LGBTQIA+ pioneers have paved the way for advances in the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement. These individuals risked their safety, their livelihoods, and so much more for the right, for themselves and others, to live their most authentic lives. Each story is unique and represents a different perspective, but what they all have in common is their shared hope —equality and inclusion.
Henry Gerber (1892 – 1972)
In 1924, Gerber founded the first gay rights organization in America – The Society for Human Rights. He and other organization members were later arrested after being accused of obscenity. While fighting the charges, he spent his life savings and lost his job at the U.S. Postal Service. Without these resources, he was forced to fold his organization. Having faced all of these challenges, he went on to write articles about homosexual oppression. Learn more about Gerber here.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (1921-2008, 1924-2020)
Del and Phyllis were co-founders of the first major organization for lesbians in the US – The Daughters of Bilitis. They later launched the organization’s national publication and platform for lesbians called Ladder. After nearly fifty years together the two were the first gay couple to be illegally married in San Francisco by the then-mayor, Gavin Newsom. They re-married in 2008 when the state legalized same-sex marriage. Learn more about this extraordinary couple here.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Although he is most popularly known for his activism with Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin was also an openly gay man who spoke about the importance of fighting for LGBTQ rights. He was a brilliant strategist, and as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rustin would use the Fellowship’s events as a model for the Freedom Rides of the 1960’s. He was arrested for “moral cause” early in his career which would lead to his outing to the public. Rustin faced backlash and discrimination over his sexuality which led to having more of an internal role in the Civil Rights Movement. In the 80s, he shifted his focus from civil rights to LGBTQ rights and AIDS education. Learn more about his work here.
Christine Jorgensen (1926 – 1989)
An early transgender activist and trans woman, Christine Jorgensen caught the eyes of the public. Jorgensen used her celebrity to open doors, starting a career as a nightclub performer and speaking publicly around the world. She later published an autobiography to speak about the acceptance of transgender and other non-heteronormative people. Learn more about Jorgensen here.
Billie Jean King (1943- )
Billie Jean King is a former world number one tennis player turned social activist. An incredible athlete, King won 39 Grand Slam titles throughout her career. She also formed the Women’s Tennis Association and advocated for equal prize money across men’s and women’s tennis. King was outed as gay to the public during her tennis career. This made her the first openly gay athlete and was the cause of her losing all of her endorsement deals. She remains an activist fighting inequality in all forms. Read more about King here.
Harvey Milk (1930-1978)
Harvey Milk was a U.S. Navy Veteran and gay rights activist. He served in the military during the Korean War and went on to become the first widely-recognized, openly gay politician to be elected in the United States. Known for his affable nature and negotiation skills, he dedicated much of his career to LGBTQ activism. Tragically, after only 11 months in office Harvey Milk was assassinated. Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Learn more about this extraordinary person here.
Gilbert Baker (1951-2017)
Gilbert Baker was known as an artist, designer, and perhaps most notably, as the creator of the rainbow Pride flag. This rainbow-colored flag remains one of, if not, the most notable symbol of the Pride movement. Baker chose the rainbow motif because, from early recorded history, it has served as a symbol of hope. It was first waved in San Francisco on June 25, 1978, for Gay Pride Day. In April 2021, the GLBT Historical Society was the recipient of an archival donation with connections to Baker. The donation was a fragment of one of the two original flags first raised in 1978. This fragment was hand stitched and dyed by Baker and was thought to be lost for the last 40 years. Learn more about Gilbert Baker here. Learn more about the archival donation to the GLBT Historical Society here.
Larry Kramer (1935-2020)
Larry Kramer was a playwright, Oscar nominated screen writer, essayist, and outspoken AIDS Activist. When a close friend died of AIDS, he shifted his talent for crafting powerful prose for entertainment, to using his talents to shock the United States into seeing the AIDS crisis as a public-health emergency. Kramer created two influential organizations during the AIDS crisis – Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Act Up. Both groups demanded increased and immediate focus on AIDS drugs research. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization was the largest provider of services to people with aids for many years. Later, he wrote the play “The Normal Heart” based on his activism which was eventually brought to Broadway. The play was later developed into an HBO movie. Learn more about this controversial pioneer HERE.
These extraordinary individuals continue to inspire the LGBTQIA+ Civil Rights movement and the activists that continue to fight for equality the world over. If you are interested in learning more about more LGBTQIA+ Pioneers we’ve provided a list of additional resources below along with a link to our blog featuring our favorite books to read with your children during Pride month.