Black history is rich with leaders and creators who inspire generations. This Black History Month, learn about these 10 Black queer icons who’ve helped shape LGBTQ+ culture.
Born in the United States, James Baldwin lived much of his life in Paris, France. From across the pond, he freely wrote about the experience of being Black and gay in America. He also participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Baldwin’s most notable works include Giovanni’s Room and Notes of a Native Son.
Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray sought and was denied gender-affirming medical treatment in the 1930s. As a poet and essayist, they influenced the movement against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. Murray was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks did the same.
Audre Lorde, author of Sister Outsider, once said, “Your silence will not protect you.” As an advocate, poet, and theorist, she explored intersectionality before it became a mainstream concept. She contributed to critical race theory as well as queer and feminist theory. Lorde once described herself as “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior.”
Marsha P. Johnson was a leader of the 1969 Stonewall Riots; many even believe she threw the first brick. Johnson later co-founded the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) House, which provided food and housing to trans and non-gender conforming youth. She was also an AIDS activist and performed with the Hot Peaches until she died in 1992.
Author Alice Walker is known for works including the novel The Color Purple and short story “The Flowers.” She was the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. This bisexual icon continues to advocate for human rights, racial equality, and LGBTQ+ rights today.
Andrea Jenkins is a poet and oral historian at the University of Minnesota. In 2017, she became the first Black transgender woman to hold public office in the United States. As of 2022, she leads the Minneapolis City Council.
Lori Lighfoot was elected Chicago’s first openly LGBTQ+ and first Black woman mayor in 2019. A former prosecutor, she hopes to expand opportunity and inclusive economic growth. She has led the city of Chicago through the COVID-19 pandemic and has brought about several ethics and governance reforms.
Bayard Rustin was the Deputy Director and Chief Organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He also organized the first Freedom Rides. Committed to his religion and to nonviolent protest, Rustin became fast friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Despite these contributions, Rustin was often left out of the public spotlight during the Civil Rights Movement because he lived a life true to his identity as a gay man.
Wanda Sykes is regularly recognized as one of the funniest people in America. She has worked for decades as a comedian, actor, and Emmy-award winning writer in film and television. After coming out in 2008, Sykes married her wife, Alex, with whom she has two children.
Four-time Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman is known for hits such as “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.” She also advocates for justice and equality, specifically in the realms of race and gender. Chapman has never labeled her sexuality but has dated several women, including her current partner, Alice Walker.
Interested in learning about other Black queer icons? Check out this list from GLAAD.