It is officially Pride Month! We are ready to hoist all our Pride flags, but we wouldn’t be here without the efforts of LGBTQ+ activists and countless others who are fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and equality. Activism isn’t limited to marching in the streets. It also includes speaking on behalf of marginalized people, raising awareness, helping to bring change, or influencing pop culture to embrace people that had been shunned for who they were.
Today, too, we have many LGBTQ+ activists, and the fight for their rights and equality isn’t over. But they follow a long line of activists and people who dedicated their lives to a better future for their community. They were dedicated to changing the way the world sees members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Here are a few prominent LGBTQ+ advocates you should know of –
Marsha P. Johnson
The Center is proud to welcome Jesse Pallotta’s sculpture “A Love Letter to Marsha.” This sculpture is of trans activist Marsha P. Johnson. We invite you to join us for a warm reception welcoming the statue to our space.
May 25, 2022 | 7:00p.m. ET
— The Center (@LGBTCenterNYC) May 23, 2022
Marsha P. Johnson, an activist, drag performer and model, is a celebrated icon. Johnson, who identified as transgender, fearlessly advocated for her rights and the rights of the LGBTQ community at a time when doing so put her safety in jeopardy. Along with a close friend of Johnson’s – Sylvia Rivera, who was also a transgender rights activist, she founded S.T.A.R (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). It gave shelter to LGBTQ+ homeless youth and resources.
Marsha P. Johnson is a name for the history books. She is known for her involvement alongside Rivera during the famous Stonewall Riots wherein clashes with the New York police marked a turning point for the gay liberation movement in the US. It inspired Pride marches around the world today.
Johnson worked as an activist participating in demonstrations and marches as part of the Gay Liberation Front. It was formed in the wake of Stonewall. Marsha was also an AIDS activist associated with the group ACT UP until her death, which came in 1992.
Police ruled it a suicide after her body was found in the Hudson River, however, her friends and fellow activists believe she was killed. This is a theory that was then highlighted in the 2017 Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
Over nearly three decades after her death, Johnson is remembered for being at the frontline of the Stonewall Riots and for her contributions to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
Sylvia Rivera was a Latina trans activist. Together with Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). It is an organization that provided housing and other services to homeless LGBTQ+ youth in New York City. She lived a turbulent life. Rivera turned to sex work and struggled with drug addiction and homelessness. She was always vocal. Rivera experienced minority inequality among other things. At times, she was a forceful advocate for change, so she fought for the rights of many marginalized groups.
“Sylvia’s role in gay history was that she was one of the first people to highlight that our movement needed to be more inclusive of people who did not fit in the mainstream,” Carrie Davis, told NBC News. Davis is a Chief Programs and Policy Officer at New York City’s LGBT Community Center.
“We want gays to represent gays,” Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay politicians elected to office in the United States, told the San Francisco Examiner in 1977, as per CNN. He was the first openly gay official elected in California. His position as an LGBTQ+ public official helped bring the community’s issues to prominence. Milk was also the subject of the Oscar-winning film ‘Milk’.
He helped start one of the first predominantly LGBTQ-owned business groups in the country. It was called the Castro Village Association. Milk was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977.
He introduced legislation to protect the gay community. This included a gay rights ordinance in 1978 to ban discrimination against LGBTQ+ in housing or employment. He did this while serving as a city supervisor, and along with other activists, also succeeded in striking down Proposition 6. This would have mandated the firing of any gay or lesbian teachers in California.
Not only did Milk lead pride marches but he also fought for issues affecting the entire San Francisco population. It included access to affordable housing and daycare for working mothers.
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Milk was widely known as a fighter for LGBTQ+ rights and was no stranger to death threats. He acknowledged there was a possibility he would be assassinated. Less than a year after his inauguration as a city supervisor, he and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death in the San Francisco city hall by a former fellow city supervisor over a job dispute. His killer was sentenced to seven years. Due to this, riots broke out over what many perceived to be a lenient sentence.
In 2009, President Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Medal of Freedom. This was to recognize his contributions as a trailblazing advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.
During Milk’s short tenure in office, he pushed legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations, according to CNN. In 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger designated May 22, Milk’s birthday, as a day of recognition for the late politician and activist.
According to CNN, in 1978, Harvey Milk asked his friend Gilbert Baker to make a symbol that would represent gay pride. Baker used the U.S. flag as inspiration. This led to him hand-sewing a rainbow flag and saying each color on the flag represented something important to the community. For example, hot pink was for sex and the color red on the flag was for life. The rainbow pride flag was first flown in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, for Gay Pride Day.
Marriage equality trailblazer Edith Windsor fought for her rights as a married woman in a landmark case that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling in her favor. It paved the way for federal legalization of same-sex marriage and we salute her as #TheView celebrates #PrideMonth! pic.twitter.com/3RnD1dp0fe
— The View (@TheView) June 1, 2022
Windsor was engaged to Thea Spyer for 40 years. She then married Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 and passed away just two years later. Spyer left everything to her wife. But because the U.S. did not recognize their same-sex marriage, Windsor was asked to pay taxes on Spyer’s estate. The taxes were far beyond what a heterosexual spouse would be required to pay on the estate of their deceased spouse.
Windsor took her case to court. In 2013, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. It ruled that Section 3 of DOMA (which prevented the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriages for the purpose of federal laws) was unconstitutional. This paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. The landmark decision would not have been possible without Edith Windsor.
Laverne Cox makes history as the very first trans person to have a Barbie doll made in their honor. 🏳️⚧️ pic.twitter.com/boio1oGjgL
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) May 25, 2022
Laverne Cox is best known for playing Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate, on Netflix’s ‘Orange Is the New Black’. For her role in the series, Cox, who is a black, trans woman, was nominated for three Emmy Awards and was the first trans person to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. The actress is a proud advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and has been outspoken about access to health care for LGBTQ+ communities. She has particularly championed the rights of trans people and people of color.
laverne cox just made history by becoming the first trans barbie doll and i would like one pic.twitter.com/6OI2iFc5QJ
— matt (@mattxiv) May 27, 2022
“We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working-class,” Cox wrote in a Tumblr post in 2015. “I have hoped over the past few years that the incredible love I have received from the public can translate to the lives of all trans folks.”
Eight years after becoming the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team Michael Sam returns to football. https://t.co/lMG8GQM9tA
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) May 28, 2022
In 2014, Michael Sam came out as gay in an interview with ESPN. Sam made history that same year and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. He became the first openly gay man to ever be drafted into the NFL. Unfortunately, Sam was let go from the team. The star’s struggle highlighted the discrimination and homophobia still rampant in the sports world. However, Sam has gone on to share his story. He continues to champion change.
Billie Jean King
Tennis champion Billie Jean King has been a longtime pioneer on and off the court. She used her status as a prominent athlete to champion gender equality and LGBTQ+ visibility. She was the first tennis player — and woman — to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 1972.
In 1972, she also joined Ms. Magazine‘s list of prominent women who admitted to having an abortion. This was during the fight for legal abortion access. After winning the U.S. Open in 1972, she threatened to boycott the next year if men and women were not awarded the same prize money. As a result, the tournament made the prize money the same for both sexes in the next year.
King’s career took off after this in 1973. It was when she went head-to-head with a male tennis champion nearly twice her age. Her matchup with Bobby Riggs was watched by millions. King said she not only wanted to win, but she also had to win for the sake of gender equality.
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Her career took a hit in 1981. This came after news leaked that she was in a secret relationship with another woman while she was married to a man. She argued with her managers and lawyers to hold a press conference so she could control the message about her sexuality.
However, when King publicly confirmed that she was in a lesbian relationship, she became the first out LGBTQ+ athlete. She lost all her endorsement deals but she likely made the road smoother for those who followed. This includes Martina Navratilova, who was outed just a few months later. But she didn’t lose any of her endorsement deals.
King divorced her husband in 1987. She is now with her longtime partner and fellow tennis champion, Ilana Kloss. The tennis star was awarded the President Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009. King later founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative in 2014. She did this to highlight diverse talent from around the world.
Larry Kramer was at the front of the AIDS crisis. He was trying to bring attention to the disease gay men were facing around the country. In 1981, he created the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization. This was the only group devoted to helping those affected by HIV/AIDS and he later created Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). It was an organization that held high-profile demonstrations.
According to CNN, “Kramer’s controversial calls on activists to take the AIDS crisis into their own hands helped push the FDA to eventually approve the use and distribution of experimental drugs.” These helped save the lives of AIDS patients. In the ’80s, he wrote the play ‘The Normal Heart’. It chronicled his experience in AIDS activism. In 2011, the play finally went up on Broadway. It was later turned into an HBO movie.
Bayard Rustin was a gay adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. He organized the 1963 March on Washington. It was a benchmark of peaceful protesting. Bayard played a very important role due to his involvement to bring the AIDS crisis to the NAACP’s attention in 1987. “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were Black people. That is no longer true,” he said in 1987. That was the year he died. “The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”
In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as per Readers Digest. It is the highest civilian honor. In the same year, in an interview with NPR, National Black Justice Coalition activist Mandy Carter said of Rustin: “For me and for a lot of us who are Black, and gay and lesbian, bi, trans, who see ourselves as social justice advocates as well, to have this person—[he was]such an amazing role model.”