12 Black Lesbians & Bi Women From History You Need to Know
You can't learn about American history without seeing the contributions of Black lesbians and bi women.
They've been behind some of the biggest trends and movements in American politics, music, art, fashion, civil rights, and feminism. From kicking off the gay rights movement to popularizing Black music across America, Black queer women have been knocking down doors forever.
Here are just a few of the countless Black lesbians and queer women who have changed history.
Without Storme DeLarverie, we wouldn't have the modern gay rights movement as we know it. According to many eyewitnesses, the butch lesbian and civil rights icon was in handcuffs being dragged and beaten by police through the Stonewall bar crowd on June 28, 1969 when she shouted at the crowd to fight back and help her. The resulting uprising became known as the Stonewall Riot, and is largely credited with kicking off the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States.
Before Stonewall, she served as MC and the only drag king member of the Jewel Box Review, North America's first-ever racially integrated drag show. She also worked as a bouncer at several lesbian bars in New York City, and was known as the "guardian of lesbians in the Village." DeLarverie's impact on the Gay liberation movement, as well as her impacts on fashion, lesbian history, and women's rights, will never be forgotten.
In her signature tail coat and top hat, Gladys Bentley was one of the Harlem Renaissance's greatest singers and entertainers. In the '20s and '30s she would perform throughout New York, playing piano, cross-dressing, singing raunchy tunes, and flirting with women from the stage. She's an icon of Black female masculinity.
The bisexual "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey was one of the first singers to bridge vaudeville and the blues. Rainey released over 100 recordings of blues songs, many of which she wrote herself. She wrote at least a third of the songs she sang, including many lasting hits like "Moonshine Blues" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Many of her songs reference relationships with both men and women. She was immortalized in the play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Viola Davis.
Hansberry was the first Black woman author to have a play performed on Broadway when her play, A Raisin in the Sun, premiered in 1959. At just 29, she became the youngest American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Before becoming a playwright, she was a staff member of the Black newspaper Freedom. She not only focused on the U.S. civil rights movement, but also wrote and spoke on global issues of colonialism and imperialism.
Audre Lorde is considered one of the greatest American writers, feminists, theorists, and poets. Her writings and poems often dealt with issues including civil rights, lesbianism, and Black female identity. Her book Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches forever changed American feminism, addressing the need for different groups of marginalized people to come together to overcome oppression. Her essay "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House" emphasized that looking at problems through a racist and patriarchal lens will never lead to liberation.
A civil rights leader, Jordan became the first Black person elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, and later became the first Black woman from the South to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1976, she became the first woman and first Black person to deliver a keynote address as a Democratic National Convention. She participated in the House Judiciary Committee hearings during Richard Nixon's impeachment process.
Donna Burkett and Manonia Evans
Burkett and Evans were one of the first same-sex couples in American history to challenge the government for the right to marry. The couple applied for a marriage license when they went to the Milwaukee County clerk in 1971, but were denied. After that, they filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the denial of marital benefits like inheritance and tax filings went against the Constitution's equal protection. While the suit was dismissed over a technical legal issue, the two got married on Christmas Day in 1971 in front of 250 friends.
Known as the "Empress of the Blues," Smith was a bisexual powerhouse and one of the most popular singers of the '20s and '30s. Born in Chattanooga, Tenessee, she left a lasting impact on music that still influences blues, jazz, and rock. For a while, she performed and was close with Ma Rainey, but later went on her own. She tragically died in a car crash at age 43.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Hampton danced in all-Black productions, and in 1932, met Lillian B. Foster, the woman who would be her partner until Foster's death in 1978. She was a vocal supporter of gay and lesbian organizations and marched in the first National Gay and Lesbian March in Washington. She spoke at the 1984 New York City Pride Parade and served as the parade's grand marshal in 1985.
Mabley is one of the greatest comedians of the early 20th century. She began her career on stage and soon became one of the central figures of the Chitlin' Circuit of Black vaudeville performers. Later, she recorded several comedy albums and was featured on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She's influenced Black comedians and entertainers like Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes, and Eddie Murphy.
Eckstein was one of the major players in the 1960s gay and lesbian rights movement and a leader of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the US. Her work in the Civil Rights Movement provided valuable insight into the type of tactics and public demostrations that were needed in the gay rights movement. In the '70s, she became involved in the Black feminist movement and the organization Black Women Organized for Action.