That lost history has many consequences. It’s never discussed that during the pre-modernity Greek and Roman eras it was a societal norm that the “house boy” or male servants to the wealthy were expected to have sex with the male masters of the house. It’s never mentioned in Art History 101 that legendary Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci’s male apprentices were also their lovers.
We’ve literally been erased from the history books. And this erasure is why so many believe the LGBTQ rights movement is a new passing fad or simply unnatural because it “hasn’t been around that long.” It’s why Justice Scalia felt it justified to flippantly remark during the Supreme Court debates on marriage equality last year that LGBTQ rights have been around as long as cell phones.
This erasure is doubly so for African American queer history. If you pick up a text book on the Harlem Renaissance you’re not likely to find mention of the stark homoerotism in Langston Hughes’ poetry or that Bruce Nugent’s famous short story Smoke, Lilies and Jade is said to be the first published text (1926) by an African American to openly discuss homosexuality. The famous Harlem Renaissance dancer, gay rights activist and philanthropist Mabel Hampton is sure to be left out as well.
After so many LGBTQ rights successes in 2013, take a moment this Black History Month and throughout 2014 to remember the trailblazers we’ve forgotten. Trailblazers like Ruth Ellis, who became the oldest openly gay activist when she died at the age of 101 in 2000. The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth, is named in her honor.
Let’s not forget the brilliant science fiction work of Octavia Butler, who was the first science fiction writer to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and deemed a genius in her field, or the ground-breaking artwork of activist and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Take a moment to research the legacy that is Marsha P. Johnson, a pivotal transgender activist in the Stonewall Riots and founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries during the 1970s.
Remember the political journalism of June Jordan who paved the way for journalists like myself, and Lorraine Hansberry, whose A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African American to be performed on Broadway. If you find yourself rejected by your religious family, remember Peter John Gomes, a black gay theologian who devoted the latter part of his life to carving out a justified space for us in religion.
We must remember who we are by remembering those who paved the way. The LGBTQ rights fight isn’t a new fight. It‘s a fight that is well documented by the luminaries of our past, including black gay luminaries.
I’ll leave you with the words of famous 1960s feminist and lesbian activist poet Audre Lorde, “Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ‘60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply invisible as a Black lesbian and feminist.”
Let’s continue to discover and honor these luminaries by refusing to never be invisible again.