Although Pride Month, the most well-known celebration of LGBTQIA+ rights and identities in the United States, takes place in June, it is by no means the only time to celebrate queer people. October also brings us both National Coming Out day on October 11th, and LGBTQIA+ History Month all month long. This October, I want to spend some time celebrating queer history, and particularly focus on the historical figures who helped us create a more inclusive society for queer people today.
For example, one of the most well-known queer names in recent history is Marsha P. Johnson, largely due to her role at Stonewall. Although not there when the riots began, Johnson helped organize protesters in the following days, as well as created lasting change through her activism for organizations she cofounded, like the Gay Liberation Front and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, organizations that provided aid and shelter to homeless youth, gay men, trans women, drag queens, AIDS survivors, and more. But she did not do this alone, Sylvia Rivera, Storme DeLarverie, and many other LGBTQIA+ activists, largely trans women of color, helped create these organizations that provided direct assistance to struggling queer communities in New York. These actions and organizations were huge pieces in the changing perceptions people began to have about the queer community.
Despite Stonewall being one of the most well-known events in LGBTQIA+ history, there are many other important historic moments and activists as well. For example, Barbara Gittings was another activist creating change in the US over a decade prior. Gittings created the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, one of the oldest lesbian organizations in the US, and was one of the leading organizers who pushed the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from their manual of mental disorders, and even lead the American Library Assocation’s Task Force on Gay Liberation (now called the Rainbow Round Table) in 1971, the year after it was created. She created one of the largest pushes for libraries to carry books about and by the LGBTQIA+ community that portrayed the community in a positive light, and her legacy lives on in queer library collections and literary awards around the country.
A more recent important figure in LGBTQIA+ history is that of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected in California. Elected in 1977 before his assassination in 1978, Milk sponsored the successful bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in San Franscisco, the most progressive policy of any city at the time. Milk also championed access to mental health facilities, police oversight committees to try to stop the harassment gay people faced from cops, and better city services for struggling neighborhoods. Milk was even the one who asked LGBTQIA+ activist Gilbert Baker to make what would become the Rainbow Flag, a new symbol of hope and identity for the queer community.
Others, like Larry Kramer, helped shape LGBTQIA+ history over the last few decades, and his work will no doubt impact the future of the queer community. Kramer, who wrote largely queer novels, plays, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, worked to both normalize gay literature and create funding for AIDS research and survivors. Kramer founded both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which has become one of the largest organizations to provide assistance to people living with AIDS, and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a group focused more on protest and direct action. Kramer’s work helped survivors as well as changed the national conversation surrounding AIDS research and public health.
These are only a few of thousands of people who have helped shape the LGBTQIA+ community and culture. Many others, from authors like Leslie Feinberg and James Baldwin, to actors like Laverne Cox and Ellen DeGeneres, to scientists like Sally Ride and Alan Turing, have created a lasting impact on the queer community’s sense of identity, culture, and fight for equal rights. Curious to learn more about important figures this LGBTQIA+ history month? Check out this list for memoirs, biographies, and more!