Far too often in mainstream moments for equality, the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race and its inherent struggles are ignored. In fact, people of color, especially black people, are commonly excluded from popular queer narratives despite obvious, repeated, and profound contributions. And it goes both ways; often they have their sexuality erased when celebrating their accomplishments. For instance, I Am Not Your Negro, an Oscar-nominated documentary on James Baldwin doesn’t even discuss his homosexuality despite his sexuality playing a large part in his writing.
These powerful voices deserve not only our ears but our hearts. These voices have helped to give us – our community, our cause, our livelihood – a platform all while helping to shape and influence not only our culture but American culture as a whole. The least we can do is give credit where credit is due. Here are 5 black LGBTQ voices and the stories they tell.
As if being the author of a critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning novel isn’t enough of an accomplishment, Alice Walker was also an outspoken activist for gender and racial equality. Walker was a painfully shy child, however she never shied away from confronting difficult, sensitive, and often uncomfortable topics in her writing and activism. Her most notable work, The Color Purple, not only took on racism black women faced but also featured the challenges black women endure within the patriarchy of black culture. In this book, major characters also explore sexuality with a flirtation-ship hinted at between Shug Avery and Celie. Walker dated fellow civil rights activist and Grammy Award winner Tracy Chapman during the 1990s.
Wanting change and actively creating it are two very different things, things that Bayard Rustin passionately did throughout his impressive career as leader for civil and gay rights. Rustin was born into a family that entertained prominent black guests such as as author W.E.B. Du Bois and NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson on a regular basis. In 1953, Rustin was arrested in California for showing public affection to another man. Although this was the first time his sexuality had been openly discussed, Rustin unapologetically used this as opportunity to highlight the inequities queer blacks face. Three years later, he became an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King and helped to organize his famous March on Washington.
New York Times best-selling author and transgender rights activist Janet Mock had been an outspoken advocate for transgender women of color since she publicly revealed her life as a trans woman in 2011. At the time Mock was already an accomplished editor at People magazine, and instead of hindering her career, Mock’s decision to live her life so openly and visibly gave her a larger platform for advocacy. Mock is known for using the public challenges she faces as a trans woman of color as teachable moments. She has also advocated for the rights of sex workers, having been in the industry aas a teenager as a means of supporting herself. In 2012, Mock championed the #GirlsLikeUs hashtag as a space for trans women of color.
If there’s anyone who can articulate the intricacies of class, race, and sex, it’s legendary essayist, novelist, playwright, and poet James Baldwin. In addition to being an accomplished writer, Baldwin was also an outspoken social critic. His eloquent, thoughtful, and often poignant rebuttals sparked constructive conversations about both race and homosexuality. Baldwin’s writing tackled complex psychological and social topics and rearranged them in digestible, engaging formats that forced audiences to rethink the stigmas they held. An example of this is Baldwin’s noted novel Giovanni’s Room, which details the story of American man coming to terms with his attraction for men while in Paris. Decades before the gay liberation movement, Baldwin’s work and outspoken criticism of systemic oppression was far ahead of its time.
Born to Caribbean immigrant parents in the early 1930s, Lorde’s work as a poet and activist for racial and gender equality paved the way for many after her. Her poems dive deep into the exploration of black womanhood in the United States, and Lorde openly criticized the lack of inclusivity within the mainstream feminist movement. Through her work, Lorde helped to define womanism at a time when its definition was ambiguous at best. Lorde’s work was also highly influential in Germany, where she worked as a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin. There, Lorde’s work went beyond resonating with Afro-German woman and many white Germans began speaking out in support of Lorde and intersectionality.