History of LGBT: Race and Racism

Aryana Bates. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Responding to the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Audre Lorde Project’s Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, and Transgender People of Color Communities issued a statement condemning the scapegoating of people of color in the United States. The statement challenges other LGBT organizations to expand beyond strategies of single-issue politics and to take a stand on the crisis that incorporates a critique of xenophobia. This call speaks to the significance of race and racism within LGBT communities in the United States.

Definitions and History

Racism, roughly defined, is the belief that race determines human characteristics and capabilities, and that differences grounded in race translate into an inherent superiority of one race over others. Most scholars today are critical of biological conceptions of race, believing instead that race and racism are social, cultural, and historical constructions with powerful material effects. Racism in North America, rooted in histories of colonialism and slavery, takes many forms, ranging from physical violence to systemic white supremacy. Traci C. West in Wounds of the Spirit maintains that white supremacy is the most actively pervasive form of racism in the United States. In West’s view, white supremacy has two key components: the institutionalized political, cultural, social, and economic power of white people; and the disproportionate access of white people to high status through the privileging of whiteness. In this framework, people of color are seen as less worthy and valuable than those considered white. White expectations and standards occupy a culturally dominant position and people of color are subjected to white judgments and decisions.

LGBT people of color are as subject to the effects of racism as are their non-LGBT counterparts. In fact, they have encountered both the racism of the larger society and the racism of LGBT communities. In terms of the former, LGBT people of color have experienced racialized, gendered, and sexualized colonialism, enslavement, segregation, capitalist exploitation, immigration exclusion, and citizenship restriction. In terms of the latter, community studies of LGBT life before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 have documented the history of racism in LGBT social and sexual worlds, examining racist ideologies and practices in neighborhoods, streets, parks, beaches, bars, clubs, restaurants, bedrooms, and bath-houses. When LGBT people began in the post-World War II era to challenge homophobia through homophile political organizing, they modeled their movement on race-based civil rights activism but failed to address both ongoing struggles against racism and the particular needs of LGBT people of color. After Stonewall, LGBT activists of color (including Anita Cornwell, Kyoshi Kuromiya, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Smith) increasingly criticized white supremacy in LGBT communities, but LGBT worlds continued to be marked by racism.

As Siobhan Somerville has argued, the links between homophobia and racism run deep. Somerville’s Queering the Color Line (2000) examines scientific, literary, and popular discourse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, demonstrating that the language and concepts of scientific racism played foundational roles in the invention of the language and concepts of scientific homophobia. The same impulses that led scientists to develop taxonomies of race led them to develop taxonomies of sexuality. Just as they used science to put forward notions of racial superiority and inferiority, they used science to put forward notions of sexual superiority and inferiority. And to the extent that their sexual science was aimed at improving “the race,” their categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality were profoundly racialized.

Within the LGBT community, white supremacy often takes the forms of a lack of awareness about an effective critique of, and an appropriate accountability for, white privilege. Ignorance of systemic racialized power imbalances often translates into social and political strategies against heteronormativity and heterosexism that omit the concerns of LGBT people of color. Already dealing with denial, invisibility, and shame induced by homophobia and transphobia within communities of color, LGBT people of color must also negotiate white supremacy within LGBT communities.

African Americans

According to Cornel West, white supremacy is an ideology based primarily on the degradation and control of black bodies. Influenced by centuries of racial slavery, African American identity exists in the context of a long history of racism that continues to have social, economic, and political repercussions. Today the average income of African Americans remains at or near the bottom of the income scale. African Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS and are over-represented in the prison system. While the black body continues to be a highly visible site of public discourse about race, real African Americans still confront invisibility.

Barbara Smith submits that despite the development in the 1970s of a strong black LGBT movement and evidence of black LGBT influences in art and literature, African American LGBT people are still missing in historical scholarship. For example, during the 1920s, black LGBT people flourished in Harlem. Smith suggests that this time period may have reflected openness sparked by the wider society’s racial prejudice or may simply have been an instance of structural accommodation in which black people were forced to live together in a community designed by geographic apartheid. Whatever the reasons, the Harlem Renaissance fostered and was fostered by LGBT writers and artists. And yet racism, homophobia, and transphobia have often rendered invisible their contributions. The same can be said for the activities of Bayard Rustin, the adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who served as chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The roles of Cleo Glenn, president of the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1960s, and Ernestine Eckstein, who marched in early homophile demonstrations, are also rarely acknowledged. Nor are the challenges made to sexual racism in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Anita Cornwell (whose works were later collected in Black Lesbian in White America) and by LGBT delegates at the 1970 Black Panther Party’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention.

Influenced by activists and writers such as Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith, the 1970s witnessed important developments in African American LGBT political organizing. The Combahee River Collective authored an influential statement analyzing intersections between forms of oppression and resistance based on gender, sexuality, class, and race. The National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays was created. The 1979 LGBT March on Washington, the first national march for LGBT rights, and its associated National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference were milestones in the development of black LGBT organizations.

African American, white, and other activists do work collaboratively within the mainstream LGBT community. Nevertheless, racism continues to thwart coalition building, fracturing the wider movement for sexual and gender equality. In the face of such racism, African American LGBT people are forced to live divided lives. They need to be connected to the wider LGBT community because of the importance of sexuality and gender in their lives. At the same time, they need to be connected with the wider black community because this is the foundation of their social identities, the “womb” that provides protection from the oppressive dominant culture. The African American family is an especially important shield against racism. The refuge provided by the African American family is, however, complicated by pervasive homophobia and transphobia within the black community.

Arab Americans

The Arab American Antidiscrimination Committee reported more than two hundred hate crimes in the week following the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since then, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States have heightened the feeling among LGBT Arab Americans that they are outsiders twice over. They share with other Arab and Muslim Americans the repercussions of increasingly severe policies and attitudes. At the same time, as members of ethnic and religious cultures that have been explicitly homophobic and transphobic, they struggle to make a space for themselves.

Anticipating racist backlash, LGBT Arab American and Muslim groups responded quickly to the September 11 attacks with public statements supporting the victims and condemning the terrorists. Ramzi Zakharia, a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society (GLAS), witnessed both the attack and the subsequent threatening e-mails sent to his group’s Web site. The gay and lesbian Muslim group Al-Fatiha (“the Opening”) prepared a statement mourning the loss of life and condemning the tragedy. The group also endorsed the Queer Economic Justice Network’s (QEJN) call for LGBT organizations to oppose war and denounce the racist and xenophobic attacks taking place against Arab, Muslim, South Asian, and Central Asian communities.

Organizing by LGBT Arab and Muslim people is a fairly recent phenomenon that has found its largest public forum via the Internet. Academic research and theorizing about the concerns of this population has emerged only in the last few years. Islamic religious discourse remains hostile to LGBT existence. Activists, however, are creating virtual and actual communities and are addressing political and social issues in increasingly organized ways. Working for visibility and safe space, their chief concerns are countering homophobia and transphobia in the Arab and Muslim world and challenging racism in LGBT communities. Organizations in the wider LGBT community such as QEJN, Pride at Work, Queers for Racial & Economic Justice, and Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE) expressed public support for Arab Americans and Muslims after September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, dealing with racist attitudes that long precede that day and urging the LGBT community to be mindful of its discriminatory ideas and practices are common themes in Arab and Muslim American LGBT public discourse.

The Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society and Al-Fatiha are two of the more comprehensive organizations. Established in 1988 and based in the United States, GLAS is an international networking organization for gays and lesbians of Arab descent. The society aims to promote positive images of gays and lesbians in Arab communities and to combat negative portrayals of Arabs within LGBT communities. Al-Fatiha, founded in 1998, is a member of an international network of LGBT Muslim organizations and has the unique goal of reconciling Muslim LGBT people with their religion. The organization promotes Islamic notions of peace, equality, and justice. Providing resources and a safe environment within the context of Arab and Muslim communities, GLAS and Al-Fatiha are committed to ending injustice and discrimination.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Representing the newly formed Lesbian and Gay Asian Collective at the 1979 March on Washington, Michiyo Cornell bore witness to the importance of that moment. In her address at the Washington Monument, she referenced the emerging network of support among LGBT Asian Americans in the context of racial and sexual oppression and the difficulty of maintaining unique identities given pervasive ignorance and racist resistance to differences. Cornell emphasized the concept of Asian America as a space apart where people who have been an integral part of the country for nearly two hundred years are not yet considered fully American but are simultaneously categorized as the country’s “model minority” (Cornell, pp. 83-84). LGBT people in Asian America and LGBT Pacific Islanders share common problems with their non-LGBT counterparts, such as fear of deportation, economic discrimination, sexual objectification, and dependence on families and communities for support. These common problems differentiate their experiences of homophobia and transphobia from those of the white LGBT community. They have always had to consider not only their sexual and gender marginality but also the history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, the legacy of colonization, and the dynamics of emerging Third World struggles across the globe.

Asian American and Pacific Islander LGBT activists and writers speak of negotiating multiple identities and of making hard choices between conflicting sociopolitical commitments. Gil Mangaoang was one of many activists asserting Asian identities in white-dominated society in the early 1970s. While immersed in social justice work for Filipinos and exploring his Filipino American identity, Mangaoang struggled with his sexual orientation, feeling that the two parts of his life were irreconcilable. To come out in the Filipino community was, for him, to face double jeopardy. Being openly gay would undermine his legitimacy within the Filipino community and would compound racial discrimination with homophobia in his dealings with society at large. For a period Mangaoang spent some time in organizations geared toward Filipino causes and other time in white-male dominated gay rights organizations, encountering homophobia in the former and racist attitudes in the latter. Like Mangaoang, many LGBT Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to experience the worlds of Asia/Pacific America and LGBT America as separate places and take care to keep the two worlds distant from one another.

Over twenty years after Cornell’s speech, Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT people still struggle for cultural and political citizenship. Members of the Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT community continue combating what Eric Estuar Reyes describes as representational hyphenization and stereotypes of the silent, hardworking, “good minority” with exotic (a) sexualities (Reyes, pp. 85-86). Activism and visibility, however, have increased over the last twenty years. Countering suspicions about their ethnic loyalties, many LGBT Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders use constructionist ideas about gender and sexuality to challenge essentialist tendencies often prevalent in ethnic-based narratives of identity. They are claiming LGBT identities as part of their ethnicity rather than as a “white disease” and are creating “no passing zones” or sites of resistance where marginality is transformed into empowerment and self-definition (Williams León, pp. 159-160).

Social, political, and academic networks have grown since Asian American LGBT activists such as Kyoshi Kuromiya first rose to prominence in the 1960s and since LGBT Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations first formed in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the locus of cultural, social, and political power has not shifted much. Asian American and Pacific Islander communities remain marginal and disenfranchised in Eurocentric America, while LGBT people continue to confront homophobia and transphobia in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Within academia, for instance, Asian American studies has brought strong focus to cultural differences within Asian American communities, but often remains silent on the topic of sexual and gender diversity. Notwithstanding the growing number and range of cultural resources, many LGBT Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders still view themselves as on the margins of both LGBT America and Asian/Pacific America and feel especially invisible in the context of the broader society’s heteronormative white supremacy.

Latinas and Latinos

Despite being the fastest-growing ethnic population in the United States and the country’s largest ethnic minority, Latinas and Latinos continue to experience racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and political disenfranchisement. Language remains a contested marker of social legitimacy, a subject of heated debate on the value of having a homogenous versus a heterogeneous lingua franca. Spanish-speaking people present the most visible challenge to an “English-only” social environment and, despite hundreds of years of existence in the lands that now make up the United States, are still perceived as being outside the normative parameters of North American identity.

In addition to encountering the discrimination that Latinos/as face in general, LGBT people confront deeply engrained homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia within Hispanic communities and are simultaneously marginalized by the larger, non-Hispanic LGBT population. Traditional gender roles are firmly established within Latino/a families and cultures. Women are generally expected to be submissive, virtuous, and willing to defer to men, who in turn are expected to exhibit aggression and control. By labeling themselves as lesbians, Latina women push their culture to reconsider its views on women’s gender and sexuality and are therefore perceived as a threat to the established order. Homosexuality is generally not open for discussion. Male same-sex sexual relations, although not uncommon, are rarely discussed and usually occur within a prescribed dominant/submissive formula in which the aggressor is not considered gay. Men who exist outside of the masculine norm are at best suspect and at worst are subject to violence. Although LGBT visibility continues to grow within Latino/a cultures, it faces sustained resistance.

LGBT Latino/a activists and writers have been openly countering invisibility, homophobia, transphobia, and racism since the 1950s. In the homophile movement era, Tony Segura helped found the Mattachine Society of New York; Tony Reyes was involved in the creation of ONE, Inc.; a Filipina lesbian helped create the Daughters of Bilitis; and José Sarria ran for political office in San Francisco. Sylvia Rivera is credited with playing a key role at the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York and shortly thereafter created Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Jeanne Cordova edited and later published the Lesbian Tide, founded in 1971. Juanita Ramos spoke at the 1979 March on Washington and eight years later edited the first Latina lesbian anthology, Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (1987). The organization Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos was formed in 1981; three years later Lesbianas Unidas developed to serve the specific needs of women within the group. The first and second Lesbiana Encuentros took place in Cuernavaca, Mexico (1987), and Costa Rica (1990). In 1998 Nicole Ramirez-Murray, co-chair of the National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO), endorsed the year 2000 Millennium March on Washington. Although the march was controversial among LGBT communities of color, Ramirez-Murray stressed its importance in light of intensifying assaults on both the LGBT and Latino/a populations.

Activism notwithstanding, Latino/a and LGBT identities do not easily mix. Jorge Sanchez, a Colombian immigrant who does gay outreach in the Mission District of San Francisco, describes the balancing act as “making a Faustian bargain.” In the Mission, Latino/a LGBT people feel culturally at home but must deal with the same religious, family, and “machismo” influences typical of Latin American countries. In the mostly white Castro district next door, they find acceptance for their sexualities and genders. But there they have to cope with systemic racism, are subjected to erotic fetishism, and are also dismissed as gangsters or migrant workers. The diversity and divisions that characterize multifaceted immigrant and American-born Chicano/a, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, South American, and other Latino/a communities are erased under the homogenizing, white supremacist gaze.

Despite virulent homophobia and transphobia in their ethnic communities, Latino/a LGBT people sustain deep attachments to those communities. Latino/a cultures generally expect that large, extended families will remain close-knit. Despite rejection of sexual and gender diversity by these cultures, LGBT members remain committed to family and community. This is especially true in the context of a wider LGBT culture whose rites and institutions, according to Eric-Steven Gutierrez, consider Latino/a LGBT people to be peripheral or an “acquired taste” (p. 242).

Native Americans

A landmark book in the long history of academic inquiry into Native American sexualities and genders, Two-Spirit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, begins with a dedication to the memory of Native Americans who have died as a result of homophobia, HIV/AIDS, and racism. This book grew out of a series of precedent-setting conferences held in 1993 and 1994. The primary goal of the Wenner-Gren Conferences was to convene both Native American and non-Native scholars and activists for discussions about constructions of sexuality and gender in Native American cultures and for critical reconsideration of previous scholarly writings.

Native American peoples endure two ongoing legacies: first, the erasure and misrepresentation by dominant culture discourse, and second, the systematically enforced separation from their own cultural heritage through a variety of institutionalized practices, ranging from wholesale denigration of Native belief systems and reeducation through the “boarding school system” to urban relocation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native American contributors to the Two-Spirit volume attest to the persistent impact of racism, ignorance, homophobia, and transphobia. Pervasive cultural usurpation and desecration leave Native peoples’ lives, land, and language severely endangered. Lost heritage and the power of internalized racism complicate efforts to counter the limited definitions of identity imposed by dominant culture.

In Two-Spirit People, the collaborators document the shift from European and Euro-American control of discourse to Native American and First Nations self-naming, critical theory, and activism. The authors recognize that discussions of Native American gender diversity and sexuality have too long been about, but not with, Native Americans. With the exception of Beatrice Medicine’s now classic 1979 article “Changing Native American Sex Roles in an Urban Context,” very little writing has dealt with the experiences of contemporary two-spirit people, thus perpetuating the erasure of their living culture. In consulting sessions for the book, Native American participants identified a need for thorough research into contemporary LGBT and two-spirit people and contemporary gender and sexual diversity in Native American communities. They also strongly recommended reevaluation of the commonly cited concept of berdache and more accurate studies of traditional roles historically categorized under that term. The etymology of berdache and the history of its application to Native American LGBT and two-spirit people serves as an example of the pervasive impact of white supremacy on the community. (Berdache was first applied to Native Americans by early French explorers, who simplistically employed an Arabic or Persian term for a boy slave.)

Native Americans self-identify in terms of Native categories instead of embracing terminologies imposed by others. The Native categories themselves are complex and contested, subject to social location, historical specificity, and individual experience. Activist organizations such as Gay American Indians, which was formed by Barbara Cameron and Randy Burns in 1975, have at the heart of their work a search for Indian pride in the face of pervasive racism; a challenge to sexism, homophobia, and transphobia within their communities; and a desire to mediate between tradition and change. This mediation involves both challenging inaccurate typologies and generating new categories to signify traditional and emerging identities.

The term two-spirit (or two-spirited), for example, was originated in 1990 at the third Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference. “Two-spirit” generally includes Native American LGBT people and people who identify with traditional tribal gender and sexual categories. Development of the term was a deliberate move to distance Native Americans from non-Native LGBT people. The identities of contemporary Native American two-spirit people emerge at what Sabine Lang describes as the intersection of traditional tribal gender models, (ways of life that have developed in LGBT urban subcultures) and awareness of being Native American as opposed to being white or of any other ethnic heritage.


LGBT communities of color are diverse, reflecting the unique characteristics of their various races, ethnicities, religions, languages, classes, sexes, genders, and sexualities, but they share the common experience of having to confront and negotiate racism. Like the wider communities of color, they are subject to oppression ranging from economic disadvantage, political disenfranchisement, and physical violence to ineffective health care, social ostracism, and cultural invisibility. Racism, including white supremacy, complicates their efforts to live as whole, multidimensional people able to celebrate their racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities. The effects of racism thwart LGBT people at social, economic, political, and personal levels, restricting growth and erasing their existence from public discourse.

LGBT activists, academics, and other architects of culture within communities of color have a substantial and multifaceted history of countering racism, heteronormativity, and gender oppression. From the civil rights movement to the LGBT movement, African American LGBT people have been full, if usually invisible, participants in struggles for social justice. Arab Americans are taking advantage of communication technologies to build LGBT communities. Those communities in turn are taking an active stand against war, racial discrimination, sexual intolerance, and gender prejudice. Stereotyped as the “model minority,” Asian Americans continue to challenge both this categorization and the homophobia and transphobia of their various communities. Latino/a LGBT people confront their heteropatriarchal cultures and white supremacy in the mainstream LGBT community. In the process they assert their values, priorities, and visions for socioeconomic, sexual, and gender justice. Native American LGBT people draw on a legacy that includes the first North American resistance to white supremacist discourse. Their activism challenges both racist attitudes and the homophobia and transphobia imported into their cultures by those attitudes.

Present in—but marginalized by—every one of these communities, mixed race people complicate the struggle even further, suffering the effects of essentialist categories of identity as well as challenging them. LGBT people are complex and complicated. Those in communities of color continue to encounter racism. The movers and shakers among them challenge and change society on a daily basis. As church activist and health care practitioner Audrey Skeete declares, “We Ain’t Gonna’ Let Nobody Turn Us Around.”