Seven LGBT African-Americans Who Changed The Face Of The Gay Community

Slowly but surely, the phrase “the first black person to…” has begun to disappear from our collective lexicon. There are many checkmarks on the list of African-American achievements, not the least of which is President of the United States.

For gays of color, though, there can be more obstacles: When he came out, CNN news anchor Don Lemon jested that he was “a double minority,” but tensions between the two communities have strained in recent years. (Whether true or not, the perception that black churches were heavily involved in the campaign to pass Proposition 8 opened old wounds on both sides.)

African-Americans, though, have always been a party of the gay community—both as members and as allies. NAACP president Benjamin Jealous told the audience at the recent Conference on LGBT Equality, “if you pick a fight with my brother—whether it is because you say we ain’t like you or he ain’t like us—you have picked a fight with me.”

Many gays of color have made their mark on America, including writers James Baldwin (above), Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde and E. Lynn Harris; directors Patrik Ian-Polk (Noah’s Arc), Paris Barclay (Glee, Sons of Anarchy) and Lee Daniels (Precious); pro basketball players Sheryl Swoopes and John Amaeche (right); singers Meshell Ndegeocello and Kele Okereke (Bloc Party)—and even a Republican mayor, Bruce Harris of Chatham, NJ.

Today is the start of Black History Month, and Queerty is taking a look at seven gay African-Americans who weren’t just pioneers in their chosen fields, but who paved the way for all of us.

Have someone to add? Share their names and accomplishments in the comments section below.

FIRST: There wouldn’t have been a civil-rights movement without Bayard Rustin

Photos: PBS, Orlando Magic

Bayard Rustin
Civil-rights activist, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream—and a gay ally who helped make it come true. A pacifist and activist, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) learned to take a nonviolent yet effective stand for equality from his grandmother, Julia, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In his youth, Rustin rallied against Jim Crow laws and the racially charged case against the Scottsboro boys.  Later, he debated Malcolm X, stressing the importance of seeing the world’s various races as one big family.

Rustin first met King in 1956, when Rustin helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He educated MLK in Gandhian nonviolent protest principles and went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where King made his immortal “I had a dream” speech.

But Rustin’s homosexuality posed a problem: Some civil rights leaders took issue with it, while members of the U.S. government used Rustin’s sexuality—and his arrest in 1953 for a “sex perversion” offense—to undermine his effectiveness.  Senator Strom Thurmond, in particular, blasted Rustin as a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” in 1963 and had his arrest file entered in the congressional record.  (Thurmond also produced an FBI photo of Rustin and MLK chatting while the latter was taking a bath, to suggest the two were lovers.)

Before views about homosexuality softened, much of Rustin’s accomplishments in the civil rights movement went unsung, though they are chronicled in the brilliant documentary Brother Outsider.

By the 1970s, Rustin began championing gay rights more directly: In a 1986 speech, “The New Niggers Are Gay,” he drew an explicit connection between the struggles of the black and LGBT communities:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new ‘niggers’ are gays. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”

NEXT: Mabel Hampton, witness to herstory in the making

Photos: Library of Congress

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.


Phill Wilson
AIDS activist, founder of Black AIDS Institute

In 1981, Phill Wilson and partner Chris Brownlie, who owned a small giftware company together, found themselves in a doctor’s office, puzzling over mysteriously swollen lymph nodes. While no test yet existed to accurately diagnose their condition, both were infected with HIV, which was already sending shockwaves throughout the gay community. Since then, Wilson, 55, has made it his life’s mission to battle the epidemic, particularly within the black community.

Living in L.A. at the time, he and Brownlie quickly became involved with every area organization tackling this new plague, and helped to found AIDS Project Los Angeles in the process. Tragically, Brownlie succumbed to AIDS in 1989.

Wilson funneled his anger and sorrow into even more intense community efforts: In 1999 he founded The Black AIDS Institute, where he remains Executive Director, and has helped create numerous other service and community organizations including the Chris Brownlie Hospice, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the National Minority AIDS Council, the Los Angeles County Gay Men of Color Consortium and the CAEAR Coalition.

In an interview for PBS’ Frontline, Wilson shared:

As early as 1984, 1985, 25% of the AIDS cases in America were African-American. The majority of children with AIDS were African-American. The majority of women with AIDS were African-American. African- Americans have always been disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS. The thing that strikes me about the AIDS epidemic is that, quite frankly, it’s always been about race, or it’s always been about ‘the other,’ and that’s one reason why stigma has been such a barrier to end this epidemic.

Asked what advice he would give young people today, he said:

“I basically would say to anyone, young, old or otherwise, that there will be an accounting, and you have to be comfortable with that. [The] price of the ticket for life is to leave the world a better place than you found it. That’s the minimum payment that we owe for the privilege of having spent time on this planet. Make sure that you at least pay the minimum dues.”

NEXT: “You. Better. WORK!”

Photo: Todd Williamson/PRNewsFoto

RuPaul Andre Charles
Drag queen, author, singer, host, supermodel of the world

“You know when I started out, they told me I couldn’t make it,” RuPaul said in the 1995 documentary Wigstock: The Movie. “They said, ‘ain’t no big black drag queen in the pop world and you ain’t gonna do it.’ And look at the bitch now!”

Born in San Diego, California, RuPaul Andre Charles developed his drag persona in Atlanta and New York in the 1980s. Since her 1993 breakout single, “Supermodel,” Ru has kicked her size 12 stilettos even further into the mainstream with more pop hits, a cult-favorite talk show, movie roles, dolls, books (including the self-help book RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style) and even a figure in Madame Tussauds.

And that’s not even including a little show called RuPaul’s Drag Race.

RuPaul, now 51, can also be credited with challenging perceptions of what it means to be gay, black, and for that matter, a drag queen. Her 2004 album, Red Hot, featured appearances by blackface drag personality Shirley Q. Liquor, stirring up dialogue about race and racism. Last year, three teachers at Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School were suspended over allowing students to carry photos of “questionable” African-American role models, including RuPaul, at a Black History Month parade.

But to Ru, her drag persona is a means, not an end: “The superficial image I project is a social commentary on the world we live in,” RuPaul said in an interview in the Willamette Week. “I’m saying, ‘Look, I’m beautiful with all this stuff on, but that truth is who I really am has nothing to do with any of this stuff… It’s not real at all. I never said it was.”

Can we get an “amen” up in here?

NEXT: Bill T. Jones steps it up

Photos: David Shankbone, Logo


Bill T. Jones

One of the most celebrated (and outspoken) choreographers today, Bill T. Jones performed worldwide as a soloist and with his late partner, Arnie Zane, before forming the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982. As a choreographer, he’s created hundreds of works  for his own company, as well as pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, AXIS Dance Company and numerous other dance troupes, and collaborations with author Toni Morrison, opera diva Jessye Norman and fellow queer New York artist Keith Haring.

He has been lauded for his professional accomplishments: He has two Tonys for Best Choreography (one for Spring Awakening and the other for Fela! which he also co-created and directed), received a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1994 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010.

Though Jones, now 60, came of age when the dance world grappled with acknowledging gay choreographers and dancers—Alvin Ailey guarded his sexuality throughout his life—he has always been open about being gay. (Zane and Jones were often paired in sensual duets.)

Jones has also never hidden the fact that he is HIV+ (Zane died of AIDS-related complications in 1989). He’s incorporated themes relating to AIDS in his works, including The Breathing Show, D-Man in the Waters and Still/Here  and, after Zane’s death, created a series of  “survival” workshops for people with HIV/AIDS, elements of which have inspired movements and passages in his artistic output.

“Living and dying is not the big issue,” Jones told the MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1987. “The big issue is what you’re going to do with your time while you’re here. I [am] determined to perform.”

Though he’s endured prejudice, illness and the loss of a lover of 17 years, Jones is optimistic for the future of the gay community. He once told POV magazine:

“In 20 or 30 years, we’ll be out from the Middle Ages, the Inquisition. This is a benign universe that exists on a level so far beyond the screams and cries of the Holocaust, my mother’s tears, beyond lesions and sores and gasping for air in the last moments of life. I think that if we look back, it’ll be understood that we know what it feels for me to right now be saying, I am HIV positive, and I am all right. I am a homosexual man, and I have been promiscuous, and that too is all right.”

Photo: Abbey Braden, the Estate of Keith Haring

NEXT: Comedy with a message from Wanda Sykes

Wanda Sykes

Comedy isn’t just the best medicine—sometimes it’s our greatest weapon: In 2008, comedian Wanda Sykes—known equally for her acerbic standup and for tearing into neurotic Larry David on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm—came out publicly during an anti-Proposition 8 rally. She also revealed that she had legally married her wife, Alexandra, in California prior to Prop 8’s passage. “We’re in love and we want to spend the rest of our lives together,” she told The Advocate in 2009. “That’s why you get married.”

Raised in Washington, D.C., Sykes first hit the standup circuit in the late ’80s. As part of The Chris Rock Show’s writing team, she won a 1999 Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Special. Sykes landed recurring roles on TV shows The New Adventures of Old Christine, Curb, and her own 2003 sitcom, Wanda At Large, and in 2009, a namesake late-night talk show.

After coming out, Sykes, 47, incorporated her sexuality—and headlines affecting the queer community—into her comedy. Already popular with black audiences from her standup and film and television roles, she’s able to reach people who may not connect with Ellen or Rosie, and use humor to illustrate the links between minority groups.

Sykes has also dedicate time to numerous LGBT causes: In 2010, she was honored with GLAAD’s Stephen F. Kolzak Award for making a difference through her visibility. “I’m very humbled,” she shared with the audience. “Just being able to be out and open and free and be able to say thank you to my wife… I love you baby, you mean the world to me. I’m telling you, it is love and being honest that’s gonna win hearts and minds. That’s where it is.”

Ain’t nothing funny about that.

NEXT: Don Lemon makes headline news

Photos: Jemal Countess, HBO


Don Lemon
CNN anchorman

With the publication last May of his unflinching memoir, Transparent, Emmy-winning CNN news anchor Don Lemon came out to the world at large. In a interview with The New York Times, he noted, “I guess this makes me a double minority now.”

Born in Louisiana, Lemon made his first on-air inroads as a co-anchor on Chicago’s NBC5 News and as a correspondent for The Today Show and The NBC Nightly News. Joining CNN as a reporter six years ago, he’s gone on to cover the 2008 presidential election (during which he was pushed into a golf cart by Marcus Bachmann) and the accusations of child molestation against Bishop Eddie Long (revealing he had been molested as a child in the process) and hosted a panel on transgender representations on The Joy Behar Show.

Currently a network correspondent and weekend anchor for CNN Newsroom, Lemon, 45, has won the Edward R. Murrow Award for covering the D.C. sniper’s capture and local Emmys for reports on Craigslist, Chicago real estate and Africa’s AIDS epidemic. In 2009, he made Ebony’s 150 Most Influential African-Americans list.

In an age of sycophantic news coverage, he stands out for his willingness to challenge public figures and his own industry. He certainly didn’t flinch from his own truth in Transparent, revealing the difficulties of being both black and gay. He condemns the “pray the gay away” approach and, in many interviews about Transparent, has called attention to the tragic suicide of gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. He has also accepted the mantle of spokesperson for the LGBT community, speaking at events for HRC and GLAAD and receiving honors from the Anti-Violence Project and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association

In a sense, Lemon is the anti-Anderson Cooper: He has come to understand that being honest with the public about who you are and the road you’ve traveled can help, not hinder a journalist.

“I abhor hypocrisy,” Lemon once told the Times. “I think if you’re going to be in the business of news, and telling people the truth, of trying to shed light in dark places, then you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to have the same rules for yourself as you do for everyone else… I think it would be great if everybody could be out. I think if I had seen more people like me who are out and proud, it wouldn’t have taken me 45 years to say it.”

Photos: CNN

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