Throughout the month of February, Black pioneers are celebrated for making history and the legacy they left behind. Black LGBTQ heroes have also left their impact on equal rights and the civil rights movement.
“Black LGBTQ people were key leaders in the civil rights movement, and Black leaders have been at the forefront of the struggle for LGBTQ equality from the very start. At this juncture in our ongoing struggle to realize America’s promise of equality and justice for all, we know that our work is not complete until the most marginalized within our LGBTQ community have achieved equality,” said HRC President Alphonso David in a previous statement. “This Black History Month and beyond, let us celebrate our progress, let us be inspired by our history and let us recommit to the work ahead.”
Here are just a few Black LGBTQ trailblazers that should be known:
Audre Lorde dedicated her life to poetry and fighting racism, sexism and homophobia. Lorde, who grew up in New York City, published her first poem in Seventeen magazine while she was a student at Hunter High School. She went on to earn her BA from Hunter College and her Master of Library and Information Science (MLS) degree from Columbia University.
Lorde went on to become a librarian in New York Public Schools in the 1960s. She married her husband Edward Rollins, a white, gay man and the two had two children before their divorce in 1970. Two years later, she met her life-long partner Frances Clayton and began teaching as a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, a Historically Black College in Jackson, Mississippi.
Through her work, Lorde wrote about race, gender and class. She self-described herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and was involved in civil rights, feminist and LGBTQ movements. She once said, “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”
Lorde once discussed how one of her poems, titled “Power,” was about her feelings after a police officer was acquitted after shooting a 10-year-old Black boy.
“A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw. So I pulled over. I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips. Those expressed feelings are that poem,” she said, according to the Poetry Foundation.
Born into a family that was already involved in civil rights work, Bayard Rustin continued his family’s work when he moved to New York City from Pennsylvania. While living in New York, Rustin earned a living wage by singing at nightclubs.
He was involved in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which was a group of religious nonviolent organizations. Rustin helped organize the first Freedom Ride in 1947 called the Journey of Reconciliation to challenge racial segregation on interstate busing. He joined forces with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and became one of his key advisers from 1955 to 1968. While working with Dr. King, Rustin helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was also the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In the 1970s, Rustin became a public advocate for LGBTQ rights. Because of his sexuality, Rustin was rarely a public spokesperson. Before he began working for Dr. King, he was arrested in 1953 for having sex with men. He was recently pardoned by California Governor Gavin Newsom, 33 years after his death.
"Mr. Rustin was criminalized because of stigma, bias, and ignorance," Newsom said in the pardon. "With this act of executive clemency, I acknowledge the inherent injustice of this conviction, an injustice that was compounded by his political opponents' use of the record of this case to try to undermine him, his associates, and the civil rights movement."
Rustin was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was one of the key figures of the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969. Johnson, who grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, began wearing dresses at the age of five years old, but stopped because of how other children treated her. After graduating from high school in 1963, she moved to New York City with $15 in her pocket and a bag of clothes.
In 1966, Johnson officially changed her name from Malcolm to Marsha. If anyone dared to ask her what the P in her middle initial stood for, she would reply “Pay it no mind,” to deter anyone from asking hateful questions. Johnson was known for her eccentric clothing, hats, and jewelry. She was 23 years old when she resisted police at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in Greenwich Village, New York, during the Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969.
During the 1970s, she performed in drag and was part of a drag performance group called Hot Peaches, according to The New York Times. Artist Andy Warhol took polaroids of Johnson for his 1975 portfolio titled “Ladies and Gentlemen,” which captured drag queens and transgender patrons at the nightclub called The Gilded Grape.
Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to advocate for transgender youth and sex workers. For a while, the organization housed, clothed and fed transgender youth at an apartment building in the East Village. During the 1980s, she became an AIDS activist and was involved in ACT UP, a coalition that worked to end the AIDS pandemic. During an interview with The Times in 1992, she admitted to being HIV positive.
Johnson’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 46 years old after her body was pulled out of the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Her death was quickly ruled a suicide by authorities, but later that year, the case was reclassified a drowning from undetermined causes. In 2012, authorities reopened the case.
Despite her sudden death, Johnson’s legacy still lives on. Johnson and Rivera were honored with a monument in NYC in Greenwich Village last year.
Barbara Jordan was the first Black American to be elected to the Texas Senate and was the first southern Black woman to be elected into the U.S. House of Representatives. Jordan was born on February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas. Her grandfather, Edward A. Patton, served in the state legislature after Reconstruction and was one of the last Black Americans to serve in the state until Jordan was elected in 1966.
After graduating from Boston University School of Law in 1959, she passed the Massachusetts and Texas bar, which made her the third Black woman to be licensed to practice law in Texas.
In 1960, Jordan volunteered at the Kennedy-Johnson campaign headquarters and did basic office tasks. When a speaker for the campaign was unable to attend an event, Jordan stepped in, and began speaking at other campaign events as a result. After the presidential election, a campaign organizer that worked with Jordan suggested she run for a seat in the Texas state legislature. After two unsuccessful bids due to reapportionment, she was elected to represent District 11 in 1966.
Jordan served in the Texas senate from 1967 to 1972. From the senate, she was elected into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and was selected as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. While serving, she spoke at the Watergate proceedings and condemned President Nixon’s actions. In 1976, she became the first Black woman to give a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.
In 1994 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. Although Jordan was never publicly out, she was open about her life partner, Nancy Earl, for 30 years. She died in 1996 due to complications with pneumonia.
Composer Billy Strayhorn was known for his collaborations with bandleader Duke Ellington that helped shape the American jazz movement.
Strayhorn, who was one of the first openly gay jazzmen, was born in 1915 in Dayton, Ohio. His family moved to Pittsburgh in 1924 and he attended the Pittsburgh Musical Institute, where he studied classical music and learned to play the piano. In 1937, he formed his jazz group and met Ellington a year later.
For 25 years, Strayhorn worked with Ellington as a composer, and composed the band’s most-known piece “Take the A Train.” Strayhorn was openly gay and was in a committed 10-year relationship with Aaron Bridgers, a jazz pianist, up until 1947. In 1950, Strayhorn left Ellington to pursue a solo career.
Strayhorn was actively involved in the civil rights movement and wrote compositions to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement, like "King Fit the Battle of Alabama" for the Ellington Orchestra, which was part of the album My People, released in 1963 and was dedicated to King. He played his only solo concert at the New School in New York City in 1965.
Shortly after the assassination of Dr. King, Staryhorn died of esophageal cancer when he was 51 years old with his partner of three years, Bill Grove, by his side.