Eight Black LGBTQ+ Trailblazers Who Have and Will Continue to Shape our History
It is no question we’ve come a long way in the last forty years since demanding our rights to freedom and dismantling a system that wasn’t created with us in mind. We’ve made the strides necessary in order to secure a safer, brighter path for us all, picking ourselves up time and time again. Many people fought long, rigorous and even dangerous fights and it’s important to understand how and why that came to be. The great change and impact it has created. As you may already know, June is officially pride month – therefore we thought it would be necessary to highlight eight trailblazers who have made a lasting impact on our community.
Many may know James for his extensive work in literature and theatre or may be familiar with one of his many poignant essays. Never one to shy away from expressing his point of view, James forged a lasting impact on our community.
James was born in Harlem, New York on August 2nd, 1924. Knowing he was different from his peers at an early age, he sought out a better life and environment for himself. One where he could comfortably grow and thrive as America was getting increasingly violent and unpredictable. Europe seemed like the smart progressive choice and so he moved to Paris at the age of 24.
It was there that he was able to reflect and take in the trauma he experienced in terms of race, class and sexuality. He banked what he learnt and spun it all into a book, which would become his first masterpiece – Go Tell It on The Mountain. The novel acted as a semi biographical piece regarding his life in 1930’s America. The stories also included his issues with his faith as well as the church. He had been a pastor as a teen, which proved challenging when he started to come into his own sexuality.
…he made the trek back to America, where he quickly involved himself in the civil rights movement that was sweeping the country. Subsequently, he wrote three more books in this time including his best seller ‘’ The Fire Next Time’’. He also completed a few plays and several essays whilst also being featured in prominent newspapers, such as the Ny Times.
Another fact that many may overlook was the fact that he helped give Maya Angelou a seat at the table by helping her get her first novel published. This man lived a very full life, despite its many challenges. To this day, he continues to inspire us all to seek out more out of life, support each other and to know our worth.
Every great leader needs a right-side man or woman to join them in battle. When it came to Martin Luther King Jr, Rustin was his guy.
Bayard was a very respected activist who has been credited for spearheading the civil rights movement alongside King Jr. Together they planned and executed the biggest civil rights march in history, as well as several key notes throughout the country.
Rustin was born in 1941 in Westchester, Pennsylvania. He spent most of his childhood juggling between sports – mainly football, and literature in the form of poetry. This balance allowed him to bask in the sensitivity and beauty of the world, whilst building a strong physical front. He moved to New York in 1937 and tried his hand at a few different colleges before finding his passion in music. Soon after he joined a quartet, which allowed him to tour the country with his band mates. This gave him a greater scope in terms of how broken and toxic the country was at the time, when it came to equality in any form. His discoveries prompted him to join the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, which granted him the opportunity to travel the country over the course of two years, speaking on behalf of the organisation.
Unfortunately, along the way…
…he was arrested for reasons that were not in relation to the work he was doing. The reason in question was because he had not shown up for his draft board – he ended up spending twenty-six days in jail as a result. Many believed this was in order to diminish his spirit in terms of his activism. Fortunately, they did not succeed.
He met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 through mutual acquaintances and they quickly hit it off. King taught him about Gandhi‘s teachings, which he often used as reference and together they were able to create a strong course of action to fight the bigotry taking over the nation. After Martin died, Bayard then shifted his attention to the gay rights movement. He was never afraid to live his truth and defied all the odds by marching to the beat of his own drum. Forging a bright path without looking back for a second.
Marsha P Johnson
Marsha was a true leader – the type of hero that should have their own statue elevated in every city, but she wouldn’t have cared for that. She was an icon and arguably the face of the gay rights movement. When you think of Stonewall, you see her. When you think of someone who lived unapologetically, whilst dismantling the system, you absolutely think of her.
She was born in New Jersey, in 1944 to a very religious family. In fact, religion was central to her upbringing. At an early age she had a strong sense of who she was or at least who she was meant to be. She started wearing dresses at the age of five, until a steady stream of bullying led her to start suppressing her true self. She left Jersey when she was 17. Johnson swiftly hopped over to New York City where she was sure an opportunity awaited her.
After settling in Greenwich village, she was quickly accepted into the community that would soon become her family. She changed her name to Marsha P Johnson after being inspired by the local restaurant ‘’ Howard Johnson’’ (before it became a hotel chain) and the P stood for Pay It No Mind – a call to action to stay true to yourself despite it all, by paying it no mind.
She was known around town…
…for her very creative sense of dress. Staples included flower crowns and long garments that she would often cut and sew herself. Once she found her signature style, she joined a drag troop called Hot Peaches. Their act was quite successful, even garnering the attention of Andy Warhol, the famed artist. He ended up taking her portrait and adding it to his now infamous series called ‘’Ladies and Gentleman’’.
When things started to take a turn for the worst and discrimination and inequality were spreading like a plague. She quickly rose to the front lines of the battle and became a prominent activist. She was a key figure in the Stonewall uprising, which was an act of retaliation against the incessant police brutality and raids aimed against the LGBTQ+ community. Demonstrations took part over the course of several days and it is still regarded as the catalyst of the gay liberation movement.
A year later, to celebrate the anniversary of the uprising, Marsha organized and took part in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride Rally in June 1970. In turn June became the official month to reflect and celebrate our pride!
Willi was born in Long Island, New York.
He taught himself how to dance, honing in on the vogue dance move. A skill he incessantly perfected. He found a sense of community at a very young age in the form of other dancers in the city. His peers were quickly inspired by his voguing abilities and subsequently took note. He started to perform at Drag Balls, and eventually joined his own house. This in turn gave him a heightened sense of community and safety. While the ballroom scene and its various dance moves started to sweep every corner of the world. Willi started to get recognised, leading up to various creative contracts in the form of music videos. As well as tour choreography.
Throughout the 90’s…
…he started recording his own music, walking various runways for giant fashion houses and even opened his own modelling agency. Rumor has it that he was the one who taught Paris Hilton her iconic runway strut when she was only 19. He lived a very full life and forged an empire for himself out of sheer whit and perseverance. When Jenny Livingston started doing research for her soon to be classic documentary, ‘’Paris is Burning’’ she knew he was the key to the beginning of the whole narrative and the rest is history.
Stay tuned for part two – as we highlight the remaining four icons.
Written by: Andrew Du Beau (@andrew_dubeau/Instagram)