Pride has always been a big deal for us at Brownstein. We always look forward to celebrating our own LGBTQ+ community and remembering the many ways we’ve seen our city and our country progress over the last few decades.
But this year’s Pride is different.
If it weren’t for Black lives, we wouldn’t have Pride at all. We’re using this month to take a step back, educate ourselves, and examine Pride through the lens of intersectionality.
The complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.
Black LGBTQ+ individuals have always faced more violence than their white counterparts, due to the social constructs of race and gender. This discrimination is part of what has pushed many Black queer individuals throughout history to raise their voice, take action, and play a crucial role in the Pride movement.
With this in mind, here are a few heroes we’re highlighting this month on our social channels and blog in celebration:
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)
In 1907, Gladys Bentley was born to a working class family right here in Philadelphia. Of her childhood, she wrote: “It seems I was born different. At the age of nine I stole my brother’s suits and began to feel more comfortable in boy’s clothes than in dresses.”
At 16, she ran away from home to join the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. There she became famous for singing the blues, playing the piano, and writing raunchy lyrics—all in full tuxedo. She toured throughout the country and would become the inspiration for butch characters in several books. While people admired her musical talent, they often criticized her lifestyle as a lesbian woman, and her career suffered as a result. During the McCarthy era, she was driven back into the closet because of the “lavender scare.”
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin created stories that centered Black lives, with work that tackled themes of race, masculinity, sexuality, and class. During his teenage years, Baldwin began to identify as gay. As a Black gay man, he grew increasingly disappointed and outraged by the prejudices impacting the Black community. At the age of 24, he decided to leave the United States for France, becoming a member of a growing class of Black expatriates who embraced the liberal culture of Paris to start dialogues and explore topics of race and politics. Baldwin traveled back to the US in the summer of 1957 and began reporting on race issues in the South, particularly in Charlotte, NC, and Montgomery, AL.
In his prolific career, he authored such works as “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “Notes of a Native Son,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “The Fire Next Time,” “No Name in the Street,” and many more essays, novels, and poems reflective of his global experiences. He established himself as one of the leading literary voices of the Civil Rights Movement and influential figure of an emerging Gay Rights Movement.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Born in West Chester, PA, Bayard Rustin is well known for advising Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, Dr. King and Rustin began to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which often saw him as a controversial and conflicting figure due to his sexual orientation.
As the key adviser to Dr. King, Rustin was an integral part of organizing the 1963 March on Washington and served as the march’s Chief Organizer. Beyond his work with the March on Washington, Rustin worked on the New York City school boycott in protesting de facto segregation, became an advisor to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and so much more. Even with such an integral role during the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin’s work was often minimalized in history due to his identification as a gay man.
Stonewall Riots and STAR organization
The Stonewall Riots started on June 28, 1969. At the time, gay bars in New York City were often operated by the Mafia, who paid off cops to receive warnings before raids. But one day at the Stonewall Inn, there was no warning. The police came into the bar, and began to line people up to take identification. This concerned patrons, as contemporary laws permitted the arrest of those not wearing at least three pieces of clothing “assigned to their sex.” The situation started to become violent as many of the drag queens rightfully protested against showing identification. As she was escorted out by police, Storme DeLarverie (a mixed race butch lesbian who was a singer, drag king, bouncer, and street patrol worker) was struck on the head with a baton and started bleeding. She turned to the crowd and famously said, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The Stonewall Riots lasted five days, and were led by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Rivera, a gay activist, drag queen, and trans woman would later say of the Riots, “I don’t know who threw the first brick, but I threw the second.” They would pave the way for the modern gay liberation movement in America.
Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman who was involved with the gay liberation movement from the beginning. Johnson and Rivera, despite often being homeless and having to resort to working the streets, started the organization STAR—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. They bought a home in order to house young trans youth, who were often kicked out of their homes at an early age. While both were told to take a step back from the gay liberation movement, they fought actively for LGBTQ rights until the end. Marsha Johnson died in 1992, and is believed by many to have been murdered.
Willi Ninja (1961-2006)
Willi Ninja was a member of the “Ball Culture” in the 1980s, a famous community of Black and Brown queer people. It defined modern drag, gay culture, and much of the slang we use today, which, in many different contexts, has its origins in Black Queer Culture.
Ninja is considered the grandfather of the “voguing” dance movement, created by mimicking the poses of models from the cover of Vogue. He starred in Malcolm McLaren’s video, “Deep in Vogue” which inspired Madonna’s song, “Vogue.” He continued his choreography career, starred in many Janet Jackson videos, and toured all over the world. He died in 2006 from AIDS-related heart failure.
Patrisse Cullors (1984-)
Patrisse Cullors is an activist, author, educator, and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) and has committed her life to the path of freedom. At 16 years old, Cullors came out as queer and worked closely with other young queer women dealing with the challenges of systemic improverishment and of being Black in America. Her queer activism and work during her formative years have earned her recognition as a transformative organizer. She received the Mario Savio Young Activist Award at just 22 years old.
On the heels of Trayvon Martin’s death, BLM co-founder Alicia Garza wrote a Facebook post in which she stated “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” In response to this post, Cullors wrote #BlackLivesMatter and together Cullors, Garza, and Opal Tometi catapulted the online campaign into an international movement of 16 chapters within the United States and Canada.
Cullors is the author of New York Times bestseller, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.