Black LGBTQ+ icons to recognize during Black History Month


Eriana Ruiz

Pictured in illustration from left: Marsha P. Johnson, Alvin Ailey, RuPaul, Laverne Cox, Angela Davis and James Baldwin.

Mykel Hilliard, Editor-in-Chief

Marsha P. Johnson 

(Aug. 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992)

Marsha P. Johnson stated the P in her name stood for “pay it no mind” and would sarcastically utter the phrase when people questioned her gender identity. 

Johnson was one of seven children born to Malcolm Michaels Sr. and Alberta (Claiborne) Michaels on Aug. 24, 1945, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After finding little acceptance from her family, Johnson moved to New York City where she settled in the Greenwich Village area. She went on to become a prominent figure in the NYC gay art scene. She danced for the drag theater company Hot Peaches and modeled for artists such as Andy Warhol. 

In the 1960s, when the Gay Rights movement rose to prominence, she became a visible figure and marched to advocate for the transgender and non-gender-conforming community, eventually founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization – initially titled Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries. Johnson’s legacy lives on in organizations such as the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which advocates to protect and defend the rights of Black transgender people. In February 2020, New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo announced the East River State Park in Brooklyn would be renamed The Marsha P. Johnson State Park, making it the first time an openly LGBTQ+ person would receive a park named in their honor in the city. 



(November 17, 1960 – Present)

With a career spanning over 25 years, it is no surprise many consider RuPaul to be one of the most famous drag queens of the 21st century. 

Throughout his childhood, he enjoyed performing and loved the spotlight. At 15, he moved to Atlanta with his older sister to attend Northside School of the Performing Arts, where he nurtured his growing performance skills. In 1987 he moved to New York City and began working the local drag scene, eventually landing a gig on The Gong Show on MTV. In 1993 he made his musical debut with his dance-pop tinged album Supermodel of the World. The album’s lead single, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” was a runaway success and catapulted him to superstardom. RuPaul landed acting credits in films such as “The Brady Bunch Movie” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” 

In recent years, he has continued to bring drag culture to the mainstream with the reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race. His role as host of the show has garnered him five Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program. The show’s meme-worthy moments have helped it become a pop culture phenomenon and have helped jump-start the careers of some of today’s most notable drag queens. 


James Baldwin

(August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987)

American writer and activist James Baldwin is one of the most notable and influential Black writers of all time according to Biography. His intricate writing pieces explored life in the mid-20th century with a focus on racial, sexual and class distinctions in Western society. 

Born to Emma Berdis Jones in Harlem, he was the oldest of eight children. To escape his abusive and poverty-stricken household, Baldwin would spend time at his local library, eventually discovering an infatuation with reading and writing. He started his professional writing career in 1947 writing for The Nation and continued writing for various publications. Throughout his literary career, Baldwin published notable works such as “Giovanni’s Room” (1956) and “Another Country” (1962) which discussed mental health, same-sex relationships and sexual identity. 

In the later years of his life, Baldwin lived in various parts of Europe eventually settling in France where he lived until he died in 1987. His legacy lives on through film and media. In 2016 portions of his unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House,” was adapted into a documentary titled “I Am Not Your Negro.” The film was a critical and financial success and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards. 


Angela Davis

(January 26, 1944 – Present)

Activist and educator Angela Davis is known for her outspoken stances on issues such as equal rights for Black and brown people, women, workers and other marginalized groups. 

Davis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in a neighborhood which was later dubbed, “Dynamite Hill,” because of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. She studied philosophy at Brandeis University and later attended graduate school at the University of California, San Diego. 

In 1970 she was charged with three capital felonies, after guns belonging to her were used in an armed courtroom takeover in Marin County, California. After serving a year in jail she was acquitted of all charges. 

In 1997 she founded Critical Resistance, a grassroots movement organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex. Throughout her life, Davis has been awarded and honored for her work. In 2019 Davis was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2020 she was featured in Time magazine’s “100 Women of the Year” edition, as the 1971 “Woman of the Year.” 


Janet Mock 

(March 10, 1983 – Present) 

Transgender activist Janet Mock is a multifaceted talent. She is a writer, television host, director and producer. Born in 1983 in Honolulu, Hawaii to parents Charlie and Elizabeth Mock, she would live the earlier parts of her life not identifying with her assigned gender. During her freshman year of college at the University of Hawaii Manoa, she underwent gender-confirming surgery. After graduating from UH Manoa she moved to New York to attend NYU where she earned a Master of Arts degree in Journalism. After graduating she started a job at People magazine as a staff editor. 

After publically coming out as a trans woman in 2011, she shifted her career focus to media to advocate on behalf of the transgender community. In recent years, Mock has spent time behind the camera directing, writing and producing the television series FX’s Pose and Netflix’s Hollywood. The former series helped her make history for being the first trans woman of color to be hired as a writer for a television series. 


Alvin Ailey

(January 5, 1931 – December 1, 1989) 

In the 1950s a young dancer and choreographer named Alvin Ailey had his sights set on creating a safe haven for young Black dancers. As a result, he opened the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). Over 50 years later the dance company is one of the most respected and celebrated dance studios in the world. 

Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas at the height of the Great Depression. He moved frequently with his mother so she could find work. In 1946, Ailey saw a dance program that sparked his interest in dancing professionally. He pursued an education at UCLA and San Francisco State University while also honing his dance skills at various studios. Ailey’s dedication to training proved to be successful as he was cast in various on and off-broadway productions. His legacy lives on. In 2014 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. 


Laverne Cox

(May 29, 1972 – Present)

Before her break-out role as Sophia Burset on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” transgender actress Laverne Cox was fearlessly advocating for the trans community on television. 

In 2008 she appeared on the VH1 competition reality show “I Want to Work for Diddy.” Her appearance on the show helped her gain her show, “TRANSform Me.” This show earned her a producing credit making her the first African American trans woman to produce and star in her own television series.

 In 2013 she joined the cast of Netflix’s, “Orange Is the New Black.” The show’s runaway success garnered Cox media attention, making her one of the most visible transgender actresses in the world according to Oprah Magazine. In June 2014, Cox made history when she became the first openly transgender person to be featured on the cover of TIME magazine. In  2016, a wax statue created in her likeness debuted at Madame Tussauds, making her the first transgender woman to receive a statue at the museum.