Breaking Down Barriers: Famous and Prominent Queer Black Women

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Once again, it’s Women’s History Month and MadameNoire is celebrating women who aren’t typically recognized for who they truly are… even as celebrities.

So we’re acknowledging these women with a list of bisexual and lesbian black celebrities and famous public figures who have advocated for equal gender and sexuality rights. Many of these women may have struggled with coming out yet found a way to be themselves in a tough heteronormative society.

These 15 famous black women have had to face issues of race, gender and sexuality currently but they are truly trailblazers —  being part of a small club of black women in the entertainment industry as lesbians.

Bessie Smith

It was quite a controversy for Smith to be a lesbian in her day or at her peak. There are rumors she had an affair with another female blues singer, but MadameNoire will not reveal who that singer is until our last slide. But the “Empress of the Blues” had other relationships with women and got in trouble with her second husband, Jack Gee, over her affairs. She sung about her being a lesbian explicitly in songs like “It’s Dirty But Good” in 1930.

 

Wanda Sykes

Sykes wanted to share her support of gay rights by announcing she’s gay and her advocacy. “I am proud to be gay!” she said at a rally in November 2008 against California’s anti-gay Prop 8. Sykes also said, “I got married October 25th. My wife is here. I don’t really talk about my sexual orientation, I didn’t think I had to. I was just living my life. I wasn’t necessarily in the closet, I was just living my life. Everyone that knows me personally, they know I’m gay.

She continued with, “If we had equal rights. We shouldn’t have to be standing out here demanding something that we automatically should have as citizens of this country. But I got pissed off. I said now I got to get in your face. And that’s what we all have to do now.”

Raven Symone

After years of speculation, Symone finally came out last year in her own clever way. “I can finally get married! Yay government! So proud of you,” she tweeted.

She previously tweeted in 2012, “My sexual orientation is mine, and the person I’m datings to know. I’m not one for a public display of my life.”

But her comments about gay marriage are an indication she changed her mind about opening up, “I am very happy that gay marriage is opening up around the country and is being accepted.”

Alice Walker

The famous author dated Tracy Chapman in mid-1990s. But her ex, the folk and blues rock multi-platinum artist hasn’t official disclosed information about her sexuality. Walker, on the other hand, is openly bisexual. Walker’s daughter Rebecca Walker is also a writer and bisexual. She’s included a black lesbianism theme in her novel and then, film, The Color Purple.

Lorraine Hansberry

Hansberry, the famous A Raisin in the Sun playwright, decided to keep her sexuality hidden, but she wrote for a lesbian publication The Ladder using only her initials. Although her sexual orientation wasn’t revealed until after her death, she was an advocate for equal rights. Within the publication she wrote in 1957, “One is oppressed or discriminated against because one is different, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ somehow.”

Sheryl Swoopes

There are black male pro athletes and hopefuls “coming out,”  being trailblazers for men and women of color coming in sports. But Swoopes became the first black woman to announce she’s a lesbian. “My reason for coming out isn’t to be some sort of hero,” Swoopes said. “I’m just at a point in my life where I’m tired of having to pretend to be somebody I’m not. I’m tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about. About the person I love.” But she caused a bit of controversy, saying being gay was a choice for her. And later revealed she was marrying a man. Although some people question or explore their sexuality, many gay people who identify it as their sexual orientation ARE born gay. PERIOD.

Djuan Trent

Beauty queen and Miss Kentucky Trent struggled with her sexuality, but it was in a blog post she revealed how she accepted herself, “I believe that my sexuality is my own … and this is not kindergarten, so I don’t have to share it with anyone if I don’t want to. But it’s nice when you share, right?” she wrote. “I would love to one day live in a society where coming out is no longer necessary because we don’t make assumptions about one another’s sexuality and homophobia is laid to rest. For now, that is more of an ideal than it is a reality. But if you want see that ideal become a reality and you have the courage to change history.”

 

Gladys Bentley

She was out earlier in her life and then, decided to be straight. She moved to Harlem in 1920s, which was a safe space for gays and lesbians to live in at the time. Nevertheless, this performer wore her trademark tuxedo and top hat. She was open about her sexual orientation and was a proud butch lesbian. Also, she flirted with female audience members. But in the 1950s, it wasn’t safe to be out anymore. Therefore, she told  Ebony Magazine that she took female hormones and married a man, and was a straight woman again (to save her career). Yeah OK. Gay Historian Eric Garber didn’t buy it. Her “husband” denied the marriage and the medicine just seemed ridiculous. It was just hard to be black, gay and a woman at the time.

 

Cheryl Dunye

Dunye is a queer black woman and filmmaker who made films about queer women of color as well as themes involving race, gender and sexuality. She’s now a professor at Temple University. But she’s most famous for acting, directing, producing and writing “The Watermelon Woman” in 1996. The film is about a video store clerk named Cheryl who makes a documentary about a black actress in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s limited to the stereotypical “Mammy” roles. The film is also about her interracial relationship with a white woman, Diana (Guinevere Turner).

Doria Roberts

She’s someone who stood up for what she believed in. Instead of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, she decided to be out and proud. This is hard to do as an entertainer, but she chose to be authentic. In 1999, when shopping for a major record label, she opted against it. The music industry was homophobic at the time. She told Lesbian Life, “I had come out to my very large family and really emphasized that I need to be honest. I figured if I crawled back into the closet, it would send the wrong message to my family, mainly the kids in my family.”

 

Jacqueline Woodson

As a black woman and lesbian, she writes about issues of race and sexuality from young adult perspectives. She told Lesbian Life, I write realistic fiction. If I was writing realistic fiction and I wasn’t dealing with real stuff, then I would be lying. The characters and situations wouldn’t seem real. There are all kinds of people in the world. If I leave out queer people, if I leave out people of color, if I leave out deaf people, I can go down the line, then I wouldn’t be speaking the truth to the people.

Gloria Bigelow

Like the other women on this list, she’s black, gay and a woman, but she’s also a comedian. And sometimes those different aspects of who she is impacts her standup comedy. She told Cherrygrrl.com, “I think it’s proved interesting when I get to the clubs because a lot of times I don’t do only gay shows, I do mainstream shows – just rooms with straight people in them. And so I find it really interesting the dynamics of the club, where it’s okay to insult folks for being black, it’s okay to call people fags, and it’s always okay to insult women and call your wife a bitch. You know what I mean? So that’s always interesting to not know which part of my identity is going to be attacked on any day I go into a club. But as far as how that plays out with me getting work, the LGBT community has been really supportive of me and the other comics have been really supportive too, so that’s how a lot of work happens – like comics passing your name along or they vouch for you.”

Karen Williams

She’s a comedian known for being on the lesbian comedy circuit. She prides herself on her identity. She told Lesbian Life, “So I make a good living as a lesbian comic. And good of course is always relative. I live in Cleveland, I don’t live in Laguna Beach. ”

Audre Lorde

She was definitely down for the cause! She published 20 books of poetry and prose. She’s an inspiration to many queer women, as a black lesbian feminist. “When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid,” is one of her many famous quotes.

Ma Rainey

She’s the other legendary blues great who was bisexual. Bessie Smith is rumored to have been romantically involved with Rainey. She’s known as the “Mother of Blues” and was openly bisexual — making her not only a legendary, groundbreaking blues singer, but one of the first openly gay celebrities. She’s just a trailblazer for black and gay women in entertainment.

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