Common history, shared liberation: Understanding Black LGBTQ History

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Image credit: UIC Library Digital Collections

Common history, shared liberation: Understanding Black LGBTQ History

February 28, 2019

Being a queer Person of Color (QPOC) often feels like being on the front lines on the fight for equality in two groups, with both treating you as an 'other.' For me, the challenge has been dealing with racism and colorism in the gay community, and homophobia and transphobia in the Black community. So, a lot of us don’t get a safe space: We don’t get to feel like ourselves around other members of the same community, which often means we have to find another space. The majority of my friends are QPOC because they understand what it’s like to be the rainbow sheep in your Black family, and the Black sheep in a white world.

A key part of understanding QPOC culture and accepting QPOC in both the LGBTQ and Black community is knowing our place and power in history. 

Black history is already something that isn’t included enough in the standard curriculum; only being mentioned in most schools during the month of February for Black History Month. But even during Black History Month, gay Black history is very rarely explicitly discussed—even among Black people.

James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Marsha P. Johnson, and Bayard Rustin were all spearheads of the civil rights movement, and were quite open about their sexualities. James Baldwin was one of the great African American literary writers of his time and was “out and proud” before that term was even popularized. Bayard Rustin was Martin Luther King’s right hand man, and one of the key organizers of the March on Washington, such that without him it likely would not have taken place. He was a very proud gay man, living boldly and openly in a time where these things were not done, and he was opposed not only by white people, but by his own people.

Bayard Rustin arguably played as much of a role in civil rights movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, as he was a key adviser and right hand man to Dr. King. He was arrested several times—not only for civil disobedience—for being an open homosexual. He was often abused in his daily life by police officers—white people, and Black people—due to the fact that he was a proud and unashamed homosexual. In fact; in many ways it’s because of the civil rights movement that the movement for equal rights for gay people came to fruition the way it did (and vice versa). Inspired by Black people and borrowing some of the same political protest tactics, LGBTQ people saw a way to their liberation as well.

Marsha P. Johnson was another trailblazing activist in the fight for QPOC liberation. A self-identified drag queen and trans woman, she was one of the prominent figures and key organizers of the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Unashamed of who she was, she was as much a voice for Black liberation as she continued to be for gay liberation. Not only is she rarely discussed when learning about Black history, Black trans women are often also left out of gay history even when they were significant catalysts for action.

Even in present day advocacy, Black queer leaders are still struggling to find the visibility and credit they deserve. For example, two of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement are indeed queer women, but this fact is often ignored in media coverage and public understanding of the movement.

Moving forward, I would ask all allies—those in the LGBTQ community and those in the Black community—to remember our shared history and honor those who fought for the intersectional struggle of Black and queer liberation.

Kayla Inman is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at St. John's University studying psychology. She is a Scorpio, Afro Latina, bisexual, and into tattoos and female empowerment.

the voice and vision of a new generation