Black, Gay and Visible on MLK Day

Today our nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who changed history by shifting the visuals of the American Civil Rights movement. Dr. King inspired non-violent protests around the country that generated iconic images—African-Americans knocked down by fire hoses, staging sit-ins at lunch counters, marching arm-in-arm with white supporters and so many others. These images began the process of moving American society away from deeply rooted racism.

Dr. King’s legacy proves that visuals matter, and that the act of making injustice visible is one of the most powerful forces of social change.

Those of us who are a part of both the African-American community and the gay community are in a unique position today. We are simultaneously the direct descendants of two long traditions of activism, and the standard-bearers of two ongoing struggles.

In my opinion, those of us at the intersection of these long legacies bear a unique responsibility. Those of us who are black and gay — and blessed enough to live and love freely because of the sacrifices made by those who came before us — now bear the torch of visibility for the next generation of African-American youth, gay and lesbian youth and youth that happen to be both. Black, gay Americans are now able to serve as living proof that the simple and radical act of living our lives visibly and to the fullest can change the world.

Since I wrote the book Black, Gifted & Gay, profiling twenty living African-American icons who publicly claim their place in the gay community, I consistently hear from my readers that they didn’t realize there were so many out, black, gay people impacting the world around us. Without diminishing the contributions of  pioneers like Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and so many others who helped shape our history, I deliberately limited the book to living icons to highlight their contributions to the world around us. The fact that they are each prominent and powerful in their own right — despite their ethnicity and sexuality — is proof of how far we’ve come as a community and as a culture.

Since my book was published, more prominent members of the black community have come out — people like CNN anchor Don Lemon and actress Janora McDuffie among many others — with no negative impact to their careers or personal lives.

Despite the vitriolic, anti-gay rhetoric of the political right, it appears to me we have evolved so that ethnicity and sexuality are no longer automatic barriers to success. Which is precisely what our predecessors — both black and gay — were fighting so hard to achieve.

As we honor one of them today, I would like to believe they would be proud of the progress we’ve made. I know I am.