[This is the second in our three-part series exploring the history of the LGBTQ movement on the occasion of LGBT History Month]
Many of the gender and sexual norms that plague us even today were largely established after the advent of Colonialism and European imperialism, which was at the height of its power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Heteronormativity as a concept—ie, the idea that gender functions in a sharp male/female binary, and that heterosexuality is the only acceptable expression of sexual desire—was enforced, and the gender and sexual fluidity of the ancient times that we explored in Part 1 of this series soon began to be looked down upon. Hence, many indigenous cultures (in Africa, Asia, Latin America) where gender or sexuality did not adhere to the strict binaries were forced to conform to this and “homophobia” was born. However, there were many who battled all odds and challenged these notions. They refused to be policed in their sexual and gender expression and proudly waved the baton of queerness. The following are a few such trailblazers who we can proudly call our “forequeers”:
Karl Hienrich Ulrichs (1825-1895)
Seen today as the pioneer of the modern gay rights movement, Karl Ulrichs came out publicly in 1862 as an Urning (a 19th century term used for alternate sexualities). Under a pseudonym, he wrote a collection of essays called ‘Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe’ (Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love) which explained same-sex love as natural and biological. In 1867, Ulrichs became the first homosexual man to speak out publicly in defence of homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. Despite his writings being banned across Germany and Prussia, and the police routinely humiliating and arresting him, he continued to write and publish pro-gay works prolifically. After his death, he later became a cult figure in the gay rights movement, and, in his memory, the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association presents a Karl Heinrich Ulrichs Award for distinguished contributions to the advancement of LGBTI equality.
We’Wha (1849-1896) was a Zuni Native American from New Mexico who was the most famously documented Ihamana, or Two-Spirit. In some Native American cultures, male children who displayed “feminine” characteristics at an early age were considered sacred by the tribe. The common belief was that ‘the Great Spirit’ had sent this child to them as an intermediary for males and females, a bridge between the sexes who can understand both sides of the human condition. Such a child was apprenticed to a shaman, or the holy man of the tribe. In his training, he learnt to fulfil the traditional roles of both sexes, dressed as a woman, and usually performed the functions of healer and arbiter for the tribe. These people were known as a ‘Two-Spirit’ or ‘Ihamana’. We’wha was the first among the Two-Spirits who was studied by anthropologists, and was a highly respected leader within the community. We’Wha lived a remarkable life and was recognized both for the many contributions they made in bettering the lives of the villagers as well as in sharing the Zuni culture with the outside world.
King Mwanga II (1868-1903)
This Ugandan king was one of the first openly queer monarchs in any African country. Though he had sixteen wives, he was often known to engage in sexual relations with male members of his court. Back in the 1880s, when European colonialists entered Africa as “missionaries seeking to spread Christianity”, Mwanga put up great resistance against them. He rebelled against the sexual policing and homophobia not just within the colonial version of Christianity, but also within Islam. Due to King Mwanga’s defiance against the British, he was overthrown in 1888 and his brother was appointed to the throne.
Lilli Elbe (1882-1931)
Lilli Ilse Elvenes, more commonly known as Lilli Elbe, was a Danish transgender woman who was among the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, and married to artist Gerda Gottlieb, Elbe started dressing in women’s clothes while one day filling in for Gottlieb’s absentee model. She was asked to wear stockings and heels so her legs could substitute for those of the model, and Elbe found herself feeling surprisingly comfortable in the clothing. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly presented as a woman, attending various festivities and entertaining guests in her house. With the help of Gottlieb, she started transitioning in Germany from 1930 onwards, and completed all her transitional surgeries in a span of two years. After her transition, Elbe managed to get her sex and name legally changed, including receiving a passport as Lili Ilse Elvenes, which was an important milestone, considering the period she lived in. Her story has been recently documented in Tom Hooper’s film, ‘The Danish Girl’.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Bayard Rustin was an African-American leader for civil rights, socialism, and, most importantly, gay rights. He is perhaps best known as the chief organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. However, Rustin has often been erased from the history of the Civil Rights Movement because of his openness about his sexuality and his very vocal championing of gay rights. His many achievements — like pioneering one of the first Freedom Rides, refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus in 1942 (more than a dozen years before Rosa Parks did) and helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition to support the efforts of a then young and largely unknown Martin Luther King Jr—often go unrecognized. He was often brutally vilified for his sexuality, especially within the black community. In fact, he was imprisoned in 1953 for his homosexuality, with charges of “sex perversion” being levelled against him. Despite all of that, he continued to champion the LGBT movement, and remained committed in a longterm relationship with fellow gay rights activist Walter Naegle until his death in 1989.
Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991)
A prolific writer in Urdu, Chughtai was popularly known for being the first Indian writer to openly address lesbian and queer themes in her writing. Her short story ‘Lihaf’ is her most well-known work, which portrays an intensely sexual relationship between two women. Charges of “obscenity” were levelled against her for ‘Lihaf ‘and she faced a trial for the same. However, Chughtai chose to contest this case instead of issuing an apology (which she was being pressured to do), and won it. Throughout her life she maintained this sort of an unapologetic attitude regarding issues of sexuality, and was very vocal about her bisexual leanings.
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
An African-American expatriate writer, and influential figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin was one of the most important icons in twentieth century queer literature. His books ‘Giovanni’s Room’ (1956) and ‘Another Country’ (1962) created a lot of controversy when they were first published because they featured normalized depictions of gay relationships as well as characters who struggled with their sexual identities. Very interestingly, he rejected the label ‘homosexual’ by saying: “…Those terms, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual are 20th-Century terms which, for me, really have very little meaning…The idea of homosexuality came from panic born from the mortification of the flesh”. An important crusader against racism and homophobia in twentieth century America, he very famously said in 1965: “If one’s to live at all, one’s certainly got to get rid of labels.”
Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
A Carribean-American activist, theorist and writer, Audre Lorde has been one of the foremost voices in black lesbian feminist discourses. Her struggle against oppression on many fronts and her championing of marginalized racial, gender, and LGBT groups made her one of the most influential intersectional feminists of the twentieth century. She played a major role in the movement to preserve and celebrate African American culture and was a featured speaker at the first national march for Gay and Lesbian liberation in Washington in 1979. More than a decade after her death, Lorde’s writings and speeches are still commonly quoted and are inspiring a new generation of activists.
The Stonewall rioters
The Stonewall Riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against a police raid that took place on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, which was located in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York City. The Stonewall Inn catered to an assortment of patrons and which mostly included the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless LGBT youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, and hence, this particular raid was the last straw and triggered and incited rebellion in the hearts of the Stonewall crowd. These riots are widely considered to be the single most important event in the modern fight for LGBT rights as they led to the first Gay Pride marches being held, which started in New York and San Francisco, and later spread to various parts of the world. Black transwoman Marsha P Johnson was the pioneer of the Stonewall Movement, closely followed by other LGBT activists of colour such as Sylvia Rivera, Storme DeLarverie, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and many others who are still relatively unknown.
Members of COHLA: COHLA (Comite Homosexual Latinoamericano) was a Hispanic gay rights organization founded in New York in 1971 which attempted to march in the city’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1979. They were denied participation, but succeeded in bringing attention to gay lives and politics in the Puerto Rican and broader Latino community. They published a 63-page pamphlet in Spanish called AFUERA , which highlighted the political dimension of coming out, Third World liberation, Marxist thought, and patriarchy.
Members of ACT UP: AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power(ACT UP) is an international direct action advocacy group working to better the lives of people with AIDS and the HIV virus, and to bring about legislation, medical research and treatment in order to bring an end to the disease, and mitigate the loss of health and lives caused by it. ACT UP was effectively formed in March 1987 as a response to the AIDS crisis that affected gay men throughout the 80s. They staged demonstrations, arranged public meetings to spread awareness for AIDS, organized free medical treatment for those afflicted and made efforts to deal with the political and social rejection of the AIDS crisis and the LGBT community at large. Larry Kramer’s play ‘The Normal Heart’ and its recent award-winning movie adaptation documents their story.
Hence, from the late nineteenth century onwards, the movement for LGBT rights properly started taking shape, and, the twentieth century, especially, saw a lot happen in terms of queer activism. However, it is important to note how non-Western LGBT movements have been poorly documented, and even when they are, often not given as much as emphasis as white LGBT activism. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. There are so many other queer people and movements in history that have paved the way for LGBT rights to be what it is today. Queers have been around since time immemorial, and will be around always.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of our LGBT History series.