‘Queering Black history’: Here are 5 LGBTQ pioneers to know

(Collage by Kendrick Daye for The Washington Post; Allan Baum/New York Times Co./Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Greg Doherty/Getty Images; AP; Museum of Ventura County)

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This month, in K-12 classrooms across the country, many students are learning a Black history curriculum that has long remained stagnant.

Right now, they might be embarking on the Underground Railroad’s journey to freedom, learning varying interpretations about the central cause of the Civil War, or revisiting key events of the civil rights movement.

For Dominique Hazzard, a community organizer and PhD candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University, these lessons ring clear in her mind. Growing up in Fort Washington, Md., during the 1990s, she recalls Black History Month teachings that often rehashed the achievements of seminal figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman.

But as a young Black girl coming to terms with her queer identity, Hazzard, now 31, said it would have been transformational to learn about change-makers who played a role in both gay liberation and the Black Freedom Movement.

She might have learned names like Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian poet and activist who dedicated her life and work to addressing social injustices, and Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist who was a prominent figure of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the gay rights movement it inspired.

The transgender women at Stonewall were pushed out of the gay rights movement. Now they are getting a statue in New York.

“I didn’t learn anything about the gay liberation movement, Stonewall, any of that,“ Hazzard said. “And once I did, I think it took me years to realize that Black women, Black trans women, were at the forefront of creating some of those changes.”

Many in the Black LGBTQ community echo Hazzard’s sentiment: “I was really searching for, in my youth, icons, leaders, thinkers who lived at those intersections like I did,” said Kaila Story, an associate professor in the departments of Pan-African studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. “People that were both Black and gay; people that were committed to queer liberation as well as Black liberation; people that saw those two things as connected.”

In a 2018 essay for the nonprofit publisher Rethinking Schools, Hazzard challenged educators to “queer Black history” — a phrase she defines, in part, as reworking and upending teachings to elevate Black LGBTQ stories.

“It starts with recognizing that all Black histories matter,” Hazzard said, “and that includes the lives and contributions of Black LGBTQ people.”

Amid a rise in both violent and political attacks against LGBTQ people, activists say these stories are of growing importance. In recent years, activists say, Black trans deaths have increased, a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation has swept the country and renewed book banning efforts are primarily targeting titles about racial and sexual identity.

“Education is a pathway to marginalized communities’ sense of empowerment because it places us within a historical genealogy that white supremacy says we’re not a part of,” said Story, who also co-hosts the podcast “Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture, and Black Gay Life.” “White supremacy, as an idea, says that Black folks haven’t contributed anything, and especially Black LGBT folks.”

Today, people like Laverne Cox, Andrea Jenkins, Phill Wilson and Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot are bringing increased visibility as openly LGBTQ, high-profile Black leaders. Still, activists say teachings have fallen short in educating students about the historical Black LGBTQ figures who paved the way for these achievements.

The long road to more accurate portrayals of Black LGBTQ people on television

“It is an ethical impossibility to tell the story of Black liberation struggles without talking about Black LGBTQ participation, involvement and leadership,” said C. Riley Snorton, a professor of English and gender and sexuality studies at the University of Chicago.

In recognition of Black History Month, professors and activists reflected on the seldom-told stories of Black LGBTQ trailblazers and their contributions to American history.

Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)

Transgender pioneer for marriage equality

Before Christine Jorgensen, often recognized as America’s first prominent trans woman, there was Lucy Hicks Anderson. She preceded Jorgensen’s notoriety when stories of her trans identity made news in the early 20th century, Snorton said, who wrote about Anderson and the erasure of Black transsexual narratives in the book “Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity.”

After marrying a soldier in Oxnard, Calif., in 1944, local authorities discovered that Anderson was assigned male at birth and the couple was charged with perjury. Taking a stand in court, Anderson reportedly said, “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just like what I am, a woman.”

Instead of prison time, Anderson and her husband were placed on 10 years of probation. Anderson was also ordered to refrain from wearing clothes made for women, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Years later, the couple was charged again — this time for fraud after Anderson received federal money reserved for military spouses. Both went to prison and were banned from Oxnard upon release. The couple then moved to Los Angeles, where Anderson lived for the remainder of her life.

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

Blues singer, pianist and drag king pioneer

Black arts and culture blossomed during the Harlem Renaissance, but an often overlooked aspect of the era was its queer nightlife enclaves and the influence of Black lesbian and transgender blues. As a lesbian blues singer, pianist and cross-dressing performer, Gladys Bentley was considered “Harlem’s most famous lesbian,” often singing her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes and performing in her signature top hat and tuxedo.

In the 1930s, Bentley headlined at Harlem’s Ubangi Club, where she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. “She also donned male artifice and attire and performed as a drag king in Harry’s Clam House in New York in the 1920s,” Story said. “She was like, coldblooded, the best.” According to the New York Times, Bentley was one of the best-known Black entertainers in the country.

Toward the end of her life, Bentley married a man, denied that she was gay and expressed regret for her drag performances, Story said, “but that, to me, was no doubt from the ensuing pressure of homophobia and all of those things.”

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Gay civil rights activist

Bayard Rustin is recognized as one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement. He advised King on nonviolent tactics, helped plan the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and was a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. But as an openly gay man, Rustin faced discrimination of his own while fighting for the rights of others.

In January 1953, he was arrested on a “morals charge” after police officers caught him engaged with two other men in a parked car in Pasadena, Calif. The conviction, which was often used to target gay people, forced Rustin to register as a sex offender and nearly derailed his career as a civil rights activist.

“He was a prominent gay man during the civil rights movement when there was no space to talk about lesbian and gay issues,” said Karsonya Whitehead, an associate professor of communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.

For years, Rustin’s arrest sidelined him in the civil rights movement. He struggled to find work and was pushed out of King’s inner circle. Then, in 1963, Rustin’s longtime mentor appointed him as a key organizer of the March on Washington. Following the success of the march, Rustin continued to advocate for civil rights, and he brought the AIDS crisis to the NAACP’s attention in an effort to encourage others to “come out” and live their truths.

Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

Lawyer, scholar and women’s rights activist

Lawyer and activist Pauli Murray is widely credited for building the legal frameworks that paved the way for the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Both of the late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall said they were influenced by Murray’s arguments on race and gender. In particular, Marshall hailed Murray’s 700-page summary of racism in state law as “the bible” of Brown v. Board of Education. And Murray was also considered instrumental in arguing for the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which stated discrimination based on sex is unconstitutional.

Murray was an “architect of civil rights legislation and civil rights victories who was queer,” Hazzard said, “and if she was alive to day, might even identify as transgender.” According to the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, Murray self-described as a “he/she personality” earlier in life and also attempted to receive gender-affirming health care, including hormone therapy, but was repeatedly denied.

Pauli Murray applied to be a Supreme Court justice in 1971. 50 years later, a Black woman could make history.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940-present)

Transgender rights activist

Throughout her lifetime, transgender activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy has stood at the forefront of a wide range of causes — many of which were inspired by her own personal challenges. Early in her life, she said, she experienced homelessness, incarceration and engaged in sex work to survive.

Griffin-Gracy is also considered a prominent figure in the Stonewall riots. She was present the night police raided the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, in New York, which prompted the demonstrations, and was reportedly struck on the head by police and taken into custody. While in prison, an officer broke her jaw, she later said.

After the riots, Griffin-Gracy focused her efforts on working with trans women who were incarcerated, homeless or battling addiction. ”Her work has been about specifically uplifting Black trans women,” Story said, “and really giving them teaching tools around how to deal with incarceration, police brutality.

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic struck in the 1980s, Griffin-Gracy also provided direct health-care services. Now 81, she runs a retreat center for trans and gender-nonconforming Southern leaders. “She’s a piece of living history that I think, even in Black LGBT spaces, a lot of folks don’t seem to talk about her and how foundational she was as much,” Story said.

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