This LGBTQIA History Month, we are highlighting some of the Black lesbian feminist collectives and individuals who have helped pave the way for Black folks on our path to liberation. Today we’re talking all about the Salsa Soul Sisters.
In the early 1970s, gay-rights groups were burgeoning all over the United States, mainly in response to the Stonewall Uprisings of 1969. Although the Stonewall Uprisings were led by two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the gay-rights movement was being co-opted almost entirely by white folks. Women of color, especially Black women, occupying these spaces still experienced racism, sexism, and classism—and white-led groups weren’t prioritizing their issues.
Rev. Dolores Jackson, as well as the Black Lesbian Caucus of the Gay Activist Alliance and others, realized they needed their own space for women of color to talk about the racism they were experiencing within the gay community and the broader community. Race, class, and gender-based issues were nuanced and urgent. A failure to raise these issues in conversations about gay liberation resulted in perpetuating the same cycles. So, in 1974 Jackson, along with Harriet Alston, Sonia Bailey, Luvenia Pinson, Candice Boyce, and Maua Flowers, came together to form the Salsa Soul Sisters.
The Salsa Soul Sisters are said to be “the oldest Black lesbian and lesbians of color womanist organization in the United States.” Instead of calling themselves a feminist collective, they wanted to be defined as a womanist collective, to proclaim the importance of the intersections of race, gender, and class. For them, feminism was a white woman’s word. Furthermore, the name Salsa Soul allowed Black and Latina women to feel centered and seen. At the organization’s peak, membership grew to more than 200 people, including Black, Latina, Asian, and Indigenous women between 17 and 55 years old.
In 1976, they published a statement that would introduce their beliefs to the world, as an advertisement in the popular periodical The Lesbian Feminist:
“The necessity for third world gay women to organize in our own interest is paramount. Existing gay organizations have neither welcomed our participation nor championed our concerns. Out of this reality, the Salsa Soul Sisters was organized and continues to grow. We function as a loosely structured collective, recognizing the varied age, academic class, and economic differences that exist in the group. We see this diversity as enriching our experiences and contributing to the emotional and intellectual growth of the organization.”
The Salsa Soul Sisters were a political force, but they also built lifelong bonds and camaraderie by gathering. They met in each other’s living rooms and at legendary, historically inclusive spaces in New York City, like the Washington Square Park Church or the LGBTQ Community Center. They talked about their shared struggles; discussed parenting; and shared resources about housing, incarceration, and dealing with the police. “The organization often participated in marches, such as the Christopher Street Liberation Day march, though this was a risk for many of the members as they could be fired from their jobs if seen publicly participating.”
In 1982, they published the Gayzette, “with information about functions, schedules, and social events to claim their presence in the movement and document their struggles and insights.” This was revolutionary. Not only did the publication serve as information for members, but it was also a beacon of light to other Black women and women of color lesbians, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the spaces. The Gayzette would later become an archive of their history. Often, when we carve out our own spaces in society, instead of being celebrated, our histories are erased and ignored. Surviving printed materials marked a moment in time—proof of the Salsa Soul Sisters’ existence. From 1977 to 1983, they also published Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians, a quarterly periodical for Black, Asian, Latina, and Native American lesbians.
According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Jemima Writer Collective was formed from within Salsa Soul as the first Black lesbian writing group in New York City. They organized programs, including speakers from outside the organization, such as Audre Lorde, Betty Powell, Pat Parker, Jewel Gomez, and Barbara Smith.
After years of organizing and creating space for women of color lesbians, the Salsa Soul Sisters were met with internal conflict and disbanded in 1993. Some of the members formed the Las Buenas Amigas for Latina lesbians (pictured below). The remaining members, “under the leadership of Candice Boyce Salsa Soul Sisters, changed its name to African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change (AALUSC).” Around 2015, AALUSC closed its doors, but a younger generation of Black lesbians felt it was important to continue the legacy; so, in 2017, several new members reopened AALUSC and continue to organize in the Black lesbian and broader Black community to this day.
Many of the original members of the Salsa Soul Sisters are still living and organizing in the community. Their continued leadership, connection to the younger generation, and resilience have solidified their place in our history. For example, there have been exhibitions like “the Salsa Soul Sisters: Honoring Lesbians of Color at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a celebration showcasing the recent donation of Salsa Soul Sisters archival materials to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Members Cassandra Grant, Imani Rashid, Nancy Valentine, and Brahma Curry were responsible for this generous donation in November 2016. It includes photographs, monthly newsletters, event flyers, discussion schedules, meeting minutes, financial papers, correspondence, pamphlets, and other materials documenting years of activism.”
We are still fighting for the equal rights, safety, and liberation of Black queer women, girls, and femmes, but it’s clear we wouldn’t be where we are today without the vision and resistance of groups like Salsa Soul Sisters.
Movement for Black Lives
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