Herstory is Queer: 24 women to be celebrated during women's history month
March 18, 2016 at 3:09 am
This month of March has been influential in placing women’s contributions in history to the forefront of our minds. As #GirlPower continues to reign supreme during Women’s History Month it was only fitting that we pay homage to some women who have been influential in making LGBTQ identities more visible, and ought to be honored and celebrated.
1. Alice Dunbar Nelson
Writer, poet, and activist, Alice Dunbar Nelson was stringent in her devotion to women’s rights in the lengths she went to speak out about being black and a woman during the Harlem Renaissance era. As a writer, she co-authored and published several publications that gave insight into the black experience despite her being robbed of the credit and/or compensation for her work. It was Nelson’s personal journals and diaries, that were later published which gave greater sustenance to understanding her own psyche as a black woman. As one of the few documents of black female life during that time, Violets and Other Tales explored Nelson’s interaction with elements like racism, education, sexuality, health, and more factors that make up a full life during a time in which she was treated as less than human.
2. Jackie “Moms” Mabley
“Moms” Mabley born Loretta Mary Aiken was once regarded as the funniest woman in the world. Mabley was one of the most successful entertainers of the Chitlin’ Circuit and her success garnered her roles in movies, televisions, and clubs. She didn’t actually begin appearing on television until forty years into her career. She was one of the first and most well-known openly lesbian entertainers during her time and was known for tackling topics in her routines that were deemed edgy and controversial.
3. Mabel Hampton
Mabel Hampton was unapologetic about who she was and her devotion to curating women’s stories. She was instrumental in the founding of the Lesbian Herstory Archives which began in 1974, in New York City. The organization documented black and gay life during the 20th century and Hampton also included her 25-year long relationship in the archives as well. In 1979, Hampton marched in the inaugural National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington and was Grand Marshal of the 1985 New York City Lesbian and Gay Pride March. Her life’s work in activism and philanthropy left behind a legacy that is joyfully remembered by those who knew her best.
4. Barbara Jordan
As a lawyer, politician, teacher, and champion during the Civil Rights Movement, Barbara Jordan made history as a FOD(first, only, different) in several different roles in her life. For her acts of service and dutiful commitment in the Texas and United States legislature she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Spingarn Award from the NAACP. In 1966, she was the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate, the first Southern black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first African American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976. Despite her prominent public presence, Jordan kept her private life out of the public eye but, was devoted to her partner of nearly 30 years, Nancy Earl. Jordan passed away in 1996.
5. Ma Rainey
During her musical career, Ma Rainey born Gertrude Pridgett, carried the title “Mother of the Blues” in high regard. Her voice was unmatched during the early 20th century with it’s raspy, powerful tones and “moaning” style. Rainey is respected and remembered for her candid and openly sexual lyrics that chronicled her bisexuality during a time when such an open display was unheard of. She was even rumored to have had an illicit affair with fellow musician and comrade, Bessie Smith. Posthumously, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983.
6. Alice Walker
Alice Walker had no idea that when she began writing at the age of 7, she would go on to become the First African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Color Purple. Since then she has written several more significant novels that have placed her in history as one of the most remarkable authors in American literature. A feminist and an activist, Walker also devotes her time to marching, protesting, and speaking out about several instances of human injustice across the globe.
7. Lorraine Hansberry
Hansberry was well-known for her talent in playwriting and literary work. She made history in 1959 when she became the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, the classic, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry was also an activist and wrote about gay rights, feminism, and homophobia in a lesbian magazine under an unassuming pseudonym. Her sexuality wasn’t revealed until her death in 1965 at the age of 34, due to breast cancer.
8. Angela Davis
Angela Davis is a prolific African-American activist, author, and teacher. She has taken an unfiltered, unapologetic approach to tackling injustice and doing so once landed her on the list of the FBI’s Most Dangerous. For several decades through her collaboration with the Black Panther Party, the Communist Party, and her independent work as an educator, she has lectured and written books regarding feminism, LGBT equality, black liberation, and the prison industrial complex.
9. Pat Parker
Hailing from Houston, Texas, Pat Parker was a poet laureate for people of black and lesbian identities. Her poems were far from the somber soliloquies designed to paint a pretty picture. Other than her sensual love poems, some of her most powerful and radical writings came from anger and demanded that the reader face the homophobia and racism that marginilized queer communities faced. Parker was also an activist and founded the Black Women’s Recovery Council in 1980 and contributed to the formation of the Women’s Press Collective.
10. Barbara Smith
To understand the basis of black feminist thought, the work of Barbara Smith is one of the best resources to start from. She is a lesbian, African-American, socialist, feminist whose critical research has laid the foundation to exploring the intersectionality of black women and feminist thought in the United States. She actively gives lectures and tours across the globe to schools and universities, sharing her thoughts and criticism on several of the issues that surround feminism and blackness. She also has a twin sister, Beverly Smith, who is a black feminist health advocate and activist.
11. Tracey Africa Norman
Prior to her being outed in the magazine and fashion industry, Norman was one of the most prominent faces in the fashion industry and set a precedent for black model representation. She was signed to a top modeling agency and the face of both Avon and Clairol advertisements. It was while working on a shoot for Essence magazine, that her identity was revealed as a transgender woman. Afterwards, she was nearly black-listed from the industry and found it difficult to find work at the level and notoriety she previously had. She went on to become famous in the LGBT dancehall scene. In 2014, Norman graced the cover of Essence magazine and revealed her story as being the first black transgender model in history.
12. bell hooks
bell hooks took on her grandmother’s name as she began work as a social activist and feminist because of her veracity in telling it like it is. hooks is recognized as an important figure in feminist thought due to her extensive scholarly work and powerful lectures on dismembering structural misogyny and oppression in patriarchal, capitalist structures. Her most notable work, Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism is revered as a Feminism 101 sacred text and can be found in women’s studies course syllabi in colleges and universities everywhere.
13. Cheryl Dunye
Award-winning, Liberian filmmaker, Cheryl Dunye hasn’t made a name for herself by rubbing shoulders among the elite Hollywood crowd. Her mission is to tell the story, no matter what and her work proves just that by providing visibility to underrepresented identities. Her films “Black and Blue” and “Watermelon Woman” explore the complexities of black, lesbian, and trans-identified communities.
14. Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was never afraid of sharing who she was and the experiences she encountered with having multiple marginalized identities. As an adolescent, she used poetry and words as a way to tackle the issues she had with communication. Her gift of writing led to the self proclaimed “black lesbian feminist socialist” writing her autobiography Zami: New Spelling of My Name and in doing so, she blazed a trail of radical black feminist empowerment as she told the story of how she came to be. Her books and poetry are remembered and revered for their emotional prowess and their poignancy of outrage at the injustice and oppression she faced. She passed away after losing a battle with cancer in 1992.
15. E. Denise Simmons
E. Denise Simmons is a woman of integrity. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, she made history in 2008 when she unanimously became the first openly lesbian African-American mayor in the United States. Prior to her appointment she worked in the city of Cambridge as Executive Director for the Civic Unity Committee. As she did in her previous role, Simmons maintained an open door policy for anyone to speak to her about matters that were concerning them and had open meetings with citizens in Cambridge regularly. She ran for state senate in 2010 and fell short, but still considered the opportunity a winning experience. Simmons has been re-elected as Mayor of Cambridge eight times and currently holds the title today.
16. Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a leader of the Stonewall Riots that began as a standoff movement against police surveillance and harassment of New York’s LGBT community in the 1960’s. As a black trans activist, she also fulfilled her life’s work to mentoring, helping, and providing housing to LGBT youth, founding organizations to serve trans communities, and engage in AIDS activism. Her life ended tragically as her body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. Despite the evidence revealing foul play may have been involved, her death was ruled a suicide and was not investigated further. She is remembered as a revolutionary woman and a documentary revealing her activist work is available for free online.
17. Margaret Sloan Hunter (pictured left with her daughter)
Margaret Sloan-Hunter’s activist work began at an early age. During her teenage years she joined the Congress of Racial Equality and organized campaigns that addressed issues of poverty in the African American community in Chicago. At the age of 17 she founded the Junior Catholic Inter-racial Council which brought students together to work on issues surrounding racism and later went on to work alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson. She lent her editorial skills to Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine, as one of the publications’ earliest editors and traveled the globe with Steinem lecturing on racism and sexism. Hunter is well-known for her founding of the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973. Her legacy was left behind in her many literary works, poems, and devotion to fighting for causes against sexism and racism.
18. Robin Roberts
Robin Roberts is a testament of strength and has some serious #BlackGirlMagic. She has been broadcasted across American television screens since 1990 as a correspondent on ESPN’s SportsCenter and since 2005 has made mornings all the more better as a co-anchor on Good Morning America. Roberts has gained an audience who roots for her on and off the screen because of her vibrant energy and positive spirit. She has also shown true resilience through her battles with breast cancer and bone marrow disease. Roberts revealed her sexuality and relationship with girlfriend, Amber Laign in 2013 and in 2015 was named an LGBT icon by Equality Forum.
19. Angeline Jackson
Angeline Jackson has received international attention for her work in bringing awareness to the discrimination, stigma, and violence suffered by LGBT citizens in her home country of Jamaica. After being targeted, kidnapped, held at gunpoint, and assaulted in a hate crime because of her lesbian identity, Jackson founded the Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, an organization that advocates on behalf of lesbian and bisexual women and transgender Jamaicans that seek justice for crimes committed against them. During a visit to Jamaica, President Obama made note of Jackson’s contributions to end the anti-gay crime laws and prejudices that run rampant in the country during a speech he delivered in 2015. She encourages LGBT individuals to “be their own activists” and embrace the courage to make change happen through their own individual efforts.
20. Darlene Garner
Darlene Onita Garner is a beacon of hope for many in the LGBT community that struggle with affirming their sexuality without losing their religion. Garner speaks regularly on LGBT religious issues and is the co-founder of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays as an LGBT activist and a Protestant Christian minister. She and her now-wife, Candy Holmes broke ground in 2010, becoming one of the first first same-sex couples to apply for a marriage license and be wed in the District of Columbia.
21. Wanda Sykes
Most recently, you may have seen Sykes providing commentary on the popular ABC series, Black-ish and you can say she followed in the footsteps of Moms Mabley to become one of the funniest women in American today. Sykes made history as the first openly LGBT and African American woman entertainer to headline the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2009. The Emmy award winning writer and actress came out in 2008 after marrying her wife and since then has been very vocal about marriage equality and LGBT rights. In recognition of her work, Sykes was awarded a GLAAD award in 2010.
22. CeCe McConald
Trans activist CeCe McDonald is the definition of a survivor. In June 2011, McDonald was attacked by a man shouting offensive slurs at she and her friends outside of a bar in Minneapolis. The attacker threw a glass bottle at McDonald that left a gash in her face and in self-defense she stabbed her attacker with a pair of scissors resulting in a fatal injury. McDonald was arrested and convicted of second degree manslaughter and set to carry out her 41 months sentence in a male prison. It was then that the #FreeCeCe campaign began to flood McDonald with messages of support and address the lack of care and accommodations for LGBT identified persons in the criminal justice system. Today, at the age of 27 years old, McDonald is a free woman and working to piece together the pieces of her life. A documentary about her life, produced by transgender actress, Laverne Cox is set to release this year.
23. Laverne Cox
This woman has made huge strides in addressing the invisibility and visibility of trans lives in the main stream media and entertainment industry. While Laverne Cox is most known for her breakthrough role as Sophia on Netflix’s, Orange Is The New Black, her resume’ proves that she has been in the game for a while. She made history becoming the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in 2014 and was the first transgender woman to grace the cover of TIME magazine. With her new found presence, Cox has wasted no time in speaking out about trans discrimination and calling to address those prejudices in print and in speaking engagements.
24. Janet Mock
Janet Mock is a bestselling author, LGBT activist, and transgender woman. Her memoir, Redefining Realness, debuted at #19 on the New York Times bestsellers list. She combines her author and advocate roles to incite dialogue with her followers on social media and as a contributing editor for Marie Claire. She pioneered the #girlslikeus campaign, a movement encouraging trans women to live visibly.