“Through knowledge (science) to justice.”
This quote is from Magnus Hirschfeld, who is featured in this article, among others. We have often written about how powerful knowledge can be and is. A lot can be achieved through education. In this article, we want to introduce you to some important personalities of the queer community. We will focus on historical figures and describe their lives and work. We hope to raise awareness of what queer lives can look like then and now.
1. Audre Lorde
Poet, author, feminist, lesbian, black woman, mother and cancer survivor, Prof. Audre Geraldine Lorde has been described. She was born in New York in the spring of 1934. Early in her life, she devoted herself to the written word and became the first Black woman to be accepted into a gifted high school. After her Master’s degree, she worked as a librarian in New York. Privately, she was deeply involved in feminism, homosexuality as well as racism and was a member of the respective communities. However, she was not really welcome in any community due to multiple discrimination. She dealt with the injustice caused by multiple discrimination in many different writings, for example in her book of poems The First Cities (1968), with which she became famous. In 1962, she married a white, gay man and had two children with him. Six years later, the marriage ended in divorce, as she met her future life partner Dr. Frances Louise Clayton, a white, lesbian psychologist. In 1978, Audre contracted breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. She also processed these experiences in a book called “The Cancer Journals”. With these experiences, she also turned her political focus to Ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities by measuring people by certain abilities – walking, seeing, interacting socially – and reducing them to their impairment). Audre Lorde argued that different dimensions such as sexuality, gender, race and health are all interwoven and thus did the groundwork for intersectional feminism. In 1992, she lost her battle with cancer. She had and still has a great influence on the Afro-diasporic movement and remains well known for her work and impact.
2. Petra Gall
Petra Gall was active in the lesbian scene that formed in the GDR in the 1980s. She wanted to put an end to the decades of invisibility of lesbian life and cultivated contacts also in the West German lesbian scene. The Berlin photographer was born in Saarland in 1955 and moved to West Berlin after studying history, politics and Slavic studies. In the 80s and 90s, Petra mainly photographed the Berlin women* and lesbian scene. But her repertoire also included music and travel photography. The artist satisfied her interest in East Germany and Eastern Europe with her motorbike journeys, on which she travelled to Berlin, St. Petersburg and Moscow, among other places. On these trips, she photographed the first CSD in St. Petersburg, for example. Petra Gall published a lesbian calendar in 1982 and 1983, the “ATROPiN-Frauen-foto-zeitung” and a motorbike travel guide for East Germany. After a long illness, the artist and activist passed away in 2018. With her work, she ensured the visibility and memory of lesbian culture.
3. Angie Xtravaganza
At a time when AIDS, violence, poverty and queer hostility were commonplace, Angie Xtravaganza radiated determination and calm. She grew up in the Bronx in New York until the age of 13, when she ran away due to domestic violence. At birth, she was assigned the male* gender, but she identified as a woman. At a young age, she nurtured her chosen family and was always called “Ma” (mother) by everyone. Like her, her “children” had either run away from home or were outcasts because of their identity. At the age of 16, Angie went to her first balls and tried her hand at drag. In 1982, she then founded the house Xtravaganza and took on the role of house mother. In the ballroom scene, this house was the first to have mainly Latino family members. This drew attention to racism in the scene and Latin American people were part of the ballroom thanks to her efforts. Angie Xtravaganza is still one of the most important personalities of the ballroom scene today. Her iconic phrase: “Don’t let the dress fool you!” (Don’t let the dresses fool you!) describes her fierce nature and her style. Popularised by the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, she died of AIDS-related liver disease at only 28. But the house she founded continues to be an active part of New York culture.
4. Brenda Howard
Brenda Howard was often called the “Mother of Pride”. Raised in the Bronx in the 1940s, she became interested in the peace movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. This was followed by her involvement in the women’s* movement and for gay rights. She received her title “Mother of Pride” for two reasons: First, she coined the term Pride for the LQBTQIA+ community, and second, she coordinated the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and the various rallies associated with it. She had the idea of arranging a week-long series of events around Pride and from this came the world-renowned Pride Month. Brenda advocated for the rights of the queer community and was involved in various activism: inside groups. In 2005, Howard died of colon cancer during Pride Week on 28 June. It is thanks to her ideas and dedication that the Stonewall riots are remembered in a positive way.
5. Frida Kahlo
One of the most famous female artists is Frida Kahlo. She was born in Mexico in 1907. Her parents were also artists and had three daughters in addition to Frida. Frida Kahlo’s life was marked by her illnesses; among other things, she was diagnosed with a malformation of the spine. One consequence was a shorter and thinner leg. In 1922, Frida began her medical studies at the renowned Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico and was one of the first women* there. Later in 1925, she suffered a serious bus accident that resulted in lifelong pain and hospitalisation. She therefore had to abandon her studies and from then on devoted herself intensively to art. In the following years, she created numerous self-portraits in which she reflected her emotional and physical condition. But she was also politically active and joined the Communist Party in her mid-twenties. Although Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera, she had several lovers towards the end of her marriage. In her paintings, not only her love affairs with men* and women* became visible, but also her playing with gender stereotypes. Frida not only dressed in women’s clothing, but also engaged in “cross-dressing”, i.e. mixing female* and male* classified clothing. Frida Kahlo was only 47 years old and probably died of a pulmonary embolism in her home. To call her a Mexican artist, a female* artist or even a queer artist does not do her justice – she spent her life playing with ideas of identity and rejecting the labels ascribed to her.
6. Harvey Milk
You might already know the name Harvey Milk from our article “Many bright colours – the short portrait of Pride flags”. He was the first out politician to be elected to office in the United States. Born in 1930, he grew up in a Jewish family in New York. Harvey switched between different jobs and eventually opened a camera shop in San Francisco with his then partner Scott Smith. Dissatisfied with politics, Milk decided to run for city council himself. After his third attempt, Harvey Milk was elected and worked closely with Mayor George Moscone. Harvey was particularly committed to gay rights. Harvey Milk believed that government should represent the interests of individuals, not just the interests of the city, and ensure equality for all citizens while providing needed services. After only 10 months in office, Milk and Moscone were assassinated by fellow activist Dan With. San Francisco was shaken and the whole city mourned. The murderer, however, received only seven years in prison, as his lawyer pleaded diminished sanity.
7. Billie Jean King
The world-famous tennis player Billie Jean King grew up in California in 1943 and learned the sport early as a young girl. Already in her teens, she developed a sense of injustice and campaigned for equality in sport. She was a top tennis player, but received the most attention when former world champion Bobby Riggs claimed women*s tennis was inferior and that he could easily beat any female player. King then took up the challenge and defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973 in a highly publicized match that was dubbed the “battle of the sexes”, making a strong statement. Feminism and civil rights continued to be important concerns for Billie Jean throughout the rest of her career. In 1981, she was outed in a court case by her former secretary and lover. It took King a long time to come out publicly about her homosexuality, but today she speaks openly about it and is a strong advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights.
8. Hilde Radusch
Despite or perhaps because of her conservative upbringing, Hilde Radusch was a highly political woman. Hildegard Auguste Adelaide Marie Radusch was born in Stettin in 1903. In her parents’ bourgeois conservative household, she experienced the beginning of the First World War. Hilde was never comfortable with the role of housewife and wife, but rather with intellectual challenges, art, philosophy and religion. In general, she never felt like a woman*, “but don’t ask me what else”, as she would say about herself in later years. In Berlin, she took a job as a telephone operator and was very successful there in the works council. In the company she met and fell in love with her first partner. Politically, she became involved in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). She observed the first women’s movement with interest, but did not actively participate. When the National Socialists came to power, Hilde Radusch was taken into protective custody for six months on 6 April 1933 because of her political career in the Communist Party. After she was released, she amicably separated from her first partner in order to protect both of them. In 1939 Hilde met her neighbour Else Klopsch, also known as Eddy. The two women fell in love and became lifelong partners. In the self-founded Lothringer Küche, the two women supported persecuted people in Berlin by donating food. Due to the constant surveillance and their semi-illegal lunch table, the two built a summerhouse in the Berlin countryside as a secret second home in the summer of 1943. In 1944 there was a wave of arrests and all the SPD, Centre Party and KPD functionaries who were at liberty were arrested. Hilde and Eddy were able to escape to their safe house thanks to a warning. Without the vital ration cards, the two almost starved to death. Hilde processed her experiences in a war diary, which is still one of the most important documents of the time. After the end of the war, the couple immediately participated in the reconstruction of Germany despite their poor condition. Due to the years of hunger, the two could only pursue short-term occupations as they struggled with secondary illnesses. Eddy died in 1960. Hilde was intensively involved with the new women’s* movement and exchanged ideas with younger women*. With the help of some friends, Hilde Radusch published the first magazine for same-sex loving women*, “UKZ – Unsere kleine Zeitung”. Hilde Radusch was a driving force of the lesbian and women’s movement until her death in 1994.
9. Leslie Cheung
Leslie Cheung was one of Hong Kong’s most famous pop stars and his life is still the subject of much speculation. Before Leslie came out, many assumptions were made about his sexuality. When he finally came out as bisexual, it was often ignored and he was categorised as loving the same sex. Born in Hong Kong in 1956, he had a difficult childhood. At the age of 12, he was sent to England by his parents, where he chose the gender-neutral name Leslie. Due to an illness of his father, he returned to Hong Kong. In 1977, Leslie Cheung took part in a music competition and came second. His breakthrough came in 1982, when his single “Monica” was the best-selling single in Hong Kong history. After this musical success, he dedicated himself to the world of film and became successful there as well. Leslie identified strongly as androgynous and often wore clothes that could be associated with different genders. He rejected the traditional image of masculinity* and to this day there is no clear indication of his gender identity. As one of Hong Kong’s first queer actors:ing, his works were often not shown and heavily criticised. In 2003, Cheung died by suicide at the age of 46 due to his lifelong depression. After his passing, he was honoured several times and remained in the public’s memory.
10. Sylvia Rivera
The American activist and fighter of the Stonewall Riots Sylvia Rivera was born in 1951 and was assigned the male* gender. The daughter of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents in New York, she was orphaned at the age of three and living on the streets by the age of eleven. From an early age, she played with gender identities, put on dresses and make-up. On the streets of New York, she ensured her survival with child prostitution. Sylvia was saved by drag queens, including her later good friend Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia quickly identified herself as a drag queen and later as transgender, but she rejected labels. Sylvia Rivera stood up for the rights of marginalised groups, especially for the rights of BIPoC, women* and for the peace movement. However, the rights of trans* people remained her heart’s issue. At the age of 17, she was at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots. Thus, she was one of the driving forces behind gay liberation. In the wake of the founding of the Gay Liberation Front, Rivera co-founded the group STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Marsha P. Johnson in 1970, which worked to support and empower gay, trans and nonbinary youth. After same-sex lovers achieved their first successes, Sylvia was excluded/cast out by the community because of her gender identity. Frustrated by the behaviour of the queer community, she turned her back on activism for 20 years. In the mid-1990s, she fought again for same-sex lovers to marry and for LGBTQIA+ people to be allowed into the army. In 2002, the icon died of liver cancer in New York.
11. Magnus Hirschfeld
Born into a Jewish family in 1868 in what is now Poland, Hirschfeld studied medicine and earned his doctorate in Berlin. The doctor and sexologist was an early advocate for the rights of same-sex lovers and trans* people. In 1897, he founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee; the first organisation to campaign for the rights of same-sex lovers and for the repeal of Paragraph 175. In 1919, Magnus opened the Institute for Sexual Research, which was to become the worldwide centre for sexual and gender research. A wide range of counselling services was provided there, and research was carried out on and with people of different sexual and gender orientations. The centre was looted and destroyed by the National Socialists. Magnus himself left Germany and stayed in other countries throughout his life. His commitment to the LGBTQIA* community in these years amounted to various academic papers. Magnus Hirschfeld died unexpectedly in 1935.
12. Lili Elbe
Lili Elbe or Lili Elvenes was the first trans* woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Born in Denmark in 1882, the painter was assigned the male* gender at birth. Even as a child, Lili was often mistaken for a girl because of her long curls and lanky appearance. At the age of 19, Lili Elbe was able to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Art after graduating from high school. There she also met her wife Gerda and the two married shortly after their first meeting. The two travelled a lot together and Lili could already be found in Gerda’s early paintings. A few years before her operation, Lili took this first name. The surname Elbe was added during her first gender reassignment surgery to always remind her of Dresden, the place where she was given a new life. The first, preparatory operation was performed on Lili Elbe in 1930 at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research. 21 days later, the second gender reassignment surgery was performed at the Frauen*klinik Dresden. After some time among friends and acquaintances, Lili Elbe decided to have the final operation. The planned uterus transplant did not go well and she died in the Dresden Women’s* Clinic in 1931, although the exact cause of death could not be fully clarified. The Danish Girl” was made into a film. After renewed media attention, her grave was honored with a reconstructed gravestone at Dresden’s Trinitatisf Cemetery.
13. Gilbert Baker
Political activist, designer, and flag maker Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag in 1978. In the following years, his creation was recognized worldwide as the universal symbol of the LBGTQIA+ movement. In our blog article “Many bright colors – the short portrait of Pride flags” you can read the more detailed background of his artwork as well as the development of the flags until today. Gilbert grew up and was born in 1951 in the conservative state of Kansas. He was passionate about art and fashion from an early age, but this quickly rubbed him the wrong way. In the US army, he was confronted with homophobia on a massive scale. When he was stationed as a medic in San Francisco, he flourished in culture. Thanks to the post-Stonewall era, he was able to live openly as a same-sex-loving man. Using his artistic skills, he became involved in the anti-war and pro-same-sex loving marches. He designed various banners and flags. His breakthrough, however, came with the world-famous rainbow flag he was commissioned to make by Harvey Milk. The flag was to become the new symbol for the lesbian and gay movement. He then received several commissions and his popularity grew steadily. He was active at various rallies and marches, spoke to politicians and campaigned for marginalized groups. In 2017, Gilbert Baker passed away in his sleep at home. Today, the refusal to protect the design of the flag offers people the chance to continue using the design and open it up to the whole community.
14. Marsha P. Johnson
The “Queen Mother” Marsha P. Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1945. After graduating from high school, however, she moved to New York in 1966, where she was able to be openly queer for the first time. Despite frequent homelessness, being a sex worker and the hostility that came with it, she was known for her outgoing, exuberant personality and became a known quantity among the drag queens and trans* women on Christopher Street. She was at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots and the myth that she threw the glass that started the riots still circulates today. You can read more about the history of the Stonewall Riots here. After Stonewall, Johnson and her close friend Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR was a group for homeless, gay, non-binary and transgender youth of color, who provided a flat for them to live in together. So that their “children” didn’t have to go out on the streets themselves to earn money with sex work, Sylvia and Marsha did that and thus financed their self-proclaimed family. Marsha fought for LGBTQIA+ rights all her life and later joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to advocate for people with AIDS. ACT UP is an advocacy group with the aim of bringing the issue of AIDS to the attention of the media and thus politicians through public actions (e.g. protests, sit-in blockades, providing visual material, …). In 1992 at the age of 46, her body was found in the Hudson River. The police considered it a suicide and refused to investigate the death further, despite eyewitnesses whose reports pointed to murder. Almost over 20 years after her death, she is receiving public recognition. In 2019, for example, she received a memorial or was honored as a grand marshal of the New York Pride March.
15. Frieda Belifante
The Dutch cellist, conductor and resistance fighter against National Socialism was born into a very musical family in 1904. At the age of 17, she took up various leading positions in the world of music. In 1937, Frida Belifante was married to a man for six years but declared from the beginning that she was a lesbian. While she did not care about the public’s opinion regarding her sexuality, she protected herself from public ostracism by keeping her same-sex relationships as secret as possible. She was the first woman in Europe to conduct a professional orchestra. Even after this arrangement, she was very successful with her music career. It was only with National Socialism that her work was interrupted. She joined the resistance movement early on and produced forged documents for Dutch Jews and Jewish women. To prevent the National Socialists from checking the forged documents against public records, she bombed the Residents’ Registration Office in Amsterdam with her resistance group. In the process, 800,000 Jewish and non-Jewish identity cards were destroyed. The individual members of the group were subsequently arrested and executed. Belifante disguised herself as a man* for the next three months to avoid detection. She fled on foot to Switzerland and only returned home after the war. In the summer of 1947, she went to the United States. She settled in California, where she quickly became a sought-after cellist and music teacher. She continued to teach at her self-founded school into her old age. Frieda Belinfante died of cancer on 5 March 1995 at the age of 90.
16. Klaus und Erika Mann
Erika was born in 1905, and Klaus a year later. The two children of the famous German writer Thomas Mann also wrote with great enthusiasm. Like his father, Klaus was homosexual and Erika bisexual, but unlike Thomas Mann, they lived out their sexuality openly. Because of their left-wing political views and anti-fascist commitment, Klaus and Erika Mann were deprived of their citizenship by the National Socialists in 1935 and 1937. Fortunately, they were both outside Germany at the time. Together with others, the siblings published the anti-fascist literary journal “Die Sammlung”. In 1938 they moved to Spain to report on the civil war and published several anti-fascist books. In the USA, the Manns educated people about the crimes of National Socialism. However, the siblings were subject to constant surveillance by the FBI there due to brutal anti-communism and homophobia. Klaus Mann succumbed to his depression in 1949. Erika could not cope with her brother’s death, withdrew from politics and from then on looked after her father until she died in 1969.
17. Josefine Baker
Josephine Baker became a star in France as a dancer, singer, and actress. The black activist was born and raised in the United States in impoverished conditions. In order to have money for food, she danced on street corners and thus got her first job in a variety show at the age of 15. At 19, she traveled to Paris and immediately achieved success with her banana skirt and provocative dances. She was adored and accepted in France. She felt much more comfortable in her adopted homeland than in the USA. In 1937, she then acquired French citizenship and became a spy for the French government at the outbreak of World War II. Using her charm, she gathered information from German officials at parties. After the war, Baker became heavily involved in activism, including in the civil rights movement in the USA. She wrote several articles on racism and also gave lectures on the topic. She referred to her 12 children as the “Rainbow Tribe” since Josephine had adopted them from around the world. It was unprecedented at the time to see a black woman adopting white children. Aside from her four marriages, her life was marked by a series of affairs with women, including Frida Kahlo, although she kept these relationships secret. The icon passed away a few days after her 50th birthday.
This was only a small overview of historical personalities of the queer community. Thanks to these pioneers, much has been achieved and today’s queer community has been shaped. They have set processes in motion that are still benefiting us today. It was important for us to show that we are all fundamentally different, but that despite and precisely because of our differences we can stand together for one cause, for the queer community. And it’s about the people who had experiences before us that influenced a society they knew they didn’t belong to.
If you are interested in the topic of queer biographies, the Queerportraits.com site will provide you with more short biographies of individuals.
Do you have any comments or questions? Feel free to write us a comment!