This Black History Month reminds us that there has been no end to the fight for equality. The United States has undoubtedly taken strides forward since the Civil Rights Movement, but there is further work to be done. Beyond larger-than-life figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, it is important to remember the others who fought from a place of intersection. LGBTQ civil rights leaders must also be immortalized alongside those icons, because their voices are too often silenced by their difference.
These figures fought for their race’s rights even when their communities shunned them for their sexuality. Their footsteps have been followed by black activists and LGBTQ advocates alike. So, in this month of history and revival, qnotes pays tribute to the black LGBTQ icons who laid the path for generation to come.
Baldwin’s 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” was groundbreaking in its depiction of homosexual relationships. An American expatriate who lived in Paris, he left the prejudices and violence of his native land behind, but they continued to influence his work. Baldwin was not afraid to break barriers and write both beautifully and honestly, producing essays and novels throughout his life. During a trip to the American south in 1957, Baldwin interviewed people in Charlotte and wrote about desegregation and its social tensions.
A controversial figure for her alignment with the Communist Party, Davis was twice a vice presidential candidate on the party’s ticket. She was involved with the Civil Rights Movement in her youth and has been linked to the Black Panther Party, even imprisoned in the 1970s. Davis’ scholarly examinations of the prison-industrial complex and her career as a philosophy professor at the University of California Los Angeles show her to be an intellectual, as well as an advocate.
Marsha P. Johnson
A passionate advocate for transgender rights, Johnson was often frustrated with the exclusion of transgender people from those in the LGB community. One of many involved in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Johnson dedicated her life to the fight for equality. She co-founded the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) along with Sylvia Rivera and helped open the STAR House that advocated for transgender women and drag queens. A Greenwich Village artist for three decades, Johnson became an advocate for HIV+ people later in her life, working with ACT UP. In July 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Though initially ruled a suicide, the case was reopened in 2012 as a homicide.
Though most often remembered as Rev. King’s advisor and secretary, Rustin was one of the earliest advocates for gay rights. Arrested in the 1950s for “homosexual activity,” Rustin went on to make the Civil Rights Movement his life’s mission. He was deputy director and chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington and helped to organize Freedom Rides and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While Rustin wasn’t openly gay, for fear that it would delegitimize his work, he spoke out for equality and was labeled nonetheless.
Having become the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Color Purple,” Walker considers activism to be her “rent for living on the planet.” She participated in the 1963 March on Washington and has continued to advocate for black and LGBTQ people throughout a life of action and creation. Openly bisexual, Walker demonstrates pride and exercises intellect in her work, addressing race, equal rights and transgender issues. She is also responsible for reawakening the literary community to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem Renaissance writer who died forgotten and impoverished.
Photo Credits: James Baldwin, Allan Warren, CC 3.0 via Wikimedia; Angela Davis, German Federal Archives, CC 3.0 via Wikimedia; Marsha P. Johnson, New York Public Library, by permission; Bayard Rustin, Public Domain; Alice Walker, State Library Archives of Florida, CC llcense via Flickr