Ok, so I’m a little peeved right now so bear with me. And this post is probably going to make some of you mad. Huff Post Gay published LGBT History Month 2013: 21 Influential Black LGBT Icons which I saw on my Facebook feed. The National Black Justice Coalition shared it with the missive to “know your history” as in your Black LGBT history. I clicked the link and was pleased to see the likes of Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Alice Walker and E. Lynn Harris, who I absolutely consider to be a part of Black LGBT history. However, I was bit dismayed to see the likes of Frank Ocean and Snoop, or even Don Lemon, who are not “historical figures.” They may be popular, and even talented. But “historical icons?” Come on people! Did you just put Don Lemon in a category with Bayard Rustin and Jimmy Baldwin? Coming out publicly as gay does not make you an historical icon. It is certainly brave and admirable, and for those of us who are always searching for community among those that share our skin tone, it’s almost like meeting a new family member.
However, I’m also bothered by the fact that they claimed Snoop from The Wire as an historical figure, but left out Barbara Smith, founding member of The Combahee River Collective and the Black lesbian credited with the first ever theoretical statement on the creation of a Black feminist criticism. In 1977 no less. Or what about Ann Allen Shockley, credited with publishing the first Black lesbian novel in 1974? Or Doris Davenport, Pat Parker, or Stephanie Byrd, Black lesbian poets from the 1970s and 1980s? Or Black lesbian filmmakers Cheryl Dunye and Yvonne Welborn, both who have been making and producing films for decades?
It seems to be that our claim to LGBT history seems to be invested in the young and sexy, or the spectacle of celebrity, much like the rest of the world. Or maybe the author of the piece was stretching the limits of his knowledge to come up with 21 Black LGBT folks. I don’t know. Regardless, no shade whatsoever to the current group of Black LGBT gamechangers, but I think categorizing them as “historical icons” is a bit disingenuous, since in my book you have to do more than put out one or two hit records, star in one show, or make a lot of money and look good to be an historical figure. It would also seem to me that you would need to be around for a while, since you know, history is about the PAST, not the present.
The struggles of Rustin, Lorde, Nugent, and Baldwin in particular are substantive and have been tested over time. They truly paved the way for this current batch of folks to do what they’re doing right now. Maybe it would be better to look back on the work of folks like Snoop, Polk, and Ocean, and take note of the ways in which they use their celebrity OVER TIME, to expand our notion of Black LGBT history. Or maybe we need to understand that pop icon and historical icon don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Until then, if you need the names of people who have actually changed history for the good of Black LGBT folks over the past forty years, let me know.