Gay History 101: Women's History Month

Lorraine Hansberry

Jane Addams (1860 – 1935) is known as the mother of social work. She founded the famous Hull House Chicago, which revolutionized the field of social work. She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and was in several long-term relationships with other women.

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886 –1939) is known as the Mother of the Blues. Although Ma Rainey was not the first black woman to sing the Blues, she has been credited with its rise in popularity. She sang about loving women in the 1920s.

Gladys Bentley (1907 –1960) was a popular Blues singer during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. She dressed in men's clothing, her signature look was a tuxedo and top hat. She was very out about her sexual orientation and reputation as a 'bulldagger' or butch lesbian and she openly flirted with women in the audience.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was an American playwright, best known for "A Raisin in the Sun,” which in 1959 became the first play by an African American woman to open on Broadway. It also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the year. Although she was known as a supporter of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, it wasn't until after her death that her own sexual orientation was revealed.

Barbara Gittings (1932 –2007) was an early gay and lesbian rights activist and was instrumental in the forming of Daughters of Bilitis, one of the first lesbian organizations in the U.S. Barbara Gittings helped organize gay rights demonstrations in front of the White House and in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1965 to protest federal employment discrimination.

Barbara Jordan (1936–1996) was an accomplished U.S. congressional representative from Texas and was the first African American congresswoman to come from the Deep South. Although she was in a long-term relationship with another woman for more than 20 years, she never publicly came out. It was only after her death in 1996 that the press reported about her sexual orientation.

Ann Bannon (September 15, 1932) is a celebrated author of lesbian pulp fiction dating back to 1950 and 1960s. Although she was married and not quite living a lesbian life when she penned her popular books, Ann Bannon, author of Odd Girl Out, Beebo Brinker, I am a Woman, Journey to a Woman and Women in the Shadows, struggled with same-sex attractions and came out later in life. In fact, she calls her books "love letters to the women I thought I would never get to know."

Margarethe Cammermeyer (March 24, 1942) is the highest ranking military official to come out while in the service. Prior to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" she challenged the military policy banning gays and won the right to serve. Born in Oslo, Norway she became a U.S. citizen in 1960. She had a 15-year marriage to a man and they had four sons. In 1988, when she was 46, she met her partner, Diane Divelbess.

Kate Clinton (November 9, 1947) describes herself as a "fumerist," a feminist humorist. She grew up Catholic in New York State and taught high school English for eight years before becoming a comedian. She began her stand-up career in 1981 using her lesbianism, Catholicism and current politics for her jokes.

Melissa Etheridge (born May 29, 1961) Grammy and Oscar winner has been out and proud since 1993. She is as well known for her activism and being a breast cancer survivor as she is for her music. Etheridge is known for her mixture of "confessional lyrics,” pop-based folk-rock, and raspy, smoky vocals. She has also been an iconic gay and lesbian activist since her public coming out in January 1993. She has received fifteen Grammy Award nominations, winning two, and an Academy Award. In September 2011, Etheridge received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Phyllis Lyon (November 10, 1924), with her partner Del Martin (1921 – August 27, 2008) were two of the early lesbian rights activists in the U.S. On June 16, 2008, they were the first same-sex couple married in California. The wedding was officiated by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Martin and Lyon published two books together, “Lesbian/Woman” (1972) and “Lesbian Love and Liberation” (1973).

The Dinah Shore Weekend was named after the late Dinah Shore – a singer, TV personality and renowned golfer, born Frances Rose Shore, in 1916, who lived in the Coachella Valley and is credited for having founded, in Palm Springs, the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner's Circle. The Dinah now coincides with the Kraft Nabisco Championship women’s golf tournament. The first unofficial Dinah Shore Weekend took place in 1986 when women began to flock to Palm Springs in conjunction with the tournament. After-dinner parties following the golfing turned benefits for the Human Rights Campaign and the AIDS Service Foundation. Mariah Hanson is the promoter of the Dinah Shore Weekend party held every April that attracts thousands of women from all over the world to Palm Springs.

In 1872, a law called Paragraph 175, banned sexual acts between men and sexual acts on animals, but did not mention women. Lesbians were, technically, legal in Germany. The exception was Austria, later annexed by the Germans, where sexual acts between women had been criminalized since the 19th century. While sexual acts between women were not criminalized under 175, lesbians who still did not confirm to the norms of Hitler’s society were victims of propaganda aimed at unmarried, childless women. They were also deemed ‘asocial’ defamed as prostitutes by the SS and so-called racial hygienists. German law mostly ignored women because the Third Reich considered them of so little importance, they had to conform to societal norms, which meant following their husband’s wishes, bearing children and settling in to their role as housewives and mothers (very similar, if not the same, as today’s women in Islamic countries). The image of the German mother and wife is what likely saved the majority of German lesbians from being arrested and detained in concentration camps: their sexuality was seen as 'fixable' by the Nazis. Researchers have discovered only a few cases of women who were sent to concentration camps because of their sexuality.


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