In her essay “Excerpts from the Oral History of Mabel Hampton,” writer and co-founder of Lesbian Herstory Archives, Joan Nestle, remarks that on many occasions Mabel Hampton was asked the loaded and anachronistic question “when did you come out?” Her reply eventually became a matter of custom, brusquely stating, “What do you mean? I was never in!”
Born in 1902, her early life in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was heavily colored by the poisoning death of her mother which forced Mabel Hampton to take up residence with her grandmother during the height of segregation. After her grandmother’s death in 1909, Mabel Hampton moved to New York with her aunt and later settled for a time at 120 West 22nd St.
Her visions of New York lesbian parties as early as the late 1910s and early 1920s provide a crucial look at the etymology of identity labels that lesbians and queer(ed) womyn use to the present day. She mentions in her recorded oral history with Lesbian Herstory Archives that womyn of her time were likely to refer to themselves as “bulldykers and ladylovers, stud and butch.” During this period, Hampton worked as a chorus dancer with a womyn’s dance troupe based out of Coney Island and later became a dancer at the Garden of Joy club in Harlem which catered to a racially diverse gay crowd.
Mabel Hampton met and fell in love with Lillian Foster in 1932. The womyn who would become her wife of 45 years. Mickey Weems and David Parker in their 2009 essay “The New Black, Part 2: Mabel and Bayard” report that as a couple they referred to themselves as “Mabel and Lillian Hampton.”
Mabel Hampton’s words to the congregants of the annual New York Gay Pride Parade in 1984 are filled with pride in a heritage that she had devoted her life to creating and that we carry into the present and future stating, “I have been a lesbian all my life–for eighty-two years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this world, my gay people and my black people.” She spent the last years of her life lending her energies to various organizing efforts, helping to catalogue the lives of Black lesbians in the 20th century with Lesbian Herstory Archives and as an active member of SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) and died in 1989.
– Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.