June is Gay Pride Month, a time to honor the accomplishments of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Since the days of the Stonewall Riots, LGBT people of color have played a significant role in advancing many social justice issues. Here is a list of 15 LGBT trailblazers from diverse walks of life making an impact on the lives of many, giving new meaning to “adding color” to the rainbow flag.
Keith Boykin is a Missouri native who, based on his background, seems to be destined for great things in his life. Following stints at Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, Boykin worked on many political campaigns, including Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, followed by the Clinton campaign in 1992. Upon Clinton’s election, Boykin became a special advisor to the president and director of specialty media, making him the highest-ranking openly gay person in the administration. While in the White House, Boykin helped organize the first ever meeting between a sitting president and members of the LGBT community.
Since leaving the White House, Boykin served as president of the board of the National Black Justice Coalition and authored three best-selling books, including Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America.
Boykin even ran for president – well, on Showtime’s American Candidate.
Recently Boykin spoke to a group of students at Eastern Michigan University about his experience participating in three sit-ins in the dean’s office at Harvard Law and an attempted takeover of the president’s office in protest of the lack of black faculty members in the school. Boykin, a track and field athlete, even chased the law dean across campus just to get his attention on the matter.
“We have to be willing to stand up for what’s right in our own communities,” Boykin said to the students.
Staceyann Chin is best known for her spirited performances on race, sex and politics on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam. The Jamaican national has been a part of the spoken word scene for over a decade, performing at New York’s Nuyorican Poets’ Café and in one-woman shows and poetry workshops around the world.
In her memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, Chin speaks of her rough upbringing in Kingston and dealing with her budding sexuality on an island known for its overt homophobia. She also says that since coming to the United States, poetry has allowed her to not only be an out and proud lesbian, but to also break away from the mental barriers that had built up in her growing up and become a vocal advocate for other women who aren’t free.
“My personal life is very different from the life I started articulating ten or eleven years ago when I first went to America,” Chin said. “I think now what I work hard to do is to articulate the identities that are still under the attack of racism and sexism. I represent the women of Jamaica who are unable to travel across borders to speak about their identities and their lives.”
When Nick Cave was growing up in Missouri, he lived modestly with his single mother and six brothers, with whom he had to share hand-me-down clothes. It was during this time he gained in interest in designing clothes that showed his individuality. He learned how to sew at the Kansas City Art Institute, and described his first garment to the New York Times as “very flamboyant pants and shirt with a harlequin sensibility.”
Cave also had an interest in dance, and trained under Alvin Ailey during the 1980s. He found a happy medium between his deep interest in dance and art 20 years ago when he created his first “soundsuit,” a costume made out of dyed human hair, sisal, plastic buttons, beads, sequins and feathers. Many outfits pay tribute to West African and Haitian ceremonial garb that can either be viewed in a museum or worn in a dance performance. Whether it is Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the beating of Rodney King, Cave’s art is a reflection of his own time and place as a black man in America.
Connecting the historic and the contemporary, Cave’s art can currently be viewed in the exhibit, Call and Response: Africa to America at the Halsey Institute in South Carolina.
“The value of history and theory and how they relate to fine art is very central to my process,” Cave says. “Research and exploration has enabled me to establish a non-traditional practice and a visual language I can call my own. I aim to create art that embraces innovation and is thought provoking.”
Born Nea Marshall Kudi in the Republic of Cameroon, the persona of Bebe Zahara Benet was also born in Paris while Kudi was working as a male model. After being asked to fill in for one of the female models and dress up as a woman for a fashion show, Bebe’s persona developed in earnest. She came to the United States and became known in the drag scene for her extravagant outfits, wigs and personality. Last year Benet gained national prominence when she became the first winner on the ground-breaking Logo Channel show Rupaul’s Drag Race. Since her win, Bebe has popularized catchphrases like “I’m the Sh*t” and “Cameroon” and has gained a large following.
However, Bebe counts her family back in Cameroon as her biggest fans. Considering the stigma around homosexuality and cross-dressing in Africa, she said she is not only glad to hear his parents are proud of her, but she also believes that others in Cameroon can have confidence in their own skin, no matter what clothes they choose to wear.
“I hope [my winning] is going to be an inspiration to all those boys and girls back there, even here.” Bebe said to AfterElton.com. “That it’s okay. You can do it and you can be successful at it.”
Born the son of Cuban immigrants in Florida, Jarrett Barrios has led an exemplary life, advocating for the disadvantaged. After completing his studies at Harvard and Georgetown Universities, Barrios rose through the ranks of the Boston political scene to become the first Latino and openly gay man to be elected to the Massachusetts state Senate in 2003.
During his tenure, he supported state legislation on a variety of issues, including requiring hospital emergency rooms to provide interpreter services, promoting environmental justice and protecting vulnerable homeowners from foreclosure. However, Barrios is best known for being one of the leading voices that helped legalize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004. Now as the head of GLAAD, Barrios is one of the few visible persons of color working on behalf of the LGBT community on the national platform.
When asked by the Boston Globe about what gay rights means to him: “There’s no such thing as gay rights — there’s only human rights, there’s only equal rights, equal treatment,” he said.
When Lt. Daniel Choi, a West Point graduate, went to serve his country in Iraq in 2006, he probably never thought he would become the face of one of America’s most divisive debates. Last year Choi came out of the closet on The Rachel Maddow Show and challenged the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibits LGBT service members from serving openly.
Despite receiving a discharge letter following his appearance on the show, Choi has continued his activism by sending his own letter to President Obama, stating that the policy was “a slap in the face” to other LGBT service members who put their lives on the line for this country. Choi is among the dozens of Arabic and Farsi speaking service members to be discharged from the military under the policy.
Choi’s activism also extends to fighting for other equal rights issues in the LGBT community, including opposing California’s Proposition 8, which makes same sex marriage illegal. Choi co-founded along with 38 other West Point alumni, “Knights Out,” an organization that seeks “to help their alma mater educate future Army leaders on the need to accept and honor the sacrifices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender troops.”
Pam Spaulding is the creator of Pam’s House Blend, the must-go place in the blogosphere for a steaming cup of news and analysis for and about the LGBT community. Whether Spaulding and her fellow baristas are waging war with the religious right, the ex-gay movement, or closeted politicians, The Blend is where all the action is happening. According to the blog, it averages 120,000 visitors a month and was launched in July 2004 to respond to the “anti-gay state of the political landscape.”
Spaulding works as an IT manager in North Carolina when she is not running the site, but her “blending” career has taken off in earnest recently. In addition to being a regular contributor on CNN and the Huffington Post, she received the 2006 Distinguished Achievement Award from The Monette-Horwitz Trust for making significant contributions toward the eradication of homophobia, and was honored with the 2009 Award for Online Journalism from the Women’s Media Center and the 2009 Courage Award from the New York City Anti-Violence Project. She was also one of the very few black bloggers credentialed to cover the 2008 Democratic National Convention as part of the general press pool.
For someone who isn’t quite 30 years old yet, Anthony Woods has already accomplished more than many people twice his age. A graduate of West Point, Woods is a two-tour Iraq War veteran who earned the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for his service in battle and working with Iraqis to help rebuild their country.
While pursuing a degree at Harvard, Woods realized he had to take a stand against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He was honorably discharged for his public announcement, however, he has used his time since leaving the military to not only fight the policy, but also work on behalf of other vulnerable groups, such as rebuilding homes in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Last year, Woods embarked on an ambitious political campaign to take the recently vacant congressional seat in California’s 10th district. His historic run for office received instant international attention because Woods was the first openly-gay African-American to run for Congress. Although he lost the race, many of his supporters have expressed that Woods has potential to run again for office with success in the future.
When President Obama selected Fred Davie, an openly gay black Christian, to play a central role in his faith-based initiatives, many gay rights advocates saw the decision as a step in the right direction, reflecting the nation’s religious diversity. Davie has an extensive history working on social justice issues in the public policy arena. He was most recently the president and chief executive officer of Public/Private Ventures, a national, action-based research and evaluation institute that works to assess and advance innovative social programs and policies. Before that, he was the program officer for Faith-based Community Development at the Ford Foundation, where he managed a portfolio of nearly $20 million in grants to programs in this country and in southern Africa.
Holding a degree from Yale Divinity School, Davie began his career managing community service programs at the New York City Mission Society and the Presbytery of New York City. Davie is also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and serves as a parish associate at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn Heights. In his role with the White House, Davie develops stronger relationships between the federal government and secular and faith-based organizations. Outside of government, Davie is tackling a new leadership challenge as interim Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, a philanthropic organization addressing issues of social justice and conservation.
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tina Mabry wrote and directed Mississippi Damned, an autobiographical film about spiraling sexual and physical abuse. It has won critical acclaim on the film festival circuit and is seen as a strong contender for the 2011 Oscar season. While many agree that the film stands out as a gem in gay cinema, Mabry hopes her film will force Hollywood to present more diverse films about the LGBT community.
Along with her fiancee and producer, Morgan Stiff, Mabry founded Morgan’s Mark, a production company with plans to revolutionize the industry.
“We need more visibility and more range when looking at our lives,” Mabry said in a GLAAD interview. “It really angers me that we don’t have that range and that there is not much more to us on the screen than comedy. I will say that there are black LGBT films or films that have gay content in them, but we have to struggle to find those films, but they are out there. It’s up to us to support those films once we find them.”
The dream of most writers is to get their first manuscript accepted by an agent and published. Not only did Nick Burd get his first book published, but many critics are already adding it to the gay literary canon. The Vast Fields of Ordinary is a modern coming-of-age story about Dade, a Midwestern high school senior who spends his “last real summer” before college drinking, getting high and feeling flustered about being the only gay kid in his neighborhood.
The New York Times called the book “fascinating and dreamy” and “the best kind of first novel” and also named it a Notable Book of 2009. This year, The Vast Fields of Ordinary won the American Library Association’s inaugural Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and has been optioned for a future film. When Burd isn’t working for the PEN American Center in New York, he is putting the finishing touches on his next novel due out next year.
Thomas Glave has been called by critics the James Baldwin of the hip-hop generation. Born in the Bronx to Jamaican immigrants, Glave’s writing style reflects the old adage “all politics are personal.” While traveling as a Fulbright Scholar to Jamaica, studying Jamaican historiography and Caribbean intellectual and literary traditions, Glave helped found the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG).
Many of Glave’s books explore black pride and sexuality, like in his acclaimed book Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent, which won the 2005 Lambda Literary Award for Nonfiction. He also received an O. Henry Prize for this book, becoming the second gay black writer – the first being James Baldwin – to have won that award.
“As a black male who is also gay, I and my brothers and our black lesbian sisters are considered ‘disposables’ throughout the world, throughout time past and present, in our own black communities and in white ones.”
Jane Velez-Mitchell is one of many talking heads, arguing with opponents nightly throughout cable news land. But what makes her stand out from the pack is that she is one of television’s few reporters who are openly gay. She is the current host of Headline News’ Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell, taking over the time slot from conservative commentator Glenn Beck last year.
Born to a Puerto Rican mother and Irish father, Velez-Mitchell has made a successful career out of reporting about scandals. She was in the courtroom during the entire child sexual abuse trial against Michael Jackson and has covered many high profile crime cases. Velez-Mitchell is also a dedicated humanitarian, and supports projects related to veganism, animal rights and the environment.
When he was still in college in Missouri, Lee Daniels wanted to make it big in the entertainment world. With only $7 in his pocket, Daniels dropped out of school and took a bus to Los Angeles with a dream of making it big in Hollywood. He got his first shot working on hit music videos for Prince. In the ensuing years, Daniels mainly worked on the business side of Hollywood, doing casting and management for other actors before taking the helm at the director’s seat.
He first saw success with his film Monster’s Ball, which propelled Halle Berry’s historic Best Actress Oscar win and made Daniels the first African-American sole producer of an Academy Award-winning film. This year, his latest film Precious also proved success again for Daniels, giving actress Mo’nique her first Academy Award.
In addition, Precious made Daniels the second African-American to be nominated for the Best Director prize, as well as the first African-American director to have a film with a mostly black cast nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. He is now working on his next film, Selma, which is about the relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Daniels recently spoke about his experiences growing up as black and gay while receiving the GLAAD Davidson/Valentini Award for his work as a director.
Wanda Sykes is one of the leading stand up comics in Hollywood. Best known for showering audiences of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The New Adventures of Old Christine with her dead-on, sharp wit, Sykes has come a long way since her days at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York, where she got her break opening for Chris Rock. In 1997 she joined the writing team for The Chris Rock Show, where she earned an Emmy for her writing in 1999. The show helped jump start her career with acting roles in movies and stand up specials.
In 2008 at a Prop 8 rally in Las Vegas, Sykes not only came out of the closet, but also announced that she had legally married her girlfriend the month before in California.
“Now, I gotta get in their face,” she told the crowd. “I’m proud to be a woman. I’m proud to be a black woman, and I’m proud to be gay.”
Since coming out, Sykes has appeared in dozens of pro-gay public service announcements and events. Sykes was also the featured entertainer at last year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, becoming both the first black woman and the first openly gay person to be given the honor.