Black History Month
14 Queer People Of Color From History You Should Definitely Know About
“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers." Here are just a few.
Musicians And Entertainers:
Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey (1886—1939)
Known by many names — the "Mother of the Blues", the "Songbird of the South", the "Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues" — one thing is for sure, Rainey had pipes. After her talent was discovered by Paramount in 1923, she was among the first generation of blues singers to be recorded. Some of Rainey's lyrics contain references to being queer, such as the 1928 song
"Prove It on Me": "They said I do it, ain't nobody caught me / Sure got to prove it on me / Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must've been women / 'cause I don't like no men."
Another line boasts:
"It's true I wear a collar and a tie / Talk to the gals just like any old man."
Bessie Smith (1894—1937)
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As the most popular blues singer of the 1920s, the "Empress of the Blues" hardly needs any introduction. She went from busking on the streets of Chattanooga, TN, to performing at the most famous club venues in the country. She would ultimately become the highest-paid black entertainer of her time. Three of her original recordings have been inducted into the
Grammy Hall of Fame.
Her marriage to Jack Gee was a notoriously volatile relationship, with both partners not being
entirely faithful. They would later divorce, due in part to Gee not being able to tolerate Smith's affairs with other women.
The "big three" of 1920s blues — Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lucille Bogan — were all queer women. Bogan became known for her
sexually explicit lyrics (eyes emoji). For example, one of her songs describes living as a B.D. or "bull dyke" with lyrics like:
"Comin' a time, B.D. women, they ain't gonna need no men / They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man."
Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton (1926—1984)
When you think of that rock n' roll lyric, "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," you probably think of Elvis — but Mama Thornton (pictured in a suit above) was actually the
first to record it. The single was wildly successful, she sold over two million copies, but once "The King" recorded it, her version was quickly overshadowed. Another of her original songs, "Ball 'n Chain," was later made famous by Janis Joplin.
Thornton, often referred to as simply "Big Mama", dressed in men's clothing and, as any badass should, had little regard for other's opinions when it came to her style. You go, Mama.
Big Mama Thornton died in 1984. That same year, she was officially inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Listen to more
Gladys Bentley (1907—1960)
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Bentley was the entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance who pretty much aced the tux and top hat look
way before Marlene Deitrich. Bentley quickly gained notoriety by dressing in men's clothes while performing risque lyrics (usually directed towards the women in the audience) at Harry Hansberry's Clam House in New York in the 1920s. She described stealing her brother's clothing as a child in a personal essay published in Ebony magazine:
"At the age of nine and ten, I stole their suits and wore them to school. I think I began wearing their clothes, feeling that I was getting even with them, but soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys' clothes than in dresses."
Billy Strayhorn (1915–1967)
An American jazz pianist and composer, Strayhorn built a musical partnership with Duke Ellington that lasted decades. So while you may not instantly recognize his name, his talents are behind the arrangements for some of your favorite classics, like "
Take the 'A' Train".
Strayhorn's first love was classical music, but he would meet musicians that would lead him into the realm of Jazz. It was in Pittsburgh, PA, where he would see Ellington perform and ultimately
be introduced — the rest is musical history.
One of Strayhorn's longest relationships was with fellow Jazz pianist Aaron Bridgers, who eventually left him to move to Paris. When he died at the age of 51 from esophageal cancer, he was with his partner at the time, Bill Grove. Listen to some of his smoothest jazz right
Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley (1894—1975)
This dynamic queer comedian worked her way from the vaudeville circuit to appearing on the
Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The best part? She borrowed her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend. In a 1970s interview with Ebony she said that he had taken so much from her, the least she could do was take his name. Are you taking notes?
In 1939, she became the first female comedian to perform at The Apollo. She was recently the focus of
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, an HBO documentary that chronicled her audacious career.
Activists And Politicians:
Bayard Rustin (1912—1987)
The civil rights activist and close advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King once spent 60 days in jail after he was
arrested on a "morals charge" for publicly engaging in homosexual activity. While he is often credited for defending gay rights throughout his life, it's not completely clear if Rustin saw himself that way, stating in 1986, "I did not 'come out' of the closet voluntarily—circumstances forced me out. While I have no problem with being publicly identified as homosexual, it would be dishonest of me to present myself as one who was in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights."
In order to legalize his partnership with
Walter Naegle, Rustin actually ended up adopting his partner in 1982, thus making their union legal in some way. That is truly true love.
“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” Rustin said in one of his most famous quotes. He was, undoubtedly, one of them.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945–1992)
Marsha "Pay It No Mind" Johnson was a badass in every sense of the word. Truly one of the founders of the modern LGBT movement in the U.S., Johnson was among the first individuals to fight back against the police during the Stonewall Riots. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and together they became a visible presence at gay marches and protests in New York City.
Since her death in 1992, Johnson's free spirit and "pay it no mind" attitude continues to inspire. She is the subject of the documentary
, and inspired the upcoming short film Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson . Happy Birthday, Marsha
Mabel Hampton (1902—1989)
An outspoken lesbian activist and a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance, Hampton was a philanthropist for both black and LGBT groups. Dancing in all-black productions, she once worked with another badass on this list — Jackie 'Moms' Mabley. She met her partner Lillian Foster in 1932 and the pair stayed together until Foster's death in 1978.
While speaking at the New York City Pride parade in 1984, she said to the crowd, "I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people." A true badass if we ever saw one. You can find out more about her life in the
Lesbian Herstory Archives, to which she was a major contributor.
Rep. Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)
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American congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a democrat from Texas, was the first black woman elected to Congress from a southern state. Before she became a member of congress, she was a lawyer and an educator and her "firsts" continued throughout her career. In 1976, she became the first woman and the first black keynote speaker at a Democratic National Convention.
Barbara Jordan never publicly acknowledged her sexuality, but she lived happily with the same woman for 30 years. Her inspiring
words still ring true today: "We are a people in search of a national community, attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal."
Richmond Barthé (1901–1989)
Barthé was a sculptor who gained notoriety for his sculptures of black subjects. The young artist studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, while working unskilled odd jobs to support himself. Barthé would later become the first black artist to be represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection.
Although he remained closeted for the duration of his life, he established a large group of friends in the LGBT community in Harlem and throughout New York City — including the poet Langston Hughes.
Do yourself a favor and look through some of his work
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
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Alvin Ailey, who founded the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater of New York City in 1958, completely revolutionized modern dance. The choreographer remained closeted to his family and kept his dancing career a secret from his mother for several years.
Following his death in 1989, to spare his mother the social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, he
requested his doctor tell her that he had succumbed to a terminal blood condition. In 2014, President Barack Obama selected Ailey to be a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater recently celebrated its 50th year in production and if you haven't seen the company's tribute to Moonlight yet — go watch it.
Audre Lorde (1934—1992)
The writer, civil rights activist, and all-around badass provided plenty of wise words to live by (or put on a tote bag, whatever, do you). "I am deliberate and afraid of nothing," is a rallying cry that we could use more of these days and she certainly lived with this motto close to her heart. Her poetry and writing tackled civil rights, feminism, and the realities of living as a black woman in the world.
Lorde died of liver cancer in 1992 but there is no doubt her words and works continue to inspire today.
James Baldwin (1924–1987)
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When he was just a teenager in New York City, the legendary writer and essayist purposely went to a restaurant where he
knew they would not serve him. When the waitress informed him that they didn't "serve Negroes" there, Baldwin threw a glass of water — shattering the mirror behind the bar. Years later, he would become a key player in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
Just last year, the documentary
I Am Not Your Negro was released, which featured his words and vision. The film is based off an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin and is narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson. It won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
Who continues to inspire you this Black History Month (and each and every day)?