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Eight LGBT African-Americans Who Changed The Gay Community

Mabel Hampton
Lesbian activist and archivist

Known fondly as Miss Mabel during her later years, Mabel Hampton (1902-1989) was truly “in the life.” A major contributor of her time and personal materials to The Lesbian Herstory Archives, she witnessed and helped document gay and black life during the 20th century, from the Harlem Renaissance to her own 25-year relationship with partner Lillian Foster.

Hailing from Winston-Salem, NC, Hampton moved to New York in the 1920s to become a dancer and singer, and found a home in the Harlem Renaissance scene alongside queer black icon Langston Hughes and bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith. She was sent to a women’s reformatory for 13 months for prostitution in the early 1920s, but spoke openly about the kindness she received from other women there:

“[Another prisoner] says, ‘I like you.’ ‘I like you too,’ [I reply]… We went to bed and she took me in her bed and held me in her arms and I went to sleep. She put her arms around me like Ellen used to do, you know, and I went to sleep.”

In 1932, she met Foster (right) and the two remained a couple until Foster’s death in 1978.

Throughout the years, Hampton squirreled away hundreds of letters, photos and other items that chronicled African-American and gay life and history, including her own. She became a prolific philanthropist, volunteer and a piece of living history, appearing in the 1980s documentaries, Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall. In one of many oral histories she recorded before her death in 1989, Hampton mused:

“I’m glad I became [a lesbian]. I have nothing to regret. Not a thing. All these people run around going, ‘I’m not this, I’m not that.’ [Being gay] doesn’t bother me. If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing. I’d be a lesbian. Oh boy, I would really be one, then! I’d really be one! Oh boy!”


NEXT: A diagnosis leads to activism for Phill Wilson

Photos: Joan Nestle/The Lesbian Herstory Archives.


    • Eric Auerbach
      Eric Auerbach

      When will the click-through photos end???

      Feb 4, 2013 at 3:42 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • LizzyGirl

      Marsha P. Johnson.

      Feb 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Red Meat
      Red Meat

      Frank Ocean has done nothing for the gay community or the music industry. Being gay is not an act of anything. There are far more artists in the last 20 years that have done more than come out of the closet.

      As for his talent, he has done nothing Usher or Justin Timberlake have not done. Even the prick Chris Brown did it better.

      Feb 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Eric Auerbach
      Eric Auerbach

      @Red Meat: The world disagrees with you:


      Feb 4, 2013 at 5:43 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • 2eo

      @Eric Auerbach: Jazz album that got less than 2000 votes on a website directly about the thing he is in.

      Lets not get ahead of ourselves, the world doesn’t give a fuck about Frank Ocean, it’s good that he’s come out and is continuing doing the thing he loves in spite of criticism.

      But lets not go assuming he’s up there with MLK, Harvey Milk and countless others.

      Feb 4, 2013 at 6:22 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Eric Auerbach
      Eric Auerbach

      @2eo: What? That’s Pazz and Jop, the best-known, most respected music critics’ poll in the country.

      Feb 4, 2013 at 6:57 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • LadyL

      @Red Meat: @2eo: Visibility is power. It’s light and truth and transformation. That’s never more true than in black communities that have long been ruled by cultural ignorance, groupthink insecurities and religious intolerance. Ocean’s coming out is significant and potentially huge for young black and minority LGBTQ and their families.

      Feb 4, 2013 at 8:29 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • dugman

      Did we have a brain fart and just forget James Baldwin? Baldwin had to go off to the safety of Paris to write and publish ‘Giovani;s Room” one of the few gay themed novels around when I came out. He also wrote on the themes of race and sexuality and the intersection of those themes.

      Feb 4, 2013 at 9:36 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • stfallon1028

      Thank you for including Bayard Rustin on this list! A forgotten hero to the cause is finally getting the recognition he missed out on in life.

      Feb 5, 2013 at 12:13 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • MickeyP.

      I love Wanda Sykes! She is a great comedian,IMO.

      Feb 5, 2013 at 1:32 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • hamoboy

      How do Frank Ocean and RuPaul get on this list but not James Baldwin? Speechless.

      Feb 5, 2013 at 3:40 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • CM79

      I say take Frank Ocean’s name off the list. He played the gay card because it was the only one in his hand. Frank is basically propped by a media who seemed to know what the worst outcome could have been in his coming out, and went out of their way to shield him from it. Behind the forced critical praise, on every blog, message board and real life conversation I’ve been witness to where he’s the topic, I see a stalemate in reaction; he has his defenders, but he also has many callous detractors.

      Feb 5, 2013 at 6:05 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Lefty

      I’m sure Bayard Rustin would have dreamt that one day all his work would result in being on a list with Don Lemon and Frank “he’s never said he’s gay” Ocean.
      I wonder if a similar list is being compiled of white gay people who changed the world. With Harvey Milk, Lance Bass and the Honey Boo Boo dude…

      Feb 5, 2013 at 6:39 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • The Real Mike in Asheville
      The Real Mike in Asheville

      Very confused, very: how about a column about those who are changing: Don Lemmon, Frank Ocean, Wanda Sykes, et al, and those who have: Bernard Rustin and Mabel Hampton.

      Alas, a list of 8 is a list missing too many: No James Baldwin? No Langston Hughes? Where is Alvin Ailey? Long, long before RuPaul — who is making waves for the LGBT community and I applaud that — there was Sylvester.

      Barbara Jordan? Alice Walker? Sheryl Swoopes?

      Honorable Mention — Julian Bond, the gay community has no better friend and advocate than the Chairman Emeritus of the NCAAP. An all-out advocate for equality for all; and his advocacy for marriage equality is changing the LGBT community as the walls of resistance from the larger black community crumble.

      Feb 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • AdamK17

      Wanda Sykes grew up in suburban Maryland actually. She went to the same High School I did, just about 20 years apart.

      Feb 5, 2013 at 7:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Dehreeus

      White, gay websites kill me trying to make Frank Ocean into some gay, black hero. He doesn’t even want to be associated with us and the fact that y’all label everything black “hip-hop” is so annoying. Bye.

      Feb 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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