LGBTQ Legacy: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

26 April 2018
Written by Sara Hanks

 “LGBTQ Legacy” is a series of Equality Utah 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.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was a seminal artist and gifted performer who is now credited with literally inventing rock and roll as a musical genre by combining her love of gospel music with her blues sensibilities. During her career, Tharpe became a legend for her powerful voice and unbelievable skill and innovation on the electric guitar.

Today, Tharpe is remembered not only for her considerable musical talents but also for breaking barriers as a black queer woman, onstage and in the public eye. Here are a few ways we can pay tribute to this fantastic person:

1. We can look at the art forms we love and ask whose influence has been forgotten. In our memories, the work of some artists may get overshadowed because the work of other artists is more popular or mainstream. In the past few decades, this was true for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who wasn’t inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2017. Today, she is remembered and honored for her courage as a black performer working in an era of entrenched racial segregation. She was also queer and was a woman, two attributes that, during her time, may have made it more difficult for her to receive the recognition she deserves as the originator of rock and roll, even though Tharpe was releasing songs in this new genre while Elvis Presley was still a child. We should each discover whether similarly incredible and influential people have been forgotten from modern memory in the art forms we enjoy. Then, by acknowledging the contributions of these artists, we can pay tribute to Tharpe and others like her.

2. We can honor each person’s need for privacy and flexibility concerning sexual identity. Our culture has changed in important ways since the 1940s and 1950s, and many more people are now able to be open about their homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender identity, and queerness. Still, because of continuing discrimination and hate crimes, there are people today who, like Tharpe, find it necessary or beneficial to keep their LGBTQ identities more private or only known to a certain group of people they trust.We can pay tribute to Tharpe by respecting their choices, trusting people to be their own authorities on what level of openness is right for themselves. We can also recognize that people are unique and allow them to be and to love whomever they will.We can notice a more diverse group of trailblazers from our own era.

3. We can notice a more diverse group of trailblazers from our own era. Artists who are making waves and challenging norms in 2018 are the “Sister Rosetta Tharpes” of today. But it’s not always easy to be the first to forge a new path in the public eye. So much of our modern musical landscape can be traced back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her vast influence shows us once again that LGBTQ people do not deserve to be viewed as secondary or marginal but deserve to be valued as contributors to our world and its many cultures.

Watch for those who take inspiring risks creatively, politically, socially, and in every other area of life. Then, as we recognize their courage and vision—and as we support their work—we can pay tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Equality Utah applauds this amazing LGBTQ hero and hopes to see her work appreciated for generations to come.

What do you most admire about Sister Rosetta Tharpe? 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).

Looking for ways to forge a new trail of your own? Reach out to volunteer, attend an upcoming EU event, or find helpful resources at EqualityUtah.org.

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