Why There’s No Black History Without Queer History

"Black LGBTQ people have been at the forefront of every modern movement, whether we know their names or not."

Pictured above: Author James Baldwin (L) and activist Bayard Rustin (R) at a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965.

“I’d rather teach them the history of black people, but [I guess] teaching [queer history] is more important,” a Twitter user wrote in a scorching example of cisgender heterosexual willingness to erase queer black people like me.

In elementary school through high school, I—like most American students—learned the history of amazing black people: Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, among the many other cis straight civil rights leaders. But now, reflecting back on this pivotal stage of my early education, I see a stunning absence. Where were the stories of Marsha P. Johnson and Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin and Barbara Smith—or any black queer civil rights activist, for that matter? Why had their identities been erased?

A critic can’t fairly feign outrage at the inconsistencies in the black history curriculum used in public schools if they are not willing to accept that there are black queer civil rights activists whose accomplishments go uncredited. Without acknowledging the accomplishments of black queer activists, we are being deprived of essential knowledge about black history at large.

Whether or not people care to admit, there is no black history without queer people, and there is no queer history without black people. Queer history is black history.

Patrick A. Burns/New York Times Co./Getty Images
Bayard Rustin.

Eight years ago, California became the first state to pass a law requiring public schools to teach LGBTQ history. Earlier this year, Colorado and New Jersey adopted that same law. And most recently, Illinois Gov. J. B Pritzke signed legislation that made Illinois the fourth state that requires public schools to teach queer history.

“One of the best ways to overcome intolerance is through education and exposure to different people and viewpoints,” said Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans, a sponsor of the bill, according to the Washington Examiner. “An inclusive curriculum will not only teach an accurate version of history but also promote acceptance of the LGBTQ community.”

Naturally, cisgender heterosexual people were not very happy about the idea of children learning about the accomplishments of LGBTQ people. My Twitter timeline exploded with sassy rebuttals to the typical accusations about queer people “forcing” our beliefs on children, and those mind-blowing tales about the “Gay Agenda” and our mission to eradicate cis het people.

Schools in all 50 states are required to teach lessons about historical African Americans; and elementary through high schools are mandated to cover topics like Brown v. Education, Barack Obama’s election, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy. Only four states, however, are required to teach about LGBTQ history. If the “Gay Agenda” were truly a thing, we wouldn’t still be fighting to have our identities acknowledged.

Fanatical Evangelical Christian leaders like Franklin Graham, who recently slammed Taylor Swift in a Facebook post for “using her platform to try to push the socialist left’s so-called Equality Act, which has nothing to do with equality, but is about pushing the LGBTQ agenda down the throats of the American people,” also spoke out against Illinois’ new law.

During a radio interview, Graham called this inclusive policy “an affront to God.”

One tweet, which received over 56,000 likes, called the idea of teaching children about the accomplishments of queer people “unnecessary and sick.” The Twitter user then stated that he is not homophobic, and minutes later, he proceeded to say that he does not want to sit in a seven- or eight-hour class “learning about faggots.”

Sounds pretty fucking homophobic to me…

Nonetheless, these tweets did nothing to extinguish my excitement: When you spend your whole life being black and queer, you develop a certain numbness to the ignorance of people who aren’t black and queer. It’s easy to ignore critics of this legislation who are privileged, a.k.a. white cis heterosexual people who enjoy the luxuries of their violent history being celebrated. However, seeing black people take issue with it is painful.

Netflix
Marsha P. Johnson.

All my life, I have had black people who aren’t queer remind me that I’m a hated minority within a group of hated minorities. I have had people—family members, especially—deny my blackness because it wasn’t a heteronormative display of hyper-masculinity. My black queer accomplishments will never be seen as something that could elevate my community because cis het black people largely don’t want to see queer black people as black.

Belonging to a marginalized community means celebrating even the smallest step forward for acceptance and visibility. This is why black people cheered when Disney Live Action’s Little Mermaid cast Halle Bailey as Ariel. This is why fat people cheered when Nike created workout clothes for larger people. And this is why I’m excited that four states came to their senses and are required to educate today’s youth about the accomplishments of LGBTQ people.

Watching cis heterosexual black people use the idea of teaching queer history to erase historical black people is particularly upsetting. Black people who see LGBTQ history and black history as mutually exclusive can’t see the accomplishments of black queer people as accomplishments for the black community. Why? They don’t want to accept that black people can be queer.

This hurts like hell, and I’m sick of my people othering me like a white person would other them.

CNP/Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, 1963.

In this eye sore of a dialogue between two Twitter users, I could not believe how freely my identity was ignored.

“Don’t get me wrong. Our history comes first to me at all times…”one Twitter user wrote. “But don’t forget that there are Black people in the LGBT community who have a million more struggles than [white] people and some schools do offer African American history classes.”

While the Twitter user was in agreement with Illinois’ new bill, she exhibited discomfort accepting black history as black history independent of a historical figure’s sexuality. Advancing black studies begins with accepting that not all of us are cis heterosexuals—and understanding that all of our achievements are integral to the elevation of the entire black community.

“Do you really think they’re [going to] get close to the African Americans and their struggles in the LGBTQ+ community[?] They barely [want to] tell kids about slavery,” another Twitter user replied.

Funny. There is no mention of LGBTQ black people in lessons about slavery in America. For a long time, I believed that I was an abnormality because the absence of queerness in black history forced me to assume that my queer identity is some kind of colonial import, which it is not.

And let’s be brutally honest here: Slavery is not an easy topic to teach. Many white people don’t want to accept that their ancestors brutalized millions of blacks, which is why, for instance, Scholastic published a book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington that depicted happy, clean slaves. That book, which was eventually pulled by the publisher, was a painful exemplification of how anxiously white people want to sanitize their barbaric history.

Scholastic

History, regardless of whether it’s LGBTQ or black history, will be taught in a way that makes the majority comfortable. This is likely why many cis heterosexual black people don’t want to acknowledge the achievements of black queer people: Queerness makes them feel uncomfortable.

But we can advance queer and black education simultaneously because they are interdependent. I am not just a black man. I’m a black, queer man. All of my accomplishments progress both of my communities.

Without Bayard Rustin’s genius ability to organize a protest without social media, would Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington have had over 200,000 participants? Without Marsha P. Johnson and many other black and brown LGBTQ rights activists who participated in the Stonewall riots, would we have Pride month?

“If you study the culture and history of LGBTQ people, you are not studying a minor or bastardized culture,” Dr. Robert Randolph, Jr., a queer black scholar and author, tells me. “You are, in fact, studying America, and most especially black America because black LGBTQ people have been at the forefront of every modern political and social movement of the 20th and 21st centuries, whether we know their names or not. Anyone willing to throw LGBTQ history and culture under the pedagogical bus to reposition black studies as more important really doesn’t understand either one. The reality of intersectional identities means that black and LGBTQ agendas and interests are inextricably linked.”

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images
James Baldwin speaks at a Montgomery, Alabama, march, 1965.

Dr. Randolph referred to black history in public schools as “whitewashed and sanitized of people whose narratives were the most radical and resistant.” Martin Luther King Jr., he mentions, is often used by Republican pundits like Bill O’Reilly, who are largely anti-Black Lives Matter, as an example of how someone should resist racism. “By design, the curriculum often reinforces white supremacy notions of black life as supplemental—as opposed to essential—to understanding the United States.

Though the public school approach to black history has its failings, Dr. Randolph sees the benefits in including LGBTQ history—another field of study centering on a marginalized group—as a step forward.

“History is a worthwhile endeavor and discipline because it allows you to see how your life and society are contextualized within a larger narrative of the world,” he says. “Through history, you come to understand that you are not unique, your experiences are not unique, and your struggles are not unique. With a variety of histories taught in school, we get to see ourselves. LGBTQ history for me means seeing that my life has worth beyond white supremacist, patriarchal constraints.”

LGBTQ history in public schools is not just move in the right direction for queer people but for black people regardless of their sexuality. The only way to advance the black community—and add accuracy to discourses surrounding black history—is to acknowledge the accomplishments of queer black people.

If you’re interested in learning about Malcolm X, but could care less about Marsha P. Johnson, what makes you any better than white people who cherry-pick the black narratives that make them feel the most comfortable?

An education isn’t learning what is easy; it is learning what is true.

New York City-based writer with bylines in Playboy, MTV News, Billboard, and more.
@snacktavist