Queer Black Trailblazers
The Black and LGBTQ liberation movements are interconnected civil rights initiatives that achieved major advancements in equality during the 20th century and continue to advance the rights of marginalized groups today. Crucial to these pivotal movements and milestones are Black LGBTQ icons who’ve made history by living authentically and fighting for Black queer liberation.
For Black History Month, we’re spotlighting the contributions of several Black LGBTQ Americans who all too often have been swept under the rug of history due to racism, sexism, stigma and other forms of discrimination.
Black LGBTQ history is multifaceted and impossible to encompass in a single editorial, but for those interested in learning about important Black LGBTQ trailblazers, here are 10 key figures whose impact on the fight for equality can’t be overstated.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
“We, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”
Bayard Rustin was a gay civil rights leader who is best known for being one of the key advisors to Martin Luther King Jr. He helped organize the March on Washington, a key moment in the civil rights movement, and he testified in favor of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill in 1986. Rustin was unfairly punished for his sexuality in 1953 after getting caught having sex in a car with two men in Pasadena, CA, and ordered to spend 50 days in jail. California Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned Rustin in 2020.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
Marsha P. Johnson—one of the most beloved figures of the LGBTQ civil rights movement—was famously at Stonewall during the Stonewall Uprising, a major turning point in the fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States. Johnson would later go on to form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization and would devote their later life to AIDS activism by joining Act Up.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
“The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”
Audre Lorde was a poet and activist who made important contributions to the work of critical race studies and queer theory. Her seminal works explored the intersectionality of being a Black and queer woman and inspired The Audre Lorde Project, an organization for LGBTQ people of color that supports community organizing in Brooklyn.
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Considered one of the greatest American writers, James Baldwin was a novelist, essayist, and playwright who shed light on the Queer Black experience. After years of discrimination in the US, Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948 and wrote his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, which offered a refreshingly honest take on contemporary homosexuality. He would later go on to write The Fire Next Time, a collection of essays meant to educate white Americans on what it meant to be black. The collection helped to galvanize the civil rights movement and is still regarded as one of the most influential books on race today.
Ma Rainey (1886-1939)
“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don't know how it got there.”
Ma Rainey is known simply as The Mother of The Blues. After her first record deal she became one of the most popular blues singers in the world and made over 100 records in 5 years. A trailblazer her entire career, she famously sang the openly lesbian song “Prove It On Me Blues,” which includes the line, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.” The song refers to an incident in 1925 in which the police raided an all-female orgy that Rainey was hosting.
Andrea Jenkins (Born 1961)
“The amount we love each other is directly proportional to the amount we love ourselves.”
Andrea Jenkins is the first out transgender person to win elected office in the United States and is currently President of the Minneapolis City Council. Prior to her work in office she worked as an oral historian for the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota, where she documented the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming midwesterners. In 2020 Jenkins became a leading voice in the protests that erupted over the murder of George Floyd, who was killed in her district. After his murder she said, “I am calling for a declaration of a state of emergency for Black people. Racism is a public health crisis.”
Angela Davis (Born 1944)
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
Angela Davis is a lesbian activist, philosopher, academic, and writer. She is an author of several books including, Women, Culture & Politics. In the 60’s and 70’s Davis became a central figure in the civil rights, Black power, and feminist movements. She’s more recently become a leader of the prison reform movement, and In 2017, she was an honorary co-chair at the Women’s March in Washington after Donald Trump became president.
Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience— it wasn’t no damn riot.”
Stormé DeLarverie was a lesbian civil rights activist who famously “threw the first punch” during the Stonewall Uprising. As she was being attacked during a raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 she fought back against police and yelled at the crowd to do something. Her call to action helped unite the crowd, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans activists who built their own legendary legacies as civil rights pioneers.
Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)
“What the people want is very simple - they want an America as good as its promise.”
Barbara Jordan was a prominent civil rights leader and lawyer who became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate in 1966 and the first African American to be elected to Congress from Texas in 1972. In 1994 Jordan received the Presidential Medal of Honor for her career in politics.
Willi Ninja (1961-2006)
“Voguing is like fighting but in dance form. Whoever was throwing the best moves was throwing the best shade, basically.”
Willi Ninja, AKA the godfather of vogue, was a central figure in Harlem’s ball scene. He was prominently featured in the documentary Paris is Burning which widely cemented his legacy as one of voguing’s most legendary figures. He went on to star in multiple music videos including two by Janet Jackson. The House of Ninja is still active today in the ball scene and was recently featured on HBO MAX’s “Legendary.”