11 Black LGBTQ+ Historical Figures You Should Know
We all know about James Baldwin and Little Richard, but it is time to expand our horizons.
by Ricky Riley
June 29, 2018 at 2:26 pm
As this year's Pride month kicks off during such turbulent times, it's important to acknowledge the changemakers who've played critical roles within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community.
We are blessed to live at a time when prominent figures like Janelle Monáe, Janet Mock, RuPaul, Laverne Cox and others have spoken up for those who cannot. But such has not always been the case. History has remembered the greats like James Baldwin, Little Richard, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and others, but here are 11 Black LGBTQ+ figures with whom you might not be familiar.
1. Bruce Nugent (July 2, 1906 – May 27, 1987)
2. Alvin Ailey (Jan. 5, 1931 – Dec. 1, 1989)
The famed choreographer and dancer was a contemporary of Maya Angelou and Harry Belafonte and founded the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Company which highlights the black experience through dance. Ailey was gay and a victim of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – Oct. 9, 1973)
Before there was Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnny Cash, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The gospel singer popularized the use of the electric guitar as early as the 1930s while big bands were still bopping. Her "electric blues" would eventually become rock 'n' roll. According to historian Gayle Wald, after a failed marriage, she met singer Marie Knight in 1946 and had a secret relationship.
4. Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – Sept. 26, 1937)
Smith was a bisexual icon who also helped create pop music in America. As an early jazz and blues recording artist, Smith would often tell the stories of working-class black folks in her music. She often discussed female sexuality in her music despite the apparent pushback.
5. Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – Aug. 24, 1987)
Bayard Rustin was a prominent socialist activist in the civil rights movement who advocated for racial equality, LGBT rights and women's rights. He was one of the organizers of the March on Washington and the first Freedom Ride called the "Journey of Reconciliation."
Many of the ideals Martin Luther King Jr. used, Rustin learned from leaders of Gandhi's nonviolent movement. He was also a supporter of Ghana and Nigeria's liberation. By the end of his life, he lived openly as a gay man but never stopped fighting for those who needed him.
6. Moms Mabley (March 19, 1894 – May 23, 1975)
Comedienne and actress Jackie "Moms" Mabley was the first woman comic to perform at the Apollo. At 27, she came out as a lesbian making her the first comic to be openly gay in the 1920s-30s. Her raunchy jokes commenting on race and women's lives inspired future comedy legends like Whoopi Goldberg.
7. Tracey Norman (1951-)
The modeling world has never honestly been an accepting place, but in the 1970s it was far from where it is now. Norman, who is the first trans model to make it big, hid her gender for almost 15 years working as a model. She appeared in Essence, Vogue Italia and Harper's Bazaar India, but her appearance on a Clairol package changed everything.
8. Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886 - 1954)
Anderson lived as a woman for 60 years unbothered until 1945 when the State of California accused her of lying about her gender on the marriage license of her second marriage. She did not go to jail because of her status as a socialite, but she did receive 10 years of probation. Historians believe she was the earliest known black transgendered person in the country.
9. Sir Lady Java (Aug. 20, 1943 -)
As a popular nightclub dancer and attraction, trans rights activist Lady Java teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fight 1960s No. 9 rule in Los Angeles, California that made it illegal to “impersonate by means of costume or dress a person of the opposite sex.” She led countless protests and rallies bringing the trans community out of the shadows.
10. Marsha P. Johnson (Aug. 24, 1945 - July 6, 1992)
The legendary trans activist Marsha P. Johnson has reentered the public consciousness because of new documentaries and films about the Stonewall uprising. Johnson participated in many protests and sit-ins demanding equality for LGBT people. She helped found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Gay Liberation Front, and was an AIDS activist working with ACT UP.
11. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (Oct. 25, 1940 -)
Miss Major is a longtime activist fighting for trans and intersex people since the Stonewall uprising in the late 1960s. The struggle to fight for equality has led to stints of homelessness and periods where she had to turn to sex work. This part of her life led her to fight for sex workers and against violence aimed at trans women. Now, Miss Major serves as the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project.
Many of the people listed above fought for their rights as queer people and their rights as black people in American society. A month is never enough time to pay tribute to the giants who came before us.