Move on over, Harvey Milk! October is LGBTQIA History Month, and we’re going to kick it off by introducing you to five LGBTQIA folks you definitely didn’t learn about in history class. Sit down, take out your notes and let’s get into it!
Dr. Pauli Murray
“What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.”
Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was born in Baltimore, MD and raised in Durham, NC. A black lesbian feminist who played with the gender binary in her style of dress, she was a poet, lawyer, activist, priest and policy analyst. Not only did she contribute majorly to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s plaintiff brief in Reed v. Reed, she was also a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), held a campaign to be the first African American woman to be admitted to the all white University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, co founded the National Organization of Women (NOW) and in 1977, became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, as well as raised to sainthood. And that’s just the short list of awesome things Pauli Murray did over her life. Duke University’s Center for Human Rights houses the Pauli Murray Project in Durham, NC and is doing wonderful work to keep her memory alive and well in her hometown, including public art, community education and historical preservation projects. To learn more about Pauli and the Project’s work, check out their website.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
“When the dust settles, I want a bunch of transgender girls to stand up and say ‘I’m still f*cking here'”.
When we discuss queer history, the Stonewall Riots are the defining event that kicked off the movement for queer liberation. Sadly, three trans women of color who were instrumental in the riots and in movement work, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson, have had their work and contributions erased from the conversation. Miss Major, alongside Sylvia and Marsha, was a leader in the Stonewall Riots when the Stonewall Inn was raided. Following the riots, she moved California in 1974, where she continued her work assisting trans women of color with everything from food security to healthcare. Miss Major’s work centers on bringing the folks that tend to get lost in larger mainstream queer movements to the forefront in her work, saying, “We have to work with the girls who are doing the hooking, who are out at 2 and three in the morning, you know, who feel as though they don’t have a choice.” She became the executive director of the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, a prison abolition and advocacy organization in California. She held leadership at TGI Justice Project until her retirement in August 2015. Because she is currently without income and because solidarity can come in many forms, including money, TGI Justice Project runs a monthly giving circle where people can donate to ensure Miss Major is supported just as lovingly as she supported others in her work. Check out the giving circle and help support an elder in the movement!
“Our Southside is a place apart; each piece of our living is a protest.”
Lorraine Hansberry was a dynamic writer who is best known for her seminal work, A Raisin in the Sun. Much of Lorraine’s contributions and life beyond her play was previously lost to us-that is, until the archival materials that her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, had restricted to historians and archivists were finally opened to researchers in 2013 by the Hansberry estate. Many of the things in the restricted archives expand on her life in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her involvement in the Communist Party (she even produced a journal for black radicals with Paul Robeson!), and her sexuality. Hansberry also wrote a series of letters to the editors of a magazine called “The Ladder”, in which she discusses the intersections of her black womanhood and her identity as a lesbian. You can find parts of her letters to “The Ladder” here!
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”
I know you’ve heard of the 1963 March on Washington, but did you know that historic march was planned and executed by an openly queer black formerly Communist Quaker? Bayard Rustin’s legacy and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement have been largely erased from the history books due to the way he lived his life as an unapologetically queer Black man in the 1950’s. Bayard Rustin was a strategist and organizer who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., even introducing him to the Quaker principle of nonviolence and Gandhi’s style of nonviolent direct action and was a founding member of the Congress on Racial Equality, along with Pauli Murray. Want to learn more? Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin is available to buy on Amazon and to rent on Netflix DVD!
“As soon as I heard about the drag shows opening there I said ‘bye bye men’s clothes’. I’ve never put on anything since. Never.”
Carmen Rupe, or Madame Kiwi Carmen was a Maori drag performer, madame, politician and activist. She was drafted into the military in 1955 and at the same time began performing in drag shows. Two years later, she moved to King’s Cross in Sydney, Australia, transitioned and began performing in shows full time. As you can imagine, Carmen dealt with incredible amounts of harassment from the police and the law, which prompted her move to Wellington in 1968. Once established in Wellington, she opened a coffee shop and brothel called Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge that became a popular meeting place and hot spot for lots of folks, including some government officials. In 1977, she ran for mayor of Wellington on a platform of gay marriage, legal prostitution, sex education, and more! If you want to learn more about Carmen’s story, she released an autobiography in 1988 called Having a Ball: My Life.
This is only a shortlist of the groundbreaking, culture shifting, and history making LGBTQIA people who have had their contributions erased from history. Let’s keep decolonizing LGBTQIA history not only in October, but every month! Tell us some of your favorite queers in history in the comments!