As we celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month this June, Ebony.com wants to give props to African-American pioneers, who not only faced racism, homophobia and gender inequality, but also helped pave the way for future advocates.—Kellee Terrell
Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader, fought for racial equality, gay rights and socialist issues. Best known for being the mastermind behind the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin served as an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, Rustin was harassed and fired from numerous leadership positions because of his sexual orientation.
Self-described as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde wrote about sexuality, racism and critiqued the mainstream feminist movement for ignoring the issues that women of color faced. Her most popular works were her autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
Marsha P Johnson
Transgender activist Marsha P Johnson was a force to be reckoned with in New York City from the 60’s to her death in the early ‘90s. Johnson was on the frontlines of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and co-founded S.T.A.R, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Riviera in the early ‘70s.
Best known for his revolutionary documentary, Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs was an award-winning filmmaker, activist and writer who tackled Black masculinity, racism, HIV/AIDS and homophobia in his work. Riggs died of complications due to AIDS in 1994 as he was finishing his final film, Black Is…Black Ain’t.
One of the mothers of the Black Feminist Movement, Barbara Smith co-founded the Combahee River Collective in 1974. Her books All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology are staples in feminism and African-American Studies classes taught through out the country.
Langston Hughes, an iconic writer and poet from the Harlem Renaissance, was one of the first to explore the then-new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes, who was closeted during his life, focused a lot of his writings on telling stories about the everyday experiences of working-class African-Americans.
Ma Rainey, dubbed “The Mother of Blues” in the early 1920’s, wasn’t afraid to use her songs as means to celebrate her sexual identity. In five years, Rainey recorded over 100 songs with jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkin. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Rainey 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.
James Baldwin, activist and author of famed Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It On a Mountain, was unapologetic and ahead of his time. His work was mostly grounded in race, sexuality, homophobia and how they impacted the psyche. In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris to escape the oppression that he faced in the U.S.
Coming out as a lesbian in 1997, Angela Davis is most known for her Black Panther Party activism in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Davis has written several books and founded Critical Resistance, an organization aimed at dismantling the prison-industrial complex. Davis continues to lecture at colleges and universities around the country.
Choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey turned modern dance on its head and in 1958 formed the legendary Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City. His theater celebrated Black dancers who were most often ignored by other mainstream dance companies. Ailey succumbed to AIDS in 1989.
Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece A Raisin in the Sun was inspired by the racial tension her family experienced in Chicago. The play was nominated for 4 Tony Awards and won Best Play for The New York Drama Critics' Circle in 1959. Hansberry died before her last works Les Blancs and To Be Young, Gifted and Black was finished.
Bill T. Jones
Famed dancer and choreographer, Bill T. Jones has performed all over the world and created his own company his later partner Arnie Zane. Jones has won Two Tony Awards for Choreography for the musicals Spring Awakening and Fela and was a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1994.
Essex Hemphill was a teenager when he first started writing about sexuality, race, homophobia and isolation. This award-winning poet’s standout work included the anthology Brother to Brother: New Writing By Black Gay Men and Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. His poetry was included in the films Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.
This Emmy-winning comedian and former New Adventures of Old Christine star came out in 2006 to speak out against Prop 8—a bill that took away the LGBT community’s right to marry in the state of California. Being one of the few Black lesbians out in Hollywood, Sykes has been extremely vocal over the years in discussing LGBT equality and homophobia in the African-American community.
Currently making headlines with Logo’s Rupaul’s Drag Race, this performer and drag queen has been on the scene since the late ‘90s singing, acting and even hosting his own show on VH1. Rupaul paved the way for making drag performers more visible in the mainstream.
John Amaechi, a Brit who played in the NBA from 1995-2003 for the Orlando Magic, and Houston Rockets came out a gay man in his book Man in the Middle. His autobiography discussed some of the support he got from his teammates, his childhood and the pressure to keep his sexual orientation a secret.
In addition to being an amazing basketball college and WNBA player—the first ever WNBA player to dunk twice in a game—Brittney Griner, 22, also made history coming out as a lesbian earlier this year. She is also the first ever openly LGBT athlete to sign with Nike and will model menswear for the iconic sports brand.
Being one of the first African-American television journalists to come out as gay, CNN’s Don Lemon spoke his truth in 2010 with the help of his book, Transparent. Since then, Lemon has been heavily involved in HIV/AIDS work and uplifting the voices of the LGBT community.
When the Boston Celtic’s Jason Collins came out earlier this year, he made history. Collins was the first active professional male athlete to announce that he was gay, hopefully opening the door for others to do the same. He recently marched in Boston’s Gay Pride Parade along with the state’s Congressman Joe Kennedy.
Dee Rees, an NYU film grad who also worked under Spike Lee, broke out into the scene with her award-winning film, Pariah, a movie about a Black lesbian teen in Brooklyn who is confronting her identity and familial homophobia. The film won a Sundance, GLAAD and Black Reel Award in 2011.