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Acknowledging queer women during Women’s History Month
They say history is told by the victors, and history in the United States is told from the perspective of white, cisgender, straight men. Our schools teach this narrative but then take the opportunity during certain months to tell the history of “the other,” showing that we are not the ones whose history is the default one usually being taught.
Black History Month just finished in February and now we enter Women’s History Month. In October we’ll arrive to LGBTQ+ History Month, one that most schools won’t acknowledge, many because it will be illegal to do so under state or local law. The ACLU is tracking over 150 anti-LGBTQ+ laws related to schools and education introduced this year alone, not to mention the ones already on the books from previous years.
This Women’s History Month, I want to acknowledge queer women’s history. Within all of these siloed months, there isn’t enough room for intersectionality. There is Women’s History Month and Black History Month, but no Black Women’s History Month. So if we want to talk about queer women, we have to create space for queer women within women’s history or for women within LGBTQ+ history.
Lesbians, trans women, bi women and other queer women all helped to shape history in important ways. Activists like Rita Mae Brown, Stormé DeLarverie, Ernestine Eckstein, Barbara Gittings, Marsha P. Johnson, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera and Martha Shelley were important figures in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, but queer women also impacted the world at large outside of our own movement.
“Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith founded the blues as “The Mother of the Blues” and the “Empress of the Blues”–both bi women. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a purported extramarital female partner for decades, led the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a United Nations delegate. Dr. Sara Josephine Baker was a groundbreaking doctor who helped to bring in Typhoid Mary. Lorraine Hansberry wrote “A Raisin in the Sun.” Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. The arts and sciences wouldn’t be the same without queer women.
They’ve also been military heroes like Croix de Guerre recipient Josephine Baker, social reformers like Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, and politicians like Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Barbara Jordan. There is no field untouched by queer women.
These women aren’t given their due enough, and when they are, their queer identities are kept quiet. It matters that we all know that the women accomplishing these incredible feats and making these significant contributions to society were trans and queer. We should all know that trans and queer people are capable of such things so that we’re seen in that light. We need to uplift these stories of role models and make sure that straight and cisgender people are aware that blues music (Rainey and Smith) and public health advances like teaching that hand washing stops the spread of disease (Dr. Baker) are thanks to queer women.
We should be teaching about these women and the full extent of their intersectional identities in schools and everywhere else we can. This Women’s History Month, let’s not forget their stories or contributions.
Eboné Bell is the founder and publisher of Tagg Magazine.