Life

7 times lesbian activists stepped up for the greater LGBTQ+ community

Bloodsisters
Bloodsisters
Two lesbians “Blood Sisters” give blood during the AIDS epidemic

Lesbians have been stepping up to the plate in terms of LGBTQ+ activism for decades.

So, we figured we’d shine a light on some of the times when activists went above and beyond for the greater good of the community.

From throwing the first punch at Stonewall to paving the way for gender equality in sports, lesbians have continuously proved they’re unstoppable.

Click through to see how lesbians have trailblazed for LGBTQ+ equality

Caring for gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic

a headline on the San Francisco Sentinel reads "Women fighting the epidemic"
San Francisco Sentinel, May 29, 1987

It’s been said that being a lesbian amid the AIDS crisis was complex.

Some felt ostracised by gay men who believed they were the only ones who should lead the fight. Others felt criticized by fellow lesbians for “abandoning” queer women’s issues.

But, that didn’t stop lesbians from caring for countless men living with HIV.

Despite facing burnout, grief, and discrimination of their own, lesbians cared for those who were unwell when doctors were too afraid to, which is often forgotten and erased in discussions about LGBTQ+ history.

Banding together at a crucial time, lesbian women tended to the men dying from AIDS, volunteering in hospitals, filling out social security forms, and just generally befriending the men who needed a shoulder to cry on.

At a time when a lot of those men were not actually out to their families or had been rejected by their loved ones, lesbians provided an invaluable sense of support and community.

Giving blood when it was needed most

a grainy photo of the Lesbian Blood Sisters in the 80s posing around a sign that says "Welcome blood sisters"
Lesbian Blood Sisters in the 1980s

During America’s AIDS epidemic, lesbian activists were prepared to give more than their time and care.

In 1983, men who have sex with men were banned from giving blood across the States in a bid to prevent HIV from being spread through blood transfusions. Other countries soon followed suit.

In response, the Women’s Caucus of the San Diego Democratic Club formed the San Diego Blood Sisters and organized regular drives to ensure there was enough blood available to meet demand. 

Hundreds of women would queue around the block to donate. These blood drives continued to run throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, when the first antiretroviral drug treatments for AIDS became widely available.

Throwing the first punch at Stonewall

Storme Delevarie wearing a tux in the middle of a movement
Wikipedia
Storme DeLarverie

Stormé DeLarverie was a butch lesbian who, according to many eyewitnesses (including DeLarverie herself), threw the first punch at the Stonewall Uprising, spurring the crowd into action.

She fought with at least four cops, swearing and shouting for 10 minutes. She was also hit on the head by one officer with a baton. But she continued to fight back despite bleeding from her head.

She sparked the rebellion as she looked out to the crowd and shouted at bystanders: “Why don’t you guys do something?”

After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went “berserk.”

Others have said that that exact moment caused the scene to become “explosive.”

The New Orleans native was active in the bar culture of New York City, performing in the first racially integrated drag revue in the U.S. as the group’s only drag king.

She worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars for many years. She was later referred to as a “gay superhero” in her New York Times obituary when she died in 2014 at the age of 93.

Helping win same-sex marriage through Edie Windsor’s greatness

Edith Windsor at Washington D.C.'s Capital Pride
LGBTQ hero Edith Windsor at Capital Pride, in Washington, D.C.

Edie Windsor’s death at the age of 88 in 2017 caused an outpouring of grief among LGBTQ+ people.

She was a real pioneer, having made history when her case, United States v. Windsor, overturned part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), scoring a landmark victory in the fight for same-sex marriage.

Windsor filed the case after her longtime partner Thea Spyer sadly died and she was unable to claim spousal exemptions over her late partner’s estate because the government only recognized another person’s “spouse” when the word was applied to heterosexual marriages.

The Supreme Court ruled in Windsor’s favor in a historic moment, saying that discriminating against same-sex couples furthered no compelling government interest.

That wasn’t all Windsor was known for, though, as she was active in many other areas of the community.

Windsor volunteered at organizations such as the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the East End Gay Organisation, and the LGBT Community Centre, just to name just a few.

She also continued to be a voice for same-sex marriage long after her own court battle.

In 2013, she was recognized by Time magazine as a finalist for their Person of the Year award.

Bringing gay rights to the United Nations

Beverley Palesa Ditsie sitting outdoors and looking off to the side
Palesa Dlamini
Beverley Palesa Ditsie

South African lesbian activist Beverley Palesa Ditsie spoke about the importance of LGBTQ+ rights in the context of human rights at the 4th United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

She was the first openly lesbian woman to address the United Nations. What’s more, it was the first time that LGBTQ +issues had been addressed at the U.N.

Together with the legendary activist Simon Nkoli and openly gay Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, Ditsie went on to create the first Pride march in Africa two decades ago.

She famously said, “Lesbian rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. If the world conference on women is to address the concerns of all women, it must similarly recognize that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a violation of basic human rights.”

Decriminalizing homosexuality in India

Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju at the Time 100 gala
Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju at the Time 100 gala

Lawyers Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju were key in the fight for the decriminalization of homosexuality in India.

Thanks to their strength and determination, a unanimous Supreme Court decision repealed Section 377 in 2018. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was a colonial-era law criminalizing any sexual activity “against the order of nature,” particularly intercourse between adults of the same sex.

The couple was later honored in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people list in 2019, with the likes of Indian actress Priyanka Chopra singing their praises.

“Arundhati and Menaka have helped take a giant step for LGBTQ rights in the world’s largest democracy,” Chopra wrote.

“In their committed fight for justice, they have shown us that we as a society must continue to make progress, even after laws are changed, and that we must make an effort to understand, accept, and love,” the actress continued.

LGBTQ+ rights in India have continued to evolve over recent years, and there are now no legal restrictions against gay sex or gay expression in the country.

Same-sex couples have equal cohabitation rights, and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019 offers protections for trans folks too.

Paving the way for gender equity in sports

New York City, June 24, 2018 - Tennis legend Billie Jean King waves to the crowd as Grand Marshall of the New York City Pride Parade.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King as the Grand Marshal of the 2018 New York City Pride Parade

Lesbian tennis legend Billie Jean King made a real impact both on and off the court.

The tennis star (whose name you might recognize from the 2017 dramatic sports film Battle of the Sexes) became the first woman and tennis player ever to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year in 1972.

However, her world came crashing down in 1981 when news leaked that she was in a secret relationship with another woman, while she was also married to a man. She fought with her managers to hold a press conference so she could speak on her own terms about her sexuality.

After confirming her identity as a lesbian, the sporting legend was the first out LGBTQ+ major pro athlete in the United States. She lost all her sponsorship deals.

She went on to divorce her husband in 1987 and is now more than happy in her relationship with fellow tennis champion, Ilana Kloss.

The 79-year-old undoubtedly paved the way for other women and fellow LGBTQ+ athletes, making the road to the sports field even smoother.

Lesbians are a force to be reckoned with

Lesbian couple relaxing on couch

Lesbians have been instrumental in the modern-day fight for LGBTQ+ rights and in securing the rights many have today — the previous examples are just a few of many historical moments that they’ve achieved.

From risking their lives in aggressive encounters with cops to donating blood when others were too scared to do so, queer women have always gone above and beyond.

Long may it continue.

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