It was only 50 years ago when the architect of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, a black gay man, stood next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he recited his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. While Rustin’s sexual orientation was known within his activists’ circles, it was not necessarily public knowledge. If folks today were stopped on the street and asked who this incredible man was, many would be hard-pressed to list his accomplishments, let alone his sexual orientation.
It’s common in American history to whitewash—or, in Rustin’s case, “straightwash”—our nation’s chronicles and expunge the incredible contributions of leaders whose layers of identity don’t fit the brand of certain movements—which is why the makeup of The Root 100 2014 list is so powerful.
Blackness is often viewed from outside the black community as a monolith, devoid of diversity of thought, appearance or interests. The choice of honorees this year bucks this notion of blackness by celebrating the achievements of countless people who identify with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Sure, we’ve had our black LGBT historic icons, like Audre Lorde, Langston Hughes, Bruce Nugent and James Baldwin, to name a few. But the fullness of who they were during their lives wasn’t embraced within the larger black community—their art, sure, but not their sexual identity or orientation, which, given the times in which they lived, is understandable.
Black and gay have never been two things within that go together in mainstream society.
It wasn’t too long ago that the initial success of Proposition 8—a law that denied same-sex couples in California the right to marry and has since been repealed—was blamed on black residents of the state. Time and time again, as the LGBT community pressed forward toward equality, conservative groups worked to pit blacks against the LGBT community. They missed the glaring reality that black LGBT people exist and being LGBT is not synonymous with whiteness.
While there is still a long way to go to ensure that there are diverse representations of black excellence, The Root is leading the way by recognizing the work of such brilliant black LGBT folks as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, who are both working to bring the issues facing transgender women of color to the mainstream; the writer-producer duo Justin Simien and Lena Waithe, also named to the Advocate’s “Forty under 40” list this year, who are bringing the diversity of the black experience to theaters next month with their film Dear White People; and Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, the organization responsible for lifting the veil on the conservative group ALEC, and who is the only openly gay leader of a black civil rights organization.
These are just a few of the LGBT change agents who are being celebrated this year in The Root 100. The individuals on this list are making black history, and the LGBT set is doing so unapologetically. They are fabulous, black and out, and they’re rightly being celebrated. I, for one, couldn’t be more proud.
Danielle Moodie-Mills is the creator, writer and co-host of Politini, a politics and pop-culture show bringing audiences the personal side of politics. She is also an adviser at the Center for American Progress for racial justice and LGBT equality. She was a 2013 The Root 100 honoree. Follow her musings on Twitter.