February is Black History Month and a good time to learn about the contributions of African-American gays and lesbians.
Here are some path breakers everyone should know about.
Bayard Rustin (1912-87) was one of the most influential figures in the civil rights movement. Because of his homosexuality as well as his socialism and pacifism, many movement colleagues shunned him, and his efforts were not fully recognized until later in his life.
In 1947, Rustin organized the first Freedom Ride challenging segregation on interstate buses. He was the chief organizer of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He was a key behind-the-scenes adviser to Justice Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. and nurtured leaders of the Congress on Racial Equality and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He was the first director of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, which addressed issues of race and economic justice.
Rustin lived to see the growth of the LGBT rights movement and was cheered by the progress being made. He was an honored guest at many gay Pride celebrations. “Brother Outsider” is a documentary about his life.
Barbara Jordan (1936-96) was a Texas congresswoman and educator best known for her role in the House Judiciary Committee hearings that adopted articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974. No one who watched the coverage on TV will ever forget her eloquent admonition: “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
Jordan retired from politics in 1979 but remained a beloved professor of ethics and political science at the University of Texas in Austin until her death. She lived with multiple sclerosis for many years and, toward the end, developed leukemia. It was only publicly revealed upon Jordan’s death that she had been in a decades-long relationship with Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist she met in the 1960s. The University of Texas erected a statue in Jordan’s memory and several Texas schools are named in her honor.
Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was one of the most accomplished science fiction/fantasy writers of her time. She described herself as “comfortably asocial … a hermit,” but poured her heart and soul into her writing.
Butler told imaginative tales of time travel, immortal beings and alternate genders that explored important themes of social and racial justice. Among her best books is “Kindred,” about a woman whisked from her life in 1970s Los Angeles back to slavery times in Maryland. In 2000, Butler won sci-fi’s highest honor, the Nebula Award, for her novel “Parable of the Talents,” which attacked religious fundamentalism. Most of her books are still in print.
RuPaul Andre Charles, born in 1960, is also a major historical player. No other entertainer has been “out” from the get-go and for as long as RuPaul. No other entertainer has spoken out so loudly, clearly and consistently about LGBT Pride. No one has been as flamboyantly gay, and no one has done more to bring drag style and performance into the mainstream.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Drag U” are highly rated cable shows that attract broad audiences. They are funny, catty, outrageous, schmaltzy and utterly entertaining. By bringing drag culture to the masses and sharing the love with everyone – “Everybody say ‘love!’” – RuPaul is a transformative figure.