When it comes to black queer writers, one anticipates the names James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and (more recently) Bayard Rustin. But this Black History Month I decided to commemorate a few black authors whose names I’ve heard less often, but whose contributions nonetheless challenged our understanding of race, sexuality and American life in significant ways.
In her second book of poetry — a 1973 volume called Cables to Rage — Caribbean-American writer Audre Lorde published a poem called “Martha” in which she expressed her love for a female partner.
At the time, Lorde had begun a romantic involvement with psychology professor Frances Clayton, even though Lorde was still married to the father of her two children, Edwin Rollins. But perhaps this one instance of conflicting loves and identities typifies Lorde’s work.
Throughout her life, she actively fought for the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements even while openly criticizing them for ethnocentrically focusing on the needs of middle-class Caucasians while ignoring the many socio-cultural subdivisions within their own ranks.
Though Lorde eventually succumbed to liver cancer in 1992, before passing away she founded the first U.S. publishing company for women of color and completed several volumes of poetry and memoir that chronicled her evolving outlooks on motherhood, patriarchy, poetry and black identity.
Her writing won her a Lambda Literary Award and the esteemed title of New York Poet Laureate one year before her death. Shortly after her death, her name graced The Audre Lorde Project — a New York community organizing center for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color” that still operates today.
Gomez is a true Renaissance. Her novel The Gilda Stories has won her two Lambda Literary Awards, her poetry and short fiction has appeared in over 100 anthologies. She wrote the theatrical adaptation of her own novel Bones and Ash and saw it performed in 13 cities across the U.S.
In 1984, she served on the founding board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), she has given the keynote address at New York City Pride twice. She and her partner are among the litigants who successfully sued the state of California in 2008 for the right to marry, five months before the infamous Proposition 8 took that right away.
Nevertheless, Gomez has hardly slowed down. She’s still living and works as the Director of Grants and Community Initiatives for Horizons Foundation — the oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender foundation in the nation. She has co-authored a play about gay, black author James Baldwin and is currently working on a comic novel about the survivors of the Black Nationalist movement.
May God grant her the good health to keep working until the ripe old age of 500.
Were she still alive today, The Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline Murray — or Pauli, as she preferred to be called — would likely identify as trans.
During her teenage years, Murray — who self-identified with feminine pronouns — wore short hair, preferred pants and often passed for a boy. And though early into her young adulthood she had a bad run dating “extremely feminine and heterosexual” women who later rejected her, she imagined a monogamous married life where she could live as a man. She even sought hormone treatments in her 30’s so she could correct the gender imbalance she felt within.
In many ways, gender played an integral role in Murray’s development as an advocate for social justice and human rights.
When she applied to attend Columbia University, the school rejected her because they didn’t admit women. When she later graduated at the top of her class as the only female student at Howard University law school, Harvard University refused to award her the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to continue her graduate work at their institution because she was female.
She came to called such sexist practices “Jane Crow,” the female-counterpart to the discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws that kept blacks from achieving social equality.But in a lifetime of actively opposing such inequalities, she would later go on to publish an influential examination of segregation laws that helped end the unjust “separate but equal” doctrine in the 1952 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1966 she helped co-found the National Organization for Women, with hopes that it could operate like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, except for women’s issues.
In 1965, she became the first African American to receive a J.S.D. from Yale Law School, and in 1977 — just three years after leaving law to study with the Episcopal Church — she was ordained as the first African American Episcopalian priest.
Her three autobiographical books remain in print to this day, although sadly the same cannot be said for her book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems
Sam R. Delaney
In 1961, aspiring writer Sam Delany enrolled to study in the City College of New York. After just one semester, he dropped out. The next year, he published his first science fiction novel. Then, over the next eight years, he published nine more.
He has since published 24 science fiction novels and 16 non-fiction works, won four Nebula awards, two Hugo awards, appeared in a biographical film about himself and has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame — not bad for a college dropout.
Perhaps you have heard about his most famous 1975 novel Dhalgren but his arguably more socially important works came later in his career (including a few which he proudly touts as pornography).
In his 1988 autobiography The Motion of Light in Water, he recounted his gay adolescence, his open marriage and his run-ins with James Baldwin and W.H. Auden. And in his 1999 book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue he recounted the transformation of New York’s theater distinct from an interracial marketplace of commercialized sex to a sanitized consumer center carrying the seeds of gentrification.
A not entirely small side-note: at the 1970 Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, he met a 23-year-old African-American woman named Octavia E. Butler, a lesbian woman who would later go on to become the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and to snag a Nebula Award and an induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame herself!
Angela Y. Davis
It should come as no surprise that this controversial thinker grew up in the “Dynamite Hill” neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama; a neighborhood known during the pre-civil rights era for its racial conflict.
Her mother’s position as a national officer and leading organizer of the Southern Negro Congress fostered Davis’ interest in social reform through communist ideals — particularly when it came to issues of racial justice.
For Davis, the black civil rights movement would never achieve true equality for all African-Americans if it focused on American civil rights without reforming the much deeper economic and social inequalities created by capitalism.
During her time acting as a philosophy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) she became an active member of the Communist Party USA, an associate of the Black Panther Party and a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, the prison industrial complex, and an advocate for gay rights.
Though she is best known as a prison reformer — especially as a founding member of the national prison abolition organization Critical Resistance — she has also written seven political books on feminism, race and incarceration and was an active voice in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.
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