Setting The Record Straight… Or Rather, Queer!

Hey, my fellow queer folk! Guess what? We’re finally making history! Or rather, California is finally acknowledging that we’ve always been making history. In an it’s-about-time turn of events, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the FAIR Education Act into law on July 14. The act:

…would amend the Education Code to include social sciences instruction on the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. This bill would also prohibit discriminatory instruction and discriminatory materials from being adopted by the State Board of Education.

The act also includes people with disabilities and ensures that both groups will be covered under state anti-discrimination policies. California Senator Mark Leno (D-SF) expresses my sentiments exactly about why this new law is so important:

Denying LGBT[Q] people their rightful place in history gives our young people an inaccurate and incomplete view of the world around them.

Furthermore, the inclusion of LGBTQ people in history textbooks may help curb anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools. It’s therefore extremely troubling that states like Minnesota and Tennessee are doing the precise opposite and banning any mention of LGBTQ issues in schools.

What remains to be seen in California, however, is how adequate this inclusion of LGBTQ people will be. How will these people be talked about? What will these people be honored for? Who will make it into history? These questions have compelled me to compile a list of the Ten Queer People Who Should Be In Our Textbooks. (Hopefully, the future textbooks will include more than ten.)

10. President James Buchanan (1791 – 1868) was President of the United States during the political turmoils that set the stage for the Civil War . The only president to be a “lifelong bachelor,” he was once engaged to a woman named Ann Coleman who broke off the engagement because he “did not treat her with that affection she expected from the man she would marry.” After this, he lived with Alabama Senator (and later Vice President) William Rufus King. Andrew Jackson mocked their relationship, calling King “Miss Nancy.” Congressperson Aaron Brown referred to King as Buchanan’s wife.




9. Sara Josephine Baker (1873 – 1945), a physician, was best known for developing better public health care for children and infants in the poor health conditions of turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. She encouraged the use of nurses at schools and taught families better ways to nurse and care for their children. Baker also marched in the first U.S. suffragist parade. She was a graduate of Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, founded by Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. Baker was in a relationship with Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, an Australian novelist.




8. Willa Cather (1873 – 1947) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist best known for works such as My Antonia (1918), O Pioneers! (1913) and One of Ours (1922), which chronicle life in the American West. She is known for her subtle presentation of human relationships and her unconventional narrative structures–and for wearing men’s suits. Living in a time when women sometimes had “romantic friendships”, Cather had many intimate relationships with women but never referred to herself as lesbian.




7. Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946) was a celebrated modernist poet and writer, and friend and mentor to many famous writers and artists. For the majority of her life, she lived in Paris with her lover, Alice B. Toklas. Her paean to Alice, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), became, as Amy Benfer writes for Salon, “one of the unlikeliest blockbuster novels of all time. … Gertrude and Alice became famous. Stunningly, iconically, rock-star famous. … And yet no one commented on the strangeness of a pair of middle-aged lesbians becoming the media darlings of 1930s America.”


6. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) was a poet and theorist who wrote about her struggles as a queer black woman in New York. Lorde’s work explored the struggles of being triply marginalized, of being “Sister Outsider“–that person who must constantly do the work of bridge-building: “I am defined as other in every group I’m part of. The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.”

She wrote, “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”



5. James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) was born in Harlem in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance and found his talent for writing at an early age. Leaving behind his post as a teen Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin rejected organized religion at 17, started writing again and went abroad to Europe, where he lived for most of his life. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” From France, he published the groundbreaking, homoerotic Giovanni’s Room (1956), even though some say his publisher urged him to “burn” the book so as not to alienate his black readership. Baldwin was a prominent voice in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and was a close friend to author Richard Wright, poet Maya Angelou, and activists Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is most known for works such as Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961).

4. Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997), a Beat poet during the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s who used his unconventional poetry not only to create a unique circle of artists, but also to protest the Vietnam War and to fight for gay rights. Like that of Walt Whitman, Ginsberg’s poetry celebrated ordinary people and used unconventional meter. Also like Whitman, he was gay. Ginsberg is best known for his revolutionary poem, Howl (1956), which continues to influence modernist poetry and prose.




3. Harvey Milk (1930 – 1978) was a city supervisor of San Francisco and the one of the first openly gay politicians serving in any substantial political office. He was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978 by Daniel White, a former supervisor who had resigned his seat and then became enraged when the mayor would not reappoint him. While Milk is remembered most for being the first openly gay politician to be elected to office in a time when homosexuality was considered a disease, he also lobbied for better housing and worker and minority rights. He was, and still is, a symbol of gay visibility in politics.



2. Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002) was a drag queen and an activist for transgender folk during the historic Stonewall Riots and afterward. She was constantly fighting for minority groups within the queer community–such as transgender people, people of color and the lower-class–who were (and often continue to be) excluded from the mainstream LGBT movement that flourished post-Stonewall. She worked with the Gay Activist Alliance, but was later shut out as the movement sought mainstream recognition in pursuit of its legal agenda. Despite this, she continued to work for transgender activist groups, always fighting for transgender visibility. She died from health complications from alcohol and homelessness.


1. Del Martin (1921 – 2008) and Phyllis Ann Lyon (1924) are lifelong LGBT activists and a couple of 55 years who founded the early lesbian-rights organization Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 . They then became one of the first out lesbian couples to join the National Organization for Women . They made history again June 16, 2008, when they were the first couple to be married in California after the same-sex marriage ban was lifted. Del died on August 27, 2008. “[Del’s] last act of activism was her most personal-marrying the love of her life,” said Kate Kendell, a longtime friend of the couple. “Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn’t be by my side,” Lyon said about Del, “I am so lucky to have known her, loved her and been her partner in all things.”

Who have I left out? Let us know in the comments!

All photos under public domain or licensed for reuse under Creative Commons license. Photo of Buchanan from Flickr user Cliff under CC 2.0; photo of Stein and Cather from Carl Van Vechten estate under public domain; photo of Rivera from


  1. I cannot believe Josephine Baker proper was omitted. SMH.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I suppose you’re pulling only from American history, but for world history you have to include Alan Turing! He was a genius codebreaker of WWII and one (if not the) founder of computer science (and gay, and driven to suicide when he was outed (to tell it unfairly briefly)).

  3. Not to be too mainstream but Oscar Wilde. In a day where male homosexuality was illegal, he was put in prison for his sexual preferences.

    He also wrote some stuff :p

  4. Janis Joplin

    Andy Warhol

    Ma Rainey

    Leonard Bernstein

    Barbara Jordan

    Billie Jean King

    Alvin Ailey

  5. Can we really say Audre Lorde without Bayard Rustin? The backbone of the non-violent civil rights movement?

    Led one-man sit-ins a decade before MLK, SNCC or Rosa Parks? Fought for queer liberties until his death in 1987?! The pinnacle intersection between queer and racial liberties?!

    Honored by Gandhi’s successors, requested by rebel leaders during African apartheid?

    Organizer of the first March on Washington where MLK’s I Have A Dream speech premiered?

  6. Eleanor Roosevelt!

  7. Kat Page says:

    Bayard Rustin. Lani Ka’ahumanu.

  8. Amy Borsuk says:

    Just as a point of clarification: My list was indeed just American figures. I love Oscar Wilde and would include him in a heartbeat for European/World history. That being said, keep posting global queer figures! There are a lot of great ones here already that I hadn’t heard about before!

  9. Tove Jansson!

  10. Barbara Gittings and Kay Taubin Lahusen. Without Barbara (& company), homosexuality would still be classified as a mental illness by the DSM IV; without Kay, many of the most iconic photographs of the lgbt rights movement wouldn’t exist!

  11. Joanna Foley says:

    Dell Williams, founder of Eve’s Garden, the first erotic boutique for women in New York City. Eve’s Garden still thrives and so does Dell.

  12. Robyn Epstein says:

    Bayard Rustin!! Gloria Anzaldua, Allen Ginsberg, Urvashi Vaid.

    Thank you for starting this conversation! Did I mention Bayard Rustin! He made the Black Civil Rights Movement what it was including bringing civil disobedience as a strategy (after a trip where he met Ghandi) and he was kept out of the limelight because his queerness could have discredited the movement.

  13. Let’s not forget more recent personalities just because we do’t yet know their historical legacy… int he world of entertainment alone Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Dusty Springfield, Stephen Fry

  14. how about sheila kuehl, whose initial lgbt education act was vetoed by gov. schwarzenegger? my 2006 wire:

  15. What about Alan Turing?

    He is the Father of Modern Computer Science and was crucial in winning WWII!

  16. Jane Addams, who pioneered the settlement movement, founded Hull House, fought for women and immigrant rights, and won a Nobel Peace Prize.

  17. “Queer” started out as and remains a hate term. You can’t reclaim something that was never yours to begin with. One way we know hate crimes are motivated by hate is the words they use, and queer remains one of the favorites. Leave it to the haters so we can identify them more easily, and prosecute violent hate crimes.

    It also is a PTSD trigger for many who have been bashed. That means it triggers the PTSD response, causing gay people to relive the violent attack, re-victimizing them. We need to use positive words to descrive ourselves, not hate terms.

    • Amy Borsuk says:

      Thank you for bringing up the fact that the word “queer” can be a trigger warning for some people. I don’t know the Ms. policy on trigger warnings, but that is one that I am not familiar with (ones that I tend to see more often include rape, sexual harassment, abuse/abusive language, etc.).

      As for the word itself as a reclaimed word: as a younger individual in the LGBTQ community, I was taught to use “queer” as an umbrella term or a term that can refer to all sorts of personal identities in a way that is empowering and puts the power in your definition rather than the word itself. The definition is very personal, and tends to vary from person to person, and makes it positive. It is when it is used by someone else towards someone in a way that is directly meant to evoke hatred that it becomes that word that does not belong to the queer community. I use it here to be as inclusive as possible. The word refers to all those who identify with the LGBTQ community, even if their identity is not necessarily in the acronym.

  18. Leonard Matlovich was a Vietnam War veteran, race relations instructor, and recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. His tombstone in the Congressional Cemetery reads: A Gay Vietnam Veteran. When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.

    SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said, “Leonard Matlovich’s extraordinary courage in a time when gays and lesbians faced extreme prejudice is an example for us all. He was a brave pioneer and set off a struggle that we can finally envision winning. The debt that gay veterans—and the entire gay community—owe to Sergeant Matlovich cannot be overstated.”

    Angered by the ban, he purposely declared his homosexuality in a 1975 letter to Air Force Secretary John McLucas and fought to remain in the military. Sergeant Matlovich’s case won widespread media attention. On September 8, 1975, Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine in uniform over the headline “I Am a Homosexual; The Gay Drive for Acceptance.”

    After losing his bid to remain in the Air Force through their administrative proceedings, a US District Court judge ordered Matlovich reinstated with back pay. After more litigation, Matlovich eventually accepted a financial settlement and an upgrade to honorable discharge. He continued his tireless efforts for gay equality in the civilian sector. Matlovich announced he had AIDS during an interview with Charlie Gibson on “Good Morning America” in 1987. He died on June 22, 1988, just two weeks before his 45th birthday.

  19. Dr. Franklin E. “Frank” Kameny (born May 21, 1925 in New York City) is “one of the most significant figures” in the American gay rights movement. In 1957, Kameny was dismissed from his position as an astronomer in the Army Map Service in Washington, D.C. because of his homosexuality, leading him to begin “a Herculean struggle with the American establishment that would transform the homophile movement” and “spearhead a new period of militancy in the homosexual rights movement of the early 1960s”.

    Kameny protested his firing by the U.S. Civil Service Commission due to his homosexuality, and argued this case to the United States Supreme Court in 1961. Although the court denied his petition, it is notable as the first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation. (Wiki)

    (There is much more for anyone interested)

  20. Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

    Lorenz Hart

    Stephen Sondheim

    Frank O’Hara

  21. Armistead Maupin! People have a habit of crying when they meet him at book signings, and the message is always the same: he gave them hope through his positive portrayals of gay people, almost showed us how to live. Mrs. Madrigal is perhaps the most ingenious and intriguing character in modern fiction, so I think Maupin should be lauded for his writing.

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