LGBT History Month: Edward Albee, Zackie Achmat, Gwen Araujo

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b. March 12, 1928

“I think we should all live on the precipice of life, as fully and as dangerously as possible.”

Edward Albee is a celebrated playwright who won three Pulitzer Prizes and three Tony Awards.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” his first Broadway play, helped establish Albee as one of America’s greatest playwrights.

Born Edward Harvey in Washington D.C., he was adopted as an infant by the prominent Albee family of New York. The family’s ownership of a national theater chain nurtured Albee’s passion for the arts.

Albee and his parents were constantly at odds over his desire to pursue a career in theater. After failing out of two private schools, he graduated high school and matriculated to Trinity College.

In 1949, Albee dropped out of Trinity to pursue a career in writing. He moved to Greenwich Village, an artistic epicenter. Albee experimented with writing poetry and short fiction before finding a niche in playwriting.

Albee’s early Off-Broadway shows received praise for their unconventional themes, including homoeroticism. He made his Broadway debut with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which earned Albee his first Tony Award.

Albee has written more than 25 plays. His willingness to experiment with various styles earned him Pulitzer Prizes for “A Delicate Balance,” “Seascape” and “Three Tall Women.” He received two additional Tony Awards for “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” and a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Since moving to Greenwich Village, he has lived an openly gay life. Recognized for pioneering the depiction of homosexuality on stage, Albee weaves same-sex relationships throughout his work.

He lived for 35 years with Jonathan Winters, his partner, until Winters’s death in 2005. Albee received a Special Tony Lifetime Achievement Award and The Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award for exceptional accomplishment in the arts.

Zackie Achmat

South African Activist

b. March 21, 1962

“The desire to know requires courage, patience and persistence because freedom, dignity and equality depend on it.”

Zackie Achmat is a South African activist whose work has focused on people living with HIV/AIDS, the gay community and combating apartheid. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and a recipient of the Desmond Tutu Leadership Award and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.

Achmat was raised in Cape Town, South Africa. At age 14, he participated in the 1976 anti-apartheid uprising in Soweto. As an adolescent, he assisted the African National Congress by organizing his peers. He continued to fight against apartheid until its end in 1994.

Achmat became active in South Africa’s gay community and founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. In 2000, he directed the documentary “Apostles of Civilised Vice,” chronicling the history of the gay community in South Africa.

In the late 1990s, Achmat was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It was difficult for him to obtain treatment or medications in South Africa, which had one of the highest rates of infection.

Achmat helped create the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). TAC led campaigns against the South African government, which was reluctant to get involved with the epidemic in part because of the expense and also because it did not consider AIDS a significant problem. By organizing protests, Achmat demanded that the government take action to provide AIDS education, prevention and resources for HIV-positive citizens.

When pharmaceutical companies filed a lawsuit to block the import of cheaper HIV medications, Achmat and TAC led a successful campaign that thwarted their efforts. Achmat continued to lobby for price reductions and increased access to affordable, generic HIV drugs.

Despite being able to afford antiretroviral medications, Achmat refused to take the drugs until they became available to all South Africans. When asked about this decision, he explained, “I don't think it's noble; I think it's dumb. But it's a conscience issue. It's not something I advocate for anyone else.” In 2003, the South African government began providing antiretroviral medications to a greater portion of the country.

Achmat cofounded ABIGALE (Association of Bisexuals, Gays, and Lesbians) and Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know), an education-based organization. Nelson Mandela called Achmat a national hero.

Gwen AraujoTransgender Hero

b. February 24, 1985

d. October 3, 2002

 “Live as though this is your last day."

Gwen Araujo was a transgender teen who was the victim of a brutal murder. Her attack brought national attention to the issue of violence against transgender people.

Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Edward Araujo Jr. underwent hormone therapy in high school and adopted the name Gwen Amber Rose Araujo. She left school because of incessant bullying and ridicule.

The night Araujo was murdered, she attended a party at the home of Jose Merél. According to police reports, there were four young men involved in the attack— Michael Magidson, Jose Merél, Jaron Nabors and Jason Casarez. At trial, Nabors testified that Araujo had consensual sex with a few of the men before it was revealed that she was biologically male. Araujo was beaten and strangled to death, hog-tied, wrapped in a blanket and buried in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

In exchange for his testimony against the other defendants, Nabors pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The other three men, charged with first-degree murder and committing a hate crime, invoked the transgender "panic defense,” claiming that the victim provoked the attack by having sex under false pretenses. By invoking this defense, Magidson and Merél were convicted of second-degree murder and acquitted of the hate crime. Casarez pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

Araujo's murder helped bring awareness to the incidence of violence against transgender people and the “panic defense.” In 2006, California enacted the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. The law allows a judge to instruct jurors not to consider their anti-LGBT biases during deliberations. That same year, Lifetime aired an original movie, “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story.” The case was the subject of a 2007 documentary, “Trained in the Ways of Men.”

Each November, communities across the nation hold a Transgender Day of Remembrance to memorialize the dozens of transgender people like Gwen Araujo who are murdered every year.LGBTHistoryMonth.com


Greg Kabel

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