Historical Figures of LGBTQ+ History
During LBGTQ+ History Month (celebrated in October), the Gender and 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!
- Willi Ninja
Willi Ninja was known as the grandfather of Vogue, a dance form
that he helped move from the New York club scene of the 1980’s to the concert stage. Ninja caught the attention of "Paris Is Burning" director Jennie Livingston, who featured Ninja prominently in the film. The film, both a critical and box
office success, served as a springboard for Ninja. He parlayed his appearance into performances with a number of dance troupes and choreography gigs including
two of Janet Jackson’s videos from her album "Rhythm Nation 1814." His legacy continues as the House of Ninja members keep vouging alive and advocate on behalf of their Mother, Willi Ninja, to raise HIV awareness.
- Amelio Robles Ávila
According to historian Gabriela Cano Ortega, Robles adopted a
male identity not as a survival strategy but because of a strong desire to be a
man. Robles' male identity was accepted by family, society, and the Mexican government, and Robles lived as a man from the age of 24 until his death. In
1970, the Mexican Secretary of National Defense recognized Robles as a veteran (veterano) of the Revolution. Toward the end of his life, Robles received various decorations acknowledging distinguished military service: a decoration as a veteran of the Mexican Revolution, and the Mexican Legion of Honor; in 1973 or 1974, Robles was also decorated with the Revolutionary Merit award (Medalla al mérito revolucionario).
- Chavela Vargas
Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica, Vargas ran away to Mexico City in her early teens and began singing in the streets. By the 1950s, she had become a darling of the city’s thriving bohemian club scene, where she challenged mainstream Mexican morals by dressing in men’s clothing while she sang songs intended for men to woo women with incredible passion – and refused to change the pronouns. She eventually recorded more than 80 albums. Vargas was hugely successful during the 1950s, the 1960s, and the first half of the 1970s, touring in Mexico, the United States, France, and Spain.
- Lorraine Vivian Hansberry
Lorraine was the first African American female author have a play performed on Broadway. She is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, which depicts black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. It was titled after Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem,"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" At 29, she won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, becoming the first African American dramatist, the fifth woman, and the youngest playwright to win. After Hansberry's death, her husband Robert Nemiroff donated her personal and professional effects to the New York Public Library.
He restricted access to the lesbian-themed correspondence, diaries, unpublished manuscripts, and full runs of homophile magazines. More than twenty years after Nemiroff's death, his executor released the restricted materials to scholars.
- Stormé DeLaverie
Stormé DeLarverie is nicknamed as the “Guardian of Lesbians in the Village” for her work as a volunteer street patrol worker. She identified as a biracial butch lesbian and was a bouncer for many lesbian bars. She was heavily involved in the Stonewall Veterans’ Association and held many leadership positions over the years.
- Ceyenne Doroshow
Ceyenne Doroshow is a black, trans activist and author. In 2015 Doroshow founded G.L.I.T.S., an organization which helps black trans people to find affordable housing and healthcare. Doroshow is a prominent figure in advocating for sex workers as well. Doroshow constantly works to providing safe spaces for trans individuals looking for support in several aspects of their lives.
- Erestine Eckstein
Ernestine Eckstein was the leader of the first lesbian civil and political rights organization known as the Daughters of Bilitis, leading the New York Chapter. Eckstein was an early activist of the Black feminist movement of 1970. She viewed the fight for civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights as something that was deeply connected.
- 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.
- Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde has made long lasting contributions to feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory. She has captivated millions of people through her writing, some examples being her works “Coal” and “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.” She is self-described as a “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet and warrior.”
- 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.