History that’s told in schools and that finds its way into textbooks does not always do a good job of showing the real story. Often, there are some stories and individuals that are essentially hidden because they don’t get the attention that they deserve. This is often true when it comes to queer people and their contributions to history. Many, for example, do not know about the Stonewall Riots.
Pride is a month when many try to pull back the curtain on the hidden history. It’s a time of acceptance and celebration of the people and the progress that has been made. However, it doesn’t always shed as much light on some of the most empowering queer people in history for a long enough period. These figures shouldn’t only be celebrated during a single month of the year.
Below, you will find a list of some of the most important queer figures in history. You’re encouraged to learn more about these people and to seek out other queer people in history to see their contribution.
Many people were not familiar with Josephine Baker until she appeared as a minor character on the HBO show Lovecraft Country. Even then, they may not have known much about her or why she was important. Baker was a well-known entertainer during the Jazz Age, and she also happened to be bisexual. She was born in the United States but moved to France to perform.
She used her popularity and her platform as a means to help advocate for desegregation. She even refused to perform in locations that were segregated. In 1962, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington.
One of the other interesting things about Baker was her role during WWII. Keep in mind that the Nazis occupied France at this time. She worked as a spy for the French. She would pass along information and secrets that she heard when she was performing for the Germans.
This is a name you probably didn’t think you would see on this list. We all know Roosevelt as a First Lady and being a humanitarian. She even chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the UN. However, there is evidence that she may very well have been bisexual.
While she was married to her husband, it’s believed that she may have had an affair with a woman named Lorena Hickok. Lorena was the first woman to have her byline on the front page of the New York Times and was a respected journalist. The two wrote more than 4,000 letters to one another between them, and those letters show that they had a romance.
It’s certainly something that most people don’t expect when they hear the name Eleanor Roosevelt, and it’s not commonly found in the history books. Although she wasn’t able to be empowering to queer people during the time, these revelations may help people today.
You might not be familiar with this name, but Bayard Rustin played an important role in the civil rights movement. He was a friend and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and he helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington. Additionally, Rustin was a gay man, and he was open about his sexuality. His openness caused him many problems at the time. Not only did he not get the recognition he deserved for his role in the movement, but some people used his sexuality against him and King.
Some people tried to weaponize the information and said that they would lie about his relationship with Dr. King. This means that Rustin tended to work behind the scenes because he didn’t want to do anything that would damage their efforts.
When you think of Pride, one of the first images that probably comes to mind is the iconic rainbow flag. Have you ever wondered where this flag originated? Well, wonder no more. Gilbert Baker was the mind behind the flag. The artist was a gay rights activist and the designer of the rainbow flag. It was created in 1978.
The flag is closely associated with LGBT+ rights. Even though he was the designer of the flag and could have trademarked it if he wanted, he chose not to. He believed that it was a symbol and that it should be for everyone. Trademarking it would have taken that away, and that’s not what he wanted. He passed away in his sleep in 2017 in NYC.
When he moved to San Francisco from New York, Milk became involved in activism and politics. By 1977, he had a spot on the City-County Board and was soon nicknamed the Mayor of Castro Street. He also holds the distinction of being the first openly gay elected official in California. Some say he was the most important gay politician in the United States.
Milk worked hard to bring many issues to the board including gay rights. He was a visionary that believed there could be a better and more accepting world. During his brief time as a politician, he worked hard to try to make that dream a reality. Unfortunately, former city supervisor Dan White assassinated him and the mayor of San Francisco George Moscone.
These are some of the most important queer figures in recent history. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this is just a small list of the many people who have worked tirelessly throughout the ages. Other names you will want to know and learn more about include Mark Ashton, Oscar Wilde, Wilfred Owen, Barbara Gittings, and Keith Haring. There are innumerable others that have made a difference in ways large and small.
Take the time to learn more about others and move beyond the usual history books. Look for the real story. You’ll find that there are a lot more queer people involved in pivotal points in history than you might have realized.