Reflecting on LGBTQ+ trailblazers of the past

Continuing our celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, current student Steph has written about the icons of the past who have helped pave the way for greater freedoms for LGBTQ+ people of today.

As a young queer person today, it is all too easy to forget those who came before and fought for so many of the rights and freedoms that I can enjoy today. While there is still some way to go in the fight for legislative and social equality for LGBTQ+ people, we have come so far as a community. As a result of this, LGBTQ+ History Month is a time where we can reflect on those trailblazers who dedicated their lives to advocating for our community. Over the month, I’ll be featuring and highlighting numerous LGBTQ+ Trailblazers, both past and present.

The first LGBTQ+ Trailblazer I want to focus on is Harvey Milk, an American politician who was the first openly gay person elected official in Californian history, serving as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for 11 months until his assassination. While not vocal about his sexuality at first, Milk began advocating for legislative reform and protections for LGBT residents, sponsoring a bill that banned discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation based on sexual orientation. His career in politics was spurred by the consistent failure of policymakers and legislation to protect and support local people and business owners, and he finally decided to run for office in an effort to change policies. His campaigns were socially liberal and argued for large reform, especially on LGBT matters and police intervention/brutality. Ultimately, Milk was shot and killed by one of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, but his legacy in America and worldwide lives on to this day. In 2009, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he is widely regarded as "the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States".

My next two queer icons are often synonymous with the continual fight for our freedom and equality: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Rivera and Johnson, two self-identifying drag queens, were at the forefront of queer activism throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and were two of the most prominent figures in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Together they co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (a radical group of activists) and fought for the liberation and support of homeless gay youth, drag queens and trans women. The two are some of the most well-known queer activists and trailblazers of all time, dedicating themselves to tireless activism and campaigning. As a result of their work, both Rivera and Johnson have numerous memorials, portraits and murals in their honour throughout both the United States and the rest of the world. Rivera became the first trans activist to have a portrait featured in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and Johnson more recently became the first LGBT person to have a New York State Park named after them. Unfortunately, just like Harvey Milk, Johnson died prematurely; despite the police at the time ruling her death a suicide, several witnesses and her friends have always maintained that it was not, and that it was more likely queer-based violence.

The fourth LGBTQ+ Trailblazer I want to highlight is Christine Jorgensen; born in 1926 and drafted into the Second World War, Jorgensen was a transgender woman, and most notably the first transgender person to have become widely known in the US for undergoing gender confirmation surgery. Upon her return from having her initial surgeries in Denmark, the New York Daily News printed her on the front cover, along with the headline ‘Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty’. Jorgensen was a massive influence on the perception of transgender people in the United States, as well as on the accessibility of trans-related healthcare (such as hormone replacement therapy and gender confirmation surgeries). Following the initial publicity of her transition, Jorgensen began advocating, lecturing and speaking on trans issues. While the mainstream press eventually began to ask more probing and offensive questions, Jorgensen remained a fierce and strong-willed advocate, and as a result has been the subject of numerous memorials and honours. These included being among the 50 inaugural names included on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honour – the first national monument in the United States to be dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities.

The fifth and final LGBTQ+ Trailblazer from the past that I want to honour is Alan Turing, a gay man who is often hailed as being the person who invented computer science. During the Second World War, Turing worked for the British Government on decrypting intercepted German messages and finding a way to crack the Enigma machine. For his work in computer science and his support of the British Government, Turing was made an OBE in 1946. Unfortunately, at the time being homosexual was illegal and punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration; Turing chose the latter. He never received the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, and in 1954 committed suicide by ingesting cyanide in an apple. Posthumously, Turing has received a number of tributes and memorials, particularly in his hometown of Manchester. In 2013, he was given a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II, and in 2017 the “Alan Turing law” was passed by the British Government. This law retroactively provided pardons for every single gay man who had been cautioned or prosecuted under historical laws that banned homosexuality. His legacy continues to this day, and is one of the most influential queer people to have lived in Britain.

It is amazing to look back on the rich history of the LGBTQ+ community and to recognise those who came before us, who paved the way for my generation to enjoy more freedom. In my next piece, I’ll be looking at the people who continue this fight across the world today, consistently advocating for equal rights and access to healthcare.

- Steph Preston

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