I have a confession: As a gay man, I am severely lacking in my knowledge of important lesbian activists. It’s not that I’m the kind of gay man who only has gay (male) friends. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I’m lucky to have some very close lesbian friends whom I’ve confided in over the years.
But for some reason, I just don’t know lesbian history that well. I freely admit that’s a sad reality. Widely read LGBT history often privileges the contributions of men in the movement (particularly white men), some of which I could list exhaustively—but I won’t. Because this article isn’t about those guys. March is Women’s History Month, so it’s time to celebrate the often hard-fought and always valuable contributions of some important women. (This list is not comprehensive. I picked a few that stood out to me in my research, but I urge readers to search online to find a wealth of others.)
Ruth Ellis, an African-American woman from Springfield, Ill., lived for more than 100 years, from 1899-2000, and never shied away from acknowledging her life as a lesbian. In 1920, she met her partner of more than 30 years, Babe Franklin, and they settled in Detroit. Their house became the epicenter of the gay African-American community, affectionately known as “the gay spot.” They threw parties, but more importantly welcomed lost and homeless gay youth with open arms. At a time when fewer than 7 percent of black schoolgirls completed secondary school, Ellis had a high school diploma and started her own successful printing business, which was also run out of the couples’ house. In her later life, she toured the country as a speaker. The Ruth Ellis Center, which serves Detroit’s homeless LGBT population, is named in her honor.
Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin formed the first lesbian organizing group in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis, in San Francisco in 1955 after experiencing frustration with developing a social network of similarly oriented women. Although the group was intended to at first be secret, it eventually became more visible and even published a monthly magazine called The Ladder. In 2004, when gay marriage was offered in San Francisco, Lyon and Martin were the first couple to wed. Although that union was invalidated through an appellate court ruling, they again were the first couple to wed in 2008 after the California Supreme Court provided same-sex couples the right to marry.
Barbara Gittings, as noted by the website LGBT History Month, “is a gay pioneer who participated in the first organized annual gay civil rights demonstrations, helped convince the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders and helped persuade libraries to include gay content.” That’s no short order. She founded a New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1958 and marched prominently and unapologetically in the first gay picket lines at the White House in 1965—four years before Stonewall.
Rita Mae Brown, Cynthia Funk and March Hoffman were noted founders of the Radicalesbians, a short-lived group that formed in New York in 1970, partly in response to the National Organization for Women decrying lesbians as a “lavender menace,” worried that they would threaten the overall feminist movement. Several members also decamped from a group called the Gay Liberation Front because it was deemed to be too focused on gay male rights. Although the group existed for only a matter of months, it published a manifesto, The Woman-Identified Woman (available online), and is credited with providing a much needed spark that shed a light on the exclusion of lesbian rights from both heterosexual female and gay male political organizations.
Sylvia Rivera, an instigator of the Stonewall Inn uprising, is a) transgender b) Latina and c) often overlooked. I’d like to believe that she’s not overlooked because of being a trans Latina, but sadly, I doubt it. At Stonewall in 1969, she famously exclaimed, “I’m not missing a minute of this. It’s the revolution!” Far from a flash in the pan, Rivera later campaigned actively with the Gay Activists Alliance and became important in keeping transgender concerns part of the gay rights movement. Even now, in 2014, it’s a sad reality that transwomen of color are the most often attacked, assaulted and abused minority within the LGBT spectrum.
Barbara Jordan. The name says it all. If you grew up in Texas, you knew who this woman was if for no other reason than because she made sure her voice was heard. Born in Houston, Jordan was a gifted orator and Constitutional scholar who in 1972 became the first African-American from a Southern state to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She previously served on the Texas Senate. Although she never publicly came out, after her passing from leukemia in 1996, the Houston Chronicle’s obituary made mention of Jordan’s life partner of more than 20 years, Nancy Earl.
Again, I have to note that this list of mini-biographies is far from complete. There are hundreds of women who have made a difference in the lives of LGBT Americans from colonial times to the present. And even Texas, which some characterize as the reddest of states, is fortunate enough to have its own share of powerful out and proud women like Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, former San Antoino city councilwoman Elena Guajardo and community activist Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. Women’s history and the history of lesbian women, in particular, are all a part of our united story as a nation, and hopefully we won’t just have to be reminded of that for one month out of the year.