Historical Figures of LGBTQ+ History
During LBGTQ+ History Month (celebrated in October), the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC) at the University of Northern Colorado highlights historical figures in LGBTQ+ History. Four figures are featured on a poster each year during the GSRC’s Rainbow Flag Campaign. Learn more about those featured figures below.
Are there historical figures you would like us to highlight? Email us at GSRC@unco.edu with the subject line “Website Historical Figure Recommendation” to let us know more!
- Barbara Gittings
1932 - 2007
Barbara Gittings was a gay rights activist who started the first lesbian civil rights organization in the US: The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Gittings organized public marches and demonstrations for gay rights and equality. Gittings also helped to promote gay literature by working with the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association
- Major Griffin-Gracy (“Miss Major” or “Major”)
October 25, 1940 (Age 77)
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, often referred to as Miss Major or Major, is a black transgender, genderqueer woman, social activist, and community leader, who participated in the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Miss Major has spent more than 40 years of her life working on a variety of causes for marginalized groups including those related to transgender women of color. Her own experiences with incarceration gave her inspiration to advocate for those subjected to heteronormativity and racism within the prison system and living on the streets. A formative experience for her happened while at the Attica State Prison in New York during a four day uprising in September 1971 which inspired her to help other trans women, especially trans women of color, by making sure they were not subjected to the same treatment she endured. She also played a major activist role during the AIDS crisis as a part of a number of HIV/AIDS organizations. This then lead to her serving as one of the first Executive Directors of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). Recently, Miss Major has relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas to start the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center. Affectionately referred to as the House of GG, it was built as a safe house for the transgender community.
- Marsha P. (“Pay it No Mind”) Johnson
August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992
Marsha, a black transgender woman, self-identified drag queen, activist, and LGBTQ revolutionary, was a key figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. She is attributed with spearheading the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Along with her fellow activist Sylvia Rivera, Marsha established STAR (the Street Transvestite, now Transgender, Action Revolutionaries) a group that supports homeless transgender youth in NYC, Chicago, California, and England. Marsha was a popular figure in New York’s LGBTQ+ and Art scenes, and had modeled for artists such as Andy Warhol and performed on stage with Hot Peaches, a drag performance troupe. Marsha was well-known as the “mayor of Christopher Street” and a “saint of gay life”. As an advocate, she was a part of the Gay Liberation Front and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). She was tragically murdered on July 6, 1992 at the age of 46. Although in 1992 her death was ruled a suicide, in 2012 through the work of the New York City Anti-Violence Project and transgender activist Mariah Lopez, her case was reopened.
- Ifti Nasim
1946 - 2011
Ifti Nasim was a gay poet from Pakistan who wrote “Narman,” the first book to appear in Urdu that openly expressed homosexuality. Nasim fled to the United States to avoid persecution in Pakistan. In the US, Nasim co-founded the group Sangat, a group established for queer south Asian youth.
- Simon Nkoli
1957 - 1998
Simon Nkloi was a gay activist and an aids activist who fought against the apartheid in South Africa. He helped found the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) and the Gay and Lesbian Organizations of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). Nkoli helped to pave the way for South African queer rights.
- Sylvia Rivera
July 2, 1951 – February 19, 2002
Sylvia Rivera, was a transgender American woman, LGBT liberation activist, and self-identified drag queen of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, born and raised in New York City. She was orphaned at three years old and homeless by the time she was eleven, giving her personal insight into the experiences of many LGBTQ+ youth whom she referred to as “her children”. She was a key figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States, earning a fierce reputation and eventual respect by the early 1960’s, further cemented by her presence in the frontlines of the Stonewall Riots. Alongside Marsha P. Johnson, she established STAR (the Street Transvestite, now Transgender, Action Revolutionaries) a group that supports homeless transgender youth in NYC, Chicago, California, and England. She was a passionate advocate for homeless queer and trans youth and criticized the gay liberation movement for their transphobia and for ignoring the poor treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals in prison. Sylvia died in 2002 from liver cancer complications. She was described as the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement.
- Bayard Rustin
March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987
Bayard Rustin was a black American man who was a successful organizer for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights in the United States before the gay liberation movement. Bayard was non-violent and integral to large strides in the early Civil Rights Movement, in particular organizing a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge racial segregation in interstate bussing practices. Bayard promoted the practices of nonviolent resistance and the philosophy of nonviolence, originating from his work with Mahatma Gandhi’s liberation movement in India, and is attributed with introducing the philosophy to Martin Luther King, Jr. Due to his public identity as a gay man and previous affiliate of the Communist Party, Bayard was rarely a public spokesperson in the Civil Rights or gay rights movements, and instead functioned as an effective behind the scenes advisors to civil-rights leaders. All of this was despite homophobia exhibited by white supremacists and fellow activists who used his open sexuality in order to discredit him. Bayard was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 20, 2013 by then President Barack Obama.
- Jackie Shane
1940 - 2019
Jackie Shane was a transgender soul singer from Nashville, Tennessee who built a large audience in the US and in Canada during the 1960’s. In 2019, Shane’s album, Any Other Way, received a Grammy for best historical album.