Moving and Shaking in the LGBT Community
June is national LGBT Pride Month, so The Root is presenting 20 advocates, filmmakers, journalists, actors, authors, former athletes and straight allies who have helped break down barriers and change the landscape for today's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
While actor, director and playwright Colman Domingo's dive into Hollywood may have been meager — making his film debut in the second-rate 1998 drama Around the Fire, one of his few movie roles — his journey to Broadway has been golden. In 2006 Domingo joined the Berkeley Repertory Theater's production of Passing Strange, which in two short years moved from Northern California to the Belasco Theatre in the heart of Times Square. As Broadway became home for Domingo, the thespian received multiple accolades for his various roles, including a Tony Award nomination for playing Mr. Bones in 2011's The Scottsboro Boys. Domingo also won a GLAAD Media Award for his first written play, A Boy and His Soul.
Wanda Sykes got her big break in the late 1990s as a writer and occasional guest performer on HBO's The Chris Rock Show, but the comedian had crisscrossed the stand-up circuit for almost two decades before making that splash on late-night TV. These days her humorous supporting roles in film and television have made Sykes a household name. In 2008, after 10 years appearing in roles on the big and small screens, Sykes publicly announced that she was a lesbian during an anti-Proposition 8 rally. (In 1991 she'd married music producer Dave Hall. The couple was divorced in 1998.) Now wedded to wife Alex, Sykes continues to advocate for LGBT equality and received GLAAD's 2010 Stephen F. Kolzak Award for promoting the image of the LGBT community in the media.
Last year CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed much more than his status as a gay man in his memoir, Transparent; the newsman also shared his bleak commentary on the black community's uneasy relationship with the LGBT world. "It's about the worst thing you can be in black culture," he told the New York Times in May 2011. Lemon's frank comments led to a bandwagon of criticism from many blacks. "I'm black, I live in the world as a black man, and I know how our culture thinks about homosexuality," Lemon told AOL Black Voices. Despite that uneasy reception, Lemon's coming out bodes well for the underrepresented community that he now represents in the public eye.
San Francisco-based photographer Duane Cramer learned the impact of HIV/AIDS early on when his father died from the disease in 1986. Ten years later, Cramer discovered that he, too, had contracted the virus. Open about his HIV status, Cramer has worked for more than a decade to raise awareness about the epidemic. He is the founding member of the San Francisco LGBT Center and has lent his photo skills to depict AIDS' ravaging toll on the body and mind. Cramer was also named the Black AIDS Institute's 2006 Hero in the Struggle for his efforts.
In 2007 former NBA star John Amaechi publicly came out as gay in his memoir, Man in the Middle, only three years after leaving the New York Knicks, becoming the first professional basketball player to do so. Amaechi's admission wasn't received without hostility from fellow players, most notably Tim Hardaway, who told a Florida radio station that he "hate[d] gay people" and was "homophobic." Although Hardaway later apologized, Amaechi's news highlighted the shaky attitudes within professional sports toward gays and lesbians.
Academy Award-nominated director and producer Lee Daniels' big Hollywood breakthrough came in 2001 with the film Monster's Ball, whose Oscar success (Halle Berry won for best actress, and it was nominated for best screenplay) caused his career to skyrocket. Daniels reached new levels of fame with the 2009 drama Precious, which won the Toronto Film Festival's 2009 People's Choice Award and made Daniels the first gay black man to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Push author Sapphire, née Romona Lofton, became a poet shortly after her move to New York in 1977, diving into what would become the poetry-slam world. The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the gay-rights movement during 1980s New York were common themes in much of Sapphire's early work. Push, the author's 1996 debut, took the spotlight 13 years after its release, when screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher adapted the novel into the Oscar-winning drama Precious in 2009. Sapphire released The Kid, the prequel to Push, in 2011.
Keith Boykin's LGBT advocacy began in the 1990s, when the political commentator helped plan the first-ever White House meeting with LGBT leaders under Bill Clinton. After leaving the White House in 1996, Boykin penned his first book, One More River to Cross: Black & Gay in America, which highlights his and others' experiences as black gays and lesbians within the turbulence of homophobia in the black community. His latest book, Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America, delves into the phenomenon of denial and secrecy within black gay sexuality, debunking many notions of black gay men and the down-low subculture. Boykin was also the National Black Justice Coalition's board president from 2003 to 2006.
Chinese-Jamaican poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin's brazen and powerful work accentuates both the poet's struggle for acceptance in her native Jamaica as well as her proud self-discovery. From one-woman shows to New York City's famous Alphabet City slam spot, the Nuyorican Poets Café, Chin has become an outspoken LGBT advocate and feminist, using stanzas and rhyme to share her experiences as a black lesbian. Chin gained the spotlight in 2011 when she opened up about her in vitro pregnancy on the Huffington Post.
Writer and activist Kenyon Farrow's impressive list of LGBT advocacy initiatives includes his past work as the executive director of Queers for Economic Justice and as a policy-institute fellow at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Farrow has also been named one of the Body's movers and shakers. Farrow's byline is a common sight at ColorLines, the Huffington Post and other outlets.
Phill Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute in May 1999. Today the institute, as the only HIV/AIDS organization dedicated to African Americans, continues to play a major role in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the black community. Wilson, who was the city of Los Angeles' AIDS coordinator in the early 1990s, has also worked on HIV/AIDS issues internationally from Europe to Africa. Wilson was named one of BET's History Makers in the Making in 2005.
Washington Post columnist and political commentator Jonathan Capehart is well-respected for his in-depth coverage and fresh perspectives on politics, race and LGBT issues. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is also the recipient of the 2011 Esteem Awards for his commitment to covering the LGBT and black communities.
Working with producers Babyface and Tracey Edmonds, Patrik Ian-Polk made his directorial debut with the 2000 film Punks, a gay romantic comedy, and one of the first films to truly explore the complexities of black gay life. After its premiere at Sundance, Punks went on to open various film festivals in San Francisco and Cleveland. Ian-Polk's television debut came in 2005 with the premiere of Logo's Noah's Arc, which garnered praise, including NAACP Image Award and GLAAD Award nominations, for its depiction of black gay life.
Filmmaker Dee Rees crossed paths with director Spike Lee during her time at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and worked alongside him on the thriller Inside Man and his Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke. Dee Rees' first film, Pariah, follows the story of a black 17-year-old embracing her lesbian identity in New York. Pariah, which started as a student project and took only 18 days to shoot, was well-received for its frank depiction of the coming-out experience and earned Sundance's 2011 Excellence in Cinematography Award. "Pariah kind of transposed my own experience of coming out onto a 17-year-old girl," Dee Rees told Lesbian News in December 2011.
Donna Payne, the Human Rights Campaign's associate director of diversity, has been an advocate for the black LGBT community for more than a decade, helping to strengthen ties among religion, race and sexuality. Payne grabbed a spot on The Root 100 in 2009 for her efforts to bridge the African-American and LGBT communities.
Named one of Essence magazine's "25 Women Who Are Shaping the World" in 2005, Jasmyne Cannick is a vocal LGBT advocate, whose efforts focus on allying the black and LGBT communities while extinguishing what she contends is a white predominance in the LGBT world. "Oftentimes in the civil rights movement for gay and lesbian rights, that [black gays and lesbians] is not the picture you see on CNN and Fox News. You see the affluent, white, gay male couple," Cannick told NPR in November 2006.
Pastors Joseph Tolton and Vanessa M. Brown
New York's Rivers at Rehoboth church made headlines when its sermonizers, Vanessa M. Brown and Joseph Tolton, sat down with the New York Times in May 2012. A merging of two New York churches, the Rivers at Rehoboth not only welcomes gay and lesbian parishioners but also "has made ministry to gay men and lesbians, combined with the worship traditions of black churches, its mission," according to the Times. Tolton, who is gay, and Brown, who is a lesbian, hold services Sundays and Wednesdays at the church's West Harlem locale.
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, LGBT-policy and racial-justice adviser at the Center for American Progress, is no stranger to the spotlight. Her high-profile marriage to Danielle Moodie graced the pages of Essence.com in September 2010, sparking equal parts elation and conversation. Moodie-Mills is a power player when it comes to LGBT issues. She was president of the marriage-equality campaign in Washington, D.C., overseeing the District's recognition of same-sex marriage in December 2009. Moodie-Mills has been recognized for her contributions in the Advocate magazine and was named one of The Root 100 in 2010.
Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks
Executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks is a proven leader when it comes to LGBT issues. She also happens to be straight but considers herself "a sister in the movement." From making schools safer for LGBT youth alongside the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network to her work combating homophobia in the black church at People For the American Way, Lettman-Hicks has dedicated much of her career to breaking barriers between the LGBT and black communities.
Correction: Last week The Root deleted Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks from the original list to avoid any false implications about her sexual orientation. In recognition of her key role in the LGBT-rights movement, we have added her back to the slideshow and made the appropriate distinction.