Queer Icons in Colour: Honouring Icons Past

Kat Rajwar

Despite the significant strides we have made in the last few decades in the movement towards equality for LGBTQI+ individuals over the last few decades, a significant disparity still exists for queer people of colour. The intersection of being both queer and a person of colour go hand in hand with experiencing high levels of discrimination, being fetishized or vilified in the dating sphere, and being underrepresented within mainstream media.

While the politics of invisibility make it pretty clear that we’ve got a long way to go, we can’t discount the enormous contributions made by people of colour who challenged, and continue to challenge political and social discourse.

But there are those who are a beacon of hope-[KR1]   Queer people of colour, past and present who have contributed, pioneered, and fought towards visibility and equality.

Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002)

Born in the New York Bronx, Puerto Rican American Sylvia Rivera is rightfully accredited as a legendary transgender activist. While much of her recognition is due to her role as one of the instigators of the historic Stonewall Riots, being thought to have thrown one of the first bottles at police in the early hours of the morning on June 28, 1969, her activism extended far further than this iconic demonstration.

“We were the frontlines,” “We didn’t take no shit from nobody,” “We had nothing to lose.”  

Sylvia Rivera fiercely advocated for trans rights, equality for drag queens, providing safe spaces for LGBTQI+ youth, as a co-founder of STAR, an organisation dedicated to providing safe spaces for young homeless LGBTQI+ people, and championed for legislation which banned discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality.  Rivera, an individual marginalised on the outskirts of society, embodied myriad minority groups: Queer, sex worker, Puerto Rican, lower class, was undoubtedly a pioneer in the movement toward LGBTQI+ liberation.

Audrey Lorde (1934 – 1992)

Self-proclaimed as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet”, the influence that Audrey Lorde has had on the literary sphere is immeasurable.  Born in New York, Lorde’s love affair with writing began with a job as a librarian, after which she published her debut poetry collection First Cities at 34. Her expansive work embodied her personal experiences: her exploration of her own sexuality, her encounter with breast cancer (The Cancer Journals); to issues of societal discourse including the civil rights movement. Today, she’s recognised as one of the early thinkers to grapple with the intersection of class, race, and gender. Lorde also made significant contributions as an educator, as a poetry teacher at Tougaloo College, Mississippi. She went on to found the first American publisher for women of colour—Kitchen Table: Women of Colour Press. Lorde’s unmissable message which permeated through her work: acceptance of difference provided a “reason for celebration and growth.”  Following her death in 1992, the Audrey Lorde Award was initiated to celebrate the contributions of lesbian poets.

“My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds…”

Ifti Nasim (1946 – 2011)

Ifti Nasim was an Islamic poet, activist, and writer born in Pakistan. He was thought to have written the first queer-themed poetry suite written in Urdu, Narman,, which loosely translates to “half man half woman”. The collection was both commended and condemned—with a printer of the manuscript reportedly exclaiming, “Take these unholy and dirty books away from me, or I’ll set them on fire!” Following the publication, Nasim fled Pakistan to Chicago to escape persecution. His work, while often deemed controversial was ground-breaking in the sense that it questioned Islamic intolerance of homosexuality, resulting in positive change in attitudes towards queerness in Pakistan. A particularly memorable instance was relayed to Nasim by a well-known Pakistani figurehead who told him that after reading his work he broke down because he didn’t previously understand homosexuality. The prominent figure later became a public queer ally. Nasim’s contributions also include his founding of SANGAT/Chicago, an association which promoted the rights for South Asian LGBTQI+ individuals.

“Mean streets of Chicago have become meaner.
“Go back to your country. Go back to your country.”
They yell at me.
And I am a citizen of USA
with no country.”