Unsung heroes break barriers for Black LGBTQ community

Black History Month
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Some may call them the “Unsung Heroes” of American History.  Figures—some well-known, some not as much—each one, though, making an impact in their communities.

If you grew up before the 21st Century, it’s likely you never heard of Bayard Rustin in history class.   Rustin is credited as the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, noted for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  His memory, though, modern historians argue was pushed to the side because Rustin identified as gay.

“For many years, I didn’t know about Bayard Rustin,” said Mary Morten. 

Morten is president of Morten Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm focusing on clients in the nonprofit, for-profit and foundation fields.

“[Rustin] was a gay man. He was a black gay man and that information was not discussed at that time,” Morten added.

“Bayard’s influence throughout the civil rights movement is enormous,” said Victor Salvo, founder of The Legacy Project, whose Legacy Walk along North Halsted Street in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, had tirelessly led an effort to bring more education about LGBTQ historical figures into the conversation. 

“[Rustin] had studied with Gandhi about non-violent resistance. He’s credited with bringing these techniques to Martin Luther King at the beginning of the bus boycott,” added Salvo.

Rustin wasn’t just a member of the civil rights movement, many would argue he was one of the founders.

“He helped make the civil rights movement of the 40s, 50s, and 60s as visible and successful as it was,” said Rustin biographer John D’Emilio. 

His book, Lost Prophet, tells the story of Rustin’s influence not only on the civil rights movement but as a mentor to many, including a young Atlanta preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and an even younger John Lewis, who would become a Congressman. Lewis died in 2020.

“He tutored and trained a generation of activists who were younger than him who, like John Lewis, went on to significant things in the world,” D’Emilio said.

Others, like Lewis, found their way into the world of politics to bring about change. Barbara Jordan, who won her first election to the U.S. Congress in 1972, became a powerful voice in the Watergate era, with a live speech excoriating then-President Richard Nixon. 

“Her words are so relevant to this moment that she’s just a powerful person,” says Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Jordan’s legacy.

Lightfoot became the first open lesbian elected as Chicago’s mayor in 2019. 

Jordan lived in open secret as a lesbian. She died in 1996 from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) complications, having been with her partner, Nancy Earl, for 30 years.

“I know she and her partner were fixtures around the [University of Texas] campus,” Lightfoot said. “People certainly knew who her partner was to her but to never be able to say ‘This is my partner… this is our life’ and to live it proudly and out, that does damage. There’s no question whatsoever. I feel sad for her, but I also know that what she did really broke through a lot of barriers and blazed a trail for people like me.”

Another example comes from the world of education.  Alain Locke began his assistant professorship in English at Howard University in 1912.  He blazed a trail at a time when African-Americans didn’t even have the right to vote.  Locke is considered the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance,” an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater and politics.

“[Locke was] first African-American to get a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University,” says University of Illinois Professor of History Kevin Mumford. 

“The first African-American to be a Rhodes Scholar and he was very queer,” added Mumford, who examined the intersectionality between the LGBTQ and African-American communities.

“People got marginalized and excluded and silenced because they were either Black in the gay movement or gay in the Black movement,” says Mumford. “That’s a really important story to tell.”

One of those who are working to tell the sometimes hidden stories is filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris. Harris’ work includes the documentary “Vintage Families of Value.”

Harris explains, “…in which I handed a video camera to three groups of queer siblings, who were essential to their families, to talk about their relationship to their family and kind of debunk this myth that Black people and queer people in the family are separate.”

It’s a more open dialogue, Harris argues, that has allowed greater representation of LGBTQ people in the mainstream. Performers like RuPaul Charles, Laverne Cox, Janelle Monae, Wanda Sykes, Frank Ocean,  Lil Nas X, and Todrick Hall have expanded how LGBTQ-identified people are portrayed and accepted in society.

Their ability to do so comes from the work and lives of previous generations of African-Americans, like 1960s activist Marsha P. Johnson, one of the lead figures in the Stonewall Riots in June 1969.

Harris’ latest series, Family Pictures USA, takes a deep look into family dynamics and how they’ve changed into a more inclusive dynamic.

Harris adds, “To allow for these stories to take their rightful place in history just makes us richer and really grounds us in the sense of truth that we’re so in need of today.”

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