Celebrating Black History: Did You Know That October is LGBTQ History Month
By David J. Johns, NBJC Executive Director
October is a time when we celebrate tenacious resilience. During this month, we highlight the lessons learned to not only survive but to thrive. For our community, we also celebrate the tremendous contributions that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people have made to American and global history. Celebrating our history enables us to reflect upon where we have come from while thinking strategically about the path forward. It is especially important to celebrate the contributions of Black LGBTQ and same gender loving (SGL) people as too often our accomplishments are shrouded in erasure or secrecy because of their unique expressions of love. The contributions of luminary leaders like Bayard Rustin, Marsha P. Johnson, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Mario Cooper, Tracee McDaniel and Tarell Alvin McCraney have strengthened our social fabric—pushing our country closer toward the founding principles of equality and justice for all.
Take Bayard Rustin for example. He was a tireless civil rights advocate and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, which was one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. Despite his astounding dedication to furthering the principles of the Civil Rights Movement, and human rights more generally, Rustin was threatened, arrested and fired from important leadership positions, primarily because he was an openly gay man. However, his sacrifice and choice to live in authenticity and truth was not in vain. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, for his lifetime of service and leadership on behalf of human rights.
There would not be a modern LGBTQ Equality Movement without the tireless advocacy and leadership of Marsha P. Johnson. Specifically, it was Johnson and other transgender women and gender nonconforming people of color that led the fight during the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, which is often credited as the start of the movement for equality for LGBTQ people in our world. Unfortunately, her contributions have often been overshadowed by a white-centered explanation of queer history that often erases the contributions of transgender (and other queer) people of color. However, if it was not for her courage to demand justice through action for LGBTQ people, we would not have made the progress we experience today in the movement for equality.
Audre Lorde referred to herself as "a black feminist lesbian mother poet," which was her form of resistance to being labeled by any one identity or cause. She was internationally recognized for both her published work and activism, which spoke eloquently about the importance of struggle for liberation for those that society have oppressed or rendered invisible. Her writings have provided generations with a powerful understanding of how differences intersect across race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation and ability. She is the recipient of many special honors, including the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, which conferred the mantle of New York State Poet for 1991-1993. Her poems, essays and activism continue to inspire the modern movements for justice by seeking to hold true to the value that it’s our moral duty to speak for those “whose voices have been silenced.”
Consider Angela Davis, a revolutionary of unequaled prowess who has devoted her life to combating racism, sexism and intersectional forms of oppression that impacts Black women and transgender individuals in uniquely profound ways. Despite attempts by the United States government to suppress her political influence, Davis has never wavered in her commitment to global social justice. Very few people could do what Davis has done on the level in which she did, yet the celebrations of her contributions pale in comparison to other race warriors because she identifies as a lesbian.
Mario Cooper is a shining example of how one can walk in their truth no matter the obstacles that stand in the way. Cooper is often a forgotten hero in the fight to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which disproportionately impacts both African Americans and LGBTQ people. It was because of his prolific advocacy during the 1990s that leaders in Washington moved on addressing HIV after years of silence fueled by stigma on the issue. As an openly gay Black man living with HIV, he pressured politicians, community and civil rights advocates to take on the issue and can be credited with being one of the major leaders that helped to get the Minority AIDS Initiative passed into law in the late 1990s. His lifelong service must never be forgotten as he was able to achieve so much in a time when many people turned their backs on people living with HIV/AIDS.
Tracee McDaniel is a lifelong human rights activist and advocate for the transgender community. She is the author of Transitions, which speaks to her personal journey of overcoming life’s challenges in pursuit of living her truth, unapologetically. McDaniel spent 20 years in the entertainment industry before focusing her attention to supporting and empowering transgender people in her home of Atlanta, Georgia. McDaniel founded the Juxtaposed Center for Transformation, an anchoring organization of the Trans Housing Atlanta Program, which is described as an advocacy, consulting and social services referral organization for transgender and gender nonconforming people. In 2016, Mayor Kasim Reed appointed McDaniel to serve on the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, where she now lends her voice to build positive community relations between the Atlanta Police Department and the local LGBTQ community. Her activism and life’s work continues to serve as an example to so many people who are often marginalized or ostracized by community and society.
Moonlight became the first film featuring a prominent LGBTQ storyline to receive an Oscar during the 89th Academy Awards for Best Picture earlier this year. Told in three powerful chapters, Moonlight explored the incredibly poignant story of a Black gay man growing up in Miami and expressing both pain and love in this coming of age work of art. The film was inspired by the life of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also co-wrote the film based on his own play, entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. McCraney also received his own Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay that same year. He has used his own lived experience to show the world the complexities of being Black and gay in America, while also showing the universal story of human triumph.
The contributions of these dynamic personalities have advanced equity, equality, and enlightenment around the world, but only reveal the tip of the metaphorical iceberg of LGBTQ and American history.
The Black LGBTQ/SGL community in its glorious splendor and grandeur has established and supported flourishing institutions and made extraordinary contributions to civil rights on national and international levels. Doing all of this while battling the twin oppressions of being members of groups that are oppressed because of both race/ethnicity and sexual/gender identity. Both of these categories, “race/ethnicity” and “sexual/gender identity,” are socially constructed—that is they were created to classify and order people during colonial expansion. While creating these terms have real-life implications for people who are often forced to hide or erase parts of themselves, it should never be the case that we ask any person to deny, hide or shrink any part of themselves. A fundamental part of the American Dream is being allowed to show up and be supported (or at least acknowledged and not threatened) as you are. Sadly, for too many members of the Black LGBTQ/SGL community, this is still a dream. Together, we can make this dream a reality by using opportunities like LGBTQ History Month to recognize and celebrate the tremendous contributions made by Black LGBTQ/SGL leaders.
In October, we celebrate the illustrious history and profound contributions to the LGBTQ/SGL community, showing future generations that no matter who you love or how uniquely you present yourself to the world, your contributions will be celebrated. Will you join NBJC in this critically important work? Looking to learn more about the diverse contributions of Black LGBTQ leaders? NBJC invites you to celebrate LGBTQ History Month all year long by learning and sharing information about Black LGBTQ/SGL leaders who have advanced equity and justice for all.