Each June, Pride Month celebrates LGBTQ+ people around the world and recognizes the 1969 Stonewall Riots. This Sunday, June 19, Pride Month intersects with Juneteenth—a day that recognizes the end of slavery in the United States and emphasizes education and achievement among Black Americans.
In honor of both Pride and Juneteenth, we want to highlight six LGBTQ+ Black trailblazers who have dedicated themselves to advancing liberation and freedom.
Certainly, this list is far from exhaustive. Rather, it is a jumping off point to explore the rich history of Black LGBTQ+ art and activism in the United States. Today, new generations of courageous Black LGBTQ+ youth work, advocate, and create art in service of building safe, inclusive, and empowering communities.
An American writer and activist, James Baldwin grew up in Harlem, NYC, and is renowned for his essays, poems, and novels that explore race and what it means to be a Black man in white society. He addressed same-sex and interracial relationships and other taboo issues using clear, insightful language, and was a renowned speaker during the civil rights era. Learn more about Baldwin’s writing.
Marsha “Pay it No Mind” Johnson was a Black trans woman and force behind the Stonewall Riots and surrounding activism that sparked a new phase of the LGBTQ+ movement in 1969. With Sylvia Rivera, she established the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group committed to supporting transgender youth experiencing homelessness in New York City, in 1970. She is widely considered an LGBTQ+ icon.
Bayard Rustin was a leader and influential organizer during the civil rights movement and a close advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was one of the chief organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, and helped King gain a deeper understanding of nonviolent protest. Rustin was also a labor organizer and an openly gay man at a time when this was particularly unsafe. He claimed his Quaker grandmother’s affirmative support helped him live without shame or guilt.
Audre Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” whose work explored her intersecting identities and experiences with cancer and confronted injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. A native New Yorker and daughter of immigrants, Lorde’s activism and published work speak to the importance of the struggle for liberation and of organizing in coalition across differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, and ability. Learn more about Lorde.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is a Black transgender activist and community leader, with a particular focus on supporting trans women of color and building trans community. Griffin-Gracy participated in the Stonewall Riots and served as the original Executive Director for the Trans Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, which advocates for incarcerated transgender and intersex individuals.
Gladys Bently was a blues singer, trailblazer, and top entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance. Her career skyrocketed when she appeared at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in New York in the 1920s, as a Black, lesbian, cross-dressing performer. She headlined in the early 1930s at Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where she was backed by a chorus line of drag queens. She dressed in men’s clothes (including a signature tailcoat and top hat), played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day.
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