5 people who changed LGBTQ+ history

Pride marches happen nationally throughout the summer and while they’re great fun, they also a time to honour people who have paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights, and those whose cultural and artistic legacies have helped shape the community today.

We’ve taken five well-known figures who’ve made an impact on the LGBTQ+ community and broken down the ways in which they have changed history.

Illustrations by Anshika Khullar @aorists

Josephine Baker

Josephine’s life was split between France and the USA, where she worked from the age of 15 as a Vaudeville performer. When she moved to Paris, her career flourished and her routines, which were heavily inspired by African influences, drew in crowds. Her most famous routine was at the Danse Sauvage, where she danced across the stage in her iconic banana skirt.

During the war, Josephine became a spy for French military officials where she passed on secrets she heard whilst performing for the Nazis. After returning to the US, she refused to perform to segregated crowds, which forced club owners to integrate their audiences.

She was married to men four times throughout her life, but also had many important relationships with women, including Frida Khalo. She also adopted 13 children from various countries and referred to her family as ‘the rainbow tribe,’ as a message to the world about how different cultures and races can exist in a harmonious family. Since her death, she has become a queer icon.

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Harvey Milk

Best known as one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office in the US, Harvey Milk is one of the most well-known figures of the early gay rights movement. However, he wasn’t always destined to become an activist. Although he knew he was gay since high school, he remained very quiet about his personal life.

When he moved to San Francisco, he started to become more and more outspoken, and his activism flourished. In 1977, Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors where he campaigned to change stereotypes of gay people and spoke out about legislation that restricted the rights of gay people. Although he was tragically assassinated after only 11 months in office, he is well remembered for his impassioned speeches and his story was documented in the 2008 film Milk.

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Marsha P. Johnson

The Stonewall riots of 1969, which were ignited by a late night raid of a New York gay bar that lead to a violent struggle with police, is said to have started the gay rights movement of this era. Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman from New Jersey, was one of the people there that night, along with her close friend Sylvia Rivera.

After she helped spark national resistance, Marsha continued to support LGBTQ+ communities throughout her life. Despite her hard life, where being transgender (a term that wasn’t even used yet during that time) meant not being able to get a job, often leaving her homeless, she is remembered for her flashy homemade outfits and her optimistic outlook.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are set to have statues built to honour them to mark the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. It’ll be the first public and permanent monument honouring transgender women in the world.

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Eve Sedgewick

Sedgewick is known as one of the originators of Queer Theory, and her book ‘Between Men’ helped to establish the field of queer literary analysis. Through her work she aimed to illuminate the ‘queer lens’ in literature. Her work was often viewed as controversial and she received many critiques over the years, including those who criticised her for being married. Her essay ‘Jane Austen and the masturbating girl’ was even used to critique left-wing corruption in the education system.

Despite all this, through her books and essays she became a pioneer for queer studies in a time when many did not believe in the value or legitimacy of the investigation into these subjects. Her life has inspired more and more analysis and critical thinking in this field.

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Jalal al-Din Rumi

This poet has often been described as one of the greatest writers of love and spirituality in the world. Rumi lived during the 13th century and his life spanned across many countries including Iran, Syria and Turkey, where he spent the last 50 years of his life.

When Rumi was already a respected scholar and preacher, he met his companion Shams of Tabriz who inspired him to write about themes of love and ‘ecstatic faith that shattered binaries of sex, gender, and orientation.’*

The popularity of his writing today just goes to show how powerful his work was, and breaks down beliefs that queerness is ‘new’ or that it is only a subject that reaches certain communities, ethnicities or genders.

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To find out even more about LGBTQ+ history, head over to this instagram page for daily inspiration and knowledge.

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