Why LGBT African-Americans Embrace Kwanzaa

Although the relevance and popularity of the pan-African tradition gets debated annually, it’s no coincidence that Back lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans across the country have been embracing Kwanzaa in their homes and organizations as a way to form family and celebrate their identities fully. While the holidays can be a joyous time full of food and fellowship, for many LGBT people, this time of year can be quite isolating. Kwanzaa represents an opportunity and occasion to shift that.

Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa (celebrated December 26 – January 1) aims to reconnect Black Americans to their African roots by building community. It is this sense of community that has been so critical to the survival of LGBT people of color – a group that, despite being disproportionately affected by disparity, has managed to build resilience in creative and affirming ways.

Black gay and transgender youth, for instance, are more likely to end up homeless and living on the streets than their White counterparts. The statistics are startling. Over 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Sixty-eight percent of those kids were kicked out of their homes because of their orientation and/or gender identity while 54% reported being survivors of abuse from their families. An estimated 65% of homeless people are racial minorities. Often without a place to fully express their authentic selves, young people can find refuge in LGBT Kwanzaa convenings.

“Organizational or chosen family Kwanzaa gatherings have special significance for those in our community who don't have access to gatherings in their families of origin because of distance, homophobia or exclusion,” explains Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, co-founder of the Mobile Homecoming Project, an experiential archive that collects and amplifies the herstories of Black women who challenge heteronormativity.

Recognizing this harsh reality, the Mobile Homecoming Project is among the various LGBT groups organizing Kwanzaa celebrations specifically for the LGBT community. Following in the tradition of Detroit-based LGBT center Karibu House and New York City’s Salsa Soul Sisters (the oldest Black lesbian organization in the U.S., founded in New York City in 1974 and now called African-American Lesbians United for Social Change), the Mobile Homecoming Project has asked individuals in Durham, North Carolina to host potlucks at their homes on the different nights of Kwanzaa so that they can fellowship about the daily principles. 

“We also go together to some of the amazing dance and cultural events here in Durham to build with the larger community,” adds Dr. Gumbs.

It’s not uncommon for these Kwanzaa gatherings to include participants from across generations. Imani Rashid, 73, is co-chair of the LGBT Annual Community Kwanzaa Celebration of New York City, Inc. and author of Kwanzaa in the Gay and Lesbian Family. She introduced the idea of a Kwanzaa celebration at a meeting of Salsa Soul Sisters back in the 70s and describes attendees of the annual celebration as everyone from curious 20-somethings to seasoned 80-year-olds who partake as modern-day griots (storytellers) and African drummers.

“When I was 20, I was literally sitting at the feet of my elders,” says Rashid. “We don’t have that kind of intergenerational dialogue today and we need it. Sometimes gay and transgender young people just need the support of someone that has been there.”

One could argue that LGBT elders also benefit from the support community can provide. Research shows that 10% of partnered Black women and men in same-sex couples are age 65 or older, and another 9% are between ages 55 and 64. Today, about 80% of long-term care in the U.S. is provided by family members and more than two-thirds of adults who receive long-term care at home depend on family members as their only source of help. By contrast, LGBT elders are more likely to be single, childless, and estranged from biological family—relying on friends and community members as their chosen family.

“It’s about umoja – unity,” says Rashid referring to the first of Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles. “People need to be united. We need one another. We need the unity.”

Despite Kwanzaa’s roots in the Black nationalist movement which has historically been homophobic and patriarchal (the presence of Black LGBT people went largely unacknowledged, openly gay people were ostracized, a very rigid notion of masculinity was embraced, and women were often silenced), LGBT African Americans have managed to find what Dr. Herukhuti, founder of the Center of Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality and faculty member at Goddard College, describes as a “home” in the tradition. The reason? According to Dr. Herukhuti, it’s because being their authentic selves has been defined as deviant based on cultural values that first became dominant in Western Europe and were then exported through colonialism and imperialism.

“[LGBT] or same-gender loving people of African ancestry are