15 LGBTQ+ Heroes You Didn’t Learn About in History Class
From famous nurses to trailblazing activists, these amazing heroes stepped up and changed the course of history.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community have made amazing contributions to world history, yet often they are overlooked or painted with a broad brush that ignores how they identified themselves. From brilliant artists to famous nurses, activists and astronauts, these amazing LGBTQ heroes stepped up and changed the course of history.
In order to combat the racism and exclusion that queers of colour face, Canadian gay rights activist Douglas Stewart helped create Zami, Toronto’s first Black queer group. Founded in 1984 and named after a West Indian Creole word for lesbian sex, the group’s focus was on the Black community and anti-Black racism (though members of Toronto’s queer Caribbean diaspora were also welcome). Stewart has since worked as an equity trainer and Chief Human Rights Advisor at Centennial College, and was also the founding Executive Director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention.
Born in 1912, Alan Turing was a groundbreaking mathematician and scientist who is widely considered to be the father of artificial intelligence and computer science. There was a time, however, when he was considered to be something else: a criminal. A British citizen who helped decipher Nazi codes during World War II, Turing was nevertheless arrested in 1952 in the United Kingdom for the “crime” of homosexuality.
Given a choice between prison or chemical castration, he chose the latter, which resulted in his impotency. Tragically, he died by suicide in 1954. Despite this inhumane treatment, Turing left the world with a brilliant blueprint for early computing. He was posthumously pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013, nearly 60 years after his death.
In 2016, the British government enacted Turing’s Law, which pardoned thousands of people who were convicted under past legislation that outlawed homosexual activity.
In 1975, Sarah Jane Moore attempted to kill U.S. president Gerald Ford (pictured above). She missed her target, and when she raised her gun to shoot again, Oliver Sipple, a bystander, grabbed her arm and saved the president’s life. Sipple was a retired marine who served in Vietnam.
After this heroic act, Sipple was somehow outed by the press, despite remaining closeted from many of his friends and family. He later filed a lawsuit, seeking damages. Sipple received a letter of thanks from the President but never got back his privacy—and became estranged from his parents.
Born Gertrude Pickett, Ma Rainey is often regarded as the Mother of the Blues. At a time when most people were closeted, she sang openly about her relationships with women and about living life as a Black woman in America. She became a popular performer in the 1920s and inspired the poets Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes, the playwright August Wilson and the novelist Alice Walker. When she retired as a performer, Rainey established two music venues, offering opportunities to other entertainers.
The historic 1963 March on Washington—where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech—was one of the most important organized protests in American history. An estimated 250,000 people showed up for the event, even though only 100,000 were expected.
One of the main organizers of the event was Bayard Rustin, a gay man who suffered discrimination both for the colour of his skin and for loving other men. Due to this, his work was largely behind-the-scenes. Barack Obama posthumously honoured Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
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You’ve probably heard the name Florence Nightingale in school, but textbooks usually neglect to mention that she was gay. Born in 1820, the British Nightingale was best known as a nurse and also did groundbreaking work in statistics. Despite being publicly lauded as a brilliant, accomplished individual, Nightingale was not able to live her life the way she wanted to. She said the only person she ever loved passionately in her life was her cousin, Marianne Nicholson, but the feelings weren’t returned.
Born in Portland, Oregon in 1903, James Beard was a pioneer chef who starred in the first televised cooking series and authored more than 20 cookbooks. Today, the prizes that bear his name—the James Beard Awards— are often referred to as the Oscars for the food and restaurant industry. Beard was publicly closeted until 1981 when he revised his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, to share the fact that he was gay. He died in 1985.
In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko was voted onto the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, making her the first openly gay person to be elected to office in United States history. At the time, she kept a low profile and although she didn’t hide the fact that she was gay, she didn’t focus on it or make it a fixture of her campaign. Kozanchenko dedicated her life and career to different aspects of social justice, including the civil rights of the gay community and people of colour.
Christine Jorgenson, a veteran of the U.S. Army, was born George Jorgenson and struggled most of her life with the unshakable feeling that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body. Eventually, Jorgenson started taking hormones and travelled to Denmark in 1951 for what was then-called sexual reassignment surgery.
Her transformation became front-page news after a letter she wrote to her parents about the surgery was leaked to the press. She decided to embrace her newfound fame and became a singer, dancer, and performer and later, an advocate for the transgender community.
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Marsha P. Johnson
Born in 1945, Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman, was a tireless advocate who never stopped working for the oppressed. She fought against police brutality, demanded rights for the LGBTQ+ community, and worked to make life better for people in prison, sex workers, and homeless teens. Johnson also worked as a drag performer and sex worker, but struggled with mental health issues and was intermittently homeless. She was part of the uprising at Stonewall Inn in 1969, a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ and United States history.
Dubbed “the unofficial mayor of the Toronto gay community,” the late George Hislop co-founded one of Canada’s first organizations for gays and lesbians in 1971, the Community Homophile Association of Toronto. That same year, he helped organize the first Canadian gay rights demonstration on Parliament Hill. A decade later, Hislop ran for Toronto City Council in the 1980 city elections, and even received support from then-Mayor John Sewell. Though he lost, his groundbreaking activism inspired generations.
In 1975, three years after he’d retired from the NFL, Dave Kopay came out as gay—the first time a professional U.S. football player had made such a revelation. To his surprise, Kopay was quickly thrust into the spotlight and found himself blackballed from working as a coach in the league, which he’d hoped would be his next career move. Determined to help other young people, Kopay became a major donor to the Q Center at his alma mater, the University of Washington, which provides resources and services for LBGTQ students.
During high school and college, Barbara Gittings was discriminated against for being gay. Her experiences led her to become an activist, and she later participated in the first gay march outside the White House in 1965, protesting discriminatory employment.
Today, the sign she carried is part of the Smithsonian Institution, along with copies of the revolutionary magazine she edited, The Ladder. Gittings successfully lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from a list of psychological disorders and many call her the mother of gay and lesbian activism in the United States.
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As one of the first female NASA astronauts and the first woman to fly in space, Sally Ride is justifiably famous. What most people don’t talk about, however, is that Ride was also the first gay U.S. astronaut—her sexuality was revealed by her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, after she died in 2012. One year after her passing, Obama honoured her accomplishments with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was accepted by her O’Shaughnessy.
When AIDS first laid its deadly claim to the gay community in the 1980s, Larry Kramer wrote an essay in the New York Native calling on the gay community to rally, face the imminent danger, and embrace their anger about the situation. From that moment on, he became one of the most prominent voices in the AIDS crisis and an advocate for research, civil rights, and the prevention of AIDS, along with the care for people inflicted by the disease. In addition to being an activist, the openly gay Kramer was also a novelist, screenwriter and playwright.
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