The 1960s saw some major strides in LGBTQ activism, including the gay “Sip-In” protest against discrimination from New York City bars and the 1969 Stonewall Riots. But some activists took a stand for LGBTQ rights before that famed decade, operating under the fear of losing their jobs should they be outed or being arrested for simply existing in heteronormative spaces. The courage of these early U.S. queer activists set the stage for political victories in LGBTQ rights in the decades to come.
William Dorsey Swann (1860–?)
Just three years before the Emancipation Proclamation, William Dorsey Swann was born the property of a white plantation woman, according to research by Channing Gerard Joseph. He grew up to become the first person in the United States to fight for the LGBTQ community’s right to gather through legal and political channels. He was also the first self-professed queen of drag.
Swann held drag balls, or dance parties in which attendees (Black men, many former slaves) would dress in women’s silks and satins. One of these Washington, D.C. parties was raided by police in 1888 and about a dozen of the dragged-up attendees were arrested, Swann included.
He was detained several more times and convicted in 1896 for the false charge of “keeping a disorderly house,” or a brothel. During his 10-month sentence, Swann petitioned President Grover Cleveland for a pardon, which was denied. After his release, Swann continued to throw balls as the queen of drag. The year of his death is uncertain, although some list it as 1925, when he would have been 66-67 years old.
Henry Gerber (1892–1972)
In 1924, Henry Gerber founded the first gay rights organization in America: The Society for Human Rights. The Chicago-based organization produced Friendship and Freedom, the first American publication for homosexuals.
In 1925, Gerber and other organization members were arrested for “obscenity” after the police received a tip from a co-founder’s wife. Though the charges were eventually dropped, fighting them cost Gerber his life’s savings and his job with the U.S. Postal Service, as well as the dissolution of his organization.
Gerber went on to live an unassuming life, writing articles about homosexual oppression under a pseudonym, networking and building community.
Harry Hay (1912–2002)
Harry Hay was a communist activist who co-founded the Mattachine Society, the first enduring gay rights organization, in 1950. Hay was subsequently divorced by his wife, fellow communist Anita Platky, and expelled from the communist party, which considered him a security risk, a few years later. The burgeoning Mattachine Society forced Hay and other communist founders to step down in 1953.
Hay continued his queer activism following his expulsion. He was elected the first Chair of the Southern California Gay Liberation Front—a militant queer rights group—after the Stonewall Riots and co-founded the Radical Fairies a decade later. He spent his later years being involved in Native American Two-Spirit activism.
Del Martin (1921–2008) and Phyllis Lyon (1924–2020)
In 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon co-founded the first major organization for lesbians in the United States—The Daughters of Bilitis. The couple soon launched and became editors of Ladder, the organization’s national publication and platform for lesbians to anonymously or openly write about issues pertinent to the community. Martin and Lyon were also the first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women.
Daughters of Bilitis eventually shuttered as the queer rights movement became more militant, but Martin and Lyon continued their activism. After more than five decades together, the pair were the first of 90 gay couples to be illegally married by San Francisco’s then-mayor Gavin Newsom. They were married again four years later, in 2008, after California legalized same-sex marriage.
Dale Jennings (1917–2000)
A founding member of the Mattachine Society, Dale Jennings became a queer rights hero when he protested in court a 1951 charge of sexual solicitation in Los Angeles. At the time, entrapment by detectives posing as gay men in bars, public parks, and restrooms was common. Those charged with soliciting police officers for sex typically pleaded guilty rather than face being outed as gay. Jennings, at Hay’s suggestion, fought the charge to bring attention to the discriminatory policy. In 1952, the jury deadlocked for acquittal and the judge dismissed the charge.
That year, Jennings co-founded ONE Inc., which produced the national gay journal ONE Magazine. In 1954, a Los Angeles postmaster confiscated the magazine for being ''obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy,” which ONE fought in court. A lower court ruled in favor of the postmaster but the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1958, unanimously reversed the decision, upholding a constitutional protection for pro-gay writings.
Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989)
Christine Jorgensen was an early champion of transgender rights and acceptance who traveled to Denmark in 1950 to undergo a series of sex-reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments. The New York Daily News caught wind of the story and published photos of Jorgensen before and after her transition. Seeing it as an opportunity to control her life’s narrative and advocate for empathy towards transgender people, Jorgensen made her return to the states in 1953 a public spectacle. She arranged for hundreds of reporters to greet and interview her at a New York City airport.
Jorgensen used her newfound fame to start a career as a nightclub performer and speak publicly around the world. In 1967, she published her autobiography in which she argued the acceptance of transgender and other non-heteronormative people.
William Dorsey Swann: The first "Queen of Drag": PBS
From slavery to voguing: the House of Swann: National Museums Liverpool
Henry Gerber: The Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame
Henry Gerber: The Legacy Project
LGBTQ Activism: The Henry Gerber House, Chicago, IL: National Park Service
The Incredible Story of Del and Phyllis: Smithsonian Magazine
How the Daughters of Bilitis Organized for Lesbian Rights: Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Museum
William Dale Jennings, 82, Writer and Gay Rights Pioneer: New York Times
Radically Gay, The Life of Harry Hay: San Francisco Public Library
Harry Hay, John Cage, and the Birth of Gay Rights in Los Angeles: The New Yorker
Harry Hay – Nominee: The Legacy Project
Life Story: Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989): New York Historical Society Museum & Library