Martin. Malcolm. Rosa.
All of whom we know on a first-name basis and in almost all cases, know their contributions to the fight for civil rights and equality in America, or at least a significant portion of them.
Marlon. Richmond. Pauli.
Unfortunately, in the same breath, these names are not so familiar. But why not?
Sure, there were—and are—many (s)heroes throughout history who have gone relatively unnoticed. But in the cases of Marlon T. Riggs, the groundbreaking filmmaker and LGBT rights activist or Richmond Barthè, the Harlem renaissance sculptor, their contributions have been just as impactful and far-reaching as many of those whom we celebrate each year; however, their names and contributions too often go unacknowledged.
While nothing can ever, nor should ever, take away from the legacy of the incomparable Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was another notable cleric in our history. Reverend Dr. Anna Pauline Murray, best known as Pauli, was the co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality, the first woman to be awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale University and the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopalian priest. Her life and legacy is worthy of celebration.
A binding tie among the aforementioned luminaries is that—in addition to having enriched our nation and our lives—they also happen to be Black and LGBTQ/Same-Gender-Loving (SGL). Unfortunately, the historical contributions of Black LGBTQ/SGL people are far too often diminished or ignored in conversations, especially during Black History Month.
It is important to understand that as long as there have been black people, there have been Black LGBTQ/SGL people. The vestiges of trans-Atlantic enslavement and racism combined with the forces of stigma, phobia, discrimination and bias associated with gender and sexuality have too often erased the contributions of too many members of our community. Black LGBTQ/SGL people have enriched the nation and touched so many lives and our contributions are worthy of documentation and celebration.
As a community of Black people, we must ensure that the prolific and resilient legacy of Black LGBTQ/SGL people won’t be brushed aside, especially during Black History Month.
As Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black LGBTQ/SGL people, including people living with HIV/AIDS, I believe it is our duty to acknowledge those who have contributed to the progression of civil rights and LQBTQ equality in a country that is just more than 100 years removed from slavery.
From civil rights leader Bayard Rustin to world-renowned writer Langston Hughes, Black LGBTQ/SGL people have truly blazed trails for all blacks in America, and we continue to break barriers and thrive despite the many adversities we face. There are so many more whose names you may not know today—but you will—like Dr. Ayanna Elliott and Quincy J. Roberts, who are both activists and public health advocates committed to advancing the overall quality of life of members of the LGBTQ/SGL community.
Just as we cannot rely on history textbooks to acknowledge the full breadth of contributions Black people have made in this country, the same is to be said about the Black LGBTQ/SGL people who have pushed the needle and fought diligently to ensure that Black people have the same rights and privileges as everyone else in this country.
To change the narrative and ensure the full diversity of transformative Black history is preserved, NBJC has partnered with the Ubuntu Biography Project during this month to share the largely untold stories of black LGBTQ/SGL men and women and celebrate their remarkable contributions to the world.
Through this initiative—aptly titled, “We Can Because They Did!”—we are featuring pioneers, trailblazers, justice warriors and emerging leaders in the Black LGBTQ/SGL community on the Ubuntu Biography Project website and social media channels throughout the month.
We will celebrate the heroes in our community— some you may already be familiar with, while many may be new to you.
It is essential that we now, more than ever, expose people to the impact and involvement of the Black LGBTQ/SGL community. We must make sure their stories are told along with those of our other great Black leaders. Because they are just as captivating, inspiring and empowering – and their contributions will significantly impact the lives and freedoms of our future generations.
David Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.