QUEER HISTORY IS BLACK HISTORY

A note from DTs president, Hugh Paige

When I think of notable Black History Month figures, I tend to remember those we were taught about in school. Sadly, very few openly queer people come to mind. Influential people like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, and Bayard Rustin were sometimes mentioned, but their LGBTQ+ identities usually weren’t. Or, more likely, they were omitted because teaching any sort of LGBTQ+ history was taboo. Identifying as queer was deemed secondary to their Blackness, and therefore not worthy enough of even a quick side note.

 

As we head into another 28 days of celebrating historical Black excellence, it’s important to bring the legacies of Black LGBTQ+ people back into the light. It’s the least we can do to present a full, nuanced idea of America’s Black experience. Black queer futures depend on it.

Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in the United States in 1926, intended to create a coordinated effort to teach Black history in public schools nationwide. Historian Carter G. Woodson felt that “if a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Though initially not widely accepted, by 1970, the week was expanded into Black History Month at the proposal of Black educators and students at Kent State University. Six years later, the yearly celebration was officially endorsed by President Gerald Ford.

What’s resulted in the decades since is supposed to be an opportunity for people of different races and their institutions to address the impact of omitting African Americans from their roles in building this country and our institutions; and to honor our ancestry. What we’ve been given, most of the time, is acknowledgement of essentially the same five: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker, and Malcolm X. The Black Queer folks who wrote, spoke, marched, disrupted, and made history alongside them are often left out. If they are mentioned at all, their queerness is either sensationalized—like King’s confidante Rustin, chief orchestrator of the March on Washington. His contribution is overshadowed by the sensationalist take on his involvement. 

 

I didn’t realize how much this casual omission mattered until I was asked at work and in our social club about different role models and sources of inspiration, and how they impacted our culture at large. It seemed as if history began with Laverne Cox, Don Lemon, Jason Collins, Jonathan Capehart, Billy Porter, DeRay McKesson, Wanda Sykes, and Keith Boykin—to name a few—rather than these Black LGBTQ+ people having taken up the mantle our queer ancestors had left for us.

 

The traditional Black History month has betrayed Black queer people, and in turn the entire Black community, with the same names being trotted out each year for obligatory book reports, school plays, and sermons. We can place some of the blame for the homophobia in the Black community and possibly ourselves as well at the feet of forced religion on us for our complicity in not acknowledging the Black Queer Community. I see today as an opportunity for us to resurrect the legacies of our Queer Ancestors. It’s a chance for those of us who have taken up the reins to pay homage to those who paved the way for us. Let’s remember Marsha Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Ma Rainey, Lorraine Hansbury, and so many other Black Queer members of our community. 

 

Use whatever tools you have to uplift your community, no matter how large or small they may be. It’s said that one can’t know where they’re going if they don’t know where they’ve come from. My beautiful communities: we, too, have been here, have been Black and queer, and still aren’t going anywhere.

 

Below are some additional information links regarding Black Queerness:

NBC News. 16 queer black pioneers who made history

Oxford College Library Scholar Blog. LGBTQ+ History Month: Centering Black Queer Histories.

Microsoft Bing image search for “queer black history images.”

Some biographical information on important Black Queer folks follows.

James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western society, most notably in regard to the mid-twentieth-century United States. Some of Baldwin's essays are book-length, including The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work(1976). An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was expanded and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (2016). One of his novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into the Academy-Award-winning film of the same name in 2018, directed and produced by Barry Jenkins.  His queerness and his blackness were inseparable. He was intersectional before the word existed, Chris Freeman, English professor at the University of Southern California, told NBC News.”

Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906 – April 12, 1975) was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics, directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant. During her early career, Baker was renowned as a dancer, and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. The legendary entertainer had a rumored affair with Frida Kahlo, was married to a bisexual man, and pioneered the concept of the “chosen family.”

 

James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He famously wrote about the period that “the Negro was in vogue,” which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue.” It is entirely possible that Langston Hughes was asexual and gay. 

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists. She was publicly queer and made the blues big. Her wide appeal brought the blues subculture into the mainstream and forced venues to desegregate, despite how flagrantly her own music and 

Bayard Rustin ( March 17, 1912 - August 24, 1987) was an American civil rights activist who was an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., and who was the main organizer of the March on Washington in 1963. He was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. Rustin worked with A. Philip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement, in 1941, to press for an end to racial discrimination in employment.was an openly homosexual and sexually active at a time when public demonstration of queerness was usually condemned, particularly among Southerners of all races. Throughout his career, he was distrusted and ostracized by the very colleagues who were awed by (and benefitted from) his uncanny skills.

 

These are just a few of our African American LGBTQ+ Pioneers, not just for Blacks, but for all LGBTQ+ people.

Gay Teens
Celebrating Gay Pride
40114744_2218223161521342_57401685878893