Black and Pink: A Quick Look at Queer Black History
When people think of famous Black people from the LGBT+ community, they usually think of drag queen RuPaul or actor Billy Porter. While there is no denying that these two have influenced queer history, many black queer people have almost been forgotten or ignored. Queer history has many facets to it, so it’s no surprise that there is a large section of queer history regarding black people. With it being Black History Month, why not take a look at a few of them?
Gladys Bentley: King of the Harlem Renaissance
Gladys Bentley aka Barbara “Bobbie” Minton, was born in 1907. She was a Black lesbian who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. She was born in Philadelphia but moved to Harlem when she turned sixteen. There she heard that Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, a popular speakeasy, needed a pianist. Problem was, they wanted a male. So, Bentley started wearing male attire and began performing under the stage name “Bobbie.” She soon became rich and even ended up living on Park Avenue. She toured the country, impressing celebrities like Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck.
Besides being talented, Bentley was also groundbreaking — because she sang about sexual relationships, a taboo topic at the time. She’d take popular songs and use promiscuous lyrics with them.
When speakeasies started to decline, Gladys moved to California. She continued to perform, but her popularity never regained its peak. While she later claimed she had been ‘saved’ from her homosexuality, Gladys’ influence and importance to the black queer community cannot be ignored.
Gladys passed away at her home at the age of 52 in 1960.
Lorraine Hansberry: A Lady in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry was a famous playwright. Her play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” is considered a classic and is still read today. It focuses on Walter and Ruth Younger, a young Black couple living in Chicago. The play is considered to be an important piece of black literature. At 29, Hansberry became the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. What many people don’t know is that Lorraine was a closeted lesbian. Before marrying a man, she often wrote about her feelings in notebooks. She even wrote to The Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States.
Lorraine developed pancreatic cancer in 1963. It was around this time that she decided to accept that she was a lesbian. She died a year later with her funeral held in Harlem.
Bruce Nugent: A Scholar and Poet
Bruce Nugent was a Hoboken native who moved to New York after the death of his father. He was later sent to Washington, DC to live with his grandmother. It wasn’t until 1925 when his first works of writing were published: a poem entitled ‘Shadow’ and a short story called ‘Sadji.’ He also lived with Wallace Thurman, another black writer, who helped Bruce publish a short story entitled, ‘Smoke, Lilies, and Jade.’The story’s main subject was bisexuality, specifically from the male perspective. Many of his paintings were also included in the publication.
Bruce’s most significant contribution to the Black community would come in 1964. He was invited to Columbia University, where he and other African-Americans created the Harlem Cultural Council. The council was established in order to obtain municipal and federal funds for the arts. Bruce was very active in the council, later becoming vice president. While he would later step down, Bruce’s works of literature and art would forever be a part of Black queer history. His work was praised for being blunt and sharp about homosexuality and interracial relationships. Thanks to a resurfacing of his work, more people began to research and discover Black gay artists that were active during the Harlem Rennaissance.
Bayard Rustin: A Fighter That Never Stopped Fighting
Bayard Rustin has always been on the side of justice. The ninth child of twelve, the young Pennsylvania boy was raised by his grandparents. Florence Rustin, his grandmother, was a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He took inspiration from his grandmother and started his civil rights career by fighting against Jim Crow Laws.
Rustin would go on to be a major player in the civil rights movement. In 1942, Rustin formed CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, alongside George Houser, James Farmer, and Bernice Fisher. He protested against racial discrimination in travel, schools, and jobs. In 1956, Rustin became an advisor for Martin Luther King Jr, America’s most famous Civil Rights activist. He even participated in the March on Washington: all the while, Rustin was openly gay. Many people tried to use his sexuality as a means to discredit him, but he refused to change himself. His partner, Walter Neagle, commented that Rustin never felt any guilt or shame for being a gay man, despite the times.
Rustin continued to fight until his death in 1987 due to a perforated appendix.
Essex Hemphill: The Man with the Magic Pen
Essex Hemphill was similar to Rustin: an openly gay man. Essex was born in Chicago but was raised in Washington, DC. He attended the University of Maryland, where he studied journalism and later studied English at the District of Columbia. During his college years, Essex was active in the art scene. He performed spoken word, published his poems, and started the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature, a publication created solely for Black creators. Essex performed at various other colleges as his popularity grew. He even published his own books of poems such as Diamonds Was in the Kitty and Some of the People We Love.
Essex was close friends with another gay activist and writer, Joseph Beam. Beam was the editor for a collection of poems by Black, gay men entitled In the Life. Sadly, Beam would never finish the book since he passed away due to AIDS in 1988. Essex would finish the collection alongside Beam’s mother, Dorothy. He would later pass away in 1995 due to AIDS-related complications.
Sylvester: The Undisputed Queenof Disco
While some people consider Donna Summer to be the queen of disco, many others think that title should belong to Sylvester. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles singer’s start was filled with hardships. When he was young, he was sexually assaulted by an old church member. When news got out, his church saw him as a sinner instead of standing by him. He stopped attending at age thirteen. His parents were of little support, and after an argument with his mother, she kicked him out.
Homeless and without a penny to his name, Sylvester managed to find accepting family members who’d let him move in. He mainly stayed with grandmother Julia who had many gay friends. At age fifteen, Sylvester started to attend gay bars where he met Duchess, a trans woman he became close to. After going through various jobs, he met Reggie Dunnigan, who convinced him to move to Northern California. He became part of the Cockettes, an avant-garde theater group, and performed with them for years before going solo. His popularity wouldn’t begin to rise until 1978. His album, Step II, held two of his biggest hits and hit #28 on Billboard’s top 200.
Sylvester never went back into the closet and was open about his sexuality. He even performed at the Gay Freedom Parade and the London Gay Pride Festival. Sylvester started dating an architect named Rick Crammer. When he was interviewed on the Joan Rivers show, he openly admitted he was in a romantic relationship with Crammer, even though Crammer’s family was unaware of his sexuality. Sadly, Crammer died of HIV in 1985. While Sylvester never got himself tested, he showed clear signs of being sick. He ended up passing away in 1988.
Big Freedia: The Queen Diva
Freddie J. Ross, also known as “Big Freedia,” is an iconic hip-hop bounce musician. Born in New Orleans, Freddie loved music, learning to play the piano, and joining a choir. Her mother greatly influenced her and introduced her to artists such as Patti LaBelle and Salt-N-Pepa. While her first single and album were released in 2003, her music career took off after she worked with the funk band Galactic on their album Ya-ka-may. She would then tour with DJ Rusty Lazer and the indie electronic duo Matt and Kim. Freddie continued to tour until she returned home to New Orleans with the intent of trying to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. She would continue to grow as an artist, working with the likes of RuPaul, Ke$ha, and even Beyonce.
What to Learn More?
These are only a few of the famous and important African-American queer people. If you wish to learn more about Black LGBT icons, here is a list of resources you can read up on
- Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis by Kevin Mumford
- Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance (Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theater/Drama/Performance) by James F. Wilson
- There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life by Jafari S. Allen
- Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance by A. B. Christa Schwarz
- Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men by Essex Hemphill
- Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS by Martin B. Dubermen
- In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology by Joseph Beam
- Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson
- Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce by Richard Bruce Nugent, edited by Thomas H. Wirth
- Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin by Bayard Rustin (Author), edited by Devon W. Carbado and Don Weise