The 8 most important black LGBT heroes in history
For black history month in the UK, Gay Star News celebrate eight of history's most important black LGBT heroes
Pioneering and history-making, these eight black LGBT heroes need to be remembered. The sad truth is there have been many many more heroes whose stories have not been recorded for future generations. The stories we do tell here are those of remarkable individuals who overcame tremendous obstacles to clear the path for black and LGBT people to go further in the arts, politics and sport.
Richard Bruce Nugent (1906 to 1987)
Many of the writers of the 1920s’ Harlem Renaissance were rumoured to be gay – Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Angela Weld Grimke and Alice Dunbar-Nelson – but Richard Bruce Nugent was the only one to live an open life.
A painter and a writer, Nugent’s short-story Smoke, Lilies, and Jade (1926) was the first publication to feature open descriptions of homosexuality by an African-American. It is written in stream-of-consciousness prose en vogue by contemporary modernists James Joyce and Virginnia Woolf. When it was published critic Benjamin Brawley singled out Nugent’s story as an example of black writers’ ‘preference for sordid, unpleasant or forbidden themes’.
From 1926 to 1928 Nugent lived with fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman in an apartment decorated by Nugent with homoerotic murals.
The 2004 film Brother to Brother directed by Rodney Evans brought Nugent’s life to the screen, winning awards at Sundance and gay and lesbian film festivals in Miami, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, San Francisco.
Billie Holiday (1915 to 1959)
Nicknamed Lady Day by her devoted fans, Billie Holiday was the most famous female jazz singer of the 1930s and 40s. Her success was belied by a sad life struck by sexual abuse as a child and alcoholism and drug addiction that led to her death aged 44.
Holiday started her career singing in clubs in Harlem and was first recorded in 1933 aged 18. She performed with Count Basie and a white orchestra led by Artie Shaw, but left in 1938 after being asked to use the service elevator when they were performing at the Lincoln Hotel. She hit mainstream success in the 1940s after she recorded Strange Fruit, a song which hauntingly describes lynched black men hanging from trees in the south.
‘I’ve been told that nobody sings the word "hunger" like I do. Or the word "love",’ she said in her 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. ‘Maybe I remember what those words are all about.’
Holiday had documented lesbian affairs, including one with actress Tallulah Bankhead, as well as male lovers and marrying trombonist Jimmy Monroe in 1941 and Mafia associate Louis McKay in 1957.
Listen to Billie Holiday singing You go to my Head:
James Baldwin (1924 to 1987)
Born in New York, writer and commentator James Baldwin spent most of his adult life in France, which, he said, saved him. In spite of growing-up in the same neighborhood as many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Baldwin was first inspired by a painter, Beauford Delaney, whom he met when Baldwin was 15. Delaney was ‘the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist,’ wrote Baldwin in 1985. They were also both gay.
Baldwin’s second novel Giovanni’s Room (1956) is explicitly deals with homosexual themes. It tells the love affair between two men, an American and an Italian, living in Paris. The author said that his publisher first told him to burn the book because the story would allienate him from his black audience.
In 1963 Baldwin came back to America to tour the south supporting the Civil Rights Movement, earning himself a Time magazine cover. ‘There is not another writer, who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South,’ read the Time editorial about him.
Baldwin was friends with Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X but was a victim of homophobia in Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 collection of essays Soul on Ice.
When Baldwin died in the south of France in 1987 novelist Ralph Ellison said ‘America has lost one of its most gifted writers and one of the most important American essayists, black or white’.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930 to 1965)
Chicago-born writer Lorraine Hansberry produced one critically-acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) before her untimely death aged 34 from cancer. With a title taken from a Langston Hughes poem, the play tells the story of a black family planning to move into an all-white neighborhood. It was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway and won four Tony Awards in 1960.
The story was partly inspired by Hansberry’s own family’s experiences moving into a white neighborhood in Chicago that included a 1940 anti-discrimination courtcase. In Hansberry’s book To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969) she writes:
‘My memories of this "correct" way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger [pistol], doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.’
In 1957 Hansberry wrote two letters to The Ladder, an early lesbian periodical. They were signed with her initials as was the journal’s convention, but editor Barbara Grier has confirmed that Hansberry was the author.
‘I’m glad as heck that you exist,’ one of Hansberry’s letters read. ‘You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations.’
Bayard Rustin (1912 to 1987)
‘I have a dream…’ said Martin Luther King Jr to more than a quarter of a million people in Washington DC on 28 August 1963, in part due to the work of openly gay civil rights campaigner Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Born in Pennslyvannia and raised by his Quaker grandparents, Rustin got into university and teacher training college on a musical scholarship as a tenor vocalist, which also got him a regular gig at the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, leading to meetings with the black intellectual and cultural leaders of the day.
Rustin was an early civil rights activist. He was arrested in 1942 after a personal protest against segregated interstate buses, 13 years before Rosa Parks’ Montgomery Bus Boycott. He spotted King’s leadership potential early on and convinced him to embrace Gandhian tactics of non-violence, which Rustin had learned about on a visit to India in 1948.
Despite not hiding his sexuality, a 1953 arrest for ‘sex perversion’ and affiliation with the Communist Party in his youth, was used by congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr to force Rustin’s resignation from the organization he had started with King, Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In the 1970s and 80s Rustin supported the burgeoning gay rights movement. He said in a speech entitled ‘The New Niggers Are Gays’ in 1986:
‘Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new "niggers" are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.’
Watch a trailer for Brother Outsider, a film about Rustin’s influence on the civil rights movement, here:
Marsha P Johnson (1944 to 1992)
Transgender rights activst Marsha P Johnson was a leading figure in the Stonewall Riots in 1969, during which she broke a police car windshield.
Johnson moved to Manhattan from New Jersey when she was 18 in 1966. She said she was ‘no one’ until she came to New York and became a drag queen. She supported herself mainly through sex work but also performed in experimental theatre company Hot Peaches and was photographed by Andy Warhol.
‘Drag mother’ to many including fellow transgender activist Sylvia Riveria, Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Riveria to help young homeless trans women.
In an interview, Remembering Marsha P Johnson Stonewall, veterans Bob Kohler, Thomas Langian-Schmidt and Danny Garvin recalled her vivacity. ‘Marsha was totally mad but one of the geniuses on the face of the Earth. The heart and soul of a reality was in Marsha,’ said artist Langian-Schmidt.
Johnson died shortly after New York Pride in 1992. Her body was found floating in the Hudson River. Initially police ruled her death as suicide but her friends protested, saying that she wasn’t suicidal and that she had been seen being harrassed near where her body was found. Despite the protests, a full investigation into the cause of her death was never carried out.
The New York band Antony and the Johnsons fronted by trans singer Antony Hegarty are named after Johnson.
Watch Remembering Marsha P Johnson here:
Linda Bellos (1950)
Linda Bellos was a key figure in the second wave feminist movement in 1970s Britain, as well as Labour council leader for Lambeth in south London from 1986 to 1988. Today she runs a consultancy advising companies on diversity.
Born to a Jewish mother and Nigerian father and brought up in Brixton in south London, Bellos was the first black woman to join feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1972. She said in an interview with The Independent in 2007 that she felt ‘played’ by the ‘white middle-class women who owned the women’s movement’.
‘Bloody women from Oxford had universalised their experience, defined it as feminism and wondered why it didn’t mean anything to the rest of us,’ said Bellos. ‘When we started asserting our equal right to define what feminism was, they didn’t like it.’
Bellos was married with two children but came out in 1980 and, with her partner Caroline Jones, was one of the first couples to have a civil partnership in Britain in 2005.
One of Bellos’ achievements is that she started Black History Month in the UK in 1987. She is also patron of Broken Rainbow UK which supports LGBT victims of domestic violence.
Willi Ninja (1961 to 2006)
Willi Ninja was a star dancer and choreographer in ‘ball culture’ in New York in the 1980s, where black and Latino gay men would gather and compete for trophies by dancing and strutting on the dance floor. The sub-culture was captured in a 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning.
Ninja was famous for ‘the vogue’ dance-style that was the inspiration behind Madonna’s huge 1990 hit – prompting wild posturing in gay clubs across the world. Ninja also starred as a dancer in the music videos for Malcom McClaren’s Deep in Vogue and Masters at Work’s I Can’t Get No Sleep and modelled for Jean-Paul Gautier. He died from AIDS-related causes in 2006.
Watch Paris is Burning here (1 hour 20 mins):
Justin Fashanu (1961 to 1998)
Justin Fashanu was the first black footballer to attract a £1 millon transfer fee and the first and only footballer to come out as gay in the UK. Despite his bravery, Fashanu was rejected by his family, bullied by his manager and verbally abused by crowds when he played.
Fashanu and his brother John, who also became a professional footballer (and then a TV presenter) were fostered from a childrens’ home by white parents when they were six and five years old. They grew-up in Norwich and both ended up playing for Norwich City football club.
In 1981 Fashanu made his £1 million transfer to Nottingham Forrest managed by Brian Clough. After a promising start to his career, Fashanu’s performance on the football pitch went downhill, probably due to homophobic bullying from Clough. In 1982 he was sold to Notts County for only £150,000. He moved around non-premier league clubs throughout the 80s, and played for short periods in the US and Canada.
In 1990 Fashanu came out publically in an interview with The Sun tabloid newspaper. The article was salacious, including claims of an affair with a married Conservative party MP, other footballers and pop stars.
The reaction to Fashanu’s openness about his sexuality, the first black celebrity in Britian to do so as well as the first footballer, was sadly largely hostile. British newspaper for the black community, The Voice, said that coming out in a tabloid newspaper (but the suggestion was coming out at all) was ‘an affront to the black community… damaging… pathetic and unforgivable’.
And, more tragically, John Fashanu condemned his brother saying ‘my gay brother is an outcast’ in The Voice after he came out. Even this year John denied his brother was gay, saying Justin made-up stories to get attention.
In 1998 Fashanu had started a promising new carear coaching US team Maryland Mania, but this was cut short when allegations of assault were made against him by a 17-year-old boy. Fashanu returned to England and committed suicide, leaving a note which said ‘I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrasssment to my friends and family’.
During a documentary called Britain’s Gay Footballers screened in January this year, Fashanu’s niece (John’s daughter) said:
‘I’m proud Justin was my uncle and that he was brave enough to say what he did. I think my dad now regrets the harsh way he responded. The game needs more people like my uncle if homophobic barriers are to be removed.’