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Queer Women Who Paved the Way: Playwright Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry

To mark Women's History Month, The Advocate will feature a different queer woman from history each day. Today we look at A Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry.  

March is Women's History Month, and with Donald Trump and his administration in power, there's never been a better time to honor all women. Throughout the month The Advocate will feature queer pioneers whose strength, resilience, and ingenuity paved the way for others. Today we feature playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

What she accomplished: With A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry (1930-1965) became the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, and she was also the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics' Circle award. The play, about a black family in Chicago encountering obstacles when they try to buy a home in a predominantly white neighborhood, premiered on Broadway March 11, 1959, and was a huge hit, running for 530 performances. It was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier in 1961, and it has become one of the staples of American theater. It also inspired a sequel, Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

Hansberry was not only an accomplished playwright but an impassioned activist, for the rights of African-Americans, women, lesbians, gays, and other oppressed groups. She was married to a man, Robert Nemiroff, but according to some their union was largely platonic, and Hansberry had relationships with women. She also was a member of the Daughters of Bilitis, an early lesbian rights organization. She frequently wrote letters to the group's journal, The Ladder, and to another gay magazine, ONE. She often emphasized the link between feminism and gay rights.

After A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry continued to write plays, but she never repeated that work's critical and commercial success, and she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34. She left a rich legacy with Raisin, her activism, and the "informal autobiography" To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which Nemiroff assembled from her interviews and writings. It was adapted into a play and also inspired a song of the same name, first recorded in 1970 by Nina Simone, who wrote it in collaboration with Weldon Irvine. Several others have recorded it as well, including Aretha Franklin and Elton John.

Choice quote: "I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women. ... Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots." --Hansberry in a 1961 letter to ONE magazine

Read more about Hansberry here and here.

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