Some of the most important global 20th century figures who have fought for LGBTQ+ rights
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As of 2023, great progress has been made in advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, although there is always more work that can be done. There has also been some global movement in improving the rights of the LGBTQ+ community through protective legislation, but it has often lacked widespread impact and millions of people still face discrimination and harassment based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. However, these five historical figures made their mark on the world in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, with the hope that future generations would not have to suffer as they did to achieve equality.
Pioneering politician and advocate
Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay politicians elected to office in the US in 1977, and the first openly gay politician in California. Milk introduced legislation that protected the LGBTQ+ community, such as the Gay Rights Ordinance in 1978, which prevented discrimination in housing or employment. Milk’s prominent role in politics gained him the support of many gay people who were frustrated by the lack of support provided to them. Up to his assassination in 1978, Harvey Milk was a pioneering politician and played a prominent role in representing the LGBTQ+ community. He was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal in 2009 by President Obama for his contribution to fighting for equality and civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
Feminist writer and activist
Audre Lorde was a writer, feminist and civil rights activist who identified herself as a “black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet.” She was very proud of her identity and fought against racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia; this is seen particularly through her poetry that she is best known for, which expresses her struggle for justice and equal rights. Lorde was an integral part of the LGBTQ+ movement in the 1980s and used her poetry and her rhetoric to encourage people to see the injustices that people suffer every day. In her honour, the Audre Lorde Project was founded so that “LGBT peoples… can work to further a collective history of struggle against discrimination and other forms of oppression.”
Image credit: K. Kendall (CC BY 2.0)
Model and actress
April Ashely is known to be one of the earliest British people to have gender-affirming surgery, which she underwent in 1960. A model and an actress, she memorably appeared in British Vogue in 1960. However, it was not known to the public that she was transgender until she was outed in the Sunday People newspaper in 1961, which ended her career. She left Britain to go to America until decades later, when the Gender Recognition Act was introduced in 2005, she returned. Ashley was given an MBE for her contribution towards transgender equality, and a lifetime achievement honour at the European Diversity Awards in 2014.
Image credit: Loz Pycock (CC BY-SA 2.0)
South Asian poet
Ifti Nasim is considered to be the first openly gay poet from Pakistan. He wrote the poetry collection “Narman”, which was critical of Islam’s intolerance towards homosexuals. It was the first set of works to appear in Urdu that openly expressed homosexuality. Nasim fled to the US in his early 20s to escape persecution for his sexual orientation. While in the US, he founded the group ‘Sangat’ that was established to support LGBTQ+ South Asian youth. Not as well-known as some other social activists of his time, Nasim deserves greater recognition for his contribution towards acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly in South Asia.
Image credit: SAADA
LGBTQ+ rights activist
Sylvia Rivera is a Latina-American woman who is considered one of the most radical gay liberation and transgender rights activists of her time. She was a drag queen and founded numerous groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. She also participated in many gay liberation marches, most famously in the Stonewall riots of 1969 which established her position as a leader of the gay rights movement. Alongside Marsha P. Johnson, she founded the group ‘Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries’ that provided food, shelter, and essential supplies to empower gay and transgender youth in the local community. In honour of her contribution to the LGBTQ+ community, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was set up, which guarantees that “all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.”
Image credit: Roseleechs (CC BY-SA 4.0)