Rainbow Warrior

Barbara Smith introduced me to the concept of interlocking oppressions: the notion that many people face multiple categories of disadvantage, including racism, sexism and homophobia.

That was true of Smith, a black lesbian feminist—and socialist—who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio after her extended family migrated north from rural Georgia to escape the Jim Crow South and its brutal system of white supremacy and racist violence.

Barbara Smith. Photo from makers.com.
Barbara Smith. Photo from makers.com.

I interviewed Smith by phone on Feb. 18, 1982 for a radio documentary on the experiences of black gays and lesbians. The program examined the twin challenges of racism in the LGBT community and homophobia in the African American community; troubling undercurrents of intolerance that often kept the movements from effectively coalescing.

At the time I interviewed her, Smith had been a leading scholar and activist for more than a decade, renowned for her work as a founding member of the Combahee River Collective—a pioneering group of black lesbian feminists. Her keynote address at the second National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays, delivered in Chicago in November 1981 and reprinted in the feminist newspaper Off Our Backs, sparked my interest in her insightful analysis and visionary thinking.

At a time before the rainbow flag was the visible symbol of gay pride, Smith encouraged the movement to embrace the broad spectrum of backgrounds and cultures inherent in the community. She also called for LGBT people of color to move beyond single-issue politics, to organize around the totality of their experiences and identities. Because oppressions are experienced simultaneously, she said, progressive political strategies must be multidimensional.

Listen to excerpts of the 30-minute interview, preserved by the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives:

Still a radical voice for social justice, Smith won a 2014 Lambda Literary Award for “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” a chronicle of more than 40 years of movement building. She is a regular panelist on WAMC’s The Roundtable, an award-winning, nationally recognized eclectic talk program.

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