Celebrate Pride Month by honoring these Black LGBTQ trailblazers

Bayard Rustin, Mabel Hampton, Phil Black and Ernestine Eppenger are among the queer Black pioneers historians want you to know about.
Image: Bayard Rustin
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin is shown in his Park Avenue South office in New York City in April 1969.A. Camerano / AP
By Nico Lang

Black queer trailblazers have changed the course of history with their contributions to activism, culture and the arts, but many of these pioneers are still fighting for their place in the history books. While some, like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, have garnered some level of acclaim, many of their stories remain under-researched and untold.

When the LGBTQ community began to record its history with some level of consistency in the 20th century, most of the documented narratives were those of white and cisgender men. It took longer for women, people of color and gender-nonconforming individuals to get their due.

In recognition of Pride Month and the anti-racism protests that have swept the United States, we asked historians and scholars which Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer figures they would like to see uplifted and celebrated.

‘Black lesbian icon’

Mabel Hampton, a Black lesbian activist, was active during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, before later going on to participate in the first national gay and lesbian march on Washington in 1979. Saidiya Hartman, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, said Hampton was a “Black lesbian icon” who witnessed a “radical transformation in the discourse around queer identity” leading to the “emergence of pride” in the years following the Stonewall riots.

“Hampton's life bridged this really interesting period in which intimate and sexual mores were being contested in the early part of the 20th century to the total declaration of queer pride in the 1980s,” Hartman told NBC News.

As a prominent intellectual and a dancer who performed with fellow Black lesbian luminaries like comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Hartman said Hampton’s experiences illustrate the “networks of sociality which sustained Black queer life.” Hampton cleaned the houses of white families in New York City to earn an income, while she and her longtime partner, Lillian B. Foster, often passed as sisters in order to access government benefits during an era where there were few protections for same-sex couples. Hartman said these “forms of subterfuge were required in order for communities to thrive.”

Perhaps most importantly, Hampton kept notebooks detailing the contributions of Black queer people to the Harlem Renaissance, names that included performers Ethel Waters and Gladys Bentley and poet Langston Hughes. Today, those records are housed in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, and Hartman said they are a testament to an oft-repeated quote from historian Henry Louis Gates that the Harlem Renaissance was “surely as gay as it was Black.”

“That is an absolute fact,” Hartman said.

These figures would go onto set the stage for later Black queer writers like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Barbara Smith, according to Hartman.

“I value the lives and the brilliance of these everyday intellectuals who were trying to build a way of existing that was outside the norm but were also creating a path for a younger generation of radical thinkers, queer activists and feminist scholars,” she added.

Ballroom culture’s ‘great innovator’

Phil Black was another early trailblazer who helped pave the way for future generations of LGBTQ people to thrive. A drag performer, Black threw the first Funmakers Ball in November 1947, in which queer and transgender entrants, the vast majority of which were people of color, would compete in pageants that combined drag, dance and other modes of performance. Sydney Baloue, a producer of HBO Max’s ballroom competition series, “Legendary,” told NBC News that these events “helped set the groundwork” for what would become New York City’s ballroom scene, as famously depicted in the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.”

“Phil Black opened up doors for people like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Paris Dupree, Angie Xtravaganza and Avis Pendarvis, who are the mothers of the ballroom community,” said Baloue, who is currently working on a book chronicling the ballroom scene. “Black is an even greater elder in that lineage.”

In the decades following Black’s pioneering work, voguing balls became critical venues where marginalized LGBTQ people could find community. Although the pageants were rooted in what Baloue described as “creative competition,” competitors faced off against one another by forming their own “houses” — which is less a physical structure than a space where members, or “families,” can collaborate to develop a signature style. These houses emphasize the idea that an individual’s chosen family can be a space for innovation, Baloue said.

“For many of us, balls are our lifeline,” he continued. “For many of us, we’re not always understood by our biological families. It’s really important for us to have a sense of family, just like anybody else.”

Although Black’s name is largely unknown today, his role in hosting and promoting the balls — which took place at the former Rockland Palace in Harlem — briefly made him one of the most notable LGBTQ people in the world. Black was frequently featured in magazines like Jet and Ebony alongside their coverage of the ball scene, but Baloue said less attention has been paid to his presence in the archives for the same reason that Black LGBTQ people are “not put in history books in the same way that straight people and white people generally are.”

Baloue said creating space in the historical narrative for figures like Phil Black would show LGBTQ people of color that their communities have been “great entrepreneurs and great innovators in so many ways.”

“Honoring stories like his is really important,” he said. “We have a longer history than people realize.”

Pioneer of ‘nonviolent methods of protest’

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin is best known for helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, along with Martin Luther King Jr.

Umi Hsu, director of content strategy at the ONE Archives Foundation, which helps preserve LGBTQ history, said Rustin influenced King’s “nonviolent methods of protest” by telling him about the work of Mahatma Gandhi, who led the campaign for India’s independence from Britain through peaceful demonstration.

“What’s interesting about Rustin is that while he was doing such important work, he actually had a hard time as a gay man,” Hsu said. “That put him in a position where he was forced out of civil rights organizing work eventually.”

Rustin served nearly two months in jail after being arrested in 1953 for having sex in a parked car after giving a lecture in Pasadena, California. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in California. Although he was originally arrested on charges of lewd conduct and vagrancy, which were frequently used to target sex workers, he was eventually tried on a lesser crime of “sex perversion” (though earlier this year California’s governor pardoned him). Rustin had always been open about his sexual orientation, but the arrest brought renewed focus on his personal life — with Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat of South Carolina, attacking Rustin as a “sex pervert” on the Senate floor.

Rustin’s place within the civil rights movement would become a subject of contention, with NAACP Chairman Roy Wilkins urging organizers to downplay Rustin’s contributions to the March on Washington. However, Rustin would continue fighting for equal rights in the decades to come: In 1986, he spoke on behalf of a proposed bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the state of New York. A version of the legislation wouldn’t pass until 2002, 15 years after Rustin’s death, and it wouldn’t include gender identity until 2019.

Hsu said Rustin’s activism is an important reminder that queer people of color experience “double the amount of oppressions but also there’s double the power when these politics are addressed.” Hsu pointed to Marsha P. Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Sir Lady Java as Black trans and gender-nonconforming people “also working in that space” in the 1960s. Sir Lady Java, perhaps the least known of the four, was a nightclub performer who protested L.A.’s cross-dressing law. While the courts rejected her lawsuit trying to overturn the law, her efforts eventually led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ rights program.

“When people have a marginal status in more than one social category, it doesn’t mean that they don't have any room to participate,” Hsu said. “It's important to really focus on people who are intersectionally marginalized because this is where we can see the truths of how oppression systems work.”

‘First Black woman to demonstrate for gay rights’

Ernestine Eppenger, known as Ernestine Eckstein in her activism work, was instrumental in lobbying gay activists to adopt the same tactics of the civil rights movement. Eckstein was vice president of the New York chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, America’s first lesbian civil rights organization, and according to Eric Cervini, author of “The Deviant's War,” she “helped radicalize” a group that could be conservative in its tactics. The Daughters of Bilitis initially opposed picketing and preferred a “suits, ties and dresses” approach to lobbying for equality, Cervini explained.

Ernestine Eckstein in 1966.Kay Tobin Lahuse / Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

“Before Ernestine, the Daughters of Bilitis did not want to march for gay rights,” Cervini said. “They saw it as a threat. They thought it would provoke a backlash.”

In 1965, Eppenger joined a picket line at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and a second demonstration months later at the White House. Although early gay rights leaders like Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny were present at many of these demonstrations, Eppenger was the only person of color. What was then referred to as the “homophile movement” was “overwhelmingly white,” according to Cervini. The scarcity of Black faces made Eppenger the “first Black woman to demonstrate for gay rights,” but Cervini said that racial monoculture also came with a cost.

“At the end of the day, the homophile movement did not open its arms to her and to people of color like they should have,” he said. “Because they did not put in the work to recruit a truly diverse movement in the years before Stonewall, that’s why they faded into irrelevance.”

That’s one of the reasons, Cervini said, the historic Stonewall uprising of 1969, which included transgender people and “street kids,” was such a critical turning point for the LGBTQ rights struggle.

“Finally there was a movement that was welcoming of everyone,” he said. “I like to say that Stonewall didn't start everything, but it certainly changed everything.”

Cervini said it’s critical to uplift the work of activists like Eppenger — along with the countless other Black LGBTQ trailblazers — because so many were “pushed out of the movement,” even as they helped to transform it.

“There has been a concerted effort throughout history to forget them,” he said. “It's our job to tell their stories, and it's everyone else's responsibility to learn from them, learn from our past mistakes and make history right.”

CORRECTION (June 28, 2020, 12:28 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the former vice president of the New York chapter of Daughters of Bilitis. She was Ernestine Eppenger, not Eppinger.

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