‘We Must Document Ourselves Now’: The Legacy of Black Lesbian Feminist Leadership

June 27, 2019

As I prepare to celebrate Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion with my beloved friends in New York City, I reflect on the words of Barbara Smith, a founding member of the Black lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective.

“Despite some genuine efforts to increase diversity, especially in progressive movement circles, exclusivity and elitism still divide us,” Smith told the New York Times this month. “We have won rights and achieved recognition that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, but many of us continue to be marginalized, both in the larger society and within the movement itself.” 

Her words remind me of the ways in which communities that navigate oppression maintain resilience in the face of state and vigilante violence. I’m haunted by the solemn reminder of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the unchecked, inhumane, and deadly targeting of Black trans women across the United States; by the 2018 murder of Afro-Brazilian lesbian feminist Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro after she attended a Black women’s empowerment event; and by the story of Monica James, a Black trans woman activist who in 2007 was jailed for defending herself against an off-duty Chicago police officer and subsequently placed in a men’s prison, where she was brutally sexually violated and denied gender-affirming health care.

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