It is vital that during times like LGBTQ+ History Month, we reflect on the progress that has been made for the rights of our community. But with that comes centuries of censored history, and individuals who have played vital parts in enhancing queer acceptance and freedoms that don't get the recognition they deserve.
So here we have 5 underappreciated figures, to shine a spotlight on just a fraction of our history and the incredible impact that they had.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Rustin's family were long involved in civil rights work. In 1936, he moved to Harlem, New York City and earned a living as a nightclub and stage singer, and continued activism for civil rights.
He recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership, and helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen King’s leadership, where Rustin also promoted the philosophy of nonviolence and the practices of nonviolent resistance. He became a leading strategist of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968.
Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for a homosexual act in 1953. Homosexuality was criminalized in parts of the United States until 2003. Rustin’s sexuality, or at least his embarrassingly public criminal charge, was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights eaders. Rustin was attacked as a “pervert” or “immoral influence” by political opponents from segregationists to Black power militants, from the 1950s through the 1970s.
Another of Rustin's most notable achievements was as the main organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the Summer of 1963. The event roused a crowd of 250,000 and was where Martin Luther King Jr. made his legendary "I Have A Dream" speech.
Despite his pivotal role in this event, his presence was hidden, and he was shunned into the background of the event because of his open advocacy for gay rights.
Former President, Barack Obama, posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, but in most teachings of America's Civil Rights movement, one of its most influential individuals remains underappreciated.
Lou Sullivan (1951-1991)
Lou Sullivan was an American author and activist known for his work on behalf of trans men.
He was perhaps the first transgender man to publicly identify as gay and is subsequently responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts.
Sullivan was a pioneer of the grassroots female-to-male (FTM) movement and was instrumental in helping individuals obtain peer support, counselling, endocrinological services and reconstructive surgery outside of gender dysphoria clinics. He founded FTM International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals, and his activism and community work was significant contributor to the rapid growth of the FTM community during the late 1980s.
He began his transition in 1973 and was consistently frustrated by the lack of medical and social support he received, preventing him from undergoing SRS until 6 years later in 1979. His experiences inspired him to advocate for greater education for trans people, as well as support individuals through his work, such as the FTM Newsletter, one of the first guidebooks for trans men.
In August 2019, Sullivan was one of the honorees inducted in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco's Castro neighbourhood noting LGBTQ people who have "made significant contributions in their fields".
Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh (1871-1942)
Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh was the daughter of Maharaja Sir Duleep Singh and Maharani Bamba, and the god-daughter of Queen Victoria.
Educated in England, Catherine and her sisters were prominent figures in Victoria’s court and along with her sisters, was instrumental in both the Indian, and British suffragist movements. Her sister, Sophia, was a member of Emiline Pankhurst's Suffragette movement.
She was the lifelong romantic partner of governess Lina Schäfer and lived with her in Germany from 1904.
During this time, the two of them were instrumental in aiding Jewish families to escape Germany during WWII, even housing several families to protect them from capture during the early years of the war.
Mark Ashton (1960-1987)
Mark Ashton was a British gay rights activist and co- founder of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) support group ( page 23).
Upon watching the news about the miners' strike, gay activist Mark Ashton realises that the police have stopped harassing the gay community because their attention is elsewhere. He spontaneously arranges a bucket collection for the miners during the Gay Pride Parade in London. Encouraged by the success, he founds "Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners".
LGSM faced opposition from the mining community who do not wish to associate with them, as well as within the gay community who feel that the miners have mistreated them in the past. However, during the strikes, many grateful miners acknowledged LGSM's role and relations begin to thaw and the two communities quickly become close.
This relationship became hugely significant for the LGBTQ+ community. At the 1985 Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, a resolution committing the party to the support of LGBT rights passed, due to block voting support from the National Union of Mineworkers.
Storme Delarverie (1920-2014)
While influential figures in the 1969 Stonewall riots have finally started to receive the recognition they deserve, one individual who is perhaps yet to receive her limelight is Storme DeLarverie.
Born in 1920, her father was white and wealthy, whilst her mother was African American and worked as a servant for his family. She was never given a birth certificate and was not certain of her actual date of birth. Biracial and androgynous, she could pass for white or black, male or female. She was picked up twice on the streets by police who mistook her for a drag queen.
Her background inspired years of advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community during the early 1960s, and later in 1969, she is widely recognised as the woman whose scuffle with police was the spark that ignited the Stonewall uprising, spurring the crowd to action.
She worked for much of her life as an MC, singer, bouncer, bodyguard, and volunteer street patrol worker known as both the "guardian of lesbians in the Village." and "the Rosa Parks of the New York
Published Online: 26/02/2023