Significant Figures in
Warning: Some quotes included in this piece contain hurtful slurs directed at the LGBTQIA2S+ community. The intention of including them is to provide context for the environment in which many of the featured individuals lived. HMOC does not promote or encourage the use of such language.
Before going into some significant figures from LGBTQIA2S+ history, it is important to make clear that queer people have been present throughout all of history on every continent. History, however, has been presented with a straight, cisgender lens, and so much of queer history has been systematically erased. This is an attempt to recover some of that history, and in doing so it is also important to acknowledge that most of our modern labels did not exist even a couple of hundred years ago. It’s difficult putting present labels on past actions, especially when we are just focusing on the words in the English language. In this case, we have taken care to respect how individuals described themselves and to use the most appropriate labels/gender pronouns.
Claud Cahun & Marcel Moore
Born Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, they adopted gender-neutral names, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, became lovers, and moved to Paris around 1919. Though Cahun is often discussed as a lesbian and referred to using she/her/hers pronouns, they adamantly rejected gender. In a telling quote from Cahun they state, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Because of this we will be using they/them pronouns when referring to Cahun.
After moving to Paris, Cahun and Moore joined a small group of artists in the Parisian avant-garde who were also experimenting with gender. In the 1920s, Cahun began experimenting with photography and self-portraiture, and they were on the fringes of the Surrealist movement. They also focused on writing, publishing Heroines in 1925 and in 1930 published Aveux Non Avenus, a collection of writings and photo-collages. Cahun and Moore became more involved with the Surrealist movement in the 1930s in an attempt to use art to stem the tide of the war. During WWII, the couple lived in their house, called La Rocquaise, on Jersey, an island off the coast of Normandy in the English Channel. They became known for their strange behaviors, like taking their cat for a walk on a lead and wearing trousers.
When German forces conquered France and used the island as a training ground for new recruits, Cahun and Moore use Surrealism to wage a two-person campaign of disinformation and morale-destruction. They would illegally listen to news stories from BBC broadcasts, which Moore translated into German and Cahun would convert into poems or fake conversations. They would then slip these into soldiers' pockets. They also stole propaganda posters and cut them into resistance flyers, hiding them in cigarette boxes that they left around town for soldiers to find. They would both also wear disguises and infiltrate German gatherings and outposts to distribute flyers on cars and soldier’s coats and post anti-Nazi slogans in prominent locations. At one point, 350 flyers were confiscated throughout the island, and their campaign was so successful that the Germans believed there was a full-on resistance movement in Jersey. The couple was caught in 1944 and sentenced to death, but the Germans feared public outcry so the execution was never carried out. They were released in May 1945, when the island was liberated. They both received military badges as souvenirs from fellow prisoners and Cahun was awarded the Medal of French Gratitude in 1951.
Hirschfeld was inspired to become a pioneering sexologist and gay rights champion when he heard about Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment. Hirschfeld himself was not openly gay, he lived with his boyfriend so people knew if they wanted to, but he never verbally or in his writing addressed his own sexuality. In 1897, at 29 years old, he founded the “Scientific Humanitarian Committee”, which was the beginning of the first gay rights movement. In Germany, homosexual acts between men were illegal under paragraph 175 of German law, and the main goal of the newly founded committee was to get paragraph 175 repealed.
Hirschfeld gave over 3,000 lectures and started a medical journal in 1899 “The Yearbook for Sexual Intermediaries”, which was highly respected among medical doctors. He quickly established himself as an expert on sexuality and frequently gave evidence in court. He argued that homosexuality was inborn, natural, and should not be punished, and the courts agreed with him. After WWI the liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic led to an era of relative freedom in Berlin. While homosexuality remained illegal, there was a tentative openness about gay life in Berlin, and the key during this period was the proud visibility that was prevalent.
In 1919, Hirschfeld opened his Institute for Sexual Science. This institute had 50 rooms, a library with 20,000 volumes, archives, and 35,000 photographs of every imaginable sexual predilection and possible way of being in gender expression terms. An enormous amount of information about sexuality was being collected which also benefited heterosexuals. Hirschfeld not only provided information about contraception but argued that premarital heterosexuality was morally okay and advocated for a morality of consent. He basically believed that the state should get out of the private business of the bedroom and defended everybody’s sexual rights. The Institute also provided some of the earliest gender alignment/gender confirmation surgery. Hirschfeld and his Institute quickly became a target early on in the Nazis rise to power. Hirschfeld himself posed a triple threat as a gay, Jewish socialist, and Hitler singled him out as far back as 1920, calling him “Jewish swine”. Hirschfeld’s library at the Institute was the first target for book burnings and on May 6, 1933 Nazi youth ransacked the institute. Most of the contents were destroyed or stolen and thousands of books were seized. Four nights later, stacks of volumes were burned on the Opernplatz, destroying years of groundbreaking research on sex, sexuality, and gender. Hirschfeld was in Paris at the time and watched the destruction of the institute on a newsreel. Hirschfeld died 2 years later and was completely forgotten after WWII. He did not begin to be commemorated until 20-30 years after WWII.
Nancy was born in Mexico on May 29, 1934. She was incredibly intelligent, eventually earning a doctorate in Philosophy and Letters. Nancy became well known as a radio announcer, an author, a playwright, a journalist, and pioneer of the gay liberation movement in Mexico. At 39 years old, she declared herself a lesbian on a television show called 24 horas, a first of its kind public announcement. In 1974, Nancy founded Frente de Liberación Homosexual Mexicano, the first gay organization in Mexico. In 1975, she was asked to speak at the United Nations International Women’s Year Conference. In 1978, she led the first gay pride parade march in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. She participated in writing the first Mexican Lesbian Manifesto, and fostered solidarity and alliances between Mexican and foreign lesbians. Her activism work continued through the rest of her life, ending in 1994 when she passed from breast cancer. Nancy Cárdenas was many things, an actor, a poet, a writer and a feminist, but possibly of most significance was her role as an activist for Latina lesbians and gay rights.
Julie d’Aubigny was a French, bisexual, opera-singing, sword fighter, woman from 17th-century France. She was the only child of the secretary to King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count d’Armagnac, one of France’s great nobles. She lived in the riding school at the Tuileries Palace of Paris before moving to the court of the Palace of Versailles in 1682. Her father was an accomplished swordsman who trained court pages at Versailles, and Julie excelled at fencing from a very early age. Her father chose to educate her alongside the boys, and this is when Julie found her love not only for fencing but for dressing up as a boy.
The Count d’Armagnac took her as a mistress and arranged for her to marry another man to keep up appearances. They were married but Julie soon ran away with her fencing master, Séranne, after he killed a man in a duel. They made a living by performing fencing demonstrations at fairs and in taverns. Julie loved to duel, even though the anti-dueling laws in France were becoming much stricter. She killed, or at least injured more than 10 men, but managed to win royal pardons on the grounds that the law only governed men. Their love affair, however, quickly fizzles out after Julie seduced a merchant’s daughter. The woman was sent to a convent to keep them apart. Julie joined the convent, and when a nun passed away, Julie stole the dead body, placed it in her lover’s room and set the convent on fire. The couple were able to escape and elope for three months, before the woman returned to her family. After finding out that their daughter was alive, Julie was charged with kidnapping, body snatching, and arson, and was sentenced to death by fire. She was able to avoid her death sentence through her skills as an opera singer.
Julie auditioned for the Paris Opéra, and when they realized how talented she was, they persuaded the king to lift the death sentence. She performed under the stage name La Maupin from 1690 to 1694 and was very open about her bisexuality during her time on stage. She got into trouble once again when King Louis’ brother, Philippe (who was openly gay), invited Julie to a royal ball as his guest. She came dressed as a man and danced with women throughout the night. The breaking point was when she kissed a desirable, single Marquise that several gentlemen were courting. Three of the suitors challenged Julie to a duel on the spot. Julie defeated them all and then went back to the party. This, however, was a crime during a royal event and so was a crime against the king. Julie fled to Brussels and returned to Paris a year later to take a permanent position in the opera. She ended her days heartbroken when Madame la Marquise de Florensac, who Julie had fallen in love with, died in 1705. Julie retired from opera, joined a convent, and died in 1707.
Bayard Rustin was one of the most significant participants in the Civil Rights Movement, but most have never heard his name. As an openly gay man, his contributions during the time were downplayed as to not “detract” from the larger movement. It has only been recently that Rustin has been pulled from the shadows and placed into the spotlight.
Born in 1912, Rustin was raised by his grandparents in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As Quakers, they instilled the values of nonviolence and peace in Rustin, both of which he held dear and guided his life's work. From an early age, he had experiences that shaped his passion to fight for justice. As both an African American and a gay man, Rustin saw and fought for the need to end discrimination. In 1941, he joined a socialist organization called the Fellowship of the Reconciliation (FOR); he was involved for 10 years before being fired for an arrest on charges of “sex perversion”. During his time with FOR, Rustin met and was mentored by A. Phillip Randolph, a significant figure in the Civil Rights Movement and spokesperson for black-working class interests. It was through this relationship that Rustin was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, it was Rustin and a few others who encouraged and convinced MLK to adopt pacifism and nonviolence as cornerstones of the movement.
Rustin quickly became a valuable member of the movement, and although leaders overlooked his sexual orientation, they always considered it a liability. On several occasions, opponents of the movement blackmailed leaders with exposure of Rustin’s sexuality. These threats caused a distancing between the movement leaders and Rustin in 1960. Not long after, he was pulled back in to organize the March on Washington in 1963. While publicly it was stated Randolph was the appointed director of the march and Rustin was his deputy. In reality, it was really Rustin who led the march.
Rustin’s activism not only continued through the end of the Civil Rights Movement but also into the 1980s when he began speaking for gay rights. On August 24, 1987, Rustin died of a perforated appendix. On August 8, 2013, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. A press release for the award stated “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
Lucy Hicks Anderson
Born in Waddy, Kentucky in 1886, Lucy was assigned male at birth, but from an early age she identified as female. At the age of 15, Lucy left school and began working to support herself. She moved around quite a bit developing her skills as a chef and even winning baking contests. In her 20s, she married Clarence Hicks in Silver City, New Mexico. The marriage lasted nine years, and during that time, she was able to save up money to purchase her own property. In 1944, she entered into her second marriage with Reuben Anderson. At this point, Lucy had already moved to Oxnard, CA where she opened a boarding house, which fronted as a brothel and also illegally sold liquor during prohibition. In Oxnard, Lucy was a socialite and popular hostess. She became known for her charitable donations, support for soldiers and their families, and the purchasing nearly $50,000 in war bonds during WWII.
While her business was successful it was not without scandal. In 1945, a sailor that had visited the brothel contracted a venereal disease and claimed it came from a woman there. All women at the brothel, including Anderson were forced to undergo medical examinations. It was at this point, Lucy was discovered to have been assigned male at birth. The Ventura County District Attorney pursued charges against her for committing perjury on her marriage license. Lucy defended herself and her marriage stating “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just like what I am, a woman.” She was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 10 years of probation. Additionally, the federal government charged Lucy and her husband, Reuben, with fraud for receiving subsistence allotments as a soldier's wife. They were both found guilty and sentenced to serve time in separate men’s prisons. By court order, Lucy was not allowed to wear women’s clothing.
After their release, the Oxnard police chief barred Lucy from returning, threatening further prosecution. She and Reuben moved to Los Angeles where they lived together as a married couple until her death in 1954; she was 68 years old. Lucy is acknowledged as one of the earliest documented cases of an African-American transgender person, as well as the first transgender person to fight for marriage rights.
Frida Kahlo was interested in philosophy and revolution from a young age, and she and her friends even set off a small bomb next to one of their teachers during class to protest his refusal to teach about Marx. She also enjoyed running and playing sport, and did not care that she embarrassed her parents, going as far as to show up to a family portrait dressed in a man’s suit. She did not even mind the limp that polio left her with, but this all changed in 1925 when she was 18 years old. A bus she was on after school was hit by a streetcar and an iron handrail pierced her body fracturing her spine, ribs, pelvis, right leg, and collarbone. She spent a month in a full-body cast in the hospital, mostly alone and completely immobile.
During her life she would have to go through 36 surgeries. When she was finally able to return home, she was still mostly isolated and immobile, but her arms and hand were some of the only body parts she could use. To stave off boredom she began painting, and set up a mirror on the top of her canopy bed and began completing dozens of self-portraits. When she was able to walk again, three years after her accident, she sought out the famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera. She needed to know if she could make a career in painting so that she could support herself, and he gave her the validation she needed. They got married a year later which was the start of a very tumultuous relationship. Both slept with multiple people while married which led to intense fights. The Biggest betrayal was Diego’s long-term affair with her younger sister. While Deigo was very jealous of her affairs with men, he did not seem to mind her affairs with women. Kahlo reportedly had relations with prominent artists including Georgia O’Keefe, Dolores del Río, Josephine Baker, Mikolas Muray, Chavela Vargas, Jacqueline Lamba, Isamu Noguchi, and Paulette Goddard.
As an artist, Kahlo is celebrated for her attention to Mexican and indigenous culture and for her depiction of female experience and form. Life experience was a common theme in her work and her physical and emotional pain was starkly depicted. The surrealists of Paris thought she was one of theirs but she insisted that she painted her reality, which was surreal to outside observers. Towards the end of her life her health began fading more rapidly, and she lost a leg and some toes and she was once again bed bound 29 years after the accident. At this point her work was already in the Louvre, but she wanted to attend the first exhibition of her paintings in Mexico. Her doctor had ordered her to stay in bed, so she had herself delivered in her bed to the gallery as a piece of performance art. It was the final show of her life.
José Sarria wanted to become a teacher after fighting in WWII, but he was arrested for solicitation in a hotel bathroom by an undercover cop. Sarria later said the charge was invented to prosecute him for being gay, but after the arrest he had no chance of working in schools. Instead, he decided to become a drag opera performer and introduced “drag opera” to the Black Cat in the 1940s. Sarria ended each performance with a pep talk, telling his audience that being gay was not wrong. In recalling one of these pep talks, a man said "José was the first person to ever tell me that I was okay, that I wasn't a second-class citizen".
Every time he took the stage, he broke the cross-dressing law that was on the books in San Francisco. In San Francisco, Halloween was the only day anti-cross-dressing laws were not in effect, but right at midnight, police would start rounding up anyone still in gender nonconforming clothes, targeting gay bars like the Black Cat. Sarria had enough attacks and so he looked up the exact wording of the law, discovering that it stated it was unlawful to dress with the intent to deceive. He started creating cat-shaped buttons that read “I am a boy” so that people could clearly state their sex regardless of how they were dressed. Sarria distributed the badges one Halloween. When the police showed up at the Black Cat, no one wearing a badge was arrested. Despite this win, the Black Cat was consistently under attack, with the California State Alcoholic Beverage Control Department determined to shut down all gay bars.
In 1961, Sarria decided to run for office, becoming the first openly gay person to do so. He believed that it was the only way for the gay community to get any power. Thousands voted for him for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, but he ultimately lost. When the Black Cat shut down in 1964, he started a nonprofit to serve the queer community. Sarria decided he did not like the requirement for nonprofits to hold an “election of officers” so instead the organization had an annual coronation of a new emperor and empress, with dukes and duchesses to make up the Royal Court. Sarria was Her Royal Majesty, Empress One of San Francisco, José I, the Widow Norton. Because of its unique system, the organization was called the International Court System (ICS) and provided a key link to the queer community. The ICS also raised funds for HIV/AIDS services, community centers, Pride parades, and scholarships. Over 60 chapters have been established across North America, and they are still going strong.
Glenn Burke knew he was gay when he was 23, when he realized that he had a crush on his middle school’s glee-club and drama teacher, Mr. Mendler. Burke confessed his feelings to Mr. Mendler, which led to his first sexual experience. Burke was already playing for the minor leagues and he realized that he would have to stay closeted or risk committing “baseball suicide”. He was called up to the major leagues in 1976 and played for the Dodgers. Though he played well, Burke faced many difficulties. For example, one of the team's managers, Tommy Lasorda, did not like the relationship between his son and Burke. Spunky Lasorda was openly gay, though his father denied it, and Burke and Spunky spent their time going out in the Castro in San Francisco. They never made it clear if they were more than friends, but the Dodgers paid Spunky to never see Burke again.
Burke is also credited with co-inventing the high-five during his time with the dodgers. In a game on October 2, 1977, Dusty Baker had hit a home run. Glenn put up his hand to greet dusty at home plate and Dusty recalled that “His had was up in the air, and he was arching way back, so I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do”. Burke then hit his first home run in the majors and Dusty gave him a high-five. It quickly caught on and the Dodgers began selling trademarked “High Five” T-shirts. Michael, Smith, Burke’s ex, asserted that it was a gay pride symbol, “a legacy of two men’s hands touching”.
By 1978, Burke’s sexual orientation was not a secret to those inside baseball. When he was called into a meeting with Al Campanis, the team’s general manager, Burke thought it was to discuss his contract for 1978 and beyond. Instead, he was told he had to marry a woman or his career with the Dodgers would be in danger, and was even offered $75,000. Burke declined the bribe and was traded to the lower-ranked A’s. In 1980, Billy Martin joined the A’s as the new general manager. In introducing teammates, when he got to Burke, he said “Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke and he’s a faggot”. Burke also overheard Martin say “No faggot’s going to ever play in my ball club” in the locker room, and was released from his contract early that year.
Burke was then outed to the public in 1982 when Michael Smith wrote an article for Inside Sports called “The Double Life of a Gay Dodger”, which went to print without Burke’s permission. Burke then was interviewd by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show, becoming the first out gay sports player to be seen on TV. Burke continued to play in baseball and softball leagues and won medals in the Gay Olympics. Burke was diagnosed with AIDS in 1993 and died in 1995.