Around the world, the LGBTQ community faces inequality and discrimination on different levels. Although an increasing number of countries have legalised same-sex marriage in recent years, in countries such as Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, members of the LGBT community are still fighting for their simple right to exist.
In the USA, much of LGBTQ activism began fifty years ago, starting with the Stonewall riots of 1969. In celebration of this notable anniversary, discover the lives of four pivotal activists.
1. Frank Kameny (1925-2011)
As an activist long before the Stonewall riots, Kameny was a pioneer in the gay rights movement. During World War II, he interrupted his studies in astronomy to serve in the army. At his induction, when asked if he had homosexual tendencies, he answered no. Decades later, he confessed that he resented having to lie in order to serve his country.
Kameny earned his Ph.D. in 1956 and moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job teaching astronomy at Georgetown University. A year later, the Army Map Service offered him a job as a civilian astronomer, but after five months he was found unsuitable for government employment on the basis of information that he was homosexual. Asked to resign, Kameny refused. He interpreted the government’s action “as a declaration of war against me and my fellow gays”.
After launching a failed legal battle against the government, he recognized that it was now time for homosexuals to act collectively. In 1961, he founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, a social activism organisation for the gay and lesbian community. Kameny envisioned the struggle for gay rights as part of the larger civil rights movement, a position that emboldened him to take up the plight of homosexuals well before the Stonewall riots made gay rights a cause célèbre.
2. Harvey Milk (1930-1978)
Milk was a politician and gay rights activist. As with many gay men and lesbians of his generation, the Stonewall riots of 1969 marked Milk’s emergence as a political and social activist. A few years later, Milk moved permanently from New York to San Francisco, which had become a relatively safe place for openly gay people since the end of World War II. Milk opened a camera store on Castro Street in the centre of the gay community, and quickly became a leader in gay political activism.
In 1973, Milk declared his candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although he lost that race, Milk garnered more than 17,000 votes and finished tenth in a 32-candidate field. Milk emerged from the 1973 campaign as a new force in San Francisco politics, an urban populist whose platform, while founded on gay rights, also embraced other progressive policies.
After a second race for supervisor in 1976, which he lost closely, Milk was established as the leading political spokesman for the city’s gay community. The election of his friend and ally George Moscone to mayoral office gave him access to the city’s centre of power. Moscone appointed Milk to the board of permit appeals, making Milk the first openly gay city commissioner in the United States.
3. Pat Parker (1944-1989)
Parker was a poet, performer, and activist. Growing up in the segregated South, Parker encountered racism regularly. This experience followed her during her studies at Los Angeles City College, where the head of the school’s department discouraged her journalistic aspirations, telling her there was no place for black people in the field.
However, the civil rights, women’s liberation, and Black Power movements politicized and empowered Parker. During the 1970s, Parker joined Gente, a lesbians of colour group, which provided support and solidarity in the face of racism in society at large and within the women’s movement. During this time, Parker also joined the Women’s Press Collective, a lesbian-feminist publishing collective, and she performed her poetry in community spaces, where audiences responded enthusiastically to her work.
Parker’s reputation continued to grow throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, when she travelled the world reading poems from her book, Movement in Black. Parker’s creative output throughout her life was substantial; she was an extraordinary performer of her work voicing the experiences of African American lesbians and a precursor to the spoken word movement.
4. Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Rich was a poet, essayist, and activist born to a white, upper middle-class family in Baltimore. At fifteen, she learned about the Holocaust, but felt that she could not discuss it; households like hers mentioned neither the racism nor anti-Semitism so prevalent in the 1940s. Rich became committed to fighting for social justice and searching for poetry that could change the world. Her first book of poetry, A Change of World, published the year she graduated college, was chosen by W. H. Auden as the winner of the prestigious 1951 Yale Younger Poets Competition.
After many years as an established writer, Rich came out as a lesbian in 1975. She embraced her new role as a spokesperson for lesbian-feminist thought through lectures, essays, and editing. Rich and her partner, Jamaican writer Michell Cliff, co-edited one of the most important lesbian journals, Sinister Wisdom, for two years. Furthermore, Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” became a key foundational feminist text. Published in 1980, her essay was one of the first texts to acknowledge lesbianism.
These four activists played an important role in promoting acceptance of the LGBTQ community, but they represent just a few of the important LGBTQ activists from history. Today, we have them to thank for paving the way towards equal rights, though the fight is far from over.
Featured image: “Gay Pride Parade” by naeimasgary. Public Domain via Pixabay.