Before voguing made it’s mainstream debut via Madonna in 1990 and the classic Jennie Livingston doc Paris is Burning in the same year, voguing was a dance pioneered by black drag queens in the 1960’s NYC Harlem ballroom era. The dance itself began as an admiration of the lifestyle of the rich and the famous, the fifth ave steppers and high fashion magazine models and their poses- hence the name. By the 80’s, as shown in Paris is Burning, the dance evolved into a form of shade and was used to distinguish who was legendary and who wasn’t. One such legend was Willi Ninja, the mother of the House of Ninja who not only mastered the dance form but aspired to take voguing from the ballroom to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn. And did he ever.
Androgynous Rhythm and Blues singer Jackie Shane rose to fame in the early 1960’s in Montreal and amassed a huge Toronto fan base. While his rise to fame could be credited to his Canadian following, Jackie was born and raised in Nashville Tennessee and grew up around music. The home of country music developed a growing jazz movement in the 1950’s and in his teenage years, Jackie lived with Nashville’s Queen of the Blues Marion James.
“Models pose in clothes. People live in them” was the mantra of revered fashion designer Willi Smith. His designs pushed the boundaries of fashion from as early as 1976 creating affordable street-wise clothing that rejected the notion “we the rich can dress up and have fun, and the rest can dress in blazers and slacks”
Patrick Kelly was a Mississippi born fashion aficionado who rose to fame in Paris in the 1980’s for his eccentric yet elegant women’s designs. His creations were worn by the likes of Princess Diana, Bette Davis, Grace Jones, Jane Seymour and Madonna to name a few. He was adored in the Paris fashion world and was the first American to be voted into elite Parisian fashion designers society Chambre Syndicale joining the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix among others.
With all that’s happened to the Black Community lately, I’ve been feeling a void. A void for justice, for racial harmony, for more queer-positive role models of colour… From the Michael Brown murder to the proceeding Ferguson Riots and Black Lives Matter movement to the epic failure of the Academy Awards in their decision not to nominate more actors and directors of colour; it feels like the etchings of a new Civil Rights Movement. One in which not only minorities, women and the disabled have a voice but also the LGBT community- specifically our Transgendered brothers and sisters.
So my contribution to this new unified movement is to shine a light on some queer specific black brilliance. Lately way too much of my time has been spent feeling jilted about the outright racist bullshit that’s happened and continues to happen in our society. So this month I’ll be spotlighting black LGBT identified powerhouses that left a unique mark on the worlds of fashion, art, music, political activism and mainstream culture.
Rolling along with Black History month, it gives me so much pleasure to write about this legendary icon. Sylvester James Jr., born September 6th 1947 in LA, was an American singer/songwriter. Known by his stage name Sylvester, he is recognized as one of the great Queens of the disco era reigning along side the likes of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor.
Bayard Rustin was born on March 17th 1912 Westchester Pennsylvania. He attended Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College and City College of New York; he never received a B.A. Mr. Rustin is cited for his involvement in The Civil Rights Movement, in which he was a leading activist from 1947-1955, and for his stances on pacifism and gay rights. He was influenced by civil rights activists W.E.B Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph among others. He was also heavily influenced by the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi. He even travelled to India in 1948 to learn non violent civil resistance techniques from the leaders of the Gandhian movement. He influenced the lives and works of people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and James L Farmer Jr.
With February at my doorstep, I got to thinking about what I can do to acknowledge the significance of Black History Month in a way that’s meaningful to me. Black History in itself is filled with significance. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see if as a gay man of colour, I can discover LGBT men/women who contributed to black history.
So this month my blog will be dedicated to celebrating black history by sharing the stories of black LGBT heroes whose legacy transcends generations and racial barriers.