The late Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said: “I still hear people say that I should not talk about the rights of lesbian and gay people and should stick to the issue of racial justice, but I remind them what Martin Luther King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.” †
February is Black History Month in the USA, celebrated since 1926. It is also LGBT History Month in the UK, celebrated since 2005. This month of two histories is an opportunity to draw lessons from the contributions Black and LGBT people have made to the cultural developments of our nations.
Sadly, like many mainstream narratives, the lives and experiences of Black LGBT people are often depicted through the lens of racism. An under-explored aspect of Black history is the presence of lesbian and gay people.
For example, George Washington Carver has a story right out of the history books. Born into slavery, he went on to graduate from high school, earn a master’s degree, and invent peanut butter. Most history books omit to mention that Carver was also Black and gay.
Dr. King’s compatriot, Bayard Rustin, organised the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is with some irony that while Dr. King’s dream is coming true, almost 50 years later the theme of this year’s Black History Month in the US is ‘The History of Black Economic Empowerment’. While political emancipation may be close to achievement, the shackles of economic injustice and inequality remain firmly upon us, as Black people struggle against workplace prejudice. Before the 1963 march, Rustin championed the Freedom Rides, in which Black and white anti-racists took buses into the South to challenge the US Supreme Court decision to segregate public transport. Rustin also happened to be gay. In his later years, he spoke openly about LGBT rights and when died in 1987, the dream of sexual orientation equality was not fulfilled, but inching closer.
In 2003, aged 15, Sakia Gunn was murdered in New Jersey, USA, after rejecting sexual advances and telling the perpetrator that she and her friend were lesbians. Sakia was a young woman who chose to dress in ‘male’ attire. While more than 2,500 people attended her funeral, the broader public reaction to this hate crime did not compare with the outcry and actions following the tragic murder in 1998 of Matthew Shepard in rural Wyoming because of his sexual orientation. It is conceivable that race — Matthew was white and Sakia was Black — was the difference in the public’s response to these two shocking hate crimes.
Alvin Ailey; James Baldwin; Alexander Goodrum; June Jordan; Audre Lorde; Virginia Loving and Bessie Smith, are just a few of the Black LGBT people who have contributed writing, music and civil rights gains that were once only dreams. By confronting discrimination on two fronts — race and sexual orientation — these icons faced daunting, sometimes fatal, challenges in their paths toward freedom and acceptance.
When we fail to recognise everyone in our community, be they Black, disabled, lesbian or gay, or all of these, we surrender the narrative to someone else. We cannot transform or overcome hate and discrimination when we force individuals and entire communities to pick one identity and cast the rest aside.
Therefore, in honour of Black and LGBT History Month February 2011, the challenge to each of us is to consider our whole community, whomever that includes, to discover who has been overlooked or forgotten, and take action to remember and talk about them.
As Black and LGBT people we face big challenges in society today. It is vital that we recall how our forebears overcame theirs, when there were no models. They had to break new paths, so must we.
UK Black Pride supports the Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) coalition which campaigns against a disproportionate impact of the British government’s cuts on Black workers, communities and service users. For more information contact Sister Zita Holbourne, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
† (Reuters, 31 March 1998)