[This is the third and final instalment of our LGBT History Month series. Read Parts One and Two here.]
From the late twentieth century onwards to present day, there has been an attempt to make the LGBT movement more inclusive and intersectional. Efforts have been made to address the issues faced by identities on the LGBT spectrum that are not so widely recognised: for example, asexual people, intersex people, and so on. Which is why, from the 21st century onwards, the letters ‘Q’ (Queer and/or Questioning), ‘I’ (Intersex) and ‘A’ (Asexual) began to be added to ‘LGBT’, often followed by a ‘+’ to indicate the fact that sexual orientations are limitless. Though a lot of progress has occurred in the twenty-first century regarding LGBT+ rights—for example, the legalization of same-sex marriage in many countries; and headways in medical research about HIV and AIDS (a disease to which many gay men lost their lives up until the 80s)—there is still a long way to go in achieving complete equality. In many countries, homosexuality is still considered a crime, and people often face incarceration and harassment simply by the virtue of being queer. But despite facing such brutalities, many in the LGBT community have continued to defeat all odds and keep the queer flag flying strong. Here are a few such people who, through their achievements, inspire us to fight for our rights, be ourselves, and be unapologetically queer:
Most popularly known for his portrayal of Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek series, Takei has been a proponent of LGBT rights and active in state and local politics apart from his acting career. He currently serves as a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign called “Coming Out Project”. In 2006, he embarked on a nationwide “Equality Trek”, a speaking tour in which he shared details about his life as a gay Japanese American, his 18-year relationship with partner Brad Altman, and his work as a volunteer for the LGBT rights group Frontrunners. In the wake of the 2007 controversy over former NBA player Tim Hardaway’s statement “I hate gay people”, Takei recorded a mock public service announcement which began as a serious message of tolerance, but then turned the tables on Hardaway by saying that while he may hate gay people, gay people love him and other “sweaty basketball players”. After this message became highly popular and oft-quoted on social media, Takei continued to use this PSA format to shut down homophobia. In 2011, in response to a Tennessee State Legislature bill that prohibited school teachers or students from using any language that alludes to the existence of homosexuality (the “Don’t Say Gay” bill), Takei released another public service announcement in which he offered up his name, suggesting that people could just substitute that for ‘gay’—for example, “that’s so Takei” instead of “that’s so gay”. He has since, amassed a near-cult following both within the LGBT community and otherwise.
An Australian-born British human rights campaigner, Tatchell is best known for his work with LGBT social movements. On moving to London in 1969, he became a member of the Gay Liberation Front and continued to work for it until its collapse in 1971. During this time, he often organized sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve LGBT people and also protested against police harassment of LGBT individuals, the medical classification of homosexuality as an illness, and helped organize Britain’s first Gay Pride marches. However, his most notable contributions to LGBT activism were made as a leading member of the direct action radical gay rights group OutRage! through which he attacked homophobic religious and political institutions. On 21 September 2012, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award at the UK’s first National Diversity Awards.
Considered one of the greatest gender theorists of our time, Butler’s work has influenced political philosophy, ethics and feminist, queer and literary theory in an important way. In her two most popular works: ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity’ and ‘Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of Sex’ she challenged patriarchal, heteronormative ideas about gender and developed the theory that gender is nothing but a performance. This theory now plays a major role in queer and feminist scholarship, and has been applied to and widely studied in various academic disciplines. She has also been actively involved in the LGBT rights movement and has served as the chair of the board of International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She has also been a strong advocate of same-sex marriage and ending discrimination against the LGBT community. She has been in a long-term relationship with political scientist Wendy Brown and has adopted a son together.
Comedienne and TV show host Ellen De Generes made history when she publicly came out as lesbian in 1997 on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’. Soon after this, on her eponymous show ‘Ellen’, her character Ellen Morgan also came out to a therapist played by Oprah Winfrey, and the series went on to explore various LGBT issues, including the coming-out process. This made her the first openly lesbian actor to play an openly lesbian character on television. Unfazed by the initial media backlash to her coming out, she has continued to contribute to the LGBT movement and has been very vocal about LGBT issues over the years. In 2015, she was named the 50th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes Magazine and ranked number two on the World Pride Power List.
Comedienne and actor Margaret Cho revolutionized the American comedy scene by being one of the first queer Asian female stand-up comics who addressed issues of race, sexuality and gender with incisive wit and honesty in her humour acts. While a substantial portion of her comedy routine addresses LGBT issues, Cho has also developed an additional channel for queer advocacy through her website and popular weblog. When San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, Cho started ‘Love is Love is Love’ a website promoting the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. She has also written songs and created music videos which address her bisexuality and polyamory. In 2000, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) awarded her with a Golden Gate Award and described her as an entertainer who, “as a pioneer, has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
An American asexual activist, Jay is the founder and webmaster of AVEN (The Asexual Visibility Network). Frustrated with the lack of resources available regarding asexuality, Jay launched AVEN’s website in 2002, and since then has taken a leading role in the asexuality movement, appearing on multiple television shows, and being featured in Arts Engine’s 2011 documentary (A)sexual. AVEN, which Salon referred to as the “unofficial online headquarters“ of the asexuality movement, is widely recognised as the largest online asexual community. Its two main goals are to create public acceptance and discussion about asexuality and to facilitate the growth of a large online asexual community. As of June 17, 2013, AVEN has nearly 70,000 registered members.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii and of mixed African-American and Hawaiian ancestry, Janet Mock is perhaps one of the most influential transgender activists in contemporary times. During her first year of university, Mock travelled to Thailand to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery and came out publicly as a trans woman in 2011 through a Marie Claire article. Her autobiographical first book ‘Redefining Realness: My Path To Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More’ (2014), is a one-of-a-kind account of her life as a trans woman and experiences of transitioning. While promoting the book on the now cancelled ‘Piers Morgan Show’, Mock made international headlines after she called the host Piers Morgan out on the questionably transphobic statements he had made in the interview. Apart from travelling to various parts of the world to spread awareness for trans youth and the trans community at large, Mock now hosts a weekly pop culture talk show on MSNBC called ‘So Popular!’, where she discusses issues of race, gender and sexuality within pop culture.
In the past three years of her time starring on the popular Netflix TV series ‘Orange is The New Black’, Cox has already made history by not just being the first openly transgender person to play a transgender character on television, but also by being the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, and to have a wax statue at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. In addition to her acting, she speaks and writes about transgender rights and its intersection with race and identity in a variety of media outlets, such as the Huffington Post. A true trailblazer for the trans community, she has won various awards for her activism and efforts to spread awareness about the transgender community. In 2015, she has been named in Time Magazine’s list of ‘100 More Influential People’, and has been named as one of the 31 Icons of LGBT History Month by the Equality Forum.
Salcedo describes herself as a “very proud trans, queer Latina woman who is always making sure that the voice of [her] brothers and sisters get heard.” As a transgender activist, she has organized initiatives benefiting transgender youth such as Angels of Change, the TransLatina Coalition, and the TransLivesMatter National Day of Action. She has been vocal in protesting against transphobia and racism and has held many demonstrations and speeches for the same. The story of her LGBT activism was documented in the 2014 documentary, ‘Transvisible: Bamby Salcedo’s Story’.
This list, again, is not exhaustive. There are so many in the queer community out there who continue to work towards making the world an equal and better place for LGBT+ individuals worldwide, and their efforts need to be more publicly acknowledged and lauded. This LGBT History Month, let’s spread more awareness about our rich queer past and present, and take a collective step forward in ending homophobia and discrimination.