To be Black and queer is to possess a history rooted in connection. Both identities have their own individual struggles as marginalized groups. The intersection between them is not only undeniable, but has long existed.
Monumental moments of queer history, like the beginning of the drag scene and the Stonewall Riots in New York City, were carried out thanks to contributions from the Black community. The 1966 “sip-in” at Manhattan gay bar Julius was even inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, queer Black figures played a large role in major Black historical moments. The Harlem Renaissance and the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s were often led by Black activists.
When it comes down to it, the intersection of Black and queer history is about gaining respect from society at large. It’s about making life fair, equal, and comfortable for those sidelined by the mainstream. Today, channeling that same spirit, those who are Black, queer, and Black and queer continue to show up for each other when needed.
It remains, like any situation involving multiple experiences, a work in progress. To be queer is to be subject to homophobia. To be Black is to be subject to racism. And to be both is to fend both mindsets off. This reality is what kept activist Bayard Rustin largely closeted during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s what caused Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton to remind his fellow activists that “homosexuals are not enemies of the people.” It can be what Black queer people today experience when they see “preferences” on dating apps that are point-black racist.
While Black queer people know their history, they also know what they want their futures to be. There was pleasure amongst the suffering years ago, just as there is today. What are some ways to depict what a fully formed Black queer person looks like? How can they be represented in a way that honors their personhood and history? Read on.
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Black Queer Influence in Early America
The origin of Black queer history, as far as recorded events are concerned, lies in the life of the original “Queen of Drag” William Dorsey Swann. Swann, a former slave and queer activist, is documented as being the first person to call themself a drag queen and one of the first leaders of the queer liberation movement, which dates back to at least 1888.
Swann’s contributions have largely been lost to mainstream history as the decades have passed. It’s easy to look to the Stonewall Riots as the first major showing of queer liberation, due to of how monumental the night was. But before the first brick was thrown, and even before Swann was arrested during their 30th birthday celebration for dressing in drag, there was revelry.
There was the Cakewalk, where Black men and women would dance and parade around a dance floor. During the Harlem Renaissance, where the Black queer artists like Langston Hughes and Gladys Bentley would, respectively, pen their observations of the nightlife around them, singing the blues in a style that’s best described today as genderfluid. There was the ballroom scene, thriving underground throughout Manhattan as the new millennium approached. Good times and bad existed side-by-side as both Black and queer fought to make themselves seen in the world.
A Look at Modern Black Queer Activism
Trailblazers within Black, queer, and Black queer movements have come from many walks of life. Their accomplishments have cemented their place in history.
- Activist Marsha P. Johnson advocated for the liberation of not just queer people living in Manhattan, but also sex workers.
- Actor Laverne Cox has made the representation and safety of the transgender community her life’s work.
- Poet Audre Lorde used her writing to speak on racism, sexism, and Black civil rights.
- Activist Phil Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999, in part to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Black community.
- Actor and transgender advocate Angelica Ross paved the way for her community to thrive in the tech sector and has spoken at numerous summits and gatherings for LGBTQ+ issues.
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Black queer trailblazers may not have started in the same place, but they’ve all shared the same mission. That is to foster, protect, and help the queer people around them and after them to thrive. This is what the everyday Black queer person has acknowledged as they’ve moved through the world.
How to Successfully Represent Black Queer Folks in Photography
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So what does it look like to represent a Black queer person in the visual sense? For starters, it doesn’t look like any one specific thing! Black queer people aren’t monolith. Blackness comes in all shades, while queerness isn’t determined by how one looks. To document Black queer life, it largely comes down to respect and intent.
Capture a Variety of Emotions
Where there is queerness, there is celebration. And where there is Blackness, there is festiveness. Successfully representing the Black queer community, however, is to show our layers. Showing a range of emotions, hobbies, and major life moments in photos avoids racial and sexual stereotypes, while giving depth to a photo’s subjects. This shows Black queer people as they truly are, instead of portraying them as a concept.
Represent More Than One “Look”
A Black queer person looks nothing like what you would imagine . . . but they look like every different way you think they could. Photos successfully showcasing the Black queer community are diverse, given the many ways can look Black and be queer. Seek out authentic diversity within photos, instead of sticking to preconceived notions.
Be Respectful of the Environment
Marginalized groups have safe spaces where they can be themselves amongst their communities. A photographer who isn’t Black and/or queer is a guest in those spaces. Being respectful means asking questions, being receptive to the different stories you hear, and hanging back while unfiltered life happens in front of you.
Be Open to the Scenes Around You
It’s easy to walk into a situation you know little about, or have only heard about from afar, and make assumptions about what will happen. Any photographer or designer looking to better represent Black queer folks should be open to what those folks look like, and they should also be open to multiple types outcomes and circumstances. A Black queer person may react to a situation differently than how you thought. Going along for the ride and accepting a person’s truth will lead to honest representation.
Incorporate Families and Journeys of All Kinds
Black queer folks aren’t just bright young things. They’re parents, grandparents, aunts, your neighbors, your blood relatives, and your chosen family. Photographing the community means representing all of them—young, old, married, single, long-term partners, new couples, those who just came out, and those who have been out for decades. Doing so helps everyone within the community feel seen, because their stories matter.
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To be Black and queer is to possess a history rooted in connection. Explore how we need to visually represent these intersecting identities.