LGBTQI+ people: writing history through history

Members of the LGBTQI+ community in the United States and around the world have established an impressive legacy in the fields of art, history, literature, math, science, and politics.

Over the years, LGBTQI+ personalities have taken significant risks to enter and succeed in competitive fields, knowing that their identity could jeopardize their own careers or those of others. Despite discrimination and harassment, LGBTQI+ people have made vital contributions to societies throughout history.

Policy

From left, Bogota Mayor Claudia López, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong (© Camilo Erasso/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group/Getty Images; © Niall Carson/PA Images/ Getty Images; Sarah Friend/Department of Foreign Affairs/D/AFP/Getty Images

Among them:

  • Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s first gay prime minister and the country’s youngest in 2017.
  • Penny Wong became Australia’s first cabinet member of Asian descent this year and, in 2020, the first openly lesbian female federal parliamentarian.
  • Claudia López Hernández made history in 2019 as the first woman and first LGBTQI+ person elected mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.
  • Shabnam “Mausi” Bano was the first transgender Indian to be elected to public office. She served in the Madhya Pradesh State Legislative Assembly from 1998 to 2003.

In the United States, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician to hold elected office in California. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. He was assassinated the following year by a rival politician but remains a symbol of courage. In 2016, the United States Navy named a ship Milk.

In June 2021, LGBTQI+ elected officials in the United States numbered nearly 1,000.

The Biden administration includes the largest number of LGBTQI+ leaders in the nation’s history. Among them:

  • Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation, is the first openly gay man to serve in the US Cabinet.
  • Admiral Rachel Levine, Assistant Secretary for Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services, is the first transgender person to hold a Senate-confirmed post.
  • Ned Price is the State Department Representative first openly gay spokesperson.
  • Karine Jean-Pierre became the White House’s first black and openly gay press secretary in May.

Arts

Prominent LGBTQI+ literary figures include French novelist Colette (left) known for her 1944 short story ‘Gigi’; Audre Lorde, who describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” American; and Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who wrote ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ in 1891. (© Fox Photos/Hulton

Some prominent artistic and literary figures had to be discreet about their sexual orientations or gender identities, while others were outspoken (see photos above).

Other notable writers include Americans Walt Whitman, whose Blades of grass was first published in 1855, and James Baldwin, known for Notes of a Native Son in 1955 and other works.

In music, notable community figures include:

  • George Frideric Handel, a German British opera composer whose 1741 work, Messiahis the most performed oratorio.
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer whose work in the late 1800s includes Swan Lake and Nutcracker.
  • Leonard Bernstein, American composer and conductor who in 1957 wrote the music for West Side Story.
  • Jennifer Higdon, three-time American Grammy winner who in 2010 won a Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto.

Among the visual artists are the Americans Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Hollywood made the 2014 Oscar-winning film titled The imitation game, which introduced many to Alan Turing, a prominent English mathematician who broke Nazi German codes during World War II. He is considered one of the founders of today’s computer science field.

Workers’ rights

Photo of a man smiling next to a photo of two women, one in a wheelchair, smiling (© Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images; © Susan Walsh/AP Images)
Americans Frank Kameny (left) and Aimee Stephens (left, seated) with his wife, Donna Stephens, fought for the rights of workers in the LGBTQI+ community. (© Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images; © Susan Walsh/AP Images)

In the United States, Frank Kameny is considered a pioneer of gay rights. The U.S. Army Mapping Service had fired Kameny at a time when federal and state governments were banning homosexuals from serving in government. While Kameny lost his 1961 employment case, it was the first the Supreme Court considered on sexual orientation.

Other members of the LGBTQI+ community who have fought for the rights of American workers:

  • Joni Christian fought for transgender rights as an assembly worker at General Motors.
  • Irene Soloway founded United Tradeswomen in 1979 at a time when few women worked in the building trades.
  • Aimee Stephens has been fired from a funeral home for identifying as a transgender woman. She was part of a 2020 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was illegal.

Marital equality

Photo of a smiling woman with her arms outstretched next to a photo of a man waving a pride flag (© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images © Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)
American advocates for same-sex couples include Edith Windsor (left) and Jim Obergefell. (© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; © Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

In 2009, Edith Windsor successfully challenged the US government’s denial of benefits to same-sex married couples.

Jim Obergefell was the lead plaintiff in the landmark 2015 US Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage. When Obergefell’s partner died in 2013, Obergefell sued to be named as a legal spouse.

About Chris Stevenson

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