History books like to make events out to be black text on white paper — but life isn’t always like a book or movie — and people aren’t just one thing or another. We all fall on a spectrum of gender and sexuality. Repression of people who didn’t fall on the “normal” sides of the spectrum — though normal describes a washing setting more than a human being — was rampant in the not-to-long-ago past.
There’s more to their story, and it’s time to get educated about a few particularly pivotal, rad and real individuals who make up the colorful history of the world:
- Marlon Brando
Born on April 3, 1924, Marlon Brando grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. His found fame fairly early in his career with a notable role in the film “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Unlike many actors in Hollywood, Brando’s age didn’t stop him from getting outstanding roles. The most famous perhaps is his character in “The Godfather,” but others include “Apocalypse Now” and “The Last Tango in Paris.”
Though Marlon Brando was a known womanizer, seducing Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, he was attracted to men. In later years, Brando revealed he had fallen in love with actor Wally Cox, calling his attraction to men “unashamed.” Brando once stated he wish they could have married, but times didn’t allow that.
Today, the two are buried next to each other. He once had a passionate affair with Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, and other alleged affairs with the steamy silver screen men of Hollywood, turning down Elizabeth Taylor. It’s apparent Brando’s magnetism appealed to all sexes and continues to fascinate people in modern times.
- José Sarria
Born on December 12, 1923, José Sarria was an activist, singer and drag performer, and he was also a game changer for the LGBTI+ in public office, as the first openly gay man to run for a position.
Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Sarria was of Latin-American descent and raised by his maternal family, a mother and grandmother who let him wear women’s clothing. Later, Sarria enlisted in the army during World War II, and though he faced discrimination among soldiers, he made friends with others by introducing them to a vibrant San Francisco.
In the city, Sarria performed at The Black Cat gay club and was a major hit. This was a time when the bars would warn patrons of gay raids before they happened, and Sarria introduced the warning humorously, to keep hearts light. His most famous closing song was, “God Save Us Nelly Queens.”
In the 1960s, gay bars began getting shut down in mass due to the raids. A drag ball was organized by the Tavern Guild of San Francisco to protest, and Sarria was Queen. Sarria went on to cofound the Imperial Court System, which helped raise money for those with HIV/AIDS and other serious conditions internationally. A street was later named for Sarria in his beloved San Francisco in 2006.
- Christine Jorgensen
Born on May 30, 1926, Christine Jorgensen lived in the Bronx, New York as a male named George William Jorgensen, Jr. As the child of a carpenter, Jorgensen was aware from a young age that she was a female in a male body and later wrote in American Weekly (1953) that she had wondered why boys’ clothes were different than girls’ pretty dresses.
Feeling “lost between the sexes,” Jorgensen found comfort in photography during her high school years, later attending class at the New York Institute of Photography. In 1945, Jorgensen went on to enlist in the military and worked as a clerk for some time, before deciding it was time for a permanent change.
Christine Jorgensen is considered as the first transsexual woman to receive sexual reassignment surgery in the United States. After her surgery’s success in 1952, she became a famous celebrity, working as a transgender activist, actress, and singer.
- Sally Ride
On May 26, 1951, Sally Ride was born in Los Angeles. She entered NASA’s space program in 1978, later to became the youngest American and the first woman in space at age 32. Unknown to all at the time, Sally Ride was the first LGBTI+ astronaut in space.
She flew twice on the Challenger orbiter, and, in 1987, Ride left NASA. Her brilliant career carried on, with positions at prestigious universities in physics, studying Thomson scattering and nonlinear optics. She also researched the Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters.
In 2012, Ride passed away from cancer, and though she had married and led a “normal” life, it was discovered she had a female partner for 27 years.
- Lorraine Hansberry
Born on May 19, 1930, Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American writer and playwright, considered to be the first black woman to have written a play performed on Broadway. Her most well-known work is the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” which places a spotlight on the lives of black Americans who struggled with segregation in Chicago. The title of the play was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.”
Hansberry is also a well-known civil rights and LGBTI+ activist and ally, but it’s now believed she herself was gay. After her death in 1965, personal letters and other private writings revealed information pointing to this fact.
Her activism even led to FBI surveillance as she attended the Montevideo peace conference, and an FBI reviewer challenged the Pan-Africanist themes of “A Raisin in the Sun,” as harmful to society.
- Alan Turing
Alan Turing might be the most famous man you’ve never heard of. His scientific work was the inspiration for Phil K. Dick’s novels, which have been transformed into sci-fi movies. These movies, from “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” to “The Minority Report” and “The Adjustment Bureau” changed American film.
If that’s not enough, he was an Olympic-level runner, created a new field of biology after playing with daisies and is the father of the modern computer. With his self-engineered computer, he single-handedly broke the Nazi Enigma code that helped the Allies win World War II.
He was also gay when it was illegal to be. Once arrested, he was given the choice between chemical castration and jail. He chose castration and soon after committed suicide — an undeserving end for a world-wide hero who likely saved countless lives.
So What’s It All Mean?
Alan Turing’s story represents an, unfortunately, recurrent case within the LGBTI+ community. Feeling ousted by society, many members of the community become depressed and suffer from suicidal thoughts. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that LGBTI+ youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
With disheartening numbers like that, it is important for the LGBTI+ community to stand together and focus on the great strides and contributions that members of the community have made throughout history. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still so much to do, and by instilling pride in the community, we can continue to make history together.
LGBTI+ isn’t history for the gay, bi, trans and intersex community — it’s all our history. These scientists, politicians, actors and writers changed the world to make it better for all of us. Their history isn’t separate. These historical figures affected changes in society on multiple levels, shaking up civil rights and leaving an impact in the world. And that is certainly something to be proud of.
Kate Harveston is a freelance writer and blogger. Her writing is generally politically-charged in nature and focuses on social justice, human rights, and equality. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found curled up on the hammock with a book or exploring the city for trendy coffee shops to hang out in. You can follow her writing by visiting her blog, Only Slightly Biased.