This epic megapost is your glorious opportunity to meet 100 amazing black LGBT women who’ve made their mark over the last 150 years.
See the first 20 below, then click the above link to see all 100 who made the list.
Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender women represent a vibrant and visible portion of the LGBTQ community. In addition to the legends of the Harlem Renaissance and the decades of groundbreaking activism spearheaded by women like Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Angela Davis, many of the most prominent coming out stories of the past two years have been black women like Brittney Griner, Raven-Symonè, Diana King and Robin Roberts. Meanwhile, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have become the most visible transgender women in media.
So, in honor of Black History Month, below you’ll find over 100 lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer and transgender women you should know about. If she was still alive, the oldest person in this list would be 189 years old. The youngest person on this list is a mere 21 years of age. Like all our lists of this sort, this post aims to contain a wide variety of humans of all ages and backgrounds, from reality TV show stars (despite its numerous failings, Reality TV has been a major mainstream source of LGBTQ visibility dating back to the early ’90s) to State Representatives to actresses to game-changing activists.
Keep in mind, there are so many more prominent black LGBT women than are represented below. This list isn’t representative or comprehensive, but I did aim to include the “big names” and beyond that, present a broad and diverse range of visible women. The hardest part of making this list was that it was originally twice as long! So please feel free to share some of your heroes in the comments and we’ll have more lists like this in the future!
If any of these pictures have been attributed incorrectly or lack proper attribution or contain misinformation, please email bren [at] autostraddle [dot] com and she will fix (or remove it) for you.
Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911), Abolitionist / Poet / Author
Harper published her first book of poetry at age 20 and her first novel at the age of 67. She chaired the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, and spoke all over the country with the American Anti-Slavery Society. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women in 1894 and published in so many periodicals that she became known as the “mother of African-American journalism.” She is listed in Lesbian Lists as an “early Black Lesbian and Bisexual Writer.”
Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis (1844-1907), Sculptor
This African-Haitian-Ojibwe Native American sculptor was born in New York and began studying art at Oberlin in Ohio, one of the first universities to accept women and non-white people, and later began sculpting in Boston. She showed her work internationally and spent most of her career in Rome. The National Gay History Project notes that “she is considered one of a few African-American artists to develop a fan base that crossed racial, ethnic and national boundaries — and the first to develop a reputation as an acclaimed sculptor, which would later give her access to circles that generally excluded people of color and women.”
Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875-1935), Poet / Journalist / Activist
Nelson, who allegedly separated from her first husband, poet Paul Dunbar, in 1902 because he was “disturbed” by her lesbian affairs, was an influential writer and journalist active in efforts to promote African-American and women’s rights. She was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958), Journalist / Teacher / Poet / Playwright
Harlem Renaissance writer Grimké, who was biracial (her father was the second African-American to graduate from Harvard Law), was one of the first African-American women to have a play performed publicly. Of that play, The NAACP said, “This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relating to the lamentable condition of ten millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.” At 16, she wrote a letter to her female friend Mamie Burrile in which she declared, “I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife!” Modern literary critics who have analyzed Grimké’s work have found “strong evidence” that she was lesbian or bisexual.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966), Poet / Playwright
Another prominent figure in the flourishing Harlem Renaissance, Johnson grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of an African and Native American mother and an African-American and English father. In addition to writing poems and plays, she was an anti-lynching activist and hosted weekly Salons with other friends associated with the Harlem Renaissance, like Lanston Hughes and Angelina Weld Grimke. The book Lesbian Lists notes that “although her letters reveal love relationships with women, she is best known in the heterosexual world for her affair with W.E.B. DuBois.”
Ma Rainey (1886-1939), Blues Singer
The legendary “Mother of the Blues” was one of the first blues singers to record. She toured extensively all over the country for mixed audiences and released over 94 records. Her 1928 song “Prove it On Me Blues” declared They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me. Sure got to prove it on me. Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960), Blues Singer
Bentley is a legend known for her piano-playing, raunchy lyrics and her signature top hat and tuxedo, headlning gay speakeasies and Harlem’s Ubangi Club and later in Southern California. Bentley was an out lesbian from the get-go and once, dressed in “men’s clothing,” tried to marry a woman in Atlantic City. But during the McCarthy era Bentley took a turn — she married a man and wrote an article for Ebony magazine entitled “I am woman again,” about how she was “cured” of homosexuality by religion and female hormones.
Alberta Hunter (1895-1984), Blues Singer / Songwriter / Nurse
This critically acclaimed jazz and blues recording artist started out at the prestigious Dreamland ballroom in Chicago, toured Europe, appeared in musicals in London and New York, recorded prolifically and eventually took up nursing in the ’50s and ’60s, only to return to her singing career in the ’70s, eventually touring South America and Europe, writing for film soundtracks and making television appearances. Throughout her career, Hunter kept her lesbian relationships a secret.
Lucille Bogan (1897-1948), Blues Singer
Another early Blues Singer, music critic Ernest Borneman declared Bogan, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith “the big three of the blues.” She’s also cited as a “dirty blues musician” for her songs about prostitution, sex and alcohol.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975), Dancer / Singer / Actress
This American-born French performer and civil rights activist, one of the more famous people on this list, is cited as the first African-American woman to become a world-famous entertainer and the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937), Blues Singer
“The Empress of the Blues” was one of the best-known blues singers of her time and a hugely influential jazz vocalist.
Carmen Mercedes McRae (1920-1994), Jazz Vocalist / Actress
Another enormously influential jazz vocalist, she is remembered for her “iconic interpretations of song lyrics” and “behind-the-beat phrasing.” She was friends with and influenced by Billie Holiday, was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, appeared in movies and on television, and all told spent fifty years touring the world and recording albums. She believed sexuality was fluid, and was often seen in public with “female companions,” having had experiences with both men and women but resisting any official label.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977), Vocalist / Actress
Lesbian legend Ethel Waters was the second African-American to be nominated for an Academy award and the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award. She’s also well-known for her music — the vocalist started out singing the blues and would go on to perform on Broadway and even do pop music. Despite the stigma against the behavior, Ethel Waters even lived with her girlfriend Ethel Williams at some point, whichaccording to Ms. Magazine, “Waters managed to keep out of all 20th century biographies about her.”
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), Playwright
The inspiration for Nina Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” made her the first black woman to have their play performed on Broadway. She also worked as an activist, writing for the Pan-Africanist newspaper Freedom and later joining the lesbian feminist organization The Daughters of Bilitis, publishing two letters in The Ladder under her initials.
Ruby Dandridge (1900-1987), Actress
In addition to being the mother of the legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge, bisexual actress Ruby Dandridge was a prominent radio actress, best known for her role on Amos ‘n Andy. Her “companion” Geneva Williams lived with The Dandridges after Ruby and her husband Cyril divorced.
Angela Davis, Activist / Author / Educator
Angela Davis is one of the most important people of all time. Starting with her work in the counterculture activist movement in the 1960s, with ties to the Communist and the Black Panther Party, Angela emerged as a leading feminist voice deeply passionate about abolishing the prison-industrial complex. She’s run for office, taught and spoken at Universities all over the country and is the author of numerous books including Women, Race & Class and If They Come In the Morning: Voices of Resistance. In 1997 she came out in Out magazine as a lesbian.
Read Carmen’s Idol Worship on Angela Davis here.
Moms Mabley (1894-1975), Comedian
Moms Mabley, billed as ‘The Funniest Woman in the World” was a game-changer for comedy, enjoying a long career that started on the “Chitlin’ circut” and eventually lead her to making a record amounts of money and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She was out as a lesbian from the age of 27 and recorded over 20 comedy albums, including early “lesbian stand-up” routines. Although she initially performed in androgynous clothing, she changed her stage persona as she got older and more famous, but maintained her more subversive style (and her girlfriends) offstage.
Ruth Ellis (1899-2000), Activist
Before her death in 2000, Ruth Ellis was considered the world’s oldest surviving out lesbian. In 1937, living in Detroit with her partner Babe Franklin, Ellis became the first woman to own a printing business in the city. Her house eventually became a congregating spot for African-American gays and lesbians, and now The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit is one of four U.S. agencies dedicated to homeless LGBT youth and teenagers.
Alice Walker, Author / Activist
Prolific poet, author and former Ms editor Alice Walker‘s best-known book,The Color Purple, is also one of the best-known books ever, winning the National Book Award and becoming a movie and, later, a musical. She published collections of short stories and poetry, has earned every award under the sun and is very involved in anti-war, pro-Palestine and Civil Rights activism. Walker’s website declares that “She is one of the world’s most prolific writers, yet tirelessly continues to travel the world to literally stand on the side of the poor, and the economically, spiritually and politically oppressed. She also stands, however, on the side of the revolutionaries, teachers and leaders who seek change and transformation of the world.” You can read more about The Color Purple on our list of 10 Novels & Memoirs By and About LGBQ Black Women.
Read our posts on Alice Walker here.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992), Writer / Activist
This Carribean-American writer and civil rights activists is one of the best-known black lesbian writers of all time with books including Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Sister Outsider. She was a prolific poet and theorist and was politically active in civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements. You can read more about Zami on our list of 10 Novels & Memoirs By and About LGBQ Black Women.
Read our posts on Audre Lorde here.