11 Feb 2023

Queer History Month and Race Equality Week

Post written by: Rebekah Daws


As Race Equality Week comes to an end and Queer History Month continues we wanted to call attention to important figures in the history of the arts.

These 3 individuals spent their lives navigating intersectional identities and fighting for countless issues including civil rights, anti-colonialism, homeless queer youth, HIV/AIDS, trans and gender-nonconforming rights and gay liberation.


Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995)

Openly gay poet and activist


A graphic with photos of Essex Hemphill
Essex Hemphill. Openly gay poet and activist.


“A potent blend of honesty, political and social critique, and celebratory spirit, his writing fed a generation fighting for justice and equality.”

Though more people are beginning to write about Hemphill again, in the years since his death his impact was largely invisible. Obscured by the passage of time and, some say, the biases that have left queer black authors out of the literary canon.

Born in Chicago, raised in poverty. Poetry was his refuge…working through his feelings about his race and sexuality. In the 80s, he captivated the D.C. arts scene, filling coffeehouses and artsy theatres, graduating to the Kennedy Center, then to New York and London. Sarah Kaplan noted that he became “the unofficial voice of the city’s black gay community — lyrical, charismatic and fiercely political.”

He was also at the centre of what people were calling a second Harlem Renaissance and one of the sole writers to articulate what it meant to be both black and gay during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hemphill’s humour and wit infused his shows, and his passion and commitment to justice shone through in every word. As a captivating performer, Hemphill brought his words to life through his readings and shows.

Essex Hemphill left an indelible mark on the fight against HIV and AIDS as a visionary literary artist and activist.

References and Resouces




Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002)

Transgender activist and drag queen


A graphic with photos of Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera. Latina, transgender activist and drag queen.


“Hell Hath No Fury like a Drag Queen Scorned”

Raised by the New York drag community of the 1960s after leaving home at the age of 10, Rivera began a life of never quietly or calmly accepting the status quo.

Though some historians have concluded that she was most likely not present on the first night of the Stonewall Uprising, to which a large part of her fame is owed – Rivera was one of America’s first transgender activists. Working tirelessly for justice and civil rights, becoming a driving force in the mainstream gay liberation movement of the 60s.

Rivera’s struggles did not relate exclusively to gay and trans people, as they intersected with issues of poverty and discrimination faced by people of colour. She lived her life on the margins and fought for others who refused to be pushed to the side or silenced in favour of more palatable gay rights legislation. Rivera fought for the inclusion of transgender people, drag queens, homeless queer youth, and others who had become marginalised by increasingly mainstream and exclusive gay rights campaigns.

After there had been a shift within the movement, in the 90s, to include the LGBTQ community in social institutions such as the military, the legal and criminal justice system, and marriage. She felt that this change of direction further excluded queer people of colour, poor and homeless youths, and transgender and gender-nonconforming people who continue to struggle under the weight of these social institutions.

References and Resouces




Lorraine Hansberry (1930 – 1965)

Playwright, feminist, and racial justice activist


A graphic with photos of Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry. Playwright, feminist, and racial justice activist.


“Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.”

​​A Raisin in the Sun, which highlights the lives of black Americans in Chicago living under racial segregation, was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. When she was only 29 years old, Hansberry became the youngest American and the first African-American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Her play made the theatre a place where African American stories and presence were welcome.

Hansberry’s success opened the doors for and inspired generations of African American artists. Her commitment to racial justice inspired countless more. She wrote another play, The Sign in Sidney Brunstein’s Window, inspired by her marriage to Robert Nemiroff. The play ran for 101 performances and dealt with themes of race, gender, and sexuality.

A few months before Hansberry’s death she spoke to the winners of a creative writing conference, in which she said: “Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.” Inspired by these words, Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine wrote: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“.

In her short lifetime, Hansberry was also a contributor to The Ladder, a predominantly lesbian publication, where she wrote about homophobia and feminism. She even wrote anonymous letters to the publication alluding to her own lesbian relationships. In the first one, Hansberry offered several observations about social difference—what she described as “off-the-top-of-the-head reactions,” and developed what may be identified as the first theory of intersectionality.

She would later embrace her identity, writing in her diary one day “As for this homosexuality thing…Am committed to it…How free I feel today.  I will create my life—not just accept it.”.

References and Resouces





This blog contains very condensed versions of these people’s extraordinary lives and so I urge you to do your own reading and research into Essex Hemphill, Sylvia Rivera and Lorraine Hansberry, and to dig further into queer history and the histories of people of colour to find more of these hidden figures.


→ Read another Blog Post here: Black History Month- Key Black figures from the arts and performance world throughout history