In the U.S., being Black, being a woman, or being queer comes with a long history of oppression. These six women were all three, and despite the odds, changed the game by defying the multiple systems trying to keep them from success. From a femme French spy to a butch drag king, these women were the first of their communities to accomplish achievements like being elected to Congress or writing a play performed on Broadway.
This Black History Month (which is also LGBTQ+ History Month across the pond in the U.K.), we remember these bi, trans, and lesbian women who used their strength and resilience to make way for the queer Black women who followed.
Ernestine Eckstein (1941-1992)
Early gay and lesbian rights groups in the U.S. had all of the transphobia, biphobia, racism, classism, and sexism of the straight world, but Ernestine Eckstein broke through barriers to become one of the only Black women publicly involved in the mainstream gay and lesbian rights movements of the 1960s. When she moved from her native Indiana to New York City at the age of 22 in 1963, she didn’t even know the word “gay.”
Once she found out about gays’ existence (and her own lesbianism), she immediately got involved as an activist. She was the only person of color to participate in historic first protests for gay rights in 1965. She was a leader of the first American lesbian rights organization The Daughters of Bilitis and one of two total women of color to appear on the cover of their publication “The Ladder.” Eckstein eventually moved to the West Coast and worked on issues more directly related to racial justice as a member of Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA), one of the first Black feminist organizations in the country.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
When “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in 1959, it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be performed there. The runaway success was nominated for four Tonys and was made into a movie in 1961 starring Sidney Poitier. Besides an impressive oeuvre of writing, Hansberry was an organizer for racial justice and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Her friendship with James Baldwin who lived just eight blocks away may have helped her discover the gay world, and when she found the lesbian publication “The Ladder,” she wrote in “I’m glad as heck you exist.” She had a decade-long marriage to a man that ended in divorce, and he restricted access to archival records after her death — perhaps to keep her sexuality a secret. There’s no doubt she had multiple affairs with women; indeed, she even wrote to “The Ladder” another time and identified herself as a married lesbian. Sadly, she passed away from cancer at only 34 years old.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Josephine Baker was a bi woman who left the U.S. to become an international celebrity. A dancer and actress famous for her revealing skirt made of bananas, she became the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. Baker married and divorced four different men and adopted 12 children from nine countries. Her female lovers included bi Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Living in France during World War II, she used her fame to spy and smuggle messages for the Resistance, earning her the French military honor the Croix de Guerre. While living in France kept her away from the segregation of the U.S., when she returned to her native country, she was not seen as the hero she was in her adopted France. She was refused service by 36 hotels in New York City on a 1948 trip, which inspired her to travel the American South using a different name to see what Black Americans experienced daily. She wrote and spoke on the discrimination she experienced and was inspired to dedicate her life to ending racism in her home country. She used her international fame to draw attention to her native country’s racial discrimination issues (so much so that the FBI kept a file on her) and also used her clout to negotiate that venues she played integrate their audiences for the first time. She was one of the only women invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Along with her best friend Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in New York City in 1970. Following their involvement in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, it became clear that the gay rights movement was not going to include trans rights. STAR was the answer to addressing the immediate needs of trans homeless youth, and STAR House provided free housing along with community and some food for those who lived there. Johnson and Rivera funded it with their own sex work, for which they were arrested several times.
In August 2020, Governor Cuomo announced that a state park in New York City would be named for Johnson.
Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)
No one knows the precise facts around who did what at the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, but many say that butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie threw the first punch. A founding member and Chief of Security for the Stonewall Veterans Association, DeLarverie was well known as a tough bodyguard who provided protections for women and LGBTQ+ people in Greenwich Village as a bouncer at bars like Henrietta Hudson and a self-appointed community safety officer patrolling the neighborhood.
Growing up in New Orleans as the daughter of a Black servant and her white employer who eventually married, DeLarverie was a drag king who performed as the emcee of the Jewel Box Revue, an integrated drag show that toured the U.S. in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. DeLarverie outlived her partner of 25 years, Diana, by 30 years before passing away in her sleep at the age of 93.
Lisa Cannistraci, who was one of DeLarverie’s legal guardians in her old age and who had employed her at Henrietta Hudson earlier in her life, said DeLarverie “literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”
Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)
Barbara Jordan’s college students said she was never without a copy of the U.S. Constitution in her purse. Her love of the Constitution and the law was unwavering, even though she “felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake.” Jordan became the first Black state Senator in Texas in 1966 and then the first woman and Black person to be elected to Congress from Texas. Her 1975 speech on the House floor that opened the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history. She sponsored over 300 bills in Congress and was a supporter of the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts. She was also the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and eventually started a private law practice after her political career.
When Jordan got multiple sclerosis, her life partner Nancy Earl was her caretaker. President Bill Clinton said he wanted to nominate her to the Supreme Court but that she was too ill by the time he got the chance. He awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
These women deserve to be remembered for the heroes they were. We should never forget that they were each proudly Black women who either loved women, or were trans, or both. The daily adversity they faced shaped who they were and fueled their desire to change the world. Black History Month should not be the only time of year we hear their names; it should be a time to celebrate them even more and renew our commitment to teaching about them year-round. The art, activism, and historic firsts of each of these six women made them trailblazers who show us all how to aspire to live.