African American Women and Same Sex Marriage
This photo and headline (Two Females ‘Married’ In Chicago – To Each Other) accompanied an article from the 15 October 1970 issue of Jet magazine. They reveal that long before the recent struggle for marriage equality began, African American women who love women have engaged with the institution of marriage and have fought to make it their own.
Edna Knowles, on the left, and Peaches Stevens were wed in Liz’s Mark III Lounge, a gay bar on the South Side of Chicago, “before a host of friends and well wishers.” The article ended by noting, “although the duo had a type of ‘marriage license’ in their possession, the state’s official marriage license bureau reported it had no record of their license.” This ending serves to remind Jet readers that Knowles and Stevens’ union was not legitimate in the eyes of the state, as does the use of quotes around the word “married” in the headline.
However, decades prior to this bold public display of queer affection, African American female couples in New York strategised alternative ways to obtain marriage licenses in the 1920s and 30s.
In her book “The Black Lesbian: Times Past – Time Present”, Luvenia Pinson writes: “Marriage ceremonies were held with large wedding parties which included several bridesmaids, attendants, and other wedding party members. Actual marriage licenses were obtained by either masculinising the first name, or having a gay male surrogate obtain the license for the marrying couple. These marriage licenses were placed on file with the New York City Marriage Bureau.”
Also during the 1930s, popular performer Gladys Bentley was making a living singing bawdy tunes and playing piano late into the night at various clubs all over New York, including one named after her.
Bentley married her white girlfriend in Atlantic City in a ceremony to which she invited friends in the entertainment industry.
Eric Garber in the book “Gladys Bentley: The Bulldagger Who Sang the Blues” states: “Columnist Louis Sobol remembered Bentley coming over to his table one night and whispering, ‘I’m getting married tomorrow and you’re invited.’ When Sobol asked who the lucky man was to be, she giggled and replied, ‘Man? Why boy you’re crazy. I’m marryin’ ——’ and she named another woman singer.”
These examples show some of the various ways African American women have created public rituals to express their same sex relationships and have therefore insisted on their rights to full citizenship, many decades prior to the current struggle for marriage equality.
World AIDS Day 2021
This year marks 40 years of the HIV response. On 5 June 1981 the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia published a report of five cases of a rare form of pneumonia amongst previously healthy young men. This unexplained illness later became known as Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
The first observance of World AIDS Day was on 1 December 1988, marked by the World Health Organisation as a global public health issue. On that day each year there are campaigns raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection, and the day is also dedicated to mourn those who have died.
As of 2020, AIDS has killed 36.3 million people and an estimated 37.7 million people are living with HIV.
Whilst medical treatment has developed so much that an HIV diagnosis no longer means a death sentence, there’s still work to do in raising awareness and understanding of HIV, fighting stigma and discrimination and inspiring people living with HIV to live healthy and confident lives.
In Manchester this year, there were a number of events ranging from distributing red ribbons and leaflets to a candlelit vigil, three part documentary series “Positive” with a community reflection group, the launch of the Derek Jarman exhibition “Protest!” at Manchester Art Gallery, the play “First Time” by Nathaniel Hall at the Contact Theatre and the exhibition / event – “To Whom It May Concern” at Seesawspace.
I attended most of these excellent events, but my personal highlight was the last event organised by Jordan Roberts. It featured photographic exhibition, films, reading by mandla rae, panel conversation on HIV activism including ACT UP Manchester and ACT UP New York, poetry reading by Gerry Potter, vogue performance from House of Blaque and artist talk with Jordan about the event and future projects.
Also included was ‘A Mile of Black Paper’ by Greg Thorpe. In 1987 the New York Times installed its first fax machine. The direct action group ACT UP (‘AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power’) were effective, wildly inventive, tech savvy activists. They faxed a mile of black paper to the newspaper office, using up all the expensive ink and rendering the machine useless. This was one of many activist ‘zaps’ used to protest and draw attention to the AIDS epidemic.
‘A Mile of Black Paper’ is a collaborative artwork and teaching tool inspired by this action. The work inverts the original intention to shut down communication and replaces it with a forum for expression – a place to talk, write, learn and make work about HIV and AIDS.
One person described the event: “Beautiful conversations between the panel and the audience with so much generosity of sharing of experience and solidarity and support in the room. I felt like I was in exactly the right place with the right people, remembering those we have all lost supporting each other best we can and trying to find future solutions.”
This World AIDS Day, I laughed, I cried, but most of all I felt inspired.
Popping up in Wigan, Trafford, Manchester South (Moss Side, Rusholme and Hulme) and online, Rainbow Flourish is a free monthly social group run by LGBT Foundation’s Pride in Ageing programme for LGBT people over 50.
Come along and join in with our monthly activities or relax with a cup of tea and some cake while meeting other LGBT people in your local community. We’ve set up Rainbow Flourish as a place to learn new skills and develop personal growth in areas that interest you.
Find out more about our upcoming sessions and book a place at lgbt.foundation/prideinageing/events Rainbow Flourish is run by Pride in Ageing at LGBT Foundation and is supported by Ambition For Ageing and the Older People’s Fund.