June 26, 2020

12 BIPOC Pioneers in the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement

Queer and transgender people of color paved the way for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
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June 26, 2020
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You’ve seen it on signs at protests, but you might not have learned it in school: queer and transgender people of color paved the way for the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. It’s impossible to understand the progress this movement has made — and how much further we have to go — without understanding the contributions of the pioneers who came before us. 

This Pride Month, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the work of LGBTQ+ BIPOC (black and Indigenous people of color) leaders who fought for equal rights long before the days of marriage equality and pride parades. While this month might be a fitting time to recognize these leaders, we should be celebrating them all year long. 

Here are just a few BIPOC pioneers in the LGBTQ+ movement we are recognizing this month. 

1. Marsha P. Johnson (1945 – 1992)

The P. in Marsha P. Johnson stood for “Pay It No Mind,” or Johnson’s typical answer when asked about her gender. Johnson was an activist and drag queen who participated in the legendary Stonewall Riots of 1969 and later joined the Gay Liberation Front, the movement of LGBTQ+ activists that formed after Stonewall. Today, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute honors Johnson’s legacy by supporting Black transgender people through “organizing, advocating, and creating an intentional community to heal, developing transformative leadership, and promoting our collective power.”

2. Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)

Bayard Rustin was a civil rights organizer and an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He was a key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, although some considered him a controversial leader for being openly gay and for his ties to the Communist Party. Rustin was deeply committed to nonviolence, and in the years after the March on Washington devoted his time to further organizing for economic and social justice. 

3. We’wha (1849–1896)

We’wha was a Zuni Native American leader and a two spirit person, or someone who encompassed both traditionally masculine and feminine traits and roles in a socially-recognized third gender. We’wha was a highly respected leader in her community and the first member of their tribe to travel to Washington, D.C., where We’wha met with President Grover Cleveland. We’wha was an artist and potter, and their works provided insights into the practices and customs of the Zuni culture. 

4. Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002)

Sylvia Rivera was another participant in the Stonewall Riots and a persistent advocate for the rights of low-income LGBTQ people of color. An activist and drag queen, she co-founded the Gay Liberation Front and together with Marsha P. Johnson, and co-founded the political organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). In her honor, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project seeks “to continue Sylvia’s work by centralizing issues of systemic poverty and racism, and prioritizing the struggles of queer and trans people who face the most severe and multi-faceted discrimination.”

5. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (1940 - present)

Miss Major is a respected transgender elder who has fought for the rights of trans women of color for 40 years. As a former sex worker and formerly incarcerated woman, Miss Major has advocated fiercely against police brutality and for the rights of trans women incarcerated in men’s prisons, as well as for those impacted by HIV/AIDS. She’s also a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall Riots and currently a mentor for Black trans youth. In 2016, her story was featured in the documentary film MAJOR!, which won numerous awards and was screened at festivals around the world.  

6. James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) 

Writer James Baldwin explored life at the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, authoring some of the most iconic works of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. His novels, essays, and plays “broke new ground” for their descriptions of topics like same-gender love and interracial relationships, and his collection The Fire Next Time was especially popular for its brutally honest description of race relations in America. He was open about his queer identity despite the subject being taboo during his time. 

7. Barbara Smith (1946 - present)

Author, critic, and teacher Barbara Smith is credited with creating and disseminating the concept of “identity politics” as a means of analyzing the oppressions experienced by marginalized groups. Together with other Black women, she founded the Combahee River Collective, a collective working to address the overlapping oppressions experienced by queer Black women through awareness-raising and community organizing. She also co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a groundbreaking independent press committed to publishing works by women of color. 

8. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)

Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde was a poet, activist, and artist who recognized the importance of coalition-building across different races, genders, and other identities. In addition to authoring some of the most critical works on intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, she was also a contributing member to the Combahee River Collective. Today, the Audre Lorde Project is a New York City-based community organization centering LGBTQ+ people of color.  

9. Stormé DeLarverie (1920 – 2014)

While nobody is quite sure who “threw the first brick” at the Stonewall Riots, history suggests it might have been Stormé DeLarverie, an activist and drag king who reportedly hit the officer who arrested her outside the Stonewall Inn that night in 1969. Previously, she had toured as a jazz musician, paving the way for other queer artists of color to follow in her footsteps. For decades after Stonewall, DeLarverie volunteered as a “street patroller” monitoring the safety of lesbian bars and other queer spaces up until her eighties. 

10. Reggie Williams (1951 – 1999)

Reggie Williams was an HIV/AIDS activist who used his experience in the medical field to advocate for queer men of color. Williams was an x-ray technician at a hospital in Los Angeles during the rise of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Seeing how HIV/AIDS prevention efforts were “not culturally compatible with Black gay men and other men of color,” he moved to San Francisco to begin strategizing and helped create the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention. February 7, the day Williams died of AIDS-related complications in 1999, is now recognized as National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

11. Andrea Jenkins (1961 - present)

Andrea Jenkins is the first Black transgender woman elected to public office in the United States. Previously a policy aide, she ran for the Minnesota City Council on a platform centering affordable housing, fair policing, and a higher minimum wage, and won with 73 percent of the vote. She also served as the curator of the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota, where she recorded hundreds of hours of stories from transgender people in the Midwest. 

12. Laverne Cox (1972 - present)

Laverne Cox is an actor and advocate best known for playing the role of Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate on the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black.” She is the first out transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy and to appear on the cover of Time magazine and continues to be an outspoken advocate for transgender women of color across the world. 

While we are highlighting these 12 BIPOC LGBTQ+ advocates, there are so many more not on this list. Many more are also continuing to rise as voices for the movement every day, making for an ever-growing list of important people to celebrate during Pride Month and every month.

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