February is here, and we’re celebrating Black History Month. It’s a struggle to be LGBT in today’s society, but it’s even more so for people who are both gay and African American. Add “woman” to that list, and you’ve got yourself a triple minority. We’ll let that last one slide for today, as we look at four of the most influential gay African Americans our country has seen so far. Some are from the past and some the present—but they’ve all changed the country and gay community for the better.
1. Bayard Rustin: Civil rights activist and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin was a close colleague of MLK, Jr. He lived in an even more difficult time for gays and African Americans, but he persevered nonetheless. He later went on to compare the LGBT community to the black community in terms of their social and civil struggles. “Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change,” he said in a 1986 speech. “…gay people are the new barometer for social change. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”
2. Mabel Hampton (Miss Mabel): Lesbian activist and archivist, Hampton was a major contributor to The Lesbian Herstory Archives. She archived what it was to be gay and black during the 20th century, from the Harlem Renaissance on. “I’m glad I became [a lesbian]. I have nothing to regret,” she said in 1989. “If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing. I’d be a lesbian. Oh boy, I would really be one then!”
3. Phill Wilson: AIDS activist and founder of Black AIDS Institute, Wilson was first diagnosed with HIV in 1981 with his late partner Chris Brownlie. More than thirty years later, Wilson’s life has changed dramatically. Brownlie died in 1989 and Wilson went on to dedicate his life’s work to community efforts to fight AIDS. He’s been shown that life is terminable, and he’s living with that in mind. “[The] price of the ticket for life is to leave the world a better place than you found it,” he said. “That’s the minimum payment that we owe for the privilege of having spent time on this planet.”
4. Bill T. Jones: A celebrated choreographer, Jones has always been openly gay and HIV+. He’s one of the most accomplished choreographers in the world. He’s incorporated life with AIDS into his works, and after his partner Arnie Zane died from AIDS-related complications in 1989, he created several “survival” workshops for people struggling with HIV/AIDS. “Living and dying is not the big issue,” he said in 1987. “The big issue is what you’re going to do with your time while you’re here.”