The fight for equality and inclusivity of LGBTQ+ individuals who’ve faced prejudice, discrimination, and hatred in cities, states, and countries all over the world is still an ongoing battle, but during the month of October, we should take the time to reminisce over some of the extraordinary people who have battled for LGBTQ+ rights in the face of adversity.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Ulrichs was born August 28, 1825, in what was then known as the Kingdom of Hannover. He was an effeminate child and was sexually abused at a young age by his riding instructor. This experience pushed him to separate queerness from pedophilia since both were interchangeable at the time. He published a series of essays about homosexuality in which he coined “Urning” to describe men who were attracted to other men. “Urning” was the earliest words to describe queerness in the way it is today. He came to the conclusion that love between two men was natural, something people were born with. He advocated for the push to normalize these views on homosexuality and seek acceptance of homosexuals in the society where sodomy and anti-homosexuality laws were prevalent. His work and activism went on to inspire generations after him, including Magnus Hirschfeld.
Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld is known as the founder of the world’s first gay rights movement. Born into a Jewish family in 1868, he studied to be a physician in Berlin. When he heard news of author Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment, it inspired him to become a sexologist and gay rights advocate. He founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft “Institute of Sex Research”, a private research institute that provided counseling, archives on sex research, organized meetings for sexual reform, and conducting research. One of the institutes’ first attempts at reform was repealing Paragraph 175 of the German penal code that criminalized gay sex. He even took the police commissioner of Berlin on a tour of gay bars and clubs to show what the LGBTQ+ community was like in hopes to convince the police to stop enforcing the unjust anti-gay laws.
In 1952 New York Daily News broke the story of Jorgensen with a bombshell title, “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY!”. A U.S. Army veteran and Bronx native, she was the first American to publicly announce her gender reassignment surgery. The former GI was not the first person to have undergone gender confirmation surgery, but she was the first to be widely known for their transition. She toured the United States to educate people about being transgender and to tell her story of transitioning. Her openness to being transgender helped bring attention to gender identity and gender norms. A few years before her death, she traveled back to Denmark to reunite with her doctors who had helped her through her transition. Speaking to the media, she acknowledges the notoriety of her case by saying, “We didn’t start the sexual revolution but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!”
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson
The night of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 marked the historic turning point of LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. The police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City prompted a multi-day rebellion after a patron, “threw the first brick” at a police officer in response to the manhandling and arrest of several patrons. At this event, two women would be inspired to co-found the organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group dedicated to helping marginalized trans women of color and drag queens. Sylvia Rivera was of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent and worked as a trans rights activist. By age eleven, she was thrown out of her grandmother’s house and began living on the street and working as a prostitute until she was adopted by the local drag queen community. She led a turbulent life, struggling with drug addiction and homelessness, but she was one of the first people who highlighted that the LGBTQ+ movement needed to be more inclusive with people of color and the transgender community. Marsha P. Johnson, or sometimes referred to as the “Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” was a black, queer, and transgendered woman who fought fearlessly for transgender rights and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. Her death in 1992, caused an uproar in the LGBTQ+ community over the mysterious circumstances in which she died, the case was reopened in 2012 and continues to be open today.
Harvey Milk is known as the first openly gay person elected to public office. In 1977 he won the seat on the San Francisco City Council Board and it was assassination that ultimately put him in the history books. He helped with defeating the passing of Proposition 6, an LGBT discriminatory law that would have barred gay people from teaching in California public schools. Milk had only served 11 months of his tenure as a city official before he was assassinated alongside the mayor of San Francisco George Moscone by a former co-worker. Dan White, a Vietnam veteran and former police officer and fireman, was a co-worker of Milk and Moscone. He had quit his job due to his salary not being enough to support his family. With a push from his police supporters, he asked Moscone to reappoint him but the major refused out of a desire for a more diverse and liberal board member. Incensed White took matters in his own hands, he entered City Hall through a basement window with a .38 revolver and killed Moscone and Milk in their offices. White’s trial and sentencing inspired San Francisco citizens to march for justice in what is known as the White Night Riots. His lawyers’ defense against these shootings became known as the “Twinkie defense”, wherein his decreased mental capacity from eating junk food unlike his otherwise healthy lifestyle led him to become mentally unstable. He was charged with manslaughter and 7 years in prison instead of murder. Milk’s death inspired San Francisco’s citizens and lawmakers to become more inclusive by appointing more LGBTQ+ individuals in public office and on the police force.