We still have a long way to go with queer equality. Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and more are rampant, both inside and outside of the queer community. Even though this may be true, we can still take the time to appreciate how far we’ve come. Marriage equality, adoption rights, laws in some states that protect against trans discrimination, and plenty of politicians out and about holding rainbow flags and declaring openly that they will support the LGBTQ+ community are just some of the milestones we’ve achieved. That doesn’t mean that they would’ve come eventually, because time is not an active force. The way that these rights were acquired was not that they were given to the queer community, but fought for tirelessly by figures that are often omitted from history.
The list below details some incredible queer figures, all of whom are people of color. Even though there’s some contention about common ideas about whether or not a black, trans woman threw the first brick at Stonewall (or if bricks were even thrown at all), some of the most marginalized communities that really made “gay rights” possible are left in the shadows when discussing queer history. Even before Stonewall, there were figures fighting for these liberties. Queer people have existed literally forever, and here are just some of those amazing people that paved the way for queer rights not just in America, but some of the rest of the world.
NOTE: Some of the terminology used in this article is outdated and not accepted today.
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. (Pay It No Mind) Johnson was a drag queen, activist, sex worker and Stonewall icon, for just a short summary. While there is some contention about her gender because of the terms used during her time, she is mostly referred to as a transgender woman. She has been hailed as the woman who “threw the first brick” at Stonewall, and even though this may not be true, she was still on the front lines for LGBTQ+ activism, including the events after the Stonewall Riot. She was one of the primary participants in the Gay Liberation Front that formed after the riot, and consequentially created STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). The Gay Liberation Front supported groups such as the Black Panther Party that condemned racism, which exemplified their anti-capitalist, intersectional stance. With Sylvia Rivera, she ran STAR, an organization that gave shelter and support to homeless queer youth. Something that is commonly omitted about Johnson is that she was HIV positive and an organizer for ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). After years of being a generous and kindhearted but serious and determined activist, Marsha P. Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Her death was ruled a suicide, but many believe that she was murdered.
Frequently paired with Marsha P. Johnson (since they were besties), Sylvia Rivera was a great activist in her own right. She advocated tirelessly for a whole slew of issues like queer rights, poverty, racism, and more. Rivera may or may not have been at the Stonewall Inn the night of the riots, but either way, she still kicked ass with her efforts in activism. She fought for laws like the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and worked with Marsha P. Johnson in the Gay Liberation Front (of which she was a founding member) and STAR. Rivera herself grew up a young, homeless queer child, resorting to sex work to survive, and this led her to support to kids like her. She frequently called out organizations comprised of mainly white gay men, asserting that it was necessary to bring in discussions of race and keep trans people and more vulnerable members like butches at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. From providing a mother figure to queer children to yelling impassioned truths on the stages of speeches of other activists, Rivera was and will always be an iconic figure of queer history. One of her most noteworthy legacies is the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which fights against gender discrimination.
Ka’ahumanu provided a voice to one of the more erased groups in history—bisexual people. No, you don’t need to pick a side, and you’re not greedy! In the Gay Rights Movement, bisexuality was seen either as something unrealistic or a stepping stone to becoming gay. I’ve heard way too many times that bi people turn straight or gay with each partner, and it’s misconceptions like these that Lani Ka’ahumanu aimed to dispel. Though she married a straight man, Ka’ahumanu refused to erase her bisexual identity. Before heavily getting into bi activism, she did peace activism against the Vietnam War and helped the Black Panthers. She divorced her husband and then came out as a lesbian, advocating for gay parents as she had two children. After being entrenched in the lesbian community for some time, she came out as bi when she fell in love with a bi man. She was then shunned from the lesbian community, and from here decided to write about biphobia in the Gay Rights Movement and the internal biphobia she harbored. In 1983, she created BiPol with other bisexual activists, the first bisexual political organization in the US. She partook in marches, conferences, and other events to spread awareness and protect bisexuals. Ka’ahumanu tried to get rid of the binary assumptions of sexuality, comparing her sexuality to her “hapa haole” biracial identity.
Barbara Smith is an activist, author, scholar, and feminist who made groundbreaking work particuarly in the fields of intersectional feminism and Black literature. Smith, ever since a young age, wanted to go into the field of English. She decided on teaching Black women’s literature, but when she took women’s studies classes they only focused on white women, and only men were included in Black literature classes. So, she created the first Black women’s literature class and taught it at Emerson College in 1973. She started to be considered one of the most important figures in Black feminism, bringing intersectionality where it had not been present before. Earlier, she participated in the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements and was dismayed that they did not include women of color. Thus, starting from 1974, she began integrating Black lesbian experiences into politics and activism by founding the Combahee River Collective. Members of this group publicly declared their sexuality, like Chirlane McCray, who was the first Black lesbian to openly write about her sexuality in a Black magazine. The Combahee River Collective focused on the nexus of oppressions, and their concept of “simultaneity” is sort of the predecessor to intersectionality.
Ruth Ellis was born in 1899, and in 1915 she came out as a lesbian. From 1930 onward, she provided shelter and support for LGBTQ+ individuals (specifically those of color). From 1946-1971, she and her long-time partner Babe ran the house that was affectionately called “The Gay Spot.” Besides just shelter, she gave a safe space to Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community. She acted as a resource before the Gay Civil Rights Movement even really existed, paving the way for movements and organizations to come. Today, the Ruth Ellis Center is still a great resource in Detroit for LGBTQ+ children that need assistance and care. Ruth herself cut the ribbon to open it in 2000 prior to her passing, and her spirit lives on in the center’s operations today.
Pronounced “Stormy Duh-lah-vee-ay”, DeLaverie was a butch lesbian (though it is unclear if she was a lesbian or genderqueer) who was credited by many for starting the Stonewall Rebellion (her words) by being physical with the police. Before this, from 1955-1969, DeLarverie took part as the MC in the Jewel Box Revue, a show where the audience has to guess among a bunch of drag queens who the “real woman” is. The gag is, at the end, Stormé, the baritone singing, masculine host is revealed to be the “woman” (though, some of the drag queens were trans women). After the Stonewall incident, DeLarverie acted as a bouncer for lesbian bars in New York City, beloved by many bargoers for her dedication to protecting the patrons. She was tall, had a gun, and was not somebody to mess with. She also continued to perform at benefit events. DeLarverie was a tough butch icon from even before the Stonewall Rebellion, and her icon status will live on both in the theater and the activist stage.
Looking Towards the Future
It’s important to understand that we have a lot of work to do before we live in a truly equal society. For many members of the queer community, Pride is a time where we can just be free and party, holding hands with our S.O.s with less fear than normal and wearing brightly-colored rainbow paraphernalia. But we can’t forget the sacrifices that our queer siblings have made for us in the past, and we certainly can’t forget the struggles that we face moving forward- especially the struggle of black, trans women, or other trans women of color like those in ICE custody. The figures above are just some of the many that used their voice, passion, and courageousness to speak out against a world that was practically designed to kill them.