President Barack Obama presents Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011

President Barack Obama presents Maya Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011

Maya Angelou, the iconic American poet, author and equal rights champion who died on Wednesday, is being remembered as a supporter of the LGBT community.

Angelou passed away at the age of 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had been suffering heart problems and was said to be frail.

Born in 1928, Angelou experienced life not only as an author, poet, theatre director and teacher, but in her younger years also as a cook, singer, sex worker, night-club dancer and actress. Her first major literary work, the autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), brought her world acclaim.

Angelou was also known as a feminist and champion of the American Civil Rights movement, and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Her passion for equality made her a friend of the LGBT community and she was a supporter of same-sex marriage rights.

In 2009, she urged New York senators to back marriage equality in the state, saying: “I would ask every man and every woman who’s had the blessing of having children, ‘Would you deny your son or your daughter the ecstasy of finding someone to love?’

“To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”

A young Maya Angelou

A young Maya Angelou

In her poem, On The Pulse Of Morning, at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Angelou mentioned “The Gay, the Straight” as both “yearning to respond to the singing River and the wise Rock.”

Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Executive President Chad Griffin noted that Angelou had spoken at the LGBT rights organisation’s 1998 annual National Dinner.

She said in that speech: “…all of us are caged birds, have been and will be again. Caged by somebody else’s ignorance. Caged because of someone else’s small-mindedness. Caged because of someone else’s fear, hate and sometimes, caged by our own lack of courage.

“When we have enough courage to come out – I don’t mean just out of the closet, I mean out of your spirit – when you have enough courage to stand and say, ‘I came here to say,’ it’s amazing…”

Commented Griffin: “Maya Angelou’s greatest gift was the ability to reach each and every person with her wisdom, the beauty of her language, and her simple insistence upon a better and more just world.

“Her books, poems, speeches and essays have long been—and doubtless will continue to be – a source of inspiration for LGBT people and for all people who seek a more open, more hopeful and more just world,” he said.

Watch Angelou’s 1998 speech at the HRC Annual Dinner below

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