From Bayard Rustin to Blossom C. Brown

15 Black LGBTQ Activists and Advocates

On Jan. 20, we celebrate the remarkable legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 25th anniversary of the national day of service that marks his life. The organizer behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard Rustin, was sidelined because of his “open gayness” and little is still known today of his legacy as a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement. So, in honor of both King and Rustin’s legacies, qnotes is highlighting the contributions of 15 black LGBTQ leaders who have made, or are still making, an indelible mark on our history.

BAYARD RUSTIN (1912-1987)
Bayard Rustin was a civil rights activist and the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was one of the most influential thought leaders of the day, seeing the importance of intersectionality in the human fight for equality. Rustin wrote, “If we want to do away with the injustice to gays, it will not be done because we get rid of the injustice to gays. It will be done because we are forwarding the effort for the elimination of injustice to all. And we will win the rights for gays, or blacks, or Hispanics, or women within the context of whether we are fighting for all.” Throughout his advocacy, Bayard Rustin focused on labor and working conditions, universal human rights and upward mobility — three principles that became calls to action in the March on Washington and still resonate today.

STORMÉ DELARVERIE (1920-2014)
It is possible that Stormé Delarverie threw the first punch at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. A lifelong activist and drag performer, she was the only “male impersonator” in the famous Jewel Box Revue, notably the first integrated drag show, from 1955-1969. Two weeks after Stonewall, DeLarverie was part of forming the Stonewall Veteran’s Association and was a regular at Pride parades throughout her life. She lived at the famous Hotel Chelsea and continued to patrol New York City for anti-gay and anti-black prejudice until she was 83.

JAMES BALDWIN (1924-1987)
James Baldwin wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” A writer and playwright, Baldwin is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and broke new ground exploring racial and social issues. His writing on the black experience was a form of activism, and he moved to Paris to escape the racism and homophobia that were present in American culture. His work continues to “bear witness” for future generations.

AUDRE LORDE (1934-1992)
Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde) was a lesbian activist, writer, poet, teacher and visionary. Her work centered around the civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life and created a literary place for difficult conversations around race, gender and sexuality. She is considered one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and spoke at the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. In a response to criticism from white, anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Lorde stated, “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds … Jesse Helm’s objection to my work is not about obscenity … or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.”

BARBARA JORDAN (1936-1996)
A lawyer, educator and politician, Barbara Jordan was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and became the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction. In 1973, she became the first Southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It is her eloquent speech to the House Judiciary Committee on Articles of Impeachment against former President Richard Nixon in 1974 that positioned Jordan as an unwavering voice for justice and equality. “If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority,” said Jordan.

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ANGELA DAVIS (1944-)
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Angela Davis is most widely known for her book “Women, Race & Class.” She has worked as a professor and activist, advocating gender equity, prison reform and alliances across racial barriers. She gained international fame during her imprisonment and trial on conspiracy charges from 1970-1972 and from her association with the Black Panthers. An influential quote by Davis, “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…I’m changing the things I cannot accept” often resonates with activists today.

MARSHA P. JOHNSON (1945-1992)
A central figure in the gay liberation movement, Marsha P. Johnson was an activist from the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 through the 1980s with ACT UP. She co-founded STAR House with Sylvia Rivera to advocate for young transgender people in New York City and has become a hero of the transgender community. In an interview for a 1972 book, Johnson avowed that she wanted “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America,” with her “gay brothers and sisters out of jail and on the streets again.”

BARBARA SMITH (1946-)
Barbara Smith has been a respected lesbian feminist since the 1960s when she participated in school desegregation protests as a high school student. Smith soon became extremely put-off by the sexism she experienced in male-dominated groups of the Civil Rights Movement and turned to black feminist politics. She was among the first publishers of books for and by women of color and established black women’s studies in college and university curricula. Today, she continues to lecture and has coordinated marches against Islamophobia.

PHIL WILSON (1956-)
Phil Wilson is the founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. Wilson also co-founded the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1994 World AIDS Summit in Paris, has worked extensively on HIV/AIDS policy, research, prevention and treatment around the world and organized black AIDS activists to urge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide additional funding to African-American groups eager to educate and mobilize their community around HIV/AIDS issues.

ANDREA JENKINS (1961-)
A writer, performance artist, poet and activist, Andrea Jenkins made history in 2017 when she became the first African-American openly transgender woman to be elected to public office. She represents Minneapolis’ Ward 8 on the city council and serves as the council’s vice president. Jenkins speaks often about the oppression that occurs even within oppressed communities like the LGBTQ community. “We got to love every corner of the rainbow,” Jenkins said in 2018. “Respect the beauty that lives in each and every one of us. When your blues become my blues, we can sing ‘Oh Happy Day.’”

WANDA SYKES (1964-)
Most widely known for her comedic force and countless film and television appearances including the 2003 Fox series “Wanda at Large,” she is also a passionate LGBTQ advocate. Sykes came out as a lesbian in 2008 while rallying against Proposition 8, a law forbidding equal marriage in California. She was part of GLSEN’s “Think Before You Speak” campaign against homophobic language and was awarded the Activism in the Arts honor at the Triumph Awards. In 2009, she became the first African-American woman, and the first LGBTQ individual to be the featured entertainer for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. She continues to speak out for others through her work and is a vocal supporter of the Ruth Ellis Center, a non-profit organization that helps homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Michigan.

KEITH BOYKIN (1965-)
Keith Boykin is a political commentator, professor, author and the former White House aide to former President Bill Clinton where he was one of the highest-ranking openly gay people in the administration. In 2003, he founded the National Black Justice Coalition which primarily serves LGBTQ people and continues to advocate for the unique challenges and needs of black LGBTQ people in the U.S.

JANET MOCK (1983-)
Janet Mock continues to make history as a writer, director and advocate. In 2018, she became the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode for television with “Pose” on FX. She is a contributing editor for Marie Claire and a former staff editor of People magazine’s website. She has openly discussed her own experiences as a transgender woman and in 2012, started a Twitter hashtag to empower transgender women, called #GirlsLikeUs.

PATRISSE CULLORS (1983-)
Patrice Cullors is an artist, organizer and self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” from Los Angeles. As co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Cullors recently toured her multimedia performance art piece, “POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied,” which highlights the impact of mass criminalization and state violence in black communities. She is also the founder of Dignity and Power Now, which fights to end state violence and mass incarceration. Her 2018 book, “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” was listed on The New York Times Bestsellers list just one week after its initial release.

BLOSSOM C. BROWN (1987-)
Blossom C. Brown first hit the news in 2015 when the Mississippi-born transgender activist was introduced on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” by Caitlyn Jenner and awarded $20,000 to support her dream of becoming a nurse, but you most likely recall the moment she took the mic at CNN’s LGBTQ Town Hall meeting in October. “Black trans women are being killed in this country and CNN, you have erased Black trans women for the last time!” she said. Centering herself in the middle of an aisle, Brown continued, “Let me tell you something, black trans women are dying. Our lives matter!” Brown was called to action by the absence of transgender voices, especially those of black transgender women who suffer the highest rate of hate-fueled violence today, during the debate. Brown also works as an actress and producer, and has appeared on the transgender reality show “I Am Cait.” She has volunteered for the Human Rights Campaign and works on HIV education and improving access to the prevention medicine, PrEP.

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[Editor’s Note: For more black, pioneering, notable LGBTQ profiles, check out the Ubuntu Biography Project created by Stephen A. Maglott (1953-2016).]

Photo Credits:

BAYARD RUSTIN
Bayard Rustin at public address by Stanley Wolfson, New York World Telegram & Sun, 1965, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

STORMÉ DELARVERIE
A promotional photo of Stormé DeLarverie when she was performing with the Jewel Box Revue, Creative Commons

JAMES BALDWIN
James Baldwin taken in Hyde Park, London by Allan Warren, 1969, Wikimedia Commons

AUDRE LORDE
Audre Lorde by Elsa Dorfman, Wikimedia Commons

BARBARA JORDAN
Barbara Jordan by Thomas J. O’Halloran, 1976, U.S. Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Collection, Wikimedia Commons

ANGELA DAVIS
Angela Davis, 2017, Columbia GSAPP, Wikimedia Commons

MARSHA P. JOHNSON
Marsha P. Johnson, Photo: Netflix

BARBARA SMITH
Barbara Smith, 2015. Wikimedia Commons

PHIL WILSON
Phil Wilson, courtesy The Black AIDS Institute

ANDREA JENKINS
Andrea Jenkins, Minneapolis City Council by Tony Webster, Creative Commons

WANDA SYKES
Wanda Sykes at 2010 GLAAD Media Awards by Greg Hernandez, Wikimedia Commons

KEITH BOYKIN
Official author photo of Keith Boykin by Duane Cramer, Wikimedia Commons

JANET MOCK
Janet Mock by Juston Smith, 2012, Wikimedia Commons

PATRISSE CULLORS
Patrisse Cullors, “The Laura Flanders Show,” 2015, Wikimedia Commons

BLOSSOM C. BROWN
Blossom Brown by sarahkatheryn, Creative Commons

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