Every year during Black History Month most of us will hear about inventors, actors, politicians and the like. Which is great we need to know these things. But one thing I have seen noticeably left out of the discussion are the contributions of Black People when it comes to LGBTQIA history and culture. There is an undeniable influence of Blackness in the culture and history of the Gay Community. Throughout history there have been pioneering and defining Black people who have been an inspiration and a catalyst for equal rights and inclusion. Last year I wrote about Countee Cullen and Ma Rainey and how through their lives they advocated for their own identities. This year I want to introduce you to Sylvester.
I can honestly say Sylvester has a place in the heart of my family through music. On any given night in our house it is possible for an impromptu Disco party to break out and the go to song is ‘Mighty Real’ by Sylvester. Something about that song brings a smile to everyone’s face and spawns the best dance moves. His confidence is infectious and his style is effortlessly impeccable. Sylvester’s falsetto and gender fluidity command respect, while his words solidify the message. With roots in gospel and jazz Sylvester owned the music scene and became known as the Queen of Disco. His popularity and presence in the LGBTQIA community in San Francisco won him the key to the city from Mayor Dianne Feinstein, his own day (March 11), and celebrations in his honor.
Being openly gay as a teenager Sylvester found himself estranged from his mother and church home. He found his way in various music and drag troupes from LA to New York before settling into the fabric of San Francisco’s tolerant and open community. In this city he flourished and developed into the superstar we know today. When record execs and venues asked him to tone it down, be more masculine, and sing mainstream music he flat out refused and stayed true to who he was. Sylvester was idolized for his open identity and talents. He became friends with other activists and icons like Harvey Milk.
In 1985 Sylvester’s partner passed away of AIDS. This terrifying and new disease was devastating to the gay community. Even someone as proud and vocal as Sylvester had a hard time processing the virus’ effect on him and the ones he loved. Refusing to have blood tests he did not want to accept his fate until the symptoms became all to obvious. In 1988 he was invited to ride in front of San Francisco’s Pride parade. By this time his affliction had taken hold to the point his appearance was frail and gaunt. He knew his many fans and onlookers would know immediately that he was ill but rode with pride in a pink Cadillac. Friends that rode with him said that people openly wept in the streets when they realized the thin and almost unrecognizable man was the larger than life Sylvester. After coming to terms with AIDS he actively sought to educate others about his condition. In interviews he sought to counter misinformation and advocate for an increasingly underserved and fast growing group of the infected, African- Americans.
“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease…The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
Shortly after coming out as a person living with AIDS he lost his battle with the disease. He died on December 16, 1988. And staying true to he was in life, his death left a lasting impression. Sylvester planned his own funeral and requested a open casket with full make-up and a red kimono. In a last act of activism he left the royalties of all his music to two prominent AIDS charities which still receive contributions today. His courage has transcended his life on this earth and he should be remembered Black History Month and year round.