Pride Month is a time to reflect on the trailblazers, freedom fighters, and history makers who fought valiantly to increase inclusion and representation for the LGBTQ community, and who have paved a way for a better tomorrow for future generations.
In Part Two of our four-part series celebrating Champions of Pride, we honor some of the entertainment greats who have played a major role in LGBTQ history.
The Poet: Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)
Born in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents, Audre Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Through her numerous critically acclaimed works, Lorde paved the way for other creative voices in the LGBTQ community, confronting injustices of her time and fighting consistently against racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.
A lover of words and poetry from an early age, Lorde got her start attending Hunter College and Columbia University. She then worked as a librarian for several years, until she was able to complete and publish her first volume of poetry entitled ‘First Cities” in 1968. She followed it with “Cables to Rage” (1970), “From a Land Where Other People Live” (1973), “Coal” (1976), and “The Black Unicorn” (1978) — a volume which many consider her greatest creation. Throughout all her books, Lorde focused on topics that were rarely covered in mainstream publications including racial tensions in the South, African heritage, feminism, motherhood, and living with a queer identity.
Today, The Audre Lorde Project in New York City stands as a monument of Lorde’s ongoing impact, providing a place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, trans and gender non-conforming people of color center to gather, mobilize, learn and commune.
In her own words: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
The Wordsmith: James Baldwin (1924 – 1987)
Widely considered one of America’s greatest writers and essayists, James Baldwin is acclaimed for his work exploring ideas of masculinity, sexuality, race and class along with the political movements (such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement) that drove the way people thought about these ideas during much of the mid- and late-twentieth century. The Harlem-born author is perhaps best known for 1955’s “Notes of a Native Son,” which introspectively examines race and birthright in the country, as well as the 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room,” with its then-groundbreaking depictions of homosexual and bisexual life and themes. Baldwin famously dedicated the book to Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger, whom he later called “the great love of my life.”
While renowned for his unflinching looks at Black and gay lives, and the intersectionality of the stories he told, Baldwin was also a dedicated political activist, taking part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. He wrote extensively about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the south’s burgeoning civil rights movement, and also spoke on these matters often as well, including his history making lecture entitled “Race, Racism, and the Gay Community” which he delivered in the early ‘80s.
Although Baldwin passed away as a result of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63, his work lives on even today through the legacy of the numerous leaders and organizations he inspired including the National James Baldwin Literary Society.
In his own words: “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
The Voice: Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)
Many artists are known for their tumultuous backstories and histories, but few had it harder — or made more from those challenges — than the legendary jazz chanteuse known as “Lady Day,” the one and only Billie Holiday. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915, Holiday was the daughter of unwed teenage couple Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan and Clarence Halliday (also known as Clarence Holiday).
In her youth, Holiday’s mother worked long hours away from the home, leaving her daughter with little to no adult supervision. And that freedom took its toll. Before she even reached her teenage years, Holiday had dropped out of school, begun working as an errand girl in a brothel and even spent time working as a prostitute.
In her teens, Billie began singing in dance halls and nightclubs in Harlem. At 16, she was “discovered” by bandleader Benny Goodman and by the time she was 23 she had begun recording for the popular label Brunswick Records, making a significant amount of money and even touring with the biggest act of the day, Count Basie’s Big Band. Still, despite her success — in the 1940s she was making more than a quarter of a million dollars per year — she had frequent problems with the law, generally because of her rampant drug use and alcoholism.
Holiday’s love life was also frequent fodder for the press and brought the star even more notoriety. Although she married three different men during the course of her life, she was also proudly bisexual, carrying on a number of high-profile relationships with women including prominent American philanthropist Louise Crane and actress Tallulah Bankhead.
As Holiday entered the 1950s her voice had begun to falter because of her wild lifestyle. In 1959, she was diagnosed with Cirrhosis. She passed away just six months later. Still, even today her star shines bright not just for the remarkable legacy of recordings she left us with but also for her unabashed pride in her identity as a bisexual Black woman — as well as for the way she worked to overcome so much to become one of the greatest voices ever in the history of recorded music.
In her own words: “A kiss that is never tasted, is forever and ever wasted.”