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Meet LGBT History Month icons Djuna Barnes and Joseph Beam | VIDEOS

(Editor's note: October is LGBT History Month, celebrated annually to recognize the notable achievements of LGBT people throughout time. Each day this month, Equality Forum will feature one LGBT icon who has made notable contributions to society and SDGLN will publish the story here in the Causes section. View previous LGBT History Month icons HERE.)

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes is a prominent modernist writer known for her experimental style and edgy themes.

Born June 12, 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, to a polygamist family, she was inspired to write by her grandmother, a feminist writer and journalist. As a child, Barnes was sexually abused by family members. In 1909, she was forced to marry her father’s brother-in-law. Two months later, she left him.

In 1912, Barnes moved to Greenwich Village and began writing for magazines and newspapers. She had affairs with men and women. She wrote novels, including “The Book of Repulsive Woman: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings” and “Paprika Johnson.”

She moved to Paris, where she lived with Thelma Wood, her lover and fellow artist. Barnes became involved in the Parisian lesbian community, which is depicted in her privately printed novel, “Ladies Almanack.”

In 1931, after her relationship with Wood ended, Barnes relocated to England. She stayed in a country manor with other writers and literary critics. She wrote “Nightwood,” her best-known novel, which received attention for its stylistic excellence. So impressed by the book, T.S. Elliot wrote the introduction and became involved in its publication. “Nightwood” depicts desire between women and challenges the gender binary.

In 1939, Barnes returned to New York, where she lived in relative solitude for the remainder of her life. She continued writing plays and poetry that challenged heteronormativity and the lifestyles of the upper class. She often drew from her own life experiences, exploring themes of abuse and sexuality in a number of her works.

Barnes’s writing had a significant impact on modernist literature. Writers such as Truman Capote and Bertha Harris have cited Barnes as an inspiration for their works. She is recognized as a pioneer of lesbian literature.

Notable quote

"The truth is how you say it, and to be 'one's self' is the most shocking custom of all."

Joseph Beam

Joseph Beam was a gay rights activist who helped build a black LGBT community in the 1980s. He was the editor of “In the Life,” the first collection of nonfiction works by and about black gay men.

Born Dec. 30, 1954 in Philadelphia, Beam attended Franklin College in Indiana, where he studied journalism. He was an active member of the black student union and the Black Power movement. After college, Beam received his master’s degree in communications.

In 1979, he returned to Philadelphia. He explored literature on gay figures and institutions while working at Giovanni’s Room, an LGBT bookstore. Discouraged by the lack of community for black gay men and lesbians, Beam began writing articles and short stories for gay publications.

In 1984, he received an award for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist from The Lesbian and Gay Press Association. In 1985, he became the first editor of “Black/Out,” a journal produced by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. He served as a consultant for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Friends Service Committee.

Beam continued to collect materials about being black and gay. In 1986, he produced the first collection written by black gay men, called “In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology.”

In 1988, while compiling “Brother to Brother,” a sequel to his anthology, Beam died from AIDS-related complications. His mother, Dorothy Beam, and the gay poet Essex Hemphill completed the work, which was published in 1991.

Notable quote

“We are black men who are proudly gay."

Left photos

Top photo: Djuna Barnes

Bottom photo: Joseph Bean