When Black author and activist Alicia Garza helped created the Black Lives Matter movement with community organizers Patrisse Cullors-Khan and Opal Tometi following the Trayvon Martin killing by George Zimmerman in 2013, she was adamant the movement reflect the diversity of Black queer identity. While fighting racial injustice alone was important, it could not separate itself from the struggle to protect and amplify queer Black lives. Her activism has always sought solutions to the broader intersectional battles of social and economic justice, police brutality, sexual and gender identity, and racial bias and bigotry. She also made clear in an Out cover story last year that she’s not one to back down from the good fight.
“There are always going to be people who are going to hate on your shit or tell you it’s not possible or tell you that you can’t do it. Honestly, when I’m faced with stuff like that, it drives me even harder because I know what’s possible and I know that it takes courage and audaciousness to do anything excellent.”
As a child growing up in Depression-era Texas, Alvin Ailey was forced to work in the cotton fields alongside his mother, suffering the inequities of a racist society. The impressionable youth found refuge in writing and dancing. He once was part of a nightclub act with a young Maya Angelou before turning his full focus on dance. In 1958 he formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to help preserve the Black American cultural experience through dance. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now The Ailey School) in 1969 and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II) in 1974, both going on to become pioneers of arts education programs for underserved communities.
“His story gives people hope,” dancer Troy Powell told Out in 2019. “It gives people perspective, not just on dance: it really touches your own life where you're looking at yourself [and] who you are as a human being. His legacy is so profound.”
One of the most important activists of her era, Angela Davis is a former vice-presidential candidate for the Communist Party of America and has long advocated for causes on behalf of oppressed classes and people of color, once losing a teaching position at UCLA for her political beliefs. Though the abolish and defund movements have seen added attention recently, Davis has been highly vocal in the prison abolition movemen for decades, likening the American penal system which disproportionately impacts young Black men, to a form of slavery. She’s also been an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying “this is what we’ve been waiting for” in a 2016 speech.
While she was married earlier in life, she identified as a lesbian in a famous 1997 interview with Out, and currently lives with life partner Gina Dent.
Black lesbian author and advocate Audre Lorde challenged traditional points-of-view within the feminist community, seeking a more intersectional approach that eschewed the previous blinkered mindset which centered white, heterosexual women. A member of the highly influential and visionary Combahee River Collective, Lorde penned books like Sister Outsider and Your Silence Will Not Protect You which placed the fight for Black voices squarely within the overall feminist movement.
Her 1979 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” calls attention to how the inadequacies of mainstream feminism at the time actually reinforced the systems of patriarchy the movement sought to overturn.
“They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change,” Lorde wrote. “And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.”
Barbara Smith once said she wants to be remembered “as someone who got the work done” and that pretty much describes the Black queer feminist author and activist. When the National Black Feminist Organization proved not radical enough, she and her like-minded activists formed the Combahee River Collective which centered lesbianism within the larger Black feminist movement. She also cofounded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980, the first United States publisher for all women of color to reach a large national audience.
“I have received a number of accolades for things that people view as accomplishments or achievements, but at the end of the day, I believe that I have simply done the work that I was supposed to do here on Earth,” she told Out in a 2019 cover story.
Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was a key confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, making him a target not just for racist whites but also J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous director of the F.B.I. He also had many Black detractors within the movement who found him too gay to be so closely associated with Dr. King — they believed he was detrimental to the movement. He served 50 days in jail following his 1953 arrest when he was found having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena, California, although he was fully pardoned from that last year.
“It is difficult for me to know what Dr. King felt about gayness except to say that I'm sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view,” Rustin wrote in 1987. “Otherwise he would not have hired me.”
Later in life he turned his activism to advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. He gave an empowering but controversial speech in 1986 claiming “the new n***ers are gays,” bringing a civil-rights focus to the gay rights movement at the height of the HIV crisis.
James Baldwin is best known among wider audiences as a celebrated author, civil rights activist, and intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance New Negro Movement, but his contributions to the LGBTQ+ are just as significant. While his work often reflected the pressing issues of race, segregation, and white supremacy that plagued the 1950s and 1960s, Baldwin’s work also centered Black and queer men, embracing both their racial and sexuality identities. His novel Giovanni’s Room with its explicit depictions of homosexuality was so highly controversial that he chose to publish it abroad. Baldwin was a force for the LGBTQ+ community within the Black civil rights movement of the era, reminding others that queer Black lives matter, too.
The famed Black gay author Langston Hughes rose to prominence both for his literary work and also as a leader in the Harlem Renaissance in pre-World War II New York City. Alienated from a distant father who disliked his own people, Hughes embraced his racial heritage as evidenced in his signature poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” where he recalls the history of Black people from the dawn of civilization until more recent times. While his homosexuality is accepted as truth by nearly all modern scholars, he remained closeted publicly at the time. His work centered his Black people and championed racial consciousness and identity, but Hughes also celebrated a diversity of oppressed communities.
“For most of his 65 years, Hughes championed his fellow black people, their beauty, and their shared culture,” wrote Andrew Belonsky, calling attention to how the late author “used his fame not only to celebrate his race, but also laborers, the colonized and other oppressed people.”
Laverne Cox is a modern trans Black trailblazer. Following her joining the cast of Orange is the New Black, she was the first trans person to grace the cover of TIME. She was also the first trans person to win a Daytime Emmy as executive producer for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word (the first trans documentary to win a Daytime Emmy as well), the first trans person to play a transgender series regular on broadcast television, and also the first trans person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy for acting. These honors only scratch the surface of the contributions she has made to trans awareness and affirmation not only as a celebrity and spokesperson but helping projects like Disclosure happen. Cox was fittingly an Out100 honoree in 2013.
Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway. The play about Black Americans living under racial segregation earned her a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the first ever for a Black person. But Hansberry was more than an award-winning playwright. Her father had successfully challenged and won a famous lawsuit against the discriminatory practice of racial “red-lining” and she clearly inherited the activism gene. She wrote openly of the struggle for Black liberation as well as her own lesbianism alongside W.E.B. DuBois and editor Louis E. Burnham in the Black newspaper Freedom. Married and divorced earlier in life, she took on a string of female lovers in her later years and surrounded herself with queer friends. Sadly, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at the young age of 34.
Ma Rainey was a liberated bisexual Black woman during a time of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Known as the “Mother of the Blues” for her role in bringing the musical genre to a wider audience, Rainey also made her mark standing up to the racist patriarchal system that sought to exploit her singing and identity. Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 or 1882 depending upon the source, Rainey got her start early singing and dancing as part of a traveling minstrel show as a young teen. She married William “Pa” Rainey, from whom she took her name, although the couple later divorced. Rainey later was rumored to have had an affair with singer Bessie Smith and her song “Prove It On Me Blues” became a bisexual anthem with its blatant references to same-sex attractions.
"I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, it must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men," she sings in the song. "Wear my clothes just like a fan, talk to the gals just like any old man."
Viola Davis recently starred in the Netflix adaption of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a fictionalized story based on her real-life character. The film also marked the final film appearance for the late Chadwick Boseman. Mo'Nique played Ma Rainey in HBO's film Bessie.
Trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy had been organizing on behalf of the trans community long before the night of Stonewall. The 80-year-old Black trans woman had faced down hate, violence, and adversity after coming out as a teen. Like many transgender women of color, she dealt with issues of abuse and homelessness, often turning to sex work when society rejected her. Griffin-Gracy was at Stonewall when police raided the bar, only to be met with unexpected resistance from the mostly queer patrons. Griffin-Gracy suffered a head injury and broken jaw at the hands of police during the melee but has continued to fight for justice since. She’s also been instrumental in the early struggles against HIV, but focuses her efforts now to protecting young trans women through various projects including the organization she founded, House of GG. Her career was the subject of the 2015 documentary Major! which follows her activism in the trans community.
“We’re not asking for anything that we don’t deserve,” Griffin-Gracy told Out in a cover story last year. “If you’re under somebody’s foot all the time, someone needs to come up and move that motherfucker off your neck.”