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9 Black LGBTQ+ public figures who made a difference in mainstream America

This Black History Month, REVOLT acknowledges the brilliance of nine LGBTQ+ public figures. Their enrichments to the culture are innovative in bravery and forward-thinking.

Angela Davis, Alvin Ailey and James Baldwin Hulton Archive/Getty Images (L), Jack Mitchell (C), Anthony Barboza/Getty Images (R)

Throughout history, Black populations have been subjected to the plagues of privilege and discriminatory policies across spectrums. And despite that, the benefactions of Black creativity and intellectualism are continuous in the mainstream. As the world discovers new ways to brand theories of inclusivity, we must not overlook those sparingly incorporated in the past.

More specifically, members of the Black L.G.B.T.Q.+ community must be protected, as they are disproportionately affected by transgressions concerning fundamental rights and hate crimes. In moments of introspection, can we challenge ourselves to see the world outside of a heteronormative lens? Do we collectively consider intersections of identities that do not encompass our own?

This Black History Month, REVOLT acknowledges the brilliance of nine L.G.B.T.Q.+ public figures. Their enrichments to the culture are innovative in bravery and forward-thinking. Let’s extend respect and recognize that all people deserve to exist as themselves.

James Baldwin is one of the greatest novelists, poets, and playwrights to hold a pen. With pages doused in ink for liberation, Baldwin brilliantly dissected the complexities of his Black experience for the world to read. The distinguished writer’s love for literature developed in his childhood at the library. The safe-haven inspired his journey. In part, his wordsmithing was a gift from his stepfather, a pastor, who helped to groom him into an eloquent speaker and junior minister.

The Harlemite’s teenaged community involvement invigorated his advocacy across spectrums — including race, class, publishing, and sexuality. Baldwin later credited his years in the pulpit as beautiful but turned away from dogma after realizing some contradictions within Pentecostalism. Moreover, he found numerous objections to his sexual identity. In navigating compounded plights of injustice, Baldwin uplifted Black and marginalized people by composing books like Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, If Beale Street Could Talk, and others.

These items are celebrated universally, as were his essays from the Civil Rights Movement. His offerings to separate L.G.B.T.Q.+ campaigns extended beyond artistic expression. In a period where being gay faced even graver consequences than today, Baldwin’s willingness to step into the microphone and intellectual property proved invaluable. His bravery for L.G.B.T.Q.+ persons and life were nothing short of extraordinary.

Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was an L.G.B.T.Q.+ activist who self-identified as a drag queen. Though she was not celebrated nearly enough in her lifetime, Johnson’s part among the vanguard — which resisted prejudicial policing during the Stonewall uprising — is historic. She was later credited in an abundance of L.G.B.T.Q.+ literary workings. And the avant-garde was documented, in 1969, for throwing the first brick to protect the 13 spirits arrested at the Stonewall Inn, a gay club’s infiltration.

In this era, New York officials went to great lengths to deny licenses to bars and establishments friendly toward queer identities. Much of today’s progression was foundationally supported by these events and the Stonewall Inn Riot’s pioneers. Having experienced hardship in her younger years, Johnson co-founded the activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) beside Sylvia Rivera half a century ago.

Similar to Johnson’s impact on the Gay Liberation Front, STAR was groundbreaking involving at-risk trans youth. She also helped shape a turning point in L.G.B.T.Q.+ medical rights. Her trailblazing efforts to end the AIDS pandemic with ACT UP at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City extended beyond her lifetime. The NYC investigation surrounding her death was reopened in 2012 and remains unsolved.

Alvin Ailey is revered within the dance community for his directorial visions, choreography, and activism toward artistic inclusion. Being born in Rogers, Texas placed a fire within him to create what he did not yet see. Turning painful memories into expression, the rural south’s racism became an anecdote to his masterworks like those of Revelations’ movements on stage. The mental layers of the ballet production remain among the most significant worldwide.

Ailey first paid his dues in Los Angeles as a dancer under Lester Horton, the originator of a famous racially integrated dance company. Upon his mentor’s passing, Ailey took Lester Horton Dance Theater’s helm as director in 1953. He choreographed several theatrical triumphs with Black ballerinas spotlighted in ways he did not see at white-owned companies during the 1950s.

The legend stretched his vision by founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 to great success. Ailey received the 1988 Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts. Today, his modern dance company continues prestigiously in New York City with over 200 globally praised ballets.

Ma Rainey, affectionately referred to as the “Mother Of Blues,” became a household name. Her story was brought to screens by Netflix through Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The praise-worthy 2020 film captured both the bisexual luminary’s complex archives and served as the late actor’s final role.

Captivated by her music’s fearless nature, listeners enabled Rainey’s ascension in the roaring twenties. Her cabaret-styled sets pushed past disadvantageous boundaries. Rainey did not permit white management to mishandle her, and she was open about her orientation. The songstress’ records were often laced with L.G.B.T.Q.+ unions.

Pieces such as “Prove It On Me Blues” document her intimate moments beside the same sex. And though her musical gifts may not have always received the notoriety that some of her acquaintances did — including Louis Armstrong and her mentee, Bessie Smith — Rainey lived on her terms. Activist Angela Davis later referenced the blues star’s lyricism as “a precursor” to 1970s lesbian cultural movements.

Kylar W. Broadus is an attorney, educator, entrepreneur, author, and the first openly transgender person to testify before the Senate. His dedication to dismantling structures that uphold racial inequality and discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q.+ citizens were partly incited by the bias he experienced following his gender transition. His transparency regarding the nuances circling his identity has made him an in-demand public speaker.

To add, Broadus is innovative outside of the courtroom. He formed the only national non-profit organization dedicated to his experience, The Trans People of Color Coalition. It is here that he and his conspirators advocate for distinct social justice causes affecting trans bodies.

Some of his honors include a Certificate of Legal Excellence by the City of New York, a GLAAD Award presented with Liberty Mutual, a Gentleman of Excellence Award, and the Trans Trailblazer Award from the LGBT Bar Association of Los Angeles. One of his highest honors was standing with President Obama while he signed the 2014 Executive Order on LGBT Workplace Discrimination. After facilitating numerous L.G.B.T.Q.+ legal victories over three decades, Broadus is steadfast with every endeavor.

Indya Moore grew up girdled in an array of cultural frameworks in the Bronx, New York. The Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican non-binary model and actor is well-known as Goddess in the film Queen and Slim and Angel Evangelista on the TV series “Pose.” The roles could be illuminated all the same for their activism. Moore came out as queer at 13 and, having experienced transphobia at home, promptly entered the foster care system.

Among resilience and purpose, Moore began securing modeling shoots with Dior and Gucci when they reached 15. Today, at 26, they create necessary dialogue for transgender and gender-nonconforming communities through knowledge-based activism — and testimony at L.G.B.T.Q.+ rallies and beyond. Also, Moore voiced the non-binary character, Shep, in “Steven Universe: Future,” extending this imagery.

Moore is committed to their craft and sharing the intersectional features that make them who they are. In this respect, they publicly acknowledge how non-binary children can potentially be subjected to harmful practices or suicide ideations that may stem from a lack of acceptance. Above all, they emphasize that self-love is the truest key.

Don Lemon, an adjunct professor, producer, and veteran TV journalist is among the most respected nationwide. His journey began making his rounds as a news anchor and investigative reporter in American cities like Birmingham, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, and New York City. These individual positions provided him the backing necessary to effortlessly cover global breaking news as the weeknight anchor of “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.”

In unprecedented times, and under a previous administration that showed little remorse for Black and Brown issues, Don Lemon tackled minoritized peoples’ complexities. Further, he extends that same care to report on L.G.B.T.Q.+ happenings responsibly, including those of the Orlando shooting at Pulse Nightclub. More than on his late-night screen, Lemon has shared experiences from his same-sex partnership with supporters.

That dialogue’s relatability crosses L.G.B.T.Q.+ multimedia platforms with ease. Lemon has garnered accolades such as three local Emmy Awards, presidential acknowledgment, an Edward R. Murrow award, and another Emmy following a special report. The distinctness of what he represents is vital entirely, and so is his voice.

Shea Diamond, a trans activist, and singer-songwriter got her name and radio buzzing with the release of the single “I Am Her.” Diamond has noted that many of her lyrics were penned in the prison system during her 10-year stint. She had a history through multiple men’s correctional facilities following an armed robbery for gender affirmation surgery.

Music was a sense of refuge as she often needed to be separated from the rest of her prison population. The isolation offered Diamond protection because similarly to her childhood, she feared consequences due to notions of a lack of masculinity. Her struggles are a testament to the effects of being expected to live a life that does not feel true.

The raspy texture over tracks like “American Pie,” “Don’t Shoot,” and “I Am America” stretches listeners toward perspectives that may be different from their own. And the glimpses Diamond offers in her music videos encourages viewers to walk in her shoes. Whether she is headlining a Capital Pride Concert, joining an Equality Rocks campaign or beginning a new business venture, she champions for humanity.

Angela Davis remains among the most esteemed educators and activists globally. Being raised in a neighborhood referenced as “Dynamite Hill” — due to frequent Ku Klux Klan bombings — the Birmingham, Alabama native witnessed racism since infancy. Much like her mother, a member of the NAACP and Southern Negro Youth Congress, Davis fought for Black people’s advancement. The philosopher’s strides toward the equality of minoritized groups began as early as her teenage years.

Davis organized interracial study groups, which were swiftly divided by bigoted police officers. Distinctly, the activist experienced heartbreaking loss. She had ties to several of the girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Each of these events guided the scholar’s remarkable collegiate pursuits before Davis earned a Ph.D. at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Her battle against oppression continued in sectors concerning the Black Panthers, feminism, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, and the Che-Lumumba Club. She became visible nationally following a politically charged murder trial, where she was acquitted on all charges by an all-white jury. Before this historic moment in 1972, Davis campaigned in support of three inmates at the Soledad Prison who were accused of murder. While on trial, one of these prisoner’s teenaged brother, Jonathan Jackson, attempted to free the prisoners with guns Davis purchased for self-protection.

Jackson was killed in the process, and though Davis was not at the courtroom scene, multiple people in attendance died in the aftermath. Consequently, a warrant was issued for her arrest. Davis went into hiding from the FBI. And she became the third woman to land on their 10 most wanted fugitive list and served nearly 18 months in prison ahead of her litigation. Davis later returned to activism and life as a university professor upon release. The activist self-identifies as a queer woman and is consistently on the frontlines of L.G.B.T.Q.+ causes.

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