Monica Roberts

Yes, Black GLBT History Exists

Filed By Monica Roberts | February 01, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: African-American, Black History Month, GLBT History Month, SGL community

The purpose of studying history is not to deride human action, nor to weep over it or to hate it, but to understand it-and then to learn from it as we contemplate our future.

-- Nelson Mandela

As someone who is the child and godchild of historians, I grew up with a healthy appreciation and love of my people's history. In my house every month was Black History Month, not just 28 days (29 since it's a leap year) in February.

One thing I've been keenly cognizant of is the lack of documentation of African-American contributions to GLBT history. Over the last few years, that seems to be changing for the better, and there are some tantalizing tidbits to this historical buffet that awaits you.

For example. did you know that the first person to go through the now closed Johns Hopkins gender program in Baltimore was an African-American transwoman named Avon Wilson?

Thanks to transgender historian Dr. Susan Stryker and Marc Stein's 2000 book City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia 1945-1972 ,we now have knowledge of the first organized GLBT protest. It happened in April-May 1965 at Philadelphia's Dewey's Lunch Counter, and the participants were African-American transgender and same-gender-loving (SGL) people.

If you saw the iconic movie Paris Is Burning, you got a glimpse of the New York ballroom community that has morphed into a nationwide phenomenon. But the roots of these balls go back to the elaborate drag ball events held during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's.

Speaking of the Harlem Renaissance, some of the leading figures in this explosion of culture were African-American gay writers Richard Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman.

In Chicago they had the legendary Finnie's Ball, named after the Black gay man who started it, Alfred Finnie. The Halloween drag ball he created became such a hugely anticipated event on the South Side that Ebony Magazine covered it in 1954.

Of course, there's the contributions of Bayard Rustin to the Civil Rights movement. The late Coretta Scott King pointed out during a April 1998 speech to the 25th Anniversary Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund luncheon that "Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, Albany GA, St. Augustine FL and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement."

So no, Black SGL peeps weren't MIA when the GLBT rights movement was coalescing. In many cases we've been the primary actors in the GLB and transgender communities, we just hadn't been getting our props for it.

Over the next 29 days you'll get tosee how much we African-Americans have contributed to the GLBT history narrative. Hopefully these stories will help inspire GLBT kids dealing with their own issues to follow the examples and become a healthy, happy and productive citizen

[Editor's note:] This post is part of a series celebrating Black History Month and the Black LGBT experience.

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I'm looking forward to reading these posts ^__^


Would you do some posts around Paris is Burning and the drag ball events of the 20's? I have to admit, I watched Paris but understood very little of it. I barely remember it now. And I don't know anything about the balls. Finnie's Ball sounds like a good story too.

Be happy to, Bil.

Finnie's Ball has an interesting history as well.

Hi Monica, in terms of the Harlem Renaissance, I had heard that Langston Hughes was gay.

I'm looking forward to your posts this month.