Important Figures in the Fight for LGBTQ+ Rights

While there are countless individuals who changed the course of history through their fight for LGBTQ+ rights. This article highlights 4 of them in honour of pride month. These include Bayard Rustin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Stormé DeLarverie, and Gilbert Baker.

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, in Westchester, Pennsylvania. His personal philosophy was a combination of the pacifism of Quakers, the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism illustrated by labour leader A. Philip Randolph. During World War II Rustin worked for Randolph, fighting against racial discrimination in war-time hiring. Additionally, after meeting A. J. Muste, a minister and labour organizer, he also participated in several pacifist groups, such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Figure 1 – War Objectors Protest/ Figure 2 – Jim Crow

Bayard Rustin was punished more than once for his beliefs. During the war, he was jailed twice when he refused to register for the draft. In 1947, he took part in protests against the segregated public transit system and was arrested in North Carolina, where he was sentenced to work on a chain gang (a group of convicts chained together while working outside the prison) for several weeks. Again, in 1953 he was arrested on a ‘morals charge’ for publicly engaging in homosexual activity. For this he was sent to jail for 60 days; however, this did not dissuade him. He continued to live his life openly as a gay man.

Figure 3 – Angelic Troublemakers

By the 1950s, Rustin was an expert organizer when it came to human rights protests, and in 1958 he played an integral role in the coordination of a march in Aldermaston, England, which attracted over 10,000 attendees, who demonstrated against nuclear weapons. Also in the 1950s, Rustin met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and began working with King as a key organizer and strategist in 1955. It was actually Rustin who taught King about Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence resistance and advised him on tactics regarding civil disobedience. In 1956, he helped King with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. However, most famously, he was a key figure in the organization of the March on Washington in 1963.

In 1965, Rustin and his mentor Randolph co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labour organization for Black trade union members. Rustin continued his work within the civil rights and peace movements throughout his life and was in high demand as a public speaker. Throughout his life, Rustin received many awards and honorary degrees and continued to speak about the importance of economic equality within the civil rights movement and the need for social rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Rustin passed away in New York City on August 24, 1987, at the age of 75, due to a ruptured appendix.

Figure 4 – Bayard Rustin Behind Dr. King / Figure 5 – Rustin & King

While Bayard Rustin was a key figure in the civil rights movement and worked so closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the fact that he was openly gay had everything to do with why he remained in the background, and why his impact on the civil rights movement is lesser known in comparison to other leaders.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, and was the First Lady of the United States from March 1933 to April 1945, during her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (“FDR”) 4 terms in office, making her the longest-serving First Lady in history. However, her role as the wife of a president was not what made her one-of-a-kind.

In the 1920s, Eleanor Roosevelt explored Greenwich Village in New York City (NYC), where she found a group of lesbian political activists who helped guide her toward her own advocacy for women’s political rights. Two partnered suffragettes, Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman became particularly crucial people in Eleanor’s life. The 3 women met in 1922 and became extremely close. The nature of their relationship continues to be a source of speculation, however, what is known, is that the 3 women were incredibly dedicated to one another. Emily Herring Wilson, author of  The Three Graces of Val-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook in the Place They Made Their Own wrote, “They had become a threesome, working in women’s politics in New York, sharing responsibilities for the children, especially the two youngest boys; and travelling together from their respective houses in the city for weekends in Hyde Park.” The trio eventually moved into a cottage built just for them in Hyde Park, a few hours north of NYC.

Figure 6 – Eleanor Roosevelt, Nan Cook & Marion Dickerson

The dynamics of this relationship became more complicated as her husband, FDR’s political career launched. It was in 1932 that Eleanor met Lorena “Hick” Hickok, while Hick covered the future First Lady for the Associated Press on FDR’s campaign trail. By 1933, the two women spent most of their days together and wrote countless erotically-charged love letters when they were apart. Once they grew closer, Hick resigned from her official position, as she was unable to remain objective. She had her own room to sleep in next to Elenor’s in the White House when she visited, and wrote of their dreams of their own home together one day. It was Hick’s encouragement that ignited Eleanor’s interest in redefining what it meant to be the First Lady.

Figure 7 – Eleanor & Lorena (“Hick”) / Figure 8 – Eleanor & UN Declaration

Eleanor began holding weekly press conferences of her own where only female reporters were permitted. This was in stark contrast to FDR’s press conferences, as they only permitted men. Eleanor also expressed her personal politics in a daily column, another first for a First Lady. After FDR passed, she went on to become a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. It was here that she served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Due to her incredible work for women and human rights, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Humans Rights Prize in 1968.

Stormé DeLarverie

Figure 9 – Stonewall Uprising / Figure 10 – Stonewall 1969

To date, it is still widely debated who threw the first punch at the Stonewall Uprising in NYC in 1969. However, one belief is that it could have been Stormé DeLarverie – a lifelong gay rights activist and drag performer. Prior to her participation in Stonewall, DeLarverie was a drag performer who rocked zoot suits and black ties. While gender-fluid fashion has become a major force in fashion in recent years, DeLarverie’s approach to this style was one of the earliest and most striking displays of it.

Figure 11 – Stormé DeLarverie / Figure 12 – Stormé DeLarverie Jewel Box Revue

DeLarverie was born in New Orleans in 1920 to a white father and a Black mother who worked as a servant for his family. According to DeLarverie, she was never given a birth certificate and was uncertain of her actual date of birth, but she celebrated her birthday each year on December 24th.

She spent the 50s and 60s as the only “male impersonator” in the Jewel Box Revue, the only racially integrated drag troupe at the time, which consisted of 25 men and DeLarverie. Prior to her time with the Jewel Box, she worked in Chicago as a bodyguard to the mobsters, where some believe she picked up on some fashion tips. As well, while her Jewel Box colleagues mostly only appeared in drag onstage, she would often be seen walking around NYC in a full suit, eventually starting a trend: “I was doing it, and then [other lesbians] started doing it!” she told during a 2010 interview.

Figure 13 – Guardian of the Village

Over time, several documentaries have been created, exploring DeLarverie’s drag persona and her time acting as a “guardian of the Village” serving as a security guard at the neighbourhood’s gay bars and as a more general watchkeeper for the city. However, it wasn’t until an interview with Curve Magazine in 2008 that she was identified as the “Stonewall lesbian” who helped incite the rebellion, and she soon became known as the “Rosa Parks of Stonewall.” In her later years, DeLarverie suffered from dementia, lived in a nursing home in Brooklyn from 2010 to 2014, and died in her sleep on May 24, 2014.

Gilbert Baker

“Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth as I say, to get out the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘this is who I am!’”

Figure 14 – Rainbow Flag

June has been recognized as LGBTQ+ pride month in honour of the Stonewall Riots, which took place in NYC in June of 1969. One major symbol that has become synonymous with pride month over the past few decades has been the rainbow flag. How exactly did the rainbow flag become the symbol it is today? The answer: Gilbert Baker.

Figure 15 – Gilbert Baker

It goes back to 1978, almost a decade after the Stonewall Uprising when artist Gilbert Baker – an openly gay man and drag queen – designed the first rainbow flag. Baker later revealed that he had been urged by Harvey Milk – one of the first openly gay elected officials in America – to create a symbol of pride for the gay community. Baker decided on making a flag, as he saw flags as the most powerful symbol of pride. As he once stated in an interview, “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth as I say, to get out the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘this is who I am!’”

Figure 16 – Rainbow Flag Colours

Baker saw the rainbow as a “natural flag from the sky”, and decided to adopt the colours for the stripes of his flag, with each colour having its own representation (hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and lastly, violet for spirit). The first versions of the flag were showcased on June 25, 1978, for the San Fransisco Gay Freedom Day parade, where Baker and a team of volunteers had made them by hand. Afterwards, he wanted to mass produce the flags for consumption by all; however, because of production issues, the pink and turquoise stripes were removed and indigo was replaced by a more basic blue, which resulted in the current day six-striped flag. However, it was not until 1994 that the rainbow glad was truly established as a symbol for LGBTQ+ pride. That year, Gilbert Baker made a mile-long version of the flag for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

Figure 17 – 1994 Pride Flag

Now that we know about Gilbert Bakers’ contribution of the pride flag, let us back up a bit to his life beforehand. Gilbert Baker was born on June 2, 1951, in Kansas. It was in 1970 that Baker served in the U.S. Army for 2 years; he was stationed as a medic in San Fransisco at the beginning of the gay rights movement and lived there as an openly gay man. After he was honourably discharged from the army, he worked on the first marijuana legalization initiative California Proposition 19 (1972) and was taught to sew by his fellow activist Mary Dunn. Baker used this skill to create banners for gay rights and anti-war marches, and it was during this time that Baker become friends with Harvey Milk.

Figure 18 – Sewing Flags

In 1994, Baker moved to NYC where he lived for the remainder of his years. Here he continued his creative work and activism. Years later in 2003, in honour of the Rainbow Flag’s 25th anniversary, he created a flag that would stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West – spanning over 521 miles. After the commemoration, Baker sent sections of the flag to more than 100 cities across the world. On March 31, 2017, at age 65, Gilbert Baker died at home in his sleep.


As we continue to celebrate Pride Month, we will write and publish a number of articles and informative graphics that will cover a range of topics relating to celebrating pride today, and how we have managed to get here. Keep your eyes peeled for more content over the coming weeks.

To find more content relating to Pride and LGBTQ+ rights, see here.

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