Achebe Betty Powell, an activist with the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and what was originally called the National Gay (now LGBTQ) Task Force, has died at age 82.
Powell died last Tuesday, according to a press release from the two organizations.
She was one of the first Black women to have a leadership role in what we then called the lesbian and gay liberation movement in the 1970s. She was a “founding mother,” as the press release calls her, of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and remained active in the organization for the last 45 years. She was among the small group of multiracial, multiclass, feminist activists who came together in 1977 to create a new way of bringing resources to movements led by lesbians and women of color, to, in her words, “generate the justice that our communities need, right here, right now.”
She was the first Black lesbian to serve on the board of directors of the National Gay Task Force and was cochair of that board for several years. She attended the historic meeting of lesbian and gay leaders at the Carter White House in 1977. She served as the director of the Kitchen Table Press and was featured in the documentary Word Is Out.
In the last few decades, Achebe also participated in events organized around United Nations World Conferences on Women and did diversity and social justice trainings for several international feminist groups, such as the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (at Rutgers University) and the International Solidarity Network of Women Living Under Muslim laws. She was a pioneer in connecting U.S. work on racial justice and intersectionality with transnational discussions of gender, race, and culture.
“I commit to bringing Achebe’s spirit into our work,” Susana Fried, cochair of Astraea Foundation’s board, said in the release. “As a friend of Achebe’s, I am honored and humbled to be part of the amazing Astraea journey that daily manifests Achebe’s principles and values.”
“We are so saddened at the loss of Achebe Betty Powell,” added Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “She was a pioneer, a visionary, an inspiration, and trailblazer in a movement that was in its early organizing days. The Task Force was blessed to have her as a board chair and board member, including having her represent us as our first Black board member in 1977 at the first-ever meeting at the White House with LGBTQ activists.”
In an interview several years ago, Powell said this: “This notion of freedom is such a powerful, tender, all-encompassing way of being in the world, who you came to this place to be. And that shows by the pigmentation in my skin, the texture of my hair, the shape of my nose, and they call that race ... and the shape of my body and my body parts, and they call that gender, and then the shape of my mind and where it wants to go and where and who I want to be, and they call that lesbian, and that is a beautiful thing.
“She was such a gift and an inspiration— she will be greatly missed,” Johnson concluded.