For 85+ years, Americans have dedicated February as a time to recognize the contributions of black leaders. Despite embracing and celebrating black history everlastingly, Black History Month always provides me with the chance to highlight certain aspects of our narrative and inspire my own place in the American dream, even at a time when it sometimes seems less a dream and more of a nightmare.
While this annual month-long appreciation has since expanded into a massive spectacle that includes documentaries, books, events, discussions, and celebrations, far too often the contributions of black LGBTQ people remain marginalized and demeaned in our daily existence.
Growing up, the explicit, positive portrayal of people of color were sparse. It wasn’t until characters such as Calvin Owens (Paul James/Greek), Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett/Empire) and Jeffrey Harrington (Gavin Houston/The Haves and the Have Nots) came into my personal picture that I was able to fully identify with someone else and feel like it was ok to be my authentic self.
Despite the extent of progress that has been made in terms of representation in the media at large, I believe there is still much work to be done. I can’t help but think how transformative it would’ve been to my overall journey of acceptance and self-love if there had been more positive narratives, characters and media highlighting important individuals of color. Consequently, I feel it’s my responsibility to empower others in a similar place by highlighting thriving examples, both past and present, of my double minority status.
From civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to author Langston Hughes to well-renowned inventor George Washington Carver, black queer people have enriched our nation and our lives immensely. Nonetheless, stories about queer communities of color revolve around HIV/AIDS and hate crimes, which the horrific attack on Jussie Smollet only underscores. These are important stories to tell, and in their frequency, and atrocity, they keep journalists busy. Even so, there are many narratives of this communities’ transformative contributions to our nation and our long road to freedom that might help prevent attacks in the future.
In celebration of Black History Month this year and the journey of black LGBTQ individuals throughout modern American history, check out my selection of 19 influential black icons from the past and present paving the way for future generations of gay black people like me.
1. Alvin Ailey
Choreographer Alvin Ailey revolutionized modern dance after forming the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York in 1958. Ailey was known for his multi-racial company at a time when many talented black dancers were excluded from performances. In 1992, three years after his death, Ailey was inducted into the C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.
2. Angela Davis
An American political activist, scholar, and author, Davis emerged as a prominent counterculture activist and radical in the ’60s as a leader of the Communist Party USA, and had close relations with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, although she was never a party member. Her interests included prisoner rights; she founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex.
3. Audre Lorde, 1934-1992
Caribbean American writer Audre Lorde was actively involved in the early queer culture of Greenwich Village. She was also an activist for civil rights and feminist movements. Her poetry focuses on the female experience, race, and sexuality.
4. Bayard Rustin, 1912-1987
While King spoke as the face of the civil rights movement, another man stood behind the scenes, an indispensable force within the movement. He was Bayard Rustin, a man whose life was shaped by the very prejudices the movement fought against, not only because of his race, but also because he was gay. Rustin would spend his life fighting for the rights of others, even while facing discrimination of his own.
Battling racism and police brutality, DeRay Mckesson has emerged as a key 21st-century civil rights activist and educator. His documentation of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the unjust murder of Michael Brown in 2014 solidified his role as a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.
6. Frank Ocean
It almost feels taboo to be gay in the hip-hop and R&B scene, so when Odd Future member Frank Ocean came out about his relationship with a man when he was 19, the world took notice. Despite his young age, Ocean quickly became the pop icon that so many desperately needed, giving hope to those who have feared living in the dark about their own sexual orientation.
7. James Baldwin, 1924 to 1987
If you’ve ever read The Fire Next Time or Giovanni’s Room, or any other work by this icon, you’ve most likely been struck by writer James Baldwin’s eloquently subversive portraits of being marginalized in America. A dedicated advocate, James spoke out frequently on civil rights and participated actively in efforts to foster equality. He hung around with one of the most inspiring friend groups possible, which included Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr.
8. Janet Mock
Janet Mock rose as an editor for People, and came out to the public as a transgender woman in 2011. Janet combines her roles as author and advocate to inspire dialogue. She has strengthened the network of trans girls and women by creating the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs and, earlier this month, published her first memoir, Redefining Realness.
When you hear the name Jussie Smollett, you immediately think of Jamal Lyon, the character he plays on the hit show Empire, who instantly became a cultural icon as he portrayed an openly, black gay man in a way that has never been seen before on television. Because unlike most of the black, gay characters you saw on TV used in stereotypical ways or for mere comic relief, Jamal has depth, a strong moral compass, confidence and illustrates a strong sense of self that drives him forward as an artist and as a businessman. Smollett, who is also openly gay, has all those traits as well. More importantly, he is an activist who has a genuine desire to use his music and platform to change the world, tackling social issues that some no longer want to talk about. Having survived a horrific gay bashing, he’s expected to come back stronger than ever.
9. Keith Boykin
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. He became the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House and helped organize the nation’s first meeting between LGBTQ leaders and a U.S. President. Since his time in the White House, Boykin has written a number of books.
10. Keiynan Lonsdale
Keiynan Lonsdale has quickly made a name for himself as a result of his groundbreaking role as superhero Kid Flash on CW’s The Flash [and movie, Love, Simon]. Since coming out last year on Instagram, the 26-year-old actor has also been using the powers of his platform to inspire a new generation. Keiynan stated on his Instagram in 2017: “I hope we can all learn to embrace who we are & not judge people who aren’t exactly the same as us. The truth is we are all family, we’re all one. Just love.”
11. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox is a transgender activist and actress, best known for her role on Netflix‘s Orange Is The New Black and her work with GLAAD. She remains one of the most prominent and outspoken transgender advocates in the entertainment industry.
12. Lee Daniels
Lee Daniels is an Academy Award-nominated producer, director, screenwriter and actor. At age 21, Daniels started a nurse-staffing agency, which he sold a year later. The sale made him a millionaire and allowed him to pursue his dream of working in the entertainment industry. In an interview with GLAAD: All Access, Daniels spoke about the importance of having LGBT content in his hit show Empire, saying “The goals for my show is to break down walls, break down the walls of hatred, towards my community – not just the African-American community, but the gay community.”
13. Marsha P. Johnson, 1945 to 1992
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender rights activist and a kind of a queer saint. She was a loud and colorful personality who was popular in New York City’s art, transgender, and activist communities between the 1960s until the 90s. Marsha took part in Andy Warhol’s ‘ladies and gentlemen’ series of photographs and in the flamboyant theatrical troupe, Hot Peaches. She was one of the first people to fight back against the police at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, screaming for her civil rights. Marsha told the judge during a court case that the P. in her name stood for “Pay it No Mind,” which became her trademark. She along with Sylvia Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in the early 70s and they were the mothers of STAR House, which was provided food, clothing, and housing to transgender and non-gender conforming youth in NYC, one of the first organizations to advocate and support this population.
14. Michael Sam
Michael Sam, an American football defensive end who made history when he came out ahead of the 2014 NFL draft, making him the first of our own to be drafted in any major American sport. After coming out as gay during an ESPN interview, Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams as the 249th of 256 players selected. In 2014, he was named one of GQ magazine’s Men of the Year, and was a finalist for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.
15. Reece King
Model Reece King came out as bisexual in a January 2018 Gay Times interview. He stated: :I think a lot more creative LGBTQ people have taken the limelight, especially on social media. We see them on mood boards at shoots for inspiration. If people just keep doing their thing unapologetically, it breaks down the barriers in more homophobic environments.”
RuPaul is one of Hollywood’s famous black gaylebrities, ushering in worldwide interest in all things drag with the incredible success of Drag Race, now on its 11th season.
17. Sheryl Swoopes
Three-time WNBA MVP, Sheryl Swoopes was 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.
18. Wade Davis
Wade Davis is not your typical retired professional football player. The 40-year-old played in the NFL for three years, first as an undrafted free agent for the Tennessee Titans and later in the NFL’s Europe League. After short stints in training camps for the Seattle Seahawks and Washington, D.C.’s, NFL team, Davis retired in 2003 due to a leg injury. It wasn’t until 2012 that he publicly came out, and his world began to change. Now, Davis is an outspoken advocate. “The amount of privilege that being an NFL player gives you is in-fucking-measurable,” Davis said. He’s now the NFL’s first inclusion consultant, dealing with issues like racism, sexism and homophobia in sports. He’s also director of professional sports outreach for You Can Play, an organization that promotes equality. In addition, Davis is a UN Women Champion for Innovation, as part of their Global Innovation Coalition for Change, and regularly advises Google and other Fortune 500 companies on creating more inclusive work environments.
19. Wanda Skyes
Wanda Sykes is a comedienne, actress, and Emmy-award winning writer, who has starred and guest starred on several popular sitcoms. She was named one of the 25 funniest people in America by Entertainment Weekly and ranked on Out Magazine’s Annual Power List and has won several awards, including a Commie Award for Funniest TV Actress, Primetime Emmys, the American Comedy Award for Outstanding Female Stand Up Comic, and a GLAAD award for promoting a good image of equal rights. She was the first African American lesbian to be the featured entertainer for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association. After the passing of Prop 8 in California, Wanda officially came out and has been a vocal advocate for marriage equality and LGBT rights, having participated in the True Colors tour and GLSEN’s own Think B4 You Speak campaign.
Brandon Parkes is a philanthropic professional in NYC. He currently serves as the Nonprofit Engagement Manager at CariClub, an AI tech company that connects young professionals to leadership roles on nonprofit boards. He has been highlighted in publications such as Nonprofit Technology News, CauseArtist, Blacks in Technology, Why We Give, and StartupBoost to name a few. He is passionate about diversity and inclusion and in his free time he speaks on panels around sexual orientation in social entrepreneurship and is an avid volunteer for NYC organizations such as StartOut, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating great business leaders.