13 Black LGBTQ+ Trailblazers Who Changed The World

The contributions of Black people who identify as LGBTQ are countless. Pioneers, activists, trailblazers whose sacrifices and relentless efforts have freed masses cannot be ignored. Though their identity is often swept under the rug or pushed out of the frame of their due recognition, their impact is undeniable.

The work of Black LGBTQ people has led to changed laws, policies, hearts, and minds. Without the contributions of Black LGBTQ people, much would've been left undone.

Here, we recognize 13 Black LGBTQ history makers whose unwavering actions and ingenuity impacted multiple industries, led movements, and inspired trends for generations.

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rustin was an activist who fought for LGBTQ and civil rights who organized the groundbreaking March on Washington in 1963. In 2013, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country, posthumously.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her words have made an incredible lasting impact in feminist, queer, and critical race theories. Some of her most notable works include Sister Outsider, the essay “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” and The Black Unicorn, to name just a few. Lorde was also her native New York’s poet laureate from 1991-1992.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

Writer, scholar, social critic James Baldwin was a stand out literary voice during the Civil Rights movement for his inclusion of the experiences of Black LGBTQ people Baldwin wrote numerous books, essays and gave lectures where he provided a sharp rebuke of American’s treatment of Black people. 

The documentary I Am Not Your Negro takes a look at the book Baldwin never got to finish before his death in 1987.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

African American dance and choreography pioneer Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. His seminal works “Cry” and “Revelations” are still performed globally. In 2014, Ailey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously for his efforts in bringing the arts to communities budding with talent, but who did not always have the outlets or resources.

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)

Rep. Barbara Jordan was the first African American to be elected to the Texas Senate in 1966. In 1972, she was the first Black woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives. She is known also for her opening statements at the House Judiciary Committee hearings during the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Rep. Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 by then-president Bill Clinton

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)

An activist for transgender rights, Marsha P. Johnson is credited with being one of the leading figures at the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York. Together, with the help of fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, the two established the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that helped get homeless queer youth housing and other resources.

Johnson also was a performer in the drag performance dance troupe Hot Peaches from 1972 through the 1990s. During that time she also was an AIDS activist working with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). 

Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was a popular singer of the 1920s and 1930s. The Tennessee native made an everlasting impact on jazz music, and became one of the highest-paid entertainers at the time. Three of her original recordings were inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame, evidence of her strong musical presence and influence.

Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939)

Named the “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey was a musical pioneer of the early 1900s. She was the mentor of Bessie Smith and sang lyrics professing her love of women. The Netflix Original film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted from August Wilson’s play, reimagines a recording session with Ma Rainey, showcasing her talent and sharp business savvy. 

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

Renown playwright Lorraine Hansberry made history as the first Black woman author to have a play performed on a Broadway stage. Her most notable work, A Raisin in the Sun, was adapted into a movie in 1961 and 2008. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and began a relationship with Dorothy Secules before her untimely death in 1965 at the age of 35. 

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

Octavia Butler was a literary powerhouse who was also a pioneer in Black science fiction. She’s collected numerous awards over the span of her career including a MacArthur Fellowship, and multiple Nebula Awards. She died in 2006 at the age of 58.

Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

Pauli Murray

A true multi-faceted icon, Pauli Murray was considered a legal genius, laying the groundwork for monumental arguments that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Murray was also the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and was known as a strong advocate and activist for women’s rights.

Alain Locke (1885-1954)

Alain Locke is known as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.” The writer published his famous anthology The New Negro in 1925 documenting Black life at the time through poetry, plays, essays and music compositions. Locke was also the first African American to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar. He earned a PhD in Philosophy from Harvard University and later became a professor at Howard University.

Mabel Hampton (1902-1989)

A dancer and vocal lesbian activist during the Harlem Renaissance, Mabel Hampton was also a philanthropist for both Black and LGBT initiatives. She once took the stage with the famous Jackie “Moms” Mabley.

At the age of 82, she spoke at the NYC Pride parade in 1984, and said, “I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my Black people.”

Photos: Getty Images

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