Although the relevance and popularity of the pan-African tradition gets debated annually, it’s no coincidence that Black 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 in a position to draw upon that resource in being able to find our place within the work of Kwanzaa given the heterosexist ideas of some members of our communities,” explains Dr. Herukhuti. “We do it because we find sources of nourishment and sustenance in embracing ourselves.”
However, for some Black LGBT people it’s self-acceptance that can make it challenging to celebrate Kwanzaa. When Dr. Gumbs first learned of Kwanzaa’s origins, she hesitated.
“As I learned more about its origins within an organization with a history of violence against outspoken women members and exclusion of LGBTQ people I started to distance myself,” shares Dr. Gumbs. “It was only a few years ago when we discovered through our Mobile Homecoming interviews that Black LGBTQ people in some of the earliest organizations had reclaimed Kwanzaa as their own ritual that it was possible to see the value in the community principles of the holiday without reproducing the homophobia of cultural nationalism.”
Rashid recalls being one of the only same-sex couples in the room at Kwanzaa celebrations decades ago. She was first introduced to the tradition at her son’s alternative school in Harlem, which focused on African heritage and culture. For many of the event attendees, she and her wife were the first lesbians they had ever met. Yet they always felt welcomed.
“While Kwanzaa is an Afrocentric holiday, meaning it is rooted in an African or African diasporic cultural context, it was not invented in Africa and it was invented after European colonization of Africa and kidnapping and enslavement of African people,” says Dr. Herukhuti. “Therefore, it has been informed, intentionally and unintentionally, by all of that history—the generative and the destructive, the communitarian and the individualistic, the African and the Western. Like much of the culture we have produced here in the United States, it is a hybridity.”
And it’s the hybridity of being both Black and LGBT – existing, surviving, sustaining and thriving at intersectional identities – that makes Kwanzaa so appealing to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African-Americans. Dr. Kofi Adoma, president of Karibu House, has been helping coordinate Detroit’s Kwanzaa celebrations for over 30 years and shared with the Mobile Homecoming project that it feels good to have a safe space just for celebrating and examining Blackness.
“Historically we have cherished Kwanzaa celebrations as a time to specifically celebrate our Blackness and our connection to the Black community as a balance to the fact that we have sometimes been tokenized in majority White LGBT organizations,” adds Dr. Gumbs. “Kwanzaa has been a big deal for long-lasting LGBTQ organizations. And it still exists through those organizers to this day. That is huge in my opinion.”
Kimberley McLeod is a media strategist and LGBT advocate. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of ELIXHER, a resource for multidimensional representations of Black LGBT women.
LGBT Kwanzaa Celebrations Across the Country
Thursday, December 26
7:00pm – 10:00pm
Host: KICK: The Center in Detroit
41 Burroughs Street, Ste 109,
Detroit, MI 48202
Friday, December 27
7:00pm – 10:00pm (African Naming Ceremony starts 8:00pm)
Host: Karibu House, Inc.
Home of Kofi Adoma
255 Worcester Street,
Detroit, MI 48203
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
Saturday, December 28
7:00pm – 10:00pm
Host: Adodi-Detroit Chapter
4696 Quarton Road,
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48302
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
Sunday, December 29
5:30pm – 8:30pm
Host: Marie Colts-Calhoun
4 E. Alexandrine Street,
Detroit, MI 48201
Monday, December 30
7:00pm – 10:00pm
Host: A.L.O.R.D.E. Collective
255 Worcester Place,
Detroit, MI 48203
Tuesday, December 31
11:00am – 3:00pm
Hosts: Jo, Nkenge, and Patrick Burkhead
2941 Crooks Road,
Royal Oak, MI 48073
Kid’s Kwanzaa Klub!
Wednesday, January 1
3:00pm – 5:00pm
All ages are invited, especially children.
Host: Full Truth Church and Unity Fellowship Church of Detroit
4458 Joy Road,
Detroit, MI 48204
Dinner afterward at a Black-owned restaurant, an annual Ujamaa tradition.
Mobile Homecoming’s Queer Kwanzaa Retreat
December 26 – January 1
For more information, email [email protected]
Philadelphia Area LGBTQ Organizations Present Kwanzaa 2013
Saturday, December 28
6:00pm – 9:00pm
William Way LGBT Community Center
1315 Spruce Street,
Philadelphia, PA 19107
The 36th Annual LGBT Community KWANZAA in Manhattan
Saturday, December 28
1:00pm – 8:00pm
Judson Memorial Church
55 Washington Square South,
New York, NY 10012