It’s February, which means that many are choosing to celebrate Black History, something many of us, myself included, aim to do all year. Nonetheless, Black History Month is an amazing time for reflection and for the amplification of Black voices. This Black History Month, I’m thinking specifically about Queer and Trans Black people, and the Black LGBTQ+ community. Allow me to share why.
Intersectionality can certainly help us understand how and why Black LGBTQ+ people are so impactful for Black history, but also the world and our broader pop culture. A social theory coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw that examines how various systems of power and privilege interlock to further marginalize certain identities, intersectionality helps to articulate and illustrate why and how Queer and Trans Black people face racism and further barriers in our patriarchal, white supremacist, mono-cissexist world.
Monosexism and cissexism are more intentional ways of referencing and framing heteronormativity - instead of saying “biphobia," “homophobia,” or "transphobia" we set these terms in reference to the systemic and social barriers present for LGBTQ+ people.
Yet, in spite of centuries of oppression, Black LGBTQ+ people have paved the way for our civil rights and cultural and expressive capabilities.
History of Activism
In 1969, activist Marsha P. Johnson led the Stonewall Riots where she and other Queer and Trans people of color occupied The Stonewall Inn in New York City, an LGBTQ+ bar frequently targeted by law enforcement. The Stonewall Riots have become a focal point of our understanding of Queer liberation, and the movement was started and led by Johsnon, a pioneering and trailblazing Black Trans woman. Johnson and fellow Trans Activist of Color Sylvia Rvieria went on to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping unhoused LGBTQ+ youth of the day.
In addition to leading both socio-political and cultural progress for Queer liberation, Black LGBTQ+ people and QTBIPOC (Queer and Trans Black People/People of Color) have made tremendous strides and impacts across nearly every media platform over the past 75+ years. Their efforts and lived experiences have had a direct impact on what mainstream media and social consumption considers “popular.” A television show that so wonderfully highlights this is “POSE” - the critically acclaimed hit production from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals that ended in 2021. Additional writers and producers on the show include trans icons Janet Mock and Our Lady Jay.
Strike a "POSE”
A showcase of Ballroom culture in New York City across the 80’s and ’90s amidst the HIV and AIDS epidemics, “POSE” takes us back to a time when, though Queer and Trans people were consistently asked to remain silent, Black, Latine, and LGBTQ+ People of Color thrived in performance, expression, and community.
Ballroom is an underground subset of LGBTQ+ culture that largely centers Black, Latine and Afro-Latine, and LGBTQ+ People of Color. Various “houses,” small familiar subcommunities, compete across several categories, such as “Face,” “Executive Realness,” and “Runway,” wherein performers showcase their exquisite beauties and talents fueled, in part, by the resilience of LGBTQ+ communities of color. Voguing, the popular art form and dance referenced by Madonna in her 1990 titular single, derives from Ballroom and is a performance-based category, with many houses and ballroom communities hosting stunning and gravity-defying voguing competitions.
In creating a story about Ballroom, Pose featured the largest number of Trans actors in recurring roles of any scripted TV show in history. With cast members like Dominique Jackson, Michaela Jaé “MJ” Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Jiggly Caliente, Peppermint, and Angelica Ross, this program highlights Black and Afro-Latine LGBTQ+ people in ways that television never has. “Pose” collected Emmys, Golden Globes, NAACP Image Awards along with GLAAD Media accolades in recognition of the show’s excellence.
Celebrating "Paris is Burning"
While POSE is a trail-blazing television program, it was the 1993 documentary film “Paris is Burning” that first exposed many audiences to the Ballroom cultures of New York City in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Featuring many iconic houses that still thrive today, “Paris is Burning” highlighted the members from the Houses of Xtravaganza, Ninja, Balenciaga, St. Laurent, and more.
Celebrating icons like Willi Ninja, Angie Xtravaganza, and Pepper Labejia, “Paris is Burning” showcases the resilience and strength of chosen family while introducing viewers to very intimate behind-the-scenes aspects of the beauty and glamor that is Ballroom.
The film and the community it follows have had a direct impact not only on the LGBTQ+ community today, notably influencing hit programs such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, in addition to pop culture as we understand it holistically. A now booming fan-favorite with a near cult-like following, RPDR features a “reading challenge” on each season in honor of the film.
Much of the nomenclature and language we hear today that spreads like wildfire across platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, comes from Black Queer communities, and Black and African-American Vernacular English. Between phrases like “slay” and “werk it,” to “spilling tea” and “reading for filth” – the language many of us hear and even use today comes, in large part, from Ballroom culture and the creativity of LGBTQ+ Black people and people of color.
Today, however, there is still some controversy surrounding “Paris is Burning” as the documentary’s cis-white director, Jennie Livingston, has never properly financially compensated the Queer and Trans Black and performers of color featured in the film.
"A Cultural Renaissance"
One of the greatest artists of our time (argue with someone else!), Beyoncé Carter-Knowles, recently released her iconic album “Renaissance” which features, centers, and highlights much of the culture of Ballroom that is celebrated in “POSE” and “Paris is Burning.” “Renaissance” amplifies these cultures in such ways that have revitalized the attention to and engagement with Ballroom cultures across the country today, particularly for communities new to the very presence or idea of Ballroom. As an article from Out Magazine shared, Beyoncé either features sound samples/work from or directly names dozens of Ballroom icons from yesterday and today, including Big Freedia, TS Madison, Moi Renee, and Kevin Aviance.
In a piece from The Washington Post written by Samantha Cherry in discussion with scholar Omise’eke Tinsley, I was able to read more about Beyonce’s intentionality behind her producing style on her latest album.
“The 16 tracks in “Renaissance” draw from house, disco and bounce music, genres that hark back to underground ballroom culture from the 1970s. In highlighting how queerness has paved the way for Black dance music, Beyoncé pays homage to the familial aspect represented through the house mothers, fathers, and children in ballroom scenes. It’s a reminder of the love and inclusivity inherent in Black culture.”
With tracks like “Heated” (which can serve as a crash-course record into the sounds and songs of Ballroom) and “Cozy,” Knowles has created a living, audible archive of Ballroom that champions and honors Black, Latine, Afro-Latine, and LGBTQ+ People of Color that has made momentous impacts on the music industry, across all genres.
In her acceptance speech for one of the four Grammy awards the album won, Beyoncé said:
“I’d like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing this genre. God bless you, thank you so much to the Grammys.”
Towards March, and Beyond!
In her song “Heated,” Beyoncé sings the beloved line “Tip, tip, tip on hardwood floors; 10, 10, 10’s, across the board.” A line so simple, yet I’m using it as my guide this Black History Month.
It is imperative that as inclusive individuals, we recognize, celebrate, and champion Black LGBTQ+ people and communities, consistently and specifically. We must encourage them to take up space; to speak their minds in spaces that don’t celebrate them; to allow for the tip-tap of their stilettos, whether literal or figurative, to produce the loudest, most percussive noise possible. Now is the time to amplify the voices and work of Queer and Trans folks of color, not to silence their excitement or worries.
This February, let us all continue to learn about the Black LGBTQ+ activists that have paved the way for us today. And, let us center all Queer and Trans Black voices, in our efforts of allyship, community engagement, and organizing for social change. Come March 1st, I challenge and invite us all to continue to uplift and amplify the needs, voices, and communities of Black LGBTQ+ spaces, all year long.