Black History Month is often focused on prolific members of the Black community throughout history who contributed to the world in the name of betterment, and while they are incredibly important to our community, we often overlook those who are still alive and continuing to make a difference. We know that much of the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation has largely been led by Black members of the community who often don’t get enough credit for their contributions. This year, the Autostraddle team decided to focus our Black History Month coverage on the Black elders who are still here and still doing the work.
We connected with Black elders through a partnership with SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources to LGBTQ+ older people and their caregivers. Autostraddle was honored to talk with five Black LGBTQ+ elders, and we’ll be publishing these interviews throughout the month of February. We welcome our readers to celebrate these members of the Black LGBTQ+ community with us, while they’re still here to be celebrated.
I am often the oldest person in the room. I have spent much of the last decade surrounded by LGBTQ+ youth – teaching them, reading with them, and researching them. Last summer, some of the teenagers I worked with labeled me a queer elder. I chuckled and gladly accepted it given my refutation of “the TikTokwp_postsand my love of “old folks music,wp_postsbut I know I’m no elder yet. I save that title for legends like Donald Bell, a gay Black third-generation Chicagoan whose commitment to organizing and community spans more than five decades.
On a dreary Ohio afternoon in January, I dialed Mr. Bell’s number to chat. His hello was a bear hug that roared through the phone’s speaker like sunshine. “I’m sorry we’re not on zoom so I can see your beautiful face, but I’m sitting here looking at it on the website.wp_postsWhat a charmer. I smiled for more than an hour until we hung up. We talked about Chicago, growing up gay as a member of the Stonewall Generation, and what it means to bridge intergenerational differences as an aging member of our community. When we were done chatting, I was certain of three things regarding Donald Bell.
1. He is as brilliant as he is charming and honest.
2. He loves his city, his people, and his work.
3. He is [without a doubt] an absolute legend.
This is him in his own words, on his own terms, in a world that he is continuing to carve into something better for all of us. — shea wesley martin
On his activism
I have been an activist all of my life. I guess I was drawn into the civil rights movement in my youth. I was born right after World War II, and of course, I was intrigued by Black servicemen returning from the war, honoring and continuing to work towards the Double Victory Campaign. During the war, many Black servicemen vowed to fight against fascism around the world and then come home and fight segregation here. So that, along with Black parts of the labor movement, like A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters was all happening around me as I grew up. It was always there.
When I was six years old, Emmett Till’s body was returned to Chicago. As a child, I was not allowed to attend the services — no children were, but what I saw was how disturbed the grownups were. And this was traumatizing to me as a child, traumatizing to all of us because I mean, this was the first time I’d seen men cry in public, and the sense of urgency just reverberated through all of us. I first learned, at the tender age of six, the danger of being born into Black skin. Later on, when I was 13, The March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights occurred. I was too young to attend, but I did follow it all and when I started high school that year, I was part of a movement. We started what we called human relations clubs at several of the more progressive Chicago suburban high schools. So this [activism] has been a part of me for my entire life — from civil rights to all of the movements that came as a — the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement (as we called it at the time), the revival of the labor movement, and of course, the anti-war movement.
All of these things have been a part of me from my earliest youth and have carried on, not only with community activism, but with what I learned and was taught were the basic responsibilities of an American citizen. I have spent nearly 40 years as an election judge. I wasn’t interested in being a politician but I was interested in the American people getting off their butts and honoring the opportunities that they had. And that’s a huge lift. But it’s always been important to me that people get out there and they defend their civil rights by using them.
On lost histories and stories
I’m a third-generation Chicagoan. My family did not come here as part of the Great Migration; we came here long before that. My grandpa settled in Chicago just after the World’s Columbian Exposition in the 1890s. My maternal family was part of Pilgrim Baptist Church which is considered the home of gospel music. My father’s side of the family comes from another progressive Baptist church. We were steeped in that tradition. It’s very important to us, our identity, and our approaches to faith. For Black people, gospel music and gospel culture tie us to our American history because our people, African Americans, are resilient. And it has been the objective of white America from the very beginning to control us and then subsequently eliminate us. We have survived attacks on the Black body, Black identity, on the Black family dating back forever. There is no institution north, south, or anywhere else that cannot trace its legacy or “greatnesswp_poststo our enslavement or the contributions of African American people. But again, that story is hidden and it impacts the way we think about ourselves but it also impacts the way that people think about us.
The first ever permanent settler of Chicago, the fastest-growing city in human history, was a Black man. We know history is whitewashed; it’s straight-washed. It’s (upper) class washed — all of those attributes of privilege are the prevailing ones that rule our histories, legacies, and our sense of belonging (or not belonging) for marginalized people.
Here in Chicago, one of the things that we’re proud of is the fact that despite New York, LA, and San Francisco being considered the “gay hubs,wp_postswe have a long and very significant history in the LGBT community. It’s here where the first homophile organization in the US was established, the Society for Human Rights. Most folks credit that to Henry Gerber who registered the organization with the State of Illinois as the secretary of the organization, but what is lost is that it was John T. Graves, an African American minister who was the president of that organization. So our LGBT library here, Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, bears the name of Gerber, but the legacy of Graves is lost. And that story — the erasure of our contributions — is repeated over and over and over again.
On Black Chicago, homosexuality, and community
Like most Chicagoans, I grew up in an immediate community of people who look just like me. Chicago historically has been and continues to be one of the most racially, ethnically, and class-stratified places on the globe. And so segregation is us in terms of history. Not all of that is necessarily bad because it also allows us to be a place of incredible rich cultural diversity. Chicago is American all the way down, from its very roots. And in its growth, it became the place that African Americans wanted to migrate to before the end of slavery and after slavery. The growth of what we call the Black Metropolis was so fast and is still going.
I currently live in Boystown, on the north side of the city, but it started on the south side in the Black community. In the 1890s, men, who were then called musical rather than gay, were welcome in the community and they could socialize. They could be in bars. They could find residences. As the (gay) community started to assemble, it started migrating north to where it is now. But that starting point and the connection to the community on the south side is lost in our histories. So many in the gay community don’t speak of the legacy and the advocacy that comes from the Black community.
These days, the Black community is characterized as the most homophobic of ethnic communities but that is not the truth of our history. The truth of our history is that gay, lesbian, and gender-expansive people were normal and recognized in the Black community. In 1938, an openly gay Black man and minister built the First Church of Deliverance. That congregation still survives, led by an openly gay man.
There used to be a cultural event that happened on the south side that included the entire Black community called Finnie’s Ball, a drag event that happened every year. Everybody went and everybody participated.
Even when my mother lost her mother, the person that she found comfort with was a trans woman who lived on the first floor of their tenement building and who was known as “Mamawp_postsin the neighborhood. “Mamawp_postswas there to comfort my mother and my grandfather didn’t have any aversion to it. He said, in the vernacular at the time, “well, you go and spend time with that sissy, I’m glad she’s there to help you.wp_postsThese are stories and situations that are not portrayed in the modern community when people look at the Black community and the LGBT community. But our histories are totally entwined. And I’m sure that it’s the same in New York and LA and San Francisco and everywhere else, that the most marginalized communities are also the most welcoming for other marginalized communities.
On Chicago, the “LGBT oasiswp_postsof the Heartland
Well, Chicago was in fact the LGBT oasis of the Heartland, the middle of the country. People routinely migrated to Chicago from where you are [in Ohio]. For a long time, both when I was a student and working in my career in higher administration, Chicago and the Chicago metropolitan area served tons of students coming to universities. It is a huge place; it’s the engine of the heartland of our country. This is where our food and industrial development came from. So that oasis experience happened here too. This city was perceived as a safe ground. Of course, the political ramification of that is that Illinois is one of the few states in the union with full civil rights for LGBT people. It’s one of the few states where you can get married one day and the next day, you don’t have to fear getting fired from your job for being gay because we have full civil rights. We worked very hard at it.
The news never covers it all. The only thing that people hear about Chicago is about shootings so they’re not getting the truth about Chicago. While the LGBT community is reminded every day that there’s a “don’t say gaywp_postslaw in Florida and there’s an “anti-CRTwp_postslaw in Florida, what they’re not told is that three years ago in Illinois, we passed a mandate for teaching LGBT history in all of the public schools. As long as popular culture continues to treat us (and other places in the interior parts of the United States) as flyover country, our communities will never be aware of the progress that we are making.
In fact, I’m being seated tomorrow as one of the founding commissioners of the Illinois State Commission on LGBT Aging. This is a first-in-the-nation endeavor — a three-year commission to investigate the status and condition of LGBT elders throughout the state of Illinois to assess what services we are receiving, what needs we are having met, and what difficulties we are having in seeking housing and other services at this point.
In the news, we’re just in dire situations all the time. I think it is really easy right now to feel discouraged or saddened by the state of the world for LGBTQ folks, and Black folks, and there is often a narrative that is portrayed and passed on to our youth, especially that LGBTQ elders don’t exist, that we don’t grow old but we do — we’re here.
On schooling, growing up, and sexuality
Well, of course, not only was there no LGBT presence in schools; there was no LGBT presence in the world. I was born in 1949, in the middle of the 20th century. And when I was growing up, when I was maturing, I lived a heteronormative life, like many LGBT people of my age. I knew as a child that I was different but I didn’t know what that difference was. I couldn’t describe it, I couldn’t define it. And in adolescence, when I heard words like homosexual, I knew it wasn’t something anyone talked about. So I found a safe place to look into it and the safe place was usually the library. We had our nice little Andrew Carnegie Library downtown. I went to the library. They had uncensored sources of information, unlike our schools. The Webster’s dictionary sat open on a pedestal on top of the books in the reference room. Everything, of course, was print media at that time, so I also grabbed the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. So I looked up the word “homosexualitywp_postsin both of those things to get an understanding of what it was. And I noticed that the pages in both the dictionary and the encyclopedia were smudged. A lot of people had been doing that but I had no idea who those people were or how to connect with them or to have anybody to have any conversation about this with. That was our experience.
As an adolescent, I dated. I had girls and women in my life that I loved. By the time I got to university, my high school sweetheart and I had been going together for so long that we were actually engaged to be married. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in university that I had an experience that identified for me what that difference was. I was an orientation leader, so I went back to school early and I met my resident advisor. And when he opened the door, I had what I generally call “a Walt Disney moment,wp_postswhere all of a sudden, there’s music floating through the air and there’s birds tweeting and butterflies and all of this stuff — I had fallen in love at first sight. I knew instantly what it was. I went back to my room and I had what we call a “come to Jesuswp_postsmoment in my room by myself. I spent hours praying, crying, and just going crazy over this. And I said to God, isn’t being Black enough? Do I have to be gay too? In thinking through that, at that time, I formulated what would become a practice of my life — using one oppression to inform the other. I recognized that there had been no choice about being Black. There was no pre-birth line where you lined up at the table and they asked, “hey, you guys want to be Black? Come on over here and sign up!wp_postsThat wasn’t an option. You were born Black and that was it. It was your challenge in life to come to a safe, emotional, and psychological space where you were okay with that. And even though society’s constantly telling you that you’re worthless, you have to free your mind from that, to value yourself, and to not be driven crazy by your own existence.
So I said, well, that must be true about this gay thing too. I decided that I was going to live my life in a headspace where I could value what I was and value all of the things that I was — this man in Black skin, this man who was attracted to other men — and I was going to be okay. I wasn’t sick, as they were saying in the DSM at the time. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t a mistake or offense to God, I wasn’t a criminal. I was just a person just trying to make it. And that’s how I’ve gone through my life. That’s how I’ve survived it.
On creating community and building a legacy
Our people had to come out. I was growing up in a time of tremendous social upheaval in the United States. All of these liberation movements were happening and communities were coming into visibility. In the 70s, the gay community came into visibility, bars moved from back alleys to front streets. We lived together and our communities grew. Places that historically have been identified as gay spaces, whether we’re talking Chelsea in New York or DuPont Circle in Washington or The Castro in San Francisco, all of those places grew into existence after the Second World War and during my lifetime. But when I was a teenager, there were no pride flags, there were no national LGBT organizations. There was no space. So during my lifetime, those spaces emerged. That’s what we developed. That’s the legacy of my generation. And I am part of the first “outwp_postsaging generation of LGBT people. When I was young, I didn’t think about being 80 because I didn’t see anybody who was 80. We didn’t even think about it. But now I’m part of the first “outwp_postsgeneration of LGBT elders, or the “Stonewall Generation,wp_postsas some call us. We have a legacy to pass on to our youth.
First of all, we have to identify LGBT youngsters as ours, within the LGBT community, we have to form intergenerational relationships that are similar to the ones that exist, where people grow up in their communities of origin and their families of origin. Many of us are estranged from those families and those communities. So we have to make our own. And what has to happen is that young people have to recognize us as the people upon whose shoulders they stand, the people who went from the conditions in which I was born, to the conditions that exist now. And we have to recognize as the elders, that it’s the young people who are our legacy.
It’s the young people who will value what we’ve done. It’s the young people who will receive our work product as we move on in time. And hopefully, they will appreciate us as we have come to appreciate those who preceded us, who lived under incredibly worse times. So intergenerational relationships are essential at this time in the LGBT community because there will never be another generation like mine. There will never be another generation that comes from obscurity into public prominence.
We are now part of the American social and political fabric. We are out there and we can’t go away and we won’t go away. And some people are saying, oh my God, there just seems to be more of that homosexuality, there just seems to be more just gender stuff out there. And I don’t believe that there’s more. I just believe that we are now visible. And I believe that the question of gender identity and the questions of sexual orientation are questions that all humans have to deal with.
People will tell you who they are when they come into recognition of who they are. And society has just got to get ready for that.
On aging, the word “queer,wp_postsand the necessity of intergenerational connections
SAGE is our largest organization that advocates for those of us in the aging [LGBT] community and that’s important because in our society when we age, we grow into a new -ism. And believe me, as a person with all the -isms that I’ve grown up with, I was not pleased to encounter this new -ism around 65 as I entered the social safety network. Many folks become very paternalistic, telling aging people what we should do and how we should do it. As aging people, we appreciate the support and we appreciate the commitment of our younger allies, but they have to understand that we continue to be fully functioning people up to the levels of our capacities.
All of us who are aging are human beings who need social connections to exist, and this is a basic human need. And we know it, we know that we can deliver medically viable babies all the time but if those babies are not connected, if they’re not held, if they’re not touched, if they’re not talked to or sung to, no matter what we feed them, they will struggle. All humans need socialization. Many of us [aging LGBT people] have lost our siblings, we’ve lost our lifelong friends, we’ve lost our parents. Some of us have even lost our children and that’s a loss that we as human beings are just not wired for. That’s the worst loss of all. We end up with fewer and fewer social contacts. And we need connections. We hope that both our children of origin and our children of choice, the LGBT younger generations, will help fill that need. We need that connection and hopefully, they will benefit from it too. Could I talk about one thing that I really think is an important intergenerational thing to deal with?
That’s around the issues of language and identity — I specifically want to talk about the word queer.
I believe as an individual that every person has the right to his, her, or their identity. Each of us is who we say we are. If you say that you are queer, I’ve no problems with that at all. I get it. That’s your identity. In this age, many people identify as queer but what I want youngsters to understand is that queer can be a very triggering term for those of us who are older. I’ll use myself as an example.
I was born in 1949. At the time I was born — and in the time in which I grew up — homosexuality was universally illegal in all of the United States. It was also illegal in most countries in the world. So we were criminalized. Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the DSM. So we were pathologized. Homosexuality was thought of as inconsistent with the designs of the creator in most faiths and houses of worship. So we were demonized and the use of the word queer was a direct reflection of the oppression that we experienced. When I was in university, if you were identified as queer and that word got to the Dean of Men’s office, you could be dismissed from the university. This is before the Supreme Court made its ruling that public institutions had to guarantee students the right to due process. You could be kicked out of school. It would not only wreck your personal and your professional life but also cost you your student distinction and you could end up fighting in Vietnam. Newspapers published “queer listswp_postson Mondays, listing the names of men who’d been arrested and detained in local lockups from gay bars, from police raids. And so not only was your personal life ruined but you were also subjected to becoming a social outcast. If you were identified as queer and you were harmed bodily, whether you were gay bashed or you were killed, your queerness could be a legally recognized defense and get someone acquitted in courts of the law. So what I’m saying is that for many of us, that trauma is still there, and while I respect individual identity, what I push back against is using the word queer to describe our community. Again, this is my personal stance but I try to take the time to explain it so that there’s better intergenerational communication and understanding.
From my life experience, the word queer is as triggering as the word “nigga.wp_postsAnd I know we continue discussions about that within the African American community too. I just think that what we need to do is gently engage one another in conversation so that we can establish an understanding of where we stand on those things. I’m not denying anyone the right to identify as queer or as a nigga. I’m just gently requesting that we not assume that the terminology for our time is okay for a collective identification of the entire community. That’s my stand on that.
I don’t know if we necessarily have to have one catchall term because we represent expansive populations of people. And I know these are difficult times. So we just have to be able to civilly and compassionately talk to one another because we don’t want to foster the idea that we are different. We, in fact, want to encourage the idea that all of humanity is the same. But just to recognize that we’ve come to this place from different paths and to honor those paths because you can’t fully come to understand different individuals’ experiences without being open to honoring the past that they came along. If we could just have this conversation amongst the generations without anyone — whether elders or youngsters — feeling that the other is wrong, then we can make progress. We have to make room, we have to make space for each other.
On what comes next
Well, I’m excited about new formal areas of advocacy that I’m moving into this year. I just got a call from the Mayor’s office with an invitation to join the Mayor’s advisory committee here in Chicago. I am serving this year as an ambassador for PRIDEnet, based at Stanford University, where they house The Pride Study, a longitudinal study focused on the LGBT community across the country. I’m really proud to be working on that project, especially as a member of the aging community, because our experiences shouldn’t be lost.