June is Pride Month and marks a time where we celebrate the LGBT community of all identities and orientations, so what better way to honour this special month than to look back at some of our favourite LGBT rights activists… the icons.
Pride Month is celebrated every June in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, which took place on 28 June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn and was a violent response to police raids of gay and lesbian bars. Since 1970, it has been celebrated, along with Pride Day on 28 June, and has evolved into a massive cultural movement. Communities all over the world attend parades, picnics, and parties. But the younger generation would do well to also spend some time this Pride Month by learning a little about the history and the icons of the past that helped create the global movement to secure many of the rights that the LGBT community enjoys today. There is still a long way to go, but without these incredible people, we could still be stuck in the Dark Ages.
Who better to start with than the woman who organized the first LGBT Pride March in 1970, the Mother of Pride, Brenda Howard. Howard was involved in the movement against the Vietnam War in the 60s, before turning her attention to the feminist movement. She then became involved in the LGBT movement for over three decades. She’s perhaps the most important figure in the movement and, after she lost her battle against colon cancer in 2005, The Brenda Howard Memorial Award was created in her honour, the first major LGBT accolade to be named after an openly bisexual person.
The great tragedy of Howard’s untimely death at 58 is that she never got to see the landmark Supreme Court decision in June 2015, in which gay marriage was legalised in the United States – a moment that she worked so tirelessly for. Everyone around the world owes her a debt of gratitude for how she was able to impact our culture to the place it is today, where the LGBT community is closer to enjoying equal rights than ever before.
Bayard Rustin was an LGBT rights activist who is actually better known for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. He played an instrumental role in shaping Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership qualities and commitment to non-violence. Sadly, because he was a gay man in his time, most of his work, which included the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Freedom Rides, was done behind the scenes due to stigma. Can you imagine fighting for the rights of people who don’t believe in yours? In the 1980s, Rustin spent more time in the public eye as an advocate for the gay rights movement, giving numerous speeches as an activist at events that went a long way towards breaking down the stigma he faced his entire life. He died in 1987 while on a humanitarian mission in Haiti.
What would this list be without Gandalf? For the first 30 years of his career, McKellen would tell his fellow actors that he was gay, but he didn’t reveal it publicly until 1988, where he spoke out against the controversial Section 28 of the Local Government Bill, which would prohibit local authorities in Britain from promoting homosexuality. Despite the risks that it posed to his career. While his efforts to prevent Section 28 from making it through British parliament – although it was never enacted in Northern Ireland. Following that, however, McKellen continued to involve himself in politics and various movements, becoming one of the iconic LGBT rights activists to emerge from the entertainment industry.
Elton John first came out publicly as bisexual in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1972, but in another Rolling Stone interview 22 years later, he said that he was “quite comfortable about being gay”. He was among the first group of same-sex partners in the UK to enter a civil union after the Civil Partnership Act was enforced in 2005 and he married David Furnish.
However, the legendary songwriter’s biggest achievements as one of the iconic LGBT rights activists lies less in the bravery that he’s shown over the years to fight against prejudicial culture, but more in his work with his role in the movement to create awareness, fund research and end stigmas surrounding AIDS. In the 1980s, he lost a plethora of friends to the mysterious STD that was spreading like wildfire at the time, most notably Freddie Mercury and Ryan White, and worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Stephen Fry, Elizabeth Hurley, and George Michael to raise millions of Pounds for causes that helped us gain a more thorough understanding of HIV and how to prevent it.
Just to add a little South African* flavour to our list, Zackie Achmat is possibly the most recognisable LGBT rights activist in the country. His work in both activism and the film industry is not limited to LGBT rights and he took part in the 1976 Student Protests and was imprisoned several times during his youth, before joining the ANC in 1980 where he worked to take down the system of Apartheid in South Africa. But it was only after South Africa held its first democratic elections that Achmat’s activism became truly prominent.
He co-founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in 1994 and was actively involved in ensuring that the new South African Constitution would protect the rights of gays and lesbians. He also played a big role in decriminalising sodomy, before starting the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an HIV/AIDS activist organisation that campaigns for access to antiretroviral drugs in 1998. Achmat announced that he was HIV positive at the time and vowed not to take his antiretrovirals until they were accessible to all. he vigorously opposed the HIV/AIDS denialism promoted by former President Thabo Mbeki and other senior ANC members and in 2004 he withdrew his ANC membership under Mbeki’s leadership.
*As a side note, South African Pride month actually takes place in October for a number of reasons, but nothing’s stopping us from celebrating twice!
Hopefully you enjoyed our list of iconic LGBT rights activists, but there are so many other incredible figures out there that we couldn’t fit onto our list. Let us know in the comments below who you consider the most iconic LGBT activists.