Seven People Who Changed LGBT+ History

As LGBT+ history month kicks off, let’s remember some of the extraordinary people who have battled for gay rights.

1. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs: The first gay person to publicly speak out for homosexual rights

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a civil servant in Germany until he was forced to resign in 1854 on account of his homosexuality.

He became an activist and published 12 volumes of work about sexuality, including what’s believed to be the first theory about homosexuality. He argued that it is an ‘inborn condition’ not a learned corruption – as was the prevailing wisdom at the time.

Ulrichs is thought to have been the first gay person to publicly speak out for homosexual rights. In 1867, he urged the German government to repeal anti-homosexuality laws, which firmly established himself as the pioneer of the gay rights movement.

2. Barbara Gittings: The mother of the LGBT civil rights movement

Barbara Gittings was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1932, and moved to Philadelphia, USA at 18.

Legend has it she would hitch-hike to New York at the weekends dressed in male drag.

Gittings headed up the New York branch of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in the 1950s – the USA’s first lesbian civil rights organisation.

In the 1970s, she was a prominent member of the American Psychiatric Association’s fight to get homosexuality removed from the list of psychiatric disorders.

In 2006, The APA recognised her work by awarding her its first annual civil rights award.

3. Harvey Milk: The first openly gay person elected to public office

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Harvey Milk was born in New York in 1930, and became a prominent gay rights activist.

He found his voice in gay rights activism after moving to San Francisco in 1972.

In 1977, he became the first openly gay person elected to public office, winning a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board. He had previously run for the seat twice, unsuccessfully.

Milk was shot and killed in 1978 by Dan White, a fellow City Council board member.

Harvey Milk’s life has been celebrated in a plethora of books and films, including the award-winning Milk (2008) starring Sean Penn.

4. Magnus Hirschfeld: The father of transgenderism

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Hirschfeld is believed to have coined the term ‘transvestitism’.

Hirschfeld began researching sexuality after moving to Berlin in 1896, where he lived as an openly gay man, and campaigned for gay rights.

He was once described by Hitler as “the most dangerous Jew in Germany”, and the entire library of his Institute for Sexual Science was burned by the Nazis.

5. Audre Lorde: The lesbian warrior poet

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Audre Lorde described herself as a ‘black lesbian mother warrior poet’.

Born in New York in 1934, Lorde worked as a librarian for many years before she published her first volume of poetry, First Cities, in 1968.

Her work covered everything from civil rights (The Black Unicorn) and sexuality, to her own battle with breast cancer (A Burst of Light, for which Lorde received an American Book Award).

She inspired Barbara Smith to found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher by, for, and about women of colour.

From 1991 until her death a year later, Lorde was the New York State Poet Laureate.

In 2001, the Audre Lorde Award was launched to honour works of lesbian poetry.

6. Bayard Rustin: the gay civil rights hero

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Bayard Rustin was a close advisor to Martin Luther King, and an openly gay activist.

He was a key organiser of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King gave his historic ‘I have a dream’ speech.

Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life, has said that he was “someone who was working to expand our democratic freedoms and increase our civil liberties and our individual freedoms”.

In 1948, Rustin served time in prison for refusing to go to war. His prison records describe him as an “admitted homosexual” – one reason, perhaps, why Rustin hasn’t received the same recognition as others in the civil rights movement.

7. Christine Jorgensen: The transgender ex-GI

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Born George Jorgensen in the Bronx, New York, Jorgensen underwent a year and a half of hormone treatment and gender re-assignment surgery in 1952.

Christine stepped off an aeroplane wrapped in fur, following her surgery in Denmark.

The Danish doctor Teit Ritzau, who knew Christine well, has said, “The young Jorgensen identified himself… as a woman who happened to be in a man’s body.”

Returning to New York, Jorgensen was pored over by the media and triggered national discussions about gender identity.

In 1952, she was crowned Woman of the Year by the Scandinavian Society in New York.

Jorgensen herself acknowledged how revolutionary her case was, saying, “we didn’t start the sexual revolution, but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!”

She died in 1989.


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