Lorraine Hansberry: The hidden lesbian
Like a lot of women during her time, Lorraine Hansberry struggled to make a name for herself as a Black female writer. However, what a lot didn’t know was that she was also a lesbian.
A prominent American playwright known for her groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine was also a civil rights activist, journalist, and feminist.
She was a lesbian who wrote about feminism and homophobia, and was a member of the Daughters of Bilitis.
Lorraine Hansberry: Her childhood amidst black activism
Born on May 19, 1930, Lorraine grew up in a socially-aware household in Chicago, Illinois. She was the fourth child of a middle-class family to parents Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry.
Lorraine was steeped in her family’s activism, from her father running for Congress (but losing) to her family’s participation in a Supreme Court case, Hansberry v Lee.
The latter case was about restrictive housing covenants that prevented integration in neighborhoods. It came about after their family moved into a white neighborhood and someone threw a brick through a window of their house.
The family also received prominent African-Americans as guests in their home, like author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois.
From this setting, Lorraine grew up with a love of literature and an awareness of social injustice, especially when she attended the University of Wisconsin for two years.
Lorraine Hansberry: Her activism through her writing
Abandoning university, Lorraine moved to New York where she attended the New School for Social Research. She also taught at the Federick Douglass School.
It was at this time that she began her writing career, first with the Young Progressives of America magazine, and then Freedom magazine (run by actor and activist Paul Robeson) where she became its associate editor.
Among the many issues on social injustice she wrote about included the anti-Jim Crow campaigns, the anti-war protests, and child labor.
She wrote her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, around 1957 and its title was taken from a poem by Langston Hughes.
This play– the first by a Black woman playwright with a Black director and predominantly Black cast– came out on Broadway in 1959.
It was so acclaimed, Lorraine becoming the first Black playwright to win the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award.
Lorraine Hansberry: Her life as a hidden lesbian
She married fellow activist Robert Nemiroff in 1953. Though they later separated in 1964, they remained good friends.
In fact, Nemiroff was the executor of Lorraine’s estate when she died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at the age of 34 because of her smoking.
After her death, it was only then her writings in letters and personal notebooks revealed her emotional and sexual attraction to women.
Likewise, news about her membership with the Daughters of Bilitis, the earliest lesbian civil rights organization, became known– as well as her letters to their publication, The Ladder, which were signed with her initials.
Lorraine Hansberry: On homophobia, sexism, and racism
In her letters, Lorraine linked homophobia with sexism and racism, which The Ladder editor Barbara Grier revealed.
“I think it is about time that equipped women began to take on some of the ethical questions which a male-dominated culture has produced,” wrote Lorraine in one letter.
“There may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma,” she said.
Lorraine further wrote in an unpublished letter to the gay periodical, ONE, in 1961: “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,” she added.
With her sharp, incisive thoughts on the matter, imagine what would the future of lesbian writing have been if Lorraine had come out of the closet?