LGBTQ+ Activists—Advocates Against Adversaries
What seems unnatural might, in fact, be natural.
As we delve deeper into the past, we realise that homosexuality is not a modern term. Across history, there have seen countless instances proving the existence of the LGBTQ+ community. Ancient civilisations and cultures have references to gay heroes and transgender deities. There has also been evidence of the same among other species, indicating that heterosexuality is not necessarily the norm.
It is often said that human nature tends to complicate—people soon began to reject and punish homosexuality. Alan Turing was sent to prison for ‘gross indecency’ and was chemically castrated. Oscar Wilde was punished for being gay and sent to prison after being convicted of sodomy. Many great people like Leonardo da Vinci, Pepi II Neferkare, and Alexander the Great have been speculated as being a part of this community. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing the true strength of the community as people did not dare to identify themselves for fear of being punished. Such ignorance and atrocities have led to the burgeoning of activism. Innumerable mettlesome personas have dedicated their lives towards creating a world that is inclusive of all its citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender.
Out of the closet and into the streets
Beverley Palesa Ditsie was a South African activist, whose contributions have played a significant role in the shaping of the African LGBTQ+ culture. One of the founding members of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand or GLOW, and known for her strong stance in matters related to gender equality, HIV/AIDS, human rights, and the LGBTQ+ community, Beverley was a woman of her word.
Her organisation, GLOW, helped coordinate the first pride march in Africa on 13 October 1990. Around 800 people attended this event, and even though many religious groups passed snide comments about the community, they did not let this dampen their spirits. Simon Nkoli, another founding member, tried to motivate the crowd by stressing on the importance of this protest, “I am black, and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into primary or secondary struggles. They will be all one struggle.“
This march paved the way for the many following protests and demonstrations that highlighted the need to acknowledge the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Beverley spoke at the United Nations Conference on Women in 1995, in Beijing, China. This was the first time somebody had talked about the travails of the LGBTQ+ community. Her participation in the conference was not encouraged by the members of her organization as they felt that she should focus more on the rights of the entire community, and not just lesbians. However, Ditsie still went to the convention and voiced her opinions, highlighting that lesbians deserved the same status as any other woman—
“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.“
She probably did not know that she was on the verge of creating history, but her continuous efforts and sheer determination have been a source of inspiration for all those struggling out there.
And the P stands for “pay it no mind”
“I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville—until I became a drag queen.“
From being named Malcolm Michaels Jr. to Black Marsha and finally settling on Marsha P Johnson, this activist has piqued much curiosity. Their love for conventionally feminine garments from a young age did not go down well with the conservative society they grew up in. However, these constraints did nothing to dampen their spirits.
Marsha was a staunch advocate and held their ground fighting for their community’s rights at a time when being gay was considered a mental illness. LGBTQ+ people were the victims of frequent police brutality and faced society’s wrath for just being themselves. Things took an uglier turn during June 1969 when police decided to take matters into their own hands. They raided the Stonewall Inn, injuring a few gay people in the process. This was the turning point as full-fledged riots started taking place soon after with people beginning to realise the need to start fighting for their rights. Marsha was an important leader in these protests and contributed to the eventual organization of the first pride march in New York.
Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite (Transgender) Action Revolutionaries or STAR to support those abandoned LGBTQ+ youth considered a disgrace by their families. Marsha stands as a source of inspiration for one and all, continuing their fight till their last breath, “As long as my people don’t have their rights across America, there’s no reason for celebration.” They did not let their inner demons come in the way of asking for justice and equality.
The Plague Slowly Consumed Us All
Larry Kramer’s interest in activism sparked relatively late in his life, around 1981, when he was in his mid-forties, after the outbreak of the disease, HIV/AIDS, was claimed to affect gay men only. He was a one-person army trying to fight against the system and make everyone understand that it was the beginning of an epidemic which would endanger all alike. In his words, “AIDS was allowed to happen. It is a plague that need not have happened. It is a plague that could have been contained from the very beginning.“
As he was one of the few to realise the gravity of the situation, he decided to step up and co-founded two organisations, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACUP), to help battle this deadly virus. Together, the members incorporated “SILENCE=DEATH“ in their logo, which became a symbol for AIDS. These protest groups continued their demonstrations to get the Government’s attention. Larry believed that resorting to peaceful means would delay the treatment for the disease further, “If you write a calm letter and fax it to nobody, it sinks like a brick in the Hudson.“
His methods, ranging from interrupting live news broadcasts to pouring ashes of the AIDs victims on the White House lawn, were controversial and landed him in rather tricky situations. However, we cannot deny the fact that his perseverance and constant urging for riots helped with fastening the approval of the trial drugs that saved many lives from this plague.
Swann ‘Queen’ The First
A Washington Post article dated 13 April, 1888, with the following striking headline, “Negro Dive Raided. Thirteen Black Men Dressed as Women Surprised at Supper and Arrested“, is the beginning of the present LGBTQ+ community’s knowledge about William Dorsey Swann.
The befitting self-proclaimed title ‘Queen’ is apropos for the former slave, who reigned the secret world of drag galas and balls in Washington D.C. In the 1880s he was the leader of perhaps the world’s first recognised LGBTQ+ liberation party. Swann was the first U.S. citizen to take direct legal and political action to protect the right of the queer community to assemble without the threat of criminalisation, repression, or police brutality—this action was also a landmark act. William Dorsey Swann, like his sobriquet and surname, was a graceful leader. Despite the derision of being a ‘coloured’ person, persecuted as a slave and scorned in the court of law for crimes he did not commit, he continued his mission of self-expression and achieving fundamental human liberty. His bravery and art have inspired people like Emmy award-winning drag queen, actor, singer, songwriter, and model RuPaul Charles.
Power Couple in Full Steam
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” —Margaret Thatcher.
Advocates Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju were two Indian women listed among TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019. Menaka Guruswamy is a senior lawyer in India’s Supreme Court, and her partner, Arundhati Katju is an active lawyer in New York and India. Their graduates and bursaries are at prestigious institutes such as the Indian National Law University, Brown University, and New York University. They contributed monumentally to the repeal, in a unanimous referendum, of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that rendered all sexual activities ‘against the order of nature’ punishable by law.
Arundhati and Menaka became the beacons of optimism for the LGBTQ+ community in India, with a deliberate diplomatic plan that went beyond their sound legal claims. Their perseverance and dedication brought Indian society to an unprecedented triumph by humanising their hardships and granting them equality of affection. As the Chief Justice of India said, “Constitutional morality cannot be martyred at the altar of social morality.“
Menaka is the first Indian and second woman with her portrait in the Milner Hall, Rhodes House at Oxford University. Their professional and social feats are commendable and a paradigm for young Indians and global citizens alike.
One Man Army Against Atrocities
Anthony Edgar Gartside Wright, popularly recognised by his nom de plume Antony Grey, was an English LGBTQ+ rights activist. He has been accredited the acclaim of “having done more than any single man to bring this social problem (gay rights) to the notice of the public.” Lord Arran and many others have lauded him with high praise.
Studying history at the University of Cambridge left him determined to “do whatever he could to fight the unjust laws which had destroyed the genius of Oscar Wilde and brought untold misery to many thousands of otherwise blameless men.” Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet and dramatist, was imprisoned after he was revealed to have had sexual intercourse with a man. At the moment, the laws were still the same—it was illegal to be gay. Antony was determined to change it. Grey’s achievement came in July 1967 with Royal Assent to the Sexual Offences Act. The Committee for Homosexual Equality was founded two years later, followed by the Gay Rights Front, the Gay Activists’ Coalition, and other organisations of lesbian and gay activists. Grey’s reform was a landmark for gay rights.
In 1995, the Pink Paper presented him with a lifetime achievement award, and he was also awarded the Stonewall Hero of the Year in 2007. Gray also became a counsellor and teacher and compiled books like ‘Quest for Justice: Towards Homosexual Emancipation’ (1992) and a memoir ‘Personal Tapestry’ (2008).
“All progress means war with society.” —George Bernard Shaw.
As society still rages against the atrocities the community lives through, we must face the hypostasis in the movement. Mere accounting of our meritorious leaders would be our failure which is why we must be aware of our current logjam and work towards ameliorating it. Progress can be painstakingly slow and plagued by failures, but it is important to be aware of our shortcomings.
Almost all South and Central American countries have a specific law on books banning discrimination against gay persons, it does not always protect transgender persons and is not usually enforced. No nation has clear legislation that calls it a hate crime to murder a citizen on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity, except Argentina. In September 2017, Egyptian security forces raided a concert to apprehend hundreds of people after the display of a rainbow banner at a concert, a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. In the early 2000s, they established a ‘debauchery’ state law targeting homosexuals and transgender people and re-established it after 2013. The Government then seemed to adopt this as a political manoeuvre—pro-marginalisation of gays and trans persons.
Maya Angelou said it best, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” These activists and their mettlesome lives are valorous acts in the contemporaneous raging war against injustice towards the LGBTQ+ community. History, time and again, reminds us of our mistakes as a society and provides us with the strength and motivation to ameliorate our misdoings. As the future of the largest democracy in the world, we should draw our resolve from these people and strive to do them proud by continuing their legacy.
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