The A-Z of LGBT+ History

The history and legacy of LGBT+ people across the globe is nothing short of sensational. From Alan Turing to Harvey Milk, the Stonewall Riots to the passing of same-sex marriage in the USA, pride flags and vogue culture, the queer milestones that have paved the road for 2017’s LGBT+ community are here to be recognised, remembered and championed. To celebrate our rich, oppressive and turbulent history, we’ve rounded up the ABCs of imperative queer history to know about.


The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (or ACT UP) were and are a ‘direct action advocacy group’. Aligning themselves with stark imagery, street protests across America and the infamous pre-rainbow flag pink triangle, the organisation formed in March 1987 to take direct political action against political nonchalance against the AIDS crisis sweeping across New York City. They were one step ahead of the game, protesting Trump during in 1989.

B: The Black Cap Camden

A victim of the bitter sting of changing times and gentrification in London, The Black Cap closed down in April 2015. Prior to its departure from the London queer scene, the Camden based pub and bar was an iconic and sensational LGBT+ venue, known extensively for its popularity in the 1960s and it’s commitment to cabaret drag. Historically promoting itself as the Palladium of drag, the pub is and was one of the oldest LGBT venues in the city.

C: Christine Jorgensen

The transgender ex-GI who made headlines in the 1950s, Christine Jorgensen was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. Traveling to Denmark in 1951, she underwent a series of operations to reassign her sex after serving in the US military. Growing up as a self-described “frail, blond, introverted little boy who ran from fistfights and rough-and-tumble games” in the Bronx, Jorgensen became an overnight sensation across a deeply homophobic and transphobic America, offering a platform of visibility to the LGBT+ youth of yesteryear and signing record deals.

D: Dream of the Red Chamber

Written by Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Catcher was published in China in 1791. The novel features an openly bisexual character as well as an account of a gay-bashing in the country. Widely dubbed as ‘the book of the millennium’ and written during the Qing Dynasty, the protagonist Baoyu was inferred to have a kind of special relationship with a young scholar. The novel came at a time where Qing official Zhu Gui tried to “standardise the morality” of Chinese people, with the introduction of the first law against consensual, non-monetized homosexuality in China.

For those expecting to see ‘Drag’ here, we recently explored the 2,500 year history of gender blurring and drag queens here.

E: Mary Edmonia Lewis

(Mary) Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis was an icon of her day who shattered racial barriers as the first professional African-American sculptor in the mid-1800s, a time when slavery was still legal. Becoming famous for her 1,500kg marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia is considered one of a few African-American artists to develop a fan base that crossed racial, ethnic and national boundaries. She was a fierce lesbian woman and was commissioned by US President Ulysses S. Grant to develop a bust of himself in 1877.

F: France

Amidst the Revolution, Revolutionary France (and Andorra) adopted a new penal code which no longer criminalised sodomy in 1791, making it the first West European country to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults. Prior to such amendments, first-offending ‘sodomites’ lost their testicles, second offenders lost their penis, and third offenders were burned.

G: Gilbert Baker

A pioneer of the gay rights movement, Baker was the mind behind the famed LGBT Pride flag/rainbow flag that has since become a key piece of iconography in the LGBT community. The flag was first designed by the artist in 1978, years after the Stonewall movement. Baker had first arrived in San Francisco in 1970 as an Army draftee, but decided to stay in the city to pursue his dream of becoming an artist after he was discharged. Thirty volunteers helped Baker hand-dye and stitch the first two flags in the top-floor attic gallery of the Gay Community Center at 330 Grove Street in San Francisco.

H: Harvey Milk

One of the most iconic LGBT+ figures in queer history, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Moving to San Francisco amidst a migration of gay men to Castro in the early 70s, Milk served almost 11 months in office and was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights laws for the city. On November 27, 1978, Milk was assassinated.

I: Illinois

Illinois became the first state in America to decriminalise sodomy in 1961, eight years prior to the Stonewall Riots in New York City. The 70s and 80s saw the decriminalisation throughout the majority of the United States, with the 14 States, including Texas, not having pushed the law doing so in 2003.

J: Janus Society

April 25 1965, four years before the Stonewall Riots, 150 LGBT+ people participated in a sit-in when the manager of a restaurant refused service to several people he thought they looked gay. Early LGBT+ activist Clark Polak from The Janus Society (an early LGBT+ rights organisation based in Philadelphia) was arrested with three others for disorderly conduct. Janus Society is notable as the publisher of DRUM magazine, one of the earliest LGBT publications in America.

K: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

On 29 August 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs took a stand against LGBT discrimination and publicly spoke out for homosexual rights when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. His stand against anti-LGBT legislation allegedly makes Ulrichs the first man to publicly approach the issues faced by LGBT people.

L: The Ladder

Formed between eight lesbian women in 1955, The Ladder went from a secret women’s club to the first lesbian publication and lesbian civil rights organisation in the US. During the 50s, being gay or lesbian was still classified as a mental disorder by The American Psychiatric Association. San Francisco heralding Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were frustrated by their limited social opportunities as lesbian women and formed The Daughters of Bilitis as a small social group with five other friends. Recruiting members for their social group proved hard in the 50s, with Lyon remarking how LGBT+ people only looked in the newspapers for was the names of other gay people who had been arrested. To combat this, the pair launched their own newsletter called The Ladder and sent it to any lesbian women they knew. This later went on to become the first lesbian publication in America. By the time of its last issue in 1972, The Ladder had grown from a simple newsletter into a 40+ page publication.

M: Marsha P Johnson

One of the most memorable and well loved names that emerged from the Stonewall Riots, Marsha P Johnson was an American drag queen and LGBT+ activist in New York City in the mid-20th century. Widely regarded as one of the first to fight back at the revolutionary riots in 1969, Marsha later went on to become a key member in radical activism AIDS group, ACT UP.

N: Nazis (pink triangles first used in 1937)

First used in 1937, the pink triangle rapidly became a symbol for categorising gay men in a soon to be Nazi Germany. Gay men in concentration camps would be forced to wear bands with the pink triangle on them to be identified by “kind”. Since the holocaust, movements such as ACT UP have embraced the message behind the persecution the pink triangle created and used it as a tool for retaliation, direct action and social change for the LGBT+ community.

O: Oscar Wilde

Groundbreaking Victorian poet, author and playwright, Oscar Wilde’s legacy lives on in far more than Dorian Grays and Earnests. Wilde was arrested for gross indecency with men, a charge for which he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison and has historically gone down as a gay man who championed Victorian representation of LGBT+ people, just for existing. While in prison he wrote a letter to his lover, Douglas. Wilde was not allowed to send it, but it was later published as De profundis.

P: Polari & Pajubá

Often described as the forgotten gay language of gay men and occasionally reinvigorated in camp declarations in the world of theatre, Polari was the hidden language used by gay men prior to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1969. The playful and often highly sexualised slang was used by gay men to subvert their sexualities, whilst allowing them to code and negotiate their sexual desires in public proximity without the fear of being caught.

Polari may no longer need to be used, but gay languages continue to exist in communities and nations around the world. In Brazil, Pajubá is the secret language of the trans community, used to subvert yet reinforce queer identity. Pajubá allows trans men and women to both conceal their identities with a hidden language, but also acts as a badge of their public identity and pride. Similarly in South Africa, two hidden languages used by gay men exist. Gayle (the variant used by the white gay community) was the lexicon of “koffie-moffies” (Afrikaans for “coffee gay men,” a slang name for male flight attendant in the 1970s), and parallels Polari heavily by borrowing terms from British slang. IsiNgqumo is the black queer variant, though it has Zulu and not Polari roots in its widely unknown history.

Q: Queer Reclamation

Used originally to connote sexual deviance and later becoming a widely used pejorative against LGBT+ people in the 20th century as a verbal stance against gay people, queer has gone from an insult to a badge of honour for many LGBT+ people. As of the 80s, the term had started to be won back as an indicator and self-identifying term of identity. LGBT+ organisation Queer Nation handed out fliers at New York Pride 1990, declaring “when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using “queer” is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”

R: RuPaul

Before the hugely popularised RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was the RuPaul show. A myriad of sketches and talk show hosts, Ru’s show first aired in 1996 and lived a span of over 100 episodes. With guests as big as Cher and Diana Ross, the show covered life, female empowerment and, of course, fashion with an openly queer person of colour as its host. History will have its eyes on Ru, for not only bringing us boundless years of entertainment, but bridging the gap between LGBT interest and mainstream media, offering a proposition of an ‘us’, rather than a ‘them’.

S: Sylvia Rivera

One of the younger veterans of the famous Stonewall Riots was Sylvia Rivera, a 17 year old Puerto Rican drag queen living in New York City. Rivera was in the starting crowds that gathered outside of the Stonewall Inn and is documented to be heard saying “I’m not missing a minute of this, it’s the revolution”. Reports claim that Rivera was one of the first bystanders to throw a bottle. She later went to work to help countless homeless drag queen, passing away in 2002.

T: Tearoom Trade

Controversial ethnographic study Tearoom Trade explored sexual homosexual encounters in public places in the 70s. Widely regarded as simultaneously the best and worst sociological study in academia, the ethically questionable book opened a discussion and narrative of queer life in an academic setting. Author and PhD student Laud Humphreys got his information by acting as a watch queen, playing the role of lookout and warning the men if anyone was coming. The men involved did not know he was a researcher.

U: Unions

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was a dedicated alliance of LGBT+ people who formed in support and solidarity of the striking British miners in Thatcher’s Britain. During the strikes, the Conservative administration removed funding from the National Union of Mineworkers, which lead to LGBT+ raising over £11,000 in support of the miners in London alone.

V: Voguing

Birthed in the shadows of Harlem dance floors and wrongfully popularised by Madonna, voguing is the highly stylised, modern house dance, often replicating poses found in high fashion editorial shoots and the mannequins of NYC’s wealthier shopping districts. With roots in Black Atlantic traditions and 19th century minstrel shows in the US, it found its home in New York’s underclass in the 20s, evolving into its most recognised style throughout the 60s and 80s. With influences from all classical forms of dance, twisted and expressed into new movement, voguing is about aspiration, celebration and absolute beauty. Drag queens, dancers, queers and trans claimed the art as their rain dance against the oppression they felt from society. A signpost of late-20th century queer identity, voguing’s history is black yet colourful, beautifully composed yet chaotic and full of those redefining themselves not as a solution, but as the questions you’re too intimidated to ask.

W: Wilson Cruz

Wilson Cruz became the first actor to play an openly gay character in a leading role in a television series back in 1994. The openly gay Puerto Rican actor scored fame after securing the role of Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez, a troubled gay teen, in My So-Called Life. Cruz later went on to play the iconic role of Angel in RENT.

X: X-Rated

From the covering of gay magazines in supermarkets, to gay kisses only just starting to appear on our screens, LGBT+ lifestyle has always been fringed, a little taboo and, apparently, not to be shown to the masses. LGBT+ sex education is still not taught in UK schools, despite harrowing HIV rates across the country, with HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust reporting that 95% of young people were never taught appropriate LGBT-specific information during sex and relationship education classes.

Y: Yellow

On top of the aforementioned pink triangle, used to dub homosexual men in concentration camps in the 40s, an upside down yellow triangle was used in conjunction of the pink triangle to single out and brand homosexual Jewish men in the camps. Since then, yellow has been adopted in a myriad of LGBT+ iconography, including the Intersex flag, created in 2013. It describes yellow and purple as the hermaphrodite colours, with its creators at the Organisation Intersex International Australia describing it as freely available “for use by any intersex person or organisation who wishes to use it, in a human rights affirming community context”.

Z: Generation Z

The demography of the here, now and today. This is the first era, so to speak, that a true and open gay youth has emerged. With bettering conditions for LGBT+ young people in Western communities, 2017 is seeing more and more young gay celebrities emerge, more youth resistance against anti-LGBT politics, an education system that acknowledges LGBT+ people more and more and a bettering sense of representation and visibility in mainstream outlets. The queers of today are LGBT history in the making.

Cover Photo: Quilt memorialising those who died due to AIDS is on display in Washington, DC, October 1988. Charles Tasnadi / AP.

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