Some of the key inspiring and influential individuals who have fought for social justices in the LGBTQ community throughout history.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
The first gay person to publicly speak out for homosexual rights, Ulrichs was a civil servant in Germany until he was forced to resign, in 1854, because of his sexuality. He quickly became an activist, publishing 12 books about sexuality researching and exploring what are meant to be the first theories on homosexuality. His argument was that it was an ‘inborn condition’ and not learned, a wildly popular disbelief at the time, and is thought to the first public activist to discuss the topic of homosexuality. In 1867 he urged the German government to revoke anti-gay laws establishing his legacy as the first pioneer in the gay rights movement.
Known as the first father of transgenderism, German physician Hirschfeld pioneered the advocacy of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights at a time when it was deeply unpopular to do so. He launched the world’s first gay rights organization, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, in Berlin in 1897, which trail blazed the struggle for homosexual emancipation. As well as research into sexuality, the Institute promoted sex education, contraception, marriage guidance counseling, advice for gay and transgender people, the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, gay law reform and women’s rights and saw over 20,000 people a year.
Known as the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement, Gittings was born in Vienna in 1932 but moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s. In her downtime she explored New York City’s nightlife dressed in male drag, while heading up the NYC branch of Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the U.S’s first lesbian civil rights organization. She continued to fight for gay rights throughout her life, and in the 1970s became a prominent member of the American Psychiatric Association’s fight to remove homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders. In 2006, a year before her death, the APA recognized her hard work by awarding her its first annual civil rights award.
The first transgender celebrity in America, Jorgensen, born George William in 1926 New York, was drafted into the U.S army where he began researching gender reassignment. In 1951, after taking female hormones, George traveled to Denmark to undergo gender reassignment surgery, a procedure not available legally in the U.S, before returning to the U.S as Christine in 1955 with a celebrity status. Intrigue and interest from the public and press followed, and she quickly became an entertainer, actors and singer. Speaking openly and freely about her experiences, she toured university campuses and released a biography in 1967 before passing away in 1989, aged 62, from cancer.
Known as Martin Luther King’s right hand man, young gay activist Rustin was arrested for a homosexual act in 1953, when homosexuality was still criminalized in parts of the U.S. His criminal record led Rustin to serve as an influential adviser to key civil rights leaders, instead of being a spokesperson himself, which is why you might not immediately know his name. It wasn’t until the 1970s that he became a public advocate for LGBTQ causes, but prior to this Rustin was a key behind-the-scenes figure. He was the chief organizer of the march MLK led when he delivered his famous ‘I had a dream” speech in 1963 standing behind King as he spoke, and dedicated his life fighting for the rights of others, often while facing discriminations of his own.
Born in New York in 1934, Lorde was a writer, feminist, librarian and civil rights activist. She published her first volume of poetry, First Cities, in 1968 and called herself the ‘lesbian warrior poet’ as her writing expressed outrage and anger at the civil and social injustices she’d personally experienced. Her poems also explored sexuality, feminism and black female identity. Her award-winning work was critically acclaimed by many and had an influential impact on culture and publishing. She inspired Barbara Smith to found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S publisher by, for, and about women of color. She passed away at the age of 58 in 1991 from breast cancer, however in 2001, the Audre Lorde Award was set up to honor the works of lesbian poetry.
Milk was born in New York in 1930 and become a prominent gay rights activist after morning to San Francisco in 1972. After running for a seat unsuccessfully three times, in 1977 he finally won a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board, making him the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. The young politician served a short time in office, during which he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in public accommodation, housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation, which was signed into law. Sadly, 11 months later in 1978, he was assassinated by a fellow City Council board member.
Stand up comedian DeGeneres starred in her own TV show, Ellen from 1994 to 1998 before openly coming out on the show in 1997. She was the first openly lesbian actress to play an openly gay character on TV and the show went on to explore LGBTQ issues, which was untouched territory on U.S television. In 2003, she’s went on to host her own talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which is still going strong today, and is said to have had more influence on Americans’ attitudes about gay rights than any other public person. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 from Barack Obama, who said the comedian had helped “push our country in the direction of justice”, recognizing her contributions to gay rights and shaping the media today.
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