Category: black lesbian

DECEMBER 28: Pariah is released (2011)

The classic lesbian film Pariah was first released in the United States on this day in 2011. Written and directed by
lesbian director Dee Rees, Pariah was
awarded the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2011 Sundance Film
Festival and also earned Adpero Oduye a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award
for Best Female Lead.

Pariah is a character study of a
17-year-old girl named Alike. The film follows her coming out journey as a
young black butch lesbian who is just beginning her process of self-discovery.
After becoming friends with an out lesbian named Laura and frequenting bars and
clubs with her, Alike begins exploring her own sexuality and dressing in men’s
clothing. Her mother, Audrey, becomes suspicious of her daughter’s nighttime whereabouts
and retaliates by forcing her to wear more feminine clothing and to attend
church services.

Ironically, it
is through church that Alike meets another young girl named Bina and has her
first sexual experience. After spending the night with Bina, Alike returns home and
comes out to her family in the middle of an explosive argument. Although her
father and sister are restrained, her mother attacks her, resulting in Alike
fleeing to Laura’s house and swearing to never return home. Despite the gritty
realness of the film, Pariah ends with Alike off on a journey to California to
start college early. The thesis of the film is summed up in a line from one of
Alike’s poems: “I’m not running; I’m choosing.”

-LC

DECEMBER 16: Barbara Smith (1946-)

Happy birthday to Barbara Smith!
The prominent feminist, lesbian, and socialist writer was born on this
day in 1946.

Barbara’s latest work was a 2014 autobiography titled Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith (x).

Barbara Smith was born on December
16, 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother and father, Hlda and Gartrell Smith, were
originally from Georgia but moved to the northern city of Cleveland in hopes of
escaping the Jim Crow laws of the south and finding a better life for their children.
Barbara was born an identical twin, both she and her sister Beverly being premature. When their mother died when they were only nine, both sisters were
raised by their father and his extended family. Barbara has dedicated her
scholarly success to her home life, having been raised by a grandmother who was a schoolteacher and who encouraged her education.

Both Barbara and her sister Beverly became active in the Civil
Rights Movement while they were in high school. They attended several desegregation protests and
speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the mid-1960s. Barbara has also cited the time she met activist Fannie Lou Hammer as an incredibly influential
moment in her relationship with activism. In the 1970s, she became disenchanted with the misogyny within
male-dominated Black Nationalist groups and instead turned to black feminist
politics. Barbara would go on to help find the Combahee River Collective, a
socialist Black feminist organization, as well as Kitchen Table: Women of Color
Press
.

Today, Barbara has written over 35
works of feminist theory, poetry, and fiction. Some of her most notable awards
include a 1996 Stonewall Award a 2015 “Literary Legend” Award from the Albany
Public Library. She has given multiple talks and oral histories of her life as a lesbian within activist spaces, and many of her personal papers and documents have been donated to
the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

-LC

DECEMBER 9: Joan Armatrading (1950-)

Happy birthday to Joan Armatrading!
The lesbian musician and singer has been working for over 40 years and is a
three-time Grammy nominated artist.

Some of Joan’s most popular songs from throughout her career have been “Love And Affection,” “Me Myself I,” and “Drop The Pilot” (x).

Joan Anita Barbara Armatrading was born on
December 9, 1950 in Basseterre on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts. She was
the third of six children and her father worked as a carpenter while her mother
was a housewife. When Joan was only three years old, her parents and brothers moved to Birmingham, England and she was sent to live with her grandmother on
the Caribbean island of Antigua; when she was seven, Joan was finally
able to move to Birmingham and be with her family. As an adolescent, she and her
siblings were forbidden by their father to ever touch a guitar. However, Joan’s
love of song writing and playing piano lead her mother to secretly buying her a
guitar from a pawn shop when was 14.

She started pursuing a musical
career in earnest during her time at Birmingham University when she performed nightly at local bars and clubs. After meeting lyricist Pam Nestor
in 1970, Joan’s career began to take off and her debut album, Whatever’s For Us, was released by Cube
Records in 1972. To date, she has released 18 full studio albums along with
several compilation albums and live recordings. The highlights of her career
have been being nominated for a Grammy on three separate occasions, two nominations
at the BRIT Awards, as well as receiving two Lifetime Achievement Awards first
in 2012 and then in 2016.

In the beginning of her career,
Joan was often asked about ambivalent approach to using gendered pronouns in
her songs, to which she was reluctant to answer and would simply deny to speak
about her private life. Although she has never had an official coming out, it
is known that Joan currently lives in the Shetland Isles with her wife Maggie
Butler.

-LC

SEPTEMBER 23: Anita Cornwell (1923-)

Happy birthday, Anita Cornwell!!
The LGBT activist and author of the very first collection of essay by a black
lesbian to be ever be published turns 94-years-old today!

Anita’s only fiction book to date, The Girls of Summer, was illustrated by Kelly Caines and published in 1989 (x).

Born on September 23, 1923, Anita
Cornwell was raised in Greendwood, South Carolina before the family moved to Pennsylvania
when she was 16. At first she lived with her aunt in the town of Yeadon, but she
later went to live with her mother in Philadelphia. Anita stayed up north for
college and eventually graduated with degrees in journalism and the social
sciences from Temple University. She worked as a journalist and a secretary
before her 1983 collection of essays, Black
Lesbian in White America
, made her a name to know in feminist and LGBT
circles. Along with Black Lesbian in White America, Anita’s writings that have
been published in Feminist Review, Labyrinth, National Leader, Los Angeles Free
Press
, and The Negro Digest were
some of the first pieces of published writing where the author declares
themselves a proud black lesbian. Although Anita was surely not the first of
her kind in history, she is the mother of an entire branch of literature and an
LGBT hero.

-LC

AUGUST 12: Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

Famous blues singer and drag king, Gladys Bentley, was born on this day in
1907! Gladys reached the height of her fame singing, dancing, and playing the
piano at a New York City club called Harry Hansberry’s Clam House during the
Harlem Renaissance.

Gladys Bentley sports her famous white tuxedo and top hat, which assisted in her revolutionary depiction of “black female masculinity” (x). 

Gladys Alberta Bentley was born on August 12, 1907 in
Philadelphia and was her parents’ oldest child out of 4. Later on in
life, she would write about how sorrowful her childhood had been growing up in
a poor household and often feeling unwanted. In an article Gladys once wrote
for Ebony Magazine, she says, “When
they told my mother she had given birth to a girl, she refused to touch me. She
wouldn’t even nurse me and my grandmother had to raise me for 6 months on a
bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby.”

At the age of 16, Gladys left her unhappy home and found work
in New York City as a performer. Her singing prowess wowed a Broadway agent as
soon as she hit the city and she immediately received $400 for a recording of 8
tracks. Her drag king/male impersonator career began later on when she saw
that the popular gay speakeasy, Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, was in search of
a new male piano player. Gladys answered the call and began performing every
night in full men’s suits, bow ties, and top hats. Her act became so popular
that when the club changed management it was renamed Barbara’s Exclusive Club
after Gladys’s own stage name – Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. In addition to her New
York gig, she also enjoyed an extensive touring career, performing her comical,
innuendo-filled songs in cities such as Chicago, L.A., and Cleveland.

The subtitle for Gladys’s 1952 Ebony article reads, “Fabulous entertainer tells how she found happiness in love after medical treatment to correct her strange affliction” (x). 

Unfortunately, Gladys story does not end on an uplifting
note. Despite having been an icon for the black LGBT community for decades, the rise of cultural conservatism in the 1950s led to Gladys claiming that
she had been “cured” of her lesbianism. Her Ebony article was even titled “I Am
a Woman Again,” which told her story of finding “true womanhood” by marrying a
man. Although she admits that she was “married to a white woman” a one point,
she also writes that after leaving showbiz, she became heavily involved with
the church and began taking hormones in hopes of being “cured.” According to
Gladys, the medication worked and she ended up having two brief marriages to
men. She eventually passed away on January 18, 1960 at the age of 52.

-LC