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Black queer leaders steady rise in civil rights struggle


Demonstrating community prominence

On the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington this summer, a few Black queer advocates spoke passionately before the main program about the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. As some of them got up to speak, the crowd was still noticeably small.

Hope Giselle, a speaker who is Black and trans, said she felt the event’s programming echoed the historical marginalization and erasure of Black queer activists in the Civil Rights Movement. However, she was buoyed by the fact that prominent speakers drew attention to recent efforts to turn back the clock on LGBTQ+ rights, like the attacks on gender-affirming care for minors.

And despite valid concerns around the visibility of Black queer advocates in activist movements, progress is being made in elected offices. This month, Sen. Laphonza Butler made history as the first Black and openly lesbian senator in Congress, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed her to fill the seat held by the late Dianne Feinstein.

Rectifying the erasure of Black queer civil rights requires a full-throated acknowledgment of their legacies, and an increase of Black LGBTQ+ representation in advocacy and politics, several activists and lawmakers told The Associated Press.

“One of the things that I need for people to understand is that the Black queer community is still Black,” and face anti-Black racism as well as homophobia and transphobia, said Giselle, communications director for the GSA Network, a nonprofit that helps students form gay-straight alliance clubs in schools.

“On top of being Black and queer, we have to also then distinguish what it means to be queer in a world that thinks that queerness is adjacent to whiteness — and that queerness saves you from racism. It does not,” she said.

Butler has said she hopes that her appointment points toward progress in the larger cause of representation.

“It’s too early to tell. But what I know is that history will be recorded in our National Archives, the representation that I bring to the United States Senate,” she said last week. “I am not shy or bashful about who I am and who my family is. So, my hope is that I have lived out loud enough to overcome the tactics of today.”

“But we don’t know yet what the tactics of erasure are for tomorrow,” Butler said.

Butler is a bellwether of increased visibility of queer communities in politics in recent years. In fact Black LGBTQ+ political representation has grown by 186% since 2019, according to a 2023 report by the LGBTQ++ Victory Institute. That included the election of now-former New York Reps. Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, who were the first openly gay Black and Afro-Latino congressmen after the 2020 election, as well as former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

These leaders stand on the shoulders of civil rights heroes such as Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, and Audre Lorde. In accounts of their contributions to the Civil Rights and feminist movements, their Blackness is typically amplified while their queer identities are often minimized or even erased, said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a LGBTQ+ civil rights group.

Rustin, who was an adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a pivotal architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is a glaring example. The march he helped lead tilled the ground for the passage of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.

But the fact that he was gay is often reduced to a footnote rather than treated as a key part of his involvement, Johns said.

“We need to teach our public school students history, herstory, our beautifully diverse ways of being, without censorship,” he said.