LGBTQ figures throughout history have often been erased or left out of narratives for their sexuality and for daring to speak up when the rest of the world wanted them to stay quiet. Even well known LGBTQ historical figures have had their identities hidden from history books, so that their sexuality or gender identity is never mentioned.
This Pride month, it is more important than ever to recognize LGBTQ people throughout history who have been forgotten and dismissed, and to bring their stories back to the forefront.
Photo: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Bessie Smith was a blues singer from the 1920s and 30s. With an incredible influence, not only on the jazz scene at the time, but on jazz singers for generations to come, she was not typically feminine or ladylike as she was expected to be in the swing era, and she wasn’t ashamed to be different. Bessie was also bisexual, and didn’t try to hide it, having relationships with many women and even alluding to her sexuality in her lyrics. She was loud, proud, and very bold, known as a drinker and big eater and unafraid to speak her mind. She was very confident in her own sexuality and talent, and didn’t let it get in the way of her enormous success as one of the most accomplished and famous singers of the swing era.
Born in 1926 under the name George Jorgenson, Christine Jorgenson was one of the first publicly known trans women in the United States to have gender reassignment surgery. She was drafted into the military for WWII, and after her service, traveled to Denmark to have the surgery done in 1951. Upon returning to the US she entered the limelight as a newspaper covered her story on the front page—from there she went on to work as an entertainer, actress, singer, and advocate for trans rights. As one of the first publicly famous trans women to undergo surgery, her presence in the media and on the entertainment scene forced Americans to change the way they thought about the concept of gender and binaries, paving the way for future generations.
Kylar Broadus is a lawyer, former professor, public speaker, and activist, and was the first openly transgender person to testify in front of the US Senate. Here, he spoke to support the Employee Non-Discrimination Act. After coming out at his job in the late 1990s, he faced such a hostile work environment that he ended up leaving and was not protected by any laws at the time for the discrimination he encountered. Since then, he has worked to promote laws to defend and support the LGBTQ community, and especially to defend trans people of color. In 2010 he founded the Trans People of Color Coalition, specifically to address their civil rights and needs. For many years he also maintained his law practice where he defended LGBTQ clients and fought for their rights.
Before the Stonewall riots and the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, Barbara Gittings was fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians in the United States. She came out as a lesbian in a time when this was not usually public information, and was on the forefront of the gay rights movement. She helped to expand the amount of information about gays and lesbians available in libraries, because as a young adult, she had been confused and lost. She founded the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the first national organization for lesbians. She lobbied to change how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined homosexuality—and by 1973, the APA no longer classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Famed poet and activist Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and embodied all of these roles through power and courage. As a professor and a writer, she contributed to academia in the fields of race studies, feminist theory, and queer theory, and she managed to find success as a queer black woman in an academic world of white men. Her deeply personal and powerful poetry, which won her national recognition, often called for social and racial justice. She was the poet laureate of New York from 1991 to 1992, and her poems and prose continue to remain relevant today, as masterful works that call for justice and inspire change.
This list is only a tiny fraction of the many LGBTQ people throughout history who have fought for rights in their communities, and left their mark on the world. From Alan Turing to Marsha P. Johnson to Oscar Wilde, the list is enormous. Take time this Pride month to relearn some history and discover the many forgotten LGBTQ figures from our past.
Abigail is a rising sophomore at Emerson College studying for a BFA in creative writing. She spends most of her free time during the year working for her school newspaper, but also enjoys going to poetry readings, spending time with friends, and cheering for her hometown Philadelphia sports teams.