Freedom—the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. As a gay black man, the idea of freedom is somewhat like a far-off dream, seemingly unattainable. Maybe it’s the proliferation of black bodies being detained and subjugated or the monolithic view of black gay men in media; either way, the concept of freedom from my point of view can oftentimes be difficult to grasp.

When I wrote the screenplay for my first film “Orange Bright”, I had this in mind. “Orange Bright” is the short-film adaption of my 2011 novella “my ID.”  Both pieces of work show a coming of age story of Triven, a young black boy struck with the obsession of flight. That is, his one and only desire is to spread his wings and sour through the air—be free and exist in a world where his actions, thoughts, and language are not constricted by societal and cultural limitations.

Since it’s completion, “Orange Bright” has won four film festival awards, I’ve won a screenwriting award and I’ve even gone on a screening tour across the country this year dubbed “What’s Your Obsession” and co-sponsored by Race Forward. Yet, I must admit, the highlight of this journey has been the discussion the film has continued: LGBTQ people of color are not monolithic. I, as a gay black man am not monolithic. None of us are; that is what freedom is to me, having the space to be who I am beyond what society and culture prescribes.

During the Q&As at my screenings, I continued to equate this idea of freedom in reality to flight for Triven. In my film, Triven is a character that flies (literally) as a means to be free. Flying, in his mind, is freedom; it is his obsession. Of course, he is fictional—he can do that. But if we are speaking metaphorically, people can do the same thing.

In that case, it is all about the language. If freedom is indeed the power or right for an individual to act, speak, think or live without hindrance and flying could be equated to freedom, there are people who have epitomized this idea. When I think about it, I think about LGBTQ people of color who—despite systemic and cultural racism and prejudice designed to erase their experiences, lives and aspirations—continued to live freely and unapologetically.

The statistics are wrenching. Black, Latino, Native American and Asian LGBT people face a higher risk of poverty because of discrimination, unemployment, lack of legal protection and health care. And yet, despite these factors, there are still people who have in the past, and present, pushed the narrative that LGBTQ people of color do matter, that we are not monolithic in fiction or reality, and that #TransIsBeautiful.

Here are 8 examples of LGBTQ people of color who are and have been flying in their own ways and helping others do the same. 

Illustration: Hari Ziyad

LAVERNE COX

She’s the first transgendered person to grace the cover of Time Magazine, the first trans woman of color to produce and star in her own television show, VH1’s TRANSForm Me, and the first to be nominated for an Emmy Award since composer Angela Morley in 1990.  Laverne Cox pushed the visibility and awareness of trans people of color into mainstream streets when she starred in Orange Is The New Black as Sophia Burset.

She’s flying—whenever she’s speaking, in that cogent and ardent way only Ms. Cox can do; whenever she’s playing Sophia Burset as a multidimensional character and not a caricature of what a transwoman is often depicted. You can see it by the way she walks, level of confidence and grace and her commitment to the cause.

And now, with her social media movement #TransIsBeautiful, she’s helping so many trans people of color and allies better understand and appreciate the experiences of trans men and women. When she accepted the Maybelline New York “Make It Happen Award,” at the Fashion Media Awards this year, she explained “All the things that make me uniquely and beautifully trans—my big hands, my big feet, my wide shoulders, my deep voice—all of these things are beautiful. I’m not beautiful despite these things, I’m beautiful because of them.”

Illustration: Tad Thompson

ALICE WALKER

What was special about The Color Purple is that it allowed a black woman in the 1930s to be the main character, a complex human being that eventually achieves liberation and freedom. Alice Walker, who coined the term “womanism” to mean “Black feminism” shed light on sexism, racism and misogyny specifically within the black community. The idea that Ms. Celie, through literacy, could achieve her version of flight resonated with countless people in this country and world.

The Color Purple wasn’t Walker’s first book; it was her 10th book and she’s written countless others since. A National Book Award recipient and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, she’s consistently focused on the life and experiences of people of color—many times, without proper recognition and congratulation.

Walker has also been a longtime political activist—from the civil rights movement to standing up against the Gaza War. And when it came to her sexuality, she says “I’m not a lesbian. I’m not bisexual and I’m not straight. I’m curious. If you’re really alive, how can you be in one place your whole time? I, for me, that doesn’t work.”

Illustration: James McCollum

TANIA UNZUETA

A self-described Chicagoan, immigrant, queer, undocumented Mexican, organizer, media maker, and writer, Tania Unzueta has shown all undocumented people of color—particularly those who are queer—that there is hope. Unzueta was born in Mexico City and currently resides in Chicago with her partner. Her sheer tenacity to organize against deportation was apparent when she coordinated and participated in the first two civil disobediences by undocumented activists in Arizona and Washington, DC in 2010.

Since then, she’s been a nationally recognized leader in the undocumented and immigration rights movement and continues to organize on behalf of those who have either been silenced or negatively impacted by mass incarceration or deportation. Her work at NotOneMoreDeportation.com continues to push the mission that “not one more family [shall be] destroyed, not one more person left behind, not one more indifferent reaction to suffering, not one more deportation.” #Not1More

Illustration: James McCollum

JANNICET GUTIERREZ

Jannicet Gutierrez interrupted President Obama at a White House LGBT pride event because the immigrant LGBTQ community needs to be heard, she says. While President Obama spoke “of ‘trans women of color being targeted,’ his administration holds LGBTQ and trans immigrants in detention,” she wrote for Washington Blade in response to being removed from the event. “I spoke out because our issues and struggles can no longer be ignored. Immigrant trans women are 12 times more likely to face discrimination because of our gender identity.”

The awareness is important and allows America to see the truth in the way not only immigrants are affected by deportation practices, but to understand the way transgender immigrants are affected as well—particularly through sexual abuse in ICE custody. A founding member of FAMILIA TQLM, Gutierrez is inserting LGBTQ immigrants into the immigration debate. And even though she was called a “heckler” and nearly silenced at the event, she still managed to grab our attention towards undocumented trans women and their stories. familiatqlm.org

Illustration: James McCollum

BAYARD RUSTIN

Best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard Rustin was an American leader, political activist and a gay rights supporter. Although he publicly identified as homosexual, it wasn’t until the 1980s that he became engaged in gay rights activism—well after his work as a leader in the civil rights movement. He was an organizing genius, but his ties to the communist party and sexual orientation often caused a rift between him and other civil rights leaders. He tried to keep the movement as priority—never hid his love for men but didn’t broadcast it either. In 1953, he was arrested on “lewd conduct” and “vagrancy” charges, allegedly for homosexual activity. 

His 1986 speech “The New Niggers Are Gays”, although extremely controversial, argued that “blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change” and that “the question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.” In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Ruston the Presidential Media of Freedom.

Illustration: James McCollum

LANGSTON HUGHES

Although his sexuality has often been either ignored or downplayed, Hughes has become a black gay icon thanks in part to media representations like 1989’s Looking for Langston and Spike Lee’s 1996 film about the March on Washington, Get on the Bus which includes a scene where a gay man punches a homophobic character, saying: “This is for James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.”

Touted as the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes became known for his innovative poetry and prose and his insightful and colorful depictions of black life in America from the 20s to the 60s. Laughing to Keep From Crying (1934), Harlem (What Happens To A Dream Deferred), Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) and countless other works were indicative of the times. Hughes humanized blacks in America, full of love, struggle, laughter music and pride. 

Illustration: Awuradwoa Afful

ALVIN AILEY

Although much of his personal life was left private, Alvin Ailey was understood to be a gay man. A choreographer and activist, Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and pushing African American participation in 20th century concert dance. His signature works like Revelations, Cry and The River (which was commissioned by the American Ballet Theater) were directly influenced by the blues, spirituals and gospel. Ailey created up to 79 works for his dancers and focused particularly on providing opportunity to people of color who had been overlooked because of their race. In addition, he made the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater a multiracial company—contrary to top companies like American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet during the 1960s and 70s. 

With Misty Copeland performing as the first African American woman principal dancer at ABT, it’s important to remember the work of Ailey and the organization he has built to help dancers of color succeed and enter a traditionally white industry. His company now includes Ailey II, The Ailey School, The Ailey Extension where anyone can take classes, community programming, and college-level education. 

Photo: Kim Sarabia

GEORGE TAKEI

Very few stars have been in the gay activism space as long as George Takei. An actor, directer, author, and activist, Takei is most-widely known for his role as Hikaru Sulu from Star Trek. Although, nowadays, folks know of Takei because of his omnipresent social media presence. Today, he has more than 10 million likes on Facebook–thanks to his original humorous commentary, particularly when it comes to topics that impact social justice for the LGBTQ community. 

From denouncing Arizona’s antigay bill to humorously taking on a Tennessee bill that would prohibit the word “gay” in class. Instead, Takei suggested using his own name as a replacement for “gay.” As in “I’m Takei and proud” or “I support Takei rights.” It’s a stretch but you have to give him props for effort. 

Takei has owned his personal story all along. From his sexuality to his childhood growing up in two internment camps, he’s been flying gracefully and hilariously ever since.