Prizm News / February 1, 2019 / By Troy Anthony Harris
Black history is LGBT history, and black LGBT history is the story of America.
By Troy Anthony Harris
I’ve been a good many things in my lifetime, but a good history student was never one of them. Anyone who raised or educated me—teachers, parents, counselors— knew that my left-brained strengths were far more acclimated to subjects like drama, music and photography than any of the rote subjects in which I had to memorize names, dates and places.
As I have acquired a bit of history myself, though, I’m realizing that my need for thoughtful historical study is driven by the portion of the word that’s most important. The story. It’s vital we understand the whys more than the whens or the wheres; thus we begin to weave a tapestry so complex it shows us how we as individuals fit into its global cloth.
That was my introspective for this Black History Month piece on historic LGBT black figures. I wanted to take it a step further and go beyond the traditional names we hear—James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Marsha P. Johnson—and find some of the stories that might not be as well-known or, at least, are the stories of which we need to be reminded.
I knew the focus would be the intersectionality of their lives, the term coined by feminist writer (and Canton native) Kimberlé Crenshaw that describes the crossing Venn diagrams of being part of two or more marginalized communities. For each of these historic figures, their minority sides represented a demographic that could marginalize them or even kill them, which made their courage even greater.
Even in writing this article, the concept of being a “minority within a minority” is prevalent. It’s rare for an LGBT publication to focus on LGBT black history in the context of Black History Month. It’s also rare for the larger, mainstream black community to devote much, if any attention to those historic figures who are defined as black and L, G, B or T.
It’s why these figures that I’ve been studying are so important. Their fight for inclusion is what allows people like me to not fear who we are and to be proud of what we represent. In the black community, we use a common phrase, “standing on the shoulders of those that came before,” and these people clearly reflect that concept.
These are the warriors who gave me the freedom to walk as proud as I do. And y’all know I do…
We all know the origin of our LGBT civil rights movement during the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, but do you know who threw the first punch?
That claim belongs to butch lesbian activist Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014), known affectionately as the Rosa Parks of the LGBT Community for her participation during the uprising. Her engagement in LGBT civil rights came from a fierce love and motherly protection of her community throughout her life.
DeLarverie was a bouncer for gay clubs, keeping an ever-watchful eye for troublemakers. She also worked as a male illusionist, emcee and stage manager with the Jewel Box Revue, a racially integrated drag revue that started in 1930s Miami and toured throughout the country to such places as New York’s Apollo and Loew’s State theaters. It was billed as a show with “25 men and one girl,” and Stormé DeLarverie was that one girl who would define the term, drag king.
On or off the sports field, we’ve all given someone the high five in celebration or acknowledgement, but do you know where it originated?
It came from Glenn Burke (1952-1995), the first openly gay player in Major League Baseball. Burke played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A’s between 1976 and 1979.
The story behind the famous hand slap came from Burke rushing the field during the final game of the 1977 season to congratulate Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker after a home run. As Baker rounded third base, Burke threw a hand above his head and Baker instinctively slapped it. “It seemed like the thing to do,” he would say later. The gesture caught on.
Burke was out to his teammates in Los Angeles and Oakland, and he later publicly acknowledged his sexuality and the struggles he faced because of it. One Dodgers official offered Burke a handsome sum if he would get married; he refused.
Burke died of AIDS in 1995 and was finally honored in 2014 for his place in baseball history.
H. Sharif ‘Herukhuti’ Williams
Defining bisexuality has been a universal challenge within our LGBT community, but there is a historical black figure who devotes his life to bringing illumination to the subject.
Hameed Sharif Williams, also known as Dr. Herukhuti, is a founder of the Center for Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality. He’s also a professor at Goddard College in Vermont. Dr. Herukhuti is a sociologist, a playwright, a sexual health researcher devoted to subjects related to AIDS/ HIV, a film director and a community essayist. He was a co-editor of “Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men” and “Sexuality, Religion and the Sacred: Bisexual, Pansexual and Polysexual Perspectives.”
His unequivocal blackness is the foundation for his commitment to the history of sexual fluidity within black culture, and his engagement led him to the national stage in September 2013 when he and other bisexual researchers and activists held a first-ever public policy roundtable at the White House. Dr. Herukhuti continues to study, illuminate and bring awareness to the subject of bisexual black men, which inherently is a reflection of all identified bisexual men.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Before there was Janet Mock or Laverne Cox, there was a transgender activist who clearly defined her life and path devoted to women of color.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is now 78 years of age and continues her work as a transwoman activist and mentor. Having lived a life of struggle for acceptance, she was affectionately referred to by SF Weekly as “the Trans Formative Matriarch.”
Miss Major grew up on Chicago’s South Side and recognized early that her identity would become her marginalization. She determined that living as a trans woman would mean “living outside the law,” and she became dependent on the black market for the hormones that were needed to live the life she saw for herself.
She saw and exposed the correlation between the prison industrial complex and trans identity with the inability of many to find a job or obtain appropriate healthcare. With her own stints of recidivism and incarcerations, she would go on to assist young trans women—her girls, as she called them—so they would not have to endure the struggles she had.
Her work and life are revered, both in a five-story New York building named for her that houses LGBTQ organizations, as well as the Griffin- Gracy Educational Retreat and Historic Center in Little Rock, the first of its kind solely dedicated to transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the United States.
Her story, as much as anyone’s, is what standing on the shoulders is all about.
These are our heroes and heroines. These are the figures who made a path for our LGBT and black acceptance today. As we further study their stories during Black History Month 2019, we ordain and establish that their bravery and perseverance echoes the words of Albert Camus, who said: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
We recognize that black lives do indeed matter and that black history is American history. Especially through the prism of LGBT history.
Troy Anthony Harris, a Columbus native, is a veteran theatrical stage performer and community advocate focused on issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.
FIND OUT MORE
GLAAD has produced a Black History Month feature highlighting LGBTQ icons. Learn about them all here.
Blackpast.org is an online reference guide to African-American history. The site maintains a section dedicated to black LGBTQ history. It’s here.