Each year, Black History Month begins in February leaving folks to reflect on several of the pioneers who sparked movements for significant social and political change. From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Sir Frederick Douglass, the Black community is often reminded of the work that a select few pioneers did in the ongoing fight for both rights and freedom.
Over the last few years, there have been multiple issues brought forth regarding the erasure of queer and transgender activists and thought leaders. Scholars of LGBT social movements have intervened to highlight historical facts often omitted during Black History celebrations. One central issue is that many of the advances of the Civil Rights Movement were in fact led by QTPoC individuals.
While few articles have made mention of who these individuals were and what they did for the movement, what is rarely addressed is why they are left out of larger Black History conversations.
A History of Exclusions
As a leader in both the Civil Rights and gay rights movements, Bayard Rustin often spoke openly about how both Black and queer struggles were highly similar. He made this clear from the time he began work within the Civil Rights Movement until his death in 1987. In a speech he gave on behalf of the New York State's Gay Rights Bill in 1986, he was extremely vocal about how he viewed queer people as being the new N-word. Because Rustin had a pretty racey history with the law as a gay Black man, his contemporaries never saw him as fit to lead the movement.
Rustin being removed from the frontlines of the movement speaks volumes to the idea that QTPoC leaders are not given space to fight for more than one struggle at a time. It seems that he was made to choose between his race and his sexuality, something that many QTPoC feel when speaking about their experiences social justice movements.
Not only was Rustin silenced, but he was threatened, beaten, imprisoned and fired for speaking openly about the intersections of his identity as a gay Black man. Rustin was often told that his homosexuality was a distraction, something that could not move the race-based politics of the Civil Rights Movement forward. Rustin frequently lamented about the struggles he had with not being seen as whole in either the Black community or the queer community, acknowledging the ways identity politics were used to further marginalize him.
Much like Rustin, other prominent leaders were pushed out of the most public aspects of mainstream black activism. James Baldwin, who many say carried the belief systems of both King and Malcolm X, is a name that is often left out of canonical Black History conversations. If and when he is mentioned, he is hailed as an prolific literary figure and scholar without mention of his sexual orientation. Despite this erasure, it was important for Baldwin to talk about his identity as a gay Black man because both his race and sexuality defined his art as a political activist.
On many occasions, Baldwin would allude to the notion that all oppressions were connected and that we can’t separate any struggle without fully understanding that both identities must be seen as whole in order to undo the system of injustice. He believed, like Rustin, that his queerness could not be separated from his blackness.
The push back was even worse for women, cisgender and trans alike. Rarely is the work of Pauli Murray mentioned as a key figure in Black History. Murray, who started her work in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1940’s was arrested and jailed for refusing to sit on a broken seat in the back of a bus as she was protesting a Virginia law that required bus segregation. A graduate of Howard University, she was a lawyer, Episcopal priest, and an accomplished author. Murray was one of the first women to openly critique the gender politics of the civil rights movement while working alongside Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like Murray, Marsha P. Johnson organized and advocated for the rights of all marginalized people only to be similarly erased. Johnson was a transgender woman and gay rights activist who was best known as being the one who threw the first glass at the Stonewall Riots in 1969.While being a prominent and passionate community activist whose liberation work continued into the 1980s, she advocated for the rights of sex workers and the need for queer youth mentorship. Being more famous for the work that she did with the group ACT UP, the work that she did for trans rights would later see her relegated to the margins of mainstream gay rights activism. Even now, Johnson’s voice remains missing from mainstream queer histories and completely silenced in Black History writ large. This creates more space for QTPoC scholars to examine the issue of respectability politics and its role in reproducing systematic erasure.
Respectability Politics and Erasure
To understand the dynamics at play, we have to know a more accurate history of our social justice movements. As Baldwin mentioned in the film, I am Not Your Negro, many movements began with leaders who took on respectability politics as a foundation. By focusing on normative moral values, important voices are excluded to preserve and produce a vision of “appropriate” leadership. This strict rubric is often used to determine who serves as a movement’s public faces.
While respectability is something that many Black people value in leaders, it is also one of the most problematic things to discuss as it is rooted in misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. This model, focused on maintaining binaries, is used to silence challenges to cultural norms.
The greater issue is how respectability is often linked to fear and how the same tools of fear are used in freedom movements to create an internal divide. In moments where we pick and choose what to fight for or who gets the right to be seen in the fight, we are actively using the tools of the oppressor. We have to acknowledge that erasing the lives and experiences of QTPoC leaders means erasing the work of those who are often on the front lines, actively fighting for the liberation of ALL marginalized people. We have to understand that all oppression is connected and the fight for liberation of marginalized people cannot be limited to one single identity because as Audre Lorde says, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.”
The greater issue that must be addressed is how after 60 years our leaders still have to argue that the work around Black liberation must be intersectional. And now, we must address how the same rhetorical history continues to be perpetuated in today’s Black freedom movement.
A History Repeated
As noted by Kim Katrin Milan, the homophobia and transphobia that we see today is similar to systems that were put in place to erase leaders like Rustin, Johnson, and Murray from the liberation movement. While there have been others who have spoken openly about the erasure of queer Black activists in the movement, the problem remains.
In 2013 when the Black Lives Matter Global Network was launched, co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi spoke about the need for justice to be intersectional. The core values of the organization affirm this, specifically noting that leadership must be inclusive of all struggles that Black people face, including being LGBTQ. Though Black Lives Matter was created to empower many types of Black leaders, there is still a great deal of homophobia that permeates the movement.
In 2015, Deray McKesson spoke openly about the struggles he has had with being a Black queer activist, citing that much of what he faces is the “either/or” complex that some Black people center when talking about social justice. For McKesson, being queer is just as important as being Black because both struggles are rooted in white supremacy and systemic oppression.
Like their predecessors, McKesson and BLM’s co-founders have been met with the rhetoric that queer Black people should not be at the forefront of the movement because of an “LGBTQ Agenda” -- a term used to gaslight and derail criticism. While there is still no clear description or definition as to what the LGBTQ agenda is, these leaders face the same system of historic and political erasure.
In order for any type of real change to occur in any movement for Black liberation, we must be willing to unlearn the things that keep us from seeing freedom as inclusive. .
A Vision for the Future
As marginalized people, we must internalize this: the only true way to dismantle oppression is by understanding where it begins and where it needs to end. We have to acknowledge that all struggles for freedom are connected and this cannot be done without attention to what this means for every Black person, regardless of how they identify sexually.
Being queer is tough, being Black is tough. But being Black and queer is revolutionary.
Now is the time to start asking questions about why Black History remains cis-heteronormative and why we fail to uplift the names of queer leaders who truly helped spark a movement. Because our struggles are interconnected, we can’t move forward without remembering those who put all of their identities on the line for our freedom.
Failing to acknowledge the resilience of folks like Marsha P. Johnson, Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, and James Baldwin is not only an injustice, but a disgrace to the history they fought so hard to change.
Let's celebrate all Black histories, not just the ones that makes us comfortable.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.