October 9, 2020
In honor of October being LGBT History Month, I thought we should celebrate the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender icons that you’re, unfortunately, probably not learning about in your history class. Let’s take a look at some of the people responsible for the progress celebrated today.
Baldwin (pictured top left in the photo above) was a Black essayist, playwright and novelist famous for his writings about race, class and sexual orientation. Baldwin gave a voice to queer people by writing about characters who were gay and bisexual. In his works, he spoke of the experience of being both gay and Black in America. His insights on sexual orientation and race offered an intersectional perspective that people weren’t hearing much about at the time.
Baldwin was open about his homosexuality, and he believed sexual orientation was more fluid than just “gay” or “straight.” He never felt the need to fit into any rigid category and believed that a label would just limit his freedom.
Gittings (pictured top center in the photo above) was an openly lesbian woman who advocated for gay rights before the LGBTQ movement had fully taken form in the U.S. In 1958, she started the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first U.S. lesbian civil rights organization. She organized numerous protests and demonstrations aimed at securing rights for queer people and worked hard to both raise awareness about and decrease stigma related to being gay, including challenging supporters of gay conversion therapy.
Gittings, alongside fellow activist Frank Kameny, also fought a long battle to change psychiatry’s classification of homosexuality as a disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed its designation of homosexuality as a disorder.
For additional information, you can check out the documentary Gay Pioneers.
Marsha P. Johnson
Johnson (pictured bottom right in the photo above) was a New York City (NYC), self-identified drag queen; a trailblazing transgender and gay rights activist; and an AIDS activist. Johnson noticed that an alarming number of gender nonconforming people, specifically people of color, were living on the street, so with her friend and fellow activist, Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.). S.T.A.R. established a residence for displaced transgender individuals, especially young people. It served as a safe space, away from violence, harassment and intolerance.
But even before that, Johnson was at the Stonewall Riots, when LGBTQ people clashed with the NYC police. This marked a turning point for the gay liberation movement in the U.S. and inspired Pride marches that still happen annually around the world today.
To learn more about Marsha P. Johnson, check out the documentaries Pay It No Mind:The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
Kramer—who passed away earlier this year at the age of 84—was a writer and outspoken gay rights activist who fought to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. Kramer (pictured bottom left in the photo above) co-founded the advocacy groups GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which used the iconic SILENCE = DEATH image that became a symbol for the AIDS crisis. He insisted that the HIV/AIDS epidemic be acknowledged as the public health emergency that it was.
Kramer’s work dramatically challenged and changed public health policies related to HIV/AIDS. He was aggressive in his advocacy for public health and gay rights, in order to get attention for these important causes. He showed that LGBTQ people would fight to be seen and would not be wiped away by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Milk (pictured top right in the photo above) became the first openly gay or lesbian elected official in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He used his position to advocate for marginalized communities who were facing widespread hostility and discrimination.
After almost a year in office, Milk was assassinated. But his legacy lives on. The doors he opened have led to increasing numbers of openly gay politicians running for office—and winning. Additionally, his plea for more people to come out has inspired many individuals to live their truth. In fact, in an audio recording released after his death, he said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.”
These individuals are just a few important LGBTQ figures you should know about. There are many others who have helped give a voice to LGBTQ people, marched in protest and brought important aspects of the queer community out of the shadows.
Let’s take a moment to thank these five particularly inspiring, historical icons.