From Bayard Rustin to Audre Lorde to Billy Porter, history is filled with pioneering Black queer groundbreakers. Countless figures started movements and created art that let generations know they weren’t alone. Of course, for every name we all know, there are several equally familiar people who kept their private lives very quiet. Now it’s time to acknowledge and celebrate some of the Black queer game-changers who don’t get headlines and specials made about them every year.
Harlem Renaissance blues pioneer Gladys Bentley was the true definition of a trailblazer. Bentley frequently performed in a full tuxedo with tails and top hat while singing songs about loving women. Because the singer was so unapologetically independent, Bentley didn’t get the same mainstream attention as other Harlem Renaissance performers. Though they was forced to conform to a more traditionally feminine persona to save their career, Bentley’s groundbreaking work in New York City clubs set the stage for generations of gender non-conforming performers.
If all she ever gave us was A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s place in history would be assured. However, her work as a journalist and activist inspired generations to speak their truth through their art. Following her death, her ex-husband donated her personal journals to the New York Public Library, but restricted any mention of her attraction to women. In 2013, those passages were unsealed and Hansberry became a role model to those exploring self-acceptance of their identities.
There is a direct line from Barbara Jordan being the first Black person elected to the Texas Senate in 1966 to Kamala Harris being the first Black woman to be Vice President of the United States. Jordan and her partner Nancy Earl were together for almost 20 years, never publicly announcing their relationship, but also not hiding it. Finding a small piece of happiness in one part of their private lives is something all these figures have in common.
Legendary entertainer, World War II spy and queer icon. Josephine Baker was a truly fascinating woman who lived many lives. Though she had four marriages to men, historians have since come to know that she was bisexual and also had relationships with women, possibly including famed artist Frida Kahlo. There have been many movies and TV series made about Baker’s life, but most have been reluctant to include her bisexuality. Perhaps that’s an aspect of her life Janelle Monáe will examine in their upcoming series.
Tony-winning star of stage and screen Nell Carter had an instantly recognizable singing voice. She had the ability to make every song, no matter the genre, fit her unmistakable vocal style. Despite struggles with various health problems and addiction issues, her effervescent personality shined through in every performance. Able to keep her personal life completely private, friends and family only found out about her partner Ann Kaser when Carter passed away and it was revealed they had lived together for 15 years.
Philosopher and father of the Harlem Renaissance Alain Locke created the ideals that led artists and writers to celebrate their Blackness and culture. Though he was openly gay to his closest friends, he was another visionary forced by the times to keep his life hidden. While the secrecy of hiding his sexual identity certainly took its toll, Locke was known to support Black LGBTQ+ artists, perhaps setting the stage for others to live more authentically.
With her performances on Broadway, Ethel Waters reached a level of fame and crossover success that her contemporaries Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Alberta Hunter didn’t. She spent the ‘20s living with dancer Ethel Williams, with everyone calling them “The Two Ethels.” Her late in life work with Billy Graham may mar her legacy, but her groundbreaking career cannot be questioned.