Queer global majority stories you need to know

Author: Chimwemwe Chirwa

Content Warning: sexual assault and murder  

The LGBT+ rights movements in the US and Europe are well documented. Although the same can’t be said for UK LGBT+ rights movement. Historic England in their ‘who’s included?’ report on the UK LGBT+ rights movement explains how some identities, groups and periods have been better recorded than others in UK history and for this reason are better understood. The history of heterosexual cis men is the most well documented and as I explained in my previous post on how and why LGBT+ history is hidden’ LGBT+ historians were more concerned with focusing on famous elites. This means that other sexualities, gender identities and intersectional voices such as the global majority, working class and disabled stories have gone untold. In this blog I explore the often-overlooked stories of LGBT+ activists from 20th and 21st century UK, US and Africa.

After Ma Rainey there was Gladys Bentley

It’s the turn of the 20th century, just 50 years after the emancipation of African American slaves and the New York City area of Harlem becomes a cultural mecca for the black community. The Harlem Renaissance is a cultural movement that celebrated African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature and politics over two decades between the 1910s and 30s in Harlem, Manhattan. 

 

[1920s Harlem during the renaissance period]

No one person was more celebrated in the Harlem’s underground of the probation era then Gladys Bentley. Gladys was a 1920s blues singer known to perform at the Clam House (a speakeasy) in a highly decorated tuxedo (top hat and cane included). Despite many queer writers and performers coming out of the resistance Bentley became Harlem’s most famous lesbian and was at one point the most celebrated Black entertainer in the US. Despite Bentley going against the gender norms of the time wearing what was considered male clothing, in an essay for Ebony magazine Gladys said: 

 

“Even though they knew me as a male impersonator, they still could appreciate my artistry as a performer”.

 

[Gladys Bentley]

In her lyricism, Bentley confronted male entitlement and sexual abuse in her lyrics. This was a continuation of a tradition begun by other singers of the early 20th century, particularly Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan, some of the most vocal musician critics of the patriarchal society. 

 

 

The March on Washington was a movement set up by a gay Pennsylvanian black man

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Bayard Rustin moved to Harlem in 1936 post Renaissance era and became a civil rights activist and practised the non-violence teachings of the Pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1941 Rustin and fellow civil rights activist Philip Randolph began to organise a march on Washington to protest discrimination in the defence industries on July 1st. By June the estimated number of people expecting to participate in the march that calls on Washington for equal participation in jobs and national defence reached 100,000. The president at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to persuade the duo to call off the demonstration and when they objected Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which barred discrimination in defence and the FBI.

[Bayard Rustin (left) and Cleveland Robinson (right)] Photo credit- Orlando Fernandez
Between 1947-55 Bayard was a leading activist of the early civil rights movement and helped initiate the 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge civil disobedience racial segregation on interstate buses. During this time Rustin had been arrested for a homosexual act in 1953 under California’s sodomy laws. Rustin’s sexuality became public because of this, and other fellow pacifist and civil rights leaders criticised his sexuality. He was attacked as a ‘pervert’ or ‘immoral influence’ from political opponents throughout his career as lead strategist of the civil rights movement from 1955- 1968 and beyond into the 70s.  Despite this Rustin became the right-hand man to Martin Luther King Jr and organised the March on Washington for Job’s and Freedom which became synonymous with MLK’s I have a dream speech with over a quarter of a million people in attendance. In the 8 weeks leading up to the event Rustin could be found in the headquarters answering phone calls day and night to get people to Washington. Rustin was happy to live in the shadows during the civil rights movement and in the 1970s he became a public advocate on LGBT rights issues.

[Bayard Rustin pointing to a map during a press conference four days ahead of the March on Washington in August 1963]

The Black lesbian woman who publicly protested when most gays didn’t

Ernestine Delois Eppenger born and raised in Indiana was influential in the LGBT+ rights movement of the 1960s. She attended Indiana University where she earned a BA in Journalism and moved to New York City in 1963 where she became publicly involved in the early gay rights movement under the moniker Ernestine Eckstein which was typical of many activists of the time to protect themselves from being outed. 

Eckstein became involved with the New York Mattachine society an early gay rights organisation soon after her move to the city and then later became the leader of the New York chapter of the daughters of Bilitis (DOB) a lesbian and civil rights organisation. Whilst in New York she also became involved in the Congress for Racial Equality. 

Members of the Daughters of Bilitis around 1956 (far left) Del Martin (far right) Phyllis Lyon.

At 24-years-old Eckstein joined the first ever Annual Reminder picket at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1965. Most gays at the time, it seems, opposed public protest and the DOB withdrew from the East Coast Homophile Organisations which were the main organisations and publications supporting and representing sexual minorities in the 1950s-60s around the world because they didn’t want to publicly protest. Soon after Ernestine was one of 45 people that picketed the White House in 1965. She was the only black person in attendance. 

[Ernestine Eckstein protesting at the Whitehouse, 1965]

 

Eckstein like the leader of the Black Panthers, Huey P Newton saw connection between black American’s struggle for equality during the civil rights movement and the queer communities struggle for equality and fostered the connection. In one of the only interviews Eckstein ever gave to The Ladder a monthly lesbian magazine Eckstein talked about this connection: 

 

“I would like to see in the homophile movement more people who can think. And I don’t believe we ought to look at their titles or at their sexual orientation. Movements should be intended, I feel, to erase labels, whether ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’”.

 

 

The Jamaican queer artist who secretly ran gay bars in 1970s London

[Pearl Alcock]
Pearl Alcock grew up in Kingston Jamaica and at the age of 25 she traded her life in the Caribbean to go and live in Leeds where she worked as maid and within the city’s booming factory industry. Once she had saved up over a grand grafting in the North, Pearl headed down to London where she had dreams of opening her own shop in the 1970s. With her newfound life in Brixton, one of London’s most multicultural districts that many of Caribbean origin call home, Pearl opened a Shebeen in the basement of her shop. Shebeens were England’s answer to speakeasys of America’s prohibition era for groups in society that were discriminated against by local pubs and bars in the 70s. Most of Pearl’s customers were Black gay men from the Caribbean community of Brixton and it was the only Black gay space amongst London’s underground bar scene and at one point the only gay bar in Brixton. This was a haven for many young Black men and women as they faced racism from the other underground gay bars at the time. 

[Shebeen illustration]
In 1979 with Thatcher’s win over the Labour party Thatcherite Britain began to crack down on places that didn’t hold “traditional moral values” and the police started to shut down and raid Shebeens as a response to this. Pearl knew her customers and friends were vulnerable as queer Black people if the police decided to raid her Shebeen, and she stopped selling alcohol before the 1980s and much of her community left during the first Brixton Uprising. Pearl began running a café in 1981 so that her community would continue to have a safe space to enjoy themselves without the tyrant of police. One of Pearls friends Dirg Aab Richards recalled Pearl being openly out:
 

“I remember her proudly proclaiming “I’m bixsexual ya know” to one of my straight friends”. 

At times Pearl couldn’t afford to keep the electric on and the café closed in 1985. Between those four years Pearl became an artist and made art out of anything she could like receipts, packaging and tights with crayons to hand. Andrea’s a friend of Pearl’s says that she was “self-deprecating about her work” but they remembered “seeing her pleasure” when she was included in the 1990 London Fire Brigade calendar. Like many artists it took until the year before her death for her work to become appreciated by major galleries and gained recognition from the Tate Britain as part of their ‘Outsider Art’ Exhibition in 2005. In 2019, she was the subject of a year-long retrospective at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. 

 

[Pearl Alcock, Celebration of the Night, (detail) 1987]

Africa’s LGBT rights activist murdered for being

FannyAnn Eddy and David Kato were both influential LGBT rights activists in Africa.

Born in Sierra Leone 1972, FannyAnn Eddy had her coming of age during a turbulent time. At just 17-years-old her country was engaged in violent civil war, many died, the legal system was in tatters and Eddy was forced to seek refuge in a refugee camp.  When she returned to her home in 2002, Eddy founded SLLGA (Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association), the first organization of its kind in Sierra Leone. Eddy’s team documented harassment, discrimination and violent arrests of the queer community in Sierra Leone. They also provided social and psychological support. Eddy publicly lobbied government ministers to address the health and human rights of gays and lesbians and to end state-sponsored oppression.

 

Sierra Leone inherited the United Kingdom’s Offence’s against the Person Act 1861 a law against same sex partnerships from British colonial rule. This law only applied to homosexual men because at the time the idea of two women in a same sex relationship was deemed ‘ridiculous’. Because of this Eddy could be openly out as a lesbian when other queer people couldn’t.

Eddy worked tirelessly to fight homophobic and transphobic laws and even spoke to the UN about how such inequalities would lead to the belief that crimes against queer people were acceptable. Despite this the UN rejected her bill for lack of support and in her speech she talked about the state sponsored oppression

We do exist. But because of the denial of our existence, we live in constant fear: fear of the police and officials with the power to arrest and detain us simply because of our sexual orientation” – FannyAnn Eddy at the United Nations 

FannyAnn Eddy

Unfortunately, FannyAnn’s life was cut short when she was killed in her office in 2004 by a group of men who sexually assaulted her before murdering her. To this day, her murder is unsolved—an example of the police force’s deliberate incompetence when dealing with hate crimes against the community. Though they had one man in custody for several days, he quickly “escaped,” and there was never any trial. No other men were charged, and the police refused to acknowledge that it was a hate crime. She left behind a legacy as a trailblazer of her time in Sierra Leon and the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation was founded in 2007 and works to provide help and support for the queer community across the globe.

Born into the Kisule Clan in Nakawala Uganda, David Kato attended Uganda’s public University Kyambogo in Kampala the Ugandan capital where he went onto become a schoolteacher but was soon dismissed because of his sexual orientation. According to the BBC his colleague Julian Pepe said he came out to his family, particularly his twin brother, Waswa, just before he went to teach in South Africa following his dismal from schools in Uganda. Kato lived in South Africa during the end of Apartheid and on reflection of living there before returning to Uganda he said: 

 

In South Africa I fought for their liberation in Johannesburg, so when I came home that was in 1998, I had the same momentum – I tried to liberate my own community”. 

[David Kato portrait by SMUG]

Not long after moving back to Uganda he spent a week in police custody for his activism which kicked started his role as the litigation office for the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) an LGBT+ group that advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights for the community in Kampala. 

In 2009, Kato spoke at the UN conference on human rights about LGBT rights and the anti—LGBT community in Uganda. Members of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission “openly joked and snickered” during the speech.

Kato won a high court case against tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone that published an article under the headline ‘hang them’ which revealed over 100 people’s names, photographs and addresses that called for their execution because they were homosexuals. Kato and his colleagues from SMUG sued the newspaper because it published the names and pictures of people it believed to be gay or lesbian. 

[High Court case against rolling stone]
In 2011, just weeks after the high court win Kato was murdered with hammer in his own home in Kampala. Many of David’s friends said in the lead up to his arrest after winning the case he was at the forefront of harassment and threats from people and believed the motive for his murder was because of his sexual orientation. The police arrested a man called Sidney Enoch for David’s murder but didn’t acknowledge that the attack was because of his sexuality and instead believed it was a robbery gone wrong.  

[David Kato’s funeral]
Kato had devoted the last year of his life to trying to defeat Uganda’s controversial anti-homosexuality act, which proposed to broaden the criminalisation of same-sex relations in Uganda, making it punishable by life imprisonment and in some cases, death. Unfortunately, Kato’s worked became completely undone in 2014 when the anti-homosexuality act came into force in Uganda which led to a significant rise in attacks against the queer community with people burning down their houses, violent arrests and mob violence.

The EU, Hillary Clinton and even Obama condemned the murder and asked for the authorities to investigate the crime and to speak out against homophobia and transphobia. 

“David showed tremendous courage in speaking out against hate. He was a powerful advocate for fairness and freedom” – Barack Obama