The history of the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. is rich. While the Stonewall Rebellion and legislative wins like Obergefell v. Hodges often dominate discussions about our history, many other stories and people paved the way for modern LGBTQ+ rights. From brave individuals in the 19th century who risked it all to create a space for queer and trans people to thrive to modern warriors who risked imprisonment, and legal and professional ramifications to speak their truth, here are groundbreaking moments in LGBTQ+ history.
Dorsey Swann was born in 1860 to enslaved parents in Hancock, Maryland. As an adult, Dorsey Swann ended up in Washington, D.C., where he organized some of the first drag balls in the nation and took on the moniker “queen of drag.” At the “House of Swann” Black queer and trans folks could come together, dance and create community. Swann faced numerous raids and arrests for his courageous stances, culminating in a 10-month prison sentence. Dorsey Swann would later ask then-President Grover Cleveland for a pardon, which was denied. Dorsey Swann lived to age 65, but his legacy lives on today.
Born in Prussia, Heinrich Joseph Dittmar, later Henry Gerber, emigrated to the U.S. in 1913 at 21 and landed in Chicago. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the First World War and encountered a robust queer community in Berlin, Germany. After the war, Gerber returned to Chicago, where he created the Society for Human Rights (SHR), considered the first official LGBTQ+ organization in the country. SHR also had a publication, “Friendship and Freedom,” but both the organization and publication were shut down by police in 1925. Gerber was tried several times in court, with charges eventually being dismissed. In 1992, Gerber was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall was born to wealthy parents in the Southwest of England. She was born in 1880 to an American mother and a British father, who abandoned the family when Hall was a toddler. Hall bucked societal norms from a young age, often dressing in men’s fashions and romancing wealthy women of the era. She became a publisher poet in her mid-20s, eventually moving into fiction writing. In 1928, Hall’s novel about the life of a butch lesbian named Stephen Gordon was published. The novel, “The Well of Loneliness,” ended up on the receiving end of an obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and was eventually allowed to sell in the United States. The book is considered the first lesbian novel published in the U.S. and U.K.
Edythe Eyde creates the U.S.’s first lesbian magazine, “Vice Versa”
Under the pen name Lisa Ben, a play on the word lesbian, RKO Pictures secretary Edythe Eyde created the country’s first lesbian periodical magazine, “Vice Versa.” Eyde published nine magazine editions from 1947 to 1948, passed around lesbian circles in Los Angeles, California. The magazine contained book and film reviews, readers’ letters and Eyde’s editorials. Eyde would go on to write for the Daughters of Bilitis magazine “The Ladder” in the 1950s. All nine issues of “Vice Versa” are available to read through the Queer Music Heritage Archives.
James Baldwin writes “Giovanni’s Room”
Baldwin, one of the most revered writers of the 20th century, was born and raised in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. He was known for his prolific works, including essays, novels, plays and short stories. In 1956, Baldwin wrote “Giovanni’s Room,” about an American man living in Paris who has a love affair with an Italian bartender named Giovanni. The book tackles issues of race, sexuality and masculinity, among other themes. While Baldwin’s U.S. publisher warned against publishing the book in the event it alienated Baldwin’s established audience, it has gone on to be an influential piece of queer literature around the world for over half a century.
Compton’s Cafeteria riot
After years of mistreatment and harassment by owners and police, transgender women who frequented San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria staged a protest in August 1966. On the night of the riot, police again were called to remove trans women and drag queens who sought respite and community at the all-night cafeteria. When police attempted to arrest one of the women, she reportedly threw her coffee at him, and other diners tossed sugar containers and tables in protest. This resulted in increased violence from police and arrests. The following day, protesters returned to picket and smashed a window of the establishment. Three years before Stonewall, the Compton Riot is considered one of the first collective acts of queer and trans resistance.
Trans activist and pioneer Sylvia Rivera had been heavily involved in queer and trans rights long before she gave her famous speech in 1973. Along with Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and worked tirelessly to help homeless queer youth and trans sex workers. In her speech, given to a mostly queer crowd, Rivera rebuked the crowd for their lack of action and assistance in helping the most marginalized of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I have been beaten,” Rivera said to a loudly jeering crowd. “I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you treat me this way?”
Rivera’s speech highlighted the lack of intersectionality and reciprocity occurring in the gay movement at the time and cemented her place in history.
National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights
Oct. 14, 1979, an estimated 100,000 LGBTQ+ people and allies marched on Washington, D.C., for equal civil rights. It was the largest march of its kind at that time and included a platform called “The Five Demands.” The demands included passing a gay rights bill in Congress, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal government, repealing all anti-LGBTQ+ laws, ending discrimination against gay and lesbian parents in custody cases and protecting queer youth from any discrimination. Speakers at the march and rally included journalist Allen Young, writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde and PFLAG President Adele Starr.
ACT UP shuts down the FDA
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) grew out of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and was significant in spreading the word about HIV/AIDS and the lack of assistance the LGBTQ+ community was receiving from politicians and federal agencies. ACT UP was known for its fierce activism and large, unforgettable demonstrations. Oct. 11, 1988, over 1,500 ACT UP protesters gathered at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters in Rockville, Maryland, to participate in “Seize Control of the FDA.” The protest successfully shut down the agency for the day and led to the arrests of over 100 participants.
Ellen DeGeneres comes out
“Yep, I’m Gay.” With those three words emblazoned on the April 17, 1997, issue of Time Magazine, Ellen DeGeneres changed queer pop culture history. The comedian and actor starring in her self-titled sitcom bravely came out when very few celebrities would dare. Two weeks later, “The Puppy Episode” aired, wherein Ellen’s character, Ellen Morgan, falls for a woman and comes out herself, along with a star-studded cast of guests including Oprah, Demi Moore and Gina Gershon. The result was a critically acclaimed episode that changed the landscape of representation for queer characters but also cost Ellen advertisers and earned an eventual parental advisory warning. The show was canceled at the end of the next season but DeGeneres went on to host her wildly successful talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for 19 seasons.
Sarah McBride is a current Delaware State senator running for Congress in 2024. Her election to the Delaware senate made McBride the first openly trans state senator in history. However, it wasn’t her first time breaking barriers. In 2016, at just 25 years old, McBride was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention. She was the first openly trans person to speak at a major party convention in history. McBride opened her message to the crowd, “My name is Sarah McBride and I am a proud transgender American,” and shared her own story and hopes for change to come.