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Today begins Black History Month.
We look to 12 African-American leaders of the LGBT community—writers, activists, speakers, performers, thought leaders and change makers—who are the Marsha P. Johnsons and Bayard Rustins of today. Each of them are rewriting our entire community’s future with the important work they do on a daily basis.
1. Tiq Milan
Tiq Milan has been a human rights advocate for over a decade, penning articles in publications like Rolling Stone, The New York Times and The Source to name a few. He travels extensively, speaking at many colleges and universities about important issues dealing with gender identity. “My mother’s biggest concern when I transitioned was who is going to love me as I am,” Milan said in a Ted Talk with his wife Kim Katrin Milan. “Had being transgender precluded me from love and monogamy because I was supposedly born in the wrong body? But it is this type of structuring that has to be re-framed in order to let love in. My body never betrayed me and my body was never wrong. It’s this restrictive binary thinking on gender that said I didn’t exist. But when we met, she loved me for exactly how I showed up.”
2. DeRay Mckesson
Activist DeRay Mckesson has been a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement since its beginning. He began a speech Tuesday night by saying that people need to put aside language and instead focus on the purity of ideas like equal opportunity. “We have to think about how to keep the idea pure, even if the words change. The ideas are the things that matter,” he said. “People who generally agree with the same ideas sometimes need to sacrifice the words. When you think about the KKK gradually becoming the alt-right, you see that the ideas are still the same, even if the manifestation is different.”
3. Sharron Cooks
The only trans woman of color delegate at the Democratic National Convention, Sharron Cooks is a highly visible political force advocating for those marginalized within the LGBTQ community. Because of this, she was invited to speak by organizers at the Women’s March in Philadelphia. With her work, she hopes to inspire other trans people to join the political process. She told Pop Sugar, “It’s important because we don’t hear the voices of people like trans individuals in the community, and if legislators don’t hear their voices, we won’t have proper public accommodations or state and federal legislation that stands against trans discrimination.”
4. Les Fabian Brathwaite
Online and in print, Les Fabian Brathwaite contributes some of the most authentic words exploring queer people of color in pop culture. As Senior Editor at Out and a contributing writer at various outlets like NewNowNext, The Advocate and The Tenth Magazine, he continues to explore these important narratives and bring them into the spotlight at these major media outlets. You can pick up his story on Moonlight that graces the latest cover of Out.
5. Nadine Smith
Nadine Smith is the co-founder and CEO of Equality Florida, Florida’s largest organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A former award-winning journalist turned organizer, Nadine was part of the historic oval office meeting with President Clinton—the first meeting between a sitting president and gay community leaders. After the mass murder at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Equality Florida established an online fundraiser for the victims that raised nearly $8M from over 119,000 contributors and 120 countries.
Education is an extremely important issue to Smith. “The other area that I think should be at the top of our agenda if we’re going to uproot the hatred and fear is at the core of this discrimination and violence we have to focus on schools,” she told The Huffington Post. “We have to stop having the lowest bar possible which is students who go to school should not be physically assaulted, verbally abused and emotionally terrorized. That’s the least our schools should be. That should not be the highest we aspire to. We should create learning environments where dignity and respect of difference is built in. Where LGBT young people cannot only just go and expect not to be harassed, but can go and expect to thrive and there are models for it and we need the investment in it now.”
6. Malcolm Kenyatta
Like Cooks, Malcom Kenyatta also rose to prominence during the election season. A change-maker from Philadelphia, Kenyatta is currently working for the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. When a video surfaced last year of a local gay bar owner using the n-word, Kenyatta became one of the loudest voices leading the conversation about racism in the LGBT community.
“This isn’t just about a video,” Kenyatta told Pride.com. “This isn’t just about one bar owner or one bar at one moment. This is about a culture that still separates out some who are considered more normal than some others who are deemed not that. We have a profound responsibility as a community that understands discrimination and being treated as different for just being who we are. We have a profound responsibility to never inflict that pain or discrimination on anybody else.”
“I do think people are paying attention to this,” he says. “This is going to be a catalyst for serious conversations to root out the cancer of racism and discrimination in our community.”
7. Tarell Alvin McCraney
Tarell Alvin McCraney has written powerful works for the stage for many years now, but it’s his drama school project In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue that thrust him into the spotlight. That play was the inspiration for the Golden Globe-winning film Moonlight that has captivated gay and straight audiences alike. He was just named the new chairman of the play-writing department at the Yale School of Drama. He was also featured on our list of 100 intriguing LGBTs to look out for in 2017.
8. Alexandra Gray
This 26-year-old transgender actress and singer was also on our list of 100 intriguing LGBTs to look for this upcoming year. You might recognize her from her role as Elizah, the suicidal trans teenager in the groundbreaking Amazon drama series Transparent. She also appeared in the CBS medical drama Code Black and played trans queer rights pioneer Marsha P. Johnson in the Stonewall episode of Drunk History. “I love playing trans characters, because I get to help share narratives that can bring an awareness about trans lives,” she told GLAAD, adding that she’d also like to tackle some non-trans roles as well. In the coming year, you’ll see her appear in Dustin Lance Black’s LGBTQ rights miniseries When We Rise.
9. George C. Wolfe
The Tony award-winning playwright and director George C. Wolfe has been a visible leader in the LGBT community for some time. In 1993 , he won a Tony award for directing the original Broadway production of Angels in America and won it again in 1996 for Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk. In 2013, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. Last year, he won a Native Son Award, honoring the achievements of black gay men in media, entertainment and social activism.
10. Raquel Willis
Raquel Willis is a writer, journalist and activist based in Oakland, California. She recently became the Communications Associate for the Transgender Law Center. She is a co-host for the Black Girl Dangerous podcast and she spoke at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. “Today I stand here as a queer Black transgender woman from Augusta, Georgia,” she spoke. “But I am more these labels. I am also a daughter, a sister, an Auntie, a friend, a lover, a human, a feminist. And although I’m glad to be here now, it’s disheartening that women like me were an afterthought in the initial planning of this march. Many of us had to stand a little taller… to be heard and that exclusion is nothing new. Trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera lit the fire on the LGBTQIA Right Movement but were quickly pushed aside.”
11. Keith Boykin
Keith Boykin is an American broadcaster, author and political commentator on CNN. A former White House aide to President Bill Clinton, from 2003 until 2006 he served as president of the board of the National Black Justice Coalition, a Washington-based civil rights organization dedicated to fighting racism and homophobia which he co-founded. He continues to be a leading voice in political news. “It doesn’t matter if Neil Gorsuch is qualified. Merrick Garland was, too. Confirming Gorsuch would reward GOP’s unprecedented obstruction,” he responded after Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nomination on Tuesday.
12. Jarrett Hill
Jarret Hill was sitting at Starbucks listening to Melania Trump’s speech when he realized it was the same speech Michelle Obama gave in 2008. He is a contributor for The Hollywood Reporter and the host of “Countdown to Election Night With Jarrett Hill.” Here’s hoping he’s the watchdog we need for many more GOP and Trump speeches to come.
In an attempt to remain an inclusive space for the LGBTQ community at large, we made the difficult decision to remove an individual from our list of African-American community leaders. We believe our current list now reflects the best values of our community.