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Lorraine Hansberry, Lesbian Poet Dramatist

Image of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry as a young writer. She is the inspiration for Nina Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”.

I didn’t know that Lorraine Hansberry was a poet, a lesbian, and wrote so eloquently of love.  I remember her for “Raisin in the Sun”, as do most of us.  It wasn’t until I saw the brilliant production of “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that I came to appreciate her poetic strength.  (It is playing in the 2014 season of the OSF repertoire.)

“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” is essentially the story of a couple (a white woman and Jewish husband) in New York’s Greenwich Village culture of the early 1960s.  Sidney is a publisher, full of virtue and drive and idealism, but even he squashes the creativity of his own wife.  In the end, his idealism begins to shatter, leaving him with nothing to hold onto.  As a viewer, I desperately wanted him to find the “perfect” in life, to champion it with all his love and energy.  But, like Sidney, I came to realize that there is no “perfect” in life.

There is one section in the second act that reaches the peak of epic opera.  I looked for a copy of the script so that I could quote it for you, but there is no printed script available.  It is a section that throws out all the questions:  Who is to blame?  Who is innocent?  Why is this happening?  This is Hansberry’s love poetry at its finest.  The intensity of emotion is overwhelming.

It is even a quote from “Sidney Brustein” that forever graces Lorraine Hansberry’s gravestone:  “The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living.  Which is why I lately have become — an insurgent again!”

Lorraine Hansberry’s Lesbianism

Lorraine Hansberry had two huge strikes against her:  she was black, and she was a lesbian.  The black part was clearly visible; the lesbian part was hidden.  Even she was fearful of disclosing her sexual identity, she who was so courageous in her writings.

Lorraine followed in the footsteps of her parents by integrating her all-white college dorm.  Then she married a white man, a Jew.  She was not with her husband long, just a few short years, and having once discovered her lesbianism, she left him. They stayed married, but lived apart.  To her husband’s credit, he never disclosed her sexual identity, but rather worked to promote her as much as possible.  Although there are gay characters in some of her work, as there was in “Sidney Brustein”, there are no lesbians represented.

Hansberry’s lesbianism is now generally known because of her writings in a publication called “The Ladder”, the first lesbian newspaper in America, published by the Bilitis Society.  As was the norm, she wrote under her initials only, but the editor later disclosed that it was indeed Hansberry.  She was in her early 20s then, and already knew who and what she was.  Within a few years, she wrote:

I like
Conversations with James Baldwin …
To be alone when I want to
To watch television very late at night …
I want
To work
To be in love …

A year later she wrote:

I hate …

My loneliness
My homosexuality

I like
69 when it really works
the first scotch
the fact that I almost never want the third or even the second when I am alone.
Praise fate!
The inside of a lovely woman’s mouth
The way little JW looks in the movies
Her coquettishness
Her behind — those fresh little muscles
Parts of the lingering memory of a betrayer.

I should like
to be utterly, utterly in love
to work and finish something

Here is an amazing list that has survived of her “likes” and “hates”

List written by Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hannsberry’s List of “Likes” and “Hates”. Note that she hates her homosexuality and sneaky love affairs.

The Lesbian Loves of Lorraine Hansberry

While Lorraine Hansberry never flaunted her sexuality, it was known that she had a number of lesbian lovers in Greenwich Village, especially those part of an otherwise all white lesbian group.  There are two names mentioned as long term lovers:  Renee Kaplan and Dorothy Secules.

Secules is especially noted as a special love interest.  They rented living space in the same building, Lorraine on the top floor, Dorothy in rooms below.    It was Dorothy who was with Lorraine during her battle with pancreatic cancer, and it was Dorothy to whom Lorraine left much of her fortune.

What we don’t know is how close Lorraine Hansberry came to finding the deep love that she so desperately sought.  She couldn’t speak during her lifetime, and didn’t even write about it.  Her voice was silenced in the prejudices of the time.

Suddenly in 1964, just after “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” went into rehearsal, Lorraine Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she died a few months later.  The cancer had spread too far when it was first noticed, and even two surgeries could not save her.

And she was only 34 years old.

The Legacy Of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was only just beginning to come into her lesbianism, to explore her poetic life, her love life.

The writings that she left us are in every sense brilliant.

  • She was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway.
  • She was the first black to win the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for best drama with “Raisin in the Sun”.
  • She was recognized by international leaders as a beacon for our age, leaders like Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.

But there are volumes and volumes that never got written.  The love … the lesbian life … the poetry that we are missing due to her all too brief life … all this is just astounding.  Like anyone who has ever seen her work and loved it as I did, I do so wish that she had been with us so much longer.

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