Updated: Jul 11
Let's end LGBTQ+ History Month 2021 with a bang, celebrating some queer pioneers that you may not have heard of.
To mark the end of LGBTQ+ history month, we’re shining a light on queer icons who have made history because while your school textbooks might not have included them, there are so many queer pioneers throughout history who deserve more recognition. These seven individuals have paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights, contributing to music, art, literature, and much more in the process.
1. Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Born in Harlem in 1934, she realised at an early age that reciting poetry helped her to express her thoughts to others. She had her poem 'Spring' published in Seventeen Magazine when she was just fifteen.
Lorde’s first collection of poems, The First Cities, marked her out as a powerful advocate for social justice. She went on to become famous for poetry that explored issues faced by marginalised communities, writing about homophobia, sexism, classism, and racial injustice. She felt she had “a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”
2. Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was an African American transgender rights activist who played a crucial role in leading LGBTQ+ rights protests following the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn bar. Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and one of the co-founders of the LGBTQ+ organisation STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which supported homeless gay and trans individuals.
More than 50 years after the beginning of the Stonewall riots, Johnson’s contribution to LGBTQ+ rights is finally beginning to get the recognition it deserves. In 2019 New York City officials announced plans to commemorate Johnson and another trans rights activist, Sylvia Rivera, with a new memorial near the Stonewall Inn.
The Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson explores Johnson’s activism and the issue of violence against trans women.
3. Olivia Records
Founded in 1973 by Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Judy Dlugacz, and several other women, Olivia Records was a lesbian feminist record label dedicated to redressing the lack of opportunity for women, and particularly lesbians, in the music industry.
Olivia didn’t just promote queer artists - it used music to protest homophobia and promote LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. In 1977, it released the album Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems, in response to pop singer Anita Bryant’s anti-gay ‘Save Our Children’ campaign. Described by one reviewer as “an affirmation of diversity, a striking convergence of different expressions of women”, Lesbian Concentrate was seen by many as ground-breaking in its open approach to lesbian sexuality.
Dee Mosbacher’s documentary, Radical Harmonies, provides a great introduction to the music movement that sprung up around Olivia Records. Some of Olivia’s catalogue, like Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed, is available on Spotify.
4. Mark Ashton
Mark Ashton co-founded the organisation Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), an LGBTQ+ group which supported the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The London LGSM group met at the LGBTQ+ bookshop Gay’s The Word (which is still there, and well worth visiting). They raised £22,500 for mineworks. LGSM’s work forged a strong link between LGBTQ+ rights activists and British Labour groups, and miners even led London’s Pride Parade in 1985.
Ashton was also a volunteer with the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, an LGBTQ+ helpline. After being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Ashton was admitted to hospital in 1987, and died aged 26. The Mark Ashton Trust was created in his memory to support individuals living with HIV.
The story of Mark Ashton and the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners alliance is depicted in the film Pride.
5. Lady Phyll
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, or Lady Phyll, is the founder of UK Black Pride. She is also the Executive Director of Kaleidoscope International Trust, an LGBTQ+ human rights organisation.
Lady Phyll founded UK Black Pride in 2005 to provide “a safe space to celebrate diverse sexualities, gender identities, cultures, gender expressions and backgrounds”. UK Black Pride also supports Black LGBTQ+ culture through events, advocacy, and educational work. Since its inception, it has grown into a significant event since, with over 10,000 people attending in 2019.
In a message to participants, Lady Phyll explained what she hopes Black Pride events can achieve: “As we look across the world and see an increasing threat to our lives and our humanity, we hope that UK Black Pride is a day that vitalises all of us for the work ahead. We matter. We hope that seeing people who look, love and feel like you in a space created for you to shine has left you feeling a little lighter, a little stronger and more hopeful.”
6. Elliot Page
Elliot Page, most famous for his role in the film Juno, has been one of Hollywood’s most outspoken advocates for LGBTQ+ rights throughout his career. In 2014, he spoke at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference, which champions the well-being of LGBTQ+ young people. Page came out as trans in December last year. In an open letter, he said: “To all trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better.” He continues to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and has recently been campaigning against anti-trans legislation in Montana.
Read about Elliot Page’s recent activism here.
7. Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi is a nonbinary visual activist. Born in 1972 during apartheid in South Africa, they seek to document and celebrate the lives of South Africa’s Black LGBTQ+ communities. They describe their mission as to “re-write a Black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond.”
Muholi’s work captures love and intimacy, writing a positive image of these misrepresented communities, while also raising awareness of the injustices they face. Their series Only Half the Picture documents survivors of hate crimes, while other work shows Black LGBTQ+ South Africans in public spaces. Alongside their visual work, Muholi records testimonies of some of their subjects.
A retrospective of Muholi’s work will be shown at the Tate Modern when galleries reopen. The exhibition guide is available here.
Want to know more? Here are some resources to keep learning about LGBTQ+ history all year round.
LGBTQ+ history month may be coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop learning! Sarah Prager’s Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World provides a great introduction to queer history. If you’re looking to learn about the HIV/AIDS crisis, It’s A Sin is a great place to start. And if podcasts are more your thing, there are lots of great podcasts highlighting the things mainstream history misses out, like History is Gay. There have always been queer pioneers, even if they haven’t always been given the recognition they deserve.