LGBTQ Icons: A Spotlight for Pride Month
In honor of Pride month, we're celebrating the figures who had a tremendous impact in advancing LGBTQ rights and advocacy. Each week for the month of June, we're sharing one major figure in LGBTQ history with our team in the weekly team huddle—so we thought it'd be fun to share with all of you, too.
At Ground Up, we provide job skills and training to womxn overcoming adversity—womxn who are trying to get back on their feet but are unable to find work, often due to lack of stable housing, lack of family support, mental health issues, and/or major gaps in their resumes. LGBTQ folx face more barriers than most and are thus one of the key populations we serve. Educating our team (and ourselves) on the history of Pride and LGBTQ rights is one small step towards creating more empathy, awareness, and support.
Read on below to learn about 4 major icons, as well as some incredible organizations you can donate to or support this month! (Shout-out to our amazing ops / marketing associate Hayley for her research and advocacy on this!)
1. Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha was a proud Black Queer advocate and activist, someone who was known for her big smile and her clever way with words - when people asked what her middle initial stood for, she would respond, “Pay it no Mind”. She was assigned male at birth, but knew from a very young age that dresses best suited her. Right after her high school graduation, she moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothes. Marsha’s struggle with homelessness motivated her to speak up for homeless LGBTQ youth, who are at twice the risk of homelessness, and later open a shelter for transgender youth with her friend Sylvia Rivera.
A big turning point for the LGBTQ community and Marsha P. Johnson herself was the Stonewall Inn resistance; this riot represented finally fighting back against the violent oppression her community was facing on a daily basis, and she became well known for being a part of it and celebrating its legacy in early Pride events. Johnson was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1990, and spent the last two years of her life speaking out against the stigma and isolation faced by HIV patients. She has left a legacy of courageous resistance and the power of community, and is quoted as saying that her goal was “to see gay people liberated and free and to have equal rights that other people have in America.”
2. Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)
Sylvia Rivera was a fierce champion for the rights of LGBTQ people since her teenage years. Already having protested in the Black Liberation and peace movements, she was on the frontlines of the Stonewall Inn resistance at the age of 17. Rivera felt energized by the action her community was taking. Her passion kept her protesting, even when her identity as a transgender woman meant that she was silenced by the main gay rights leaders of the time. Rivera co-founded STAR with Marsha P. Johnson, a group meant to provide a safe place for transgender people in New York City, something desperately needed. At the young age of 19, Rivera found herself becoming a mother to young people in need of shelter and support - young people just like her who had nowhere else to go.
Rivera struggled with her mental health, once attempting to take her own life before Marsha P. Johnson intervened and got her help. It has been well documented that many LGBTQ individuals, especially young people, struggle with thoughts of suicide, and Rivera’s story can help shed a light on that. Sylvia chose to leave activism and New York City for several years until the tragic death of Marsha P. Johnson in 1992. Rivera then returned to the city and to the fight for rights. She left the world with a legacy of fighting for justice, and The Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established on the idea that “all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.”
3. Barbara Gittings (1932-2007)
Barbara Gittings is considered by many to be the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement. She knew what persecution for her identity felt like as early as high school, when a teacher told her she likely didn’t get into the National Honor Society due to her “homosexual inclinations.” Books became a way for Barbara to escape and feel a sense of comfort in a world that labeled her as undesirable. Barbara joined the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the USA, in 1956, going on to organize their first East Coast chapter in NYC in 1958. From then on, Barbara was enlisting activists from across the country to hold demonstrations for equal rights.
Gittings worked with other leaders to organize a march on the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Inn resistance; the walk from Greenwich Village to Central Park is regarded as the first Pride parade in New York City. She and her fellow activists then fought for years with the American Psychiatric Association to get homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which they did in 1973. This legitimized homosexuality as something that could no longer be deemed a mental illness.
Barbara’s love of books continued throughout her life, and she worked with the American Library Association on their Gay Task Force to promote the protection of gay literature. This is always important, as representation in books and media in general helps marginalized groups feel validated, heard, and seen. “Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.” - Barbara Gittings
4. Darcelle or Walter Willard Cole (1930-2023)
Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle, was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. Cole was discharged from the military in the 1950s. He wanted to find a way to spend his new $5,000, and on an impulse, he decided on buying a coffee shop. From there, Cole would be introduced to local artists and host musical artists in the emerging acid rock movement. Later, a jazz basement was opened in that coffeehouse, further nurturing a space for creative expression. After selling this first venture into business, Cole would open what became Darcelle’s XV.
In 1969, Cole made a difficult decision to live his truth, and came out as a gay man. Around this time, his drag alter ego of Darcelle emerged. Darcelle was glamorous and full of wit, attracting people to her club with her shining personality. In the 1990s, the club was officially recognized as the oldest female impersonator cabaret. Darcelle herself was given the title of the oldest working drag queen, honored in many local events and a biographical play, and her club was added to the National Register of Historic Places. She also wrote an autobiography, Just Call Me Darcelle. Darcelle remains a local legend, and emphasized how important it is to find an accepting community; as she said in her autobiography, “If you’re not happy with your family, with your friends, with your job, where you live, the city you’re in, move on. Find the place where it all works for you. Keep looking.”Organizations to Support
If you’d like to learn more about supporting the LGBTQ community, visit these websites to get involved and donate:
- The Center is a New York-based organization that encourages members of the LGBTQ+ community to love themselves and provides support through health and wellness programs.
- The Trevor Project’s mission is to end suicide among young members of the LGBTQ+ community. The organization helps connect youth with peers, counselors, and other resources.
- CenterLink is an international nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen and support LGBTQ+ community centers.
- Pride Northwest puts on Portland Pride every year! Their mission is to celebrate LGBTQ people and “assist in the education of all people through the development of activities that showcase the history, accomplishments, and talents of these communities.”
All sources here:
- Source for Marsha P. Johnson’s bio
- Source for Sylvia Rivera’s bio
- Source for Barbara Gittings’s bio
- Source for Walter Cole/Darcelle’s bio
- Source for information on LGBTQ youth suicide
- Source for LGBTQ youth homelessness: Morton, M. H., Samuels, G. M., Dworsky, A., & Patel, S. (2018). Missed opportunities: LGBTQ youth homelessness in America. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.