Thursday, February 16, 2017

Celebrating Black History Month

Written by  Mary Taylor
Bayard Rustin speaking with students in 1965 Bayard Rustin speaking with students in 1965

Mappng the crossroads of African-American and LGBT history

As we recognize Black History Month this February, it’s a perfect time to remember and honor all the of same-sex loving black figures who have stood out throughout the course of our nation’s history— people who marched, protested, and fought to help bring the LGBT communities to where we are today.

High on that list of notables is Bayard Rustin, a major black civil rights activist, adamant supporter of gay rights, and who spent 60 days in a California jail in 1953 after being caught having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena. Rustin was also Martin Luther King Jr.’s advisor and personal secretary, who helped organize, mostly behind the scenes (in part because of his status as a California sex offender), the 1963 March on Washington. “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being,” Rustin said, “his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”

Others high on the honor roll include Audre Lorde, writer and poet, who was steeped in the gay culture of Greenwich Village, and an activist for civil rights and feminist movements. “It is not our differences that divide us,” Lorde wrote, “It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” And in a broadside to activists to think about the methods they use, she said famously, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Simon Nkoli, born in Soweto, was an openly gay black South African political activist, who spent his youth fighting Apartheid when such actions could easily mean getting killed at the hands of police. In 1983 he formed the Saturday Group, the first black gay group in Africa. “I am black and I am gay,” Nkoli said. “I cannot separate the two into secondary or primary struggles.” Nkoli was arrested and charged with treason the following year. Nkoli was also the first openly HIV-positive gay black African and the representative from Africa on the International Lesbian & Gay Association board.

Novelist Alice Walker won a Pulitzer Prize for her book The Color Purple,  later adapted into a film. As a civil rights activist, she walked in the 1963 March on Washington and volunteered to register black voters in Georgia and Mississippi. “This is a wonderful planet,” Walker has said, “and it is being completely destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.”

These are but a few of the many men and woman who have forged the path of gay black history to date. Now in 2017 we have a new group, a younger group making the path we travel a little less rocky.

Athletes like Kye Allums, the first Division I openly transgender athlete in NCAA sports history. Today, she is a transgender advocate and the founder of Project I Am Enough,  dedicated to encouraging self-love & self-definition for everyone. And let’s tip our hats to Sheryl Swoopes, three time WNBA MVP, the first player to be signed to the WNBA after its inception. Not only was she a star on the court, but she was one of the first high profile athletes to come out publicly and later voted one of the Top 15 players in WNBA history. After retiring from the NBA in 2007, John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out publicly.

Laverne Cox is a transgender activist and actress, best known for her role on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and her new role in “Doubt.” Cox also works with GLAAD, and remains one of the most prominent and outspoken transgender advocates in the entertainment industry.

Emmy award-winning comedian Wanda Sykes, is actively involved in the LGBT community. If we all remember she came out at a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas for Proposition 8 in 2006. In 2009 she was the first African-American woman and openly LGBT featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

Dee Rees the film director behind the movie Pariah, which follows a 17-year-old African-American teenager struggling with her sexuality. The film was a hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Keith Boykin was an editor of The Daily Voice and a White House aide to President Bill Clinton. After Clinton’s election, Boykin became a director of specialty media, and became the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House. Boykin helped organize the nation’s first meeting between gay and lesbian leaders and a U.S. president.

The former staff editor of People magazine’s website, Janet Mock has become one of the most visible transgender icons following her public coming-out in 2011.

Felicia Pearson is best known for her role as “Snoop” on “The Wire.” Pearson is a co-founder of a youth drama organization named Moving Mountains, which aims to stop youth violence, teach performing arts and help kids stay off the streets and out trouble. In her memoir, Grace After Midnight, Pearson opens up about coming out and her experiences on the streets of Baltimore.

These and so many more are making history for the LGBT Black Community, with the hope that 20 years from now each one of their stories will have helped to make the path easier. Just like the ones before them.

They say that history repeats itself. In this case all we can do is hope that history teaches us what we want to repeat. We want to keep growing, learning from all who have walked that hard road, opened doors, being the first to make the difference, telling us it’s okay to be true to you.

We don’t know what the future will bring, but we do know what history has taught us.


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