As LGBT history month draws to a close, we are reminded of those who pioneered the way for the freedoms we enjoy today, and that there is still much progress to be made. Equality Forum compiles a list of notable LGBT historical figures each year, and what is most remarkable about most of these individuals is not that they organized millions of people behind a cause or changed policies and laws single-handedly; what is remarkable about these individuals is that they were willing to stand out–and speak out–during times where to be anything but hetero-normative was a sentence for a lifetime as a societal outcast.
Pierre Seel (1923-2005) was imprisoned and tortured in a concentration camp during World War II because he was gay. After escaping from conscripted service in the German army and surrendering to the Allies, his imprisonment was not compensated or acknowledged by the French government. Neither were any of the others deported for their sexual orientation. In 1982, after having closeted himself for 37 years, he wrote an article for a French gay magazine in response to a prominent bishop’s anti-gay remarks. His memoir, “I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual” was published in 1994. And in 2003, he was finally recognized as a victim of the Holocaust.
Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) was one of the first people to use hormone therapy to supplement her gender reassignment therapy. She was catapulted to fame when the New York Daily News intercepted a letter to her parents about her transformation and ran a story titled “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” She relocated to New York to speak out in support of transsexual and transgender people; Jorgensen moved into music and film, and toured the US speaking at colleges and universities about her story.
Tom Waddell (1937-1987) organized the Gay Games–an athletic event modeled on the Olympics that still takes place every 4 years, the most recent having been held in 2010. Waddell was part of the civil rights demonstrations in Alabama in the early 1960’s, and joined the army in 1966. He competed in the Olympics in 1968, after which he was a fellow at Stanford University. He came out to friends and family in the 1970’s, and inspired by a gay bowling league, he decided to create a unique sporting event where LGBT athletes could compete openly. Waddell lived to see the games become a great success, and died of AIDS-related complications in 1987.
Gloria Anzaldua (1942-2004) “helped build a multicultural feminist movement and called for people of different races to move forward together.” † After teaching several courses in creative writing and Chicana studies & earning her master’s degree, she co-edited one of the most cited books in the history of feminist studies: This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. She refused to write in only one language, and her writings contain two variations of English & six of Spanish, and all manner of in-betweens. She died while working on her doctorate, and was posthumously awarded a PhD by the University of California, Santa Cruz for her scholarly contributions.
Although it is no longer a danger to speak out publicly in support of the LGBT community in most of Western society, many people still suffer harassment and exclusion in silence. October is also anti-bullying month. Bullying can be as simple as one child tormenting another, or an institutionalized hostility against hundreds of thousands of people. We have seen great steps taken in our society within our lifetimes, yet without continual individual effort, we cannot move forward. I am reminded of the children’s book “Horton Hears a Who,” where no-one can hear the voices of the tiny people living on a dandelion puff except an elephant with exceptional hearing. But when they combine their voices, they are able to make themselves heard by everyone in the larger world: “We are here!” So we need to remember: we may not think our voice counts or has any influence on our surroundings, but if we all speak up, we will be heard.
For more information on LGBT historical and modern figures, check out http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com!