On International Women’s Day, We Celebrate Trailblazing LGBTQ Women

By Shane Stahl • March 8, 2018 • 10:25 am

This year, March 8 marks the annual International Women’s Day, a time to reflect on the contributions both personal and professional that women across the world have made in their communities; March itself is also designated as International Women’s Month.

In honor of this day, Freedom For All Americans highlights and celebrates LGBTQ women who have worked for the betterment of the community, and along the way helped make history and open doors for those who follow them. Take a look at just ten of the millions of LGBTQ women who have made an impact.

TAMMY BALDWIN

“There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are.” – Tammy Baldwin

Currently serving as the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin has had a long and storied political career dating back to 1986 and an election to the Dane County Board of Supervisors.

An alum of both Smith College and University of Wisconsin Law School, Baldwin served until 1994 on the Board of Supervisors. In 1992, Baldwin ran to represent Wisconsin’s 78th Assembly District, and won by a vote of 59%-23%-17% among three candidates. During her initial race, Baldwin was one of only six openly gay candidates running for public office nationwide, and would become the first openly gay legislator in Wisconsin; she would win re-election in 1994 and 1996.  

With the retirement of federal Rep. Scott Klug in 1998, Baldwin made a run for his seat, and won with 53% of the vote in the general elections. Baldwin’s victory made her the first woman to be elected to federal office from Wisconsin, as well as the first openly gay member of the House of Representatives; she would ultimately serve 7 terms in the House.

In 2012, Baldwin ran for an open U.S. Senate seat, facing former governor Tommy Thompson in the election; she would win with just over 51% of the vote. Baldwin currently sits on the Committee on Appropriations, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Baldwin will run for reelection in the 2018 general election.

MARGARET CHO

“Together we are more than the sum of our parts. In union, in communion, in joining hands, we conquer all, because we have love on our side.” — Margaret Cho

Active in stand–up comedy since the early 1990’s, Margaret Cho brought the first ever sitcom centered around an Asian-American family, All-American Girl, to television. However, the show was canceled after only two seasons, and as a result Cho fell into a deep depression and began abusing drugs and alcohol.

Eventually, she was able to regain sobriety, and channeled her anger and her sadness into one of the most critically-acclaimed comedy specials in history, I’m the One That I Want. Since then, Cho has produced and starred in 5 more comedy specials and released 8 albums, four of which saw her nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album.

Cho has been open about her bisexuality and queerness since her landmark special, and has used it as the basis for much of her material. An outspoken and fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community, she has been honored by GLAAD, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU, and continues to tour throughout the world.

LAVERNE COX

“Believing you are unworthy of love and belonging — that who you are authentically is a sin or is wrong — is deadly. Who you are is beautiful and amazing.” – Laverne Cox

A graduate of Marymount Manhattan College in New York, transgender actor Laverne Cox first appeared on television in 2009 on the reality series I Want to Work For Diddy. On the show, Cox was open about her transition and warmly accepted by her fellow contestants. In 2010, she accepted a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Reality Program on behalf of the show. This led VH-1 to approach Cox about show ideas, eventually leading to the makeover television series TRANSform Me, which made Cox the first African-American transgender person to produce and star in her own TV show.

In 2013, Cox began her role on the critically-acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black, starring as Sophia Burset. For her role, Laverne has been nominated for two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, making her the first openly transgender person nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in an acting category.

In addition to her acting, Cox has been an outspoken advocate for the transgender community, and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine for the feature story “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Cox has attempted to bring focus specifically to the issues and injustices faced by transgender women of color,

ELLEN DEGENERES

“Here are the values that I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values.” – Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres first came to prominence in 1986 when she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, in the process becoming the first female comedian ever invited over to Carson’s desk for a post-set interview.

In 1994, DeGeneres’ self-titled sitcom, Ellen, began its four year run on the ABC Network, reaching the height of its popularity in 1997. That same year, DeGeneres and her sitcom character Ellen Morgan came out as gay in “The Puppy Episode,” one of the highest-rated episodes of the show. The series returned for a fifth season but experienced falling ratings due to ABC’s cutting back on promoting the show, and was ultimately canceled in 1998.

Following the cancellation, DeGeneres faced considerable backlash in the entertainment industry, and said she was not able to work until 2001. In 2003, DeGeneres voiced the character of Dory in the Pixar film Finding Nemo, creating renewed interest in her career. Following a lauded stand-up special on HBO, she debuted on daytime television with The Ellen DeGeneres Show, consistently one of the highest-rated talk shows in the country, and which has won over 25 Daytime Emmy Awards.

In 2008, after the repeal of California’s anti-same sex marriage ban, Degeneres married her wife Portia de Rossi, a fellow actress and humanitarian.

MARSHA P. JOHNSON

“No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” – Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was an African-American gay liberation activist and transgender woman, known as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, and one of the most prominent figures in the Stonewall riots of 1969.

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred. Many identify Johnson as being one of the first to fight back in the clashes with the police during the uprising. On the first night, Johnson threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar screaming, “I got my civil rights,” while on the second night, she dropped a heavy object into the windshield of a police car.

Following Stonewall, Johnson became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front with friend Sylvia Rivera; subsequently, the two became a visible presence at LGBTQ liberation marches and demonstrations. In the 1980s, Johnson became actively involved in the advocacy group ACT UP, formed to combat the AIDS epidemic.

In 1992, Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River, with the death initially being ruled a suicide, even though there were indications of homicide. In 2012, transgender activist Mariah Lopez successfully petitioned the NYPD to reopen the case as a homicide. In 2017, the documentary The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson brought new attention to Johnson and her role as a key figure in the LGBTQ rights movement.

CHRISTINE JORGENSON

“We didn’t start the sexual revolution, but I think we gave it a good kick in the pants!” – Christine Jorgenson

Christine Jorgenson was the first transgender woman to be widely known in the United States for having gender affirming surgery. 

In 1945, Jorgenson was drafted into the Army for World War II, and after being discharged began to investigate her transgender identity, including gender affirming surgery, which at the time was only available in Europe. Jorgenson intended to go to Sweden for her operation but met a doctor named Christian Hamburger in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jorgenson ultimately decided to work with Dr. Hamburger and began a course of hormone therapy prior to her surgical transition.

The New York Daily News ran a front-page story on December 1, 1952 under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty,” and Jorgenson’s profile was significant upon returning to the U.S. in 1953. The first authorized account of her story was written by Jorgensen herself in a February 1953 issue of The American Weekly, titled “The Story of My Life”. The publicity created a platform for her, and she used it to advocate for transgender people.

In the 1970s and 80s, Jorgenson toured college campuses and other venues speaking about her life experience, in addition to performing in nightclubs and as an actress.  She also became the subject of a fictional biopic in 1970 called The Christine Jorgenson Story. Jorgenson passed away in 1989; subsequently, she was added to the Legacy Walk, an outdoor memorial in Chicago that honors LGBTQ people.

BILLIE JEAN KING

“Ever since that day when I was 11 years old, and I wasn’t allowed in a photo because I wasn’t wearing a tennis skirt, I knew that I wanted to change the sport.” – Billie Jean King

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, Billie Jean King was the most prominent female tennis player in the world, winning 39 Grand Slam titles and becoming the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year.”

Throughout and following her athletic career, King has been a vocal advocate for gender equality, initially focusing on equal pay for women in tennis tournaments. In the early 70’s, King helped found the first ever professional women’s tennis tour, and in 1973 became the President of the of the women’s players’ union, the Women’s Tennis Association.

King is perhaps most recognized for a 1973 televised tennis match known as “The Battle of the Sexes,” where she was matched against Bobby Riggs, who proclaimed loudly that no woman could beat him in a 1-on-1 game. King was victorious, beating Riggs in three sets, bringing new attention and respect to women’s tennis.

Married to Larry King since the 1960’s, Billie Jean was publicly outed in 1981 after being sued by hairdresser Marilyn Barnett for palimony, following Barnett’s disclosure of her and King’s relationship. In 1987, King began a relationship with Ilana Kloss, whom she later married.

King has been the recipient of several honors throughout the years. In 1967, she was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, and in 1990 was highlighted by TIME Magazine as one of the “Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” Perhaps most impressively, in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.

AUDRE LORDE

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was a prominent African-American author, feminist, and civil rights activist. Her poetry is widely acclaimed for technical mastery and emotional expression, and several of her poems express anger and outrage at civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life, largely dealing with issues related to civil rights, feminism, and the exploration of black female identity.      

In 1954, Lorde spent a year as a student at the National University of Mexico. After returning to New York, she attended Hunter College, graduating in 1959. Many of her writings focused on differences between groups of women as well as different self-identities. Her poems were published widely throughout the 60’s. In her second volume of poetry, Cables to Rage, Lorde openly confirmed being a lesbian for the first time.

Lorde’s writings are credited with developing theories widely discussed and analyzed in black feminism, and in 1981, her book The Cancer Journals won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award. From 1991 until her death, she was the New York State Poet Laureate. The Audre Lorde Project, founded in 1994, is a Brooklyn-based organization for LGBT people of color. The organization concentrates on community organizing and radical nonviolent activism around progressive issues within New York City, especially relating to LGBT communities, AIDS and HIV activism, pro-immigrant activism, prison reform, and organizing among youth of color.

SYLVIA RIVERA

“I’m not missing a minute of this. This is the revolution.” – Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was a transgender activist who served as a co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front, and with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, became a key figure in the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.

As someone who suffered from substance abuse and homelessness at different times in her life, Rivera’s advocacy focused on amplifying the experiences of poorer LGBTQ people of color who she felt were being left behind by the larger gay rights movement. Rivera was a vocal advocate for the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act (SONDA), introduced in the New York Assembly in 1971, but which would not pass for 31 years.

Toward the end of her life, Sylvia traveled the country, speaking out for unity among the gay and transgender communities, and encouraging them to fight for their place in history. It was no secret that Rivera was very critical of groups like the Human Rights Campaign, who she felt were ignoring transgender people and communities of color in their mission. At the Millennium March in 2000, she was named “The Mother of All Gay People.”      

Rivera passed away in February, 2002. Named in her honor and established in 2002, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is dedicated “to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.” In 2015, a portrait of Rivera was added to the National Portrait Gallery.

EDITH WINDSOR

“Gay Americans have affected the thinking and feeling [of people] who will come to see us as human beings who live and love as they do.” – Edie Windsor

Edith “Edie” Windsor was an LGBTQ activist and a technology manager at IBM, who served as the plaintiff in the case United States v. Windsor, which successfully overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and was considered a landmark legal victory for the same-sex marriage movement in the United States.

In 1963, Edith met Thea Spyer, a psychologist, in New York City. They began dating in spring 1965 , and by 1967 were engaged. Windsor attempted to put Spyer as a beneficiary on her insurance through IBM, but was denied. Soon after, she left IBM and formed her own company, PC Classics.

In 1977, Thea was diagnosed with debilitating multiple sclerosis; Edith used early retirement to become Thea’s full time caregiver, and the two entered into a domestic partnership in 1993. In 2007, Thea was diagnosed with aortic stenosis and told she had less than a year to live; because same sex marriage was not legal in the United States, the couple traveled to Toronto to be wed.

Upon Thea’s death in February 2009, Windsor became the sole beneficiary and executor of her estate. Because the law did not recognize the validity of their marriage, Edith was required to pay over $300,000 in taxes, whereas if her spousal rights were acknowledged, she would have paid no federal estate taxes.   

Windsor then sought to claim the spousal exemption for estate taxes, but was denied under Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which recognized marriage as only between one man and one woman. In 2010, Windsor filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking a refund because of DOMA’s discriminatory nature. In 2012, a judge found Section 3 unconstitutional, a decision affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals later that year. In March 2013, the case was argued before the Supreme Court, who in June issued a 5-4 decision concurring with the lower courts.

Following her victory, Edie continued her activism, being named Grand Marshal of the New York City Pride Parade in 2013, and received the Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty from the ACLU. Also in 2013, she was runner-up to Pope Francis in TIME Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” On September 12, 2017, Edie’s second wife Judith Kasen-Windsor confirmed that she had died; former Secretary of State and 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at her funeral.


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