9 LGBT People Of Color Who Changed History

February is Black History Month.

As we recognize Black History Month, we also celebrate those whose voices have not been heard, whose history has not been taught.

Even within the LGBT community, there can be marginalization and exclusion—and a comfortable, conformist narrative that ignores the accomplishments of African Americans in our movement.

Below, we celebrate nine LGBT people of color whose courage has inspired and transformed society.

  1. Bessie Smith

    Bessie Smith

    The Empress of the Blues is regarded as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time.

    Born into poverty, she rose to prominence under the tutelage of Ma Rainey and was signed by Columbia Records in 1923. Through multiple tours and booming record sales, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day.

    She was also bisexual, a face she didn’t care to hide. In fact, one of her hits, “It’s Dirty But Good” includes lyrics alluding to lesbian sex.

    Many believe Smith had a relationship with Rainey, who mentored her stage persona. Smith’s second husband, Jack Gee, was often angered by her trysts with women, including chorus girl Lillian Simpson and fellow singer Gertrude Sanders.

    Smith died in 1937 after suffering critical injuries in a car accident. Queen Latifah portrayed the legendary singer in the 2015 HBO biopic Bessie.

  2. Bayard Rustin

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    A leader in both the civil rights and LGBT movements, Rustin’s activism started shortly after he graduated college and moved to Harlem, in 1937.

    Rustin was arrested in in California in 1953 after he was found having sex with two men in a parked car. The public outing saw Rustin shunned by civil-rights leaders, but he remained open about his sexuality from then on.

    He was a close advisor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, and was the chief architect of the 1963 March on Washington, among other key moments in the civil rights struggle.

    It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that Rustin become a gay activist: In 1986, he spoke on behalf of the New York State’s Gay Rights Bill, with an infamous speech titled “The Gays Are The New N****ers.”

    “It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change,” he declared. “The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.” Below, Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, accepts the inaugural Bayard Rustin Trailblazer Award at the 2015 Logo Trailblazers.    

  3. Audre Lorde

    Atlantic Center for the Arts

    Born in New York in 1934, Lorde graduated from Hunter College in 1959 and began exploring her lesbian identity in Greenwich Village soon after.

    She became a leader in the feminist movement of the 1960s, advocating for the rights of women of color, whose experiences were being neglected by the mainstream women’s movement.

    Her views angered many white feminists, who felt suffering was something that united all women. In response, Lorde insisted, “What you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority.”

    From 1968 to 1980, she published nine works of poetry and feminist writing. One of her most notable poems was a love letter, “To Martha: A New Year,” which publicly confirmed her sexual identity.

    Lorde was the New York State Poet Laureate from 1991 until her death from breast cancer in 1992.

    Before she died, Lorde changed her name to Gamba Adisa, which translates to “Warrior—she who makes her meaning known.”

  4. Marsha P. Johnson

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    A surrogate mother to the drag queens, trans women and homeless kids living on Christopher Street, Johnson is reported to be one of the first to fight back at the Stone Riots.

    In the early 1970s, she co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera, one of the first groups in America for non-gender-conforming people.

    When the scourge of AIDS decimated New York’s gay population, Johnson became involved with ACT UP.

    In July 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street piers. The death was ruled a suicide, but after years of lobbying by friends and activists, the NYPD has reopened the case as a possible homicide.

    Otoja Abit played Johnson in the 2015 Roland Emmerich movie Stonewall, and Mya Taylor (Tangerine) is set to play her in the upcoming biopic, Happy Birthday, Marsha!.

  5. James Baldwin

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    Baldwin was born in Harlem and quickly found his passion for writing after spending time in Greenwich Village, where he was mentored by painter Beauford Delaney.

    Eventually Baldwin left the U.S. for Paris, where he became involved in the counterculture of the Left Bank and began earning a reputation as a brilliant writer with strong views on race.

    Many civil rights leaders were dismayed by his homosexuality, but Baldwin’s status as a celebrity writer made him a sought after advocate.

    His most famous novels include Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Tell Me How Long the Train Has Been Gone and Another Country–the latter two dealing with homosexual and bisexual characters.

    Baldwin returned to France in his later years, and died there in 1987.

    In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into Chicago’s Legacy Walk, an outdoor museum that celebrates America’s LGBT history.

  6. Janet Mock

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    Born in Honolulu, Mock moved to New York after college and received her M.A. in journalism from NYU.

    She began writing for numerous magazines, and came out as trans in a 2011 Marie Claire article I Was Born A Boy”–a title Mock was not happy with.

    “I was born in what doctors proclaim is a boy’s body,” she said. “I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth… My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.”

    In addition to speaking engagements, Mock also hosts a weekly pop culture talk show on MSNBC, So Popular!, and is a contributing editor at Marie Claire. She penned her memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More in 2014.

  7. Phil Wilson

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    Phil Wilson was diagnosed with HIV at the dawn of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, when outreach was done mostly in white, gay neighborhoods.

    But the death of his partner from HIV-related causes in 1989 caused Wilson to catapult into activism.

    Already involved with the AIDS Project in Los Angeles, he served as the AIDS Coordinator for Los Angeles, co-chair of the Los Angeles HIV Health Commission, and was on the AIDS advisory committee for the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Declining health sidelined Wilson for two years, but in 1999 he went back to work and founded the Black AIDS Institute, the only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on African-Americans,.

    In 2010, Wilson was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

    “I think that I would want people to remember that I never gave up,” he told the NPAA. “Everyone has their trigger. That’s what I am most fearful of—[that] they will give up.”


  8. Laverne Cox

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    Born in Mobile, Alabama, Cox has balanced her work as a trans activist with a rising career as an actress. She became the first trans person nominated for an Emmy for her work on Orange is the New Black, and has made appearances on shows like Faking It and The Mindy Project. (In 2014, she became the first out trans person on the cover of Time magazine.)

    Cox remains a steadfast advocate for the community—appearing in docu-series like Logo’s awarding-winning Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, in which she interviewed young trans people about their journeys.

  9. Alvin Ailey

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    Born in small-town Texas in the 1930s, Ailey was first exposed to dance by performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in Los Angeles.

    In the 1950s, most dance companies were still not integrated and, following the vision of his mentor, Lester Horton, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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    The goal was “to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience,” according to the theater.

    A decade later he opened the Ailey School, and was active in bringing dance and arts education to underserved communities.

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    He received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1988 and, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

    Ailey died in 1989 of AIDS-related illness but, for the sake of his mother, he asked doctors to announce the cause of death was terminal blood dyscrasia.

    In his obituary, The New York Times wrote, “you didn’t need to have known Ailey personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multiracial brotherhood.”

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