From 1960s civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to newly elected Minnesota councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, black LGBTQ Americans have long been blazing trails and making history. Starting out as Negro History Week in 1926 in public schools in the US to teach black history, the event initially was not widely accepted. In 1970, a proposal from black educators and students at Kent State University, the week was expanded into Black History Month, and six years later was officially endorsed by President Gerald Ford.
In celebration of Black History Month let us honor some of our LGBTQ pioneers, from our past and present and celebrate their contributions to history.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) – Rustin was a gay and civil rights activist best known for being a key adviser to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin promoted nonviolent resistance and organized the 1963 March on Washington. In 2013, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his tireless work promoting equal rights.
Richard Nugent (1906-1987) –Nugent was a writer, artist and actor during the Harlem Renaissance. He explored issues of sexuality and black identity in his work, and his avant-garde story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” is thought to be the first explicitly gay story published by a black writer.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) – Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” broke ground with her emphasis on the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexual identity. Her most well-known work includes Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays and speeches, and the semi-autobiographical Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.
Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) – Civil rights leader and attorney Barbara Jordan was a political trailblazer. In 1966, she became the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate, and then just a few years later, she became the first woman and first African-American elected to Congress from Texas. In 1992, the NAACP awarded Jordan the Spingarn Medal, and in 1994, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. While Jordan never explicitly acknowledged her sexual orientation in public, she was open about her life partner of nearly 30 years, Nancy Earl.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) – Johnson was an outspoken transgender rights activist, and she is reported to be one of the central figures of the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969. Along with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, Johnson helped form Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and the STAR House to help young trans women and drag queens. Johnson is the subject of the new Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
Ron Oden (1950-) – Oden was elected mayor of Palm Springs, California, in 2003. He made history by becoming the first openly gay African-American man elected mayor of an American city. Following Oden’s historic election 15 years ago, the Palm Spring City Council made history once again: In December 2017, it became America’s first all-LGBT city council. In 2007, he was honored with a golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. He is the father of two daughters and the grand-father to two granddaughters and two grandsons.
Phill Wilson (1956-) –Wilson’s career in activism started after he and his partner, Chris Brownlie, were both diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s. This was at a time when the AIDS epidemic was just starting in the US. When his partner died of an HIV-related illness in 1989, Wilson channeled his grief into activism. Already involved in the gay community in Chicago through sports activities and social activities, he graduated, he moved to Los Angeles in 1982, and got involved in the National Association of Black and White Men Together. in 1983, Wilson began working as the Director of Policy and Planning for the AIDS Project in Los Angeles. During this time, he was also the AIDS Coordinator for Los Angeles. From 1990 to 1995, Wilson served as the co-chair of the Los Angeles HIV Health Commission. In 1995, he became a member of the HRSA AIDS Advisory Committee. Wilson took a break from work in 1997, when his disease became too immobilizing. Wilson went back to work in 1999, when he founded the Black AIDS Institute. In 2010, Wilson became appointed to the Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, becoming the co-chair of the disparity’s subcommittee. During his career, Wilson has also worked as a World AIDS Summit delegate
Andrea Jenkins (1961-) – Andrea Jenkins made history in November 2017 by becoming the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the US. Jenkins, a Democrat, was one of two openly trans people to win a seat on the Minneapolis City Council last year. The 56-year-old Jenkins is also a published poet and writer, performance artists and an oral historian at the University of Minnesota. She has participated in the Trans Lives Matter movement and chaired the board of Intermedia Arts. In 2015 she was grand marshal of the Twin Cities Pride Parade
Willi Ninja (1961-2006) –Ninja was a dancer, choreographer and the “Grandfather of Vogue,” the dance style that he helped propel to the national stage. Ninja was self-taught dancer and was perfecting his voguing style by his twenties. Vogueing, characterized by angular body movements and exaggerated runway poses, was introduced to the public in the award-winning 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” which Ninja appeared in, and was popularized by Madonna’s 1990 hit song “Vogue.” Ninja died in 2006 at age 45 of AIDS-related heart failure.