We’ve Always Been Here: Black LGBTQ History


Black LGBTQ history

We’ve Always Been Here

(Photo from “Hidden In The Open” photo exhibit, Trent Kelly)

From the earliest times, we’ve always been here. Our history is rich and complex, and we’ve found that communities of color have both embraced and ostracized their own LGBT members from time to time.

In the Biography of A Runaway Slave, Esteban Montejo revealed the presence of same-sex relationships among slaves in the 19th century. Others have documented the presence of same-sex couples in pre-colonial Africa and many traditional pre-colonial cultures before the influence of European Christianity.

They may not have used the terminology most common today, but they were always there. Long before the modern era, there were LGBT/SGL people of color in many communities. “It did not start with Stonewall,” elders recall.

A Renaissance In Harlem (1920s-30s)

In 1926 Bruce Nugent wrote a homoerotic essay for the premier issue of a controversial Harlem publication called FIRE!! Alongside articles by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Nugent’s piece – written under the pseudonym Richard Bruce – described a male homosexual relationship. Although the article and the publication provoked criticism from some blacks for the controversial topics it explored, it marked an important milestone for blacks in the gay movement.

Many leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance were known to be homosexual or bisexual. Historian Eric Garber has noted that “[h]omosexuality was clearly part of this world.” It included well-known artists and writers such as Bessie Smith, Mabel Hampton, Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and others.

Following the Harlem Renaissance, few black musicians in the pre-civil rights era were more distinguished than Billy Strayhorn, who joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1939 as a pianist, arranger, and lyricist. As a black gay man, he worked in the shadow of Ellington, with whom he developed a close working relationship. Strayhorn created “Lush Life”(1938) and wrote “Take the A Train” (1941), the theme song of the Ellington band, and he is credited with nearly 200 solo and joint compositions.

From Segregation to Civil Rights (1950s-1968)

By the 1950s several black writers who had confronted the vexing issue of segregation in America began to address questions of sexual orientation as well. In 1956 James Baldwin, a black gay man, published the novel Giovanni’s Room, his first homosexual love story. A year later the young playwright Lorraine Hansberry, a black lesbian, wrote a letter to The Ladder, an early lesbian publication, where she suggested that “homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.” Hansberry would go on to achieve widespread acclaim when her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) opened on Broadway to rave reviews.

Bayard Rustin speaks at the famous 1963 March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin speaks at the famous 1963 March on Washington.

During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of black lesbians and gay men participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the South and the North, but none was so well known as Bayard Rustin. In 1955 Rustin was a close associate of A. Philip Randolph, the cofounder of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Dispatched to help Martin Luther King Jr. with the Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin soon became a close adviser to King as well. Their relationship was strained when King, under pressure from conservative elements in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, agreed to distance himself from the openly homosexual Rustin. His best known achievement was as the principal organizer for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. But Rustin, as a known homosexual, had to fight for this role against the objection of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Roy Wilkins, and he was not allowed to hold the actual title as march director. The Civil Rights Movement awakened America’s consciousness to the unfulfilled promises of the nation and set the stage for other movements, including the gay liberation movement.

Then Came Stonewall (1969)

On Friday, June 27, 1969, eight New York City police officers raided a gay bar at 57 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. The manager of the Stonewall Inn was served with a warrant for selling liquor without a license, and police ordered patrons to leave the bar. As the patrons congregated outside, unlike at previous raids, they taunted the police with catcalls and openly defied them by throwing bricks and bottles.

Reportedly led in part by black and Latino drag queens like Sylvia Rivera and others, a spontaneous rebellion erupted against the practice of police harassment of homosexuals. As word spread in the following days, hundreds of gays and lesbians, including African Americans, showed up in Sheridan Square to show their solidarity. The Stonewall Rebellion, as it has become known, marked a turning point for gays and lesbians, and it has since become the defining moment in American LGBT history.

From Struggle to Liberation (1970s-80s)

After Stonewall, increasing numbers of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans began to emerge “out of the closet.” African Americans played a critical role in the gay movement’s development during this time.

Activists in the 1970s began to make connections between the politics of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. On August 15, 1970, Huey P. Newton, Supreme Commander of the Black Panther Party, published a letter in the party newsletter stating, “the women’s liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends.” In April 1977 a group of black feminists called the Combahee River Collective issued a statement addressing the “interlocking” system of “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression.” In October 1979, during the gay community’s first national march on Washington, hundreds of participants gathered at Harambee House for a Third World conference on gays and lesbians of color, titled “When Will the Ignorance End?” In 1980 black gay activist Melvin Boozer helped push the Democratic Party when he addressed the convention and explained the similar pain of racism and homophobia.

Building New Communities in the Midst of an Epidemic (1980s-90s)

From the late 1970s to the present, numerous organizations formed to represent the interests of black LGBT people. These include the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG), the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, and the National Black Men’s Exchange. Some activists, such as veteran organizer Mandy Carter, played leading roles with both black gay organizations and mainstream gay organizations. As the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic began to impact black gay men disproportionately in the late 1980s and 1990s, many black gays and lesbians created new community organizations to respond to the crisis.

In August 1983, in response to a “coordinated campaign” led in part by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the DC Coalition of Black Gay Men and Women, Coretta Scott King publicly announced her support of civil rights legislation for gays and lesbians.

On the screen, the works of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien created a new genre of black gay films. On the dance stage, Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones produced works that have been seen by audiences worldwide. In literature, black gay writers Essex Hemphill, E. Lynn Harris, and James Earl Hardy wrote books that explored the black gay experience and gay Latino writers like Emanuel Xavier wrote down their own stories. Black openly gay and bisexual writers such as Sapphire and Samuel Delany also wrote popular novels that focused on issues other than sexual orientation.

As the HIV/AIDS epidemic took a heartbreaking toll on gay communities of color, many new organizations formed to respond to the epidemic and fight back. Meanwhile, in 1986, NCBLG’s Executive Director Gil Gerald, Rev. Carl Bean, Fred Garnett, Suki Ports, Amanda Houston Hamilton, and Paul Kawata met with Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop to discuss the lack of a national response to HIV and AIDS in people of color communities.

Young black and Latino men were dying by the thousands in the 1980s and 90s, eviscerating almost an entire generation of leaders, artists, activists, and writers. Still, some denied that AIDS was a problem in the African-American and Latino communities. But when Magic Johnson announced his retirement in 1991 because of his HIV infection, America slowly started to wake up to what was happening. Nearly two years later, tennis star Arthur Ashe died of AIDS-related causes. Two years after that, rapper Eazy-E died of AIDS-related causes.

The devastation was even worse among African American gay men. Author Melvin Dixon died in 1992 at 42. Filmmaker Marlon Riggs died in 1994 at 37. Haitian-American writer Assotto Saint died in 1994 at 36. And poet Essex Hemphill died in 1995 at 38.

Black writers, intellectuals, and activists left a profound impression on the gay rights movement. Linda Villarosa served as executive editor of Essence magazine and introduced hundreds of thousands of black women to black lesbians when she coauthored a “coming out” piece with her mother. Barbara Smith’s groundbreaking anthology Home Girls presented dozens of perspectives of black feminism that integrated black lesbian viewpoints. Others such as Cheryl Clarke, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and June Jordan shared their experiences about bisexuality and lesbianism in their writings and public comments.

Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde spoke at the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and activist Phill Wilson addressed the 30th anniversary march in 1993. Lorde produced literature so expressive and unique that she became a cultural icon in both the black community and the gay community. Wilson has articulated the interests of black gay men living with AIDS as he has played a leading role in the fight against the disease nationally and internationally.

Openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual entertainers such as Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Little Richard, Nona Hendryx, Sylvester, and RuPaul changed and challenged the music industry. In sports, Glenn Burke, a black openly gay member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was credited with inventing the high five in 1977. In fashion, black gay designers such as Patrick Kelley and Willi Smith helped to shape the industry. In politics a new breed of black and Latino openly gay elected officials emerged, including Ken Reeves, the first black gay mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts; Ron Oden, the first black gay mayor of Palm Springs, California; Bruce Harris, a black gay Republican mayor of Chatham Borough, New Jersey; Philip Reed, a New York City Council member; Louis Escobar, city council president of Toledo, Ohio; Sabrina Sojourner, the shadow United States representative from the District of Columbia; Keith St. John, an alderman in Albany, New York; and Sherry Harris, a city council member in Seattle.

President Bill Clinton holds an historic, first-ever meeting with leaders of the LGBTQ community.

President Bill Clinton holds an historic, first-ever meeting with leaders of the LGBTQ community.

In April 1993 three black gays and lesbians sat down with President Bill Clinton for a White House meeting as part of the first group of gay and lesbian leaders to meet with an American president. Three African American LGBT participants took part in that meeting: March on Washington organizer Nadine Smith, Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum founder Phill Wilson, and White House staff member Keith Boykin.

In the same year, when the Clinton Administration discussed plans to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, black gay men and lesbians were involved and affected. One such soldier was Perry Watkins, who had been drafted into the army in 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War. At the time he was drafted, Watkins acknowledged his homosexuality, but was nevertheless admitted into military service. He served openly gay until he was discharged in 1982 for homosexuality. Watkins fought the discharge for several years and finally won reinstatement when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the U.S. Army’s appeal case. He later retired with an “honorable discharge” and became the only openly gay person to retire with full honors from the military.

On television, a popular reality show called “The Real World” on MTV exposed millions of young Americans to the real life experiences of a Cuban-American named Pedro Zamora, a young, openly gay television personality and AIDS activist, who chronicled his journey until he died in November 1994.

In 1995 hundreds of black lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals assembled in New York for a conference called “Black Nations/Queer Nations?” to explore the intersections of race and sexual orientation. By October of that year, when the Nation of Islam organized a national rally in Washington, more than 200 black gay men took part in a Million Man March contingent carrying signs and placards identifying themselves as black gay men. In the 1990s, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined in support of laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

From the late 1970s to the 1990s, an explosion of black and Latino LGBT culture had erupted across the country. Black Pride events began to be held in numerous cities, drawing thousands of participants from across the country. And new writers emerged, including bestselling authors E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy. At the same time, new magazines arose, including BLK, SBC, Malebox, Kick, Whazzup, Real, Arise, Venus, Women In the Life, and Clikque. And new artistic figures like Arthur Aviles took center stage.

In the social scene, legendary nightspots like Paradise Garage, Tracks, The Edge, Sound Factory Bar, and The Warehouse came and went. Other spots, like Jewel’s Catch One and Escuelita survived. Old time favorites like the Bachelor’s Mill, Nob Hill, Chi Chiz, Starlite Lounge, Pendulum, The Delta Elite, and Loretta’s grew in popularity and sometimes struggled. Many bars and nightclubs would later disappear with the changing times and from changing community interests as newly gentrified neighborhoods forcibly displaced old community institutions.

The 21st Century Arrives

At the dawn of the 21st century, few would have imagined the changes that would quickly follow. Within the first decade, America saw two wars, witnessed an historic presidential campaign and elected its first black president. Meanwhile, the U.S. Hispanic and Latino population continued to grow, and the nation was on its way to becoming a “majority minority” country in a matter of decades. At the same time, gays and lesbians were on the rise as well, and openly gay Latino soldier Eric Alva became the first American wounded in the Iraq War. America was changing rapidly.

Mandy Carter speaks at the announcement of the formation of the National Black Justice Coalition.

Mandy Carter speaks at the announcement of the formation of the National Black Justice Coalition.

Just as LGBT issues were becoming more culturally and politically prevalent, people of color organizations were struggling, especially in the wake of reduced funding for HIV/AIDS outreach. In 2003, the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum disbanded after 15 years in operation, and in 2004, the National Latino Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organization (LLEGO) closed its doors and abruptly went out of business. But the political issues facing the community did not disappear.

Everything changed on November 18, 2003. That’s the date when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a groundbreaking decision ending marriage discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and becoming the first U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage. The controversial decision prompted cheers from supporters but provoked outrage by vocal critics, including some prominent black ministers. In Washington, D.C. the following month, Keith Boykin, Mandy Carter, Donna Payne, Maurice Franklin, Jasmyne Cannick, Sonya Shields, Frank Roberts, and others announced the formation of a new group called the National Black Justice Coalition to advocate for the black LGBT community and to show to the world that African Americans are not monolithic. Meanwhile, in the Latino community, a new group called Unid@s was formed. Described as a national Latina/o LGBT human rights organization, the group sought “to create a multi-issue approach for advocacy, education and convening of and for our communities.”

In a 2004 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in a subsequent book, author J.L. King exposed the world to something called “the down low,” which he described as a secret fraternity of black men having sex with men that was responsible for the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among black women. After a multi-year wave of mass hysteria, King’s theory was later debunked by authors, journalists, doctors, researchers, and the Centers for Disease Control.

In 2005, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan convened a massive rally in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Million Man March. In an effort to reach all elements of the community, Minister Farrakhan met with leaders of the National Black Justice Coalition, including H. Alexander Robinson, Donna Payne, and Keith Boykin in Washington, D.C. leading up to the march. Ultimately, Cleo Manago, a same-gender-loving “social architect” and essayist and founder of AmASSI National Health and Cultural Centers and of the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX), spoke at the anniversary event.

Meanwhile, community-focused magazines like Clik, Flavalife, Pulse, Noble, Ballroom Rockstar, Bleu, Nyansapo, and Pulse grew and flourished for awhile, but the decline of the broader print publishing industry sent some publications online and others out of business. Others like Adelante, xQsi, and DBQ filled the void.

As communities of color re-organized, anti-gay ballot measures arose and passed in several states in the 2004 and 2008 elections. After two divisive election cycles in which the issue of gay marriage became a subject of controversy, more states began passing laws that allowed same-sex couples to marry. Then in May 2012, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to endorse same-sex marriage, expressing his opinion in favor of marriage equality. Shortly afterwards, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization followed suit as the 64-member board of directors of the NAACP voted overwhelmingly to support marriage equality.

Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Joseph Lowery rose to President Obama’s defense as supporters of marriage equality themselves. They joined a long list of prominent civil rights leaders and public figures, including Julian Bond and the late Coretta Scott King and Michael Eric Dyson who supported same-sex marriage. Their words provided a counterweight to conservative preachers like Bishop Eddie Long, who once famously led a march against gay marriage from Dr. King’s gravesite in Atlanta. At the same time, a significant number of LGBT African Americans started attending affirming churches, including the Unity Fellowship Church Movement begun by ArchBishop Carl Bean.

During this time, black LGBT/SGL voices continued to rise in prominence. Openly gay filmmaker Lee Daniels produced the film “Monster’s Ball,” making him the first African American producer of a “Best Picture” Oscar nominee. Daniels also directed the movie “Precious,” which received four Academy Award nominations. CNN anchor Don Lemon became the first openly gay African American national TV news anchor when he came out in 2011. Elsewhere on television, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Capehart, a Washington Post editorial writer and MSNBC contributor, co-moderated an historic 2008 presidential debate/forum on LGBT issues.

In politics, Charles Pugh became the first openly gay president of the Detroit City Council, Simone Bell became the first black lesbian elected to the Georgia state legislature, John A. Pérez became the first openly gay Speaker of the California Assembly, and Lupe Valdez became the first woman and the first lesbian to be elected sheriff of Dallas County, Texas. During this period, Anthony Romero also became the first openly gay executive director of the ACLU.

Meanwhile, openly gay author Keith Boykin co-hosted a show called “My Two Cents” on BET-J with his openly gay colleague Staceyann Chin. And TV series like “Noah’s Arc” and “The DL Chronicles” moved the culture away from “the down low” and into the mainstream. And filmmakers like Patrik-Ian Polk, Deondray Gossett, Quincy Lenear, Maurice Jamal, and Nathan Hale Williams started creating new media images for a new generation.

Pop singer Ricky Martin came out of the closet and wrote a revealing book about himself, while actor/singer Christian Chávez went public about his sexual orientation too. Comedian Wanda Sykes broke down barriers of her own when she disclosed her sexual orientation. And America’s favorite drag queen, RuPaul, re-emerged with a new TV series on LOGO called “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” featuring a wide range of contestants, including Puerto Rican drag queen Jessica Wild, one of the contributors to For Colored Boys.

The popularity of non-scripted reality television shows brought with it a wave of new images into the mass media. Reality TV shows like The Real World (MTV), Project Runway (Bravo), The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo), Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys (Sundance), Queer Eye (Bravo), RuPaul’s Drag Race, and American Candidate (Showtime) all depicted LGBT people of color.

With the advent of new technology, LGBT people of color took to the web, creating popular new websites and blogs such as Rod McCullom’s Rod 2.0, Jasmyne Cannick‘s self-titled site, and PerezHilton.com. New pop cultural figures also arose from the Internet, including B. Scott.

Activists built and grew community service organizations like Us Helping Us in Washington, D.C., GMAD in New York City, and national organizations like the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. Young LGBT people of color organized a group called FIERCE and fought back against efforts to push them out of New York City’s famous Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.

Others were also coming out in various communities of color. Dan Choi spoke out publicly and was arrested for protesting against the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was later repealed by President Obama. African American former professional athletes like John Amaechi, Roy Simmons, and Wade Davis came out after their athletic careers had ended. Other athletes, like basketball players Will Sheridan and DeMarco Majors, also came out publicly.