New York City–1983. A multiracial, semi-closeted, 35-year-old lesbian was working at the New York State Council on the Arts, alongside her gay male supervisor. He asked her to come to a meeting of a few local queer folk in their office warehouse; due in part to the sexism she saw in certain gay-empowerment groups at the time, she was hesitant. This all changed, however, after a chance encounter with the man in charge of said meeting: historian and activist Vito Russo. “Gregory told me that you work with him. You need to come to our meeting,” he told her.
She thought to herself: If Vito Russo invites me, I’m going…
Little did young writer Jewelle Gomez know that she would go on to help found GLAAD, now one of the world’s largest queer organizations.
Gomez was raised in Boston during the 1950s, and her artistry, outlook, and activism were heavily influenced by her upbringing. Having been raised by her great-grandmother, who lived right around the corner, she was surrounded by female role models.
“I believe that because I had such close relationships with these women, it really made me appreciate women’s role in the culture before I would have ever used the word ‘feminist,’’ she said. “It also gave me a sense of history. My great-grandmother remembered things about being Native as a child—she had clear feelings about the dominant white culture and how oppression had affected her family.”
Her grandma’s love for performing also introduced young Jewelle to the the theater world and to the first queer people she ever met.
Despite living in a black neighborhood, Gomez faced significant racial prejudice in Boston. In high school, a majority of her teachers were white. She distinctly remembers the teachers going around the room and asking each kid where they were from.
“I would say ‘I’m from Boston’, and the teachers, inevitably, would say, ‘I mean originally,’” she explained. “To them, a person of color has got to be telling you they’re from Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. The racism was always there.”
After getting her bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University, Gomez worked for Say Brother, a weekly black public-access show in Boston. It was around this time that she recognized the homophobia of certain black empowerment figures, and, although she was in a lesbian relationship, Jewelle often dated men to cover her queerness.
“Being gay was not appreciated and was thought to be counter-revolutionary, really.”
She would later move to New York in 1971 and continue to work in television; before she first got involved with what was originally referred to as the “Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League,” she had conducted research and interviews for the acclaimed PBS program Before Stonewall.
This sort of work could very well be considered a lead-up to Gomez’s queer rights activism.
GLAAD’s first major demonstrations were against the sensationalism of The New York Post’s AIDS coverage in 1985, and after the creation of the Los Angeles chapter, Hollywood representation became a major focus.
Over the years, Gomez has continued the fight for justice, working with groups and movements in New York and California. In 2008, she wed her partner Diane Sabin at the San Francisco Public Library, four years after participating in the first lawsuit against the state of California for marriage equality.
“We feel everyone should have the right to marriage if they wish. We did get married, just so we could have a party.”
They still live together in San Francisco, where Sabin acts as executive director of the Lesbian Health & Research Center at UCSF.
Aside from direct political activism, Gomez has also implemented societally-conscious narratives in her various works in theatre and literature. Her play Waiting For Giovanni, written in collaboration with actor-singer Harry Waters, Jr., premiered at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2011. Hailed as “riveting” by The Examiner and “a bold season opener” by San Francisco Chronicle that year, the play shines a light on the personal and professional struggles of acclaimed writer James Baldwin as he ponders the publication of his second novel; the story thoroughly and dramatically explores the challenges of intersectionality during the Civil Rights era (similar to the aforementioned adversity Gomez faced with 1970s black empowerment groups).
Additionally, her debut novel The Gilda Stories features the de-stereotyping of vampires, having the title character interact with sympathetic and non-predatory vampires throughout the novel; this also reflects Gomez’s upbringing, given that she witnessed firsthand the culture’s mainstreaming of the African-American community.
When someone is as iconic, seasoned, and steadfast as Gomez, younger generations often look to them for wisdom, especially when they’re facing new obstacles. In regard to our turbulent political times, Gomez had this to say:
“I have found that one of the most important things for me to say to young people, many of whom don’t think of themselves as activists, is we all have to give back in some way, or our karma is really for shit. Don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t have to feel like you’re going to be a trailblazer; you’ve just gotta put one foot in front of the other until there is a path.”