“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself–whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.–because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail.”
It’s Black History Month! It has been for over 48 hours, you know. And all these articles keep popping up highlighting the accomplishments of black people who identify as straight, gay, and everything else – but most of the time, those lists include a hella lot of dudes. I know this because I read one, two, three of them and found mostly a hella lot of dudes.
In order to make your experiences reading articles like that a little better, I’ve compiled a bunch of famous queer black ladies from all over the internet to give you a history lesson, a poetry lesson, and a lot of photos of famous queer black ladies.
A Poet: Audre Lorde
The good news is, Autostraddle has already given you poetry samples by a bunch of women of color, both through our Pure Poetry Week and this article by Riese. Audre Lorde was obviously included in those efforts because her existence was a cosmic mix of magic, fate, and awesomeness, and because she was not only a lady poet (a very cool thing to be) but also an LGBT revolutionary:
Audre Lorde refused to sit at the back of the civil rights bus.
Twenty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech and the civil rights march on Washington, D.C., a 20th anniversary gathering was planned for the same site.
But in scheduling the day’s speakers, event organizers and participants were adamant in refusing to allow anyone from the National Coalition for Black Lesbians and Gays to the podium. The National Organization for Women even threatened to boycott the ceremony.
Eventually, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, stepped in and told the group to let Lorde, a member of the coalition and a renowned poet and feminist, speak.
In her three-minute speech, Lorde challenged the audience to broaden its thoughts on social justice and be inclusive to everyone.
“Audre said, ‘There’s a war on classism, homophobia, ageism, racism, sexism. We need everyone to fight this war. You’re not going to include us? Are we not black enough?’,” says Jennifer Abod.
An Activist: Mabel Hampton
Mabel Hampton is totally your new hero. She was a major contributor to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which is probably relevant to your interests since you’re this deep into the article. She was an active participant in the Harlem Renaissance and had a 25-year relationship with Lilith Foster, another badass black lady.
One of Mabel’s biggest contributions to the LGBT and black history movements was preserving the rich stories of both during the 20th century:
Throughout the years, Hampton squirreled away hundreds of letters, photos and other items that chronicled African-American and gay life and history, including her own. She became a prolific philanthropist, volunteer and a piece of living history, appearing in the 1980s documentaries, Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall. In one of many oral histories she recorded before her death in 1989, Hampton mused:
“I’m glad I became [a lesbian]. I have nothing to regret. Not a thing. All these people run around going, ‘I’m not this, I’m not that.’ [Being gay] doesn’t bother me. If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing. I’d be a lesbian. Oh boy, I would really be one, then! I’d really be one! Oh boy!”
A Funny Person: Wanda Sykes
Almost every article ever in the history of time about “famous LGBT black people” includes Wanda Sykes, possibly because she is one of the funniest people ever and happens to also be adorably married to another woman.
Sykes has used comedy as a route for discussing the intersectionality of race, sexuality, and gender, which kind of strikes me as the best kind of edutainment ever:
After coming out, Sykes, 47, incorporated her sexuality—and headlines affecting the queer community—into her comedy. Already popular with black audiences from her standup and film and television roles, she’s able to reach people who may not connect with Ellen or Rosie, and use humor to illustrate the links between minority groups.
Sykes has also dedicate time to numerous LGBT causes: In 2010, she was honored with GLAAD’s Stephen F. Kolzak Award for making a difference through her visibility. “I’m very humbled,” she shared with the audience. “Just being able to be out and open and free and be able to say thank you to my wife… I love you baby, you mean the world to me. I’m telling you, it is love and being honest that’s gonna win hearts and minds. That’s where it is.”
An Athlete: Sheryl Swoopes
I always listed Sheryl Swoopes under “Great Incidents Featuring Appropriately Named Children.” There could be no better name for the WNBA player who publicly came out in 2005, acknowledging her relationship with Alisa Scott. She was described as “the first African-American professional athlete to come out while at the top of her game.”
When she came out, it was said that her relationship with Scott was “not a secret in the WNBA.” Author said of her decision: “There’s such a big leap, people knowing in a big way, having it be public . . . . We know there are lesbians in women’s sports, but there is still a lot of prejudice. It’s still a potentially dangerous piece of information to give out.”
The attraction was something of a puzzlement to Swoopes, who had never before been in a lesbian relationship but found that she could not deny the depth of her feelings for Scott. Upon coming out, she told a reporter for People Weekly, “finally I just said, ‘I’m not going to try to fight this.”
“I’m not bisexual… I don’t think I was born [gay]. Again, it was a choice. As I got older, once I got divorced, it wasn’t like I was looking for another relationship, man or woman. I just got feelings for another woman. I didn’t understand it at the time, because I had never had those feelings before.”
Her decision to come out nationally was not only historical and unprecedented, but rather well received: she continued to be sponsored by Nike and serve as their representative, and was embraced by LGBT companies as a spokeswoman.
Controversy within the queer community arose when Swoopes became engaged to a man last year. ESPN said, “Swoopes didn’t seem to want to have — for lack of a better way to put it — a ‘coming out as straight again’ interview. She wasn’t renouncing homosexuality or saying she wished she hadn’t said what she did in 2005.”
A Nostalgia-Inducing Musician: Tracy Chapman
Sorry, but I could not make this article and not give you the gift of “Fast Car.” It’s that thing from the 90’s that never stops giving.
Thanks for recognizing black history month by spotlighting the contributions of black queer women.
I like you. I like this list. I like these people. You could ride shotgun in my imaginary fast car any time.
this makes me so happy
I love it! Yes, you can ride in my shotgun too :-). My car’s all the way in Nairobi, Kenya, but your seat is waiting.
This makes me happy.
My favorites are the soulful queer lady blues singers of way back when. I think Big Mama Thornton howling like a hound dog gets under my skin. Seriously, Elvis ain’t got shit on her.
I looked her up because of your comment. I learned something today!
Fast Car was my favorite song the entire year I was 16. I literally would play the cassette single over and over.
This! Thanks for this! I learned some things …and there’s that pic of Ellen with Wanda Skyes :) I dig it.
Audre Lorde. Swoon.
thanks for this, it’s great. i love audre lorde.
and i fully appreciate the way you framed sheryl swoopes’ story. most times i’ve read mention of her in the past year it’s been… less nice.
fast car is def one of my fave songs of all time, also “the promise”
We need some Angela Davis up in here!
I second that, love the effort but what about Angela Davis.
That thing from the nineties was released in ’88. Played in my parents car on every journey we ever made, I knew all the words at the age of 3. Tracy Chapman is god.
Yep. I remember listening to Fast Car in the late 80s, too. I thought it was 88 or 89. Loved it. Love it still.
I also remember wondering if Tracy Chapman was a lesbian around then, because of a track on that album that had the lyric, ‘This love no man can shake’ (For my Lover). Then I thought I was reading too much into it…
I really want to thank you for this article and all the badass women you’ve introduced me to here. Unfortunately all I can think of is the fact, after all this time, I still have such a crush on Tracy Chapman. It’s overwhelmed even my ability to talk about Audre Lorde (which usually never happens).
I just finished Zami: A New Spelling of My Name a couple of days ago and it was amazing. I really just want Audre Lorde to be my friend and explain life to me. And Mabel Hampton sounds like an awesome lady!
And get down with your bad self Mabel Hampton. So many awesome ladies I wish I could party with, so little time.
Happy Black History month!!!
When I was younger and attending a majority white high school this month always made me feel on edge because there was this defensive silence with my classmates when we heard/read stories about African-Americans being bold and beautiful in the face of adversity. I am older and don’t feel that edge if anything when the mood strikes me I make this a 365 thing including with the intersection of race and gender to boot!
I love reading about Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and James Baldwin, the music, the culture, how it is seen and apporiated in other countries, it interesting. I watched Paris is Burning and granted the making of it could be seen as problematic watching the drag ball culture was serious, excutive realnesssssssssss. It one was the first Black and Latino LBGT documentry I have seen and it changed my life.
Thanks Carmen for this post it makes me feel all fuzzy inside.
i from Brazil!! i liked this history!!
sorry my english!!
1) Can we please find Tracy Chapman and get her back into performing so music? I mean… I just miss her so much. “At This Point in My Life”…”Give Me One Reason”…”Promise”…”Tell It Like It Is”…okay. I’m going to stop now before I start singing out loud.
2) I told my friends I wanted to be the gay Wanda Sykes before she came out. So…you know she totally stole my thunder. But I’m okay with that because the skit she has about pretending to kidnap her children away from her wife in a baby store and the one about the removable vagina are gold.
COSIGN re Tracy Come-back!!!
This article is awesome! Also I love Fast Car so so much. I appreciate black history, despite my utter whiteness, because it’s nice to be reminded that not everyone in history was a cis, white male
I am happy to see Audre Lorde referenced a voice for the all to often ignored and shunned community within the community. My favorite Lorde qoute which is so easily applied to so many regardless of race or gender is “[r]acism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside [ourselves] and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices,” brilliant, dignified, and honest.
i just read that quote from audre lourde a few days ago but now i can’t remember where. ahhh. in other news: tracy chapman!