Being out or coming out in public is not an easy thing to do. Society has been (and still can be) unkind to people who identify as homosexual. It was through the work of brave, proud and heroic gay men that we can openly celebrate the LBGT community and advocated gay rights.
October is LGBT history month in the US and Canada, so it’s fitting that we hear about some of the trailblazers who have led the fight for civil rights. Without the advocacy of certain men, society would look a little less rainbow.
Here is a handful of gay men that have broken down barriers, made change and created room for more gay men to be represented in different areas of society.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825- 1895)
If Karl Heinrich Ulrichs had a resume or a LinkedIn in 2019, his previous job titles would be listed as lawyer, journalist and author. However, this German man was no ordinary civil servant, he is thought to be the first person to openly talk about their homosexuality in public.
Karl was forced out of his job due to his sexuality in 1854, which was when he began writing. His work is believed to be the first “scientific” theory on homosexuality, openly speaking about different sexual orientations. His advocacy grew when he “came out” in public (ditching his writing pseudonym “Numa Numantius”) defending queer identities, questioned gender binaries, and fought for repealing anti-homosexuality laws.
In total, he wrote 12 volumes of essays that are integral to the beginning of the gay rights movement and is hailed as a pioneer for LBGT activism.
Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987)
Bayard Rustin was not only an American activist but was the chief organiser of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Throughout his life, he was open about his homosexuality, even in his work fighting against racial discrimination, gay rights, and civil rights. He was arrested for publicly engaging in homosexual activity and civil disobedience, yet never hid who he was and worked harder for equality for all. He was known for organising human rights protests, using his own model of non-violence and socialism.
Bayard was a leader that refused to be closeted and set a great example of being proud of your identity and using it to create change in society.
James Baldwin (1924 – 1987)
James Baldwin explored the topics of race, class and sexuality in his work as a novelist, essayist and playwright.
Through his own observations, he shed light on the dark parts of society and human behaviour, using the context of his religious upbringing and the consequences of racism and segregation that he experienced as an African American man. James also wrote plays that have been successful on Broadway. He channelled his artistic talent to dissect race and sexuality in the social context and encouraged others to challenge their social norms.
His work has extended past the civil rights movement of his lifetime and is still in use by the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Harvey Milk (1930 – 1978)
While Harvey Milk was not the first LGBT person to be elected into public office, he was one of America’s first openly gay politicians.
He won a seat on the San Francisco City Council Board in 1977 and used that platform to introduce the first LGBTQ+ rights ordinance into the city, where people were banned from discriminating based on sexual orientation in housing, public accommodations and employment. He had not always been so open about his sexuality and had not always been successful in politics, having tried to run for office multiple before his success in 1977.
Harvey’s career was cut short just 11 months into his term when he was assassinated, but his mark on the American political system was reversible and unforgettable.
An important part of LGBT history is the HIV and AIDS epidemic and Larry Kramer’s life is intertwined within that. He is an author, playwright, producer, but most notably a public health advocate as he is HIV positive and actively fights for improved HIV healthcare and removing stigma around HIV.
He launched the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and cofounded the political activism group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987, while also writing the screenplay for the 1969 film Women in Love, writing the play The Normal Heart and his novel Faggots. Whatever the work Larry is doing, it centres on exposing government treatment of the gay community, and how that negatively impacted their health struggles with HIV and AIDS.
Larry continues to use his voice to advocate for better access and pricing for drugs, public health funding, increased HIV testing, improved health knowledge and gay rights.
Sir Elton John is one the 20th century’s biggest musical icons. He is a British singer, pianist and composer that sold more than 300 million records, had more than fifty Top 40 hits, 7 consecutive Number 1 US albums and for 31 consecutive years, had at least 1 song in the Billboard Hot 100 (1970-2000).
Initially coming out in 1976 in Rolling Stone Magazine as a bisexual, he then was quoted again in that magazine in 1992 as being gay. Apart from incredible success in the music, film and theatre industries, Elton founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation, advocated for same-sex marriage in the UK, and spoke out against Russian gay propaganda law.
Sir Elton John has shown that gay men can make a significant impact in the musical industry and use that platform to advocate for LGBT rights and equality.
There was a time where homosexuality was not a topic linked with NFL, so it was ground-breaking when Michael Sam was the first publicly gay American football player to be drafted into the NFL.
He came out in while playing for the University of Missouri and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2014, playing for the Dallas Cowboys as well before moving to the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. Michael retired from professional football in 2015, and now works within activism as a motivational speaker and author.
He has spoken about his sexuality affecting his draft status and subsequently his athletic career, but Michael’s story has opened doors for LGBT professional athletes to be open. Stigma surrounding around the inclusion of the LGBT community in sport is being broken down because of his precedent.
Work for gay activists is still not finished. There have been many men who have fought this fight and there will be many more. Some of these men include Frank Kameny, Alan Turing, Miss J Alexander and Billy Porter.
It is because of the work of men like and that men today have role models. These men were proud of their sexuality and fought for their right to be open about it. The future is more same-sex attracted men to change history and make the world a more welcoming, accepting and safe place for the LGBT community.