Black History Month: 23 Prominent Black LGBT Icons

02/08/2014 07:43 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • James Nichols The Huffington Post

As we recognize and celebrate Black History Month, it is important to take a moment to remember and honor the contributions of LGBT black figures who have shone throughout the course of our nation's history.

These black LGBT icons, while often invisible or erased from the dominant queer narrative, have been at the heart of our struggle for rights and inclusion.

In fact, what many refer to as the LGBT movement's beginning, the rebellion against the police at the Stonewall Inn, was predominately instigated by queer and trans youth of color.

In celebration of Black History Month and the journey of queer people throughout time, check out the selection of 23 influential black LGBT icons below. Who else would you add to the list?

  • Alice Walker
  • Writer Alice Walker earned a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple, which was later adapted into film. As a civil rights activist she walked in the 1963 March on Washington and volunteered to register black voters in Georgia and Mississippi.
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Black civil rights activist Bayard Rustin was an adamant supporter of gay rights. He was also Martin Luther King Jr.'s advisor and personal secretary. Rustin helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
  • Patrik Ian Polk
    Getty Images
  • Patrik Ian Polk is an openly gay film director who is known for his films on the African American LGBT experience and relationships. Polk's 2008 film "Noah's Ark: Jumping The Broom" won a GLAAD Award for Best Feature Film and was nominated for three NAACP awards.
  • Audre Lorde
  • Carribean American writer Audre Lorde was actively involved in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. She was also an activist for civil rights and feminist movements. Her poetry focuses on the female experience, race, and sexuality.
  • Keith Boykin
  • Keith Boykin was an editor of The Daily Voice and a White House aide to President Bill Clinton. After Clinton's election, Boykin became a director of specialty media. He became the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House and helped organize the nation's first meeting between gay and lesbian leaders and a U.S. President. Since his time in the White House, Boykin has written a number of books on gay issues.
  • Kye Allums
    Kye Allums
  • Kye Allums was the first Division I openly transgender athlete in NCAA sports history. Today, Kye is a transgender advocate and the founder of Project I Am Enough, a project dedicated to encouraging self-love & self-definition for everyone.
  • Bruce Nugent
  • Bruce Nugent was a writer and painter of the Harlem Renaissance. His short story "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" has been regarded by many as the first publication by an African American that openly discussed homosexuality.
  • Wanda Sykes
  • Emmy award-winning comedian Wanda Sykes is actively involved in the LGBT community. She came out at a same-sex marriage rally in Las Vegas for Proposition 8 in 2006, having married her partner Alex a month earlier. Sykes was also the first African American woman and openly LGBT featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 2009.
  • Tracy Chapman
  • Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman is most well-known for her Grammy Award-winning music. Though very quiet about her private life, she also dated writer Alice Walker in the mid-1990s. Chapman is also a social activist and performed at Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Tribute, which raised money for South Africa's Anti-Apartheid Movement and AIDSLifeCycle. In 2004, Chapman received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts by her alma mater, Tufts University, recognizing her commitment to social activism.
  • Langston Hughes
  • Writer Langston Hughes' innovative poetry and stories lead him to became an icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Although he was known for his strong political views, he remained closeted throughout the course of his life.
  • Laverne Cox
    Angela Weiss via Getty Images
  • Laverne Cox is a transgender activist and actress, best known for her role on Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" and her work with GLAAD. She remains one of the the most prominent and outspoken transgender advocates in the entertainment industry.
  • Sheryl Swoopes
  • Three time WNBA MVP, Sheryl Swoopes was the first player to be signed to the WNBA after its inception. Not only was she a star on the court, but she was one of the first high profile athletes to come out publicly and later voted one of the Top 15 players in WNBA history.
  • A long-time fixture in the New York nightlife community, RuPaul rose to prominence with his hit single and music video 'Supermodel (Of The World)" in 1993. Credited as the master of transformation, his career is still going strong with the massive success of his reality television show "RuPaul's Drag Race."
  • James Baldwin
  • Legendary writer James Baldwin pushed boundaries with his novel Giovanni's Room, which focused on an American man living in Paris and his relationships with various men. Baldwin lived most of his life as an expatriate in Paris where he attempted to escape American prejudice towards blacks and gay individuals.
  • Isis King
    American Apparel
  • King was the first transgender model to be featured on the reality fashion competition "America's Next Top Model." She was seen on both the 11th and 17th "cycles" of the show and recently became American Apparel's first transgender model.
  • Janet Mock
    Jamie McCarthy via Getty Images
  • The former staff editor of People magazine's website, Janet Mock has become one of the most visible transgender icons following her public coming out in 2011. Mock released her first book Redefining Realness in February 2014 and pioneered the #girlslikeus campaign, a movement encouraging trans women to live visibly.
  • Alvin Ailey
  • Choreographer Alvin Ailey revolutionized modern dance and formed the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York in 1958. Ailey was known for his multi-racial company at a time when many talented black dancers were excluded from performances. In 1992, three years after his death, Ailey was inducted into the C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.
  • Frank Ocean
  • No mainstream black male hip-hop artist had ever come out until Frank Ocean did in July 2012, just before he debuted his first solo album "Channel Orange." The singer-songwriter posted a Tumblr post which read, in part, "4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide.” After that, Ocean received support from fellow hip-hop artists Jay-Z (and wife, Beyoncé), 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and more. Daryl Hannah, director of media and community partnerships for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said, "[The support for Frank is] an extension of the overall kind of support we’re seeing across the country for LGBT people, and not just in a broad sense, but specifically from iconic members of the black community.”
  • John Amaechi
  • After retiring from the NBA in 2007, John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out publicly. In his memoir Man in The Middle, he discusses his career and life as a closeted athlete.
  • Dee Rees
  • Film director Dee Rees is behind the movie "Pariah," which follows a 17-year-old African American teenager struggling with her sexuality. The film was a hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
  • Simon Nkoli
  • An openly gay black South African political activist, Simon Nkoli spent his youth as an anti-apartheid activist and in 1983 formed the Saturday Group, the first black gay group in Africa. He was arrested and charged with treason the following year. Nkoli was also the first openly HIV+ gay black African and the representative from Africa on the International Lesbian & Gay Association board.
  • Felicia Pearson
    Getty Images
  • Felicia Pearson is best known for her role as "Snoop" on The Wire. Pearson is a co-founder of a youth drama organization named "Moving Mountains," which aims to stop youth violence, teach performing arts and help kids stay off the streets and out trouble. In her memoir Grace After Midnight, Pearson opens up about coming out and her experiences on the streets of Baltimore.
  • E. Lynn Harris
    Getty Images
  • E. Lynn Harris was best known for his writing, which explored African American men who were closeted or on the "down-low." After quitting his job as a computer salesmen Harris discovered his passion for writing. He sold his first self-published novel, Invisible Life, out of the trunk of his car. Ten of his 11 novels made The New York Times Best Seller list.