual woman of colour, as well as through the lens of stigma she faces surrounding her weight. Her collection of essays called “Bad Feminist” and published in 2014, became a New York Times Best Seller in 2014. As a social commentator she is a US columnist for the Guardian. She is currently a visiting professor for Yale University and film writer.

 

15. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (1974 – )

“You sometimes see our blackness and other people of colour before you even know or understand our sexual orientation. We’re not just LGBT and we’re not just black people.”

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, affectionately known as Lady Phyll (due to her publicly refusing an MBE in the 2016 New Year honours) is a lesbian black feminist activist. She has won numerous awards and recognition from her activism work.

She is a trustee of Stonewall as well as on the Trade Union Congress race relations committee. Most notably she is the co-founder and director of UK Black Pride. This organisation is dedicated to celebrating black LGBT+ culture in the UK, and host networking and social events throughout the year, as well as an annual Black Pride the day after London Pride.

 

16. Bisi Alimi (1975 – )

If you say being gay is not African, you don’t know your history. “

Is a Nigerian public speaker, blog writer, actor and political activist. He gained fame in 2004 when he became the first Nigerian to come out as gay on live television.

Prior to his public outing, Bisi was a HIV advocate after a number of his friends died from AIDS. He became Programme Director of Alliance Rights Nigeria (ARN). In this role he developed and provided sexual health support for those with HIV/AIDS.

After coming out, he became a gay rights activist in Nigeria and led several peaceful protests. However, after the “Anti Same-Sex Bill” in 2006 was passed, and following death threats, he moved to the UK where he continues his activism work. He has won recognition awards for his work with the LGBT+ community.

 

17. Alicia Garza (1981 – ) Queer

“Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter”

Alicia Garza is a civil rights activist, writer and public speaker. She has been a director of many social justice movements and her activism work has won her numerous awards, most notably the Sydney Peace Prize. Garza self-identifies as a queer woman and her spouse is transgender.

In July 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of an unarmed black boy Travon Martin, she posted on Facebook “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter”. This was shared by Patrisse Cullors with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and along with Opal Tometi they co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

18. Nicola Adams (1982 – )

“I have never tried to hide my sexuality, but I have never spoken about it before in the press, either, because I didn’t want it to overshadow everything else. It is an important aspect of who I am, but it doesn’t define me…Once it was out there, I felt I could truly be myself. It was incredibly liberating.”

Nicola is a British boxer and in 2012 became the first woman ever be awarded an Olympic gold medal, after the sport was included in the Olympics for the first time.

Boxing from a young age, Nicola won her first fight at 13. Due to lack of funds she struggled to pursue a boxing career and starred as extras in some British soaps. She eventually secured funding and went on become a 2-time Olympic gold winning medallist.

In 2012 The independent named her the most influential LGBT+ person in Britain. She also became the first female boxer to receive an award from the Boxing Writers Club of Great Britain. In 2013 she was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours, for services to boxing. She is officially Britain’s most successful female boxer ever.

 

19. Zakhele Mbhele (1984 – )

” But my politics are most definitely influenced by being gay. I’m very sensitive around issues of marginalization, discrimination and victimization. I believe that politicians and the government have a roll to play in protecting human rights and therefore are key players in protecting LGBTI individuals.”

He is a member of the Democratic Alliance in the National Assembly and has been a member of the DA since joining student politics at university. At university he also lead an LGBT+ group ACTIVATE for students. After being elected to office in 2014, he became the first openly gay member of parliament in South Africa and the first black openly gay African politician. He is currently the shadow minister for police.

Zakhele argues the being openly gay has helped his career and allowed him to flourish in the DA party and has introduced various LGBT+ friendly bills such as a motion for the South African government to officially support National Coming Out Day.

 

20. Kye Allums (1989 – )

Everyone’s attitude towards trans people is not going to change overnight, and for some they may never change, but I think as long as us trans folks continue to be our true selves, and fight for what we believe in, change will continue to happen whether people are ready for it or not.”

Kye Allums is a basketball player and trans advocate, public speaker and mentor to LGBT youth.  Originally a college player for the women’s basketball team at George Washington University, Kye came out in 2010 and became the first openly trans NCAA Division 1 player. He has spoken openly about how whilst his team mates, coaches and opponents have all been very welcoming of his gender identity, difficult negativity comes from media and the fans.

He also produced “I Am Enough”, a project for LGBTQ people to share and talk about their experiences with each other.

 

Here are some other inspiring black LGBT+ role models:Denise Simmons (1951 – )

“By being a member of a diverse number of communities, I am them and they are me”

She became the first openly lesbian African-American mayor in the United States. She succeeded Kenneth Reeves, who was the first openly gay African-American mayor of the United States.

 

Staceycann chin (1972 – )

“Every day I get better at knowing that it is not a choice to be an activist; rather, it is the only way to hold on to the better parts of my human self. It is the only way I can live and laugh without guilt.”

Poet, performing artist and LGBT+ activist

 

Munroe Bergdorf (1987 – )

“We don’t just need to educate, we need to legislate, legislate against the eradication of our queer spaces both physical and virtual, especially the female and trans ones.”

Transgender model and activist

 

Jussie Smollett (1982 – )

“There’s not one human being on the planet earth who has never felt, at some point, unaccepted. At some point in our lives, we feel like we’re not good enough, but we have to step back and realize that we are.”

Gay actor and activist