This February, in honor of Black History Month, let’s celebrate the contributions of Black LGBTQ+ individuals who have made significant impacts in history. These sheroes and heroes have overcome adversity and pushed for change in their unique ways, and their legacies continue to inspire and guide today’s and future generations.
The following three trailblazers are among the many members of the Black LGBTQ+community who left a lasting impact on society. They include Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, William Dorsey Swann, and Marsha P. Johnson. Here are their stories.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825 to free Black parents and was raised by her aunt and uncle after being orphaned at the age of three.
Her uncle was a prominent abolitionist and educator who ensured she had a comprehensive education and inspired her activism as well.
Harper began working in her teen years and became one of the nation’s earliest, published Black women poets by the age of 21. In her mid-twenties, she went on to become the first woman to teach at Union Seminary, a school for Black students in the free State of Ohio.
In 1858, Harper made headlines when she stood up for her rights by refusing to give up her seat in a segregated trolley car, an act of resistance similar to that of Rosa Parks, nearly a century before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The event inspired her famous poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land.”
Throughout her life, Harper continued to be an influential social activist, co-founding the National Association for Colored Women with Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, the daughter of Frederick Douglass.
Although not much is known about Harper’s personal life, her close ties with early sapphics, abolitionists, and suffragists, such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, have led some to speculate about her possible membership in the LGBTQ community. She was included in a 1990 cultural anthology called, Lesbian Lists.
William Dorsey Swann
William Dorsey Swann was the earliest known openly gay drag queen and LGBTQ+ activist in the United States.
Born into slavery in 1860, Swann made history in 1888 when he stood up to police officers during a raid on an early drag ball in Washington, D.C.
After being falsely accused of “keeping a disorderly house” and sentenced to 10 months in prison, Swann courageously and determinedly wrote a letter to President Grover Cleveland asking for a pardon. Though it was denied and he was forced to serve the time, Swann’s tenacity and vibrancy didn’t diminish as he continued to be a leader in the drag ball community, where he was known as “The Queen”.
The events and environment he cultivated were a source of community and celebration for Black people, featuring singing, dancing, and the popular cakewalk. These events would ultimately pave the way for the modern ballroom culture that spawned the vogueing sensation.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a Black transgender activist and drag queen who played a crucial role in the Stonewall riots of 1969.
With her flamboyant style and activism, Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Sylvia Rivera, dedicating her life to advocating for the personhood and rights of marginalized groups, including sex workers, and those in the LGBTQ community.
Johnson also fought against police brutality, housing discrimination, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Her activism paved the way for the LGBTQ+ rights movement and she remains an icon for the trans community, inspiring future generations to continue the fight for equality and justice.
Each of these individuals left their distinct mark and continue as sources of inspiration in this new era. During Black History Month, paying tribute to their lives recognizes the multidimensional aspects that contribute to the richness of the Black community.
Due to the extensive historical, legal, and social persecution of those in the LGBTQ+ community, it’s very difficult to know for certain how many Black heroes and sheroes may have been queer. However, advocates and others believe it is crucial to acknowledge and recognize the various LGBTQ+ experiences and identities within Black history, as well as to unearth and bring attention to the tales of those who have been suppressed and/or overlooked.