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LGBTQ Nation: Celebrate Juneteenth with these 5 Black LGBTQ+ writers who defied oppression

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While Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of Black slaves in the U.S., the federally recognized holiday feels especially significant this year, as numerous white supremacist and right-wing groups have attacked queer- and racially-inclusive content as “gender ideology” and “critical race theory” seeking to “indoctrinate” children.

So, for inspiration in the continued fight for equity and equality, we’re revisiting five Black LGBTQ+ writers who celebrated Black queerness. Their works show why celebrating and elevating Black queer voices is integral to furthering our larger fight for social liberation.

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Zora Neal Hurston (1891 – 1960): Celebrating Black expression

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juneteenth-zora-neale-hurston-lgbtq-qpoc-race-racism-Public domain Zora Neale Hurston

There’s disagreement among historians about whether Hurston was bisexual: She married three men and was close to many women, though how close remains open to speculation. Regardless, she was a college-trained anthropologist who argued in favor of what would later be called “Black joy” and “Black excellence,” the idea that unique forms of Black existence and expression in the world had their own value and worth, even in a world that continually discriminated against Black people.

Hurston collected Black art from the southern U.S. and the Caribbean and studied Black English, something now known in academic circles as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). She argued that the religious colonial influence on Black slaves had created unique religious rituals and manners of speaking that differentiated Black people from their white contemporaries and helped them survive hardship.

“White people strive to achieve restraint,” she wrote of AAVE, “[but] we strive to pile beauty on beauty, and magnificence on glory.” Her argument could be extended to contemporary drag speak — including phrases like “yas queen,” “gagging,” “serving,” “tea,” “realness,” and “shade” — which largely derives from Black ballroom and voguing culture. As these terms have become more mainstream, so too has this unique form of Black expressive joy.

James Baldwin (1924 – 1987): Diagnosing racism & homophobia

juneteenth-james-baldwin-lgbtq-qpoc-race-racismYouTube screenshot James Baldwin

Raised amidst poverty in Harlem with an abusive pastor stepfather, Baldwin went on to write essays, novels, plays, and poems, including works that featured gay and bisexual Black men and essays that analyzed anti-Black racism in America. He said writing about his sexuality was necessary because it was an “indispensable” part of his own integrity.

Baldwin long held that racism dehumanizes both the racists and the Black targets they have in their minds. He held a similar view when it came to homophobes.

In his interview with Richard Goldstein, Baldwin said that Americans hate homosexuals because of a Biblical idea of “terror of the Flesh,” the idea that sensual “sins” of pleasure lead to death. He also said that homophobic men are unable to express their deeper social and emotional needs — part of an American resistance against feeling true emotions — which cause some homophobic men to enact violently repressed fantasy upon the bodies of other men.

“They’ve created fa**ots in order to act out a sexual fantasy on the body of another man and not take any responsibility for it,” Baldwin said of male homophobes. “I think it’s very important for the male homosexual to recognize that he is a sexual target for other men, and that is why he is despised… because other males need him.” Baldwin also said homophobia among right-wingers was just a way of controlling others through terror.

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992): Fighting for intersectional liberation

Audre LordeElsa Dorfman via Wikimedia

During her lifetime, this self-described “Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, mother, warrior, poet” wrote and spoke about what is now called “intersectionality,” the idea that overlapping social and political identities shape the privileges, oppressions, and lived experiences of different individuals and groups.

In her essay entitled, “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions,” she wrote that sexism and homophobia “both arise from the same source as racism — a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby its right to dominance.”

She also believed that people must unite to fight oppression wherever it occurs, stating, “I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group… When they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995): Un-erasing Black gay lives

juneteenth-essex-hemphill-lgbtq-qpoc-race-racismYouTube screenshot Essex Hemphill

A poet, Hemphill wrote the introduction to the groundbreaking 1991 anthology Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. He wrote that if he had read writings from other Black gay men “when I was fifteen or sixteen, there might have been one less mask for me to put aside later in life.”

Because so many gay Black men had been silenced due to societal oppression, racism, homophobia, HIV, and their own assimilationist aspirations, Hemphill felt it was his duty to “pick up [his fallen] brother’s weapons” and amplify their “evidence of being” by publishing and distributing their work.

“What we must do now, more than ever, is nurture one another whenever and wherever possible… [to] look closely at revealing the full extent to which black gay men have always participated in positive and nurturing roles in the structures of family within the African American community.”

Hemphill felt that Black gay men should do this not as a way to prove their worth to white people but rather as a way to remind Black gay men of their own history and cultural power.

Janet Mock (1983): Modeling paths to queer Black realness

Janet Mock attends the premiere of Netflix's "The Politician" at DGA Theater on September 26, 2019 in New York City.Ron Adar / Janet Mock attends the premiere of Netflix’s “The Politician” at DGA Theater on September 26, 2019 in New York City.

Transgender activist and media producer Janet Mock has long championed trans visibility as a way to let queer people speak for themselves, a way to change cisgender outlooks on trans people and as a way to model different ways of living to other trans people.

Mock exemplified this in her 2014 memoir, Redefining Realness, as well as in the 2018 TV series that she helped create, Pose.

In her memoir, Mock recounts the life experiences she had — flirting with boys over the phone, exploring gender with a trans female schoolmate, doing sex work to pay for her hormone replacement therapy and eventually having gender-affirming surgery in Thailand. In Pose, Black trans members of different ballroom houses in ’90s-era New York City triumph as activists, models, and lovers — rejecting common, disempowering, and racist depictions of Black trans women as little more than victims of violence.

Mock wrote that media centering Black women shifts the perspective of whiteness as the default standard for human relatability and “[shows] all marginalized girls that everything is possible because she is seen front and center.”

“This is vital for these often forgotten and discarded girls. It’s equally vital that we see and know them,” Mock added. “[It] is powerful not only for viewers of color, but for all of us, enabling us to see beyond the dominant images of white protagonists in childhood stories.”

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