Queer history was probably not included in your grade school curriculum—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist! Part of being a good ally (that’s you, parents!) is learning about the history, hardships, and celebrations that the LGBTQ community has experienced, and remembering all the contributions made by queer folks throughout history.
That’s why, throughout Pride month, we will be highlighting LGBTQ activists, artists, and politicians who have played powerful roles in shaping our politics, our culture, and our history. We are kicking off our short series with activists, because it is important to remember and honor Pride’s roots in radical activism. So with that in mind, check out these four inspiring activists who were pioneers of the early LGBTQ movement.
Marsha P. Johnson
1945 – 1992
Marsha P. Johnson was a black, trans, gay activist and drag queen. Johnson is perhaps most well-known for her participation in the Stonewall riots in June of 1969, where violence broke out when police raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn in an attempt to arrest the gay and transgender patrons there. The riots lasted for several days and sparked the gay rights movement where Johnson played an important role in fighting for the rights of gay and transgender people. Following the riots, Johnson joined the Gay Liberation Front, one of the first LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the U.S. She also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which advocated on behalf of young trans people; helped start and run the S.T.A.R. House, a homeless shelter for gay and trans street kids; and was actively involved in ACT UP, an HIV/AIDS activist group. As a queer, poor, gender non-conforming person of color who struggled with mental illness and homelessness, Johnson’s legacy of intersectional activism within the LGBTQ community was integral to the movement, and she remains an inspiration for many activists today.
1951 – 2002
Sylvia Rivera was a gay, trans, Latina social justice activist and drag queen of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. Her activism started in the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements in the 1960s before she became an important figure in the gay rights movement as well. A close friend of Marsha P. Johnson, she co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and S.T.A.R. House, a homeless shelter for gay and trans youth. She was also an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front and fought for legal protections for LGBTQ people, including the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and the later Transgender Rights Bill. Throughout her life she was critical of the mainstream gay rights movement’s exclusions of people of color, trans people, and sex workers in order to appease the “respectability” of mainstream culture. Her legacy reminds us that even with the progress that the LGBTQ community has made, we must continue to fight for the respect, inclusion, and celebration of ALL queer identities, including those that have been marginalized within the larger movement.
1912 – 1987
Bayard Rustin was a black gay man and an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was an advocate of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience and was an early organizer of the 1947 Freedom Ride that protested racial segregation in the South. Later, Rustin was a close advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a key organizer of the March on Washington (where MLK gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech). In his later career, Rustin became involved with the Democratic Party, labor unions, and gay rights activism. Rustin’s sexual orientation, as well as his earlier connections with the Communist Party, meant that he took a behind-the-scenes seat in the Civil Rights movement to avoid controversy. Therefore, recognizing his important contributions to history and to the fight for equality is all the more important today.
1946 – 2005