Often overlooked, members of the LGBTQ+ community have been trailblazers of African American civil rights and culture throughout history.
In recent years, activism has pivoted toward intersectionality, shown by the addition of black and brown stripes to the Pride flag. To celebrate the overlap of Juneteenth and Pride month, here are 3 incredible black and queer trailblazers of history that you may have never heard of:
Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray (1910 - 1985) was a pioneering lawyer and civil rights advocate for African Americans, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. Before the word "transgender" existed, Pauli's gender identity diverted from their sex at birth.
Murray was an extraordinary student early on, graduating top of their class at Howard University School of Law as the only woman in their cohort. The misogyny they faced at Howard prompted them to coin the term "Jane Crow", opening dialogue on the intersection of gender and race in Jim Crow era discrimination. Murray later became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale Law School in 1956, and was a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Murray had several romantic relationships with women, most notably their life partner Renee Barlow, who they met while working at a law firm. They also grappled with their gender identity and sexuality throughout their life, questioning their gender and pursuing hormone therapy and surgery in the 1930s.
Pauli's legacy includes States' Laws on Race and Color, Jane Crow and the Law: Discrimination and Title VII, and Roots of the Racial Crisis: Prologue to Policy. These works were monumental in challenging the legal basis of racial discrimination.
Gladys Bentley (1907 - 1960) was a jazz singer and performer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. She made her breakthrough at Harry Hansberry's Clam House, a prominent gay speakeasy during the Renaissance.
Bentley, who openly identified as a lesbian, was known for her fiery shows, where she sang flirtatious tunes and played piano to her audience while dressed in men's clothes. Her artistic presentation had a "contradictory" nature that combined high-class performance with raunchy, unrestrained expression. She was regarded as an excellent musician with a "soul-stirring" voice, and earned respect in her own right as a musician.
During the McCarthyism era, Bentley's queer image was whitewashed in a magazine article, where she discounts her past as a lesbian in show business. However, her legacy as a Harlem Renaissance icon remains.
Bayard Rustin (1912 - 1987) was a civil rights leader who heavily influenced Martin Luther King's understanding of nonviolent activism, earning him the role of King's personal advisor and assistant. He was a key organizer of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and played a major role in the 1963 March on Washington and the Montgomery bus boycott.
During the civil rights movement, Rustin avoided the public eye as an openly gay man, after facing conviction for homosexuality. However, he was posthumously pardoned for his prior conviction in 2020.
Rustin was an advocate for the freedom of all people. He opposed racism in its many forms, stood against colonialism, and stood against dictatorships when other radicals didn't.
In 2013, Bayard's life partner, Walter Naegle, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his behalf.
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