In honor of Black History Month, the New Haven Pride Center is spotlighting some of the incredible Queer Black LGBTQ+ leaders and icons from our past and present.
Check out of featured leaders and icons for 2018:
Born in small-town Texas in the 1930s, Ailey was first exposed to dance by performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in Los Angeles. In the 1950s, most dance companies were still not integrated and, following the vision of his mentor, Lester Horton, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
The goal was “to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience.” A decade later he opened the Ailey School, and was active in bringing dance and arts education to underserved communities. He received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1988 and, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. Ailey died in 1989 of AIDS-related illness but, for the sake of his mother, he asked doctors to announce the cause of death was terminal blood dyscrasia.
The Empress of the Blues is regarded as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Born into poverty, she rose to prominence under the tutelage of Ma Rainey and was signed by Columbia Records in 1923. Through multiple tours and booming record sales, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day.
She was also bisexual, a face she didn’t care to hide. In fact, one of her hits, “It’s Dirty But Good” includes lyrics alluding to lesbian sex. Many believe Smith had a relationship with Rainey, who mentored her stage persona. Smith’s second husband, Jack Gee, was often angered by her trysts with women, including chorus girl Lillian Simpson and fellow singer Gertrude Sanders.
Smith died in 1937 after suffering critical injuries in a car accident.
Feeling less-than-welcome in her home country, Josephine Baker fled the U.S. for France, where she thrived as a dancer, singer, and actress. She was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture and to become a world-famous entertainer. She is also noted for her contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor the Croix de Guerre.
Baker came from a hardscrabble background; she was descended from former slaves, and she was sent out to work at age 8. She dropped out of school at 12 and danced on street corners for handouts. She was recruited for the vaudeville circuit, and her easy combination of humor, grace, and raw sexual energy skyrocketed her to international fame. She became a symbol of the modern age, embodying the lines and grace of an ebony art deco statue.
Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, and Mildred Smallwood were all women she met while touring on the black performing circuit early in her career, and were all rumored to be her lovers. Other diamonds in her crown were lovers Colette, the French author of Gigi, and iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Octavia St. Laurent
A native New Yorker, she started walking the New York balls in 1982. Later known as Octavia St. Laurent Mizrahi, was an American trans woman and performer featured in the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” as well as appearing in the film “The Saint of Fort Washington” and documentary “How Do I Look.” She was known for her style and recreations of the looks of Paulina Porizkova.
Octavia, who was HIV+, moved to Connecticut and worked as a motivational speaker and HIV educator. She was a talented singer and worked with Connecticut resident Greg Field on a series of recordings, however due to an extended gig in Iceland that Greg had, the recordings were never released.
She died at age 45 after a battle with cancer.
Richmond “Jimmie” Barthé was a sculptor and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. That he was also a gay man who expressed his orientation in his work is most likely why he fell into obscurity by the 1940s.
Much of his art depicted African-American men in sensual poses, often nude. Today, his work seems not that confrontational, but in a sexually nervous America of the middle the 20th century, it is remarkable that his work received the acclaim that it did.
His work is in the permanent collections of many prominent American art galleries including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the The Art Institute of Chicagoto name a few.
Born in New York in 1934, Lorde graduated from Hunter College in 1959 and began exploring her lesbian identity in Greenwich Village soon after.
She became a leader in the feminist movement of the 1960s, advocating for the rights of women of color, whose experiences were being neglected by the mainstream women’s movement. Her views angered many white feminists, who felt suffering was something that united all women. In response, Lorde insisted, “What you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority.”
From 1968 to 1980, she published nine works of poetry and feminist writing. One of her most notable poems was a love letter, “To Martha: A New Year,” which publicly confirmed her sexual identity. Lorde was the New York State Poet Laureate from 1991 until her death from breast cancer in 1992.
Before she died, Lorde changed her name to Gamba Adisa, which translates to “Warrior—she who makes her meaning known.”
Billy Strayhorn weathered a tumultuous childhood with the help of music.
A diminutive teenager with a passion and honed ear for music, Strayhorn was the only black musician in his high school’s 25-member orchestra. He started a Cole Porter-esque musical review with skits and music.
By age 23, he impressed Duke Ellington so much that Ellington decided to hire him on the spot, despite not having a position for him in his orchestra. Within months, however, Strayhorn was writing arrangements and pushing Ellington’s orchestra to perform its best—while living as an openly gay man. Strayhorn’s 29-year collaborative partnership with Ellington birthed several major songs including “Take The ‘A’ Train,” the groundbreaking, audacious musical “Jump For Joy,” and the 43-minute jazz piece “Black Brown and Beige” performed at Carnegie Hall.
Strayhorn broke out on his own, while also becoming an influential activist, working along with Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Laverne Cox has balanced her work as a trans activist with a rising career as an actress.
She became the first trans person nominated for an Emmy for her work on “Orange is the New Black,” and has made appearances on shows like “Faking It” and “The Mindy Project.” In 2014, she became the first out trans person on the cover of TIME magazine and in 2018 she become the first out trans person on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Cox remains a steadfast advocate for the community—appearing in docu-series like Logo’s awarding-winning Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, in which she interviewed young trans people about their journeys.
Phill Wilson was diagnosed with HIV at the dawn of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, when outreach was done mostly in white, gay neighborhoods. But the death of his partner from HIV-related causes in 1989 caused Wilson to catapult into activism.
Already involved with the AIDS Project in Los Angeles, he served as the AIDS Coordinator for Los Angeles, co-chair of the Los Angeles HIV Health Commission, and was on the AIDS advisory committee for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Declining health sidelined Wilson for two years, but in 1999 he went back to work and founded the Black AIDS Institute, the only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on African-Americans,.
In 2010, Wilson was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
RuPaul is widely considered to be the most commercially successful drag queen of all time.Born in Los Angeles in 1960, RuPual made her mark as a LGBTQ+ icon in the 1990s when she released her debut single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and quickly become a recognizable as an actress, singer, model, and television mogul. Producer and hostess of popular television reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race.
By pioneering queer representation on television, many believe RuPaul to have essentially revolutionized the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community on screen.
A leader in both the civil rights and LGBT movements, Rustin’s activism started shortly after he graduated college and moved to Harlem, in 1937.
Rustin was arrested in in California in 1953 after he was found having sex with two men in a parked car. The public outing saw Rustin shunned by civil-rights leaders, but he remained open about his sexuality from then on.
He was a close advisor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, and was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington, among other key moments in the civil rights struggle. It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that Rustin become a gay activist: In 1986, he spoke on behalf of the New York State’s Gay Rights Bill, with an infamous speech titled “The Gays Are The New N****ers.”
“It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change,” he declared. “The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”
James Baldwin was born in Harlem and quickly found his passion for writing after spending time in Greenwich Village, where he was mentored by painter Beauford Delaney.
Eventually Baldwin left the U.S. for Paris, where he became involved in the counterculture of the Left Bank and began earning a reputation as a brilliant writer with strong views on race. Many civil rights leaders were dismayed by his homosexuality, but Baldwin’s status as a celebrity writer made him a sought after advocate.
His most famous novels include “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “Tell Me How Long the Train Has Been Gone” and “Another Country” – the latter two dealing with homosexual and bisexual characters.
Baldwin returned to France in his later years, and died there in 1987. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into Chicago’s Legacy Walk, an outdoor museum that celebrates America’s LGBT history.
Marsha P. Johnson
A surrogate mother to the drag queens, trans women and homeless kids living on Christopher Street, Johnson is reported to be one of the first to fight back at the Stonewall Riots.
In the early 1970s, she co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera, one of the first groups in America for non-gender-conforming people.
When the scourge of AIDS decimated New York’s gay population, Johnson became involved with ACT UP New York.
In July 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street piers. The death was ruled a suicide, but after years of lobbying by friends and activists, the NYPD has reopened the case as a homicide.
Representative Barbara Jordan
Barbara Charline Jordan was an American lawyer, educator and politician who was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
A Democrat, she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. She was best known for her eloquent opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearings during the impeachment process against Richard Nixon, and as the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other honors. She was a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors from 1978 to 1980. She was also the first African-American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.
Jordan’s companion of approximately twenty years was Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist, whom she met on a camping trip in the late 1960s. While she never openly talked about her relationship, she is widely considered the first Lesbian elected to public office in the United States.