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16 queer Black trailblazers who made history

Lesbian drag king Stormé DeLarverie, trans activist Marsha P. Johnson and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin are among the Black LGBTQ pioneers who changed the course of history.
Storme DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson and Bayard Rustin
Storme DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson and Bayard Rustin.New York Times, Netflix, Getty Images

From 1960s civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to Chicago's first lesbian mayor, Lori Lightfoot, Black LGBTQ Americans have long made history with innumerable contributions to politics, art, medicine and a host of other fields.

“As long as there have been Black people, there have been Black LGBTQ and same-gender-loving people,” David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told NBC News. “Racism combined with the forces of stigma, phobia, discrimination and bias associated with gender and sexuality have too often erased the contributions of members of our community."

Glady Bentley
Glady Bentley.via Wikimedia Commons

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

Bentley was a gender-bending performer during the Harlem Renaissance. Donning a top hat and tuxedo, Bentley would sing the blues in Harlem establishments like the Clam House and the Ubangi Club. According to a belated obituary published in 2019, The New York Times said Bentley, who died in 1960 at the age of 52, was "Harlem's most famous lesbian" in the 1930s and "among the best-known Black entertainers in the United States."

Bayard Rustin
American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.Patrick A. Burns / Getty Images

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Rustin was an LGBTQ and civil rights activist best known for being a key adviser to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the 1963 March on Washington and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2013 for his activism. In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned Rustin for his arrest in 1953 when he was found having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena. Rustin served 50 days in Los Angeles County jail and had to register as a sex offender. In pardoning Rustin, Newsom noted how LGBTQ people were unjustly punished for their sexuality by U.S. law enforcement at the time Rustin's arrest.

Storm? DeLarverie
Storme DeLarverie.Michelle V Agins / The New York Times via Redux

Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)

A biracial, butch lesbian, DeLarverie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was always a performer. As a teenager, she joined the Ringling Brothers Circus where she rode jumping horses. Then from 1955 to 1969, DeLarverie toured the Black theater circuit as the MC — and only drag king — of the Jewel Box Revue, the first racially integrated drag revue in North America. She worked as a bouncer for several lesbian bars in New York City in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and held a number of leadership positions in the Stonewall Veterans Association. DeLarverie also served the community as a volunteer street patrol worker, and as a result, was called the "guardian of lesbians in the Village." Beyond her LGBTQ activism, DeLarverie also organized and performed at fundraisers for women who suffered from domestic violence and their children.

Author James Baldwin
Author James Baldwin (Photo by Ted Thai)The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

A writer and social critic, Baldwin is perhaps best known for his 1955 collection of essays, "Notes of a Native Son," and his groundbreaking 1956 novel, "Giovanni's Room," which depicts themes of homosexuality and bisexuality. The novel stood out among literary critics because it features all white characters, unlike the civil rights activist's other novels which center the experiences of Black people. Baldwin spent a majority of his literary and activist career educating others about Black and queer identity, as he did during his famous lecture titled “Race, Racism, and the Gay Community” at a meeting of the New York chapter of Black and White Men Together (now known as Men of All Colors Together) in 1982.

Image: Writer and playwright Lorraine Hansberry in her apartment  in April 1959 at 337 Bleecker Street where she wrote "A Raisin In The Sun" in New York City.
Writer and playwright Lorraine Hansberry in her New York City apartment in April 1959.David Attie / Getty Images

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

Hansberry was an activist and playwright best known for her groundbreaking play “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a struggling Black family on Chicago’s South Side. After the play’s release, Hansberry became the first Black playwright and youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle Award. “A Raisin in the Sun,” named after a line in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred,” opened at New York City’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre in March 1959, becoming the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The iconic work was then made into a 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.

Prior to “A Raisin in the Sun” fame, Hansberry — who never publicly acknowledged she was a lesbian — joined lesbian rights group Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters about feminism and homophobia to its magazine, “The Ladder,” according to LGBTQ historian Eric Marcus, host of the “Making Gay History” podcast. Marcus notes that Hansberry didn’t officially come out until nearly a half-century after her death — when in 2014 her estate unsealed diaries and other writings in which she reveals her sexuality. Hansberry died in 1965, at just 34 years old, of pancreatic cancer.

Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey.AP

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

Ailey was a choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the most prominent dance companies globally, in 1958. His signature work, including “Cry” and “Revelations,” continue to be performed all over the world. In 2014, Ailey was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his influential work in bringing dance to underserved communities.

Image: Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, in 1983.Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior," made lasting contributions in the fields of feminist theory, critical race studies and queer theory through her pedagogy and writing. Among her most notable works are “Coal” (1976), “The Black Unicorn” (1978), “The Cancer Journals” (1980) and “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” (1982). “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t,” Lorde once said.

Ernestine Eckstein.
Ernestine Eckstein.Kay Tobin / NYPL

Ernestine Eckstein (1941-1992)

Eckstein was a leader in the New York chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. She attended "Annual Reminder" picket protests and was frequently one of the only women — and the only Black woman — present at early LGBTQ rights protests. Eckstein was also an early activist in the Black feminist movement of the 1970s and was involved with the organization Black Women Organized for Action. According to historians, she viewed the fight for civil rights and LGBTQ rights as intrinsically linked.

Image: Former Congresswomen Barbara Jordan smiles with a "thumbs up" as she receives a Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.
Former Congresswomen Barbara Jordan as she receives a Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)

Jordan, a civil rights leader and attorney, became the first African American elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, and the first woman and first African American elected to Congress from Texas in 1972. Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1994 for her work as a political trailblazer. While Jordan never explicitly acknowledged her sexual orientation in public, she was open about her life partner of nearly 30 years, Nancy Earl.

Image: Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. JohnsonNetflix

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)

Marsha P. Johnson — who would cheekily tell people the "P" stood for "pay it no mind" — was an outspoken transgender rights activist and is reported to be one of the central figures of the historic Stonewall uprising of 1969. Along with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, Johnson helped form Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical political organization that provided housing and other forms of support to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Manhattan. She also performed with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches from 1972 through the ‘90s and was an AIDS activist with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Miss Major  Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.New York Public Library

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (Born 1940)

Miss Major is Black transgender woman and activist at the forefront of the fight for trans rights. She faced many hurdles during her life — including homelessness and incarceration — and it's these challenges that fueled her activism. In 2005, Miss Major joined San Francisco-based Trans Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP) as a staff organizer, and later as executive director, to lead the group's efforts advocating for incarcerated trans women. She has often spoken out against the prison system, which she says contributes to the incarceration of transgender individuals, particularly trans people of color and those with low incomes. Now 79, Miss Major, known to many simply as “Mama,” resides in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she continues to be a vocal activist.

Image: Palm Spring's mayor Ron Oden, April 18, 2006.
Palm Spring's mayor Ron Oden, April 18, 2006.Irfan Khan / LA Times via Getty Images

Ron Oden (Born 1950)

When Oden was elected mayor of Palm Springs, California in 2003, he made history by becoming the first openly gay African American man elected mayor of an American city. Following Oden's historic election 17 years ago, the Palm Spring City Council made history once again: In December 2017, it became America's first all-LGBTQ city council.

Los Angeles LGBT Center Celebrates 50th Anniversary With "Hearts Of Gold" Concert & Multimedia Extravaganza
Phill Wilson.Presley Ann / Getty Images for the Los Angeles LGBT Center

Phill Wilson (Born 1956)

A prominent African American HIV/AIDS activist, Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999, in part inspired by the death of his partner from an HIV-related illness and his own HIV diagnosis. In 2010, Wilson was appointed to President Obama's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Wilson also served as a World AIDS Summit delegate and advocated for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to provide additional funding to Black groups so they would have the resources to educate and mobilize their community around HIV/AIDS issues. His work resulted in the "Act Against AIDS" campaign, now known as the "Let's Stop HIV Together" campaign, which promotes HIV testing, prevention and treatment.

Image: Andrea Jenkins
Andrea JenkinsBrooke Ross

Andrea Jenkins (Born 1961)

Jenkins made history in November 2017 by becoming the first openly transgender Black woman elected to public office in the U.S., according to LGBTQ advocacy groups and researchers. Jenkins, a Democrat, was one of two openly trans people to win a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in 2017. She is also a published poet and an oral historian at the University of Minnesota. Jenkins made history again in January 2022, when she was elected as the first transgender official in the U.S. to lead a city council.

Image: Willi Ninja, left, and dancer voguing at nightclub Mars in 1988 in New York City, New York.
Willi Ninja, left, and dancer voguing at nightclub Mars in 1988 in New York City.Catherine McGann / Getty Images

Willi Ninja (1961-2006)

Ninja was a dancer, choreographer and the "Grandfather of Vogue," the dance style that he helped propel to the national stage. Vogueing, characterized by angular body movements and exaggerated runway poses, was introduced to the public in the award-winning 1990 documentary "Paris Is Burning," which Ninja appeared in, and was popularized by Madonna's 1990 hit song "Vogue."

Image: Inauguration Of Lori Lightfoot As Chicago's Mayor
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during her inauguration ceremony on May 20, 2019.Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lori Lightfoot (Born 1962)

A former prosecutor with no experience in elected office, Lightfoot swept all 50 of Chicago’s wards in the 2019 mayoral runoff election after promising to end the city’s famed backroom dealing. She is the city’s first ever Black female mayor and its first openly LGBTQ mayor.

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