‘Black queer history IS Black history’
Fighting what some saw as a “whitewash” of gay history, some in Chicago are trying to document the city’s Black LGBTQ community, which can trace its roots to the early 20th century.
Pianist Tony Jackson and author Lorraine Hansberry are part of Chicago’s Black history.
They’re also part of Chicago’s LGBTQ history, which fewer people may know.
Tristan Cabello wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. He began documenting that legacy 10 years ago.
“What really struck me at the time is how we whitewash gay history,” said Cabello, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who earned his Ph.D. in American history from Northwestern.
“Most of the books and most of the research that I was reading, we didn’t hear from people of color, and as a gay man myself and somebody who is a person of color, I never heard those stories, so I started doing much more research.”
He focused on Bronzeville. Like other parts of Chicago, Bronzeville in the 1920s saw an influx of Black families from the South during the Great Migration.
Cabello’s research, displayed in his digital exhibit “Queer Bronzeville,” deconstructed two myths about the Black LGBTQ community: invisibility and unacceptability.
“That culture was very visible on the streets of the South Side, in Bronzeville,” Cabello said. “You could see drag queens, as they were called in that time, just walking down the streets and being friends with people.”
From the 1920s through the 1950s, Cabello said, drag performers would celebrate Halloween and New Year’s Eve with “Drag Balls.”
Valda Gray, a drag performer in the 1930s, was among the first to produce Drag Balls at Joe’s Deluxe, 5524 S. State St., a popular Bronzeville bar at the time. Another was Alfred Finnie, who would host balls in rented basements, charging 50 cents admission.
But Cabello said he also wanted to deconstruct the idea that “African Americans on the South Side were much more homophobic” than whites on the North Side.
“In the early 50s, there were already celebrations of gay marriages and Jet Magazine was reporting on them,” Cabello said. “It gives you an idea of how integrated and accepted that was.”
Forty years later, another prominent drag performer would make headlines — Ms. Joan Jett Blakk, the persona of actor Terence Alan Smith.
As founder of Chicago’s Queer Nation chapter, Smith advocated for LGBTQ rights during the AIDS epidemic. In 1991 Smith, as Blakk, waged a write-in campaign for mayor.
“When Joan Jett Blakk ran for mayor — whether or not people thought it was a possibility — it opened up a range of conversations and interactions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Mary Morten, an activist and founder of Morten Group, a consulting firm focused on social change and advocacy.
Blakk also was a write-in candidate for president the next year. She advocated universal health care, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights and eliminating student debt.
“Because we still tend to think of LGBTQ folks as white and male, anytime we can see a person who does not fit that particular profile, it’s a win,” said Morten.
Today, Brave Space Alliance, a Black- and trans-led LGBTQ center in Hyde Park, is among those trying to build a dynamic Black LGBTQ community. One way is for “Black queer folks to liberate themselves through nightlife,” said Jae Rice, director of communications for the Alliance.
“Liberation can happen in the streets, at marches and with policy change,” said Rice. “But liberation, especially for Black queer folks, also happens on the dance floor.”
As the birthplace of house music, Chicago is a mecca for Black LGBTQ folks, Rice said. DJs Frankie Knuckles, creator of house music, and Lori Branch helped “perpetuate liberation through music,” Rice said.
Rice wants Black queer history embedded in Black history curricula.
“We’re dealing with folks who have no idea who Bayard Rustin is, but everyone knows who Martin Luther King is, and it’s astonishing that you can even separate the two,” said Rice, referring to the gay man who was an adviser to King and helped plan the March on Washington.
Soon, the Alliance will launch a program to help Black, Brown and indigenous trans-oriented folks overcome housing discrimination.
Meanwhile, the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center at 3656 N. Halsted St., has begun a Black History Month social media campaign to identify Black LGBTQ icons.
The campaign emphasizes “that this movement is not over, that we struggle with this fight every day, that it wasn’t a one time moment in history, that today we still fight for human rights, for civil rights, for Black rights,” said Modesto Valle, CEO of the Center.
As part of that, the Center is starting a youth housing program in South Shore and Greater Grand Crossing. In early March, it’s opening a satellite office at 63rd and Cottage Grove.
But for Jamie Frazier, executive director for the Lighthouse Foundation of Chicagoland, a Black LGBTQ justice organization, preserving the legacy is simple, and obvious.
“Black queer history,” Frazier said, “IS Black history.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.