by Toby LaPlant
October is LGBTQ History Month in the United States.
While one month isn’t nearly enough time to learn the names of every person who marched, spoke, took action, wrote, organized, and dreamed of a better life for themselves, their friends, or their family, it’s a great chance to get to know some of the key figures who worked for progress and how much they’ve achieved.
LGBTQ history is U.S. history, and is as complex, diverse, and surprising as the country itself.
A Long and Winding Road
Human societies around the world have understood gender and sexuality in various over time. Records from ancient Egypt, China, and Greece acknowledge homosexual attraction and activity. Cultures in India and North Africa, along with many indigenous cultures in North America, recognized a variety of gender identities and social roles in their communities and their languages.
From the Middle Ages onward, however, as Western Europeans gained influence over cultures and laws in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, persecution and punishment of LGBTQ people became more widespread. Authorities imposed sentences like imprisonment, hard labor, and even death for hundreds of years against people who engaged in same-sex activity or who wore clothes meant for someone of a different gender. To learn more about the LGBTQ experience in the Middle Ages, read these articles here and here, and have a look at this list of articles here.
LGBTQ Rights in the U.S.
In the United States, homosexuality was a criminal offense as recently as 2003.
World War II created significant social upheaval in the United States. This opened the door for national campaigns for the acceptance, respect, and equality of LGBTQ Americans. In 1958 Frank Kameny brought the first lawsuit citing sexual orientation in employment discrimination when he was fired from his job at the U.S. Army Map Service for being gay. Though Kameny lost his case it inspired political action for an end to anti-gay laws. Young organizations like the Society for Human Rights, the Mattachine Society, and the Daughters of Bilitis continued the work he started. At the same time, trans women, drag queens, lesbians, and gay men in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City resisted the constant policing of their communities with picketing and uprisings at a doughnut shop, Compton’s Cafeteria, and the Stonewall Inn.
Events like the Stonewall uprising gave the LGBTQ rights movement the momentum that carries it forward today. While Edith Windsor’s lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act achieved equal status in marriage for LGBTQ couples and Aimee Stephens case against her employer’s dress code brought transgender and gender non-conforming people under the protection of sexual discrimination law, there is still a gap between the rights of LGBTQ citizens and the rights of their straight and gender-conforming neighbors.
To close the gap, young LGBTQ activists are still hard at work. Gavin Grimm continues to press for the rights of LGBTQ students and youth, and Candi Brings Plenty works to bridge the divides between the non-indigenous queer community, tribes, and two-spirit people.
LGBTQ History: Connections to Black History, Latinx History, and Asian History
The LGBTQ community has always been racially and ethnically diverse. Leaders in the movement for LGBTQ rights have often been activists for other causes at the same time, motivated in part by their personal experience of oppression based on different aspects of their identity.
Melvin Boozer, a gay Black man and professor of sociology, became president of the Gay Activists Alliance in 1979. He led a successful campaign to decriminalize homosexuality in Washington, D.C., and in 1980 called for legal equality for LGBTQ people when he addressed the Democratic National Convention on prime time television as the first openly gay person to be nominated for Vice President of the United States.
June Jordan, a bisexual Jamaican-American woman, advocated for greater use and recognition of African-American Vernacular English in her poetry and essays. Her writings on race, class, and feminism are among the core texts studied by anthropologists, sociologists, and gender studies scholars.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a gay Japanese-American man, was born in one of the camps set up to detain Japanese Americans during World War II. He was a close friend and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Black Civil Rights movement. Kuromiya organized protests against the use of napalm in the Vietnam War. As a member of Act Up, one of the most influential organizations in the fight against the AIDS pandemic, Kuromiya shaped the first informational guide to treatment for people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Jose Sarria, a gay Latino American man, became the first openly gay candidate for political office in the United States when he ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. A renowned drag performer, he created the Imperial Court System. This drag-focused network of charitable organizations now raises funds and builds community in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Women Up Front
Women have been the backbone of some of the most effective and long-lasting LGBTQ community and activist groups. While the language used for gender identities was a bit different at the time, trans women led the protests and acts of resistance at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn in New York. These bold acts launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, white lesbian women, founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, which was the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States. The couple married in 2004 as the first same-sex couple granted a marriage license in San Francisco. However, subsequent court decisions voided their marriage. Martin was the first openly lesbian member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Women.
Marsha P. Johnson, a Black American who identified primarily as a drag queen but could be described as gender non-conforming or perhaps as a trans woman, participated in the Stonewall uprising in New York. She and her friend Sylvia Rivera founded the STAR House, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth, and took part in political actions with Act Up, the Gay Liberation Front, and other organizations engaging in civil disobedience and protest for the basic safety and dignity of LGBTQ Americans.
Brenda Howard, a bisexual and openly polyamorous Jewish American woman, organized the first Pride March in New York in 1970 on the first anniversary of the Stonewall events. She participated in many LGBTQ rights groups and founded an organization that focused on the specific needs and concerns of bisexual people.
Making LGBTQ History, Today and Beyond
The story of LGBTQ struggle, victory, and defeat fills not just books but entire shelves. Take a look at the comic book Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker. Also read The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman. Plus, the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco has great online resources that anyone can explore. And of course the story of LGBTQ people in America is always growing. Community leaders and activists work every day to support LGBTQ youth and adults. Every one of them, with even the smallest action, is making history.
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