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by Rori Lynn
The United States has a complicated history. Sure, there were some pretty awesome things that happened in the past. But quite often, the only reason it was awesome is because it was terrible to begin with and someone had to step up and do what was right.
Here are four LGBT women who did just that while overcoming oppressive barriers and epitomizing badassery.
Frances Thompson: Freed Slave And Trans Woman Who Testified Before A Congressional Committee In The 1860s
Frances “Aunt Crutchie” Thompson is not a household name; most of you have likely never heard of her, yet her very existence flew in the face of white patriarchy in the 1800s. A freed slave, Thompson was born with debilitating illness that left her using crutches to get around. While her exact illness is unclear, a newspaper clipping once said of Thompson that “[her] lower limbs were as crooked as a young dogwood tree or ram’s horn.” And it’s actually this frail form that enabled her to conceal that she was assigned male at birth for most of her life.
During the first few days in May of 1866, the Memphis riots occurred, where opponents of Reconstruction (read: terrible racists) burned down churches, schools, and houses, murdered a bunch of people, and also sexually assaulted multiple freedwomen. Thompson was one of those women, and she wasn’t about to let these horrific crimes go unchallenged, so she stood up before a congressional committee to testify as to what happened. Now, before you go thinking, “Well, yeah, of course she’d do that,” keep in mind that this was a 16-year-old black woman giving testimony at the federal level barely a year after the Civil War.
And we like to imagine that after her testimony she stared down everyone in that room in the most ass-kicking of ways.
That testimony was crucial in drawing public attention to crimes committed by white men against black women. Unfortunately, roughly ten years later, a campaign to discredit her came about when it was discovered that she was assigned male at birth, and she was consequently arrested for cross-dressing. People used the arrest and charges to discredit not just Thompson’s personal testimony, but claims of white brutality against black people in general.
Her legacy is painfully under-appreciated, largely due to her trans-ness being scapegoated and discredited as pro-Reconstruction propaganda. Yet however tarnished and beaten down by revisionist history and peers of her time, Frances Thompson’s bravery helped bring attention to issues of brutality committed against the black community in the American South immediately following the conclusion of the Civil War. She was ultimately punished for standing up to The Man, but she also paved the way for black people living in the south to seek retribution against their oppressors. And that’s just plain badass.
Gladys Bentley: Pusher Of Gender Boundaries And Successful Singer During The Harlem Renaissance
Gladys Bentley was a gender-bending blues singer who fluctuated between masculine and feminine identities throughout her life. Leaving Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to join the Harlem Renaissance, Bentley sang at parties, nightclubs, and speakeasies. Known for powerhouse vocals and subversive parodies of contemporary blues acts, Bentley shocked and encapsulated audiences from a very young age. Something not often discussed in your average high school history class is that the Harlem Renaissance was very, very queer, and Bentley was absolutely at the forefront of that movement.
Bentley was incredibly open about her sexuality for the time, at one point divulging to a gossip columnist about her alleged marriage to a white woman in Atlantic City in 1931. Carving a name out in the burgeoning lesbian community of the 1940s, Bentley dressed in a tux and a top hat, openly flirting with women in the audience. Pushing the boundaries of gender, performance, and satire was par for the course with Bentley, and she developed a rather large following in New York.
While rocking the hell out of that top hat.
Bentley’s record career spanned two decades, producing eight albums with label OKeh Records, five of which were recorded in 1945. While Bentley’s lyrics never contained lesbian content, her performances were considered subversive and rather raunchy. However, with lyrics like “I don’t want no man that I’ve got to give my money to,” her independent lifestyle was clear in her music.
Tragically, Bentley repressed her identity toward the end of her life following the McCarthy witch hunt era, which was particularly cruel against the LGBT community. Bentley went way back into the closet, claiming to marry a male journalist who later denied the union ever occurred. Bentley did marry another man, although the marriage fell apart. As cultural acceptance toward homosexuality dwindled from the relative acceptance of the pre-World War II era, Bentley deeply closeted herself, writing an article for Ebony titled “I Am A Woman Again” claiming that she was cured of her lesbianism by female hormone injections. She eventually died at the age of 52 during a 1960 flu epidemic.
While her life ended somewhat tragically, her triumphs are in no way sullied. Bentley challenged the status quo in an enormous way, and for many years entertained audiences with performances that would inspire future black and LGBT performers for generations.
Audre Lorde: Fought Against Exclusionary White Feminism, Basically Invented Intersectional Feminism
There are few figures in LGBT history who have left as large and indelible a mark as Audre Lorde. A renowned writer of poetry and essays on lesbianism and intersectional feminism, her words are particularly poignant and are turned to again and again. In today’s socio-political climate, her writings are a blessing when you need to take a break from crafting your own social media rant and can just let someone else’s words do it for you.
She regularly criticized white feminism for perpetuating the same racism as the rest of the population, taking other feminists to task. Self-identified as “a black feminist lesbian mother poet,” Lorde frequently expresses themes of poverty and homelessness, faith, death and loss, violence, honesty, the desire to find a voice, love and hatred, racism, classism, and homophobia throughout her body of work.
“We’re going to talk about all of it, and then you’re going to stop doing the crappy stuff.”
An amazingly prolific writer, she produced fifteen books of prose and poetry during her life, in addition to three posthumous collections. In 1980 Lorde published The Cancer Journals, which catalogued her experience with breast cancer and having a mastectomy, a work that largely sealed her legacy. She was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1986, which she explored in her 1988 work A Burst of Light.
Lorde brought attention to contentious issues of racism, classism, ageism, wealth disparity, and health. When feminism was focused singularly on white women, she stood up and proclaimed that all of these issues could not be separated from the female experience. Before intersectionality was a mainstream concept, and in fact well before the term was coined, Lorde fought for it. It’s actually not that far of a stretch to call her the mother of modern intersectional feminism.
Lorde’s legacy has been continued with one of the world’s largest LGBT health centers, New York City’s Callen-Lorde, which offers services to NYC residents regardless of their ability to pay.
Barbara Gittings: Formed The First Lesbian Civil Rights Organization And Petitioned For Homosexuality To Be De-pathologized
Throughout history, the move toward LGBT rights has been a series of watershed moments. One such moment was getting homosexuality de-pathologized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Barbara Gittings spent her life fighting for the LGBT community, and in 1972 orchestrated a panel discussion with the American Psychiatry Association.
When the panel came up with only heterosexual men to sit in on the discussion, Gittings insisted that the voices of gay psychiatrists be heard as well. Thus began a national search for someone willing to come forward when doing so could (and often did) destroy careers. An anonymous source named Dr. H. Anonymous, who later turned out to be Dr. John E. Fryer, wore a particularly horrifying mask to conceal his identity during these discussions.
And we sincerely apologize for supplying you with that nightmare fuel.
Fryer testified about how he was forced to be closeted to avoid losing his license to practice psychiatry. Gittings also read the testimony of those who refused to appear in person for fears akin to Fryer’s. The conference was declared a success by Gittings, and a year later in 1973 homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a mental health disorder. In response to the momentous act, a newspaper in Philadelphia published the story “Twenty Million Homosexuals Gain Instant Cure.”
One of the first lesbians to appear on national television, Gittings was invited to the Phil Donahue Show in 1968, as well as the David Susskind Show in 1971 with six other women, where they discussed stereotypes and debated on various lesbian issues of the time. These public appearances helped make “lesbian” a household word and humanized homosexual women when public opinion of them was particularly low. Plus, she gave young people a positive role model to look up to in a world where there were so very few.
Gittings allowed herself to be the face of a movement that precious few were daring to step up for. Putting herself in front of America on their most favorite means of being entertained, she hid neither her face nor her name, risking everything in pursuit of equality.
Like this article? Check out “5 People Who Transcended Gender And Made The World A Better Place” and “5 Of The Most Badass Women In Warrior History”.
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