“LGBTQ Legacy” is a series of Equality Utah blog posts celebrating influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals who have gone before us. Each post focuses on a particular person and reflects upon the ways we can honor their memory.
Audre Lorde (1934–1992) described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She was born in Harlem to two Caribbean immigrants. As an adult, Lorde pursued her passion for literature as both a librarian and a writer, eventually publishing eighteen books of both poetry and prose. She raised two children and traveled widely, having special connections to Germany, the Caribbean, and South Africa.
Lorde’s contribution to feminist and womanist thought in the twentieth century can’t be overstated. As a theorist and essayist, she wrote elegantly about civil rights and the need to consider differences between women, including differences of race, sexuality, age, class, and health. Differences of health became especially poignant for Lorde as she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and again, later, when she was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1984. Cancer eventually took her life. She died in the US Virgin Islands in 1992, at the age of fifty-eight.
Audre Lorde was an activist, a professor, and an advocate for victims of intimate-partner violence. She was also a brilliant writer, a poet laureate for the state of New York, and a lesbian who celebrated sexuality and eroticism in her works.
Here are just a few examples of how LGBTQ people and their allies can learn from Audre Lorde’s example:
1. We can accept that sexual orientation and gender identity are fundamental parts of each person. Lorde emphasized her lesbian sexuality not as a minor feature of her life but as an essential part of herself and as a source of her creative energy. In a 1990 interview, she stated, “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds.…” Think of what it would mean for the world if everyone learned to appreciate LGBTQ identities for being as beautiful and essential as they truly are. LGBTQ youth would feel universally supported, and so-called conversion therapy would be considered unthinkable. Ours would become the kind of world we’re striving to build at Equality Utah. But these changes have to begin inside each one of us today.
2. We can make our voices heard, even when we feel alone. Lorde acknowledged her fears, but she repeatedly reminded herself and her readers that fear doesn’t need to stop us. This is a central theme of her work. As Lorde puts it herself, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” How does this conviction translate into our present moment? It’s often nerve racking to publicly support fair-minded candidates in areas where their policy ideas are unpopular. We might even feel uneasy discussing hate crime legislation or gender-neutral restrooms with our friends. But our fears don’t get to have the last word. If we take these opportunities to raise our voices, we’ll be better able to speak up in other fearful moments, ones that carry even greater importance. We can each learn to use our strengths in the service of our vision, just as Audre Lorde taught by her example and courage.
3. We can support others by choosing to live authentically ourselves. In her time—when society was less accepting of LGBTQ people than it is today—Lorde was proud and unapologetic about every aspect of who she was. She encouraged others to be open about their identities and experiences as well, as long as it was safe for them to do so. This approach extended into other areas of Lorde’s life. Explaining her decision not to wear a prosthetic breast following a mastectomy, Lorde wrote in her memoir The Cancer Journals, “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.” Whether we’re breast cancer survivors, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, or members of any other population facing discrimination or marginalization, becoming visible to each other is deeply important. Only then can we know that we’re not alone, which will allow us to unite and work together for a brighter future for everyone.
Have Audre Lorde’s poems and essays been meaningful to you in your life? And, which other LGBTQ heroes would you like to see featured in future “LGBTQ Legacy” blog posts? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter (@EqualityUtah) or Facebook (facebook.com/EqualityUtah).