Patricia Nell Warren

Black History Month: Looking for More Lives to Celebrate

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | February 20, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: Anita Cornwell, Billy Strayhorn, Black History Month, Glenn Burke, Joe Beam, Mabel Hampton, Maya Angelou, Monica Roberts, Tim'm West

With Black History Month in its third week, I got the idea to google around the Web for half an hour and see how many vivid article profiles of black LGBT pioneers were easily findable in that time. Below is the "bouquet" of inspiring lives that I happened upon, and put together, in a short time. Some are well-known, others less so but deserve to be well-known. The point is -- a tremendous amount of writing and research has been done on this subject. There are a lot of amazing people that many of us need to know more about. And they're all out there for our fingers to find via the mouse or Blackberry.

I invite commenters to add some names or article citations that are faves of theirs.

Meanwhile, the author and publications that I found, and the figures they're writing about, cam be found after the jump.

In addition to articles, there are also book reviews, film reviews and informational websites -- not only in the U.S. but other countries as well -- that can lead us to greater knowledge about, and appreciation of, hundreds of people who contributed so richly to what we call "our community" after 1900.

A few that I found:

Billy Strayhorn
1940s-1960s composer ("Take the A Train") and civil-rights activist
"Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" - Independent Lens (PBS Home/KCET)

Maya Angelou
"Maya Angelou at 80 - A Glorious Celebration, by the lister at

Joe Beam
writer, literary critic, activist who died in 1988
"Remembering a Black Gay Pioneer"
by Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Mabel Hampton
Born in 1902, dancer, collector of "in the life" memorabilia, major contributor to Lesbian Herstory Archives in NYC
"Mabel Hampton: Black Lesbian Pioneer" by Kathy Belge,

Tim'm West
performance artist in soul and hip hop, author, music events producer,
"Tim'm West: My Favorite Things," by Keith Boykin

Monica Roberts
transgender activist, fellow Bilerico Project contributor
"Say It Loud - Black, Transgender and Proud" - UK Black
UK Black

Glenn Burke
First Major League baseball player to be out to teammates and team-owners. Played 1976-79. Died of AIDS in 1995.

Anita Cornwell
author, first published in 1950s, one of the first to identify as a black lesbian in print
"Remembrance of Things Present" by Janet Mason

And finally...a reference book that people who like to read books on this subject might like to have on their shelf:

Carry the Word: A Bibliography of Black LGBTQ Books
Edited by Steven G. Fullwood and Lisa C. Moore
Redbone Press/Vintage Entity Press, $16.95
available at

Reviewer Richard Labonte at PrideSource says: "This compilation of almost 700 black queer titles - fiction and poetry, essays and anthologies, gay studies texts and lesbian biographies - has value enough as a useful library resource. And there's a value-added component: more than two dozen interviews (and a few reviews) that add personality to the book's bare-bones booklist."

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Rick Elliott | February 21, 2009 2:59 AM

I missed a mention of Barbara Jordan. She was a "presence" who knew how to use that "presence" for good causes. I can still her sonorous voice in the Nixon impeachment hearings. How I wish her health would have permitted her to be on the political scene for much longer.
She is my ideal of who a congress leader needs to be. Her balance between practical and ideological is a lesson for future legislatures to make.
In 2008 a lot of copy was made about the first serious woman and Afro-American candidates being pitted against each other. Had Barbara been healthy longer, we might just have seen the first female and-Afro-American candidate rolled into one powerful woman.

I'm so happy that you included Monica Roberts in your list. She's one of our contributors that I love dearly - just because her voice is so often overlooked in our community.

please mention justin fashanu. he was the first professional soccer player in england to come out publicly. he had been a huge star and was the first player to be paid a million pounds. his story is tragic, but certainly courageous and no doubt influenced millions of queer and not-queer soccer fans and players.

more here:

thanks for your work!

sorry, can you please add to the justin fashanu post that 11 years after his death, fashanu remains the only professional soccer player in the WHOLE WORLD to have come out.

this is really sick.


Hi Diana,

My list wasn't meant to be comprehensive. I've been working on a story for the Outsports gay-history series about soccer, and the extreme homophobia that reigns in that sport. Yes, Fashanu's story is heartbreaking. It's really curious that so many Americans consider soccer to be a pansy sport, yet in the countries where soccer is the national sport, it's considered the pinnacle of machismo, and the ferociously anti-gay atmosphere is almost crushing.

To anyone: Does Maya Angelou identify herself as lesbian or bi, or is she simply a pro-LGBT ally? I know she was married and had a son - whatever that means. Doesn't really matter - luv her either way! But I want to be careful with the facts.

Similar to Langston Hughes? ... almost no evidence of any particular gay relationship(s), only one brief straight relationship while young and in Paris ... but he is assumed to be gay because he trips off the red alert on everyone's gaydar: GAY!

Thanks for your additions to the list. My little list was just meant to stimulate people's curiosity, so they'd go search for themselves. Clearly it's not intended to be comprehensive. And I don't rule out discussion about who "should" or "shouldn't" be on any comprehensive list. If you search under "Maya Angelou lesbian," you'll find mention. She even operated a lesbian escort service when she was young and wild. A lot of us who are in the community today got heterosexually married at some point(including myself), and had kids as well. It's true that Angelou hasn't been very high profile about her personal life, but she wouldn't be the only one to have taken that route.

P.S. Patricia, some obvious names are missing, so I presume you aren't attempting to be comprehensive (smart! - an impossible task!) ... but one name we might want to be sure to include is playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of probably the most famous African-American play in 20th Century, A Raisin in the Sun. (Wikipedia write-up does not mention her sexual orientation, but I believe it is well documented.)

Amazing!!! I had no idea that our culture was so rich in numbers. We as a community need to find a way to mainstream 'our kind' into the memory of our own and to the masses.

Thanks Patricia, as always you are such an inspiring voice for me.