BLACK ICONS IN QUEER HISTORY
Marsha P Johnson
Black people have always been a part of the LGBT rights movement. The struggle for queer liberation has included black people throughout its history, and unfortunately at times their voices have been quieted in favour of white activists (anyone seen the movie about Stonewall?). Luckily, it’s not too late to give thanks to these people that have helped to pave the way for acceptance of queer people, and as such, here are five queer black icons that we should be appreciating more.
MARSHA P JOHNSON (1945-1992)
Marsha was a drag queen and artist who lived in Greenwich, New York for the majority of her life. According to her, the P stood for “pay it no mind” – which was what she would say when people asked about her gender. She was known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers.
Marsha was present for the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which are widely credited as being the beginning of the LGBT liberation movement in the US. Though the specifics of her involvement are disputed, it’s widely agreed that she was instrumental. Witnesses have claimed she threw a shotglass at a wall in the Stonewall Inn and that she climbed a lamp-post to drop a brick on a police car.
With her close friend Sylvia Rivera, she founded the STAR house, a shelter for gay and trans kids living in New York, which was paid for by her and Sylvia. When their organisation was barred from marching with a gay pride parade, Marsha went anyway. In 2019, the city of New York announced that they would build a monument to both Marsha and Sylvia in Greenwich Village.
BAYARD RUSTIN (1912-1987)
Rustin was a crucial member of the American Civil Rights movement from Pennsylvania. His personal philosophy was a combination of Quaker pacifism, non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and socialism. In the 1950s, he began working with Dr Martin Luther King Jr as an organiser and strategist, assisting him with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and the March on Washington at which King delivered his legendary speech.
Rustin was arrested for being gay on more than one occasion, and it affected his relationships with others in the civil rights movement, but he continued to publicly identify as gay. However, he did not engage with gay rights activism until the 1980s, along with his partner, Walter Naegle. He testified on the behalf of New York State’s Gay Rights Bill.
Public discomfort with his sexuality and his affiliation with the Communist Party meant that Rustin’s contributions have gone unnoticed in most celebrations of leaders in the Civil Rights movement. However, in 2013 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest awards in the US.
AUDRE LORDE (1934-1992)
Self-described as a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet, Lorde dedicated her life to addressing the rights of black women and particularly black lesbians. She trained as a librarian at Columbia University and was central to many activist circles, including the second wave of the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. Her poetry is known for the power of its depictions of queer experience and sexuality.
She was the founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color press, which published the work of black feminists, and the Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. She was poet laureate of New York in 1991. She was an advocate for womanist ideology, a movement started by Alice Walker in an attempt to encourage the feminist movement to acknowledge the struggles of black women. She was openly gay for her entire career, and donated some of her manuscripts and personal papers to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
For their first match of 2019, the women of the US soccer team each wore a jersey with the name of a woman they were honouring on the back. Megan Rapinoe chose Lorde.
MISS MAJOR (1940-)
Miss Major is a trans woman and an activist from the South Side of Chicago who has spent more than 40 years fighting for the rights of others. She was also present for the Stonewall Riots in 1969. She moved to San Diego in the 70s and directly organised services for trans women in the community, including during the AIDS epidemic. In 2003, she served as the Executive Director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, leading efforts to support trans women who have been incarcerated, particularly trans women of colour.
Major has been a vocal critic of the LGBT movement for its exclusion of trans people from participation, and particular trans people who are poor or not white. She is a self-proclaimed feminist, and cites Elizabeth Taylor and Angela Davis as her inspiration.
SIMON NKOLI (1957-1998)
Nkoli was an advocate for the anti-apartheid movement, gay rights, and AIDS sufferers in South Africa. In 1983 he joined the Gay Association of South Africa, which was mainly white, and then formed the Saturday Group, which was the first group for black gay people anywhere in Africa.
He was arrested and prosecuted for treason along with twenty-one other political leaders in the Delmas Treason Trial, and sentenced to death, and came out whilst he was a prisoner. Fortunately, he was acquitted in 1988, and went on to organise the first pride parade ever in South Africa in 1990.
He was one of the first gay activists to meet with Mandela and campaigned for the inclusion of protection from discrimination in the South African Bill of Rights, and the repeal of the sodomy law. He opened the very first Gay Games in New York.