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A toast to queer black history

Remembering those who fought for our equality

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Bayard Rustin, Washington Blade, gay news
Bayard Rustin, Gay News, Washington Blade, queer black history

Bayard Rustin (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

By TIFFANY MOTT-SMITH

Black History Month has always been a tough time for me, mostly because it was always a delicate reminder of how little black history we are aware of or deem worthy enough to mention. My friends and I have always had our own brunch in celebration of the month complete with a toast to Frederick McKinley Jones who invented the refrigerator that keeps our apricot Bellini mix chilled as well as a nod to Henry T. Sampson Jr., inventor of the Gamma-Electric Cell that allows me to text everyone that I’m running late to our soiree due to an emergency wardrobe malfunction with my statement necklace.

Brunching and adorning aside, it is important to remember why Black History Month even exists. It’s not because of clever advocates lobbying for 28 days to focus mainly on mid-20th-century civil rights movements, but rather the result of a group of people who contributed to the world in ways that shape the way in which we live. This is especially true of LGBT figures in black history, many of whom hid their identities or served jail time as a consequence of the criminalization of queerness. So to honor those amazing people, I’ve created a list of a few I wish I could take out for a thank-you Bellini:

Willi D. Smith. Renowned in the 1980s as one of the best designers in the fashion industry, this Philadelphian revolutionized the way we wear pants with his slouchier cut. His signature of mixing countering patterns and colors inspired nearly a half-century of street couture.

Moms Mabley. Known as the funniest woman in the world until she died, Jackie “Moms” Mabley was known for her cutting edge comedy. Performing in everything from Chitlin Circuit showcases to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, she tackled racism, misogyny and a whol’ lotta bedroom activities through her side-busting humor.

Valaida Snow. Born and raised in a family of performers and nicknamed “Little Louis” for her trumpeting skills, Snow played cello, bass, banjo, violin, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone and sang with the likes of Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. Surviving being arrested and placed in a concentration camp while on tour in Denmark, she delighted audiences until her death backstage during a performance in 1956.

Bayard Rustin. Longtime mentor and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Rustin was a leader in social justice, pacifism and gay rights at a time when none of the above were popular. In addition to being the architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he was an accomplished vocalist becoming a regular performer at the Café Society Nightclub in Greenwich Village.

This month, while we listen to anecdotes of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, take a minute to learn more about Queer Black History and the people who made it possible. At the very least, they deserve a toast.

Tiffany Mott-Smith is a graduate student at George Washington University working in LGBT health and policy.

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1 Comment

  1. Heather X

    February 28, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    GREAT piece. I just learned about Valaida Snow last night when I saw this documentary: http://thegirlsintheband.com/.

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Commentary

Fighting for equality for decades, trans elders still face endless hardships

Lisa Oakley rejected by 60 long-term care facilities in Colo.

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

November 20 will mark the 22nd International Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event honoring and commemorating the many transgender people murdered in transphobic hate crimes every year.

Since 2013, at least 200 transgender people have been murdered in the United States alone, 80 percent being Black and Latinx women. This number is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many murders go unreported and trans victims often are misgendered by law enforcement.

These murders are not isolated crime statistics. They grow out of a culture of violence against transgender and non-binary (TGNB) people that encompasses stigma, exclusion, discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to essential resources, including health care, employment and housing. 

These challenges result in early death. In Latin America, for example, it has been reported that the average life expectancy of a transgender person is only 35 years.

This climate of stigma and transphobia is particularly challenging for TGNB older people, who face extraordinary hardships due both to the cumulative impact of lifetimes of discrimination and regular mistreatment in their elder years. Due to isolation from family and greater medical and financial needs, trans older people are more likely to require professionalized elder services and care. 

Unfortunately, these services and the facilities that provide them are often either unavailable to TGNB elders, or hostile to them. A national survey of LGBTQ+ older people by AARP found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed were concerned about how they would be treated in a long-term care setting. This includes the fear of being refused or receiving limited care, in danger of neglect or abuse, facing verbal or physical harassment, or being forced to hide or deny their identity once again. 

This is a sobering reality. In October, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders filed a claim against Sunrise Assisted Living in Maine, which openly denied admission to an older transgender woman because of her gender identity. 

In Colorado, Lisa Oakley was, astonishingly, rejected by 60 long-term care facilities, which her caseworker ascribes to Lisa’s gender identity. One facility that agreed to admit Lisa would only house her with a male roommate. 

After waiting far too long for welcoming care, Lisa eventually got help from SAGE and other community supporters and found a home in Eagle Ridge of Grand Valley. Fortunately, Eagle Ridge has participated in specialized training to be LGBTQ+-welcoming. While Lisa feels welcomed at Eagle Ridge and has made friends, she has been forced to live far from a community she loves. 

These cases in Maine and Colorado are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the discrimination faced by TGNB elders. That’s why it’s so important that Congress pass the Equality Act, which would once and for all prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in key areas like employment, housing, and care and services.

And while legal progress is important, it’s not enough. TGNB elders need more equity in their day to day lives. Older transgender people are more likely to experience financial barriers than non-transgender elders, regardless of age, income and education.

They’re also at a higher risk of disability, general poor mental and physical health, and loneliness, compared to their cisgender counterparts.

These experiences have been part of everyday life for trans elders for far too long. We continue to see them struggle with the long-term effects of transphobia and violence every day. That’s why organizations like SAGE are stepping up our support for TGNB elders by investing $1 million to support TGNB-focused services and advocacy both in New York and nationwide.

And we are continually amazed by the resilience of TGNB elders, creating communities built on their strength and courage. 

Their resilience is nothing new. It dates back generations and was evident during the Stonewall Uprising. Over the years, trans luminaries like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Victoria Cruz—leaders of the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement—and countless others have repeatedly proved that they will not be invisible.  

We see this determination in so many programs and activities led by trans elders at SAGE. 

For example, the TransGenerational Theater Project brings together transgender people of all ages to create theater from their experiences and perspectives. These types of elder-driven programs serve as powerful reminders that transgender older people are leading their lives with resilience, creativity, and perseverance, despite the dangers they face. 

Transgender and non-binary elders have survived and fought for equality for decades. They are brave. They are strong. They are leaders. Here at SAGE, we will continue to walk side-by-side with them as we continue the fight to ensure TGNB elders get the respect, change, and acceptance they deserve.

Michael Adams is the CEO of SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ elders.

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LGBTQ people are being hunted down in Afghanistan

Homosexuality punishable by death under Taliban Sharia law interpretation

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

Kabul was known as one of the few “liberal” cities in Afghanistan. The word liberal is in quotation marks, and inflected, because it is liberal compared to the rest of the country. Now that the Taliban has taken over, most people who expressed themselves differently and openly are forced to adhere to Sharia law, completely change their ways, hide their identity, or be killed.

The U.S. State Department reported in 2020 that even before the Taliban took power in August, LGBTQ people in Afghanistan faced “discrimination, assault and rape” and “homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent.” Laws against lesbian, gay and transgender people made their existence illegal and punishable by up to two years in jail. Those laws were not always enforced, but they did leave LGBTQ people at risk of extortion and abuse by authorities, as reported by the U.K. government.

Even with the discrimination and abuse, LGBTQ people still had a sliver of space in society. Nemat Sadat, an LGBTQ Afghan author living in the United States said that gay, lesbian and transgender people helped the country’s cultural life develop since the Taliban’s last rule 20 years ago. But, most of these people built their lives quietly.

Now with the Taliban regime, their sliver of space in society is gone, there is no room to live quietly as an openly LGBTQ person. Under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law, homosexuality is punished by death.

In an interview with Reuters, Waheedullah Hashimi, a top decision maker for the Taliban said, “there will be no democratic system at all because it does not have a base in our country,” and continued to say, “what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.”

One source spoke to a 20-year-old university student who is lesbian in Afghanistan. Her family accepted her as a lesbian, but now the new Taliban leadership has put the lives of all of her family at risk. There is a new surge of violence against any lesbian, gay and transgender people. This includes anyone speculated of being lesbian, gay, or trans, and those who support them.

This young lesbian woman has gone into hiding. She is part of hundreds of LGBTQ people in Afghanistan who are pleading with advocates and organizations outside Afghanistan for help to escape the Taliban tyranny.

Nemat Sadat shares stories of lesbian, gay and trans people in hiding. He shared a story of a gay man who watched from his hiding place in the ceiling as Taliban fighters beat the friend who refused to disclose his location.  

LGBTQ people in Afghanistan fear the risk of being arrested, beaten and killed. The Taliban made it clear that it is enforcing its strict religious laws against Afghanistan’s LGBTQ citizens. In an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper, one Taliban judge said there were only two punishments for homosexuality: “stoning or being crushed under a wall.”

LGBTQ people in Afghanistan are reporting that their friends, partners and members of their community are being attacked and raped. They also stated that Islamic fundamentalists and riotous groups are encouraged by the new tyranny and are on the hunt for LGBTQ people.

Another source shared that a gay man was targeted for his sexuality and then raped by his male attackers. That is a terrible paradox. He was raped by his male attackers, who criminalizing him for having same sex relations.

LGBTQ people are in hiding, desperately trying to get out of the country, and trying to erase any proof of their queer identity.

They feel abandoned by the international LGBTQ community. The Taliban is proving that the Western nations have normalized relations to their government. The Taliban and their supporters see this a proof of their victory. This leaves LGBTQ people defeated and fearing torture and death.

The U.S. government and other Western countries evacuated many people out of Afghanistan, including journalists, women’s rights activists and those who worked with foreigners. But, LGBTQ activists said that nothing has been done for them. A source says about her situation, “we will definitely be killed. We are asking to be evacuated immediately from Afghanistan.” To date, no safe route has been found.

Even underground measures to help LGBTQ people are challenging and near impossible. The Rainbow Railroad is a non-governmental organization helping LGBTQ people around the world escape persecution. Executive Director Kimahli Powell said evacuating LGBTQ people from Afghanistan is especially hard as they are often alone, in hiding, and unable to contact each other. If routes to get them out is nearly impossible, that still means those routes are somewhat possible. As difficult as it may be, we must find pathways to save these people and get them out.

The Taliban regime has established itself, knowing with certainty that the world will stand aside, albeit condemning and protesting, but not intervening. This is empowering jihadists across the world, especially in the Middle East. The Taliban has many allies and admirers, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. 

The leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, travelled from Palestinian territories to meet with Taliban leaders in Qatar. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has a history of ties to the Taliban, even with radicals joining each other’s organizations. Very public statements of congratulations were made between leaders of the Taliban, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and all with full Iranian support.

The increase in brazen forcefulness of these groups reaches beyond Afghanistan, and spreads to the lands dominated by other similar groups. This causes an escalation of the threats to anyone who opposes Sharia law or who lives differently than what Sharia law allows. LGBTQ people in these lands are in peril. 

If we do not help LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, the lives of LGBTQ people under other similar tyrannies face increased uncertainty and danger.

Since posting this video, I have been receiving direct messages from LGBTQ people in hiding in Afghanistan, and those who are seeking to be evacuated. They all share harrowing experiences of being attacked, raped, and threatened by Taliban, Islamic State and bullying groups.

Yuval David is an innovative actor, host and filmmaker with a creative mantra to entertain, uplift and inspire. He is a captivating performer and compelling storyteller who uses his platform for sharing narratives that affect social change, specifically on behalf of highly respected U.S. and international organizations that raise awareness for the marginalized and under-represented, inspired by his LGBTQ+ and Jewish identity, and his Israeli-American roots.

He can be reached through social media

YouTube.com/YuvalDavid

Instagram.com/Yuval_David_

Facebook.com/YuvalDavid

Twitter.com/YuvalDavid

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Coming out is a life-long process

Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day

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Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day

“Tell me about your coming out,” my 30-something friend Seth recently said to me.

“It was more than a day!” I joked.

National Coming Out Day (NCOD) is on Oct. 11. The holiday, celebrated yearly on Oct. 11, was first observed on Oct. 11, 1988.

That date was the one-year anniversary of the 1987 queer rights march in Washington, D.C. More than half a million people were at the march, which was a turning point in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Robert H. Eichberg, a psychologist who died in 1995, and gay rights activist Jean O’Leary, who died in 2005, co-founded NCOD. 

Things have progressed so far for us queers since then. We can marry and serve in the military. We’re parents, cops, athletes, teachers and preachers.

In this era of marriage equality, it’s tempting to wonder: What is all the fuss about coming out?

But, a reality check shows that coming out still matters.

A quick look through the news headlines reveals why staying in the closet is so hurtful and how unsafe it can still be to come out as LGBTQ+.

If you’re of a certain age, you likely cried your eyes out when you watched the Disney movie “Old Yeller.” Who could forget the scene when the young boy Travis (played by Tommy Kirk shoots “Old Yeller” because his dog has rabies? In 2019, the Library of Congress added 

”Old Yeller” to the National Film Registry.

Kirk died on Sept. 28 at 79 at his Las Vegas home. Despite Kirk’s popularity with fans, Disney didn’t renew his contract because he was gay.

“I was caught having sex with a boy at a public pool in Burbank,” Kirk told the gossip columnist Liz Smith. “We were both young, and the boy’s mother went to Walt.”

In the 1960s, there was no way that an out actor would have had a chance in Hollywood.

I wish I could say that everything’s changed since Disney fired Kirk. But, this isn’t the case.

In August, Jamel Myles, a fourth grader in Denver killed himself, the Denver Post reported. His mother told the Post that her son, who’d come out to her as gay, took his own life because he’d been bullied for a year.

“We are deeply committed to our students’ well-being,” a Denver Public Schools spokesman said in a statement.

Unfortunately, Jamal’s story is far from unique. Nationwide, many LGBTQ+ students in the U.S. have been bullied. Nearly half (43 percent) of transgender youth have been bullied, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey. Nearly a third (29 percent) of trans youth, 21 percent of gay and lesbian youth and 22 percent of bisexual youth have attempted suicide, the survey reports.

Life is far more dangerous for queer folk in many places worldwide from Hungary to Ghana.

You could respond to this grim news by going to bed, staying under the covers—tucked in the closet.

But that would let homophobia and transphobia have the right of way. It would deny us the chance to joyfully, proudly, defiantly celebrate who we are.

Studies have shown that knowing us can help alleviate prejudice.

Family members, friends and colleagues may still feel uncomfortable around us because of our sexual orientation or gender identity.

But, it’s hard to hate your non-binary 10-year-old granddaughter on Christmas morning. Or your gay buddy at the gym.

One of my fondest memories is when I came out to my Aunt Manci. I worried that she wouldn’t accept my girlfriend. I needed have been anxious. “You’re lucky,” she said, “she loves you.”

Coming out is a process that lasts a lifetime—from deciding if you want to be out in the third grade to ensuring that your loved ones won’t erase your queerness from your obituary.

Coming out can be arduous. But, it’s liberating! Let the revels begin! Happy National Coming Out Day! 

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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