February 20th, 2015
Only three members of Bluegrass Black Pride walked as a gay contingent in the Roots and Heritage Parade last year in Lexington, but Thomas Tolliver put it on his list of 2014 highlights.
The group has been making concerted efforts to raise the visibility of black gays and lesbians locally.
“The white gay community has made so many advances,” Tolliver said. “There are a number of white people elected to public office and serving on influential boards as openly gay people.”
But when it comes to black gays and lesbians, the most memorable person remains James Herndon, better known as “Sweet Evening Breeze.” Herndon, a beloved and colorful character, never shied from wearing women’s clothes while walking down Main Street in the early 1900s.
“Sweet Evening Breeze was way ahead of his time,” Tolliver said. “He was accepted because of his eccentrics. I don’t doubt that we have our own James Baldwin right here in Lexington, our own Langston Hughes, our own Don Lemon, and, yes, perhaps our own Michael Sam right here in Lexington, but the stigma associated with being black and gay prevents them from coming out. That needs to change.”
In the black community, being gay is a negative, Tolliver explained. “It goes against the strong macho man” image, he said. “We hide it rather than deal with the discrimination.”
Bluegrass Black Pride, comprised of more than a dozen lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender residents, was established in 2013 as an advocacy group to unite the black LGBT community.
“One of the things that Bluegrass Black Pride wanted to do was start a conversation about being black and gay,” said Tolliver.
As a conversation starter, the group, along with JustFundKy, Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, and the Kentucky Department for Public Health, is hosting a free showing of The New Black, a 2013 award-winning documentary written, directed and produced by Yoruba Richen. The film explores how the black community and black churches address gay rights by following activists, families and clergy on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue in 2012 in Maryland. The film begins on the morning of the election and backtracks to fill the viewer in on the players and events that led up to it.
“We see this documentary as a tool by which we might educate some people, dispel some myths and empower some other LGBT folks,” Tolliver said.
The subject matter is particularly pertinent now because of the battles waging in Alabama and even in Kentucky regarding marriage equality. Last year, a U.S. District Judge in Louisville ruled that Kentucky’s one man-one woman definition of marriage discriminates against gays and lesbians and is unconstitutional.
Gov. Steve Beshear hired a private law firm to appeal that ruling after Attorney General Jack Conway refused to. The 6th Circuit Court, however, ruled against same-sex couples.
That led to last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to review two Kentucky cases and four others to decide whether states must recognize same-sex marriages.
“I commended Jack Conway,” Tolliver said, adding that Conway publicly declined to push the issue a few days before the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Frankfort. Tolliver carried a sign in that march that read “Bravo, Jack Conway.”
The New Black will be shown at 2 p.m., Feb. 28 in the Farish Theater at the Central Library, 140 East Main Street.
“I don’t know that just by showing this film that anybody’s mind will be changed,” he said, “and that’s not the point. Our objective here is to start a dialogue in Lexington about being black and gay. We cannot break down the barriers if we refuse to acknowledge they exist.”
IF YOU GO
What: The New Black, an award-winning 2013 documentary that follows black gay activists, church members and families as they examine their attitudes about gay rights and marriage equality.
When: 2 p.m., Feb. 28.
Where: Farish Theater at the Central Library, 140 E. Main St.