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  • Oliver Whitney

Black History Month: 4 Black LGBTQ Pioneers To Know and Celebrate


Black LGBTQ Pioneers

Every day of the year is a worthy time for learning Black history and celebrating the many inspiring and revolutionary figures of the past who’ve paved the way for necessary changes in this country.


It’s vital to study and honor the trailblazers and movements of the past to learn how we got here. It’s just as vital to take the next step of incorporating their wisdom and stories into our current efforts to dismantle anti-Blackness and racism, and build a more equitable and just future along the way.  

 

Just as many Black figures have been left out of, or whitewashed in, America’s history books, so too have Black trans and queer folks been omitted from wider LGBTQ history. This Black History Month — and given the growing attack on LGBTQ+ rights currently sweeping the country — let’s all commit to learning about some key Black queer and trans figures from both the past and the present. Below you’ll probably see a name or two you may already know, but you might not be familiar with the ways they’ve contributed to history-shaping movements. You’ll surely also discover some new names and stories, and hopefully ones that fill you with gratitude and a rousing inspiration to carry on their struggles for the Black LGBTQ+ youth of today. 


Black LGBTQ Pioneers to Know



Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson, Courtesy of Netflix

1. Marsha P. Johnson

Most folks in the LGBTQ community at least know Marsha P. Johnson’s name, but not all know her story. Marsha P. Johnson – the “P,” she was known to say, stood for “Pay it no mind” — became one of the most well known and celebrated faces of the queer liberation movement. Born in New Jersey in 1945, Johnson moved to New York City as a teen with, as the story goes, little more than a bag of clothes and $15 in her pocket. History has credited Johnson as the person who started the Stonewall riots, allegedly by throwing a shot glass at a mirror — “the shot glass heard around the world” as it’s been dubbed. But according to Johnson herself, that wasn’t true. She’s said in interviews that she arrived at the bar along with her friend and fellow revolutionary Sylvia Rivera after the fighting had already broken out. 

 

Soon after Stonewall, Johnson and Rivera founded STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. As sex workers who were often homeless, the two acquired a burned-out building, called STAR House, to shelter and support young trans folks kicked out by their families. While that effort didn’t last very long due to an eviction, Johnson continued to dedicate her life to activism for her trans community. She later joined the drag troupe “Hot Peaches,” became an early member of ACT UP, and caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who famously painted her, her beloved beaming smile and all, in his “Ladies and Gentleman” screenprint series.  

 

But Johnson’s life had a very tragic end. She suffered from mental health struggles over the years, was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, and two years later at the age of 46, Johnson’s drowned body was found in the Hudson River. While the police ruled it a suicide and refused to investigate the case further, it was clear to many of her friends that Johnson was likely murdered in an anti-trans hate crime. Marsha P. Johnson’s legacy extends far beyond Stonewall, and beyond her death as a reminder of the violence Black trans women continue to face — she was a symbol of unrelenting resistance and radiant Black trans joy, and one that can never be extinguished. 


Stormé DeLarverie
Stormé DeLarverie, via GQ

2. Stormé DeLarverie 


Stormé DeLarverie lived an incredible life that is the stuff of legend. DeLarverie was a Black drag performer and queer activist who fought cops at the Stonewall Riots, was believed to be a bodyguard for the Chicago mob, and was a part of the legendary Jewel Box Revue, the first racially-integrated traveling troupe of drag performers in the U.S. 

 

While many have described DeLarverie as a woman and lesbian, they never necessarily identified as such. A website devoted to the performer quotes an old friend saying DeLarverie rejected labels and didn’t "identify as anything but chose to live her life as a Black man.” (As for pronouns, DeLarverie was said to have used she/her, he/him, and they/them.) Born in New Orleans in 1920 to a Black mother and white father, DeLarverie later became the MC of the Jewel Box Revue and performed as the troupe’s only drag king, donning a sleek suit jacket and fake mustache. DeLarverie was rumored to have had ties to Chicago mobsters as a bodyguard, and at one point worked security at Henrietta Hudson — one of the last-standing lesbian bars in the country today.  

 

And that brings us to Stonewall: modern queer history has dubbed DeLarverie as the first person who threw a punch at the Stonewall Inn on the night of June 28, 1969. But apparently DeLarverie didn’t start the fight. According to an old interview they gave, DeLarverie themself claimed that someone else threw the first punch, but they did proudly attest to punching a NYPD cop who hit them from behind. Either way, Stormé DeLarverie, who died in 2014, remains not only an icon of the ‘60s queer liberation movement, but a trailblazing Black gender nonconforming figure who fearlessly lived as themselves. 



Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy by Mickalene Thomas via Out

3. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy 


It’s a gift that a Black trans revolutionary figure like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is still with us today. Miss Major, as she’s known, is an activist and radical leader for Black, queer, and trans liberation who may be best known as a veteran of the Stonewall riots. But Miss Major’s work spans everything from prison abolition to AIDS activism to liberatory struggles of today. 

 

Born in Chicago in the 1940s, Miss Major experienced transphobia and homophobia early in life as a Black trans woman. After she was kicked out of her college when a male roommate found her dresses, she moved to New York City where she made money as a sex worker and found community in the budding drag ball scene of the 1960s. She survived incarceration and transphobic violence from correctional officers at Dannemora Prison, as well as Bellevue psychiatric hospital. She was at Stonewall on the night of the riots in June of 1969.


She worked as an HIV/AIDS treatment advocate in the ‘80s and later founded one of the first needle exchange clinics in America — out of the back of her van. And she was the former executive director of the Transgender Gender-Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), which advocates for folks of color impacted by incarceration. And still today, Miss Major, who released a book about her life in 2023, can be seen sharing messages of resilience and support for Palestinian liberation on her Instagram account. No words can adequately describe Miss Major’s legacy and work uplifting liberatory struggles, and we’re lucky to still have her today, on social media no less. 



Beverly Glenn-Copeland
Beverly Glenn-Copeland, by Brianna Blank, via The Fader

4. Beverly Glenn-Copeland


There aren’t many Black transmasculine elders who are known or still living today, much less ones in the music scene. But we are grateful to have a Black LGBTQ pioneer like Beverly Glenn-Copeland who is not only still with us, but who’s also making new, transfixing music.  

 

The 80-year-old singer, electronic music composer, and activist is best known for his 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies — an ethereal, experimental work that The New Yorker described as “an outsider artist’s enchanted take on electronic music” — but it took nearly 30 years for it to gain recognition. It wasn’t until 2015 that Glenn-Copeland’s album was rediscovered and soon after reissued, spurring a belated and long-deserved fandom for the artist that’s only grown since.  

 

Glenn-Copeland, who was born in Philadelphia to a pianist father and a mother who sang spirituals, was also one of the first Black students at his alma mater, McGill University, in Montreal. He spent most of his life identifying openly as a lesbian — as a child he was nearly forced to undergo electroshock conversion therapy — but in 2002 Glenn-Copeland came out as a trans man. He continues to create genre-defying music today. His latest album, The Ones Ahead, is what he’s described in an interview with outlet them as a rallying cry for the liberation movements of today.


“When people take to the streets to protest, often they are using songs from the ’60s as the tool to bring people together,” Glenn-Copeland said of a track on his new album. “Nothing wrong with that, but here is something written for today.” 

Share your favorite Black LGBTQ Pioneers in the comments!

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